Second generation of video game consoles

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History of video games

In the history of video games, the second-generation era refers to computer and video games, video game consoles, and handheld video game consoles available from 1976 to 1992. Notable platforms of the second generation include the Fairchild Channel F, Atari 2600, Intellivision, Odyssey², and ColecoVision. This generation began in November 1976 with the release of the Fairchild Channel F;[1] followed by the Atari 2600 in 1977;[2] Magnavox Odyssey² in 1978;[3] Intellivision in 1980;[4] and then the Emerson Arcadia 2001, ColecoVision, Atari 5200, and Vectrex[5] (all in 1982). But, by the end of the era, there were over 15 different consoles (see table below). It coincided with, and was partly fueled by, the golden age of arcade video games, a peak era of popularity and innovation for the medium. Many games for second generation home consoles were ports of arcade games. The Atari 2600 was the first to port a game in 1980, with Space Invaders[6], and ColecoVision bundled in Nintendo's Donkey Kong for the system when it was released in August 1982.

Built-in games saw limited application during this generation due to the invention of game cartridges by Jerry Lawson for the Fairchild Channel F,[7] the first system of the generation, although some consoles, such as the RCA Studio II, still came with built in games,[8] but also had the capability of utilizing cartridges.[9] The popularity of the game cartridge grew after the release of the Atari 2600, and from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s, most home video game systems used cartridges, before the technology was replaced by optical discs. The Fairchild Channel F was also the first console to use a microprocessor, which was the driving technology that allowed the consoles to use cartridges.[10] Other technology was also improving during this era: screen resolution, colour graphics, audio, and AI simulation.

In 1979, gaming giant Activision was created by former Atari programmers,[11] and was the first third-party developer of video games.[12] By 1982, a glut of consoles, over-hyped game releases, and low-quality games from new third-party developers began to appear, over-flowing the shelf capacity of toy stores. An over-saturation of consoles and games,[13] coupled with poor knowledge of the market, saw the video game industry crash of 1983 and marked the start of the next generation. Beginning in December 1982, and stretching through all of 1984, the crash of 1983 caused major disruption to the market,[14][15] primarily in North America, and caused some developers to collapse and the market to not fully recover until the 3rd generation.[16] Due to this, almost no new games were released in 1984. The second generation officially ended on January 1, 1992, with the discontinuation of the Atari 2600.[17]

Home systems[edit]

Fairchild Channel F[edit]

The Fairchild VES was released by Fairchild Semiconductor in November 1976 and was the first console of the second generation.[1] It was the world's first CPU-based video game console, introducing the cartridge-based game code storage format.[18] When Atari released their VCS the following year, Fairchild renamed the VES to the Fairchild Channel F.[19] The console featured a pause button which allowed players to freeze a game so they could take a break without the need to reset or turn off the console so they did not lose their current game progress.[20] Fairchild released twenty-six different cartridges for the system, with up to four games being on each cartridge and the console came with two pre-installed games, Hockey and Tennis.[21]

Atari 2600 & 5200[edit]

An Atari 2600 game joystick controller

In 1977, Atari released its CPU-based console called the Video Computer System (VCS), later called the Atari 2600.[22] Nine games were designed and released for the holiday season. Atari held exclusive rights to most of the popular arcade game conversions of the day, and used this key segment to support their older hardware in the market. This game advantage and the difference in price between the machines meant that each year, Atari sold more units than Intellivision, lengthening its lead despite inferior graphics.[23] The Atari 2600 went onto to sell over 30 million units over its life time, considerably more than any other console of the second generation.[24]

Early cartridges were 2 KB ROMs for the Atari 2600 and this limit grew steadily from 1978 to 1983: up to 16 KB for Atari 5200. Bank switching, a technique that allowed two different parts of the program to use the same memory addresses, was required for the larger cartridges to work.[25] Atari 2600 cartridges got as large as 32k through bank switching.[26] In the case of the Atari 2600, which had only 128 Bytes of RAM available in the console, a few late game cartridges contained a special combined RAM/ROM chip, thus adding another 256 bytes of RAM inside the cartridge itself.

The Atari standard joystick, released in 1977, was a digital controller, with a single fire button.[27] The Atari joystick port was for many years the de facto standard digital joystick specification.

In 1982, Atari released the Atari 5200 in an attempt to compete with the Intellivision. While superior to the 2600, poor sales and lack of new games meant Atari only supported it for two years before it was discontinued.

Bally Astrocade[edit]

The Bally Astrocade was originally referred to as the Bally Home Library Computer,[28][29] and was released in 1977, but was available only through mail order.[28] Delays in the production meant that none of the units actually shipped until 1978; by this time, the machine had been renamed the Bally Professional Arcade.[29] In this form, it sold mostly at computer stores and had little retail exposure unlike the Atari VCS. The rights to the console were sold to Astrovision in 1981 and they re-released the unit with the BASIC cartridge included for free; this system was known as the Bally Computer System.[29] When Astrovision changed their name to Astrocade in 1982 they also changed the name of the console to the Astrocade to follow suite. It sold under this name until the video game crash of 1983 and was discontinued in 1983.[30]

Magnavox Odyssey²[edit]

In 1978, Magnavox released its microprocessor-based console, the Odyssey², in the United States and Canada.[3] Philips Electronics released this same game console as the Philips G7000 for the European market.[31] Although the Odyssey 2 never became as popular as the Atari consoles, it managed to sell 2 million units throughout its lifetime.[32] A defining feature of the system was the speech synthesis unit add-on which enhanced music, sound effects and speech.[33]


The next major entry was the Intellivision, introduced by Mattel to test markets in 1979[34] and nationally in 1980.[4] Although chronologically coming long before the "16-bit era", the Intellivision console contains a 16-bit processor with 16-bit registers, and 16-bit system RAM.[35] However, programs were stored on 10-bit ROM. It also features an advanced sound chip which can deliver output through three distinct sound channels.[36] The Intellivision was the first video game system with a thumb-pad directional controller and tile based playfields with smooth multi-directional scrolling. The system's initial production run sold out shortly after its national launch in 1980.[36] Early cartridges were 4 KB ROMs growing to 24 K for later games.

Across its life, the Intellivision contributed a number of innovations to the second generation. It was the first home console to utilise a 16-bit microprocessor, to offer downloadable content through the PlayCable service[37] and the first to provide real-time human voices during gameplay. It was also the first system to pose a serious threat to Atari's dominance. A series of TV advertisements featuring George Plimpton demonstrated the superiority of Intellivision's graphics and sound to those of the Atari 2600 using side-by-side game comparisons.[36] It sold over 3 million units[38] before being discontinued in 1990.[39]


The Vectrex was unique among home systems of the time in featuring vector graphics and its own self-contained display.[40] At the time, many of the most popular arcade games used vector displays, and through a licensing deal with Cinematronics, GCE was able to produce high-quality versions of arcade games such as Space Wars and Armor Attack. Despite a strong library of games and good reviews, the Vectrex was ultimately a commercial failure and was on the market for less than 2 years.


Name Fairchild Channel F Atari VCS/2600
Sears Video Arcade
Bally Astrocade Magnavox Odyssey² Intellivision
Manufacturer Fairchild Semiconductor Atari Bally Technologies Magnavox Mattel
Console Fairchild-Channel-F-System-II-Console.png Atari-2600-Console.jpg Bally-Arcade-Console.png Magnavox-Odyssey-2-Console-Set.png Intellivision-Console-Set.png
Launch prices US$169.95 (equivalent to $750 in 2018) US$199[41] (equivalent to $830 in 2018) US$299[28] (equivalent to $1,240 in 2018) US$200 (equivalent to $770 in 2018)

JP¥49,800 (equivalent to ¥71,600 in 2013)

US$299[42] (equivalent to $910 in 2018)
Release date
  • USA: November 1976
  • USA: September 1977
  • EU: 1978
  • JP: May 1983
  • USA: October 1977
  • USA: Test marketed in 1979. Official release in 1980
  • EU: 1982
  • JP: 1982
Media Cartridge Cartridge and Cassette (Cassette available via special 3rd party attachment) Cartridge and cassette/Floppy, available with ZGRASS unit Cartridge Cartridge
Top-selling games Videocart-17: Pinball Challenge Pac-Man, 7 million (as of September 1, 2006)[46][47] N/A N/A :Las Vegas Poker & Blackjack 1.939 million
Major League Baseball 1.085 million (as of June 1983)[48][49]
Backward compatibility N/A N/A N/A None Atari 2600 games through the System Changer module
Accessories (retail) N/A
  • ZGRASS unit
  • The Voice
  • Chess Module
CPU Fairchild F8

1.79 MHz (PAL 2.00 MHz)

MOS Technology 6507

1.19 MHz

Zilog Z80

1.789 MHz

Intel 8048 8-bit microcontroller

1.79 MHz

General Instrument CP1610

894.886 kHz

Memory 64 bytes main RAM
2 kB video RAM (2×128×64 bits)
128 bytes RAM within MOS Technology RIOT chip (additional RAM may be included in game cartridges) 4k RAM (up to 64k with external modules in the expansion port) CPU-internal RAM: 64 bytes
Audio/video RAM: 128 bytes
1,456 bytes RAM, 64k directly addressable
  • 160×192 resolution
  • 2 sprites, 2 missiles, and 1 ball per scanline (sprites can be used multiple times through HMOVE command)
  • 2 background colors and 2 sprite colors (1 color per sprite) per scanline
  • Palette of 128 colors (NTSC) or 104 colors (PAL)
  • Resolution: True 160×102 / Basic 160×88 / Expanded RAM 320×204
  • Colors: True 8* / Basic 2
  • 160×200 resolution (NTSC)
  • 16-color fixed palette; sprites use 8 colors
  • 4 8×8 single-color user-defined sprites
  • 12 8×8 single-color characters; 64 shapes built into ROM BIOS;
  • 4 quad characters;
  • 9×8 background grid; dots, lines, or blocks
  • 159x96 pixels background resolution, 20x12 tiles (8x8 pixels)
  • smooth multi-directional hardware scrolling
  • 16 color palette, all of which can be on the screen at once
  • 8 sprites, 8x16 half-pixels
Audio Mono audio with:
  • 500 Hz, 1 kHz, and 1.5 kHz tones (can be modulated quickly to produce different tones)
Mono audio with:
  • two channel sound
  • 5-bit frequency divider and 4-bit audio control register
  • 4-bit volume control register per channel
Mono audio with:
  • 3 voices
  • noise/vibrato effect
Mono audio with:
  • 24-bit shift register, clockable at 2 frequencies
  • noise generator
Mono audio with:
Name Emerson Arcadia 2001 ColecoVision Atari 5200 Vectrex
Manufacturer Emerson Radio Corporation Coleco Atari General Consumer Electric and Milton Bradley
Console Emerson-Arcadia-2001.png ColecoVision-wController-L.jpg Atari-5200-4-Port-wController-L.jpg Vectrex-Console-Set.png
Launch prices US$200[51] (equivalent to $520 in 2018) US$175[41] (equivalent to $450 in 2018) US$270[41] (equivalent to $700 in 2018) US$199[52] (equivalent to $520 in 2018)
Release date
  • USA: November 1982
  • USA: November 1982
  • EU: May 1983
  • JP: June 1983
Media Cartridge[51] Cartridge and Cassette, available with Expansion #3 Cartridge Cartridge
Top-selling games N/A Donkey Kong (pack-in) N/A N/A
Backward compatibility N/A Compatible with Atari 2600 Via Expansion #1 Atari 2600 games through the 2600 cartridge adapter N/A
Accessories (retail) N/A
  • Expansion #1
  • Expansion #2
  • Expansion #3
  • Roller Controller
  • Super Action Controller Set
  • Trak-Ball Controller
  • Atari 2600 adaptor
  • 3-D Imager
  • Light Pen
CPU Signetics 2650 CPU

3.58 MHz

Zilog Z80A

3.58 MHz

Custom MOS 6502C

1.79 MHz (not a 65c02)

Motorola 68A09

1.5 MHz

Memory 512 bytes RAM 1 kB main RAM
16 kB video RAM
16 kB main DRAM 1 kB main RAM
  • 128x208 / 128×104
  • 8 Colours
  • 256×192 resolution
  • 16 colors on screen (1 color per sprite)
  • 32 sprites (4 per scanline), 8×8 or 8×16 pixels, integer zoom
  • Tilemap playfield, 8×8 tiles
  • Resolution: 80×192 (16 color), 160×192 (4 color), 320×192 (2 color)[53]
  • 2 to 16 (out of 256) on-screen colors,[53] up to 256 (16 hues, 16 luma) on screen (16 per scanline) with display list interrupts
  • 14 graphics modes (6 tilemap, 8 bitmap)[53]
  • 8 single-color sprites, full height of display; 1/2/4x width scaling
  • Smooth scrolling (vertical and horizontal)[54]
Built in vector CRT
Audio Mono audio with:
  • Single Channel "Beeper"
  • Single Channel "Noise"
Mono audio with:
  • 3 tone generators
  • 1 noise generator
Mono audio with:
  • 4-channel sound
Mono (built in speaker)

Sales standings[edit]

The best-selling console of the second generation is by far the Atari 2600 at 30 million units.[55] As of 1990, the Intellivision had sold 3 million units,[56][57][58] a number around 1 million higher than the Odyssey² sales,[59] and the ColecoVision's total sales at 2 million units by April 1984,[60] eight times the number of purchases for the Fairchild Channel F within one year, which was 250,000 units.[61]

Console Units sold worldwide
Fairchild Channel F 250,000[61] (as of February 12, 2012)
Atari 2600 30 million[24] (as of 2004)
Bally Astrocade Unknown
Magnavox Odyssey² 2 million[32] (as of 2005)
Intellivision 3 million[38][42][62] (as of 2004)
Emerson Arcadia 2001 Unknown
ColecoVision 2 million[63] (as of 1983)
Atari 5200 1 million[64] (as of 1984)
Vectrex Unknown

Other consoles[edit]

Handheld systems[edit]

The Microvision, manufactured and sold by Milton-Bradley was released in 1979[73] and was the first handheld game console that used cartridges that could be swapped out. it had a small game library which was prone to damage from static electricity and LCD screen that could rot which contributed its discontinuation two years after release.[74]

The Epoch Game Pocket Computer was released in Japan in 1984.[75][76] The Game Pocket Computer featured an LCD screen with 75 X 64 resolution, and could produce graphics at about the same level as early Atari 2600 games. The system sold poorly, and as a result only 5 games were made for it.

List of handheld systems[edit]


Milestone titles[edit]

  • Advanced Dungeons and Dragons: Cloudy Mountain (Intellivision) by Mattel Electronics won an award in the "1984 Best Adventure Videogame" category at the 5th Annual Arkie Awards[82] and was the first Intellivision cartridge to have more than 4K of ROM.
  • Adventure (Atari 2600) by Atari, Inc. was the first action-adventure video game[83] and first console fantasy game.[84] It is considered to be an important role in the advancement of home video games and one of the best Atari 2600 titles.
  • Asteroids (arcade port) (Atari 2600) was the first game on the 2600 to utilize the bank switching technique.[85]
  • Baseball (Intellivision) by Mattel was the console's best selling title with over one million copies sold.[86]
  • Demon Attack (Atari 2600) by Imagic was released in 1983. It won the 1983 Arcade Award for "Best Videogame of the Year",[87] was the company's best selling game and is considered a classic of the Atari 2600.[88][89][90]
  • Donkey Kong (arcade port) (ColecoVision) by Coleco was praised highly for being very faithful to the original arcade game and was considered the best version out of the ColecoVision, Atari and Intellivision ports.[91][92]
  • E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (Atari 2600) released in 1982[93] and is often accredited to being one of the worst games of all time[94][95] and played a significant role in the video game crash of 1983.[96]
  • Microsurgeon (Intellivision) by Imagic was praised highly for how original the game was[97] included in "The Art of Video Games" exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution in 2012.[98]
  • Missile Command (arcade port) (Atari 2600) by Atari, Inc. was released in 1981[99] and went on to sell more than 2.5 million copies making it the third best selling game on the console.[100]
  • Pitfall! (Atari 2600) by Activision, released in 1982,[101] was one of the best selling games for the Atari 2600, selling over 4 million copies[102] and popularizing the side-scrolling platformer genre.[103]
  • Pitfall II: Lost Caverns (Atari 2600) by Activision, released in 1984[104] was one of the most technically impressive titles for the 2600[105] and included a specialized audio chip on the cartridge that allowed for advanced music capabilities where music could be changed dynamically.[106]
  • River Raid (Atari 2600) by Activision was the first video game to be banned for minors in West Germany[107] but was still one of the most popular titles for the Atari 2600 and won an award for "1984 Best Action Videogame".[108]
  • Space Invaders (arcade port) (Atari 2600) by Taito was the first official licensing of an arcade game and was the first "killer app" for video game consoles.[109][110] Its release saw sales of the Atari 2600 quadruple[111] and was the first title to sell 1 million copies.[112]
  • Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (Atari 2600) by Parker Brothers was the first officially licensed video game of the Star Wars franchise.[113]
  • Utopia (Intellivision) by Don Daglow is often credited with being the first real-time strategy that laid the foundation for many games within the genre.[114][115]
  • Zaxxon (arcade port) (ColecoVision) by Sega was the first home console game to utilize isometric graphics.[116]

See also[edit]


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