VHS Revival spotlights the backwards compatible Atari 7800 ProSystem.
There aren’t many consoles I’ve ignored like the Atari 7800 ProSystem.
I’ve owned Atari’s 3rd foray into home console gaming for many years, but since my initial purchase along with a handful of games in the early 2000’s, I’ve rarely played it. This is largely due to a lack of nostalgia or any viable memories on my part. Officially released nationwide in 1986, the Atari 7800 had been in development since 1983. Atari wanted to quickly release a successor to the poorly received Atari 5200, correcting two of that console’s biggest mistakes: a lack of backward compatibility with the 2600 games and fragile analog controllers.
Unfortunately, the video game crash of ’83 occurred, and Atari began bleeding money left and right. Atari’s Consumer Division was then sold to Jack Tramiel and all of the subsequent legal battles with GCC (General Computer Corporation), the manufacturer of the 7800, delayed the release of the console for 2 years.
The test launch of the 7800 in 1984 showed promise, but by the time the system was finally released, the same old arcade ports being offered seemed crusty and mothballed compared to exciting titles such as Super Mario Bros for the NES. The 7800 was marketed as a budget console, which was smart considering it was never going to be able to compete with the buzzworthy Nintendo, and, to a lesser extent, Sega. This helped it to be somewhat profitable, but it never made a cultural dent.
As I alluded to earlier, I had no distinct recollection of the 7800 existing in the late 80s. Atari had repackaged and re-released the 2600 around this time as the 2600 Junior, so I do recall seeing Atari 2600 Juniors in stores at the same time as the NES. Despite being a kid I was no dummy, and I recognized that it was just an ancient console with graphics and games that could no longer compete being repackaged as something cool and new, so I promptly ignored it. I’m certain that in my subconsciousness, the 7800 was wrongly lumped in with the 2600 Junior when I saw them on the shelves. There just wasn’t enough to distinguish the two besides the number used behind the brand name. Honestly, when you look at the 7800 console and game boxes, they don’t do a very good job of selling themselves. The game boxes in particular were very bland and monochromatic silver/gray. The lack of colors for the packaging was certainly a cost cutting measure and flipping the boxes over to see one or maybe two bare-bones screenshots had minimal impact.
Yes, the games were significantly cheaper than NES titles, but that wasn’t a motivational factor for me. No one I knew growing up owned a 7800, so I didn’t have a chance to play it, nor did I care to. Backward compatibility also meant nothing to me having not owned a 2600. I’m sure that a huge portion of sales of the 7800 were by previous 2600 owners, as I cannot see how Atari’s marketing (or lack thereof) was going to sell a potential console owner their product in a sea of “Now You’re Playing With Power” ads.
With a dated launch library filled with aging arcade ports, it appeared as if the 7800 was just a slightly improved version of the 2600, which was also still in stores at the time along with the XEGS. Maybe there was a case of consumer confusion with too many consoles available at once? Nevertheless, the Atari 7800 soldiered on and ultimately offered gamers more choices than just arcade ports, but it was too little too late.
The later released 7800 games such as Ninja Golf, Midnight Mutants, Basketbrawl, Mean 18 & Motor Psycho were just some of the titles available for the 7800 that can’t be found on other consoles of the era, but never captured the hearts of gamers. I have recently added several games to my collection but ran into problems when trying to find some of the unique later titles. Those games are not that common and show up online very infrequently, and when they do appear sites like eBay, they are often sealed copies and pull a premium. For some reason, there are a lot of sealed 7800 games floating around, especially those common early titles. Sealed games are interesting to own from a collector’s standpoint, but serve very little purpose for someone who intends to actually play the games (i.e. me).
If I was to look at the pros and cons of the Atari 7800 console, both from a player and collector’s standpoint, it would look something like this:
- Collecting a large library is relatively cheap, especially if you like to own boxes and manuals. Lots of sealed games out there for sale, which is odd but nice.
- Very few expensive games if you’re collecting a complete 7800 library.
- Some of the best versions of classic arcade titles are available on the 7800 (e.g. Asteroids, Dig Dug, Joust).
- Lots of support from the homebrew community and after-market peripherals and controller manufacturers.
- Console is sturdy, sleek and attractive.
- Allows only RF output, which seems to be worse than most RF outputs from that era. Requires modding for composite video/audio.
- Original ProLine controllers are some of the worst in terms of comfort and responsiveness.
- Games can be hard to find in both the wild and online due to low sales numbers.
- Game library is short on must-own exclusives.
- Early game carts are dull looking and without color, likely as a cost-saving measure.
The 7800 is probably the second best Atari console after the VCS/2600. Yes, I understand that the 7800 plays most all 2600 games, so by default it should be the best Atari console to own – unless you’re a huge Jaguar fan – but the 2600 was a juggernaut in the early 80s, and if backwards compatibility wasn’t an option it wouldn’t be a contest.