Since 1977, Atari has released a total of five 8-Bit game systems. In this post, I will provide a description and a little information about each one…
Atari 2600 (VCS):
Released in the fall of 1977, the Atari 2600 was originally known as the Video Computer System and became the 2600 after the 5200 was released. It was also sold by Sears as the ‘Sears Video Arcade’. In the first year of production, the systems were actually made in Sunnyvale and had six switches and heavy, internal, RF shielding. These units are known as ‘heavy sixers’ and are highly sought after by Atari collectors. Over the years, many different versions of the 2600 were released. In 1985, the final version called the Atari 2600 Jr was released. This version was smaller and less expensive to produce and looked like a small 7800. The final Atari 2600 was produced in late 1991.
The 2600 was powered by a custom 6507 8-bit CPU running at 1.19 Mhz. It only had 128 bytes of ram and 4 KB of rom. Until bankswitching schemes were developed, game cartridges were limited to 4 KB. Ultimately, some late released games had as much as 32 KB. Over 500 games were developed for the 2600 and hobbyists continue to develop new ‘homebrew’ games for the system.
Released by Atari in 1982, the 5200 was intended to compete with the Intelivision system, but also ended up being Atari’s answer to the Colecovision. Atari had attempted to develop a system to replace the 2600, called the 3200 (based on a 10-Bit CPU). This system was difficult to program and was cancelled. Needing a solution in a hurry, Atari took the design of the their 400/800 computers and made that the base of the 5200. The 5200 has unique controllers with a keypad and analog, non self centering, joysticks. These controllers are notorious for failing and contributed to the limited success of the 5200. The other limiting factor was that it was not backwards compatible with the 2600. Eventually an adapter was released, but it did not work with early versions of the 5200. This is too bad as the 5200 is actually a pretty awesome game machine and has arcade quality graphics and sound.
The 5200 is powered by 6502 8-bit CPU running at 1.79 Mhz. It has 16 KB of ram and 2 KB of rom and can accept cartridges up to 32 KB without bankswitching. The 5200 also includes a Pokey chip that allows for 4 channel sound. Two different models of the 5200 were released. The early models had 4 joystick ports and a ‘high tech’ RF switch box. Later models had two joystick ports and a standard RF switch box. A few games (such as Pitfall) only work with the 4 port version and the 2600 adapter only works with 2 port versions and a few late release 4 port units. A total of about 1 million 5200’s were sold between 1982 and 1984, when the system was discontinued.
A total of 69 games were officially released for the 5200, but many other games have been ported over from the 8-bit computer line. Additionally, many other games were developed, but not released. Over the years, the roms of many of these games have been located and released to the public. Homebrew development has continued as well for the 5200, but not at the level of the 2600. One notable game, Tempest, was just released this month.
The Atari 7800 was released in 1984, shelved, then released again in 1986. This was due to Atari’s sale to Jack Tremiel and contract issues between Warner and General Computer Corporation (GCC) (the 7800 was actually developed by GCC for Warner).
The 7800 was powered by a 6502 8-bit CPU running at 1.79 Mhz. It is directly backwards compatible with the 2600 and runs at 1.19 Mhz when in ‘2600 mode’. The 7800 has 4 KB of ram and 4 KB of rom and can accept cartridges as big as 48 KB without bankswitching. It was designed as an ‘home arcade system’ and has arcade quality graphics and can manipulate a significant number of sprites without flicker. The 7800 has two joystick ports (backwards compatible with 2600 joysticks and paddles) and shipped with ‘Pro-line’ digital joysticks with two fire buttons. Many 7800 games only use one fire button and can be played with 2600 joysticks. The biggest limitation of the 7800 is that it does not include a Pokey chip and only has two channel sound. Provisions were made to include Pokey chips in game cartridges, but only two games include a Pokey (Commando and Ballblazer).
Less than 100 games were developed for the 7800, but it had the added advantage of being able to directly play almost all 2600 games. Like the 2600, there is active homebrew development for the 7800 and more than twenty additional games have been released for the 7800 in the past few years. About 4 million 7800’s were sold making it a moderately popular game system.
Atari XE Game System:
Released by Atari in 1987, this was essentially a repackaged 65XE computer. The XE Game System shipped with three games (Missile Command, Flight Simulator, and Bug Hunt), a joystick, a light gun, and a detachable keyboard. It could use most Atari computer peripherals and was able to play most all of the games developed for the Atari computer line.
A tremendous number of games were developed for the Atari computer line, so the XE Game System can play a huge number of game titles. Since it includes a keyboard, it can also play more sophisticated games like flight simulator.
The XE Game System had limited commercial success and was cancelled in early 1992.
Atari Flashback 2:
In 2005, Atari released the Flashback 2. Designed by Curt Vendel, the FB 2 contains a ‘2600 on a chip’. It includes 42 built in games and it is possible to add a cartridge slot to the unit. Between the 2 and 2+ (released in 2009), the FB2 has sold nearly 1 million units. More detail on the FB2 can be found in my January 8th post.