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Why Does the Atari 7800 Have Such Crappy Sound?

The Atari 7800 was a graphical powerhouse for it's time, so it may be confusing when a wayfaring stranger who is new to the system hears the audio from many of it's games. Some original release titles, like Joust or Asteroids rock perfectly fine audio for an 80's game console. But most other games, like Planet Smashers and Realsports Baseball, have horrendous audio. Oddly, Ballblazer (the first video game from Lucasarts of Star Wars fame) has tremendous music. So---- what's going on?

Even people totally unfamiliar with the Prosystem will recognize that the 7800 cartridges look extremely similar to the 2600 (VCS) carts. This was because the 7800 was the world's first backwards compatible system, and both system's carts shared many attributes: size, label placement, boards, color, and unfortunately most of the games for the 2600 and 7800 shared the 2600's ancient technology for sound. The 2600's TIA chip was created in the mid 70s. The 7800 was released in 1986. That was an issue. This bright idea to use the VCS sound chip for audio was a cost cutting move by the new owners of Atari, the Tramiels, who thought video games were dying and the future for home computer entertainment would solely be PCs. He was wrong.

What's crazy is that the 7800's predecessor, the Atari 5200, had something called a "POKEY" chip. The POKEY chip was used in arcade games like Centipede and in Atari home computers. It was capable of bass lines, melody lines, percussion and rich sound effects. The 7800 itself could have been hard wired with a single POKEY chip, instead of putting one in each cart like they did with Ballblazer and Commando, which ended up being fairly expensive to do. In fact, GCC (General Computer Company) developed a "Minnie" chip that would've been less than 5 dollars per cart to add and provided each game with audio comparable to the POKEY- but that was nixxed, too.

Speaking of which, Ballblazer and Commando are the only games form the original release line up to feature POKEY chips on board. The sound improvement is extremely noticeable. Many of the 7800's best games: Ninja Golf, Mean 18 Golf, and Basketbrawl for example, are almost entirely devoid of audio to avoid heinous results.

In the 2000s, the folks in the booming 7800 homebrew scene started harvesting the fairly ubiquitous Ballblazer carts for their POKEY chips to make their new creations sound tremendous. Games like Rikki & Vikki, Danger Zone and Bentley Bear's Crystal Quest, have amazing music thanks to the POKEY chip. But as any environmentalist will tell you: resources are limited. When the POKEY chips started become scarce and Ballblazer carts started selling for $75 on ebay, innovation struck.

Fred Quimby recently created the HOKEY chip, and even though not 100% perfect at the moment, it is doing a fine job providing excellent audio for new Atari 7800 games across the hobby programming scene. Even some of the new multi-carts are providing on-board POKEY/ HOKEY/ or even Yamaha sound to help the cause. The frequently mourned homebrew peripheral that never saw the light of day, the 7800 Expansion Module, was going to feature a hard wired POKEY chip to handle all of the games in the system with one chip. Something that should have been done from the get go on the 7800s rolling off the assembly line in 1984. Derp.

The 7800's audio, unpopular controllers and limited library hurt the Prosystem at launch in 1986. One simple chip per console could have helped remedy the situation in part, but alas... here we are. The good news is that the love from the 7800 homebrew community has created some amazing games in recent years with tremendous audio, making it easier to forget the ancient faux pas of star-crossed Atari owners of a bygone era.