The Systems

Never heard of the Atari 5200? Owned a Commodore 64 and don't know anything about the Apple II? Didn't use any computers before the PC? Here's a brief guide to some of the home computers and video game systems of the late 1970s and early 1980s).

Home Computers
Apple II
Atari 400/800
Commodore VIC-20
Commodore 64/128

Game Systems
Atari Video Computer System (VCS) / 2600
Magnavox Odyssey 2
Mattel Intellivision
Atari 5200
Atari 7800


Apple II

The Apple II was the first true home computer, released in 1977. Actually, the Apple I takes that honor, but that machine didn't catch on in a big way. When you hear someone say "Apple II," they almost certainly mean the Apple II+ or the Apple IIe.

The Apple II was a precursor to the PCs of the 90s. Other than an 8-bit 6502 processor running at 1MHz, there wasn't a lot of fancy hardware. There was a very low-resolution graphics mode, in which each pixel could be one of sixteen colors, and a high resolution mode of 280x192. All sprite routines, line drawing, scrolling, etc., were handled by the 6502 writing data into the graphics bitmap. This was made trickier because the high-res mode was really black & white (i.e. 1 bit per pixel), but you could create colors through peculiar bit combinations; plot every other pixel in a line and you get a color, not a white line! So when you see a game with scrolling and colored objects moving around, like "Black Magic," or amazing first-person games like "SkyFox," then be very impressed.

The Apple //e was released in 1983 and shipped with 128K instead of the 64K of the II+. The //c was a smaller, luggable version of the //e. The Apple IIgs was a major upgrade to the Apple II line which competed with the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga in the late 1980s.

Atari 400/800 (Atari 8-bit computers)

First released in 1979-80, the Atari 800 was a computer with advanced graphics and sound hardware for its day: sprites (called "players" and "missiles" by Atari), tiled graphics, four channel sound, fifteen graphics modes that could be mixed and matched on the same screen, and hardware scrolling. Full-color, sixty frames per second, scrolling games like "Boulder Dash" weren't possible on previous hardware. But it wasn't just a conglomeration of features; the Atari 800 had the same kind of tight, neat architecture that later caused fanaticism among Amiga owners (both machines were designed by Jay Miner).

The Atari 400 was an 800 with less memory and a one-piece, "membrane" keyboard.

The 800 was morphed into the buggy 1200XL in 1982, which was basically the same machine internally. The 1200XL was short-lived, and the 400 and 800 were turned into the 600XL and 800XL respectively; the latter was possibly the most popular of the Atari computers. Still later, these machines became the 130XE, which sported 128K, and the 65XE. In its last incarnation, around 1987, the Atari 800 became the XE-GS, where "GS" stood for "game system."

Commodore VIC-20

The VIC-20, released in 1981, was sandwiched between the Commodore PET--a "green screen" computer with the keyboard, monitor, tape drive, and CPU all in the same plastic housing--and the Commodore 64. The VIC-20 looked like a white Commodore 64, but only had 5K of memory and a 22x23 character screen. Software for the VIC-20 came either on cartridge or cassette. Low price was one of the biggest selling points of the VIC; the entry cost was much less than that of the Apple II or Atari 800.

Commodore 64/128

The C64 was a 64K 6502-based computer released in 1982. In terms of hardware, it was on the same level as the Atari 800; each machine was more powerful than the other in some ways. The C64 shined when it came to sound and sprites. The SID sound chip allowed much richer, sculpted sound than the 800. Sprites could be multicolored, and there could be more of them at the same time. On the other hand, the C64 could only display 16 colors, compared to the 128 of the Atari 2600 and 256 of the Atari 800.

The C64 wasn't affected much by the industry crash and had its heyday from around 1984-1987. If you scan through the Giant List, you'll find that C64 game development was still kicking right into the 1990s. (On a technical level, some of the later releases are amazing.) This different time-line from the other 8-bit computers gave C64 games their own flavor, often being influenced by Nintendo-era games and arcade games from the mid to late 80s, like "Commando" and "NARC," instead of the late 70s games that fueled the Apple II and Atari 800.

An enhanced 128K Commodore 64 was released as the Commodore 128. There were also some peculiar and failed variations of the C64, such as the Plus/4 and C16.

Atari Video Computer System (VCS) / 2600

The Atari VCS, later called the 2600, was the first popular, cartridge-based game system. Released in 1977, it was originally designed to play simplistic games like "Space War" and "Combat," but the system was eventually pushed to unexpected limits, with games like "Pitfall, " "Robot Tank," and "Solaris."

With 128 bytes of memory, 20 bits of background graphics, and a cartridge limit of 4K, programming the Atari 2600 was a challenge. The key to understanding the 2600 is that there was only hardware to define sprites, colors, and background graphics for a single scan line. So you had to constantly "race the electron beam," as it scanned down your TV, changing sprites and graphics for every line. The actual game logic itself ran in the "vertical blank" period between frames. All 2600 games had to run at sixty frames per second (fifty in Europe), because that's the refresh rate of a TV.

The 2600 was revived around 1986 as the 2600 Jr. with a smaller case, fifty dollar price tag, and some new games, like "Solaris."

Magnavox Odyssey 2

The Odyssey 2, released in 1978, was named after the first home video game system, the original "play 'Pong' on your TV" Odyssey. Sporting a 4-bit processor and a flat plastic, but full alpha-numeric, keyboard, the Odyssey 2 competed with the Atari 2600 and later the Intellivision. Despite being a distant third, you'd still see Odyssey 2 commercials on television.

Many of the concepts for Odyssey 2 games were never duplicated on other systems. "Monkey Shines" was a form of tag. And "Quest for the Rings," "Conquest of the Worlds," and "Great Wall St. Fortune Hunt" combined video and board games.

Mattel Intellivision

The Intellivison, from Mattel Electronics, was the main competitor of the Atari 2600 from 1979 until the crash. With a processor running at 500KHz (that's 0.5MHz), and a different approach to graphics than the 2600, Intellivision games had a distinct feel.

Initially known for its great sports games, the Intellivision library eventually contained some different and original titles, like "TRON Deadly Discs" and "Utopia."

A big difference between the Intellivision and 2600 was that the Intellivision featured numeric keypad controllers, in addition to a directional pad. Games shipped with plastic "overlays," to be put on the keypad, to let the player know what each button did.

Mattel Electronics sold the Intellivision to INTV after the crash. INTV published some of the best Intellivision games yet, including "Diner," a sequel to "Burgertime."

Atari 5200

The Atari 5200 was a modified Atari 800 repackaged as a keyboardless game system, but marketed as an entirely new product. The internal hardware was almost identical to an 800, making ports between the systems easy. The 5200 was infamous for its "mushy" and delicate analog joysticks.

Atari 7800

The 7800 was the result of Atari realizing that the steam was running out of the 2600 and the market needed to be rejuvenated. Originally called "Video System X," the 7800 sported better graphics hardware than Atari's 8-bit computers, and even the Nintendo Entertainment System in many ways, while still being compatible with all 2600 games. Unlike the 2600 and 800, the 7800, was developed outside of Atari by General Computer Corporation.

What's interesting about the 7800 is that it was ready before the NES became available, but it was held back by the Tramiels after they bought Atari. When it eventually reached wide distribution around 1987, the NES was already entrenched and the 7800 remained an unknown. There were some fantastic arcade ports for the 7800, though, including "Joust," "Xevious," and the best home version of "Robotron," prior to the emulations released in the mid 1990s. Atari released a last batch of 7800 games in 1991, including some with a distinctly Nintendo-y flavor, before pulling the plug.


Back to the Table of Contents