Atari 7800 ProSystem
The Atari 7800 ProSystem is a third-generation video game system introduced in June, 1984 as Atari’s premiere 8-Bit console for the 1980s. The 7800 features 2-button digital joysticks, near arcade-quality gaming style and graphics, and out-of-the-box compatibility with Atari 2600 games. Its mind-bogglingly handsome industrial design was done by Tom Palecki based on the original Atari 2800 design by Barney Huang.
It was developed by General Computer Corporation (GCC) to include the very best features of previous Atari systems, and set a new standard for arcade-like gameplay on a home console. The Atari 7800 came bundled with two “Pro-Line” joysticks and the arcade-hit Pole Position II game cartridge that had you racing Indy cars around four real-life inspired racetracks. The Atari 7800 is compatible with Atari 2600 games and accessories, making it a cinch to upgrade without using clunky add-ons.
The ultimate classic Atari.
Atari 7800 games include stellar renditions of arcade classics such as Galaga, Ms. Pac-Man, Asteroids, Centipede, Dig Dug, Joust, Donkey Kong, Mario Bros., Pole Position II, and many more. Games like Xevious really outshine their Nintendo Entertainment System counterparts. Exclusive titles like Ninja Golf and Midnight Mutants contributed greatly to the 7800’s quirky personality. A vibrant community of homebrew artists have created high quality new releases, and new original titles like Bentley Bear’s Crystal Quest.
8 Bits of classic arcade awesomeness.
The 7800 was born in the face of fire and chaos. Atari was staring down tough competition from a growing number of adversaries prior to the crash, particularly ColecoVision which cut deep into the 5200’s market share. CEO James Morgan was determined to move forward with new culture-defining products, and Atari spent much of 1983 surveying consumers by the thousands to determine what the public craved in a console. The strife produced what was for its time a technological wonder – an advanced, near arcade-quality home game system that was simple, affordable, and inviting to play. Its custom graphics chip saturates the screen with 256 colors and nearly 100 sprites (compare to Nintendo with only 56 colors and 64 sprites).
Atari games, the way they were meant to be played.
Too often the Atari experience is lost in translation. Atari Flashback consoles have brought classic games to a whole new generation, and emulation democratizes gaming for everybody. But many times there’s something missing. It’s a feeling. An ethereal emotion triggered through the glowing phosphorescence of a television set, or graphics flickering along the curvature of a screen. When you play an Atari game the way they were meant to be played – on an actual Atari – you’re getting the genuine experience. The feel of the joystick in your hand. The responsiveness of the paddle. The artwork on the cartridge label. It’s a window back through time. It all adds up to a sum greater than its parts and it’s an experience that cannot be replicated any other way. Real Atari systems touch our hearts, and that’s something that’s truly magical.
Atari ProLine Joystick
With the 7800, Atari introduced a new line of “Pro-Line” accessories that worked in unison with the 2600, 7800, and home computers. The 7800 shipped with two of Atari’s Pro-Line joysticks. They were simple and straight-forward with two fire buttons and digital directional control. This was a big departure from the 5200’s dismal analog joystick. The new Pro-Line joysticks allowed 7800 games to access two separate fire buttons.
Atari 7800 Trak-Ball Controller
It’s said that an Atari 7800 Trak-Ball Controller was in development at GCC during 1984, but canceled after Atari was sold to new owners. Awesome accessories like a 7800 High Score Cartridge and Computer Keyboard also met the axe. The 7800 was to be an arcade-quality game system, and an Atari 7800 Trak-Ball would add arcade action to games like Centipede and unreleased 7800 games like Crystal Castles. In recent years Video 61, one of the last remaining Atari vendors, released a 7800 Compatible Trak-Ball assembled from brand new Atari CX80 components made to work with the 7800. The Trak-Ball features two red fire buttons, clear rubber feet and arcade-like responsiveness. It’s an awesome representation of what an Atari 7800 Trak-Ball could have been.
Atari 7800 Control Pad
The Control Pad is the Atari 7800’s 2-button directional pad similar to the Nintendo Entertainment System Controller. It has a cool design with removable thumb stick in the center of the d-pad that feels like a short throw joystick. What better weapon of choice than two buttons and a d-pad? A controller should never be treated as a pointless necessity. It should be respected for what it can potentially be: an incredibly effective tool linking your mind to the action on screen. Nintendo solved a problem Atari did not: perfecting the game controller. Many times, a good controller can be all you need. For many poorly designed game systems, however, a good controller is all they’re lacking.
Poor controller designs plagued the 5200 and were a complaint with the 7800. Joysticks made Atari appear out of touch. You have to wonder why Atari, having been shown the Nintendo Famicom (NES) in 1983, didn’t ship the 7800 with a directional pad from the very beginning. Why didn’t this happen? What were they thinking? Even worse, the 7800 Control Pad wasn’t available in the U.S. despite being shown in “Atari Advantage” posters. An Atari 7800 “Action Set” with two Control Pads, Start/Select buttons, a Light Gun and two pack-in games including Barnyard Blaster would’ve gone a long way to making the 7800 more competitive.
It plays Atari 2600 games, too.
IGN once said the Atari 7800 was the sexiest way to play 2600 games. They were right. Its heart is pure 2600. The Atari 2600 Video Computer System was the first epically successful game system and one of the best selling of all time. For many gamers it was their first love. So why wouldn’t an Atari play 2600 games? The 7800 does. Right out of the box. No adapters, no upgrade modules. Plug it in and you’re set to go. All of your Atari 2600 favorites play on the 7800 – Missile Command, Asteroids, Space Invaders, Yars’ Revenge, Pitfall, Crystal Castles and more. Plus, the 7800 is compatible with most all Atari 2600 controllers and accessories, too.
“Here’s something else to think about: Atari came up with some really amazing games. Groundbreaking games. I mean, obviously we’re still talking about it today. But where are their mascots? One of my personal favorite arcade games is Crystal Castles. You’re telling me that you couldn’t give Bentley Bear another game somewhere else down the line? It’s bizarre to me.”
– Brian Thomas Barnhart, 7800 Avenue
Atari 7800 ProSystem Computer Keyboard
At the introduction of the 7800 in 1984 came the announcement of a much-anticipated peripheral, a keyboard that would expand the Atari 7800 ProSystem into a bona fide home computer. The Atari 7800 ProSystem Computer Keyboard was to be sold separately, and would come packaged with two software programs; likely BASIC and a word processor called VideoWriter. A Joystick or Trak-Ball could be used like a mouse to highlight and select text, navigate options, or copy and paste! The keyboard plugged into controller port #2 and was compatible with Atari 400/800/XL Computer peripherals like the Atari Touch Tablet and disk systems. All Atari 7800 accessories were canceled in 1986, and although complete, the Atari 7800 ProSystem Computer Keyboard was never released.
State of the art for the state of your mind.
Atari MindLink was a wireless game controller in the form of a headband that allowed users to interact with video games using just their “minds”. A $99 box set with game cartridge included was being readied in time for the 1984 holiday shopping season, but was canceled when Atari, Inc. was sold.
While MindLink couldn’t exactly read your brain waves, it did read the electrical impulses from your head and used IR to wirelessly transmit them to an Atari 2600, 7800, or computer where they moved objects on the screen. Race cars would turn, paddles would move and planets would be destroyed. An eye-tracking module was proposed as the MindLink system’s next big leap, so that on-screen objects could be moved merely by looking at them. Using your hands to play video games would have looked like a baby’s toy.
Official Sponsor of the 1984 Summer Olympics
Atari was an Official Sponsor of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, California. In 1984 Atari was as big a household name as Coca-Cola, Nike, AT&T and Kodak. Atari’s sponsorship of the Games of the XXIII Olympiad was established years in advance of the event through Atari’s parent company Warner Communications. With the world watching, Atari was to leverage their Olympic Sponsorship to introduce a new era of Atari. The 7800 would be presented as the next generation video game console, complete with a line of arcade quality game cartridges. Atari would also introduce the new low-cost Atari 2600 Jr.
Retroist Podcast Presents Atari 7800
Atari 7800 Tech Specs
In the Box
So what happened?
“Its delayed release, its cancelled peripherals, and a lack of financial backing from the company’s new owners all combined to ensure that Atari 7800 would never see any success beyond being a sexier way of playing Atari 2600 titles.”
The Atari 7800 was designed largely in response to the video game crash of 1983. Atari had planned a major mass-market rollout around their sponsorship of the 1984 Summer Olympics, and an aggressive marketing push through the Christmas season. Atari announced the 7800 in May, 1984 – with the first consoles shipping barely a week before Warner Communications abruptly sold Atari, Inc. to new owners.
The big marketing push was canceled, as was the Atari 7800 Computer Keyboard, High Score Cartridge, the Atari MindLink system, a number of great games, and the potentially-forthcoming LaserDisc system. The Atari 7800 remained sidelined until 1986 – giving Nintendo an 18-month head start towards establishing market dominance in North America.
Why 1984 was like “1984”.
“ET comes out, and ET is not so great, and somewhere towards the end of the year I’m starting to wonder ‘Are we making our numbers?’ Which leads to one of the worst nights in my life. On December 7, 1982 I get a call from Dennis Groth, who was the Chief Financial Officer of Atari, and he says ‘Manny, here’s the new budget.’ and it’s a HUGE shortfall from what we’ve been told. It was unraveling hard and fast, and we didn’t have any ready solutions. The wild upside ride was over. I did NOT understand the extent of the downside ride that was coming.”
– Manny Gerard, Co-Chief Operating Officer, Warner Communications 1974-1984
“1984” began on December 7, 1982. It was a Tuesday morning. Something had gone terribly wrong. During a routine stockholder meeting Atari announced financial projections of a 10-15% increase in profit, falling far short of the 50%+ that had been expected. Wall Street analysts were shocked. Just imagine if this were to happen today at Apple or Google.
To make matters worse, Atari’s CEO Ray Kassar had sold 5,000 shares of stock in Warner Communications only 23 minutes prior to the announcement, resulting in allegations of illegal insider trading from the Securities and Exchange Commission, who accused Kassar and Atari Inc. Chief Financial Officer Dennis Groth of trading stock with illegal insider knowledge. Atari’s parent company, multi-media conglomerate Warner Communications, watched in horror as their stock lost nearly 40% of its value on the next day, leaving Warner susceptible to a hostile takeover which Rupert Murdoch would attempt in 1983.
“I wasn’t thinking that something was really messed up until late ’83. I was starting to see enough signs in the company that things were starting to unravel. This is slipping away. The train is derailing, it’s not going to keep riding, and what am I going to do next?”
– Howard Scott Warshaw, Atari Game Designer
The December 7th events contributed to a sudden, violent recession that nearly killed the video game industry. Atari had been the fastest growing company in American history. By 1984 it was hemorrhaging more than half a Billion dollars. (Yes, Billion with a “B”.) Atari’s growing financial predicament, along with accusations of illegal insider trading by the SEC and other factors culminated in Ray Kassar’s resignation from the company. The video game industry had fallen off a cliff.
Warner Chief Executive Steve Ross had tapped James J. Morgan to replace Kassar, and lead Atari into a new era. Morgan was recognized for his steadfast leadership and ability to connect with employees in the trenches. While competitors like Mattel and Coleco were shuttering their video game ventures, Atari was implementing a series of strategies to strengthen the company and spark a new video game revolution.
1984 would see the 7800’s introduction as Atari’s flagship model featuring arcade-like gameplay, and the 2600’s fresh redesign and new low price. A futuristic game system and new chipsets were being readied for the next generation of Atari computers and arcade machines. Brilliant advertising was to coincide with Atari’s sponsorship of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
Warner was again assuring James Morgan and the public that Atari was here to stay and had the long-term backing of Warner Communications, with Ross and Morgan jointly announcing that Atari would consolidate its sprawl of 50+ buildings into a new, high-tech Silicon Valley campus the following year. James Morgan, while far from perfect, was performing miracles and Warner was promising not to give up on Atari.
“So they got rid of Ray Kassar, and they brought in a guy from Phillip-Morris. And when he came in Atari had 10,000 employees, and within about four or five months Atari had 2,000 employees. I really got that we had lost 80% of our staff.”
– Howard Scott Warshaw, Atari Game Designer
What Morgan didn’t know was what top brass at Warner Communications had kept secret all along – Atari was for sale. For weeks, Steve Ross had been personally presenting Atari to potential buyers like Disney and Phillips, while assuring the public and James Morgan that they wouldn’t sell. Desperate to get Atari off the books, Warner broke the company into pieces, retaining the arcade division while selling off Atari’s Home Consumer Division and other assets in what many saw as a fire sale.
It was the deal of a lifetime. Steve Ross had personally called Commodore founder Jack Tramiel to pitch him the idea of buying Atari. Tramiel had recently left Commodore under dark circumstances and was attempting to re-enter the home computer industry with his sons. Steve Ross convinced Tramiel that purchasing Atari and positioning it as a computer company would be the best way to fight Commodore. Ross worked a deal with Tramiel where Warner Communications essentially lent Jack Tramiel the money to buy Atari.
Thousands of Atari employees were fired, and announcements of “stormtroopers” entering the building were broadcast over the PA system. Employees tossed games and equipment out of office windows and into their cars. On July 1st, 1984 Atari as the world had known it came to an end. Nintendo was about to replace Atari as the brand synonymous with video games.
By 1986 everything had changed. Exiled management from Commodore had taken control of Atari with a focus on low-cost computers. This created a very different culture within the company. Leadership of the time is still hotly debated today, with advocates pointing to the product line and shrewd business tactics, and detractors usually citing those same points as negatives.
In Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, it’s stated that after leaving Atari Steve had once visited Commodore to present the Apple II and found Commodore’s leadership to be “sleazy” (p.72). The “Business Is War” ethic that was brought into Atari is touched on in this quote from Al Alcorn:
“Commodore did its usual Jack Tramiel stunt – not paying the bill. If you guys are dumb enough to keep shipping him product, he lets them keep shipping. Pretty soon Commodore owes them so much money that they run out of cash flow and they find themselves out of business. At that point, Commodore comes in and buys the company for a song, then forgives its own debt.”
– Al Alcorn, former Vice President, Atari
Where Atari had once spent big marketing bucks, they were now all but silent. It’s often lost on people that Atari after 1984 was an altogether different company than the Atari that existed prior. The public was largely unaware of this, and had become confused about Atari’s sudden absence. The fastest growing company in American history catastrophically collapsing under its own weight is the stuff of legends.
As often happens in the fall of an empire, there was a vacuum of power left in the echoing absence of greatness. Nintendo correctly saw this as an opportunity and was ultimately successful, in part, because there was no major competing force to counter Nintendo’s efforts at the onset.
The collapse of Atari had left the market wide open for Nintendo to introduce new products with little in the way to challenge their dominance. What good is technical superiority without great games? Instead of focusing on hardware or recycling arcade classics, Nintendo focused on original games built around the depth of storytelling, toy-like mascots, and popularized side scrolling adventure games with vibrantly colored worlds begging to be explored. The newly reformed Atari did very little to challenge this, nor the public’s perception that Atari had disappeared.