Atari 400 makes a comeback in miniature form
The only PC with a keyboard so dreadful it challenged the ZX80, now even less usable
Retro Tech Week Judges pondering contenders for the title of “World’s Worst PC Keyboard, Ever”, seldom look too far beyond Sinclair’s ZX80, which offered a membrane that caused attached screens to flicker with every keystroke.
But a year before the ZX80’s 1980 debut, Atari produced a contender: the Atari 400. And in March you’ll be able to buy it again, in even less useful form.
The Atari 400 and its sibling the 800 were the storied company’s follow-up to the Video Computer System (VCS - perhaps better known as the Atari 2600). While the VCS/2600 is now legendary, it didn’t sell spectacularly well, and Atari’s engineers knew its sequel would be a big upgrade.
While it worked on that sequel, early PCs picked up pace and gathered plenty of attention. Atari decided a computer with excellent graphics would be a better idea than another console.
The result was the Atari 400 and 800, both packing a 6502 processor and plenty the fastest graphics chips of the era, plus sprite-handling code that improved games in myriad ways. The 400 scored the abovementioned rubbish membrane keyboard and shipped with 4K of memory at $550. The 800 offered proper keys and 8K of RAM, a combo deemed worthy of a $1,000 price tag.
Both machines featured a bulbous rear that concealed a slot for software cartridges. The 800 also boasted three expansion slots that could be used for extra memory.
The machines were lauded and sold decently well. But Atari struggled to see off competitors like Commodore and Tandy, while in the UK Sinclair made the market. By the mid-1980s IBM had defined a de facto desktop standard and Apple carved out its niche. No manufacturer of proprietary PCs survived the resulting market crunch.
Once the Nintendo Entertainment System and its ilk reached loungerooms in around 1983, Atari couldn’t even mount a retreat to the console market.
The company arguably never recovered.
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But British company Retro Games has recovered the Atari 400 and last week announced the imminent release of a half-size recreation of the machine that we imagine will make its keyboard even more dire.
The package will be familiar to retro fans: the machine’s been updated with HDMI for video and audio output, and five USB-A slots for joysticks and gamepads. Or perhaps an external keyboard. 25 games are burned into the machine’s internals, including Berzerk, Lee, Millipede, Miner 2049er, M.U.L.E. and Star Raiders II. Side-loading other games from a USB stick is also possible.
There’s also a little non-volatile memory that allows progress to be saved, or the recording and playback of up to 30 seconds of gaming.
And maybe coding, too. Retro Games claims the machine is an utterly faithful replica of the 400, so it should include ATARI BASIC. The computer is also said to be compatible with all of Ataris’ eight-bit efforts, namely the 400/800, XL and XE series, and the 5200 home console.
The machine costs $119.99/£99.99/€119.99/AUD$189.95 and is available for pre-order now with a release date of March 28th. Just in time to frustrate buyers whose consoles don’t arrive before Good Friday on the 30th, leaving them with a long weekend to hit “refresh” on parcel tracking websites, a game that got very tired, very fast, during COVID lockdowns.
The Register hopes the machine doesn’t turn out to be an April Fool joke once it lands. ®
Your correspondent won’t be pre-ordering one. The Atari 2600 replica in my front room is used for about 20 minutes a year. Which is not to say I dislike retro: I rescued a rainy day on a recent beach holiday when I found 80s classic Lords Of Midnight on my phone, and won by having Fawkrin the Skulkrin destroy the Ice Crown even after Luxor the Moon Prince was slain by Doomdark's forces!