Many home video game consoles have gone down in history as being too far ahead of their time, or being too underpowered by the time they reached the market. But the Atari 7800 – a high-end but low-priced system concocted by Atari to compete with such systems as the ColecoVision/ADAM and the growing share of the gaming market being engulfed by the home computer market – was truly a machine that was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The 7800 was created and engineered around 1985 by General Computer, the firm to whom Atari had been outsourcing the bulk of game development for the 5200 and 2600, and it looked like Atari had learned its lessons from the marketing debacle that was the 5200 SuperSystem. Perhaps its most compelling feature, aside from its price, was the fact that the 7800 was backward-compatible (or, at least, was supposed to be) with the ubiquitous Atari 2600. The 5200 had skipped this obvious concession to the hundreds of thousands of 2600 owners, and by offering an inexpensive 2600 Expansion Module for its machine before Atari got around to doing the same for the 5200, Coleco took the gold, winning the hearts of consumers everywhere by not forcing them to start from scratch and abandon their large 2600 game libraries. The 7800 was designed to avoid that problem altogether, and no module was necessary: the cartridges for both machines were identically shaped. Everything went into the same slot.
Sadly, the Tramiel family’s takeover of Atari from Warner Bros. put the 7800 into an R&D deep freeze. The machine didn’t see the light of day until 1987, by which time Nintendo ruled the world with the NES. And while the NES was basking in the killer-app glow of games like the Super Mario Bros. series, The Legend Of Zelda and a little thing called Tetris, the 7800 was still leaning on such early-80s Atari staples as Xevious, Ms. Pac-Man and Pole Position II. The 7800 became the Rip Van Winkle of the home video game race: a system that, through no fault of its own, had slept too long.