Video Game Firsts: The First Backwardly Compatible Console - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Video Game Firsts: The First Backwardly Compatible Console

Retro is the word.

Advances in technology are vital. New tech brings us faster speeds, more connectivity, more playability and a fresh wave of excitement as what was once just a dream of the future becomes the reality of the now. Take, for instance, the advancement of the internet over the last 30 years. What was originally comprised of entirely static information based websites evolved into interactive social media platforms connecting people around the world. Advances in bandwidth then brought new and exciting pastimes, from $5 minimum deposit casinos to massively multiplayer online gaming. Whereas at the dawn of the internet we relied upon a telephone line, a modem, a huge computer and monitor screen to access anything, thirty years later we have the world in our pocket thanks to the advances in mobile phones. So if we want to update our status, send a tweet, play a game, spin & win or just check the weather we can do it all on the go with one handheld device. Heck, some people even use theirs to make phone calls!

But as much as we all like to embrace the latest tech, there is often a huge demand for what has gone before. It's why most app stores are filled with ports of retro games we fondly remember. It's why the Nintendo Switch promotes their virtual console filled with classic NES and SNES titles. It's why most iterations of the Sony Playstation have offered backward compatibility with their predecessor (although not you PS4, curses!).

Backward compatibility is, quite often, a huge selling point for any new console upon release. Take, for example, the Sony PlayStation 2 which was backward compatible with games for its predecessor the PS1. While the selection of PS2 games available at launch was small, sales of the console were nonetheless strong from the off, thanks in no small part to the large library of over 7000 games for the preceding Playstation. This bought time for the PS2 to grow a large installed base and developers to release more quality games for the system.

Another benefit to backward compatibility is the preservation of titles that might otherwise disappear from circulation or not get a fair crack of the whip for no fault of their own. The original versions of the Nintendo Wii offered backward compatibility with the Gamecube, and as the latter console hadn't sold as well as Nintendo might've hoped it meant that games like Super Mario Sunshine could potentially find a new audience in the tens of millions of Wii owners.

The PS2 and the Wii are 21st Century sixth and seventh generation consoles, and whilst they may have boasted about their backward compatibility they were in no way the originators of the idea. In fact, the concept was pioneered by Atari, often credited as the makers of the original video game console.

The Atari 2600 had actually been beaten to market by both the Magnavox Odyssey and the Fairchild Video Entertainment System but it is widely regarded as the console that popularised home video gaming. Because sales were so strong for the Atari 2600, even though home gaming was in its infancy, over 500 titles had been released for system by 1984, the year the company released their new Atari 7800, which was almost fully backward compatible with the 2600. Meaning that even though only 13 original 7800 games were available on or near the release date the potential gaming library was massive.

But even though the Atari 7800 was the first console to have backward compatibility without the use of additional modules, it was pretty much outdated before it hit the shelves.

Atari Inc. had burned through a lot of good grace with some lackluster conversions of arcade titles and cash-grabbing movie tie-ins (*cough*E.T.*cough*). The companies owners, Warner Communications, had squandered more potential love with the release of the Atari 5200 in 1982 which was billed as, supposedly, a higher-end complement for the popular Atari Video Computer System (as it was called then before the VCS was renamed to the Atari 2600 upon the 5200's release). However, the new Atari 5200's internal hardware was almost identical to that of its predecessor, although software was not directly compatible between the two systems without the expensive purchase of an optional adapter. All that really distinguished it was a shiny new case and a improved controller. The savvy public are not so easily fooled and the Atari 5200 was discontinued after just two years on the market, with total sales of about 1 million units, far short of its predecessor's sales of over 30 million. The Atari 7800 should've rectified the company's good fortunes, and arguably if it had arrived when it was meant to then it may well have done just that.

1982s ColecoVision and the 1983 arrival of the Nintendo Entertainment System were putting pressure on Atari Inc. to up their game. The 7800 was their answer to this with additional RAM and the ability to access more cartridge data at one time than the popular 2600, plus an improved graphics architecture which differed markedly from any of Atari's previous consoles, but offered the ability to easily access that vast library of games in, what Atari no doubt hoped would be, a huge selling point for the machine.

Concentrate, here's the science part - The 7800's compatibility with the Atari 2600 was made possible by including many of the same chips used in the Atari 2600. When operating in “2600” mode to play Atari 2600 titles, the 7800 used a Television Interface Adapter (TIA) chip to generate graphics and sound. The processor was slowed to 1.19 MHz, enabling the 7800 to mirror the performance of the 2600's 6507 processor. RAM was limited to 128 bytes found in the RIOT and game data was accessed in 4K blocks.

When in “7800” mode (signified by the appearance of the full-screen Atari logo), the graphics were generated entirely by the MARIA graphics processing unit. All system RAM was available and game data was accessed in larger 48K blocks. The system's SALLY 6502 ran at its normal 1.79 MHz instead of the reduced speed of 2600 mode. For the enhanced game play of the 7800, the 2600 chips were used in 7800 mode to generate sound and to provide the interfaces to the controllers and console switches. Got that?

Following an announcement at the 1984 Summer Consumer Electronics Show, the 7800 began, what was intended to be the first area of a national roll out, beginning in southern California in June 1984. Thirteen new Atari 7800 games were announced for the system's launch: Ms. Pac-Man, Pole Position II, Centipede, Joust, Dig Dug, Desert Falcon, Robotron: 2084, Galaga, Food Fight, Ballblazer, Rescue on Fractalus!, Track & Field, and Xevious. They're mainly all arcade titles from the preceding few years, but all very popular ones and enhanced versions to anything that had been released before.

However, one month after the first Atari 7800 hit the shelves, Warner Communications sold Atari's Consumer Division and all projects were halted during an initial evaluation period. Purchased by Commodore International founder Jack Tramiel, it's often incorrectly asserted that he mothballed the Atari 7800, feeling that video games were a past fad and subsequently asserted that he dusted off the Atari 7800 once the Nintendo Entertainment System became successful. The reality was that a contractual issue arose in that the third party developers of the Atari 7800 had not been paid for their work. Warner and Tramiel battled back and forth over who was accountable, with Tramiel believing that the 7800 should have been covered as part of his acquisition deal. In May 1985, Tramiel relented and paid the overdue payment., which led to additional negotiations regarding the initial launch titles that had been developed and then an effort to find someone to lead the newly created Atari Corp.'s video game division. Because of all this, the original production run of the Atari 7800 languished on warehouse shelves until it was re-introduced in January 1986.

As the 8-bit gaming era was already saturated and nearing an end, the Atari 7800 didn't stand a chance. With a subdued marketing budget of just $300,000, and with Nintendo controlling 80% of the North American market by the time of its release, the Atari 7800 sold a mere 100,000 units in its first 12 months.

However, the Atari 7800 stayed in production until 1992, and thanks to its low price point (launched at $79) and steady if not exceptional European sales, turned out to be a profitable venture for the new owners Atari Corp. Not because of its library of just 59 Atari 7800 games, but mainly down to the system's 2600 backward compatibility offering access to over ten times that amount.

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