Posted on December 24, 2008
1986 : Atari 7800 Christmas
“What?” Jeff replied.
He looked over at me to see that I reading an advertisement in Antic Magazine.
“Look at this…Atari 7800’s for sale!”
October of 1986 was a trying time for Atari 8-bit nerds like Jeff and I. We had seen the vastly inferior (to us) Commodore 64 reign supreme for a couple years. We loved our Atari 800 computer, but after 3 years of serious Atari 8-bit computing, we had pretty much experienced everything there was to get out of the tan, wedge-shaped machine from Atari’s better days. The flood of new software from the early 80’s became a trickle. Most software companies were skipping the Atari 8-bit computer line in favor of the better selling Commodore machine. The C-64 had become the de-facto “games machine” ever since the video game industry imploded, and it killed us, as life-long Atari fans, that the Atari name was not on the box.
But Commodore wasn’t the only enemy.
On occasion when I caught Saturday morning cartoons, I would see commercials on TV were for the Nintendo Entertainment System and it’s bizarre robot peripheral R.O.B. I remembered Nintendo as the company that made the Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr. and Popeye coin-op games. To me, they were fine games, but nothing special. They certainly had nothing on Atari’s coin-ops. Still, it was weird to see commercials for video games again. It had been years since I had seen any images of video games on TV that were not followed by doomsday predictions of crashing markets, addicted kids, and the word “fad.” In that time, one true fact had been burned into my brain: Video games were over, computers were the future. On the commercials, the N.E.S. looked like a cheap piece of junk, and I was sure it would disappear quickly and I’d never hear about it again. As far as I was concerned, video games were dead and computers had completely taken their place.
My journey away from console games was gradual by constant. The Atari 800 computer made simple video games look silly. Our Atari 2600 with a faulty RF unit gathered dust in the broken, wood TV cabinet in our living room, so even if I wanted to play it, it was impossible. A slew of games were still available for it, if you knew where to look: the bargain bin at the front of Kay Bee Toys, and Toys R ‘Us for a few dollars each and I picked one up now and again, more out of force of habit than anything else. We still had a stack of 2600 games, but no way to play them. At the same time, the 16-bit ST computer was on the horizon, but without any U.S. based distribution, it would be many months before we could get our hands on one. Even Atari coin-op games, which had once been the best games in the arcade, had fallen on hard times. With games like Super Mario Bros. and Arkanoid competing for floor space, Atari Games ‘contests like Championship Sprint and 720 did not stand much of a chance getting kids to release their quarters.
In short, Atari fans were a very tough spot. Intruders had over-ridden our camp from all sides. Any notion we had back in 1984 that the Tramiels would save Atari was long since destroyed. However, we were still loyal. The Atari “Fuji” symbol was burned into our brains and we had to follow. That is why it was so exciting to see that some of the mail order companies were selling the Atari 7800 and about a dozen different games for rock-bottom prices.
The 7800 and its’ next generation games had looked so awesome in the pages of Electronic Games back in 1984. The machine was backwardly compatible so we could play our orphaned 2600 games. We had to have one and it was an easy sell. We showed our mom the ad, who was only too happy to oblige by ordering us one with two games (Galaga and Food Fight) for Christmas. What we did not realize was that waiting for the 7800 would a be a problem. You see, after we knew the 7800 was on the way, Jeff and I came up an idea. A wonderful awful, terrible, idea. We decided to sell all of our Atari 8-bit computer equipment, save the money, and combine it was any Christmas money plus any birthday money we would get in January, to purchase an Atari ST 16-bit computer as soon as they were available in 1987.
The plan made no sense at all. We were going to spend $100’s of dollars for a new Atari computer that probably would not be supported by any software, that was not compatible with any other Atari platform, and that no one else we knew had or was ever going to have.
Sue us, we were Atari Nerds.
In the next month I raced to finish the final game I had purchased for the Atari 800: Ultima IV. I spent many hours every day trying to perfect my avatar. Before school, in the afternoon while I was on the phone with my girlfriend, and late at night after (and instead of) doing homework. By early December I had managed to make it to the room with the Codex, but I never managed to finish the game.At the same time, we advertised the vast amount of Atari related equipment we had collected over the years for sale. We started by posting on the local bulletin boards SWAMPS and Video BBS. We had 100’s of disks, an extra 810 disc drive, 850 interface, Gemini 10X printer, Atari 800, Atari 800xl, 1050 drive ,cables, books, games, etc. By mid-December all but a few 5.25″ floppies had been sold, and we pocketed about $400, roughly 10% of what we had spent on everything.
With two weeks until Christmas, a sudden realization hit us: for the first time in 5 years, we were nearly game less. Aside from a Vectrex with a dodgy #1 fire button, we had no games to play what-so-ever. The next 14 days were mostly torture. Jeff and I busied ourselves trying to earn money to pay for two Christmas dances (we were both dating girls from an all girls Catholic school, and they had their own dance, and we had ours at our own all-evil public school), and for gifts for said girls and our families. By the time that mayhem had ended, it was Christmas break and there just a few days to wait until the 25th, and the 7800. Still, being game less. was very difficult. The few days left before Christmas, as moved slower than any days I can recall. While we used to play 8-bit computer games late into the night, now all we had was broadcast T.V. By the 24th we were climbing the walls trying to find something interesting to do.
To say that getting the 7800 on Christmas morning was exciting as getting a 2600 in 1981 or an Atari 800 in 1983 would be over stating the facts a bit. It was cool to get one, but not exactly exciting overall. First off, we knew it was coming, and secondly, we did not have high-hopes for it. Atari Corp. output had been such a disappointment up until that point, that we we held back most of our enthusiasm until after we had the chance to boot the machine and play some games…however when we finally did get it up and running…
Yes, I said. Blown away.
The pack-in game, Pole Position II was near arcade quality. Off hand, I could not find any differences with it than the coin-op. While, the coin-op was also not huge favorite of mine, I could still see how much better this version was than the Pole Position had been for the 8-bit computers. Suitably impressed, we tried the next game, Galaga. Galaga had been one of my favorite coin-ops for several year at that time, and I knew the 7800 version would have to be something special to get me excited for it. Luckily, the people at GCC/Atari (back in 1983/1984 when all the release games for the 7800 were actually produced) had done a remarkable job with the translation. While a few things looked different (the ships were all a bit smaller and less colorful than their arcade counterparts) the game played like an exact copy of Galaga. All the same strategies could be employed, and I could feel that home version would have me playing for a long time.
The 3rd and final game we tried for the 7800 was Food Fight, the GCC/Atari coin-op from 1983. Right from the outset we could tell that game would become the show piece for the 7800. The game was a near exact copy of the Food fight coin-op, still one of the best and most underrated arcade contests ever produced. Jeff and I spent the next couple days playing and replaying all three 7800 games. We are simply amazed at the quality of the games. It was cool to play them in 1986 (almost 1987), but it was difficult to not wonder how good they would have seemed in they had been released as scheduled for Christmas 1984. For a couple die-hard Atari fans, the missed opportunity was almost too much the bear. The 7800 rocked and we were ecstatic about it.
The euphoria was felt for the 7800 did not end with the three games we received Christmas morning. Armed with the desire to experience more of what this amazing machine had to offer, we set-out on an after-Christmas-week quest to find as many games as possible for it. Now, this was 1986, so the week after Christmas was not at all like it is now. In 2008, the week after Christmas is like “Christmas II”, with all the gift-card holders scrambling to pick the the fresh meat off hastily re-stocked shelf bones in an attempt to keep that Christmas high for a few days longer. No, back then the shelves after Christmas were bare. Restocking did not happen until late January. For the most part, stores were open to handle returns and complaints and to get ready for the New Years’s “White Sales”. Needless to say, finding shiny new 7800 games to feed our new-found hunger for titles was rather difficult. After trying the local Targets, K-Marts, Sears’ and Kay-Bee’s without luck, we finally managed to find a few new games at the Toys R Us in Sherman Oaks, California. Even then, the pickings were very slim. Among the game offerings were Ms. Pac-Man, Centipede, Dig Dug, Xevious and Asteroids. They were not even displayed on the store floor. Jeff and I spied them in the “video game cage”, up high on a shelf (stacked above and behind the reams of Nintendo NES games). The guy working the cage had no idea what we were talking about when we mentioned the 7800, so we had to request each game by name, and he would go through the painful process of searching the stacks as we pointed wildly towards any box that said Atari” or “7800” on the side. Still, the process was worth the effort. At $9.99-$19.99 each the games were an absolute bargain. We picked-up Dig Dug, Xevious, and Asteroids, and took them home to investigate.
Dig Dug had been one of my favorite games when it was positioned in the front of the local Manhattan Liquors, next to the Tempest machine). While I had been very disappointed with the 8-bit version of the game, the 7800 one captured much of the “cute” aesthetic missing from the other translations. Simple details, like the inclusion of a text font that closely match the arcade game went along way to separate the 7800 version from all others that came before.
Xevious had always been an intriguing arcade game for me. The first top-down scrolling shooter that I could recall, it offered a ship with two weapons and multiple different types of enemies. It was also insanely difficult. One of the most interesting aspects of the arcade game was the “Eagle” design that you would fly-over when you were close to finishing each level. I was very excited to see this recreated for the 7800. This version captured everything I liked about the arcade game, and had me wondering just were the 7800 could take games of this genre.
Asteroids, however, was the show-stopper.
Officially titled Asteroids 3D, it was the version of Atari’s classic coin-op we had been wanting for years. The Atari 2600 version was decent, but sullied with flicker and with asteroids that only moved vertically. At the same time the Atari 8-bit computer version was a slow, jumbled mess and the Atari 5200 was never released because it was unplayable with that system’s idiotic controllers. This meant that all the 7800 had to do was play a decent game and it would easily end-up on top. However, instead of just being decent, the 7800 version obliterated all previous efforts. The graphics were updated with a cool 3D look, and game play was nearly identical to the coin-op. Beyond that, it offered two player simultaneous competitive and team modes, something that rare very rare in for console games at the time. Jeff and I were in Asteroids heaven from the moment we inserted the cartridge into the 7800. Aside from short bursts with the other games (including time replaying 2600 favorite like River Raid and Vanguard), Asteroids rarely left the 7800 cartridge slot for the remainder of Christmas vacation.
When school restarted again in January, our desire to play the 7800 did not subside. If anything, we wanted to play it much more. While Asteroids was still a favorite, the other 7800 games started getting a bunch of playing time as well. For at least a week in January 1987, I woke up an hour early just to get a few rounds of Galaga in before school started. Likewise, it was difficult to tear Jeff away from the console after school whole he attempted to master Food Fight. To us, these were simply awesome translations of the arcade games, better than anything we had ever seen or played. By our birthday on late January, we were sucked-in completely. Even though we were saving money for a 16-bit Atari ST computer, we still managed to use a bit of birthday cash to buy the 7800 versions of both Joust and Robotron, neither of which disappointed us in an way. So far the 7800 had not let us down, and we were very surprised, as we did not believe the new Atari had the ability to pull anything like this off. Was Atari Corp. really part of the Next Generation of video games?
Soon after our birthday, Jeff and I visited our friend Wesley Crews’ house. Wesley had been on a ski trip for most of Christmas vacation, and we had been too busy right after school started to go over to his house. He was itching to show us his new Christmas gift, a Nintendo N.E.S. I did not have high hopes for it. The commercials for the machine made it look like the Coleco Adam or Mattel Aquarius: bizarre under-powered, over-priced systems with far too many cheap plastic peripherals. The first game he showed us, Duck Hunt, proved the point. It was a light gun game that played like all others from about the same time. The gun did not match-up right to the on-screen cursor, the action was bland, and it all seemed fairly awful. It did not compare well to the nearly pixel-perfect old-school arcade action action on the 7800 in any way. However, the second game we played was another thing entirely. Excite Bike on the N.E.S. looked and played exactly like the Vs. coin-op we had seen in the arcades. The graphics were crisp, the sprites were large, and the action was enthralling. Not only that, but the game allowed players to could create their own tracks and then race on them.
One other thing we noticed right away were the controllers. Instead of a joystick, they had four arrow buttons, two fire buttons, plus Start and Select buttons. All of these buttons were top-mounted on a rectangular pad. The pad was easy to hold, and the buttons were easy to press. The 7800 had “2 fire button” controllers too, but they were nothing like the Nintendo Controllers. The 7800’s “Pro-Line” controllers were difficult to hold, and with buttons on either side of the controller, they caused your hand to cramp after a short time. I tried to find some kind of fault with the N.E.S. and the way the games played or were controlled, but honestly, there was nothing I could identify. It played very enjoyable new-style games and it included next generation features that Atari had not even considered in 1983 when the 7800 was first designed. While the Tramiels (who ran Atari Corp.) could have redesigned the 7800 to better compete with the N.E.S., they had released it as-is, and the machine suffered by comparison.
It took about 20 minutes of playing Excite Bike before Jeff and both realized that there would be no future for the 7800. While the Atari system had some great translations of old arcade games, that was all it had. It simply could not match the deep excitement of playing games on the N.E.S. There was an unmistakable, yet indescribable quality to Excite Bike that made us want to play it over and over. This addictive quality did not come from the rinse and repeat game-play of old Atari-style single-screen skill games, but from the depth of game play and the creative tools that seemed to let you play for ever without ever repeating anything.
In a sense, the 7800 became our last goodbye to the golden age of video games. We finally got a chance to play the games that should have saved Atari in 1984 and could have kept them on top long after. However, in 1986/1987, compared to the N.E.S., they looked like far too little, far too late. The 7800 was a great little machine, but after being held in dungeon for almost 3 years, it came out looking like the world (one quickly being conquered by Nintendo) had passed it by. The funny thing was, even though we thought it was pretty cool, we were not sold on the N.E.S. either. The “deep” qualities that we liked about Excite Bike were the same things we liked about computer games. The N.E.S. was still just an 8-bit machine, but newer more powerful 16-bit computers were on the horizon. Unlike the 8-bit computer party that we had joined 1/2 a decade too late, we wanted to be into the 16-bit era on the ground-floor.
A couple weeks later, Jeff and I traveled out to Orange California, our pockets filled with the money we had saved since late November, to purchase an Atari ST computer from the back trunk of the guy (his name was Art I believe) who ran the store Computer Games Plus (Honestly , this was the only non-mail order way to purchase an Atari ST at the time). We took that machine home, and embarked on a brand new computer quest that would lead us on all sorts of wild digital adventures. We still played the 7800, (especially Asteroids, Galaga and Food Fight), and over the years, even purchased a few more games for it from the bargain bins. However, it took a far back-seat to the Atari ST. and the amazing 16-bit games that were being (mostly) created in Europe for the machine. In time the 7800 was put into that same broken, wooden TV cabinet in my parents living room that once held our 2600 and never played again: its’ memory soon faded away, placed into the same bit-bucket of similar forgotten Atari Nerd dreams…