The Atari 7800 ProSystem

The Atari 7800 ProSystem was Atari's chance at redemption in the video game market.    Atari Inc. spent a good part of 1983 interviewing thousands of people on what they wanted  and didn't want in a video game console.    Atari Inc. through Warner Communications, then worked with General Computer Corporation who earlier had lost a lawsuit with Atari regarding a "Speed-up" board for Atari's Missile Command.

Art Ng, Steve Golson and several of GCC's Chip Architect Designers with assistance from VLSI  would architect and design the GCC1702B "MARIA" Graphics Processor, the heart of the Atari 7800 ProSystem.  

The first MARIA chip was numbered GCC1701.    GCC's engineers were big fans of Star Trek, so with the Enterprise being NCC-1701, they made their chip the GCC-1701.   The final production chip: Maria II was GCC1702B.

The all new graphics chip called MARIA (Also the codename of the 7800 Project) with almost 100 independent sprites, better color palette onscreen, and other powerful features would not only allow game designers the ability to code new and exciting games, but the chip also allowed an original Atari TIA processor to co-exist side by side with MARIA so that the new console could also play all of the original Atari 2600 games as well.

Then as an added bonus, GCC's programmers  would also do almost all of the Atari 2600, 5200 and Atari 8-bit computer games in 1983-1984 for Atari.  Atari's programmers in Sunnyvale were jumping ship to start their own firms. After another batch left to start Imagic, another group threaten to leave Atari.    Steve Ross, head of Warner Communications contacted GCC about doing games for Atari.   Not only was GCC able to code games for Atari's console, they were doing it in weeks compared to months.     Warner started to call GCC "The Toaster"   (Just pop in the game spec's and out popped a finished game.) 

 The Atari 7800 was designed to be flexible and expandable and even had
an expansion port for future peripherals to tap into the system bus and video circuitry.   The Atari 7800 ProSystem was the ultimate video game console creation, a console with features everyone wanted.  Gone were the complex 5200 type controllers, in came a clean and simple ProController, out went the HUGE size of the 5200 and in came a small and sleek console design.


    Within Atari, Inc. from 1983-1984 The Atari 3600 (as the Atari 7800 was called for the first several months
of the project) was stated as "Company #1 Priority" and in many Atari Engineering Log Books its noted:
"3600 System takes precedence over Atari 1400/1450 project."   Basically Atari was putting everything and
everyone into the 7800 to make it a winner.   To make sure the system had every bell and whistle possible,
the system was slated to be released with not only a computer keyboard, but also a High Score cartridge
(Designed by GCC), and a new add-on module for the Atari 5200 called The "Slam-Pam" which would
have given the Atari 5200 system full Atari 7800/2600 compatibility to ensure its existing base of 5200
owners could immediately take advantage of all the hot new games that the 7800 was capable of producing
(Designed by Gary Rubio).

To learn more about
the Atari 3600 Prototype

The Computer  Keyboard plugged into  joystick port #2 with an accompanying cartridge turned the
7800 into a full blown 8-bit computer system.   The keyboard even had an Atari SIO (Serial I/O) connector
for using Atari XL Computer System peripherals like cassette recorders, printers and even a disk drive.

To Learn more about the
Atari 7800 Keyboard

The one truly key feature was the on-board "Out of the Box" Atari VCS 2600 compatibility.   Atari also
wanted to avoid any chance of another flood of poorly written games for the console, so they
added an encryption key system into its cartridges, if the checksum key was valid the MARIA chip
would become active and the 7800 was ready to go, if not then the system would stay in 2600 compatibility mode.

When Atari was sold to the Tramiels in 1984, the last the thing the Tramiels had on their minds was selling video games.   However, Atari and Warner had committed to the obligation to GCC for the Atari 7800 and its games.    Reluctantly Jack Tramiel paid a one time "Go away" amount to GCC, who cashed that check immediately before it bounced.      The Atari 7800 was left to be shelved.    

Earlier in the Spring of 1983 Nintendo approached Atari to license and sell their Famicom system under the Atari name since Nintendo didn't feel it could compete against the once mighty video game giant.    In August of 1983, Ray Kassar was let go as Atari's CEO, in the upper management shuffle, the Nintendo deal slipped through the cracks.    Becoming impatient,  Nintendo decided that they would sell their Famicom in the U.S. on their own and called it The "Nintendo Entertainment System"   Released in 1985 it was an instant selling success.   Atari Corp, seeing the sudden resurgence in the video game market decided it was time to pull the finished 2600jr that Atari, Inc. under Warner Comm. had developed in 1983 out of mothballs and take the Atari 7800's which were also completed and sitting around for more then  2 years off the shelf and sell them in 1986.     Well, it was too little, too late.   Nintendo had the market; lock, stock and barrel.    Not to mention Sega with its Master System was also hot in Nintendo's tail, Atari was running third in a race it used to run a far lead in first in the past.

Atari 7800 (3600) Technical Documents
(Documents are in Adobe PDF format)


3600 Software Guide
(Courtesy of Bill Hofmann formerly with GCC
 and author of 7800 VideoWriter for the computer add-on)

Maria-2 Handy Hints
 (Courtesy of Kevin Osborn formerly with GCC)

GCC1702B "MARIA" Chip Specifications
(Courtesy of Art Ng, formerly with
  GCC, one of the designers of the Maria Chip)

Atari 7800 GCC OS Source Code Listing
(Courtesy of Gary Rubio, former Atari
 OOEM Liaison between Atari and GCC)

Atari 7800 Keyboard Programming Guide
(Courtesy of Gary Rubio, former Atari
 OOEM Liaison between Atari and GCC)


Atari had planned many new
&  exciting features for the Atari
7800 ProSystem, to read more: