Atari 7800 Prototypes



1984 was a tumultuous year for the video game industry.  The market had become over saturated with poor games developed by fly-by-night companies looking to a quick buck, and too many companies were competing for an ever-shrinking share of the marketplace (if you think 3 game systems are too many to choose from try 7!).  Couple this with the rise in popularity of home PC's and the introduction of the Apple Macintosh, and you've got one ugly situation.  Many gamers had become disgusted with the poor quality and lack of originality in the games that the industry was churning out at an alarming rate.  Something had to give, and that something was the great video game crash of 1983-84.

Back up to 1981.  A small company known as General Computer Corporation (GCC) began to sell enhancement kits for Atari's latest smash hit Missile Command.  While the public applauded their efforts, Atari was less than amused.  Atari sued GCC for hacking their game, but in a strange twist of fate the two companies actually became partners!  GCC agreed to develop three arcade games for Atari (Food Fight, Quantum, and Nightmare), and to start developing Atari 2600 and 5200 games.  But GCC's legacy wasn't to be as a developer of 2600 games, Atari had bigger plans.

Fast forward to 1983.  After the 5200 had failed to crush the competition, Atari needed to show the world that it was still number one.  After interviewing thousands of gamers, Atari felt that it had all the information necessary to create the ultimate video game system.  However Atari had lost faith in its internal programmers and felt that this new project (code named Maria) was too important to take a chance on, so they asked GCC to develop their new system instead.  GCC set to work on making the most advanced video game system that the world had ever seen.  Not only was Maria able to produce almost 100 independent sprites in a rainbow of colors (thanks to the increased color palette), but it was also backwards compatible with the 2600!  Years before Sega would attempt something similar with the Genesis (but with the addition of an adapter), Atari had invented the fine art of backwards compatibility.  Atari had listened to the complaints of gamers who disliked the idea of having to buy all new games for a system when they already had a large library of games sitting around their house.  Not only did Atari manage to appease the large Atari 2600 fan base, but they also increased the amount of titles available at launch from a paltry 5 to an unheard of 200+.  The new system was dubbed the Atari 7800 (2600+5200 = 7800) and was set to launch in 1984.  Yes, the future looked pretty rosy for the new 7800.

Now back to 1984. After the market started to crash Atari was faced with staggering losses and was in danger of going out of business.  Enter Jack "The Jackass" Tramiel, the man who had driven the once profitable Commodore computers into the ground was ready to try his hand at running Atari.  Warner Communications sold Atari Inc. (renamed Atari Corp.) to Jack for a pittance to be rid of the money loosing operation.  Now that Jack was in control of Atari things were going to change.  Atari was no longer going to be a video game company, they were going to concentrate solely on computers.  The 7800 was no longer welcome at Atari, and was handed back to GCC with the comment "We don't do video games!".  This was the beginning of the end for Atari and would probably have been the end of the 7800 as well if it hadn't been for a little company called Nintendo.

In 1985 Nintendo had managed to revitalize the video game market with a little system called the NES (perhaps you've heard of it?).  Jack realized that Atari had missed a golden opportunity to seize the game market when they had the chance.  Jack wasn't about to sit back and watch Nintendo rake in the millions, he decided that Atari needed a new video game system and needed it now!  However, Atari had stopped all game system development in 1984 per Jack's own orders!  So instead starting development back up again and waiting for a new system, Jack decided that they would dust off the old 7800 and put it out immediately as a direct competitor to the NES.  However gamers wanted new exciting games, not the same old warmed over "arcade classics" that Atari was pushing.  There was just no way Pole Position II was going to compete with Super Mario Bros.

Atari may have been able to keep the 7800 afloat with decent software and more advanced cartridges, but Jack was terminally cheap and wanted to keep all costs at a minimum.  This meant that few games were developed, and most were of dubious quality.  Few third party companies were interested in the new 7800, and even less dared write games for it due to Nintendo's policy which forbade any Nintendo game developer to write games for a competitors system.  Therefore Atari was forced to develop the bulk of the games themselves, further slowing down the flow of new software.  After struggling for four years, the 7800 finally died in 1990 with a library of only 62 games.

The 7800 is generally ignored by prototype collectors due to the relatively small number of prototypes made and the great difficulty in finding them.  Only ten unreleased Atari 7800 prototype games have turned up over the years, however many more are suspected of being out there.  The most famous of the "missing" prototypes are Electrocop (shown at the Winter CES show), Sky Fox (shown on the 7800 system box and in several commercials), and Steel Talons, which was supposedly completed but never released.  While it may be a little light on the software side, the 7800 does sport some interesting prototype hardware such as the 7800 Highscore cartridge and keyboard attachment.  Both of these peripherals were supposed to be released at the time of the original 84 launch but were permanently scrapped when Jack took over.  Curt Vendel was able to complete the Highscore cartridge with the help of former Atari engineer Gary Rubio and released a limited quantity of them to eager collectors in 2000.  

There are several factors as to why only a small number of 7800 prototypes have turned up.

- The 7800 had a very short lifespan so few games were actually started.
- Atari's policy of contracting out 7800 game development out to individual programmers instead of programming in house.  This makes it hard to figure who the programmers were and ask them if they have any of their old files.
- Much of the work was done on Atari ST's and saved to disk.  These disks had a tendency to get reused so many prototypes may have been written over.
- Atari burned far fewer EPROM cartridges than they did with the 2600 and 5200.  This means less prototype cartridges got out of Atari and into private hands.
- Few review cartridges were given out due to many magazines not covering the 7800.
- The 7800 had almost no third party support, so there are no third party prototypes.