The wait for this book has been a long one for many fans of Bitmap Books and the gaming legend that is Atari. Today we are taking a look at the Atari 2600/7800: a visual compendium. This 500 plus page book goes into immense detail over the 2600 and 7800 consoles; and the extensive gaming catalog on each of these systems, plus the incredible story of one of the greatest video game companies in history.
The book’s foreword was written by Garry Kitchen. He was a game designer and programmer for the Atari 2600, Commodore 64, Nintendo Entertainment System and Super Nintendo. This is a guy that knows a thing or two about game consoles. Gary talks about the critical need for one “killer app” to propel this system into the mainstream. Demand had to be created one way or another, as it was not a low investment at the time, priced at $199; considering new cars could be purchased for $4,000 back then. While the competing NES system had the incredibly popular “Super Mario Bros.” title, Atari needed the same type of lightning in a bottle for their own console. In 1978, Space Invaders hit the arcades and quickly became an instant hit; taking every last quarter each gamer had. Atari quickly acquired the home console license for this and with that, had their must have exclusive. This didn’t just increase sales, it quadrupled them!
Being an electrical engineer and graphic artist, Gary was determined to develop for Atari. This wasn’t going to be an easy task. To properly code games for the 2600, he had to open one up and essentially reverse engineer how the system worked. Employees directly at Atari headquarters were given detailed manuals on the programming process of course, but he didn’t have that luxury. Miraculously, he was still successful on this incredibly complex endeavor and shipped his first Atari game in early 1982. Gary witnessed Atari’s rise to fame, specifically the years from 1977-1983. The successor to the 2600, titled the 7800, was then announced in ’84. This new system had tremendous potential riding off the wave from its predecessor, but due to a legal dispute, a brutal 2 year delay took place. This allowed the NES to gain an even firmer foothold within the gaming market, ultimately sealing its fate in ever being a true competitor.
Regardless of this outcome, Gary recalls his fondness of the Atari 7800 and its games. It was much more powerful, capable of far more sprites, full screen gameplay and was backwards compatible with the enormous library from the beloved 2600. It featured some huge hits, such as Centipede, Galaga and Pole Position II. These two iconic systems are what ignited Gary’s career in the gaming industry and heavily influenced his future moving forward.
How things got started
The Atari 2600/7800: a visual compendium tells the story of Atari in astonishing detail from start to finish. You’ll read about Nolan Bushnell, also known as the Godfather of video gaming. He left a highly lucrative career at Ampex to fulfill his dream of developing Computer Space, alongside his colleague Ted Dabney, which would end up being arguably the very first coin fed arcade machine. He was fascinated by technology and wanted to merge that passion with video games. Moving forward, Bushnell and Dabney founded Syzygy and also partnered with another fellow engineer named Larry Bryan. One of their first hires after this was ironically Nolan’s old boss from Ampex, Allan Alcorn. Not long after getting up and running, they found out their company name was already presently in use and therefore had to change it. This is when Atari was officially born.
One of the first tasks that Bushnell put on Alcorn’s plate was to recreate his own unique version of Table Tennis. The impact from this first project and demo simply cannot be understated. While it was meant to get Alcorn accustomed to game creation, it ultimately led to one of Atari’s biggest hits initially, which was Pong. In quick order these machines were eating up coins ferociously at taverns, stores and arcades. A port eventually landed at the homes of millions in 1975. While they were wildly successful with Pong, there was one problem in that it was a one time purchase. Other games could not be played on this device. They continued to find great revenue with other arcade releases such as Breakout, Space Race and Gotcha, but they all knew there was massive opportunity within the consumer market in which they could tap into to really expand the Atari brand. So began their journey in creating the Atari VCS, later known as the 2600.
Alongside Cyan Engineering, they were able to develop a powerful microprocessor (MOS Technology 6507). Fred Thompson and Doug Hardy were in charge of the aesthetics of the machine. We owe the now iconic wood grain trim and silver German sourced toggle switches to these two fellows. There was also an all black version that looked more sinister in nature and was appropriately nicknamed the “Vader” that would release further down the road. One thing that remained a constant however wast the patented joystick (CX40). This was created by industrial designer Kevin McKinsey. Interestingly enough, it was originally intended for only one game, which was Tank II. However, this game was ultimately cancelled, but the joystick would live on as a core component to the Atari VCS package.
It is pretty amazing the vision that Bushnell had for this gaming console. His ideals were decades ahead of anyone else in what he wished to achieve, which included online gameplay through several modems located in each area code. In theory, this would allow you to play against other games, for free. Financial and infrastructure constraints prevented this one dream from becoming a reality, but you can see how truly ahead of the times Bushnell was while at Atari. To alleviate the cash flow complications, they made a deal with Warner Communications and were officially acquired by them for $28 million. This is a move Bushnell in time regretted, as it did permanently set the course for his beloved brand in directions he did not agree with.
System Launch and Leadership Change
In late 1977, the VCS hit the market with 9 games available at launch such as Indy 500, Street Racer, Air-Sea Battle and came bundled with the title Combat. This new system wowed gamers, with the exciting new joystick, selectable difficulty levels and the ability to select B&W or color graphics. While they had a good start, there was still struggles due to not being able to deliver appropriate stock on a timely manner during the busy holiday season. 1978 saw increased sales, but still nowhere near what Warner Communications had forecasted. This is when trouble started brewing and opinions started colliding on how to successfully push the brand moving forward. With tension in the air and divisiveness clearly visible, the passion and enthusiasm that once fueled the team was slowly disappearing.
It was at this time, when Raymond Kassar was brought on board as a consultant to right the ship. While new to video games, he was very proficient in identifying barriers that were preventing growth. Kassar was astonished that Atari practically had zero infrastructure or marketing of any kind in place. He quickly took action and was confident in making very positive changes that would dramatically increase sales. Shortly after Kassar came on board, Warner discovered Bushnell was planning a meeting that was considered “behind closed doors” from their own representatives. This was enough of an infraction to legally remove him from his position, placing Kassar as the new CEO of the company.
It was a dramatic shift and terms of events, but the decisions put in place by Kassar had tremendous impact on the business. In just 3 years, he helped Atari to grow from $75 million to $2 billion. At that time, they held the record for the fastest growing business United State’s history. The engineers at Atari wanted to get started on a successor to the VCS at this point, in order to keep that momentum going forward. The idea was shot down however, as Kassar saw it as a mistake with their current gaming console performing so well. This would indeed be regretted later by the CEO, as technology is always advancing and consumers will always be in search of the latest and greatest tech.
However, he still had some tricks up his sleeve and made a monumental deal with Taito to license their Arcade hit Space Invaders for the home console market. This was huge for Atari, as they now had the hottest game in town and it was exclusively on the VCS. Witnessing the success that Space Invaders brought, Atari then followed up with another incredibly popular Arcade port; none other than Pac-Man. It was literally the system’s best seller of all time.
Mutiny at Atari
Atari seemed to be unstoppable at this point, but poor decisions on the management side created a ripple that soon began to tear through the entire company. Kassar refused to pay royalties to employees who produced monumental hits, handing out at most certificates for free turkeys at Christmas. These talented devs began to look at other options, as employee dissent was at an all time high for these programmers. Numerous employees expressed their concerns and thoughts to management, pleading for Atari to understand where they were coming from and they simply wanted to be acknowledged and rewarded for their games. It fell on deaf ears, which led Alan Miller, David Crane, Bob Whitehead to team up and start their own studio. This is how Activision was born. Once they left, to make matters even worse, Atari attempted suing them. They stated Activision was creating games using techniques stolen from them. Thankfully, Atari’s claims were dismissed and this led to Activision releasing some absolutely iconic games in this era including Pitfall!, Kaboom! and River Raid. They proved to be one of the top publishers for the system and Activision continues to showcase some of the biggest games played today.
Several other third party developers saw the success found by Activision and looked to do the same with their own games. This quickly created an impressive gaming catalog, but it also brought with it many poorly coded titles that would soon saturate the system with shovelware. Another elephant in the room was the rapidly aging VCS system. The largest disaster though was the mere amount of carts that were produced. Many publishers would produce a years worth of stock, which was a huge risk. For example, there were 12 million Pac-Man carts produced; yet only 10 million VCS owners. It was their greatest selling game to date, but it still only allowed them to move 7 million carts. This costly mistake in regards to massive overstock, combined with rushed development is what produced the most controversy blunder in the public spotlight for Atari.
This is of course the whole debacle and wild story behind the licensed game from Stephen Spielberg’s film E.T. Entire documentaries have been produced covering this riveting turn of events. It involved a $22 million dollar deal that was signed in August. Atari agreed to have the game ready by the holidays. Agreeing to that timeline was ludicrous. This job was handed to an excellent dev names Howard Scott Warshaw. He already developed one of Atari’s biggest hits in “Yars’ Revenge”. Even for him however, the timeline given and amount of work ahead of him was simply unrealistic to expect anything short of a rushed broken game. The sales were abysmal for it once word got out how bad this game was and that wasn’t the worst part. Atari manufactured 5 million carts for this release. This led to the infamous burial in New Mexico where it was rumored millions of carts were laid to rest. Look up “Atari: Game Over” to get an in depth look on this story.
The Video Game Crash
In 1982, Atari reported significant loss and this was certainly a factor that sparked the video game crash soon to come across the entire industry. The eventual successor to the VCS, known as the Atari 5200 SuperSystem, was too late to the party, too expensive and worst yet wasn’t compatible with the 2600’s gaming library. Ignoring Bushnell’s warning from years ago, that work needed to begin immediately on a new and more powerful system has now come back to bite them; and at the worst time. By July of 1983, after reporting further losses, Kassar officially resigned as CEO. Huge layoffs followed at Atari, going from a staff of 9,800 to 3,500 in an effort to save the company. James Morgan was hired by Warner to spearhead this rescue mission. Unfortunately, nothing could be done and the losses continued, forcing Warner to sell. The Atari brand was split into two divisions, Atari Corp and Atari Games. Namco bought the latter in 1985, with Atari Corp going to Jack Tramiel (founder of the Commodore).
The Atari 7800
In a plot twist, a company that Atari previously sued would end up being one of their greatest allies. They made illegal mod kits for the Missile Command arcade game and the settlement terms in place for General Computer Corporations had them developing new games for Atari. No one could have seen that move coming. This team however quickly proved their worth, delivering polished games and in record time. They eventually even pitched Atari their thoughts for the next console. They hit hard on the fact it had to be backwards compatible with the 2600, as well as push some serious power, but still come in at an affordable price. This time around, all was approved and this was the primary focus now at Atari HQ. They developed an advanced processor nicknamed Maria. The chip was also numbered GCC-1701, giving a shout out to the Starship Enterprise from Star Trek (NCC-1701). It was capable of displaying 100 sprites on screen, featured low and high resolution modes; plus 25 colors per scanline from a palette of 256 choices. The one weakness found on the system was the sound chip, as it was the sole piece of tech that wasn’t upgraded.
In 1984, the Atari 7800 Pro System made its debut and had a soft test launch one month later. Thirteen games were available at release, with many being ports from popular arcade games. The feedback was extremely positive, with the press highlighting the impressive graphics, modern design and excellent controllers. Just when everything seemed like it couldn’t have possibly went any smoother, Warner once again shot themselves in the foot. GCC still hadn’t been paid by them at this time for all their work and this led Atari once again back to court. It’s hard to fathom, but they spent 2 years clearing this matter up. That meant that now their new console was yet again, very late to the party. The system that test launched to critical acclaim in ’84 was now not near as impressive to consumers. To make matters worse, Nintendo was now dominating the gaming console scene. It still managed to sell 3.7 million system, but when compared to 34 million NES systems sold, it was clear who the real winner was here. Europe eventually got the 7800 in their country after much consumer demand and protest. Atari actually listened and it paid off. The system actually did really well there, helping to inject some much needed cash flow.
The story of Atari didn’t end with the 7800. They later came out with a more economical gaming console to bridge the gap and this little guy would be known as the Atari 2600 Jr. This time they actually pushed hard with advertising, focusing on “World’s best selling game console” and “The fun is back…and under $50!”. The TV commercials were a slam dunk and the system sold remarkably well. Other future systems included the 16-bit Atari ST Computer, the world’s first 16-bit color handled known as the Atari Lynx and lastly the 64-bit Atari Jaguar that launched in ’93.
In 2017, Atari announced that a new VCS built off modern PC architecture was in the works. It is expected to launch this year after multiple delays, but is highly anticipated by many fans . Fast forward to today and Atari primarily focuses their efforts on licensing their games across different platforms. One of the most interesting partnerships is with Tesla. Super Breakout, Missile Command and Asteroids are playable on their huge center displays. That’s 40 years of history. The brand and many of their iconic games are still active and extremely popular to this very day. There is no telling what they might surprise us with next.
The Atari 2600/7800: a visual compendium also includes sections on specific developers, exclusive interviews, pictures of Cover Art, prototypes and even current creations from the Homebrew community. Below is a preview of what to expect in these additional chapters.
The Atari 2600/7800: a visual compendium from Bitmap Books is a must have for fans of these systems and the iconic libraries that belong to each. It features over 500 pages of incredible content, exclusive interviews and gorgeous photography. The history of Atari itself is such a wild ride and it’s all captured beautifully here. These guys are always on the next level in regards to their presentation. Every page shimmers with pristine quality and detail. Snatch this one up before it sells out!