Launch Telemetry

Launch Telemetry
The Lost Generation

Russ Pitts | 27 Mar 2007 12:01
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The venerable Atari 2600, as we now know, was the clear winner of that war, but this didn't stop those of us with "lesser" machines from fighting the good fight. The Intellivision, for example (Doug had one of these) had far better games than Scott's Atari 2600. Imagic's Microsurgeon was just about the coolest game in the world. And Advanced Dungeons and Dragons? Forget about it. A thousand Pitfalls wouldn't even come close. My ColecoVision had even better games, and the ports of arcade classics like the aforementioned Donkey Kong and Zaxxon made every boy who owned one an arcade hero (in his own home, no less).

But the 2600 had the numbers. By 1980, the year Mattel launched the Intellivision and two years before Coleco made it to market with their ColecoVision, Atari had already installed nearly 3 million of their consoles into American homes. Intellivision would score a distant second place in this, the second true console war, and ColecoVision, in spite of key distribution deals with then third-party developers like Nintendo and Sega, would come in third. But the story doesn't end there, as you well know. In fact, it doesn't even begin there.

Long forgotten by the time the videogame market crashed in 1983 was the Fairchild Channel F, the first of the programmable consoles. Released in 1976, a year before the Atari 2600, the Channel F was a primitive machine, but it did what no other console had yet managed. In addition to sporting a number of built-in Pong-like games (via a GI chip similar to the one in Coleco's Telstar), the Channel F allowed one to play a theoretically unlimited number of games by inserting game "cartridges" - large, yellow things resembling the popular audio media of the time, the 8-track tape.

I had one of these, too. Before I was a Coleco fanboy, I was a Fairchild fanboy. I'd drool over the bright yellow cartridges at Montgomery Ward's, begging to be allowed to take one home. The Fairchild's Pong clone was incredible, and the drag racing game? Forget about it. But the Fairchild, in spite of its innovations and a timely hardware redesign, ultimately failed to capture enough market share to stave off the Atari juggernaut, which, quite simply, had the games, stupid.

But a Whimper
Then, in 1983, something interesting happened to the videogame industry - something all of the fledgling MMOG makers (boutique or otherwise) chasing the tail of Blizzard would be wise to heed: The market became so flooded with knock-off consoles and second-rate third-party games, the average consumer got confused. Why is the Intellivision a better machine than the 2600? And why does ColecoVision outpace them both? Why isn't the Bally Astrocade just as good? And why doesn't Pac-Man look the same on the Atari as it does in the arcade? (And why was E.T. such a piece of crap?)

Doug, Scott and I debated these points endlessly, but we had the time and magazine subscriptions to form (relatively) educated opinions on the minute details of each console's construction and game selection. We were true console warriors. But most people didn't care that much, or didn't know enough to care, and so just bought whatever machine struck their fancy. Or didn't buy anything, as happened more frequently, and as a result, hordes of developers went out of business, mountains of games went un-purchased and company after company closed its doors.

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