Oh, Atari. If Commodore jumped off a cliff, would you?
In an effort to prove that stupid and disastrous business decisions would not be monopolized by its competitors, Atari decided to inflict 1000 paper cuts upon itself over the course of the mid 80s and 90s and thus die that slow, agonizing death that had looked so cool when Commodore did it.
In my estimation, Atari did three things right.
- The Atari 2600
- Their good arcade video games
- Their 8-bit and 16-bit computers
They were such a massive company – many companies eventually – that they ended up chasing too many paths and hemorrhaging money. The crash of 1983 didn’t help, but by 1985, Nintendo had patched things back up, right?
Let’s pretend the year is 1984, and Atari has a brand new console that they have just developed. It’s some brand new next generation stuff that out-performs most of its competition in the graphics department. Game fans had gone on and on and on about the ColecoVision’s ability to provide realistic arcade ports, and up ’til now Atari’s response had been to tell them “You don’t really want that! Check out this new Atari 2600 game we just shat out in six weeks!”
Well, now Atari has gotten the message. They’ve hired an outside company to design the hardware, and things are going into production. Atari has even announced the new console and done some test-market releases in Southern California. Atari 7800’s the name, better graphics and gameplay’s the game!
But then they shelved the console.
For two years.
FOR TWO YEARS.
In 1986, when Nintendo had already become the new word that meant Video Games, Atari decided to belatedly release two year old tech and call it their… ahem… new console.
There are two stories that go to explain this mind-blowingly baffling debacle. The first one has been debunked as not true, but I will re-tell it anyway just because it is so funny.
*NOT TRUE STORY ALERT*
When Jack Tramiel was ousted from Commodore and took over at Atari, he barged into the board room (presumably with the Imperial March playing) and loudly yelled “We’re a computer company now! We don’t make game systems any more!” And with that, the 7800 was shelved. Only after Nintendo had runaway success with the NES did Jack and his boys realize the error of their ways and dust off the designs for the 7800 again. They got the Oompa-Loompas working overtime and released the 7800 to silent indifference in 1986.
*END OF NOT TRUE STORY ALERT*
The real reason for the two year delay is much less super-villain-like, but it does have to do with Mr. Tramiel’s move to Atari. The company that designed the 7800 wanted to be paid for their work. Jack thought that they were paid for it in all of the payments, transfers, deals and arrangements that went on during his transition. They said “Please pay us” and he said “I did”. It took until 1986 to settle it.
So that’s why Atari’s “Next Generation” console was so late, and that’s why it was so bloody horrible compared to the NES and the Sega Master System, and that’s why it really isn’t worth remembering.
Oh, and it had terrible sound too. Atari took the out of tune sound chip from the Atari 2600 and crammed two of those in the 7800. WTF Atari? Was everyone who worked there tone deaf?
The system’s game library suffered from the same problem that hampered the Master System’s library – namely Nintendo’s anticompetitive licensing contracts with game publishers. So most of the games available for the 7800 are Atari games. And most of them are bad.
There are some highlights. The version of “Ballblazer” for the 7800 is much better than the version for the 5200. “Food Fight” and “Basketbrawl” are also some fun titles that I haven’t seen on other systems.
But it just so happens that the golf game is in my opinion the best game for the system.
“Ninja Golf”, 1990
That’s right! Not just golf! NINJA fucking golf!
Remember back in the Apple II post when I joked about having to fight enemies in a golf RPG? Well in Ninja Golf, you have to fight enemies while you play golf! It’s brilliant!
I also have to say now that the game isn’t stunning in any other way. The graphics are straight out of the early 80s, the sound is awful and out of tune, and sadly I can’t even play the full game because my emulator (M.E.S.S.) can’t handle this particular game without crashing and dying at the first boss fight.
But this is definitely one of those cases where sheer fun trumps all else. You get to kick, jump and SHOOT FUCKING NINJA STARS! How many other golf games are there that let you do that, huh? Huh? You don’t see Tiger Woods going all ninja with a sword and stuff now do you?
Well, I didn’t take these screenshots for the aforementioned crashy-crashy reason, but enjoy these scenes from Atari’s 1990 fun-fest “Ninja Golf”
If you want to play this goofy yet dripping-with-fun game, you might want to consider picking up an actual Atari 7800 console if you can find one cheap. The 7800 was designed to be backward compatible with Atari 2600 games, and that’s actually the main reason why a lot of people bought one. You might also have better luck with the M.E.S.S. emulator than I do for this system, or you might be able to get one of the very few standalone 7800 emulators to work for you.