With no perceivable innovation and a library of older games, even Atari-themed magazines questioned the system's timing and viability. Its primary selling point was backward compatibility with the Atari 2600. In terms of technology the 7800 was actually a small step down from its predecessor, the Atari 5200.
Console design: C+. Constructed of black plastic with silver trim, the 7800 has a sleek, streamlined look that resembles a miniature 5200. Across the front of the unit are four buttons: power, pause, select, and reset. There's also a red power light, two controller ports, and a pair of difficulty switches.
Note that while the 5200 featured a pause button on the controllers, the 7800 moved this function to the console itself. The poorly-situated difficulty switches are well hidden under the front, making it hard to determine their current settings. Another issue is the narrow cartridge port, which can't even accommodate several third-party 2600 cartridges.
Console durability: A. Lightweight and solid state, the 7800 does not easily break.
Graphics: C-. Compared to the NES the 7800 graphics look less sharp and the colors not nearly as vibrant. Then again, few of its games seemed to push the system's graphic capabilities.
Audio: D. The 7800's sound capabilities are meager at best, probably comparable to the Atari 2600. The 5200 was far better in terms of audio.
Controllers: F. The standard 7800 controller features a knob joystick and one large orange button on each side. It's called a Pro-Line controller, but is more accurately described as a "Pain-Line". Originally meant as a special controller for the 2600, it feature a tight joystick with two red clicky buttons on the sides. They may have been included with the 7800 just so Atari could get rid of them.
While the self-centering joystick is an improvement over the ill-fated 5200 controller, it still has an uncomfortable shape. Playing any button-tapping game for an extended period of time can be a painful experience. Fortunately, the 7800 supports Atari 2600 joysticks, and most 7800 games work fine with them despite their single-button limitation.
Media: B-. 7800 cartridges are of the exact same size and shape as those for the 2600. Unfortunately, in a move to minimize expenses, the labels are printed gray and black, making all the 7800 cartridges look pretty much the same (boring).
Packaging: B. Atari 7800 games were packaged in the same style of boxes as the Atari 2600 and 5200. Silver in color, the boxes feature red lettering on the sides and colorful, stylized artwork on the front.
Pack-In Game: C. Though not a bad game, Pole Position II wasn't the most inspired choice for Atari's new console. Frankly it looked a lot like the original game released way back in 1982.
Launch Titles: D. The eight launch titles available in May of 1986 were notable for being arcade titles from the 1980-1983 timeframe. These were fine games but gave the impression that the system didn't have anything new to offer - a sentiment not too far off base.
Library: D. The 7800 library is loaded with rehashes of old standbys like Galaga, Asteroids, Pole Position, and Ms. Pac-Man. Compared to the innovative titles coming from Nintendo, Atari's lineup looked tired. On a positive note, the 7800 did offer some definitive versions of several old classics, including outstanding two-player simultaneous versions of Centipede and Asteroids.
Collectability: C. The Atari 7800 isn't the most exciting system to collect for but most of its games are cheap and readily available - some even brand new. In addition, it's feasible to collect practically the entire system library. The fact that it plays 2600 games won't matter to most collectors who probably already own one or more 2600 consoles.
Innovations: First system to be backward compatible.
Pros and Cons:
+ Backward compatible with Atari 2600 games and controllers
+ Nice arcade conversions
- Uninspired library
- Mediocre graphics and sound
- Poorly designed controller