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Atari 7800 engineer reflects on losing the American console market to Nintendo

Atari 7800 engineer reflects on losing the American console market to Nintendo

April 26, 2016 | By Alex Wawro

"In 1986, Atari finally decided what the hell – let's sell the 7800, and it actually did quite well competing against the Nintendo NES – but it was two years late. It makes me wonder what the industry would have done if the 7800 had come out when it was planned, and what it would have done for Atari."

- Steve Golson, veteran game designer and engineer

In 1984, before the Nintendo Entertainment System had made it to the West, Atari announced plans to launch a brand-new console for the holidays: the Atari 7800 ProSystem (pictured).

The 7800 was the first major Atari game system designed by an outside company (General Computer Corporation, who also designed arcade game enhancement kits like Super Missile Attack), and in a recent interview with USGamer, former GCC engineer Steve Golson describes how the console's launch wound up being delayed long enough for the NES to beat it to market -- and how the world might have been different if it hadn't.

"Atari did this huge unveiling – here's our next-generation base unit for Christmas of '84," recounts Golson, who in addition to his work on the 7800 and other projects is well-known in the game industry as the engineer behind Ms. Pac-Man.

"If it's for Christmas, you've got to have it out in spring time so all the toy retailers can put in their orders, so it was going to be the huge big thing for Christmas of '84. We had 14 cartridges that we had designed, and a high score cartridge which was a really cool way of saving your high score from one day to the next, and there was going to be a computer keyboard peripheral, and it was going to be amazing."

Trick is, Atari's computer and console divisions were sold by parent company Warner later that year to Commodore founder Jack Tramiel,  who made significant cutbacks that included cancelling the 7800's launch. 

Atari eventually brought it out anyway, in 1986, and reportedly saw decent sales -- but by then the NES had established a foothold in the U.S. market and Atari was outpaced in the console game business. 

"I think so many in the industry didn't realize that a new generation of gamers was going to appear. The toy industry is so driven by fads, that in 1984 they thought the gaming fad was over, and they did not see it was going to come back," says Golson. "So kudos to Nintendo for bringing out the NES. But you look back and think, if only the 7800 had actually come out on time."

For more of Golson's thoughts on how the game industry (and GCC's role within it) was shaped in the '80s and '90s, as well as some good anecdotes about taking Atari to court, check out the full USGamer interview

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