In defense of Atari

Well, the 20th anniversary of the release of the venerable Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) passed this week. And with it came discussion of how the NES saved the videogame industry after the disastrous Atari 2600.

I have to admit I was scratching my head as I read this stuff. Did the people writing it live through both of them? By what measure was the 2600 a disaster?

As someone who spent way too many hours after school in front of both of them when both of them were new, it seems to me like this is like arguing whether The Beatles were greater than Elvis Presley.

So were the Beatles greater than Elvis Presley? When you compare the heyday of the Beatles with a doped-up, overweight Presley making a fool of himself in Las Vegas, sure. But it’s never fair to compare a predecessor’s worst hour with a successor’s finest hour. Sure, the Beatles had a broader and more lasting influence, but would the Beatles have existed if Elvis hadn’t blasted the door open for that type of music? Elvis wasn’t the first rock’n’roll star, and you can argue he wasn’t the most talented one either, seeing as he didn’t write his own songs, but he was in the right place at the right time with the right elements, and an industry rose up around him.

The Atari 2600 wasn’t the first home video game console, and it wasn’t even the first home video game console to use plug-in cartridges. But it’s the first one that people remember. It came out in 1977, and thanks to Atari porting its arcade hits to it and shrewdly licensing the mega-hit Space Invaders, it became a mega-hit too. And from 1977 to 1984, it was the biggest console in the world. It wasn’t the best console forever, but when Coleco and Mattel came along with their superior consoles, Atari had momentum. For a time, the market was big enough for all of them.

The biggest problem was that the Atari 2600 was 1977 technology trying to compete with 1982 technology. And the industry was advancing very quickly during this time. The 2600 was intended to play simple games like Pong, and the only reason the system survived past 1979 was because talented programmers figured out how to make the system do things it was never intended to do. The 2600 was only designed to have three moving objects on the screen at a time. Clever programming allowed you to reuse those three objects. If you ever wondered why the Ghosts in Pac-Man flickered, that’s why. You could draw the moving objects again with precise timing, but if they were in the wrong place, the system couldn’t necessarily draw the whole thing. The result was flicker. Later Nintendo games had the same problem, but the NES could have up to 8 movable objects on the same line of the screen without flicker, so the problem didn’t come up as much.

But the 2600 survived long past its intended retirement date, and while lots of good titles existed, a lot of bad titles came out too, particularly after the courts legitimized Activision, the first third-party console developer, which was founded by former Atari programmers.

While Activision put out a lot of good titles (Kaboom and Pitfall being two of the best-remembered), once other companies could enter the field without fear of being sued, a lot of bad software got rushed to market. Atari put out at least one stinker itself. The market couldn’t support all of the bad software, and the result was that stores were reluctant to carry the software, consumers were reluctant to buy it (at least not at list price, although they would buy deeply discounted titles), and the companies making software and consoles didn’t have the capital they needed to release good software. The result was what we call a market correction. The Atari 2600 usually takes the blame for the crash, but for the most part it took Mattel and Coleco with it, and consumers flocked to home computers, which featured newer technology and better software, and could be used for more constructive tasks too, such as word processing and programming.

Nintendo reacted to these market conditions by including circuitry in the NES to prevent third-party software, unless Nintendo approved it. It’s hard to call Atari’s lack of a lockout chip a mistake, because when the Atari 2600 was released, there was no such thing as third-party software.

Did the NES have better games? Define better. The story lines were more developed and it allowed much more complex games, yes. The NES hardware allowed 64 movable objects per screen without any special effects, compared to the 2600’s three. The NES could play three sounds at a time, to the 2600’s one. The 2600 was only intended to use catridges with four kilobytes of data. Special tricks could extend this to 8K or 16K, but it resulted in more expensive cartridges. The NES could use cartridges with a megabyte of data. This allowed much bigger, more complex worlds.

But did we have more fun playing Nintendo in 1986 than we had playing Atari in 1981? No. A well-designed game was fun when it was new and unfamiliar, no matter how simple or complex it was. The NES had a lot of wow factor, but every new technology does.

There were plenty of NES games that did a lot of shelf time once the wow factor wore off. The main difference between the stinkers for the NES and the stinkers for the 2600 was that the NES stinkers could hide, at least temporarily, behind flashier graphics. But both platforms struggled from a lack of originality in their available titles at some point in their life.

Taste in game consoles is a lot like taste in music, I guess. They’re all different, and everyone has their favorites, and the time period you grew up in will undoubtedly influence each individual’s faves. But arguing over which king of which era was the greatest seems futile in either case.

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