The Atari 7800 ProSystem was originally scheduled for release in late 1984, as the follow-up to Atari’s misguided 5200 SuperSystem, but didn’t see release until 1986, when it retailed for approximately $140 (USA). Instead of competing with comparatively weaker systems like the 5200 and Coleco’s ColecoVision, the later release date for the 7800 brought direct competition from the more robust Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), released in late 1985, and the Sega Master System (SMS), which, like the ProSystem, was released in 1986.
In late 1984, despite having had successful showings at trade events, an extensive and enthusiastic preview in one of the top video and computer game magazines of the day (Electronic Games), retail orders already taken, and warehouses full of stock, Atari management decided to shelve the system and its launch games in favor of their computer line when it became apparent to them - and seemingly everyone else in the industry - that the videogame depression had become an irreversible crash. Also put on the shelf was a redesigned Atari 2600 (VCS), dubbed the Atari 2600jr, due to its diminutive size. These moves have often been criticized in hindsight, but for those around at the time, it was clear that videogames were being supplanted by low cost and powerful personal computers as the more flexible game machines of choice, and a game system in the traditional sense simply wouldn’t be financially sustainable.
All this changed in 1985, however, when Nintendo test marketed their successful Japanese game system in America, the Famicom (short for Family Computer), as the redesigned NES. Interestingly, Nintendo originally approached Atari in early 1984 about marketing and distributing the Famicom in America, but many factors, including management changes and the rapid decline of the videogame industry, led Atari to pass on the opportunity and force Nintendo to partner with Worlds of Wonder (the makers of Teddy Ruxpin and Laser Tag), and eventually go it alone. With a full product roll-out and clever marketing, by 1986, Nintendo caught the buying public’s fancy and rejuvenated the videogame market. Atari, and soon Sega, took notice of Nintendo’s success and quickly released systems of their own to try and capitalize on Nintendo’s momentum.
Atari, with no real interest or time to develop new technology, decided to take the Atari 7800 and its existing software that was warehoused and release the system as-is. Unlike the NES, which was seemingly full of new ideas, the 7800’s deployment strategy was straight out of 1984, as were the initial games. The cartridge included with the 7800 system, Pole Position II, looked primitive and simple in comparison to one of the NES’ included titles, the now legendary Super Mario Bros. Surprisingly, around the same time, Atari also released the 2600jr for $50 (USA), supposedly as the system for gamers on a budget, despite the fact that the 7800 was fully backwards compatible, with the ability to utilize nearly all existing 2600 software and peripherals.
With lack of an innovative initial line-up of games, retailer indifference, absence of any real third-party software support due to Nintendo’s infamous contracts, and lackluster marketing, the 7800, despite eventually selling a few million systems, never really caught on. To further add confusion to Atari’s renewed videogame initiatives, a third system, the XEGS (XE Game System), a console-centric Atari 8-bit computer, was released in late 1987, complete with keyboard and an Atari 2600/7800 compatible light gun, bringing the company full circle to their original vision with the failed 5200, but further removing company and development resources from the 7800.
As described earlier, the Atari 7800 came bundled with a Pole Position II cartridge and one controller—a digital joystick with two side buttons similar in shape to the Atari 5200’s analog controllers, but having no keypad. Atari kept the design simple, which had worked well for the Atari 2600’s controllers, but the build quality was not as high, and some found it uncomfortable. The 7800’s single joystick controller contrasted sharply with the then revolutionary NES and SMS gamepad designs, but, for the European release of the ProSystem, Atari instead packaged two of their own interpretations of a gamepad in with the system, as well as built Asteroids directly into the console’s memory. Unfortunately, the original configuration in North America remained the same in that region throughout the rest of the system’s production cycle. In fact, the NES, and eventually the SMS, were available in various interesting boxed configurations, including those with light guns and various other peripherals, while the 7800 never came out with anything comparable, eventually only going as far as releasing a few compatible games for use with the XEGS light gun. Ironically, Atari had plenty of exciting peripherals either developed or in development, such as a keyboard add-on and high score cartridge, but Atari’s management decided each time to pass on a release.
One of the major criticisms – perhaps unfairly – of Atari’s 5200 when first released, was the fact that it wasn’t backwards compatible with the most popular system of the day, their own 2600. Atari rectified this situation by designing the Atari 7800 from a base of 2600 technology, providing almost perfect backwards compatibility, with the few inconsistencies due to several minor 7800 production revisions over the years. A type of encryption key was used to determine whether software should run in the system’s 7800 or 2600 modes, and also acted as a way to ensure only authorized software ran on the system, something not possible on prior Atari consoles. While Atari, unfortunately, did not update the 7800’s base sound capabilities beyond the 2600’s level, there was an ability to add a custom sound chip - the Atari 5200’s excellent “POKEY” - internally to a cartridge to enhance audio, usable either by itself or in conjunction with the built-in sound processor. Atari did update the graphics and other functions internally within the 7800 via several new chips, the most important of which was the “MARIA”, which could allow over 100 objects on-screen at one time and provided for very stable, flicker-free images, particularly in comparison to the competition.
Much the same as Atari’s management refused to release any peripherals for the 7800, and split already limited company resources across two other consoles and several different computers, an executive decision was made to keep cartridge RAM sizes small to minimize costs. Unfortunately, this in turn limited how advanced games could become, creating unfavorable comparisons to both NES and SMS software, which were under no such restrictions. In spite of this, a few games did eventually get released that demonstrated the ProSystem’s potential and created more favorable comparisons, albeit too late to make a difference in the hotly contested marketplace of the mid- to late-80s. As for the 7800’s outdated internal sound technology, only two games implemented the POKEY chip option, creating too few examples of the system’s extended audio capabilities. In short, these limited uses of the system’s power, combined with the fact that many Atari 2600 games were also labeled for use on the 7800, gave many the false impression that the system wasn’t competitive.
The 7800 ProSystem’s history, like many Atari consoles, is that of a system whose full potential was never realized. Atari’s management was responsible for many of the system’s implementation blunders, but ultimately, the 7800 was a victim of bad timing, first with the 1984 videogame crash, and second going up against Nintendo and their eventual greater than 90% share of the videogame market, and all the industry influence that that entails.
While it will probably never have the sizable hobbyist communities of the 2600 or 5200, there nevertheless is a growing movement for new developments, which bodes well for collectors, as the system and a lot of its software is still fairly easy to locate on the used market. Despite some difficulty in finding original working two-button controllers, unlike the 5200, there are readily available third-party solutions, and many of the games use standard single-button 2600-style controllers anyway. This type of controller is always easy to find, and even SMS and Sega Genesis/Megadrive controllers work for all single button games.
Information on this page has been sourced from Armchair Arcade.