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…


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… **


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. **


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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Three bad game systems…

September 1, 2008 at 4:38 pm (Gaming, Others, Uncategorized) (, , )

While reading Hughes Johnson’s frankly excellent articles on Gaming History, I thought about some systems which were technically out-matched by the time of release, and were absolutely terrible in all ways possible. So I guess it was pure coincidence that I noticed at least three missing from the “Closing Time” lists. Been in a helpful mood, I decided to write about three that i noticed stuck out from the rest. What were they? Tiger R-Zone, Commodore C64GS, and Bandai Playdia.


I really do doubt this counts as a real games machine. Reason been that there is absolutely NO Hardware inside it – instead its simply buttons and power wired up to the cartridge slot. The R-Zone actually uses the same sort of technology as the cheapo LCD games Tiger make, only with the idea of shining a red light through the LCD screens in order to display the graphics on a plastic plate which folded out.

With hardly any gameplay and up to 5 frames of animation per game, the machine was pretty crap as a whole. What is tragic though is that Tiger released three editions of the machine. The XPG was a huge, clunky unit which offered the layout of a Lynx, only bigger and the appalling projected display, which made graphics blurry. Playing in sunlight was impossible. The Superscreen, which came last, actually allowed you to put cardboard backgrounds in the machine to display in “colour”. Reminiscent of the Odyssey’s TV Overlays, I guess.

Despite selling for a really cheap price, it was a colossal flop, only appealing to parents who thought it would be a good alternative to the expensive Game Gear and Game Boy that it ran alongside. Playing bastardized versions of Saturn games cut down to the point where they didn’t even represent them anymore was a big mistake, and a pain in the neck (or forehead, as far as the headgear went). The R-Zone no longer exists, but Tiger to this day continues to make crappy LCD games for the same market – parents too stupid or too cheap to buy their children proper handheld game systems. Okay, I understand tight finances due to the credit crunch, yes, but maybe its better off spending money on something that won’t be thrown away in less than a week.

** With the nasty things I said about the R-Zone, does that mean the famous Game-and-Watch series are one the same? No. Nintendo did two things different with the Game-and-Watch. Firstly, the games were a hell of a lot of fun to play. Secondly, they didn’t use a marketing ploy to sell them. They also cost a lot less than the R-Zone, which was an advantage to all. You got what you paid for, not an absolute ripoff. **


Technically this counts more of a variant of a system, but I included it because it was designed for games rather than computer software. The C64-GS is really a rebadged Commodore C64c with some of the circuitry removed to “Lower the price”. The keyboard has gone, and most of the expansion ports have been blocked off. Additionally, the ROM has been changed to remove the BASIC language and instead show a generic “Boot” display. The machine runs its own cartridges, but can also accept standard Commodore 64 cartridges.

Problems start with the controller. A cheaply made one-button joystick, it is even less durable than the Atari 5200 and breaks easily. Due to single button play games are either simplistic or have a horrible control system. Additionally, many of the games are Commodore 64 ports, which use joystick routines added as an afterthought (due to preferred keyboard control layouts). Indeed, Commodore made a massive screw up with the Batman game – to start a level you had to press a key. Due to the lack of a keyboard, this made the game unplayable. Of course, the coders could fix this, but they hammered together a sloppy port in three hours, and didn’t have time for play testing.

Pricing was what killed the machine though. The full-blown C64 unit (with keyboard and expansion ports) cost only a few pounds (GBP) more than the C64-GS. The machine crashed and burned, with Commodore recalling most of the units which were unsold. They ended up been deconstructed and used as spare parts for existing C64 models.

Did Commodore learn from thier mistake? Of course not! A few years later they attempted to jump into the Multimedia console market in a desperate attempt to save the company. They released the Amiga CD32, an upgraded Amiga 500 with a CD-ROM drive and 68020 processor. Just before launch though, they lost a court case and were banned from importing goods into the US. Commodore crashed into the ground before their possible saviour was released. Its just as well really – the CD32 had NO Software developed for it, but worked with the few Amiga CDs which existed at the time. Its odd that around the same time, Amstrad quit the computer business (moving onto Digital TV Recievers, which they still build today) and Atari went bankrupt after their Jaguar console also failed. The three of them won’t be missed, really.

** Along with Amstrad, Atari and Am…Commodore, Apple made a games system (the Pippin) as well. But in their case it was released in 1996 during the Spindler era, and was an absolute flop. Reason been that they couldn’t decide whenever to market it as a console or an internet appliance, there was hardly any software, and its FMV-style gameplay went against the Playstation, Saturn and (upcoming) Nintendo 64. It was notably Bandai’s second attempt at a system. Of course, they would improve the third time with the brilliant Wonderswan, but thats another story… **


Okay, when Bandai designed this, they had all the right ideas in mind. Well, they would have if someone had told them what happened to all the other “Multimedia” titles in the past. Even when they knew it would be crushed by the Playstation and Saturn, they pushed on and released it.

The machine was targetted at children, supplying games based on popular TV Shows (Such as Mobile Suit Gundam and Sailor Moon). It ran on CDs, and had an innovation via usage of an Infra-Red control pad which slid into the machine for storage. The colourful, tough casing was ideal for kids. The system however was designed mostly for interactive movies (like the CD-i) and thus had none of the processing power other machines had at the time. The control pad also was pretty nasty to use, an afterthought really.

Due to the lack of software and bad premise, the machine was on the edge only a few months later. So Bandai changed the system’s software development policies – there was to be no censorship as seen on Nintendo, Sony and SEGA’s machines. So out came a flood of Hentai Games and Idol CDs. Due to its grip on this popular market (in japan, Hentai can be seen as a pasttime) Bandai actually made a profit on the Playdia. Unfortunately, this sort of software meant it was never released outside Japan. Shame.

Its worth mentioning the Playdia as Educational System developer V-Tech have in the past few years ran a console designed for kids called the “V.Smile”. Its been a relative success with games such as Dora the Explorer and Winnie the Pooh. It runs on cartridges however, and has a wired joystick controller. On playing, its in the same boat as the Playdia for been underpowered (no 3D Capabilities) and been limited to kids’ software. However, its success has meant its unlikely adult software will be released for it. Although maybe it will be in the end, been sex education and all…

** Edutainment is such a silly sort of video game. Mix… say… Donkey Kong with Maths… not a good combination (As the resulting game showed). The Carmen Sandiego series did well, but failed when they released a Gamecube update. What hitting robots with a stick has to do with learning I have no freaking idea. But saying that, if Edutainment caught up with real-world values, you’ll have both Grand Theft Auto and Idol CDs under “Social Studies”. Oh, and billions of crap CDs starring Jesus, of course. **

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