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A History of Gaming Platforms: Atari 8-Bit Computers
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A History of Gaming Platforms: Atari 8-Bit Computers

July 31, 2008 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 6 Next

The following are some of the highlights of the major Atari 8-bit systems released in the United States after the 400 and 800:

1982: With a consolidated number of chips, the Atari 1200XL, a sleek silver and black machine, was designed as a replacement for both the 400 and 800. When released, however, it was buggy, and the operating system sometimes rendered it incompatible with older software. The number of controller and cartridge ports was cut in half, and the internal speaker was removed, with the "fifth" channel of sound now routed in the same way as the POKEY's audio. These changes would become standard in later models.

However, instead of replacing the aging 400 and 800 line, the Atari 1200XL actually increased sales of those systems. Meanwhile, Commodore was having great success with its low-priced VIC 20 and announced the more powerful Commodore 64 (C64).

1983: The Atari 600XL and 800XL were meant as replacements for the failed 1200XL. They had better backward compatibility and a tiered system approach similar to that of the 400/800. Both new systems had BASIC built in, and the 600XL shipped with 16KB RAM, while the 800XL featured 64KB. Despite the relative inconvenience, translator software addressed most of the remaining compatibility problems with older software. Unfortunately for Atari, by this time, the C64 was already establishing itself as the dominant 8-bit computer.

1985: The Atari 65XE/130XE replaced the black and silver XL line. These units were cheaper and had gray cases and keyboards that matched Atari's new 16-bit ST line of systems. The 65XE came with 64KB RAM, while the 130XE contained an extra memory management unit and came standard with 128KB.

1987: After The Great Video Game Crash and Atari's return to the video game market in 1986 with the 7800 and the 2600 Jr., the company added a third console to the mix the following year. This unit was the XEGS (XE Game System). The XEGS was a complete, back-to-its-roots, re-imagining of the 8-bit computer line based on the 65XE, with detachable keyboard and built-in Missile Command.

It was also bundled with Flight Simulator II and Bug Hunt on separate cartridges. The latter supported the included light gun. Although the release of the XEGS brought an influx of re-released and new software for Atari 8-bit computers on cartridge (some not compatible with the older systems featuring less than 64KB), the three-console approach against the single Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) was ultimately ineffective.

The Atari XEGS with detachable keyboard was as capable as any other Atari computer, but with pastel-colored buttons didn't necessarily look the part.

So, with all the custom chips and comparatively impressive performance, what went wrong for Atari? The most likely answer is that the company couldn't recover from the disappointment it caused with the highly anticipated 1200XL. Its efforts to atone for this mistake with that computer's replacements were too late and expensive to win back consumers.

Furthermore, as a "game" company, Atari never achieved the legitimacy of an Apple on the high end and was unable to sustain momentum or reduce prices in the low-end market, particularly after the C64 became dominant. In 1984, in the face of declining sales, Atari's home computer and video game divisions were bought from Warner Communications by former Commodore founder Jack Tramiel.

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 6 Next

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