Bad Game Systems: Atari’s Appalling Attempts

January 17, 2009 at 11:16 pm (Uncategorized) (, , )

For some reason, i’ve rather enjoyed writing the last two articles on bad Video Game Consoles. So I decided to do another, only this time choosing the consoles I am about to royally thrash from a single manufacturer – Atari. Sure, Atari hit success with the VCS 2600 and ST series. But their later attempts at gaming were so bad, they were unplayable monstrosities. Keep in mind one thing however – this isn’t the only Atari article. I’ll be following this one up with another, which you will see soon enough…

ATARI 5200 SUPERSYSTEM

Despite the Atari 2600 been a massive success, Atari’s managers were worried. The more powerful Intellivision and Colecovision machines were available on the market, and were slowly but surely cutting into Atari’s market share. To Atari, the best way around was to create a new system to replace the VCS 2600, in as little time as possible. The result was the Atari 5200, and it was in all respects rushed out of the door unfinished.

To save time and costs, Atari’s engineers re-used the system architecture of their Atari 400/800 computer line. This was a proven technology, but in order to lower the price to appeal to Video Gamers, they had to make some small cutbacks. At the time, the 400/800 shipped with 48kb RAM – the 5200 had 16kb usable. The 10kb built-in Software was removed and replaced with 2kb full of basic system routines. The machine replaced the keyboard with 4 controller ports, and was much larger, with a storage compartment in the back for controllers.

However, the machine was half-baked in the way of problems that occured. The first was apparant as soon as you picked up the controller: the monstrosity you were supposed to control games with. Atari had added the numerical keypad seen on other consoles, a number of fire/trigger buttons, and an Analog Joystick. Now, the analog joystick was an innovation compared to the digital (4-way) joysticks of the ages. Sadly, execute was a shambles – the stick was not self-centering, so gamers found it was hard to stop moving in a single direction (as its standard for the stick to return to neutral when not touched). Imagine playing any games with this layout – a port of Asteroids was scrapped as even the programmers had problems using it. Even worse, the controllers were badly made, and often fell apart after just a few hours.

Due to BIOS Changes, the system could not run software designed for the Atari 400/800 computers. And due to a different system layout, running 2600 games was also impossible. The result was that been incompatible with 2600 games meant that players had to abandon their old libraries of great games and put up with the great selection of the 5200 – less than 50 games, most of which were ports of 2600 games with slightly better graphics.

Oddly enough, although many great games were planned for the 5200, they were scrapped quickly. Why? Because it was released in 1982, less than one year before the industry-wide Videogame crash, in which Atari’s attempt to flog a new, awful system was a contributing factor (Along with the main cause, E.T. for the 2600). Talk about bad timing…

** Oddly enough, the Atari 5200 could have run 2600 games with a planned adaptor (Which would basically have the chips simulate the TIA (Graphics chip) of the original 2600. However, it was never released both due to the failure of the 5200 and the issue that most post-1980 2600 games used special tricks to maximize the power of the hardware. This has been done in emulation, but in serious terms, a 6502 just isn’t fast enough to handle emulation. Especially of itself… **

ATARI 7800 PROSYSTEM

One year into the 5200, Atari could see that the system was doomed. So rather than try to fix it, they decided to create another machine! They set their hardware guys off to build a new machine from scratch, attempting to avoid all the mistakes the 5200 had made. Eventually, the 7800 ProSystem was finished.

The main issues of the 5200 were the Bad Controller, 2600 Incompatibility, and Lack of Games. Atari solved these issues in some way, by reverting back to a Digital Joystick (2600-like, but with two buttons), allowed back-compatibility with the 2600, and made it easier to program. The back-compatibility was enabled by use of dual graphics chips – the new MARIA (specially developed), and the 2600’s TIA. The TIA was also used for sound in all games, but MARIA was used for graphics. 7800 cartridges had an extra pin which enabled a switch from TIA to MARIA when they were inserted. MARIA been the best available, the 7800 offered next-generation power at a day and age when Videogames were still in their infancy.

However, the hardware designers must have been on stimulants, as they made shocking errors. The MARIA chip actually made the system a pig to develop for due to it been different from previous consoles, and accessing it was a exercise in futility. Additionally, although it could handle a lot of sprites, scrolling a tilemap across the screen was impossible. It could of course be done in software, but was incredibly flickery, and was hampered by the main issue of the system.

For some reason unknown, the hardware engineers used a simple switch to share RAM between the Graphics chipset and the Processor. Now, this may seem like a reasonable idea to stop Bus collisions (two Chips using the same pipeline), but you’re wrong. The switch meant that the Processor would halt when the RAM was accessed by MARIA. In short, every time the Graphics Chipset wanted the RAM, the CPU would remain idle. This sounds like nothing, but it was a huge flaw. Consider how often the Graphics chip needs to access RAM, and remove that from the amount of times the RAM can be accessed in a space of time. The machine was utterly feeble, broken by this stupid mistake.

Sound was not much better, really. To save costs, the planned POKEY sound chip was not implemented, leaving the machine with the old TIA to generate sound. This gave the machine the sound capabilities of the Atari 2600 – buzzing, horrible noises. Developers could include the POKEY chip in a cartridge, but none did in the end.

So what killed the Atari 7800 above all? Even worse timing. The machine was test-marketed in 1984, when the Video Game Market Crash was in full swing. They shelved it, until the NES revived the games market. Atari re-released the machine to poor success. It was primitive compared to the NES and Master System, and lasted until 1991, losing millions for Atari. They probably would have survived of course if they had 3rd Party Developers actually create some software for the system…

** Although Bus Collisions are still a pain for Hardware designers, they have been solved using modern techniques. Normally, the CPU runs much faster than RAM, so uses a “Cache” to store commonly used Data and Instructions, so the CPU can still run while waiting for the RAM. A MMU with cache handles what accesses the RAM, and in most cases machines have seperate RAM for Video and Sound. Use of these seperate memory modules really did speed up gaming, but Atari were too stupid to even consider the idea. **

ATARI LYNX

In the 1980s, handheld games took off incredibly. From cheap single-game LCD units to the first interchangable cartridges (with the Microvision), the market was growing every week. And in the middle of this, two companies saw potential. One was called Epyx, and they developed a colour LCD portable they called the “Handy Game”. The other company was called Nintendo, and they developed a Monochrome LCD portable called the “Game Boy”. Seeing the potential and intending to overcome their rival, Atari bought the technology from Epyx, made several modifications, and released it as the Lynx.

Both the Lynx and the Game Boy launched around the same time, and each had their strengths and weaknesses. The Lynx had a more powerful chipset, colour graphics, and a backlight. The Game Boy on the other hand used just a Monochrome, unlit screen. However, the Game Boy took over the market for two very good reasons:

  1. It was $109, $90 less than the Lynx
  2. Lynx was in short supply as production problems crippled the supply chain.

And that is just the beginning of the Lynx’s problems. The battery usage was abysmal, with six AA Batteries lasting less than 3 hours. In a age where batteries were expensive, this was a huge downer. The machine was huge, supposedly because Atari made it big so consumers “got more for their money”. Sure, it may have looked impressive, but was incredibly heavy and hard to carry around. It was a disaster in the face of the Game Boy (and later, the Game Gear) which could easily fit in a largeish pocket.

Inside, the machine was pretty well designed but ran across problems. The Lynx was originally meant to run on Small Cassette Tapes (the sort you get in dictation machines) loaded into main memory. Atari changed that to a ROM Card, but forgot to change the access area. In short, the cartridge data had to be copied into the RAM, leaving less space for game logic, and as an effect caused horrible load times. Lynx games were simple, and pretty much boring.

The screen, despite been backlit colour, was very blurry and it was hard to see due to artifacts left from rendering. The backlight was a fluorescent tube, which consumed most of the power the system needed (with the primitive LCD and 6502 processor sucking the rest). The layout of the pad was uncomfortable to use, despite the innovation of been able to turn the machine around and play left-handed. However, perhaps the reason the Lynx is mostly forgotten is Atari’s ongoing software policy. Only a few games were made outside of Atari, with the rest arcade ports. Worse, you had to use an expensive developer system which only ran on the Amiga (rather than PCs or Atari’s own ST series).

When interviewed in Nex-Gen Magazine in 1995, Sam Tramiel claimed Game Boy vs. Lynx was not a fair battle, and Nintendo cheated. Not at all. The think that finished off the Lynx was SEGA’s own Game Gear, released in 1991. Despite still having battery life issues, the games were high quality and in colour, and the unit was a lot nicer and easier to develop for (it was basically a portable Master System). Despite taking little market share from Nintendo, Game Gear succeeded by wiping Atari out of the Handheld market. The Lynx continued for 3 more dismal years until been scrapped in 1994 so Atari could focus on their Jaguar console.

** Nowadays we are used to rechargable internal batteries, backlit LCD colour screens, and internet play on Handhelds. The Lynx would have been first in line to grab the crown of the first handheld not to use Solid State Memory for games. Instead, it was taken by the Sony PSP with its UMD format (Multimedia Cards don’t really count, as they use Solid State). Although the memory problems were less notable (more RAM), the load times really are terrible. Its one of the factors which have pretty much doomed the system already. Oh, and battery life is appalling as well, just like the poor old Lynx… **

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2 Comments

  1. The Retroist said,

    Nicely put. One of my favorite what ifs, is what might have happened has released the 7800 (or its equivalent) instead of the 5200.

    • Silvergunner, One Twisted Kitten said,

      If Atari had released the 7800 before the 5200, it would end in disaster. The 7800 Prosystem would have been horribly expensive to produce in comparison to the 5200 Supersystem due to chip prices of the time. This is due to mostly the amount of hardware in the 7800, which was much more complex than the 5200. In order to only just break even, the price would have been double any other machine available at the time (making the Playstation 3’s original price cheap, as a matter of fact).

      I think the main reason Atari held off creating a new system such as the 7800 was the timeframe. It would be easy to hack the unneeded hardware out of a successful computer system rather than to start from scratch. Its interesting to think that almost all consoles based on Computer lines failed due to mismanagement. Only the Xbox did any good, and that was because Microsoft were the anti-thesis of Atari. They made the machine easy to develop for, encouraged developers to create games, pushed money into marketing, and refined the system rather than just cut it down. Atari did none of these, and sealed their fate as a result.

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