Computer game cartridges

Typically we associate game cartridges with consoles, but for a time in the 1980s, computer software, especially games, were also distributed on cartridge. Here’s why computer game cartridges fell out of fashion.

Computer game cartridges were convenient because they loaded quickly, but their high cost of production led publishers to prefer disk or tape. There was also some concern that repeatedly removing cartridges would wear out an expensive computer.

The origin of computer game cartridges

computer game cartridges
Computer game cartridges were popular in the early 1980s but fell out of fashion as disk drives became more affordable.

The first home computers from 1977 used cassette tapes as a storage medium, with floppy disks as a faster, costlier option. When Atari released its 400 and 800 computers in 1979, it included a cartridge slot. This makes sense, as Atari also made video game consoles. In 1979, Atari recognized the potential of delivering software on cartridge as much as anyone.

In 1979, the argument was compelling. Cartridges were durable, loaded instantly, and didn’t require any additional hardware. Disk drives cost hundreds of dollars, and disks were fragile. Cassette tapes were durable, but software took several minutes to load from tape.

Ultimately, around 400 cartridges became available for the Atari 400 and 800 computers. And after 1979, virtually every U.S. computer maker not named Apple included a cartridge slot in their home computers. Even IBM included cartridge slots in its ill-fated PCjr home computer. In the UK, cartridges were sometimes an add-on option, which made tape a more compelling option.

Why computer game cartridges fell out of fashion

Pi1541 vs SD2IEC
Commodore’s inexpensive disk drives helped shift the momentum toward disk and away from cartridges in the U.S. market.

Commodore included a cartridge slot in its home computers. But in 1982, Commodore also released an inexpensive disk drive. Once Commodore lowered its price to $299, it couldn’t keep up with demand. Other companies had to lower their prices on disk drives in order to compete, but this wasn’t necessarily a huge problem. Increased production meant the cost of the parts came down.

Once disk drives became common, there was less reason to distribute software on cartridge. Between the case, printed circuit board, and the chips inside, cartridges cost nearly a dollar to produce before you even factored in the cost of developing the software on the cartridge. A disk or tape cost less than 25 cents. And while ROM chips increased in cost as you added capacity, disks stored 140-180K whether you used all of the capacity or not.

This led to publishers going in two directions. Some publishers released ambitious titles that took advantage of the capacity of disks, sometimes spanning multiple disks. Others released cheap, fairly simple titles that they sold for a few dollars. In countries where tape was more popular than disk, this second approach was common. In the UK, simple titles on tape sold on newsstands for 2-3 pounds. The quality of the budget titles varied but at these low price points, the public was more tolerant than they were of overly simplistic Atari 2600 cartridges that sold for $30. Even if they were comparable in quality to US magazine type-ins, the price was similar and you didn’t have to spend several hours typing them in.

Game piracy

Game cartridges were much harder to pirate, and I remember Commodore users touting cartridges as a potential problem to piracy on that platform. In 1991, Psygnosis released its popular title Shadow of the Beast as a cartridge, but game cartridges after 1984 were definitely the exception, rather than the rule. To the point that when Tandy cloned the IBM PCjr, it left out the cartridge slots.

Game cartridges weren’t impossible to pirate, but the average computer user didn’t have the skills or knowledge to modify their computers to make it possible. Learning to pirate disks or tapes was easier. Tapes were especially easy, since you could copy them with an ordinary dual-cassette audio player.

The fear of wearing out a cartridge slot

There was also some fear of wearing out the cartridge slot by repeatedly inserting and removing cartridges. No one worried about this with game consoles, but with computers, which generally cost more, the public was more prone to worry about such things. On the Commodore 64 this was especially a concern after 1984, when people started buying fastload cartridges to speed up their disk drives.

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