Review by Larcen Tyler
"A small system with a big heart."
In 1984, during the Great Video Game Crash, Atari was struggling to keep up in the a market that was going downhill fast. After the failure of E.T. and the poorly designed version of Pac-Man, Atari was deep in debt. Their solution was to release the Atari 7800, an improved system which would also remedy the flaws of the Atari 5200, most notably with backwards compatibility. Unfortunately, Atari also needed to get out of debt fast, so they sold the company to Jack Tramiel. Now contrary to what most say, the reality is Jack did not shelve the Atari 7800 because he wanted to focus on computers. Rather, it was because of negotiations with the General Computer Corporation (GCC) about how to release it and budgeting purposes. It wouldn't be untill 1986 that the system was finally released.
Unfortunately, when it was released, the NES had already been out for awhile and had already gained a strong following by a lot of people, while Sega also released the Master System to compete with the NES. The Atari 7800, unfortunately, couldn't stand up to them, since most of their games were older ones that were revamped for the system, and would only last about four Syears before being pulled from shelves. Despite its lack of a chance to shine, the Atari 7800 is still a system that has a big heart.
The Atari 7800 used a custom chip known as MARIA that would display up to 256 colors at once on the game screen. Given the technology that was used at the time in 1984, this was a big improvement over the Atari 5200. The graphics weren't exactly on par with the NES's, but they still had a good showing, with very in-depth coloring and the ability to display numerous objects onscreen without any flicker whatsoever. Some games were a bit lacking in detail, like Double Dragon and Kung-Fu Master, but a lot of the games, like Dark Chambers, Ms. Pac-Man, and Pole Position II, really showed what the Atari 7800 was capable of in comparison to the Atari 5200.
In fact, some games actually showed that the Atari 7800 could be superior in terms of the quality of their games in comparison to the counterparts on the NES. For example, Commando actually looked like the original arcade game in terms of its layout, and displayed a fairly large amount of enemies on the screen without any flicker whatsoever, a problem that was very noticeable in the NES version. Xenophobe was also notable for actually playing more like the arcade game than the NES version, which seemed like it was redone for the NES. You can interact more with the backgrounds in this one, and it moves more fluidly than its NES counterpart as well. Even Double Dragon, despite the fact the quality isn't as great as it could be, still retains the original arcade look, unlike the NES version.
Another capability of the Atari 7800 was to be able to use the special POKEY chip that was present in a lot of Atari's arcade games as well as on the Atari 5200, which would generate high quality sound effects and music. Unfortunately, for some reason, the majority of the games released on the Atari 7800 didn't utilize this chip, and as a result, the sounds generally ended up as being on par with the Atari 2600 instead. Some of these games still managed to do fairly well in the sound department despite this, but others would've benefitted from the POKEY chip.
The two games that did use the POKEY chip were Commando and BallBlazer. By playing either of these two games, you can really see how the POKEY chip improved the sound quality a lot. It makes you wonder why the designers didn't utilize them for other games. BallBlazer is notable for its futuristic, electronic soundtrack that really gets you going and into the game, not to mention it's kind of catchy and addictive too. As for Commando, the POKEY chip allows it to play the songs from the original arcade version in a high quality manner that sounds more like the Atari 7800 should sound and not like an Atari 2600 game.
When the Atari 7800 was designed, Atari decided to try something new with the design of their controllers. The new ones would be longer, almost sort of rectangular shaped, with a different style of joystick and two buttons, one on either side. While the design may have been unique, unfortunately it was not very comfortable, as cramping is common when playing games that utilize the Pro-Line joysticks. As a result, you'll find yourself switching hands a lot of the time. Atari did release control pads similar to the NES's, but these are very rare, so consider yourself lucky if you do find one. Fortunately, a good portion of the Atari 7800's software can easily be played using an Atari 2600 joystick instead.
To be quite honest, the Atari 7800 could easily be considered an enhanced version of the Atari 2600, since the MARIA chip is what makes the Atari 7800 games diisplay in their high-resolution graphics, because of a special chip that is installed in all Atari 7800 cartridges. Without them, the Atari 7800 would just display Atari 2600 style graphics. Similar to the lockout chips Nintendo had, except for the graphics.
Of course, being an enhanced Atari 2600 isn't all that bad. After all, one of the most notable features of the system was the ability to be able to play all of your old Atari 2600 games on it without needing any special hardware or modifications whatsoever. There are a few titles which may not work, but other than that, the majority of the HUGE library of Atari 2600 games are likely to be playable on your Atari 7800.
The Atari 7800's game library was rather small, consisting primarily of classic titles from the earlier days (mind you the system was designed in 1984, but not released until 1986.) Despite the fact that they were pretty 'outdated' for their time, a lot of the games still retained the quality and playability that made them what they were in the arcades. Games like Ms. Pac-Man, Asteroids, Centipede, Dig-Dug, and Pole Position II (the pack in game no less), retain their original arcade charm with little to no losses from the arcade versions. Other notable games were games like Dark Chambers, Desert Falcon, and Tower Toppler. Some games were ported from home computers, like Karateka and Ace of Aces, which really just weren't made for home consoles. But other than that, the Atari 7800's small library still contains a lot of quality games.
Despite the fact that the controllers were rather unusually designed, and the fact that quality sound was hardly ever used for the games, the Atari 7800 still manages to shine in its own unique way. While it's long since outdated, for what it's worth, it's still a very notable console for what it's capable of, and the quality games that are available for it. The Atari 7800 is definitely a console that collectors should look into, since it's such a small system but with a very big heart.
Reviewer's Rating: 4.0 - Great
Originally Posted: 11/18/08
Game Release: Atari 7800 Hardware (US, 06/30/86)
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