Both the Atari 7800 and NES were third generation game consoles, and they competed directly with one another. Furthermore, they shared a common influence. So the Atari 7800 vs NES is a natural comparison. But one was much more successful than the other. Here’s why.
Borne from Coleco Vision
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. Nintendo knew Coleco from licensing its games to them.
Neither company used the off-the-shelf parts Coleco used to build its system. But both of them commissioned custom chips to try to build something slightly better than what Coleco built. The resulting systems weren’t compatible with Coleco’s console or with each other. They did, however, replicate the key attributes of Coleco’s system. Both could play relatively accurate renditions of popular arcade games of the time. And both could be expanded to a full-blown home computer, though neither of them ended up executing on this second attribute.
Both of them did something Coleco didn’t, and Atari hadn’t done. They 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.
The importance of arcades
Today, arcades are a place where Gen Xers go to try to relive their youth. But in the early 1980s, arcades were an important part of the video game industry. Successful games often appeared first as standup arcade games, and then the most successful arcade games migrated to game consoles and computers. For those who didn’t grow up in the 80s, season 2 of Stranger Things wasn’t far off the mark. Arcades were a hangout. Where Stranger Things missed the mark was that arcades weren’t just a hangout for misfits. Popular kids played video games too. At 25 cents a play, the rich, popular kids probably played video games more than the socially awkward kids did.
Video games weren’t just at arcades. Most pizza parlors had two or three machines in the back of the store. The bigger grocery stores usually had at least one machine somewhere in the store. Discount stores like Wal-Mart and Kmart usually had at least one machine too, and the bigger ones had a mini-arcade at the entrance, with several machines to tempt would-be players.
As computers became more powerful, gaming changed and games became more complex. But in 1983, being able to play faithful renditions of arcade hits was a big selling point. Not to mention both Atari and Nintendo had been major makers of arcade games.
Advantages of the Atari 7800 vs NES
The Atari 7800 had one theoretical advantage over the NES. It could run Atari 2600 games. Atari embraced that connection. The name was a multiple of 2600. It was a top-loading system like the 2600. And it played the old games.
That meant that when it launched, there were more than 300 games the 7800 could already play, compared to the 36 titles that were available for the NES by the end of 1986, after about a year on the market. But 7800-native titles were slow to reach the market. There were only 10 7800-native titles available by the end of 1986, so 7800 owners mostly made do with older, less capable titles.
The 7800 had higher resolution than the NES (320×240 compared to 256×240 resolution), but the increased processing time required by the higher resolution meant many games used 160×240 mode instead. While there were some technical advantages to the 7800, the NES had some technical advantages too.
Some 7800 titles included the sound chip from the Atari 800 in them for better sound. This made the 7800 at least comparable to the NES sound-wise, but it increased the cost of the cartridges. The stock 7800 relied on the 2600’s TIA chip for audio, which was good for 1977, but a bit outmoded by 1986. Out of the box, the 7800’s sound wasn’t as good.
Advantages of the NES vs Atari 7800
The NES’s big advantage was its scrolling playfield. The NES made scrolling backgrounds easy, which developers used to full effect in games like Super Mario Bros, The Legend of Zelda, and 1942. Those weren’t the only ones, but those three captivated my social circle in 1986 and 87.
The 7800 could do scrolling backgrounds, but nowhere near as easily. Nintendo did a better job of estimating what post-1983 games would need, and designing hardware that made that easy for developers.
Today we can cross-develop so it’s about as easy to write games that maximize the capability of both consoles, but the tools available to developers in the mid 1980s weren’t as good at the tools we have now.
The NES’ design lent itself to RPG-type games, where the 7800 was really designed for arcade-style games. This is part of the reason why more complex games appeared on the NES. This turned into a huge advantage. The NES had Zelda, in addition to Mario. 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. And Nintendo had new exclusives. Any exclusives Atari had were older titles. Mario and Zelda were really all the advantage the NES needed. In the end, the 7800 had 59 titles and the NES had 715. Both consoles had their fair share of stinkers, but it seemed like by 1987 or 1988 the NES had 100 titles worth having.
Finally, the NES beat the 7800 to market. The 7800 was ready to launch in 1984, but Atari’s sale to Jack Tramiel put that on hold. Tramiel wasn’t interested in video games. He wanted to sell an advanced 16-bit home computer. After an initial limited June 1984 release, the 7800 languished in warehouses until January 1986. Meanwhile, the NES gained traction in Japan with its July 1983 launch, and hit the market in the United States in February 1986.
The other most visible distinction between the Atari 7800 and the NES was the controllers. The 7800 initially shipped with a joystick. It was an improvement in most ways over the 2600 joystick, but still a traditional console joystick. The NES shipped with a d-pad. Reaction to the d-pad was initially mixed. When you were used to a joystick, the d-pad took getting used to. But most people find d-pads less fatiguing and easier to use.
Modern controllers usually have both a D-pad and one or more miniature analog joysticks, but modern game controllers owe just as much, if not more, to the NES design as they do to the 7800. Ultimately, Atari released a d-pad itself, which it sold in Europe.
The NES sold 61.91 million units worldwide and 34 million consoles in North America. Official sales figures for the 7800 aren’t available but Nintendo controlled about 80% of the North American console market during this generation, compared to Atari’s 12 percent. Sega sold 2 million consoles in North America. This suggests Atari sold no more than 5 million 7800 consoles, and the number could have been closer to 3 million, since the NES was on the market about 3 years longer than the 7800 and two years longer than the Sega Master System.
The 7800 was successful as a budget console. It was cheaper than the NES, and 2600 games were much cheaper than NES games. But game rentals erased some of that advantage. Nintendo hated game rentals, because it meant people would rent titles a few times until they got tired of it instead of buying them. Nintendo saw it as lost sales, but it also meant a family that couldn’t afford to buy enough $40 games to stay interested would be more motivated to go ahead and get a console, since they’d rent a game on Friday nights for $1 instead of buying games at $40 a pop.
Collecting for the Atari 7800 vs NES
When it comes to collecting for the two systems, there are some distinct differences. You’ll have to work out for yourself which one has the advantage.
The NES was everywhere in the late 80s, and that means it’s one of the easiest systems to collect for now. Whether you can find NES cartridges at your local Game Stop depends on Game Stop’s mood, but any place that deals in vintage video games will have a selection of NES cartridges to look through. A total of 715 NES cartridges exist. 671 of those were released in North America and stand a chance of being obtainable.
Tracking down a complete set of even the 671 cartridges that aren’t insanely rare is a challenge that could take you a number of years, if not decades, to finish. That said, that’s not the only way to collect for NES. Some people are perfectly happy just collecting their favorite games for each platform.
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 or the NES, but there are a lot fewer of them.
That said, you may have a harder time finding 7800 titles. Some stores may not deal with them. The stores that do may very well mix them in with the 2600 titles and may or may not know what they are. I think you’ll collect a complete set of 7800 titles before you collect a complete set of NES titles. And if you just collect your favorites for each platform, you’ll probably collect all the 7800 titles you like before you find examples of every NES title you like.