The Atari 7800’s catalogue is worth a closer look

When people think of Atari, the games and systems that spring to mind likely depend on which decade you grew up in. ‘80s kids will recall the company’s coin-munching arcade cabinets and the behemoth that was the Atari 2600 – a system that managed to survive the ’84 market crash, with games released in Europe as late as 1992. ‘90s kids are likely more familiar with the Atari Lynx and Jaguar, and perhaps the Atari ST home computer – if you had rich parents.

The often-forgotten Atari 7800 bridged the gap between the ‘80s and ‘90s, launching in 1986 and discontinued in 1992. It was originally conceived in 1984 as a response to the ColecoVision – which offered better-looking arcade conversions than the Atari 2600 – and received a test launch in some US regions the same year, retailing for $140 and bundled with Pole Position II. Atari had plans to release all their arcade greats on the console; a readymade catalogue, if you will.

But during this time Atari was in turmoil. Jack Tramiel took control of Atari from Time Warner, which was soon followed by a pay dispute with GCC. This outside company – who had experience in arcade development, having created Food Fight – oversaw not only the 7800’s hardware but most of its launch software too. The 7800 sat in warehouses throughout 1985 until the dispute was resolved, eventually being fully revealed in January 1986 ahead of a May launch in the US.

During its 1984 conception, soft launch, and its full release in 1986, Nintendo had successfully launched the NES in the US, meaning the 7800 was no longer up against Coleco but rather the might of Nintendo and Super Mario. SEGA had just launched the Master System as well, supported by their arcade conversions and then-mascot Alex Kidd.

The 7800’s hardware is mildly fascinating, being superior to the NES in some areas and weaker in others. This resulted in games that look pretty good for the era – sporting large fluidly animated sprites – but suffered from arcade-like sensibilities such as limited features. There’s nothing on the 7800 to rival Super Mario Bros. 3 or The Legend of Zelda, for instance, with a catalogue that instead comprises mostly of arcade conversions rather than lengthy adventure games and RPGs.  

The 7800 was also backward compatible with the Atari 2600 – a huge selling point, but also a detriment to the hardware as both consoles use the same sound chip, seemingly for compatibility reasons alone. Some cartridges (including Ballblazer and Commando) did have their own built-in sound chips, however, so there was at least a workaround. The controller was unique to the system, and intended to be an improvement over the 5200’s feeble effort. US gamers received the Pro-Line Joystick – an elongated palm-sized joystick – while consoles sold outside the US came with an NES-style joypad. Obviously by 1987, Atari was trying to step outside of the 2600’s shadow.

Even though it was cheaper than the NES – $80 for the console and Pole Position II, with most software launching at $20 – it’s easy to see why the system didn’t exactly fly off shelves.

The launch games were aging conversions, developed by GCC and Atari, and were originally planned for the aborted 1984 launch. Pole Position II, Asteroids, Joust, Ms. Pac-Man. Dig Dug, Food Fight, and Robotron were available at launch. New software was slow to surface. Galaga followed in August, with Xevious in November. That was it for 1986. The likes of Dig Dug and Xevious were four years old by this point. Heck, Asteroids was first approaching its tenth anniversary.

Games sporadically appeared in 1987, again published solely by Atari. Nintendo’s stranglehold on third-party publishers was plain to see. 1988 and 1989 fared better, with Absolute Entertainment joining the party and more developers on board. 1990 saw software slow once again, but the majority of games released this year made good use of the hardware. One last push as it were.

There’s a takeaway to this piece and that’s a large proportion of 7800 games were pretty good – tried and tested arcade games; the cream of Atari’s crop. It stands to reason that Atari didn’t want to flood the market with poor software again following the 1984 crash. True, the 7800’s games weren’t the freshest, but they played well and resembled their arcade counterparts. Look at the launch line-up again, and you’ll see that there isn’t a bad game there. They can certainly go toe-to-toe with the NES iterations. Robotron even supported two joysticks at once, for a true twin-stick experience.

Just 58 games were released during the console’s lifespan. Or 59, if you count the PAL-only 32-in-1 multi-cart. There are a couple of noticeable trends, including several light-gun games and a handful of combat flight simulators. Funnily enough, or perhaps ironically, a few Nintendo games were released – Atari still had the publishing rights for Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr, and Mario Bros. from Nintendo’s pre-NES days. These were released as late as 1988 and were faithful to the arcade.

Sports games, unsurprisingly, made an appearance too. These were generally far more advanced than what we saw on the 2600 and 5200. Mean 18 Ultimate Golf was comparable to early 16-bit golf sim in terms of features, while Basketbrawl had large, well-drawn, personality-filled sprites.  

Ballblazer was one of the first games to show what the system was capable of, launching in 1988. This one-on-one futuristic sports game is viewed from first person, playing a bit like soccer. Hewson’s Tower Toppler (aka Nebulus) was another early showcase, featuring a smoothly rotating tower to climb.

Xenophobe was one of the timelier arcade conversions, making its 7800 debut not long after the arcade. Together with Rampage, Ikari Warriors, and Double Dragon, it proved that the 7800 could handle arcade games that were current and popular at the time.

Special mention also goes to Motor Psycho – an impressive and smoothly scrolling motorbike racer, with the ability to jump. This allows you to launch yourself off hilly terrain, leaping over the competition. It’s leaps and bound over any NES racer, no pun intended.

In 1990, Atari had a slightly renewed focus, bringing more contemporary games to the system. This suggests they knew old arcade conversions were no longer cutting it and needed more deeper and involving ‘console style’ games to sit alongside 1988’s Impossible Mission and the Gauntlet alike Dark Chambers. Stand outs from 1990 include Ninja Golf, Scrapyard Dog, and Midnight Mutants.

Ninja Golf is rather repetitive, but good fun – if only for the daft premise. After striking the ball, it’s then a case of beating up various enemies, which even includes sharks, until reaching where the ball landed. Just before sinking a shot, a boss battle commences. These are viewed from third person, with the first battle being against a large dragon. The quality of animation and colourful visuals make it stand out. Scrapyard Dog was Atari’s attempt at creating a ‘proper’ scrolling platform game with cartoony and colorful graphics, later gaining a Lynx release.

The pseudo-isometric Midnight Mutants, meanwhile, plays like a computer-style adventure and features an animated intro and large boss sprites. It’s technically a licensed game as it features the likeness of Al Lewis, dressed as Grandpa Munster. ‘90s Atari did have a penchant for peculiar licenses, it must be said.

Atari was able to woo developers, but not publishers, it seems. Scrapyard Dog, Ninja Golf, Motor Psycho, and Basketbrawl were developed by BlueSky Software, who later became close with SEGA, developing Jurassic Park and Vectorman. Sculptured Software – the studio behind many Acclaim games, including numerous conversions of Mortal Kombat – also developed the 7800’s Operation Wolf alike Alien Brigade and the impressive post-apocalyptic combat racer Fatal Run.

Atari’s final run of 7800 games – sometimes referred to as the ‘final 11’ – failed to turn the system’s fortunes around, even though they did show what the system was capable of. Considering only 58 games were released, the final console sales figures may surprise you – an official Atari document from 2009 reveals a total of 3.7m. This is far higher than previous estimates, which were closer to 1m.

It’s believed Atari offered retailers a large profit margin, which resulted in the 7800 being well-supported at retail. While the final games were released in 1990, it was still being manufactured in 1991. The same document also reveals that it was ultimately profitable.  

The 7800 lives on today. Alien Brigade, Food Fight, Motor Psycho, Ninja Golf, Planet Smashers, Desert Falcon, Centipede, Basketbrawl, and Asteroids are available on Evercade via Atari Collection 1 & 2. The new Atari 50 collection also features seven 7800 games, including Scrapyard Dog, Dark Chambers, and Fatal Run. These three compilations give a pretty good taste of what the 7800 had to offer – a combined 20% of the library, give or take.

If you ever wanted to go physical, it’s one of the easier systems to collect for – it has been said that none of its games are particularly rare. Most also remain cheap to acquire. A quick glance on eBay even reveals countless sealed games, again relatively cheap to purchase.

Feeling the pinch of Nintendo’s stringent third-party policies even more so than the Master System, the 7800 launched at a turbulent time within the gaming industry. Intended to be a new home for arcade conversions, it quickly evolved into something more, and it’s these changes in stance that make it so fascinating.