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Twenty-eight years ago this month, Nintendo won its first console war

Twenty-eight years ago this month, Atari took on Nintendo... and lost.

In January of 1986, Atari re-released the Atari 7800--and promptly ran into the buzzsaw that was the Nintendo Entertainment System. Little remembered today, the event marked the end of Atari's status as the dominant player in the home console market.

The home console business infamously crashed in 1983, but that didn't keep companies like Atari from churning out new systems. First launched in 1984, the Atari 7800's major selling points included backward compatibility with the Atari 2600 and an expansion slot that could house a High Score Cartridge. However, legal issues arising from the console's development (see: it hadn't fully paid the console's designers yet) forced Atari to pull it from shelves soon after its arrival, leaving it to molder in warehouses for another two years.

Fast-forward to January 1986, just a few months after the initial release of the Nintendo Entertainment System. Unfortunately for the 7800, it seemed dated by comparison. The colors weren't as vibrant, the music wasn't as sharp, and the game library mainly consisted of retreads from the glory days of the Atari 2600. The NES was superior in pretty much every way, and it had one of console gaming's first true killer apps: Super Mario Bros.

In addition to these shortcomings, the Atari 7800 was also one of the earliest victims of Nintendo's licensing policies, which forbade developers from porting their games to other consoles. Thus, without a viable library or retail presence, it was quickly banished to the far corners of the marketplace, where it joined contemporaries like the Sega Master System. Today, it retains a small but fanatical homebrew community--not quite a new lease on life, but enough that is remembered.

As for Nintendo, it received its eventual comeuppance in 1995, when the same licensing practices that killed the Atari 7800 drove developers into the arms of Sony and the PlayStation. Ultimately, Nintendo's desire to establish strict controls on development likely saved it from the sort of glut of awful titles that nearly killed the industry in the first place.

This Week in Gaming brings you bite-sized gaming history every week. Come back to find out what the past can tell us about the future, and to reminisce about a time before high-definition visuals, always-online DRM, and digital distribution. 

17 comments

  • shawksta - January 19, 2014 1:21 a.m.

    This was a great article. That little tease in the end is the cherry on top.
  • BladedFalcon - January 18, 2014 11:48 p.m.

    Man... 28 years ago? Time sure flies by past. Also, pretty neat idea for a new segment, this article was short, sweet, and a nice refresher on the state of things a while back. I also appreciate that the author pointed out the irony of how the policies that arguably made Nintendo rise to the top, were the same that eventually made them have their biggest fall up until now. (And yes, even though Nintendo's on a tight spot, it's not nearly as bad as when the PS1 moped the floor with the N64.)
  • garnsr - January 18, 2014 7:05 p.m.

    I remember seeing commercials for Atari a few years after the NES had already come out, and couldn't figure out why anyone would want to buy such old fashioned video games when they could get Nintendo. Atari was fine in the early 80's, but they seemed out of touch in the later 80's, and they were trying to make people believe that they should care about their past. It's the same way I've felt about Nintendo since the 90's.
  • Moondoggie1157 - January 18, 2014 5:23 p.m.

    Don't know why, but for some reason when I saw Super Mario Bros. being called an app. I shuddered. I know it technically is an app. But can't we let it be called a video game for a bit longer? I don't like this new age lingo... Pretty soon everything will be an app. EVERYTHING.app!!!!! With your YOLOs and legits, what happened to language with some finesse or culture, what happened to words like euphonium and perspiration? I know that was unnecessary, article was a good read :P
  • Aquasol - January 19, 2014 1:16 a.m.

    "Killer app" has been a pretty standard term in the gaming media since the 90's, so it's one of those odd ahead-of-its-major-use things like "OMG".
  • FeloniousMax - January 19, 2014 9:41 a.m.

    "Killer App" is a shortened form of the term "Killer Application", which denotes ANY software (application) that is a system seller. So in regard to the NES, Super Mario Bros was indeed a killer app.
  • Moondoggie1157 - January 19, 2014 7:50 p.m.

    Yea well your face is a killer app... I didnt mean that... Im sorry, I hide my insecurities through bullying
  • FeloniousMax - January 20, 2014 8:07 a.m.

    Now Kevin, what did your mother tell you about bullying?
  • Moondoggie1157 - January 20, 2014 noon

    She said its only okay when talking about someones ethnicity, age, sex, or sexual orientation. The woman was a saint.
  • FeloniousMax - January 20, 2014 12:52 p.m.

    Word.
  • J-Fid - January 18, 2014 3:14 p.m.

    A "This week in Gaming" segment is a great idea. Keep up the good work.
  • StrayGator - January 18, 2014 3:07 p.m.

    Ox excrement! The first console war was won when Master Cheif crushed PS2!
  • TokenGamesRadarFurry - January 18, 2014 4:51 p.m.

    Look, I know you're trying to be humerous, but thats ridiculous. The first console generation was won single-handedly when Atari released 'The First of Us' on the Magnavox Odyssey.
  • StrayGator - January 18, 2014 5:04 p.m.

    these are smartphones they are not real consoles but if you think they are ill let you think so and be the bigger man
  • StrayGator - January 18, 2014 5:05 p.m.

    i mean handhelds pshaw they didnt have smartphones in victorian era
  • TheCakeIsaPie - January 18, 2014 5:07 p.m.

    Nice XD

Showing 1-17 of 17 comments

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