A Magnet for Arcade Ports
Frankly, I'd argue the very thing that made the 7800 unappealing since its release in 1986 is what makes the system desirable today -- this machine absolutely caters to folks who well remember the great arcade games of the 1980s. When the NES ruled the gaming world, it did so on the strength of great games like Super Mario Brothers and some fantastic sports titles from companies like Tecmo (Tecmo Bowl is still a lot of fun, by the way). The 7800 never really did offer much in the way of Mario-style platform games and I don't even want to talk about some of the dreadful sports titles that came out for the system.
Indeed, the strength of that system was in arcade ports. Back in 1986, the gaming world had moved a bit past arcade ports and was concentrating on original titles geared specifically for the home gaming market. The NES was home to a good number of games that were not just translations of arcade favorites. Since gamers were starting to look for more than replicating the arcade experience at home, it's no wonder the 7800 fared poorly. Sure, it had some great arcade translations and could play 2600 games, but folks at the time didn't seem to care. People wanting to play 2600 games likely either had one or could pick one up for considerably less than a 7800 (remember when Atari slashed the cost of their aging console to $50?) Also, folks wanting the newest platformers and something other than very good arcade ports could pick up an NES. The 7800 had only a few titles similar in nature to what was available in droves on the NES -- platformers, some role playing games and such.
These days, however, the 7800 looks absolutely beautiful. Why? I grew up on the Atari 2600 and was part of a generation wanting flawless arcade ports at home. While a lot of arcade titles were ported over to the 2600, they paled when compared to the "real thing." Sure, Space Invaders, Missile Command and Frogger were dandy fun, but they were quite different from the arcade titles that inspired them.
The 7800, on the other hand, was a system that could replicate the arcade experience at home and, quite often, actually improve on it considerably. Titles like Joust, Ms. Pac-Man, Dig Dug, Food Fight and Galaga are absolutely fantastic on the 7800. Versions of Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., Xenophobe, Commando and Robotron are very good, too. Sure, some of those titles were lacking when it came to sound (Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr. were particularly horrible when it came to audio), but the graphics were good enough to satisfy most arcade fans.
What's even more impressive, however, are improvements made on a couple of games ported to the 7800. Centipede is a glowing example of a title that was really more fun at home than in the arcade. The improvement in that one is the two-player cooperative mode in which both participants shared the screen and worked together to stop the nasty Centipede and its minions. That option just puts a whole new level of fun in the game and eliminates the problem common to arcade titles -- having two players alternate, leaving one bored while waiting for the other to "die" and surrender a turn.
Another improvement is found in Deluxe Asteroids. While the gameplay doesn't differ greatly from the arcade version, the graphics are definitely better. While the 7800 wasn't set up for the crisp, linear vector graphics that were featured in the arcade version of Asteroids, the spinning, colorful rocks put in the game add a welcome addition to the classic title. The asteroids appear more "textured" because of marks on their surfaces such as craters. And, by animating the multi-colored asteroids so they appear to be spinning, the game "feels" like it has more depth than the two-dimensional shooter that inspired it. That illusion of dimension, indeed, adds considerably to the game.
Another minor triumph for the 7800 -- and I do mean minor -- is the addition of a few titles that were big hits on eight-bit computer systems in the 1980s. One on One basketball (one of the few decent sports titles for the 7800) was a successful translation, as was Choplifter! (which was featured regularly on my Apple //e). And, let's not forget about Ballblazer, a kind of futuristic version of soccer which is absolutely essential for folks fortunate enough to own a 7800.
And, the 7800 was designed so those great titles didn't suffer from the annoying flashing graphics and chronic slowdown that were common in computers and some gaming systems in the 1980s. If you want a good example of slowdown, try Choplifter! on an Apple //e and notice how much the system lags when there's a lot of activity on the screen. That's just not much of a problem on the 7800.
So, while the beloved 7800 never did have much in the way of great, "killer app" programs that were unique to the system, it had a respectable library that makes it worth having now. Sure, I love the fact it can play those great 2600 titles, but I appreciate it's ability to serve as the home for some of those fantastic arcade ports I blew a lot of quarters on in the 1980s. Simply put, that's one of the best systems ever made for replicating classic arcade games at home. Yeah, and I know there are some emulators out there that allow for arcade games to be played on a personal computer. However, I've always found emulation to be less than satisfying -- plugging in a cartridge to an honest-to-God vintage machine is a heck of a lot more fun than fooling with software on a buggy Windows box in order to access a ROM (and, I won't even get in to the copyright questions). The 7800 was the system that helped me realize my dream of owning arcade ports that were almost as good as the originals. I would have loved for the excellent
Lode Runner to be ported over to the 7800, but I guess you can't have everything.