Review by del20nd

Reviewed: 02/23/07

An unsung tale in the history of gaming.

Most people have heard of the Atari VCS (2600.) It is synonymous with incomprehensible graphics, three color displays, screechy sound, and simple inexpensive fun. Forgotten by many, though, was the distant and more advanced cousin of the VCS, the Atari 8-bit home computer.

Enter 1979. People were still groovin' at the roller rink, Van Halen was at the height of it's popularity after its first album release, and Atari was putting out it's new line of home computers. The first two to hit the market simultaneously were the 400 and 800 (The latter of which I own.) While these giant beige mammoths were meant to be word processors and primitive internet users, they also had notably remarkable games graphics. These computers, you see, were the very first to try a new technology that we today call "2D sprites." For the first time in home gaming, characters started to look like characters. Sprites on screen sometimes had two, maybe three, colors all at once! Sometimes, there would even be a detailed background (ie Frogger, Pitfall) or (gasp) a scrolling background (ie K-Star Patrol, Squish Em). Games like Asteroids saw a very high number of sprites on screen at once, without any flicker. While most were stuck fondling with their boxy pixilated VCS games, a few were experiencing near NES graphics years ahead of schedule. The graphics were truly a masterpiece of their time, and were competitive for years to come.

The sound was nearly as great as the graphics, if not better! Four (yes, four) simultaneous sound channels could play at once, creating some of the first scores to be heard on a home console. Two great examples of this were Frogger and Digdug. The theme songs in Frogger, while not played during gameplay, used probably all of the sound channels at once, creating a comparable score to the actual arcade game. Digdug was probably one of the first home games to have actual in game music while you played. Throughout the game, the notorious Digdug in game song would play, making you feel as if you were right there at the arcade. Never did sound come off as being primitive and screechy, like it's VCS cousin. Never did you have to mute the television to shut an annoyingly terrible sounding game up. When you were shooting down other starships, they actually sounded like they were blowing up. You could play through a game of Pac-man and hear the actual arcade game, not some loud bleeping noise. Overall, for it's age, Atari 8-bits had some of the best (if not the best) sound to grace a system designed in the 70's.

Though the library of games was rather limited, the Atari saw many advanced games for its time, and even some that out shined the NES ports. RPG's were quite common on this system due to the fact that save files could be backed up to a floppy disc or cassette. The Exodus series had several game ports on the Atari 8-bit line, and all saw moderate success. Companies like Electronic Arts saw their first big breaks on the 8-bits, and some one hit wonders (ie Sirius) saw some limited success. Classics like Pac-man, Q-bert, Qix, Dig-dig, Space Invaders, and Asteroids were very highly successful, and the Pac-man port was actually decent! Also available were some of the first decent flight simulators, scrollers (not like Mario, but a start), Spanish tutorials, and even a music composer! And, since it was technically a computer, it even had a BASIC program that experienced users could use to make homebrew games. This system may have seen a limited amount of software release, but it saw some of the highest quality.

Now, hearing all of this praise, you may wonder why this system wasn't a runaway success. The biggest reason was because it had an astronautical price tag. Upon release, it was at least $1,000 for the system alone. Add the cost of games, and nobody would have bought this just for gaming purposes. As the system aged, prices mellowed and became semi affordable, but it was too late at this point as the crash of '83 had already taken its toll. Another main reason it didn't sell all that well was because it was marketed as a computer with gaming capabilities, not an all out gaming system, applying to a smaller niche market. Most people who bought the system were looking for a better way to do taxes, not a top of the line gaming console. One other minor problem was the fact that certain games had compatibility issues. The most obvious of these were four player games. While early model Atari's supported four players, newer budget versions cut down to two. This was not much of a problem though, as most games were two player anyway (the only four player game I've actually played on this system is Asteroids.) The system did eventually did make it into the console world as the ill-fated Atari 5200. While the 5200 died mostly because of REALLY bad timing, the 8-bits fate lied in their price tags.

The Atari 8-bits made it well into the late 80's, but their real heyday was around the time of the big crash of '83. Budget models replaced the robust 400 and 800's the next year, and the line went slowly downhill after that. Most forgot about the Atari 8-bit, many more had never even heard of it. For this reason, you yourself can get one of these systems for only around $40 on popular auction sites such as e-bay. Games, if you can even find them, are a dime a dozen, and well worth the cost. I would recommend buying an 800 or 400, and shying away from the actually inferior later models. You can either go generic and hook it to a tv, or you can hook it to certain computer monitors. While its sad that the Atari didn't get as much publicity as it deserved, it is still remembered by a few dedicated fans who probably have played Atari (8-bit) today.

Rating: 9

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