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Atari 7800 engineer reflects on losing the American console market to Nintendo


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Atari 7800 engineer reflects on losing the American console market to Nintendo



April 26, 2016 | By Alex Wawro

"In 1986, Atari finally decided what the hell – let's sell the 7800, and it actually did quite well competing against the Nintendo NES – but it was two years late. It makes me wonder what the industry would have done if the 7800 had come out when it was planned, and what it would have done for Atari."

Steve Golson, veteran game designer and engineer

In 1984, before the Nintendo Entertainment System had made it to the West, Atari announced plans to launch a brand-new console for the holidays: the Atari 7800 ProSystem (pictured).

The 7800 was the first major Atari game system designed by an outside company (General Computer Corporation, who also designed arcade game enhancement kits like Super Missile Attack), and in a recentinterview with USGamer, former GCC engineer Steve Golson describes how the console's launch wound up being delayed long enough for the NES to beat it to market -- and how the world might have been different if it hadn't.

"Atari did this huge unveiling – here's our next-generation base unit for Christmas of '84," recounts Golson, who in addition to his work on the 7800 and other projects is well-known in the game industry as theengineer behind Ms. Pac-Man.

"If it's for Christmas, you've got to have it out in spring time so all the toy retailers can put in their orders, so it was going to be the huge big thing for Christmas of '84. We had 14 cartridges that we had designed, and a high score cartridge which was a really cool way of saving your high score from one day to the next, and there was going to be a computer keyboard peripheral, and it was going to be amazing."

Trick is, Atari's computer and console divisions were sold by parent company Warner later that year to Commodore founder Jack Tramiel,  who made significant cutbacks that included cancelling the 7800's launch. 

Atari eventually brought it out anyway, in 1986, and reportedly saw decent sales -- but by then the NES had established a foothold in the U.S. market and Atari was outpaced in the console game business. 

"I think so many in the industry didn't realize that a new generation of gamers was going to appear. The toy industry is so driven by fads, that in 1984 they thought the gaming fad was over, and they did not see it was going to come back," says Golson. "So kudos to Nintendo for bringing out the NES. But you look back and think, if only the 7800 had actually come out on time."

For more of Golson's thoughts on how the game industry (and GCC's role within it) was shaped in the '80s and '90s, as well as some good anecdotes about taking Atari to court, check out the full USGamer interview






Brian Matherne - owner/curator of "The MOST comprehensive list of Atari VCS/2600 homebrews ever compiled." http://tiny.cc/Atari2600Homebrew

author of "The Atari 2600 Homebrew Companion" book series available on Amazon! www.amazon.com/author/brianmatherne

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It's a "What If?" scenario we've all hashed over in our minds.  Just a sad an unfortunate series of bad timing events. 


The thing is, though....it's hard to believe anyone could have done it better than Nintendo did.  They were so careful, so calculated, so ruthless to competition.  Plus, Super Mario.  Revival needed an innovator, and I don't think Atari was that. 

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I have to admit that the NES became a household name overnight seems like...much like how Atari became a household name overnight.  Even if the 7800 came out as planned I really believe the NES would have eventually passed it in sales.  The reason being is for the simple fact that Mario is too lovable of a character for anyone to ignore.  Kids love him as do adults.  Nintendo couldn't have asked for a better mascot to be honest.  


As for the 7800, it is a very powerful console.  More powerful than most realize.  Atari would have had to develop games for it that they had never done before.  Some of the Atari arcade games Atari released for the NES under Tengen should have also made it to the 7800.  Sega did well but I feel it, too, was in the same position as Atari was at the time with its Master System console.  Both were great consoles but the world was already busy with the NES and Mario games to pay attention to them.  I learned of the SMS and 7800 by pure luck.  If I wouldn't have seen them in the stores, on clearance, I would have never heard of them.

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I didn't learn about the 7800 until after having an NES and it was a learning lesson in life that I should have reinforced upon myself years later. Learning lesson being don't rid the old just because something new comes along. Thankfully my small 2600 collection had only shifted hands to my uncle after I got my NES and was later able to reclaim it once he lost interest in it again and I, an NES owning kid, wanted to play some of the games I missed on the 2600.


The entire hardware history of Atari since the Tramiel takeover seems to have been stagnant. They always had really powerful hardware and at its core, that's what Atari had become, a hardware company... but without the right software or games, it doesn't matter. Never mind the fact of actually releasing the hardware in the proper time frame or period was crucial.


Maybe a large part of the lure or lust of Atari as a whole is the idea that a lot more could have come from all of their attempts if given the right software and rarely did we ever really see a game completely blow our mind, showing or proving the potential of said platform. With the exception of bugged or flawed chipsets in the Jaguar and snail paced development of their TOS operating system for their computers, Atari pretty much nailed it in regards to hardware. They were cheap where they needed to be but it fatally crossed over into the most important area of their entire business: software and games.


I find it almost painfully humorous that Atari always seemed to rush software or games for the Jaguar, which was their real last chance at getting it right, but really just stood around watching paint dry when it came to everything else. Anyways, I think it was a good thing for Nintendo to enter the market and dominate as they did. Competition is always good and even to this day Nintendo is still doing some really cool stuff. Mario and Sonic and... well, Atari had Pac-Man. Wonder if a deal could have been made to purchase Pac-Man outright when Atari had an unrealistic amount of money and officially make it theirs.

7800 - 130XE - XEGS - Lynx - Jaguar - ISO: Atari Falcon030 | STBook |STe


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