My original 7800 with ProLine controllers.

There aren’t very many consoles in my collection that I’ve ignored in the manner that I’ve ignored the Atari 7800 ProSystem over the years. I’ve owned Atari’s 3rd (2600 x 3 = 7800) foray into home console gaming for many years but after my initial purchase along with a handful of games in the early 2000s, I’ve probably played my 7800 only a few times since. This is largely due to lack of nostalgia or any viable memories of the 7800 when it was released.

Officially released nationwide in 1986, the Atari 7800 had been in development since 1983. Atari wanted to quickly release a successor to the poorly received Atari 5200, correcting two of that console’s biggest mistakes. Lack of backward compatibility with the 2600 games and fragile analog controllers. Unfortunately, the video game crash of ’83 occurred and Atari began bleeding money left and right. Atari’s Consumer Division was then sold to Jack Tramiel and all of the subsequent legal battles with GCC (General Computer Corporation), the manufacturer of the 7800, delayed the release of the console for 2 years. The test launch of the 7800 in 1984 showed promise but by the time the system was finally released, the same old, same old arcade ports being offered seemed crusty and mothballed compared to exciting titles such as Super Mario Bros for the NES.

The 7800 was marketed as a budget console, which was smart considering it was never going to be able to compete with the buzzworthy Nintendo and to a lesser extent, Sega. This helped it to be somewhat profitable but it never made a cultural dent. As I alluded to earlier, I had no distinct recollection of the 7800 existing in the late 80s. Atari had repackaged and re-released the 2600 around this time as the 2600 Junior, so I do recall seeing Atari 2600 Juniors in stores at the same time as the NES. Despite being a kid, was no dummy and I recognized that it was just an ancient console with graphics and games that could no longer compete being repackaged as something cool and new so I promptly ignored it. I’m certain that in my sub consciousness, the 7800 was wrongly lumped in with the 2600 Junior when I saw them on the shelves. There just wasn’t enough to distinguish the two of them besides the number used behind the brand name. Honestly, when you look at the 7800 console and game boxes, they don’t do a very good job of selling themselves. The game boxes in particular were very bland and monochromatic silver/gray. The lack of colors for the packaging was certainly a cost cutting measure and flipping the boxes over to see one or maybe two barebones screenshots had minimal impact. Yes, the games were significantly cheaper than NES titles, but that wasn’t a motivational factor for me. No one I knew growing up owned a 7800 so I didn’t have a chance to play it nor did I care to. Backward compatibility also meant nothing to me, not having owned a 2600 prior. I’m sure that a huge portion of the sales of the 7800 were by previous 2600 owners as I cannot see how Atari’s marketing (or lack thereof) was going to sell a potential new video game console owner on their console in a sea of “Now You’re Playing With Power” ads.

I spent an entire month dedicated to playing my Atari 7800, then consolidating my thoughts on the somewhat ignored and forgotten entry into the late 80s console wars. Personally, I ignored this console for many years as well so I can understand why it never gained a true foothold in the mind of gamers when it was released. With a dated launch library filled with aging arcade ports, it appeared as if the 7800 was just a slightly improved version of the 2600, which was also still in stores at the time along with the XEGS. Maybe there was a case of consumer confusion with too many consoles available at once? Nevertheless, the Atari 7800 soldiered on and ultimately offered gamers more choices than just arcade ports but it was too little too late. The later released 7800 games such as Ninja Golf, Midnight Mutants, Basketbrawl, Mean 18 & Motor Psycho were just some of the titles available for the 7800 that can’t be found on other consoles of the era but never captured the hearts for many gamers.

I added several titles to my collection recently but I really wanted to add some of the unique later released games as mentioned earlier. I ran into a couple of problems when attempting this, however. One, those games are not that common and show up online very infrequently and two, when they do show up on sites like eBay, they often are sealed copies and pull a premium. For some reason, there are a lot of sealed 7800 games floating around and especially for the common early titles, these sealed games don’t cost significantly more than previously opened and complete copies. Sealed games are interesting to own from a collector’s standpoint but serve very little purpose for someone who intends to actually play the games (i.e. me).

If I was to look at the pros and cons of the Atari 7800 console both from a player and collector’s standpoint, it would look something like this:

Pros:

  • Collecting a large library is relatively cheap, especially if you like to own boxes and manuals. Lots of sealed games out there for sale, which is odd but nice.
  • Very few expensive games if you’re collecting a complete 7800 library.
  • Some of the best versions of classic arcade titles are available on the 7800 (e.g. Asteroids, Dig Dug, Joust).
  • Lots of support from the homebrew community and after market peripherals and controller manufacturers.
    Console is sturdy, sleek and attractive.

Cons:

  • Natively only allows RF output, which seems to be worse than most console’s RF output from that era. Requires modding for composite video/audio.
  • Original ProLine controllers are some of the worst in terms of comfort and responsiveness.
  • Games can be hard to find in both the wild and online due to low sales numbers.
  • Game library is short on must own exclusives.
  • Early game carts are dull looking and without color, likely as a cost saving measure.

I’m a purist at heart and typically don’t like to modify or tweak my consoles in any way but my original 7800’s RF port is failing. I tried several RF connections and the end result was the same so I have to assume that it’s the console itself. The picture has way too much snowy static for my liking and on top of that, my pause and select buttons no longer work. So I bit the bullet and bought a composite AV modded 7800. One of the best purchases I’ve made related to the Atari 7800. I can now play games with a clear signal and that benefit can’t be understated. Now that I’ve addressed that issue, the next issue I need to address are those darn ProLine controllers. People complain all the time about Intellivison, Colecovision and Jaguar controllers but I find the ProLine controllers to be the worst of the bunch. I absolutely need to either buy the adapter that allows Genesis controllers to be played on the 7800 for 2 button games or else pick up a couple of the European Joypads Atari was so keen on showing off on their North American advertisements even though they were never for sale over here.

Since I am only capable of playing and reviewing games from my own collection, I will make a quick list of the top 10 Atari 7800 games that are in my collection:

  1. Food Fight
  2. Centipede
  3. Asteroids

    Food Fight

  4. Ms. Pac Man
  5. Joust
  6. Midnight Mutants
  7. Galaga
  8. Ballblazer
  9. Dig Dug
  10. Robotron 2084

Top 5 least favorite games in my collection:

  1. Touchdown Football
  2. Realsports Baseball
  3. Karateka
  4. Hat Trick
  5. Ace of Aces

As far as Atari consoles are concerned, the 7800 is probably the second best after the VCS/2600 in my opinion. Yes, I understand that the 7800 plays most all 2600 games so by default, it should be the best Atari console to own, unless you’re a huge Jaguar fan. However, I reject that notion as a reason to call the 7800 the best Atari console since I look at each console in a bubble when I’m assessing them. The 2600 was a juggernaut in the early 80s and if backwards compatibility wasn’t an option, it wouldn’t be a contest between these two. If I had to grade the 7800 based on my experience with the original console and controllers, I would give it a C. However, I’m going to make an assumption that my enjoyment would be increased significantly to a B- as long as I add some after market goodies so that averages out to a C+.

Grade: C+

Jason Breininger Jason Breininger (23 Posts)

Jason is a retro gaming enthusiast that cut his teeth in 80's arcades before graduating to home consoles with the NES during the magical Christmas of 1987. He enjoys collecting and playing consoles and games from all eras but the 80's and 90's are his bread and butter. After more than 30 years of buying and collecting video game consoles and games he has chosen to document his extensive collection while providing personal retro gaming experiences on his Cartridge Corner blog. Jason is also the Author and Chief Games Writer at VHS Revival. He is an avid concert goer, a 70's/80's horror movie buff, Prince super-fan and an 80's music fan in general. Jason is from Wisconsin and now lives in St. Louis, Missouri with his wife Mary and daughters Grace and Clara.