Player 3 Stage 5: Last Hurrah
With total combined game sales of approx. $950 million for 1982, it's no wonder companies are still anxious to get onboard the console gravy train. Atari makes up 2/3 of the market, but it doesn't stop other companies from trying...or Atari from stumbling.
Vision of Obscurity
Located in videogame development hotbed Parsippany, New Jersey, Emerson Electronics is a manufacturer of low-rent electronic equipment like televisions, VCRs, radios and microwaves. In 1982 they debut the Arcadia 2001, retailing for around 100 dollars US. Inside its compact cabinet is an 8-bit 3.58 MHz Signetics 2650 CPU, powering a nine colour video display allowing four moving sprites onscreen at any one time. It sports a pretty amazing 28K of RAM, ranking just behind the 48K of the ColecoVision for most RAM of the pre-crash systems. Its graphics capability is better than the Atari VCS, but only on par with the Intellivision,
itself already a two years old system. The sound capability is a piddly one channel. The Arcadia's controls are a clever innovation on the Intellivision; they feature control discs into which plastic sticks can be screwed for that Atari
controller feeling. They also ape Mattel and Coleco's consoles by having a 12 button keypad for use with game overlays, along with two fire buttons. There is space on the top cover to store the controllers when not in use, although no place to put the cords. 35 carts are eventually produced for the system, in two different size formats, with names like Tanks A
Lot, Baseball, Crazy Gobbler and Space Attack. Unfortunately, it appears that most of that 28K of available system memory goes to waste: no game uses more than 8K of it. The Arcadia is considered the first portable videogame system not only for its diminutive size, but also for the fact it has the capability to run off any 12V DC power supply, like a car battery. It goes under a number of aliases world-wide; in Canada it's known as the Leisure-Vision, Germany the Hanimex HMG-2650 and Tele-Fever, Italy the Leonardo and in New Zealand it carries the moniker Video Master. Its release comes the same year as the graphics powerhouse ColecoVision, and the poor Arcadia is immediately relegated to the fringe, failing to make even a minor dent before the market falls apart in 1983-84. Its most lasting legacy probably results from the legal tussle Emerson engages in with third-party manufacturer Arcadia, makers of the Supercharger VCS enhancer, over their name. Arcadia is eventually renamed Starpath, and is eventually folded into Epyx.
Lines of Force
In 1979, Jay Smith designs the Microvision, the first ever programmable hand-held gaming system, for Milton Bradley. In early 1981, as head of Western Technologies/Smith
Engineering, he and his staff start a project to find use for some surplus video CRTs by conceptualising a portable vector scan home game machine, which they label the Mini-Arcade. Toy maker Kenner options the rights to the system under design, but eventually their interest wains on the concept. Under the official designation HP-3000, the self-contained system is to consist of a 5" black and white monitor and attached joystick unit with four buttons. By mid-year, General Consumer Electronics, makers of hand-held games and watches, licences the concept, and the monitor size is increased to 9". Moving from a cancelled project to reverse engineer the Atari VCS in order to produce games for it, John Hall, Mark Indictor and Paul A. Newell begin work on building the Mini-Arcade. John Ross puts together the hardware, consisting of an advanced 8-bit 1.5 MHz Motorola 68A09 CPU, accompanied by the versatile 3-voice AY-3-8192 sound chip by General Instruments. Gerry Karr and Hall work on the software to control all this, known in the industry as the "Executive". Later additions to the team include Georgia Tech co-op students William Hawkings and Chris King, who end up staying on with the project.
Built into the system is the Asteroids clone Minestorm, with other games available via plug-in cassettes. Although the vector scan system cannot generate colours, mylar overlays are included with each game, placed on the monitor screen to add static spots of colour for gameplay. Most are coin-op conversions, with a specialty in vector coin-op maker Cinematronics' library including Space Wars, Star Castle, Rip Off, Armor Attack, Solar Quest and Star Hawk. Also included are some valiant attempts at reproducing raster graphics games in vector form, such as Stern Electronics' Scramble and Berzerk, along with a translation of Atari's hit racing game Pole Position. As the system develops, the GCE marketing department isn't too impressed with the original name of the project, and through an evolution from the suggested title "Vector-X", deemed too "50's sci-fi", the machine is finally labelled the Vectrex. It debuts at the 1982 summer CES in Chicago, and is then released to dealers at a retail price of $199 USD with the games going for $35. The product is certainly unique among big-guns like the VCS, Intellivision and ColecoVision, and meets with critical approval from videogame and electronics magazines. Electronic Games declares the system "The King of the Stand-alones", and creates the new category "Best Mini-Arcade game" in its yearly arcade game awards to accommodate the system's excellent Scramble conversion. In 1983 Milton Bradley purchases GCE and the Vectex, but as the market spirals into a drastic depression, not even a 3D gaming add-on can increase public interest. Milton Bradley loses 31.6 million dollars in production costs with the Vectrex, and after abortive attempts at developing a computer add-on, as well as a colour vector system, new Milton Bradley owner Hasbro ceases production of the Vectrex in early 1984. The remaining inventory of the world's first, and only, home vector arcade system and its games are dumped onto the market at rock-bottom prices.
In 1988, an attempt is made by GCE to bring back the system in hand-held format, but they are foiled by the release of Nintendo's extremely popular GameBoy device. Eventually, all rights to the ROM game images and system schematics are allowed to revert to public domain by the copyright owners, allowing for full emulation and ROM distribution.
When the seemingly invincible VCS starts loosing ground to the graphically advanced ColecoVision and the well-entrenched Intellivision, Atari finally makes a meaningful new addition to their videogame line with 1982's 5200 Supersystem aka PAM aka Video System X. Retailing for around $250 USD, it isn't a radically new design as the device is for all practical purposes an 8-bit 16K Atari 400 computer in a slick new console case sporting Atari designer Regan Cheng's new "black wedge" look, originally designed for the defunct 2700 wireless VCS prototype and used again for this year's 2600jr. There is a 1.78 MHz 6502C processor under this new plastic hood, and the famous ANTIC graphics co-processor allows 256 colours with 16 colours onscreen. Four channel sound rounds out the package. The system had been conceived way back in 1978 as a next-wave videogame unit, but was relegated for use only in the then-developing 400/800 computer line. The games from Atari's popular home computer systems are not compatible, however. As well, the vast catalogue of 2600 games are rendered unusable with the new machine due to its wider cartridge format. More revolutionary is the control method, a direct response to the Intellivision controllers. The 5200's joysticks are analog, and feature 360 degrees of movement, along with a 12 button keypad which follows its predecessors by allowing use of overlays for extra commands. Two fire buttons are mounted on the sides, and each joystick has a button for game speed-control, as well as a button for pausing the on-screen action. On the down side, the joysticks are not self-centreing, making for frustrating play in games featuring strictly north-south-east-west movement, and are highly prone to breakdown. The controller shortcomings are addressed by third party manufacturers such as Wico, who design more reliable devices for the console. The first production run consoles feature four joystick ports on the lower front of the cabinet, streamlined down to two in a later remodelled version. The Supersystem also has a distinct RF switch box, used to switch between game playing and watching TV. Doing double duty, the box serves as power supply, and can automatically switch modes as the user desires.
The original pack-in cartridge is Super Breakout, not the most thrilling of introductions to the new system's graphics capability, but soon after introduction this is changed to an improved version of Atari's port of Pac-Man. Naturally, the bulk of games for the 5200 are translations of well-worn Atari game hits like Missile Command, Space Invaders, the Pitfall games, Pole Position, among others. In time, however, new titles such as Robotron:2084 and Joust are added to the library. Around 125 games for the machine eventually reach the market. Various hardware add-ons are released, including a hard plastic carrying case and the 5200 Trak-Ball unit. The system is adapted for use as the 5200 Arcade Unit for use in Latin countries, as well as the 5200 Spectravision Hotel Unit, installed in hotel rooms and switchable between games, television and movies. Initial sales of the new machine are respectable, but hamstrung by a combination of managerial incompetence, product line over-extention, the incredible success of Commodore's C-64 as a gaming platform and the collapse of the market, the 5200 never has a chance to prosper and production ends abruptly in 1983. Its follow-up, the 7800 ProSystem, fares even worse. The entire hardware and software staff at Atari is put behind the project, originally labelled the 3600, in late 1983 after exhaustive studies are conducted in an attempt to determine exactly what features gamers are looking for in a home machine. Also on-board is Cambridge, MA based General Computer Corporation, who develop the advanced 256 colour graphics hardware for the system, as well as a computer conversion kit. The entire system, complete with out-of-the-box 2600 compatibility, is ready for release in 1984. The purchase of Atari by Jack Tramiel, however, spells doom for the nextgen system as the focus of the company veers more towards the home computer market under the direction of the former head of Commodore. Even though the once-fearsome Atari name is losing its potency, it still has enough power to strike fear in the hearts of Nintendo brass. In 1985, enjoying success with their Famicom videogame unit in Japan, the company approaches Atari with the hopes that they will distribute the Famicom in North America. In what has to be one of the greatest corporate screw-ups in videogame history, Atari declines the offer, pinning their future instead on the 7800 even while the system gathers obsolescence in an Atari warehouse. Its eventual release comes in 1986. Included with the machine is pack-in cartridge Pole Position II, and there are only three other game titles available: Asteroids Deluxe, Joust and Ms. Pac-Man. The 7800 disappears without a trace in a videogame market now dominated by Nintendo and Sega.