Last Updated on December 26, 2018 by Dave Farquhar
Every time a major anniversary for either system comes along, discussion of how the NES saved the videogame industry after the disastrous Atari 2600 comes with it. Your opinion of Atari vs Nintendo probably depends on your age.
I have to admit I scratch my head as I read this stuff. Did the people who write it live through both of them? By what measure was the 2600 a disaster? I can’t help but speak out in defense of Atari a bit.
Atari vs Nintendo is like comparing the Beatles to Elvis
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 Atari vs Nintendo 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 Atari 2600 didn’t age well
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 due to the creativity of its programmers, who pushed the platform far further than it was ever intended. 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.
Contributing factors of the video game crash of 1983
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 a domino effect. 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 better 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. And Atari never really recovered. At least not fully.
How Nintendo prevented future video game crashes
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. After all, when the Atari 2600 came out, 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. The biggest factor in Nintendo vs Atari is that the NES was designed to play Super Mario Bros. The Atari 2600 was designed to play Combat.
Game design matters
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. Both platforms also have their share of timeless classics.
Atari vs Nintendo in conclusion
Taste in game consoles is a lot like taste in music, I guess. They’re all different. 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.
And that’s what Atari vs Nintendo comes down to in the end. One made the other greater. The Atari 2600 paved the way for the Nintendo NES. And the Nintendo NES kept the Atari 2600’s legacy from being forgotten, obliterated by home computers like the Commodore 64. And keeping some titles exclusive like the Mario franchise helped the NES keep from repeating the 2600’s fall.