Atari 2800

Atari 2800 Japanese VCS

Atari landed on the shores of Japan in October, 1983 with the Atari 2800, a sleek, modernized Atari 2600 with unique features specifically designed for the Japanese market. The Atari 2800 features four controller ports (two more than a regular 2600) and flush-mounted option buttons that span across the face of a gorgeous console.

The 2800’s joystick is an innovative all-in-one controller design. It takes ideas from Atari’s unreleased 2700 joystick, such as integrating Atari’s 270° paddle controller into an 8-way joystick stalk.

If the 2800’s product design looks familiar to you, you’re not alone. The design of the Atari 2800 would be used again the following year as the basis for the Atari 7800 design by Barney Huang.

 

Atari 2800 Joystick Sears Tele-Games Video Arcade II

Atari 2800 all-in-one controller

 

The 2800 is the first and only Atari system designed specifically for the Japanese market. Though other companies like Epoch had found success importing and distributing the Atari 2600, Atari had never officially supported their systems in Japan. About 35 of Atari’s most popular games were repackaged for release with the 2800.

While Atari dominated the American market with the 2600, the Japanese home console market remained unsolidified. It was almost 1984 by the time an Atari system arrived on Japanese store shelves. Why did Atari wait so long to launch the 2600 in Japan? And if that were the case, why did Atari choose to launch an aging 2600-based console rather than waiting to enter the Japanese market with a far more advanced console that would have been able to compete with Sega and Nintendo?

 

Atari 2800 Japanese 2600 Yars' Revenge Howard Scott Warshaw

 

Atari’s absence left the Japanese market wide open. Years went by, and without Atari around to dominate it was like the Wild West without a sheriff. Even Intellivision had a stronger presence in Japan. Had Atari launched the 2600 in Japan years earlier it’s likely they would have been successful.

The 2800 is basically a repackaged Atari 2600 with technology that had been designed seven years earlier. What’s worse, Atari introduced the Atari 2800 months after Nintendo and Sega had both introduced their new video game systems. The Nintendo and Sega consoles were two generations newer in technology, and those advancements were a stark contrast in comparison to the 2800.

 

Nintendo Famicom Family Computer Japan 1983 Super Mario Bros Donkey Kong Jr Zelda

Nintendo Famicom (1983)

 

Nintendo quickly rose to dominate the Japanese market with its new Famicom console, which would be released in the United States two years later as the Nintendo Entertainment System, only after Atari squandered the Nintendo/Atari deal in which Nintendo offered Atari the opportunity to attain exclusive worldwide marketing rights to the NES.

With the 2600’s aging technology and Atari pricing the 2800 around $100 more than Nintendo Famicom, the Atari 2800 didn’t sell very well in Japan. Nintendo dominated the Japanese market with the Famicom, and Atari pulled out of Japan less than a year later with Warner Communications’ sale of Atari to Jack Tramiel.

 

Atari 2800 Japanese Poster E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial Atari Game Over

 

Atari’s failure to capture the Japanese market with the 2800 can be attributed to a number of factors, namely:

  • The 2800’s aging 2600 technology
  • High price point, positioning Atari $100 more than Nintendo
  • Lack of marketing effort

Atari’s failure to recognize Japanese cultural differences and identify the emerging “cartoonish” tastes in video games is also a notable point. These tastes revolve around telling stories and journeying on adventures through video games that looked more like cartoons than blocky pixels.

For example, Donkey Kong tells the heroic story of a kong and having to rescue a damsel in distress. Other Nintendo franchises to come, like Super Mario Bros. and Zelda all told stories and introduced new worlds to discover. Identifying these trends would have affected the American market as well, influencing new video game ideas and innovations for the next generation of Atari games and consoles.

 

Atari 2800 Sears Tele-Games Video Arcade II

Sears Video Arcade II by Atari (1983)

 

Ironically, the Atari 2800’s success story came not in Japan but in the United States! Sears fell in love with the design of the Atari 2800 so quickly that they opted to sell a U.S. version under their Sears Tele-Games label. Atari’s successful presentation of the 2800 to Sears is one of their shortest presentations for a project to be accepted. The Atari 2800 was released in the United States in 1983 as the Sears Video Arcade II, and came packaged with two controllers and a Space Invaders cartridge.

Today the 2800 enjoys a legendary collector status in the United States. The Atari 2800 remains the only truly “rare” Atari console that is still seriously challenging to find.

 

 

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