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Atari History

Cartridge Consoles

Undeniably the worlds most popular video game system

Overview

Atari Videogame consoles (as opposed to Atari's earlier standalone single function consoles) got their start in 1977 with the introduction of Atari's VCS (Video Computer System). The VCS was originally ready to ship in 1976, however due to a legal clause in an earlier settlement between Atari and Magnavox over the release of PONG in 1972, Magnavox would own the rights to anything Atari produced for 1 year, so Atari delayed the VCS release so that Magnavox would not own the rights to it.

The Atari VCS was originally conceived in Grass Valley, California. The second iteration was done in Sunnyvale, CA. The Atari Video Computer System was initially going to be a new multipurpose console chassis with a single multi-programmable motherboard which would have its games installed internally into a ROM slot.

This design was quickly dropped in favour of selling the same concept except making the ROM slot external and selling the various games in cartridge form that consumers would buy and plug into the console. Originally only 10 games were to be designed for the console since it was designed to play games such as Pong, Tank, Outlaw and various other simple challenge games. However designers had unknowingly created a console who's hidden potential was quickly discovered by programmers who created games far outperforming what the console was original conceived to do. Then came Space Invaders for the Atari VCS, the first licensed arcade title. The VCS took off and no one could stop is popularity and success.





In 1978 several of the same engineers who had designed the Atari VCS were already laying out plans for a new set of chips with so much power and abilities for graphics and sounds that Atari's next game console would far overshadow its first creation, the VCS. However Atari was now headed by Raymond Kassar who was brought in by Warner Communications, Atari's parent company when it was sold to WCI in 1976 by Nolan Bushnell for $28 Million. Ray Kassar wanted Atari to compete against Apple in the home computer market.

The new Super Game console chip set was now turned over to Atari's brand new Home Computer Division and became the Atari 8 bit chip set. It would not be until 1982 that Atari's vision of a Super Game console would become a reality. Basically, Atari took the 8 bit chip set and built an all new Super Game System around it. Originally code named PAM, Atari's new Super Game System would almost be called P.A.M. for Personal Arcade Machine, however Atari settled on its model number: 5200. So it was born, the Atari 5200: Super System. 

Atari's release of the new Super System was ill timed and poorly supported by research from marketing which was ignored. The vein of most people's complaints were its amazingly innovative controllers. While introducing some impressive features, the controllers were difficult to handle for long periods of time and broke easily and were costly to repair. The Super System was also faced with serious competition from Coleco with its impressive ColecoVision console and Coleco's barrage of expansion modules and peripherals. Everything from Super controllers to Steering Wheels to even an Atari 2600 VCS compatible interface for playing all of the games made for the Atari VCS 2600 console. Before Atari even had such a module available for its own Atari 5200 Super System! Atari fired back with a peripheral that even today stands out as an impressive and well engineered product, the Atari 5200 Trackball. However that wasn't enough, adding to this was the fact that Atari packaged with its console Super Breakout, while Coleco packaged the hottest Coin-Op game at the time: Donkey Kong. Then something happened that no one could fight against... The Great Video Game Crash. Like Black Friday on Wall Street, the crash hit, people saw video games as a fad that had reached its peak and had passed. Company Exec's panicked, packed up and ran faster then Pac Man with all four ghosts hot on his trail. 

After the dust had settled, Atari picked up its pieces and its badly bruised ego and went to work on making right all that was wrong with its past consoles. Working with and more importantly LISTENING to test groups. Atari and GCC (General Computer Corporation) got to work on an all new game console. First fix, it would be compatible with Atari 2600 games automatically, no modules. The unit would have encryption so Atari could control what software was released in its high performance "7800 Mode" so there wouldn't be a repeat of the huge flood of lousy software titles which caused the Great Video Game Crash to happen.

The console would have lots of expandability and several peripherals would be made available at launch. Peripherals included a dual joystick holder for games like Robotron 2084, Battlezone and so forth. A high Score Cartridge that could keep high scores for up to 65 different games. A computer CPU add-on module and a computer keyboard to turn the system into a beginners computer system that would be able to use existing Atari Home Computer Systems peripherals like disk drives and printers (software would not be compatible with the home computers.) For its bruised and battered Atari 5200 owners, Atari planned an expansion module called SLAM-PAM which was an Atari 7800/2600 compatibility module so Atari 5200 owners could use all of the existing 2600 software, plus all of the new Atari 7800 software.

The console was ready, the first 5,000 units were on their way from the EL Paso, TX manufacturing plant. Pre-release reviews were ecstatic, the console would certainly be a success... Then it happened, on July 2, 1984 Atari was sold and the Atari 7800 and its unannounced low cost brother the Atari 2600jr. were shelved until 1986 when they were finally sold to a gaming public that had nearly forgotten about Atari and was more interested in the new systems from Nintendo and Sega. 

Although nothing more then an Atari computer with built in Missile Command and a detached keyboard, Atari released in 1987 the Atari XE Game System which met with luke-warm acceptance, Atari repackaged and re-released several older tried and true Atari Home Computer System software titles into cartridge form. In 1989 Atari would come back into the gaming market with a surprise entry which would turn out to be a amazingly powerful and portable game system. It was called the Atari Lynx Color Portable. Slightly bigger then a VCR tape, the Lynx was a color handheld game system acquired by Epyx a gaming software company which decided to get into the console market but had run out of money to market their product. Originally called "Handy" Atari acquired the Lynx technology and several software titles. The Lynx was overshadowed by the Nintendo Gameboy, a primitive black and white LCD game and the Sega Nomad which were marketed far heavier.

The Atari Lynx, far superior to all the other portable game systems with its slew of add-ons like portable battery pack, carrying cases, sun visors, Lynx cables for multi-user game play and its fairly healthy line of games just couldn't fare as well as the other game consoles, but continued strong for quite sometime. In fact today Songbird Productions has been releasing brand new software titles for the Lynx. 

In 1993 Atari made one last push at getting back into the very market which it had helped to pioneer. Working on the Atari Jaguar, a 64-bit gaming console which was acquired from Flare II Atari dropped work on its own in-house console called Panther and the big push was on. The Atari Jaguar 64 would be built by IBM, sporting a DSP Digital Signal Processor, and several custom microprocessors on a 64-Bit wide bus that had expansion to support various types of video, external modems, networking of consoles for multi-user games, attachment of a CD-ROM player for enhanced gameplay and even a VR Virtual Reality headset system for fully immersed gaming experiences. The Jaguar although an admiral console just didn't have the quality of game worthy of its 64-Bit title.

With a few shining stars such as Tempest 2000 and Alien vs. Predator the oncoming threat of the Nintendo 64 and the Sony Playstation quickly put an end to the Jaguar and to Atari's consumer electronics division as Atari folded into a reverse merger in 1996 with JTS a now defunct hard disk maker. The Jaguar console was heavily modified and installed into Atari Games Corporation Area 51 arcade video coin-ops and called the Co-Jag. Atari Games Corporation was a separate Atari company that split off from the Atari consumer division/computer division in 1984.

The Atari Jaguar and the Atari Co-Jag were the last of Atari's video gaming consoles. Today Atari Corp is owned by Hasbro and is called Atari Interactive. They design and sell Atari classic gaming titles for PC's and other gaming platforms. Atari Games Corporation is owned by Midway/Williams and has now been absorbed into Midway and lost its own identity and exists no more.

Atari 2600

Undeniably the world's most poplar video game system, the Atari 2600 Video Computer system has in one way or another been in just about everyone's life.  From original owners back in the late 70's and 80's, to new owners just discovering their simple yet extremely addictive game play.   The Atari 2600 was technically superior to most of the other game systems when it was released such as the Bally Astrocade, Magnavox Odyssey and Fairchild Channel F and took a far lead in first place.   Systems such as the Intellivision and Colecovision were graphically better systems, however the Atari 2600 won the hearts and minds of most video gamers and climbed to the top and stayed there for most of its existence.   In fact it was the Atari 2600's huge popularity that became its downfall with too many cartridges being produced and too many of them were lacking in game play and in graphics.   This huge flood of  games caused a cartridge "glut" and added to huge fallout in the industry which saw almost all small start ups disappear and brought company's like Mattel's Intellivision division, Coleco and any others to their knees and into dusty memories.   Atari managed to remain but with a weak heart beat.  

 

In late spring and early summer of 1983 Atari and Nintendo began a flurry of talks about having Atari license and package the Nintendo prototype "FCS" (Family Computer System) as an Atari video game product.    This deal was nearly completed when Atari's CEO Ray Kassar was let go due to questionable Stock sale activity in December of 1982 and Atari's top management was in disarray for several months.   Nintendo, lost its patience and walked away, allowing the future NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) to become a Nintendo released product in early 1985.

In the summer of 1984 the Atari Consumer and Home Computer divisions were now in the possession of new owners previously with Commodore who cared nothing for videogames and focused on computers primarily.   In 1993 Atari once again tried its hand at the home video game market with its Atari Jaguar 64 console, but quickly dropped the product in 1996 and the company ceased to exist as Atari then fell into the hands of small hard disk company called JTS who wanted nothing but the money from the reverse merger, the Atari home console presence was dying a painful death.   In March of 1998 the rights, licenses and technology of Atari's video game and computer divisions were bought by Hasbro Interactive.   Infogrames is now the owner of the Atari rights and licenses.   Infogrames has officially changed their company name to Atari, Inc.   So Atari's name lives on once again.

The Atari 5200 represented a pushing of the envelope in video game systems

Atari 5200: Super System

In 1982 Atari released its newest and most powerful home video game console, originally shown as The Atari Video System X (VSX) the Atari 5200 was born.   With state of the art technology brought over from the Atari 400/800 computer systems the Atari 5200 packed a mean punch and came in a really mean looking case as well. The Atari 5200 represented a pushing of the envelope in video game systems. With START, PAUSE and RESET buttons on its all new controllers, Atari was hoping to give its gamers the best it could offer.

Many people thought the Atari 5200 was Atari's answer to the Colecovision, however the Atari 5200 was meant to be the Intellivision killer. Intellivision always boasted about its 16 position controller versus Atari's 8 position so Atari fired back with a full 360 degree speed sensitive joystick which was a brilliant design... except it had several short comings, the joysticks were flimsy and easy to break, the rubber around the base would turn into tatters after only a few hours and worst of all, the joystick was non-centering making games such as Pac Man a labor of frustration to play.

It should be noted, that during the course of Atari's support of the Atari 5200, 9 revisions of the Atari 5200 joysticks were made. The rubber base was made thicker, the joystick stalk was shortened and the "flex circuit" improved. Atari was also working on a new self-centering joystick as well as an Arcade joystick. The Atari 5200 was cancelled before these new controllers were completed and released.

Talk of a computer keyboard for the Atari 5200 was mentioned, but due to a conflict with Atari's Home Computer Division, the Atari 5200 keyboard was cancelled.   The Atari 5200 had a hard time of it, still the system had a very nice sized library of games coming out for it, but the Great Videogame Crash did in the Atari 5200 before it even had a chance to reach its full potential. Besides, Atari had a trump card up its sleeve to fix the Atari 5200 problem... the Atari 7800.

Atari 7800: ProSystem

The Atari 7800 ProSystem was Atari's chance at redemption in the video game market.    Atari Inc. spent a good part of 1983 interviewing thousands of people on what they wanted  and didn't want in a video game console.  Atari Inc. through Warner Communications, then worked with General Computer Corporation who earlier had lost a lawsuit with Atari regarding a "Speed-up" board for Atari's Missile Command.

Art Ng, Steve Golson and several of GCC's Chip Architect Designers with assistance from VLSI  would architect and design the GCC1702B "MARIA" Graphics Processor, the heart of the Atari 7800 ProSystem.  

The first MARIA chip was numbered GCC1701. GCC's engineers were big fans of Star Trek, so with the Enterprise being NCC-1701, they made their chip the GCC-1701.   The final production chip: Maria II was GCC1702B.

The all new graphics chip called MARIA (Also the codename of the 7800 Project) with almost 100 independent sprites, better color palette onscreen, and other powerful features would not only allow game designers the ability to code new and exciting games, but the chip also allowed an original Atari TIA processor to co-exist side by side with MARIA so that the new console could also play all of the original Atari 2600 games as well.

Then as an added bonus, GCC's programmers  would also do almost all of the Atari 2600, 5200 games in 1983-1984 for Atari.  Atari's programmers in Sunnyvale were jumping ship to start their own firms. After another batch left to start Imagic, another group threaten to leave Atari. Steve Ross, head of Warner Communications contacted GCC about doing games for Atari. Not only was GCC able to code games for Atari's console, they were doing it in weeks compared to months. 

   

Warner started to call GCC "The Toaster"  "...Just pop in the game spec's at GCC and out popped a finished game..." The Atari 7800 was designed to be flexible and expandable and even had an expansion port for future peripherals to tap into the system bus and video circuitry.   One such peripheral was a LaserDisc Interface system.

The Atari 7800 ProSystem was the ultimate video game console creation, a console with features everyone wanted.  Gone were the complex 5200 type controllers, in came a clean and simple ProController, out went the HUGE size of the 5200 and in came a small and sleek console design.

Within Atari, Inc. from 1983-1984 The Atari 3600 (as the Atari 7800 was called for the first several months of the project) was stated as "Company #1 Priority" and in many Atari Engineering Log Books its noted:
"3600 System takes precedence over Atari 1400/1450 project." 

Basically Atari was putting everything and everyone into the 7800 to make it a winner.   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 7800/2600 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 producing (Designed by Gary Rubio).

The Computer Keyboard add-on plugged into  joystick port #2 with an accompanying cartridges turned the 7800 into a full blown 8-bit computer system. The keyboard even had an Atari SIO (Serial I/O) connector for using Atari XL Computer System peripherals like cassette recorders, printers and even a disk drive.  OSS (Optimized Software Systems) wrote OSS/Atari 7800 Basic so that users could do Basic programming on the 7800 with the Computer add-on.

The one truly key feature was the on-board "Out of the Box" Atari VCS 2600 compatibility. Atari also wanted to avoid any chance of another flood of poorly written games for the console, so they had GCC add an encryption key system into its cartridges and console.  If the checksum key was valid the MARIA chip would become active and the 7800 was ready to go, if not then the system would stay in 2600 compatibility mode.

When Atari was sold to the Tramiels in July 1984, the Tramiels primary goal was the design and production of its new "RBP" computer system. (Which would be released as the Atari 520ST)   According to product scheduling logs from Tom Brightman, the Tramiels were actually focusing on video games as part of their future. The Atari 2100 (which would become the Atari 2600jr) was on the schedule.The Tramiels and Warner Communications were at odds as to who owed GCC payment for all of the work on the "MARIA" chip and the 7800 system. After nearly 9 months the Tramiels were the ones who owned the debt to GCC. Reluctantly Jack Tramiel paid a one time "Go away" amount to GCC, who cashed that check immediately before it bounced. Now the next issue arose...  7800 games. While the Tramiels now owned the 7800 console, they didn't own any games for it. More negotiations with GCC would ensue...   finally by late 1985 a deal was made with GCC for nearly a dozen games for the 7800. With 1986 fast approaching, Atari could finally prepare the 7800 for retail sale and it would not be alone, Nintendo and Sega would also have their consoles in the marketplace as well.

It should be noted, that early in the Spring of 1983 Nintendo approached Atari to license and sell their Famicom system under the Atari name since Nintendo didn't feel it could compete against the once mighty video game giant. In August of 1983, Ray Kassar was let go as Atari's CEO, in the upper management shuffle, the Nintendo deal slipped through the cracks.   

Becoming impatient,  Nintendo decided that they would sell their Famicom in the U.S. on their own and called it The "Nintendo Entertainment System"   Released in 1985 it was an instant selling success.   Atari Corp, seeing the sudden resurgence in the video game market decided it was time to pull the finished 2600jr that Atari, Inc. under Warner Comm. had developed in 1983 out of mothballs and take the Atari 7800's which were also completed and sitting around for more then  2 years off the shelf and sell them in 1986. Well, it was too little, too late. Nintendo had the market; lock, stock and barrel. Not to mention Sega with its Master System was also hot in Nintendo's tail, Atari was running third in a race it used to run a far lead in first in the past.

Atari would find itself in a very bad position in licensing games.   Nintendo had created an exclusive license agreement with companies, blocking Atari from gaining access to games on their console.   Sega didn't have this problem for its Master System because it had a large library of arcade titles that had never been ported to the home console market, so it faired better.   Atari was stuck with having a large, but aging library of titles and an unfair position in the market due to Nintendo.

Atari Lynx

In 1989 Atari, Corp finally managed to do one of the first intelligent moves. It purchased a portable video game system from a financially strapped game company called Epyx. Epyx which had primarily focused in the past on making video games for several computer and video game platforms had formed a new hardware division and with a team of Ex-Amiga engineers went to work on creating an all new powerful and feature rich portable video game system. What they had created was the Portable Color Entertainment System which became known as the Atari LYNX.

The Lynx was impressive, a 16Mhz 6502 system with built hardware scrolling and zooming, excellent sound and more importantly an easy to program networking language called com-lynx for up to 8 Lynxs to be networked together for multi-user players. It had been mentioned and hoped that the Atari Jaguar 64 would use the Atari Lynx as a high-end interactive video game controller with such high hopes as being the motion tracker for Alien Vs. Predator or even a Tricorder for a hoped for Star Trek game. Unfortunately this never came to happen. Telegames has just recently released 2 new games for the Lynx and several other developers are working on Lynx games for the Lynx is far from dead, in many ways people sometimes feel the Lynx has more life left to it then the Atari Jaguar 64.

Jaguar, Atari's last gaming console ever released.

Atari Jaguar

In 1993 Atari Corp finally returned to the home video game console market with its advancement 64 bit multimedia entertainment system called the Atari Jaguar 64. This system featured high resolution graphics, superb stereo sound and DSP expansion capabilities which made it the perfect platform for a whole new generation of video games and accessories.   However, Atari Corp's short lived re-entry back into the market would not last long, with Sega's Saturn and Sony's Playstation consoles looming on the horizon and Jaguar 64 sales not meeting expectations the plug was pulled on the Jaguar 64.