The Atari 7800 is one of the key systems of the 80s that showed just how big of an opportunity that Atari missed out on at the time, due to how they operated post-Warner. Over the past couple of years, homebrew developments for the system have increased although for some reason, many Atarians clamor for arcade ports to the system as opposed to original games. I had an argument on a forum with someone about this, who was giving the view that the 7800 was never meant to give NES-quality but instead arcade-quality and as proof, the system got a lot of arcade ports.
I don’t buy that argument and don’t really understand it the way some will fight tooth and nail for arcade ports in the 2000’s on an 80s system, especially where the games are available on everything under the sun (an example that just popped up – a Top 10 list where they even put Space Invaders above much better titles). I don’t mean to diminish the work that some homebrew authors have put into their ports like the Pac-Man Collection or B*nq, it’s just not my thing when it comes to collecting for old game systems. The Atari 7800 got a lot of arcade ports because Tramiel Atari wasn’t the powerhouse with the budget that Warner Atari had. A lot of the ports were already completed by Warner Atari crew so it was the obvious way to fill out the game roster on the cheap. Had Warner kept Atari and kept a budget behind it all, the launch period would have been filled with those ports but they soon would have changed their tune when they realized that the effect that such ports had in 1981 wasn’t happening again. Everyone remembers the 5200 for it’s bad controllers although they seem to forget that it’s library is almost purely made up of arcade ports. They were working on some original content like Spitfire, Meebzork & Black Belt but that was all canned with the quick demise of the system. Remove the controller from the equation and you see there isn’t a whole lot to get excited about, although the Space Dungeon port is great. But you can’t build a blockbuster system on great ports alone, it needs exclusive content. It’s why Japan is buying more WiiUs than PS4s at the moment.
Anyways, one of the things that did save the 7800 from being a total loss (aside from the backwards compatibility with the 2600) were some of those original titles that were released for the system around 1989 and 1990. Yes it was way too late to turn the 7800’s fortunes around but if you owned the system, it was nice to finally see some effort going into it. The weird, original games like Ninja Golf and Midnight Mutants have held up pretty well and they showed that the system had the power to pull off some games that could compete. Atari had another title in development for the system which would have put it into the NES-quality category but sadly it was never finished. That would be Electrocop.
If the name sounds familiar, it is because the game was released on the Atari Lynx handheld. It was somewhat of a tech demo for the console, showing off the scaling capabilities of the system and creating a 3rd person adventure game a few years before that became a big genre in the 3D graphics realm.
The Atari 7800 version was not going to be like that however, it was a 2D action platformer that had all sorts of weird stuff thrown into it. Unfortunately the ROM for this has never been found but it was discovered that Amy Hennig, who has gained notoriety with recent games like Uncharted, was an artist that worked on the game. She had some art assets laying around and they were shared on the Atariage forums a few years back. While this isn’t new-news or anything, I re-stumbled across the images today and thought why not share. I’m not sure who the credit should go to for getting in contact with Amy and getting these unfortunately. These were stitched together from levels in the actual game and are not mock-ups; on the far right of each you can find the boss although I doubt these were the entire levels.
Graphically this looks like it would have been one of the best games found on the 7800 although its always hard to guess without seeing it in motion. Still, not many games on the system approached this level of detail, being cheap quick ports. As you can see, it would have been another strange game, combining elements from various popular games from the time. It almost could have been called Atari’s 80s Extravaganza! as you can find hints of Metroid, Double Dragon, Shinobi, Robocop, Slime World and so on. It also shows that the port of Double Dragon to the console was well below what it could have handled. I’ve always enjoyed reading about unreleased games, maybe occasionally collecting one that was perhaps 100% complete.
Like many unreleased games, this might show up out of the blue one day and in whatever completed form that it happened to be in – I would imagine that this is the Holy Grail of Atari 7800 prototypes really. I think Missing In Action (based on the Chuck Norris movie) has been found although it is incomplete.
Back to the point of what homebrews would be nice to see on the Atari 7800, games in the vein of Electrocop would earn my monetary support. I am surprised that no one has attempted to recreate the game to a degree based on the assets above, which have been online for a few years. Of course some artistic license would have to be taken since we don’t have the design document in hand for how it was all supposed to play but I think it wouldn’t be to great of a challenge given what we see here.
I am eagerly awaiting the release of Bentley Bear’s Crystal Quest, which also shows some neat tricks on the 7800 that owners wanted to see more of back in the day. I also would love to see the XM module finally get a release, I didn’t pre-order it but once they are shipping I will chip in my support as there are some games that were being made for it which were original ideas as well.