The Atari 7800 ProSystem, more commonly known as the Atari 7800, is a home
video game console officially released by Atari Corporation in May 1986. It is
almost fully backward-compatible with the Atari 2600 and is the first console to
have backward compatibility without the use of additional modules. At launch, it
was considered to be extremely affordable at a price of $79.95. The 7800 has
vastly improved graphics hardware over the 2600, but uses the same audio chip.
It also shipped with a different model of joystick than the 2600-standard CX40.
It was the first game system from Atari Inc. designed by an outside company,
General Computer Corporation (GCC). GCC, which had a background in creating
arcade games, designed their new system with a graphical architecture similar to
arcade machines of the time. The 7800 allows a large number of moving objects
(75 to 100) that far exceeds previous consoles. Powering the system is a
slightly customized 6502 processor, the Atari SALLY (sometimes described as a
6502C), running at 1.79 MHz.
The system was designed in 1983-84 with an intended mass market rollout in
June 1984, but was canceled soon after due to the sale of the company to Tramiel
Technology Ltd. in mid-1984. The project was originally called the Atari 3600,
though it was later renamed the Atari 7800.
Atari had been facing mounting pressure in the form of competition from the
ColecoVision, which boasted graphics that more closely mirrored arcade games of
the time than Atari's 2600 system. At the same time, the Atari 5200 (the
original intended successor to the Atari 2600) had been widely criticized for
not being able to play Atari 2600 games without an adapter.
In contrast to the Atari 5200, the Atari 7800 can play almost all Atari 2600
games out of the box, without the need for an adapter. In addition, it features
a return to a digital controller (the 5200's controller was analog). Then as an
added bonus, GCC's programmers would also do almost all of the Atari 2600 and
5200 games in 1983-1984 for Atari. To make sure the system had every bell and
whistle possible, the system was slated to be released with not only a computer
keyboard, but also a High Score cartridge (designed by GCC), and a new add-on
module for the Atari 5200 which would have given the Atari 5200 system full
Atari 2600/7800 compatibility to ensure its existing base of 5200 owners could
immediately take advantage of all the hot new games that the 7800 was capable of
To address the concerns of parents that home computers were a better investment
than consoles, the system was designed to be upgraded to a full-fledged home
computer. A keyboard was developed, and the keyboard had an expansion port
(which was the SIO port from Atari's 8-bit computer line, though the 7800 could
not run Atari computer programs) that allowed for the addition of peripherals
such as disk drives and printers. To further enhance the gaming experience, the
High Score cartridge featured battery-backed RAM designed for storing game
scores. On the side of the 7800 was an expansion port, reportedly for a planned
connection with a laserdisc player.
The 7800 was initially released in southern California in June 1984,
following an announcement on May 21, 1984 at the Summer Consumer Electronics
Show. Thirteen games were announced for the system's launch: Ms. Pac-Man, Pole
Position II, Centipede, Joust, Dig Dug, Desert Falcon, Robotron: 2084, Galaga,
Food Fight, Ballblazer, Rescue on Fractalus!, Track & Field, and Xevious. Atari
was a sponsor of the 1984 Summer Olympics and planned to push the 7800
aggressively in time for Christmas that year.
On July 2, 1984, Warner Communications sold Atari's Consumer Division to Jack
Tramiel. All projects were halted during an initial evaluation period. Modern
publications have often incorrectly asserted that Jack Tramiel mothballed the
Atari 7800, feeling video games were a past fad, and subsequently asserted that
he dusted off the Atari 7800 once the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) became
successful. The reality was that a contractual issue arose in that GCC had not
been paid for their development of the 7800. Warner and Tramiel battled back and
forth over who was accountable, with Tramiel believing that the 7800 should have
been covered as part of his acquisition deal. In May 1985, Jack relented and
paid GCC the overdue payment. This led to additional negotiations regarding the
initial launch titles that GCC had developed and then an effort to find someone
to lead their new video game division, which was completed in November 1985.
By the end of 1986, Computer Entertainer claimed the Atari 7800 had sold
100,000 consoles in the United States, less than the Sega Master System's
125,000 and the NES's 1.1 million. According to Atari, due to manufacturing
problems, it only managed to produce and sell 100,000 units by 1986, including
units that had been in a warehouse since 1984. A common complaint in 1986 was a
lack of games, including a gap of months between new releases (Galaga's release
in August was followed by Xevious in November). By the end of 1986, the 7800 had
10 games, compared to Sega's 20 and Nintendo's 36; nine of the NES games were
third-party, whereas the 7800 and Master System had no third-party games. A
reason cited for the lack of third-party interest in the 7800 was its small
100,000 install base and low market penetration.
Atari's lineup for the 7800 emphasized high-quality versions of popular
arcade games like Joust and Asteroids. This had been a primary reason for the
success of the Atari 2600, but Joust was four years old in 1986, and Asteroids
During the Atari 7800's life cycle, Atari found themselves struggling to get
developers to create 7800 versions of then-popular arcade titles because of a
controversial policy employed by Nintendo. When Nintendo revived the industry,
it signed up software development companies to create Nintendo Entertainment
System games under a strict license agreement which imposed serious restrictions
on what they were allowed to do. One of the key clauses was that companies who
made Nintendo games were not allowed to make that game on a competing system for
a period of two years. Because of the market success of the Nintendo
Entertainment System, companies chose to develop for it first and were thus
barred from developing the same games on competing systems for two years. The
software libraries of the Atari 7800 and Sega Master System suffered
tremendously as a result.
Eleven titles were developed and sold by three third-party companies under their
own labels for the 7800 (Absolute Entertainment, Activision, and Froggo) with
the rest published by Atari themselves. However, most Atari development was
Some NES titles were developed by companies who had licensed their title from a
different arcade manufacturer. While the creator of the NES version would be
restricted from making a competitive version of an NES game, the original arcade
copyright holder was not precluded from licensing out rights for a home version
of an arcade game to multiple systems. Through this loophole, Atari 7800
conversions of Mario Bros., Double Dragon, Commando, Rampage, Xenophobe, Ikari
Warriors, and Kung-Fu Master were licensed and developed.
By June 1988, the Atari 7800 had sold 1 million units worldwide.
The Atari 7800 remained officially active in the United States between 1986
and 1991. On January 1, 1992, Atari Corp. formally announced that production of
the Atari 7800, the Atari 2600, the Atari 8-bit computer line, and the Atari XE
Game System would cease. (It has since been discovered that Atari Corp.
continued to develop games such as Toki for the Atari 7800 until all development
was shut down in May 1993.) By the time of the cancellation, Nintendo's NES
dominated the North American market, controlling 80%, while Atari Corp.
controlled just 12%. Despite trailing the Nintendo Entertainment System in terms
of number of units sold, the 7800 was a profitable enterprise for Atari Corp.,
benefiting largely from Atari's name and the system's 2600 compatibility.
Profits were strong, owing to low investment in game development and marketing.
Information and text adapted from Wikipedia