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Atari: The Golden Years -- A History, 1978-1981

August 21, 2008 Article Start Previous Page 4 of 20 Next

1978: VCS Follow-Up: Colleen & Candy

When work started on the follow-up to the VCS in 1977, the engineering team Joe Decuir, Jay Miner, and Steve Mayer were tasked to create a machine that could both follow up the VCS, and double as an entry into the burgeoning personal computer market.

"(The follow-up had to) support 1978-vintage arcade games. We knew we would need to leapfrog the 2600 before somebody else did. (It also had to) support home computer character and bitmap graphics. We saw the Apple II, Commodore, and Radio Shack appliance machines coming." xxxiii

- Joe Decuir

The project was soon split into two separate projects, dubbed "Colleen" and "Candy" after two particularly attractive secretaries These products were later re-named the Atari 800 and 400 respectively. "Colleen" was to be the full-fledged computer, while "Candy" was more suited as the game machine follow-up to the 2600.

Both were based on the same basic hardware design with four separate silicon chips that handled different parts of the computer's operation: the 6502 CPU running at 1.8 MHz, the ANTIC display microprocessor, CTIA graphics chip, and POKEY sound chip. The power of these multiple processors pushed the 8-bit computers power far beyond that of the VCS.

Jay Miner, as system architect, led a group that included Joe Decuir, George McCloud and Francois Michel that designed the ANTIC microprocessor for processing display information and the CTIA graphics chip to put it on a screen xxxiv.

It was a very potent combination, giving the Colleen and Candy the most sophisticated graphics for any microcomputer at the time. The ANTIC took graphics information in the form of Display Lists. Display List Interrupts allowed the screen to be cut horizontally into multiple parts, allowing for almost limitless display options.

These instructions were processed and displayed by one of multiple graphics modes by the CTIA (later GTIA) processor. The design also included hardware based sprites (Player-Missile Graphics) for creating games, a character-set that could be completely redefined in code, and per-line fine scrolling. xxxv In terms of sheer horsepower, the graphics capabilities of these new machines made the output of the TIA chip in the VCS look primitive by comparison.

After the 6502, ANTIC and CTIA, the 4th chip of the design was the POKEY. POKEY was a dedicated sound processor started by the core team and finished off by Doug Neubauer.

"The Atari 800's architecture evolved as an upgrade of the 2600. Conceived primarily by Steve Mayer, Joe Decuir and Jay Miner before I arrived at Atari, the original plan for the POKEY chip called for keyboard interface, audio and paddle controllers." xxxvi

- Doug Neubauer

The chip had four distinct sound channels, with the ability to set volume, frequency and waveform per channel. This gave Colleen and Candy sound production abilities far beyond the speaker beeps of most other personal computers at the time.

As the hardware was being finalized, Atari started working on the software required to get the computers up and running. After announcing late in 1978 that the new computer systems would be on display at the January CES in 1979, the scramble was on write software that would run the machines.

"Atari had been designing a personal computer for a couple years and had a group of programmers working on the OS for a long time. Atari then pre-announced that the computer would debut at the January 1979 CES. " xxxvii

- Alan Miller

To meet this date, Atari tapped some of the best programmers from the VCS team, Alan Miller, Larry Kaplan, Bob Whitehead, and David Crane to work on the operating system, while outsourcing the job of creating a version of the BASIC language for the computers.

"There is a period at Atari when there were no games coming from Larry Kaplan, Alan Miller, Bob Whitehead, and myself. As the most senior designers at Atari, we were tasked with creating the 800 operating system. This group, plus two others, wrote the entire operating system in about 8 months. A funny story from this time that Al Miller likes to tell has to do with the Atari BASIC cartridge that was to ship with the system. Atari had contracted with a young programmer named Bill Gates to modify a BASIC compiler that he had for another system to be used on the 800. After that project stalled for over a year Al was called upon to replace him with another developer. So, while Al is the only person I know ever to have fired Bill Gates, I suspect that rather than work on Atari BASIC, Gates was spending all his time on DOS for IBM. Probably not a bad career choice for him, do you think?" xxxviii

- David Crane

The BASIC language was finished by SMI corporation in time for CES, as was the internally developed OS.

"I'm very proud of the OS we created for the Atari 400/800. It was similar in complexity to QDOS -- the OS that Microsoft licensed a couple of years later from Seattle Computer Products and renamed MS-DOS for the IBM Personal Computers. However, the Atari OS was much better designed in terms of its user friendliness and it had a much, much richer graphics subsystem and many fewer bugs." xxxix

- Alan Miller

Article Start Previous Page 4 of 20 Next

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Clay Cowgill
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Mr. Fulton-- you officially owe me about an hour and a half of my workday!

Thanks for the great article, although I must say that I find the claim that the VIC-20 was more powerful than an Atari 400 a bit tough to swallow... ;-)


Steve Fulton
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Thanks. That probably should read "arguably more powerful" or "perceived as more powerful". In retrospect, it wasn't.


Bruce Atkinson
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The Vic-20 had a real keyboard and similar processor. It didn't have the memory, graphics chips, or operating system that the 400 and 800 had. The Atari OS was much better than most people give it credit it for. It was general purpose with loadable device drivers, before most other home computers had that.

John Abbe
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I couldn't stop myself from reading this through either. And i'm so glad i did, because i'm pretty sure i played that game Nightmare that GCC made for Atari, at 1001 Plays in Cambridge - it was a *great* game, which i tried to find again for years. Too bad they never released it, i've e-mailed GCC to see if i can contact any of the developers to see if they have ROMs for MAME. I also updated their Wikipedia page, and referenced this article.

Thomas Djafari
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Great article!

Having worked at Time Warner, back in the SF Rush / Rise of the Robots era, I totally recognize the pattern that has also poisoned most large developers :)

Jason Cumming
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Enjoyed the article immensely.

Sorry to be a pingeek but I think there's a misplaced comma: Superman the pinball, more like 3500-5000 units sold according to the ipdb. 10 K sales from the late 70's on was blockbuster.

Mark Delfs
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This is another fantastic article--it felt as though I was there (We used our neighbor's 2600 because my parents wouldn't buy us one!) for the whole thing based on what you are reliving. Excellent, and please keep them coming!

Simon Carless
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We've fixed the misplaced comma on Superman pinball sales, thanks Jason.

shayne johnson
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Atari was not the first console to have Baseball

Channel F's Videocart 12 was baseball, released in 1977.

Steve Fulton
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Good catch, but I believe it says that it was the first "single player" baseball game. I believe the Fairchild game (which I played many times at my friend's house BTW...but my favorite game was Alien Invasion) required two-players. I was trying to highlight the A.I. of the VCS game.


Tomasz Primke
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We'd like to translate a decent articles "The History of Atari: 1971-1977" (
9711977.php?page=1) and "Atari: The Golden Years -- A History, 1978-1981" (
__a_.php) into Polish language and publish it on a popular portal (and/or Do you mind us doing so? Obviously proper attribution would be paid to you as the author.

Please let us know what you think about such re-publication. (My e-mail address is tprimke_at_gmail_dot_com.)

Best regards,


dz jay
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Your information regarding the Intellivision is not accurate. The Intellivision was not powered by a 10-bit processor, but by an early 16-bit processor. It did, however, performed 10-bit memory addressing, but this was due to the fact that the ROM chips it used were 10-bit. This happens to be purely an accident of history: a 16-bit microprocessor designed in an 8-bit and 10-bit world.

Moreover, it is very unlikely that the Atari 3200 was to be based on the same chipset as the Intellivision. The Intellivision was mostly a knee-jerk reaction to the Atari 2600 from Mattel, and therefore consisted of an pre-built, off-the-shelf game system created by chip maker General Instruments. In fact, it was an actual sku item on their 1978 parts catalog. It was later customized a little, mainly to allow for more ROM and custom graphic tiles, but it was generally an off-the-shelf product.

Therefore it seems unlikely that Atari would plan to replace their aging custom-designed Atari 2600 with an off-the-shelf product, whose technology, although having some more capabilities, was just as old.


Steve Fulton
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Thanks for that!

I'd say that from your description, the Intellivision processor could have still been one of the chips that Bushnell had tied-up in development, especially if GI was one of the companies he used. Remember, the idea that the Intellivision was based on one of those processors did not come from myself, but from a direct quote that Bushnell gave to me in an interview. Still, it's a very gray area and this why that part of the story is painted as "not definite".


dz jay
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Mr. Fulton,

Thanks for your response. You are right, the GI microprocessor could still have been the planned successor to the Atari 2600. However, I still think it unlikely due its many limitations (weird architecture, 10-bit memory addressing, etc.).

My point was that the only reason Mattel used it was not because it was considerably better, but because they needed a quick release, and chose the General Instrument's pre-built system in haste in order to jump into the new Video Game market.

The entire Intellivision console was indeed superior, with better graphics resolution and 3-channel DSP'ed sound (although the graphics were tile-based instead of pixel-based, limiting its practicality; not to mention the ill-conceived Disc Controller!), but its microprocessor and chip technology were the products of early 1970s technology, hardly state-of-the-art; and unlikely the first choice for a successor.

But, of course, we can't ever know, and I do concede it's possible.

I do agree that competition from Mattel could have been avoided if only Atari had adhered to Bushnell's strategy.

All in all, a very interesting and satisfying article; one that brought back wonderful memories. Please keep up with the thoughtful historical accounts of our wonderful technological roots.

Thank you,


P.S. Why, yes, I did (and currently) own a Mattel Intellivision, thank you.

dz jay
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P.P.S. My intention in the last comment was not to refute your assertions; I find your article very well written and accurate, and I enjoyed it immensely. I just wanted to enrich your historical account with further information from one of the little remembered competitors of the time.

Perhaps Gamasutra can showcase the Mattel Intellivision on a future article and fulfill my well of nostalgia, as it has already done with the Atari VCS, the Commodore 64, and Video Game arcades in general.


Mason Mccuskey
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Steve - great article, I especially like all the quotes. Thank you for going into detail, and including quotes from so many insiders.

Steve Fulton
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No problem! Thanks for adding to the discussion. I agree, the Intellivision story needs to be told. I'd love to try to tackle it someday, especially since it all went down near my home town (they used to frequent the local arcade here while making games), Keith Robinson from the Blue Sky Rangers draws a cartoon for the local paper, and Intellivision Productions is in the same office building as my favorite Sunday breakfast coffee shop), I currently work for Mattel.


I'm happy you noticed. The quotes, to me, are the most important part.

Ryan Ponce
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Although my first system was the Coleco Telstar Arcade. (Google it) Which had a drag racing game. Shoot the moving man on the screen and Pong. On one triangle shaped cart.

It was Atari that really changed my life. Starting with COMBAT. My brother and I played that till the wee morning hours and although it was simplistic. I never had so much fun in my life. That would be followed by Space Invaders. Asteroids, Adventure, which was the first game that gave me the sense I could explore a world in a game. I liked the Sword Quest series as well.

Seeing a TV ad for Atari. Going to store and seeing the box art for each game. Buying a game and taking it home and opening it up. Taking the cart out and putting it into your Atari. That was pure bliss when I was growing up.

Atari is my childhood. I love Nintendo as well, but I'm not the Nintendo generation. I'm the Atari generation. Atari forever!

Thomas Djafari
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I can provide you more information about the Intellivision; I did a little bit of work with Keith Robinson and his office is pretty close to my place, so I can go talk to him again.

We re-developed 2-3 years ago Intellivision cartridges as Keith acquired the rights to unreleased games and wanted to release them for the retro crowd.

The carts are not simple ROMs, but use a time multiplexed bus for address and data, and the Intellivision hardware is definitely odd...

We've also re-developed a 2600 clone, for a product that hasn't been released (distributor problem), so I can answer a lot of questions about the 2600 hardware and some of its history if you want to do a followup.

you can contact me at: my first name that you can see on this post @

Steve Fulton
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>>Seeing a TV ad for Atari. Going to store and seeing the

>>box art for each game. Buying a game and taking it home

>>and opening it up. Taking the cart out and putting it into

>>your Atari. That was pure bliss when I was growing up.


That is exactly what I can't shake Atari from my mind. Somehow i want to recreate those moments, but it is very difficult these days.


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I have to know, is it possible to begin another era of amazing gaming with a similar gaming box? Are these "xbox" and ps/3 - whatever-s REALLY that good? I, too, cant shake Atari. The late 70s and early 80's were golden years for me with that stuff. I had a bedtime, back then, but in front of that Atari 800 I was developing games. Amazing.

Scott Stilphen
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Nice article, although one error I noticed is Lookahead was by Dave Johnson (not Bob Johnson).