Back in the 80’s the king of 8 bit gaming consoles was the Nintendo Entartainment System, simply known as NES. The Atari 2600 was the most important game console before the NES came out. Atari wasn’t able to put quickly on the market a successor to the Atari VCS 2600. The Atari 7800 was introduced too late, featuring a library of games that was already old by that time. Still, it is a nice console, let’s talk about why.
The Atari 7800 Pro System was designed in 1984 with the aim of being backwards compatible with the famous Atari 2600 system. Atari 5200 compatibility was not a priority since this system was not successful. The Atari 5200 was way too big and its controllers were terrible and very prone to fail. It was expensive too.
The Atari 7800 can be seen as a powered-up 2600. For compatibility, it retains the same chipset as the 2600. So, you can find the chips TIA and RIOT inside it. The CPU was 6502 compatible, but the Atari 2600 6507, a cost reduced 6502, was replaced by the 6502C “Sally”. Please note that this is not a standard 6502C. Here, the “C” means “Custom”, and this chip has an HALT line that is not included on standard 6502s.
The heart of the 7800 is a custom graphic chip called “Maria”. It is a good chip for 1984, featuring a hi-res mode of 320 x 288 pixels (PAL). It was designed by an external company called GCC, not by Atari. This company was specialized in arcade machines design.
The strong point of the chip is the ability of showing many sprites. It’s not difficult to display 30 sprites on a frame with it. Theoretically, it can display a much larger number. The weak point is the high CPU demand, which puts some limits on the effective power of the 7800 graphics.
Still, the hi-res mode doesn’t allow full sprite positioning. That is, sprites will move by two hi-res dots at a time. This mode also adds colour restrictions. But the MARIA chip can also display graphics with a resolution of 160 x 288 pixels. This mode doesn’t put colour limitations like the 320 x 288 mode, sprites are fully positionable, so that’s why it’s the most used.
Despite the low horizontal resolution, still acceptable for its time, the great colour palette seems to compensate for it.
Talking about graphics, the Atari 7800 may be seen as an improvement over the Commodore 64 in some respects. It offers more sprites and more colours. Still, the Commodore 64 can scroll the whole screen without much work for the CPU (referring to the fine scrolling) and show sprites with no problems. The MARIA chip requires a lot of computing power to scroll a big background and move sprites at the same time. And it is much more complex to program than the VIC-II.
Still, the MARIA chip doesn’t require sprite multiplexing or expanded sprites. If you make a comparison between the games “Operation Wolf” (on the Commodore 64) and “Alien Brigade” (on the Atari 7800), you’ll see that on the 7800 bigger sprites use the same resolution as the others, while on the Commodore 64 bigger moving objects are actually made of expanded sprites, which are blocky. There are also nice animations when you kill aliens and you can see the blood.
But, there is one thing that makes the Atari 7800 suddenly inferior over the Commodore 64: the sound. It also makes it inferior to the NES, which was its direct competitor. And this is because the Atari 7800 uses for sound the same chip as the Atari 2600: the TIA.
So, the sound is directly from 1977. That was done for backwards compatibility with the 2600. And they didn’t include an additional audio chip to save money and to keep the Atari 7800 price low.
The 7800 did offer an optional sound chip on game cartridges (the Pokey), but not so many games took advantage of this. That’s a shame, because the Pokey would have offered good sounds, and it could be used coupled with the TIA. In the game Commando for instance, the Pokey is used for the music and the TIA for sound effects. Despite of being old for the time, the TIA could do still nice sound effects.
The lack of an integrated sound chip was the main reason for the limited success of this game console in my opinion. If the 7800 had a better sound chip, we would have witnessed rather different scenarios in the gaming industry of the 80’s.
Still, the very late release of the 7800 (1986 in the USA) put it on the market when many people had already bought a NES. The Nintendo policy on games also kept the Atari 7800 games library tiny. Game companies could not port to other systems NES games they had made for two years.
There is another thing that was not good for the 7800: joystick controllers.
On the 7800, controllers are digital, like on the 2600. But, there are two different buttons: left and right. Those are recognised by the TIA, on the lines for the paddles. Still, those buttons are also recognised in 2600 mode, and act the same in this case. So, 7800 controllers can be used on the 2600 as well. BUT, 2600 controllers can’t be used on the 7800 with games using the two buttons. As a result, to play most 7800 games, you need a 7800 controller. Conventional Atari joystick clones will not work.
To make things even worse, the original 7800 controller was not very handy. The pro-line joystick was not balanced properly. As a result, you feel it loose on you hands. It has a very nice design, but it’s not confortable at all to me.
Then, in Europe a joypad was introduced by Atari. It was much better than the joystick, but it was not excellent and the left and right buttons were too far apart. Still, they were very similar to the NES controllers.
The Atari 7800 sold 1 million units worldwide. That’s a low number, compared to the huge success of the NES. Still, it was affordable and it was profitable to Atari, due to low investments in game development and advertising. It was Atari 2600 compatible and it could count on the popularity of the 1977 system.