The Video Game Critic presents the

Atari XE Game System (XEGS)


Atari XE system
Launch Date: Late 1987
Manufacturer: Atari
Format: Cartridge
Controller ports: 2
Save Capability: None
Number of Games: Over 75
Video Output: RF, Composite
Original Price: $199

Hot on the heels of the tepid Atari 7800, Atari inexplicably decided to released yet another game console: the Atari XE Game System (XEGS). A bizarre move, it was as if Atari had realized their losing strategy with the 7800 and wanted to immediately change gears with a new approach.

This time Atari attempted to leverage their extensive and highly-regarded 8-bit computer library. Eight years in the making, the library was chock full of quality titles. Ironically, Atari had eschewed marketing their computers as game machines in the past, insisting their systems were better suited for "practical" applications.

The XEGS was essentially an Atari XE computer in an artisitic shell. Although cartridge-based, it would support all the standard Atari computer peripherals including floppy disk drives, tape drives, and printers. Unfortunately, most of the games it could run could hardly compete with the fresh crop of titles coming out for the NES.

It's a shame it was packaged with the lackluster Flight Simulator 2 and Bug Hunt. Apparently these were chosen to justify the keyboard and gun accesories. Atari proceeded to repackage several old classics like Archon and Blue Max in cartridge form, but the system was basically dead on arrival. Sharing the same fate as its sister (the Atari 7800), the XEGS languished briefly before fading into obscurity.

Atari XEGS system
Atari XE Game System

Console design: C. With its elegant angles and large pastel buttons, the system resembles an artist's palette. While aesthetically pleasing, the design is less than practical. It's a sin how the controller and keyboard ports are tucked away in tiny alcoves under the side of the console. There's little room for fingers down there, so plugging in controllers is a major hassle.

The keyboard, which could probably be considered part of the console, has a ridiculously short cord that forces you to place it directly in front of the console. It might as well be attached but that would have ruined the clean, minimal look they were shooting for.

Console durability: B. The machine feels pretty solid although the buttons can be flakey on occasion. I've also had some minor issues with the audio output.

Pitfall II screenshot
Pitfall II (1984)

Graphics: A-. Despite running on technology developed in the late 1970's, the XEGS' graphic prowess compares favorably to the other systems of its day, namely the NES. The system has the ability to display high resolution graphics in a multitude of colors. In addition, XEGS games rarely exhibit the flicker, break-up, or slow-down common on other 8-bit systems.

Audio: A-. Better than the 7800 or NES, the XEGS' audio capabilities are exactly the same as the Atari 5200 (both use Atari's Pokey chip). It was able to generate realistic explosion effects, terrific music, and even some decent voice synthesis.

Atari XEGS controller
Atari XE controllers

Controllers: C. The system comes with a standard Atari 2600 joystick, albeit with a creme-colored base. That was fine for 1980, but in 1987 this controller came across as just plain cheap. The single-button is limiting, but this is offset by the keyboard, providing a wide range of control options (in theory).

Finally, you get a big, goofy looking light gun that looks like something from an old black and white Flash Gordon episode. I've read numerous complaints about its accuracy, but in my experience this one is about par for the course.

Atari XEGS game
Atari XE Game Box

Media: C+. Forced to adopt the same basic cartridge shape as the Atari XE computers, XEGS games look like small, rectangular bricks. Although the original Atari computer cartridges had an ugly brown and yellow color scheme, the rounded, creme-colored carts made for the XEGS look somewhat attractive.

If you invest in a 1050 disk drive, you can also play a huge number of Atari computer games released on 5 1/4-inch floppy disks. Despite what I was told in the 1980's, these disks are surprisingly durable. I have had no problems playing games on floppies that are well over 35 years old.

Packaging: C. XEGS titles were packaged in blue boxes inconveniently larger than those for previous Atari systems. They feature a pattern of crisscrossing lines and often some elaborate artwork.

Flight Simulator II screenshot
Flight Simulator II (1984)

Pack-In Games: C. The Atari shipped with a potpourri of games. Missile Command was built into the console, but at five years old it was no spring chicken. Flight Simulator II was a complex computer title included largely to justify the keyboard. Finally, a shooter called Bug Hunt provided use for the light gun. New owners had plenty to do, but it felt like a case of quantity over quality.

Launch titles: Since the system was backwards compatible with the sprawling Atari 8-bit library, owners had a huge variety at their disposal. Much of the software however was available only on floppy disk, necessitating the purchase of the 1050 disk drive.

Bruce Lee screenshot
Bruce Lee (1984)

Library: A. Comparable to the Commodore 64 library, the Atari 8-bit library is massive. You will find platform games, sophisticated strategy titles, text adventures, flight/combat simulators, and of course excellent versions of all your classic arcade favorites.

Collectability: B. For collectors, the Atari XE Game System has a lot of terrific titles, most available at cheap prices. Finding complete versions of some of the disk-based software can be a challenge however. For gamers raised on an Atari 8-bit computer (like myself), this console is a natural choice. Then again, from a practical point of view, you get the same capabilities from a normal Atari 8-bit computer, which is more compact and probably easier to acquire.

Innovations: Detachable keyboard.

Pros and Cons:
+ Huge library of terrific games
+ Uses Atari 2600 joysticks
- Hard to plug in controllers
- Short keyboard cable

Next: Turbografx-16/Turbo Duo Console Review

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