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Atari 7800 vs. Nintendo NES - The Atari Times

Atari 7800 vs. Nintendo NES

Ouch, this is going to hurt...
by Gregory D. George

March 19, 2014
The Atari 7800 was developed in 1983 and released in 1986 and it went on to become a world-wide mega-hit for Atari! Oh, wait? You're saying the 7800 wasn't a mega-hit? Yeah, you're right. I was hoping to slip that past you...

It was the Nintendo Entertainment System that was a mega-hit and went on to sell bajillions of consoles and trillions of games back in the mid-80's. Yes, I'm exaggerating (just a tiny bit) but it's sure felt like everyone and their dog had a NES. Shoot, even *I* had one. But only after I had dutifully bought a 7800 like every other good Atari fanboy.

So I dug my NES out the other day to play the 10 or so games I bought (we did a lot of renting back then) and it got me thinking... How close in abilities are the 7800 and the NES? Could the 7800 have supported games like Castlevania, Super Mario Bros., Contra, and Legend of Zelda?

So for this comparison, let's not take into account the history of the systems. Obviously the NES trounced the 7800. Rather, let's take an objective look at all aspects of each system and let's see which  one comes out on top!


The Atari 7800Believe it or not, the 7800 is newer technology than the NES. Remember, the NES was originally developed as the "Famicom" back in 1982, while the 7800 was developed in 1983.

It was actually GCC (General Computer Corporation) who developed the 7800 for Atari. At the time they were famous for creating what ultimately became the arcade version of Ms. Pac-Man and the Atari published arcade game Food Fight.

The 7800 has 4K of RAM and can use 48K ROM cartridges that can be increased with bank switching. It can display 25 colors out of 256 on screen and has a resolution of 320x240 (or 288) resolution. It has a clock speed of 1.79 MHz. The sound used the same chip as the 2600 (TIA) which was severely lacking. Atari had planned to release several games with the more powerful POKEY chip built on to them (Ballblazer and Commando being the only two) but cost-cutting kept the POKEY out of the carts. (Why Atari didn't build the POKEY into the system is beyond me. Would have been cheaper than adding one to each cartridge I'd think.)

In addition to being backward compatible with the 2600, the 7800 included a special chip for manipulating up to 100 sprites dubbed "MARIA." (Try a game of Robotron 2084 to see MARIA in action!) This made the arcade conversions amazing on the 7800.

The NES was developed by Nintendo and Ricoh as the "Famicom" game console in 1982. Using basically the same chip as the 7800 for it's processor (a Ricoh chip based on the MOS 6502) running at 1.79 MHz. The NES could display 16 out of 52 total colors on the screen and has a resolution of 256x224. A total of 64 sprites could be used in the game with a max size of 8x16 pixels (so large objects would need multiple sprites.)

It has 2K of work RAM and used 32K of address space for cartridges which can be expanded with bank-switching. The sound was delivered by a 5 channel chip.

NES SystemThose specs don't sound all that mind-blowing. But the real power of the NES came from the MMC chips which expanded it's capabilities exponentially. More complex games with better graphics and sound were all built in to the cartridge itself. Without the MMC chips, the NES would be stuck playing very simple games like Little Red Hood.

So, despite the fact that the NES has TONS more and better games than the 7800, I'm giving this category to the 7800. The hardware of the actual system has better sprite capabilities, better colors, and better resolution. The only aspect where the NES stands out is the sound.

Winner: 7800


The 7800 console falls in line with Atari's other consoles where the cartridge slot is towards the back of the machine. Even the Jaguar used this layout. The joystick sockets are on the front as are a pair of hidden "difficulty" switches to make it compatible with the 2600. The 7800 itself has a rather futuristic design with the black plastic and silver bar. This was a design choice that started with the 5200 and was also later used on the 2600 Jr. console.

The NES on the other hand doesn't look like any console that came before it. The one shown here (yes, my personal NES, thank you) is called the TOASTER model. You open the little door (which does absolutely nothing) slide the cartridge (or GamePAK) into the slot and press down. Sometimes the game would actually work, other times you'd have to monkey with it for awhile. That can get rather frustrating (clean the cartridge connector contacts!)

As for the 7800 cartridges, they look just like 2600 cartridges. (Well, except than many of them have dull black & white colored labels.) They are made from the same mold as it's predecessors games. A clean and simple design.

The NES's "cartridges" are huge in comparison. The reason for that was so that more chips, batteries, etc. could be included on the circuit board. Take a look at 7800 Ballblazer vs. NES Super C....
7800 Ballblazer Cartridge NES Super C
Ballblazer cart for the 7800 Super C Gamepak for the NES

Winner: 7800 (can't beat that classic console design and the simple carts.)


Yeah, from here on out it's going to be a tough road for the 7800... Most of it's games are based on established arcade classics that had been ported to both the 2600 and 5200 consoles. While the graphics are clearly better on the 7800, it has a "been there, done that" feeling for many of the games.

There are not even 100 games for the 7800 and only a few truly stand outs. One is a very odd game called Ninja Golf which has miraculously become a cult classic. Some other stand outs include Commando, Ikari Warriors (both appeared on NES), Food Fight, Midnight Mutants, Ballblazer, Scrapyard Dog, Tower Toppler, Planet Smashers, Alien Brigade, Fatal Run, Motor Psycho, and the Nintendo classics Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr. and Mario Bros.

Of course, the 7800 does have backward compatibility with the 2600 which add a new wrinkle to the software decision. Does the 2600 + 7800 have enough weight to defeat the NES? Hmmm....

(Here are some comparison shots.7800 on top, NES on bottom.)

7800 Ballblazer 7800 Commando 7800 Dig Dug 7800 Galaga
NES BallBlazer NES Commando NES Dig Dug NES Galaga

So the NES has a massive library of nearly 800 unique titles. Older classics like Joust, Galaga, QIX, Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., Mario Bros. Spy Hunter, Popeye, Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, Q*Bert, Millipede, Xevious, Mappy, Space Invaders... The list goes on. So it can't be said that the NES was only a forward looking console with games after 1985. It clearly had a ton of classic arcade games too.

Then we get into the Nintendo owned heavy-weights. Games like Super Mario Bros. 1, 2, & 3, The Legend of Zelda 1 & 2, Metroid, Dr. Mario, Excitebike, Rad Racer, Kid Icarus, and Mike Tyson's Punch Out. These standout games coupled with a seemingly endless supply of 3rd party games made everyone want to own a NES.

So let's not forget Contra, Super C, Dragon Warrior, Double Dragon, Lifeforce, Gradius, Ninja Gaiden, Bionic Commando, Tetris, Castlevania, Mega Man, Battletoads, TMNT, Super Dodge-Ball, Blaster Master, Batman, Tecmo Bowl, Blades of Steel, Ghosts 'n' Goblins, Startropics, and on and on and on... (Sorry if I forgot your favorite game, there are just too many!)

7800 Joust 7800 Klax 7800 Kung Fu Master 7800 Xevious 
NES Joust NES Klax NES Kung Fu NES Xevious

Winner: NES


The 7800 has one of the most despised controllers ever made (see the image above.) The elongated handle and buttons on the sides will turn your hands into a painful claw in no time. The buttons gave little feedback to let you know it had been pressed. Thankfully the joystick does auto-center unlike the equally hated 5200 controller.

All is not lost however as Atari released a gamepad controller in Europe. This controller was inspired by the NES and Sega Master System controllers and features two buttons on the face and a joypad controller. It also included a tiny joystick attachment in case the pad wasn't to your liking.

In addition, the 7800 used the same controller port as the 2600, Commodore 64, Sega Master System, and Sega Genesis. So guess what? Many of those controllers work on the 7800!
7800 Joypad  NES Controller 
7800 Joypad (Europe) NES Controller

Nintendo on the other hand practically created the gamepad controller that we use even to this day. Two primary buttons, Start and Select buttons, and the joypad itself. (Even wonder why Nintendo didn't include a joystick instead? Think different! They didn't want their system to resemble in any way an Atari console after the crash of 1983.)

The shape of the NES controller is nearly perfect and allowed you to hold it in several ways. You can press the buttons with your thumb or you can use your fingers to press the buttons. You can "rock" your thumb over the buttons to do quick presses which definitely comes in handy with some games (like TMNT.) The buttons give a nice clicky feedback when presses and just feels great. And then the "dogbone" controller that was released later feels even better since it rounded on the sides.

Winner: NES


As part of Nintendo's strategy to make the NES seem more like a toy, early sets came with  the Robotic Operating Buddy or ROB for short. He worked with only two games, Gyromite and Stackup. It looked cool, but was ultimately a useless add on.

The Power Glove would be one of the other well-known add-ons. It was meant to allow for motion control and needed sensors attached to the TV. The idea sounded cool (and would later be perfect by the Wiimote) but the Power Glove didn't work as well as advertised.

Nintendo released a few add-ons themselves, including an upgraded controller called the NES Max and a genuine joystick controller called the NES Advantage. But the add-on most people had was the Zapper light gun. Anyone who has played NES has played Duck Hunt (and tried to shoot the dog.) There were about 20 games that worked with the Zapper and most of them were pretty good.

XE Lightgun NES Zapper 
XE Lightgun NES Zapper

There were many more 3rd party add-ons like running pads, electronic pianos, odd-ball controllers (Laserscope, UForce, Turbo Touch 360), and so many more. Some worked great and other were horrible. The point being: The NES had add-ons and more add-ons, and more add-ons... far more than the 7800.

But the 7800 had it's own light gun (that was actually for the XEGS game system.) It could be purchased seprately and worked with a handful of games: Sentinel, Alien Brigade, Crossbow, Barnyard Blaster, and Meltdown. The lightgun and games were not bad, but history would prove that lightguns would not be the peripheral most players would use.

The add-ons for the 7800 were much fewer. A keyboard and a cartridge to save high scores were planned, but not released. (However, the high score cart was later released by Curt Vendel's Legacy Engineering.)

Some other more recent add-ons include the Cuttle Cart 2 flash cartridge(which includes the high score cartridge features) and the Concerto flash cartridge, and the XM Module that extends the functionality of the 7800 giving it more memory and capabilities. (Oh, and yes, the NES has flash cartridges too.)

Winner: NES


"Mario! Mario! Mario!" - Who can forget that commercial for Super Mario Bros. 3 where the camera pans out on a cheering crowd eventually zooming out to the face of Mario covering the entire United States?

There were magazines devoted to Nintendo (Nintendo Power), advertisements in every store, movies made to sell games (The Wizard), TV ads, cereal, toys, songs, skywriting ads... Ok, I'm making up that last one, but I bet it happened somewhere! In the late 80's and early 90's you could not escape the marketing machine of Nintendo. Mario became a more well-known character in the world than Mickey Mouse.

What did Atari have for marketing of the 7800? Well, they DID have their own magazine (The Atarian) but it didn't last. They were fortunate to have some of their games covered in the same video game magazines as the NES so they had some coverage. But there was very little TV ads, few (if any) toys, no cereal, no songs, no movies, some print ads... Atari just didn't have the financial muscle to market the 7800 as Nintendo did the NES.

Probably the biggest marketing point was that the 7800 could play all the original 2600 games. But by the time the 7800 was released, kids were eager to forget the 2600 and move on to other systems.

(Steve Vinovich's career was never the same again...)

Winner: NES


Yes, this wasn't really a contest. Nintendo out-sold, out-marketed, out-played, out-lasted, out-witted, out-everythinged Atari with the NES. Sure, Atari had the better hardware, but rarely does the best hardware win a video game war. (Let's not forget that the 2600 beat the hardware superior Colecovision and Intellivision.)

The reason the 7800 was released in the first place after being shelved was because Nintendo had brought back the popularity of video games. Atari, who was sitting on a warehouse of aging 7800 stock was looking to cash-in. So, was Atari really interested in taking over the video game industry again? Probably not. Were they successful of ridding themselves of their 7800 inventory? For the most part, yes. So by that standard, the 7800 was successful.

So, even if you are a huge Atari fan, you can't honestly call yourself a video game fan unless you owned a NES at one time. (Mine is actually hooked up to the TV right now!) The games on it are classic, the controller is almost perfect, and it has an aura about it that is truly special.

So congrats to the NES for winning the mid-80's video game console war. Now let's see someone port Ninja Golf to it!

7800 Ninja Golf

For an in-depth comparison, see "7800 Compared to NES."

Reader Comments for Atari 7800 vs. Nintendo NES

7800 controller by Darryl Brundage on 2014-03-19 13:11:44
The U. S. 7800 really wasn't that bad, nowhere near as bad as the 5200 controllers. I wouldn't mind having the other one though (the pad), as I've never used one.
7800 Controller by Gregory D. George on 2014-03-19 16:52:12
I actually liked the 7800 controller for a long time and used mine to play Atari ST games. It was very responsive! But after using it for a while your hand does begin to cramp up. And the buttons aren't that great.
graphics by me on 2016-02-11 20:20:16
Sure the NES won, but I haven't seen anything like the Rescue on Fractalus prototype. Could it have been done on the NES?
Probably by Gregory D. George on 2016-02-20 11:29:31
Well, the REAL question is: Could the NES Mapper chips have handled ROF? Yeah, probably! The NES by itself certainly could not.
Meh! by mojo on 2016-05-21 05:45:56
So sick of the 'mapper' excuse.. That's the way the console was designed! It's not something Nintendo came up with later! It was always meant to use the mappers. It's idiotic. You may as well complain that the NES required a cartridge.
"Could the NES do Super Mario Bros. 3 without a SMB3 cart? No HAHAHA ATARI RULES!"
Pokey chip by Richard on 2016-08-31 16:36:49
I heard on a YouTube review of the 7800 that the reason for having the same sound chip als the 2600 was backward compatibility with the 2600.
NES and Atari 7800 by Daniel Sullenberger on 2017-03-29 00:57:47
The first game system I ever played was the 2600. My brothers had a 7800. The Joust, Xenophobe, and Pole Position II ports for it were vastly superior to the NES ports. I think if the folks running Atari during the mid to late 80's had actually cared, it would have been far more competitive. But they wanted an instant cash in with a quick return, so they just didn't care. Meanwhile, they were going up against a Nintendo that was hungry and trying to prove itself. They grossly underestimated what they were up against, because all they aimed for was a quick cash out. And it's a shame, because the 7800 had massive potential that went unrealized. Imagine the games we would have gotten if Atari and Sega had managed to successfully compete against the NES in the late 80's.
Insecurity Complex by . on 2018-01-12 03:23:52
What's idiotic is feeling persecuted despite stanning for the best selling 8-bit system of all time...BTW, comparing ROM memory to an added processing chip? Really?
Homebrew by TheBrick on 2024-05-19 16:30:49
The homebrew scene over at AtariAge has really shown the true power of the 7800.
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