The Atari 7800 was announced on May 21st, 1984, and was planned to retail at $140. In the eyes of Atari management, the Atari 7800 would be a return to form after the lackluster performance of the Atari 5200, as the Atari 7800 would address almost all of the shortcomings of the Atari 5200. However due to series of unfortunate events and ill-conceived business decisions the system wouldn’t launch until almost two years after its announcement. By this time Nintendo and Sega were dominating a newly rejuvenated home console market in the United States, but Atari still saw the opportunity to re-introduce the Atari name into American homes. Yet the Atari 7800 would mark a turning point for Atari as a console manufacturer as the console’s struggle to regain public popularity marked the eventual collapse of the Atari brand name and company as a whole.
In July of 1984, the home video game and home computer divisions of Atari were purchased by the now infamous Jack Tramiel, who then formed Atari Corporation. Although the Atari 7800 was ready to go at this point, licensing negotiations had to begin again because the Tramiels did not agree with existing licensing arrangements, as a result the release of the 7800 was delayed. It was around this time that the video game market crashed, and retailers cut orders and shipments for video games across the board. As a result, by the end of 1984 the industry was left with only Atari, Coleco ( ColecoVision), and Mattel ( Intellivision) all of which decided to turn out new product for their old systems instead of developing new consoles, as such no new consoles were on the horizon for the United States. However Atari after spending the last two years working out the paperwork for the 7800s, by 1986 the 7800 was ready for release.
However, on October 18, 1985, everything changed. While Atari was preparing to launch the 7800, a Japanese company called Nintendo decided to bring their successful Famicom console over to the United States as the Nintendo Entertainment System.
Despite the fact that the American home console market was reeling from the video game crash of 1983, Nintendo still saw potential consumers. They were right; by the end of 1986 the Nintendo Entertainment System was starting to become a hit with American consumers. With this in mind, Tramiel and Atari continued with the release of the 7800, in hopes of reaping in the rewards of a newly awakened home console market.
At launch the 7800 had eight titles available. The system was also backwards compatible with 2600 games without an additional adapter, a feature that the previous 5200 console lacked. The public was excited, and the 7800 was poised to take over the gaming world, but unfortunately it didn't quite happen that way.
Instead Tramiel and the rest of Atari management would make various business mistakes with the release of the system. The first of which was the fact that Atari had failed to promote and captivate developers to adopt the system and develop games for the 7800. Instead Atari would concentrate on advertising the complete backwards compatibility the 7800 had with the 2600 games instead of the 7800's own library of games. Only 10 games were developed and released by third party companies for the 7800 during its lifetime, 6 from Absolute Entertainment; 2 from Activision; and 2 from Froggo. This meant that the 7800 would have to rely on support from within Atari in order to supply games for the system. However, this was not enough to compete with the NES's or even the Sega Master System’s rapidly expanding libraries. Also, the launch for the system itself was poorly planned. Of the promised thirteen launch titles planned in 1984, only eight were actually available at the time of the system's launch, with four being released later and two (Rescue on Fractalus! and Track & Field) not being released at all. Not only that, but the 7800 was poorly distributed amongst retailers making the system hard to find during its launch. As a result, the 7800 was never able to recover from its rocky launch, and due to poorly conceived business decisions and a highly competitive console market, failed to reach the market capitalization that Atari had hoped the system would obtain.
US Cumulative Sales
1987: 1,599,978 (+1,313,561)
1988: 3,023,955 (+1,423,977)
1989: 3,679,308 (+655,353)
1990: 3,772,751 (+93,443)
At the time of its release, the 7800 was initially billed as a graphical powerhouse. The new custom CPU and MARIA graphics chip that would power the system were capable of moving up to 100 objects on-screen (drawn with a line-buffer) at the same time and capable of displaying up to 25 colors on screen out of a 256 color palette. However, the system suffered from poor audio quality due to the fact that the system utilized the same sound chip from the 2600.
The system is indeed compatible with almost 100% of the existing Atari 2600 game library, and all the existing 2600 controllers and peripherals are compatible as well. The 7800 was also sold with its own special Pro-Line controllers which were meant to be an improvement over the 5200 design. The controller was a two-button controller, allowing for greater functionality than the classic one-button joystick from the 2600 days.
Along with inferior sound quality, the 7800 was also technically lacking compared to the NES in several other ways. The 7800's CPU and MARIA graphics chip both shared the same RAM memory address space, interrupting each other's cycles when attempting to access RAM and slowing down the system, whereas the NES had separate RAM memory address spaces for its CPU and PPU graphics chip, allowing both to run at full speeds. The 7800's coarse scrolling, with occasional 8-pixel jumps, was not as smooth as the NES's continuous pixel-by-pixel scrolling. The 7800 also lacked a tilemap engine like the NES, meaning the 7800 had to use more memory and processing to produce the same amount of graphics as the NES, and also had to draw tiled backgrounds using numerous sprites, slowing down the system and making it difficult for third-party developers to produce tiled side-scrolling games for the system. While the 7800 had a 320x200 resolution mode, it was resource-intensive, so most 7800 games usually ran at the lower-resolution 160x200 mode (compared to the NES's 256x224 resolution).
Sales from the console were middling outside of the United States, as the 7800 did not receive a European launch until 1989. With numerous third party developers quickly dropping support for the 7800 and gamers everywhere ignoring the console as a whole, Atari pulled the plug on the 7800 by 1992 and ceased all production of the console. In the end Atari was no longer the console manufacturer that it once was, but unconvinced by their failure Atari would make one last ditch effort to regain their once dominant status in the video game console market.
* CPU: Custom 6502C
Speed: 1.79 MHz, drops to 1.19 MHz when the TIA or RIOT chips are accessed
(note: This is Atari's custom 6502 known as SALLY which can be halted to allow other devices to control the bus)
* RAM: 4 KB (2 6116 2Kx8 RAM ICs)
* ROM: built in 4 KB BIOS ROM, 48 KB Cartridge ROM space without bankswitching
* Graphics: MARIA custom graphics controller (halts CPU when in use)
160x200 (160x240 PAL) resolution or 320x200 (320x240) resolution
25 color palette out of 256 colors (16 hues * 16 luma), different graphics modes restricted the number of usable colors and the number of colors per sprite
Direct Memory Access (DMA)
Graphics clock: 7.16 MHz (halted when CPU in use)
* I/O: Joystick and console switch IO handled byte 6532 RIOT and TIA
* Ports: 2 joystick ports, 1 cartridge port, 1 expansion connector (early consoles only), power in, RF output
* Sound: TIA video and sound chip, same as the 2600. Only the sound is used in 7800 games. Both video and sound are used in 2600 games.
Optional POKEY sound chip on cartridge for improved sounds.