The Atari 2600 and 7800 are directly related. After the Atari 5200 flopped, Atari needed a better successor to take over for the aging 2600. So the Atari 2600 vs 7800 is a natural comparison. Let’s look at the improvements the 7800 had over its predecessor, and why it wasn’t able to match the 2600’s runaway success.
All third-generation consoles were heavily influenced by the Coleco Vision, the last and most advanced of the second-generation consoles. Atari knew the console from its disastrous Atari 5200 experience.
The Coleco Vision used off the shelf parts to give better sound and graphics than the Atari 2600 could manage. It also offered Atari 2600 compatibility as an add-on.
To build something better than the Coleco Vision, Atari commissioned a custom chip whose graphics could outpace Coleco, then grafted it onto the 2600. It used a 6502C processor, a slightly more powerful version of the 2600’s CPU, and the TIA chip for sound. Coleco just bolted a 2600 clone onto its console. Atari took a more cost-effective route, upgrading one chip and adding a more advanced graphics chip that could compete with other chips available in the mid 1980s. The TIA did double duty, handling sound in 7800 titles and both sound and graphics when playing 2600 titles. They both output composite video and connect to a TV, modern or vintage, the same way.
Atari also did something Coleco didn’t, and that Atari hadn’t done previously. The 78000 locked out unlicensed third party development. This kept the market from getting flooded with low quality games like the 2600 did, preventing another catastrophic video game crash.
Advantages of the Atari 7800 vs 2600
The 7800 was a souped up 2600, so it better offer some advantages. But the main advantage was the new graphics chip. The 2600 lacked a framebuffer, so a 2600 game had to draw its screen line by line every second. That’s one reason why its graphics are so blocky and repetitive.
The 7800 had a proper framebuffer that could use RAM. That meant the processor could place an image in memory, and then the video chip took care of displaying it. This provided better graphics, but it also freed up the CPU for other things, like interacting with the player.
The 7800’s graphics chip could display up to 320×240 resolution with up to 256 colors. It could also display up to 100 sprites on the screen at a time. This made arcade-style games much easier to develop. On paper, it looks like the best video chip of its generation. And for some things, maybe it was.
Why the Atari 7800 failed
The 7800 had one major problem, and its name was Nintendo. Nintendo’s NES beat the 7800 to market by a few weeks, but that didn’t matter. The NES had two advantages that the 7800 just couldn’t overcome.
The first advantage was technical. On second-generation consoles, the gameplay generally took place on a single screen. In Combat, you and your opponent jockeyed for position on a single screen, firing shots at each other while trying to hide behind an obstacle. In Pac-Man you navigated a maze while avoiding ghosts. And in Donkey Kong, you climbed ladders and walked across girders while avoiding barrels to rescue a girl.
The notable exception was Pitfall!, which presented you with a jungle to explore, but it still only displayed the jungle one screen at a time. When you reached the edge of the screen, it abruptly jumped to the next screen.
The NES could scroll its background easily. This created a better illusion of motion. In Super Mario Bros, the background scrolled while Mario stayed at the center of the screen. It looks quaint now, but after playing Pitfall!, it looked state of the art.
The 7800 could do scrolling backgrounds, but its hardware didn’t make it easy.
The second problem was the platform exclusives. Nintendo had Mario and Zelda, and had licenses for more current arcade titles than Atari. Atari mostly had licenses for arcade titles from 1980-1983. It made the 7800 seem more dated than it was.
The 7800’s software library
The 7800 didn’t really have any exclusives, with Atari having given that advantage away in 1983 in an effort to make it through a terrible year. Many of the 7800’s titles were enhanced versions of games that had been available on the 2600. Fans of the 2600 will enjoy the 7800 since it can play similar games with enhanced graphics.
In the end, the 7800 had 59 titles. The 2600 had several hundred. The exact count varies but for all practical purposes, it was over 400.
The quality of the titles tended to be much higher. Atari learned its lesson with the 2600. The Atari of 1982 could take a dump in a box, ship it, and people would buy it. By 1986, Atari knew it couldn’t get away with that anymore.
The Atari 2600 sold 30 million consoles over the course of its lifetime. It was the most popular console of its generation, by a long shot, and remains one of the most popular consoles of all time.
Official sales figures for the 7800 aren’t available but the count is probably no higher than 5 million and likely closer to 3 million. I got this number by extrapolating from Nintendo and Sega sales figures and knowing each company’s market share. But Atari was also selling 2600 consoles at the time, so some of Atari’s sales were 2600s.
The 7800 was successful as a budget console. But so was the 2600. In 1986 or later, if you had $50 to spend, you bought a 2600. If you had $80, you bought a 7800. If you had more, you bought an NES, which was the console everyone wanted. Atari’s consoles were cheaper and so were the games.
The difference was that in its heyday, the 2600 had been the console everyone wanted. It was the only console with Space Invaders, and then Atari got the exclusive on Pac-Man. The poor port of Pac-Man contributed to Atari’s decline, but from 1978 to about 1982, the 2600 was what the cool kids had. The 7800 never had that status.
The Atari 2600 put Atari on the map. The 7800 suggested Atari might have something left. Atari failed because 7800-like successes turned out to be all it had left. To be successful, Atari would have needed to exceed the 7800’s success from time to time.
Collecting for the Atari 2600 vs 7800
When it comes to collecting for the two systems, there distinct differences. You’ll have to work out for yourself which one has the advantage.
As the most popular console of its generation, the 2600 is one of the easiest systems to collect for now. Any place that deals in vintage video games will have a selection of 2600 cartridges to look through. And you can still find a 2600 with a selection of cartridges in the wild sometimes. But over 400 Atari 2600 cartridges exist, and if you want every variant, that pushes the total number of cartridges over 900. The 2600 is easy to start but hard to complete.
Tracking down a complete set of 2600 cartridges could take you a number of years, if not decades, to finish. And once you finish, you can just change the rules and keep on going. Or you can just collect your favorite games. The best games for the 2600 tend to be common, so collecting all your favorites can be pretty inexpensive.
The 7800 only had 59 titles available. Of those 59, perhaps 15 of them are rare and/or expensive. Its common titles are more expensive than common titles for the 2600, but there are a lot fewer of them. You may have a harder time finding 7800 titles. Some stores may not deal with them. Some stores that do may very well mix them in with the 2600 titles and may or may not know what they are. But that’s an opportunity for bargain hunting.
Nothing stops you from collecting for both. You’ll find the titles in the same place, and you’ll probably find a new 2600 title to add to your collection more often than a new 7800 title. But a complete 7800 collection is probably easier to complete.