A few days ago, a video popped up on my YouTube feed concerning the failed 8-bit ATARI 7800 and a connection between it and a well-known military sci-fi franchise: Battlestar Galactica
. While there are other 8-bit system are far more worshiped and discussed than the failed and forgotten 7800 system in the retrogaming community, it was important to me. That is because I was one of those kids that got a ATARI 7800 over the beloved Nintendo Entertainment System...yeah...that was a good decision by the 10 year old me. For those who do not know, the ATARI 7800 Prosystem was the iconic ATARI company's second-to-last great attempt at recapturing the home video market back in 1983 when the "ATARI 3800" project was undertaken. While the 2600 had been a massive success that basically established the home video game market, the bulkier 5200 followup system had not been and ATARI needed a home system that could married the 5200 and the 2600 while improving upon the experience to capture the gaming community's attention again. That home console system was to be the ATARI 7800 (2600+5200=7800), but instead of being developed in-house by the Warner-Brothers owned ATARI company, someone else was tapped to forge the savor of the house of ATARI: General Computer Company (GCC).
This was due to the lack of faith that Warner-Brothers had in ATARI due to the failure of their 5200 system that provoked Warner-Brothers to tap GCC to develop the Project 3800 into the 7800 system due to their proven track-record of developing arcade games for ATARI. The 7800 home console was targeted for a summer of 1984 release, however, 1983 was a critical year in the story of ATARI and the American home video game market as a whole. With the crash of the video game market. ATARI was struggling and it was sold to Jack Tramiel on July 2nd, 1984. Tramiel wanted ATARI to enter into the home computer market (that became the ST line of home computers) as well as remaining in the home video game console market for the immediate future. Interestingly enough, there could have been another path for ATARI. Nintendo approach ATARI to license their Famicom console as ATARI product and this would have reverse the course of world history if it had unfolded. That deal collapsed and the new ATARI under its new leadership which was attempting to get the 7800 project as well as the 2600JR onto store shelves in the mid-1980's to counter the NES and the SEGA Master System.
After much money was thrown to secure licenses from the grip of GCC, the 7800 was allowed to be released...finally. The odd thing was there was actual finished consoles setting in warehouses from the original production run of the 7800 when the company was under Warner-Brothers from around 1984. Finally, in May of 1986, the aging system was released at a price-point of $79 ($181 in today's money) which was lower than the NES. I cannot imagine buying a "brand new" 7800 in 1986 and it was really a 1984 machine! Under the original plan for the 7800 Prosystem, was there to be upgrade future hardware modules that were to use ports already built into the Warner-Brothers 1984 made 7800 consoles. One of the additional hardware modules was being planned and developed was a LaserDisc player module.
As far back as 1979, ATARI had been eyeballing LaserDisc technology for use in games as it was thought to be the future of gaming by the industry. At the time in 1983/1984 when ATARI was researching a LaserDisc add-on hardware module for the 7800, there were LaserDisc games in the arcade at the time: Space Ace, Dragon's Lair,
and ATARI's own Firefox
, which was based on the Clint Eastwood 1982 film. In Japan, the MSX home computer system had a Pioneer LaserDisc add-on back in 1984 that played LD-based games. The MSX LD module only last until 1986. Back in the States, ATARI was planning on developing home console versions of Space Ace, Dragon's Lair
, and Firefox
along with a untitled racing game. a Knight Rider
game, and even a space shooter based on 1978's Battlestar Galactica
. We have to remember that in 1984, BSG
was a dead property and while some in the sci-fi community were passionate about the cancelled series...there was nothing like what we have today, in terms of BSG
fandom. But, it was indeed underdevelopment and the test footage exists of classic Vipers engaging Cylons in space dogfights and even landing on the good old Galactica
herself. It is likely that the game would have been similar to the Firefox
game. So, why did we not see the ATARI 7800 LaserDisc player and I was robbed of blowing up Cylons in my living room in 1986? The following information was from interviews that have been conducted by other sites with former ATARI game developer and programmer Owen Rubin.
Back in 1978-1979, Rubin had been at MIT learning about the new LaserDisc technology and disagreed with ATARI about using that format for video games due to the expense and reliability issues of LD. They did not heed his warnings and went about developing the LaserDisc format for the video game arcade market with a special development group at ATARI. During this, Owen Rubin, a fan of the classic Battlestar Galactica
TV show, was able to begin development on a BSG
-themed LaserDisc space-shooter around 1984 with support from Universal. Owen Rubin's team got access to footage from BSG
and used that to develop a initial test footage for the game on a LaserDisc. Why was ATARI allowing a BSG
game to be developed when the classic series was cancelled after just one season? We can only assume that Rubin had some influence and that Universal was happy to make some money off of their cancelled Star Wars
inspirited expensive military sci-fi TV series and gave their blessing and support at a good price.
This initial test footage can be found today on YouTube and it is really just a series of looping sequences. This game, along with the Road Runner, Knight Rider
, a car racing and golfing simulator were in development for the hardware that GCC was developing.While there are many rumors associated with lost working prototypes of the 7800 LaserDisc module, it is likely that there are none that were developed due to the timeline of the project. Like many video game stories of this time, it was the Video Game Crash of 1983 that partly cost the 7800 LaserDisc add-on module its life initially. While Jack Tremiel was committed to the 7800 Prosystem, he was not interested in the time and money for these hardware add-ons and their games to be developed.
By 1984, the LaserDisc development team was disbanded and the add-on project for the 7800 were cancelled. Some of the original Warner-Brothers ATARI 7800 consoles do retain the expansion ports, but the later 7800s do not...like mine. Despite the comments on ATARI forums and such, the 7800 LaserDisc player would not have saved the 7800 Prosystem or made it more popular than the NES. It would have been an expensive add-on of newer technology that would have not played movies, and likely been buggy and slow. It would have been a prized rarity today and command high prices...but it would have unsuccessful, much like the Neo-Geo CD of 1994 or the ATARI Jaguar CD peripheral module. Still, if it had been developed and released, it would have allowed for Full-Motion Video many years before the Sega Genesis hardware add-on module, and it would have allowed me to blow up frakking Cylons on my 7800 back in the 80s!