I first owned an Atari 7800 after the system was already being soundly crushed by the NES and was therefore cheap. At the time I only had a couple of games for it and considered it a slightly souped-up 2600. That didn't stop me from amassing a decent collection years later. I also came across my second Atari 7800 while living in an apartment. I was taking out the trash and another tenant who was moving out felt kind enough to leave the system and games stacked outside the dumpster. I wish I could say that was the first dumpster system I owned.
It's an inexpensive retro system to buy games for thanks to unpopularity and overproduction. Most of my collection came from a dollar store in 1992. They had new Atari 7800 games stacked about 20 feet high. Recently I went on a binge where I finally started playing some of these games, I know what a crazy idea. I found the games were quite a bit better than I remembered, especially the arcade games. It got me thinking that maybe, for certain games, the Atari 7800 could challenge the NES for 8-bit supremacy.
The key word there is "certain". The Atari 7800 library never came close to having a Metroid, Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy, or Super Mario Bros. quality game. It did really well in the arcade conversion department though so that's where we'll make these two systems face off.
At the end of the day though, this is a just an attempt to get some cheap hits for my site. For whatever reason the Sega Master System vs. NES grudge match I did generates a bunch of traffic so I figure people must really like looking at side-by-side comparisons of games. I know I do at least. Of course, I don't run ads on this site so I don't know why I care if anyone visits? I should definitely get my head checked out sometime.
Box Score: Since I'm doing these alphabetically the list starts with Choplifter which is sort of an exception to the arcade port theme. It was originally an Apple II game that was later ported to the arcade. Also it was on the Famicom but not the NES, whatever. The Famicom version looks more like the arcade game and the Atari 7800 version is closer to the very original. The games look different but play roughly the same. Despite playing this game several times over the last 30 years I only just now figured out it's about the Iran hostage crisis.
Winner: Let's start with an upset and give this round to the Atari 7800. Based on the screenshots that seems like a terrible call but it's just more fun than the Famicom port. I normally don't complain about games being too difficult but the Famicom version of Choplifter crosses the line into being excessively frustrating. After freeing the hostages in the Famicom version you have about 2-3 nanoseconds to rescue them before a tank destroys you. Taking out that tank buys you another nanosecond or so. Rage quitting is inevitable. The 7800 version isn't a cakewalk but at least gives you a chance to survive.
I also now realize I forgot to include this in the Sega Master System vs. NES Grudge Match. The Master System would have won this round handily against the NES, I think it's the best home console version all around. I think I wasn't aware of Choplifter on the Famicom/NES existing at the time. I wrote it a long time ago now.
Box Score: The addition of a second button alone made the Atari 7800 a huge upgrade over the 2600 (leaving the 5200 out of this conversation for now). It paid off by allowing games like Commando to retain the original control scheme. The 7800 version of Commando doesn't look much like the arcade game though, it's the same premise but could just as easily been renamed "Jungle Fighter" and sold as a knock-off. The NES version retains a similar graphic style to the arcade version and is a more accurate conversion all around.
Winner: Let's go with another upset and put the Atari 7800 up 2-0. This again is a case where the NES version looks better but the 7800 version is more fun. The real issue with the NES version is sprite flicker. We all must have been experiencing Stockholm Syndrome (NESholm Syndrome maybe) in the '80s because today games like Commando drive me mad. If you duct-taped me to a chair today and demanded I play one of these games for 8 hours I'd pick the 7800 version.
Don't worry NES fans, I think once we get to the letter D things will be a little less rosy for the 7800.
Box Score: The venerable Dig Dug was ported to everything that could run it, and some things that couldn't, in the '80s. Even as you read this I'm confident someone is porting it to yet-another miniature replica arcade machine. Wait, has it been ported to some kind of fake fingernail yet? If not I'm calling it next. And why not - it's a simple and fun game that aged well. These two home ports are both perfectly respectable. The NES version clearly looks better and there aren't many major differences beyond that.
Winner: Let's go with this NES version based on the visuals. The 7800 version is perfectly fine otherwise. We're now at 2-1 in this silly contest.
Box Score: I don't know what kind of licensing gymnastics occurred to allow Nintendo's Donkey Kong to live on a rival system. Maybe it's just as simple as it being an agreement that was in place before Nintendo launched their own system. Keep in mind that the 7800 was developed and shelved until Nintendo revived the market in the US. Maybe in some bizarre alternate reality the 7800 version of Donkey Kong is a smash hit in 1984.
Winner: The screenshots don't tell a great story here. The Atari 7800 seems to have a respectable version of Donkey Kong but, oh wow, does it not. This is a game that looks like Donkey Kong but controls sort of like Jungle Hunt. It's a challenging game to play because the jump distance and timing is way off. Also all the enemies move at about 1.5x the arcade speed. The NES version is so close to the arcade that Nintendo didn't bother re-releasing the arcade version until 2018. I know the story is more complicated than that but you get my point. So this evens things up at 2-2.
Box Score: Once I remembered that Donkey Kong was on the 7800 I knew all bets were off for Nintendo games on the system. If someone showed me a copy of Ocarina of Time for the 7800 released in 1986 I wouldn't even flinch. If I dared to question why it existed some rando would email me "Well you see at the 1983 CES there was this agreement.."
Anyway, yeah, Donkey Kong Jr. on the 7800, there's something that exists. Wait, was it really published in 1988? This is even more confusing now. Please don't write to explain why this happened.
Winner: You can more or less copy and paste the previous comments and give this round to the NES. The 7800 version plays so badly that after 10 tries I couldn't get past the 2nd screen and quit. So it's 2-3 now.
Box Score: In the Sega Master System vs. NES Grudge Match the Master System version of Double Dragon won. They were more or less the same game with some graphical differences. The contrast between the 7800 and NES versions is much more profound.
Winner: I remember a lot of people lamenting how different Double Dragon on the NES was from the arcade version. Those people should never try the 7800 version. I know game development is difficult, I certainly couldn't port Double Dragon to the 7800, so the developers undoubtedly worked their hardest to make this game a reality. It just seems to be more than the 7800 could handle. Meanwhile the NES version is a quirky yet perfectly average game. The score is now 2-4.
Box Score: Like Dig Dug, Galaga is another game that was ported to everything. Most of the home versions were good, even the Atari 2600 had a respectable port. Not surprisingly these two versions both capture the essence of the game well.
Winner: I'm giving this round to the Atari 7800 because the NES version, although graphically superior, is a sluggish game. The action element of Galaga is reduced on it. The difficulty on the 7800 version is a little higher, partially due to the speed, but it's not too rough. The 7800 is getting back into the fight and we're at 3-4.
Box Score: I do not envy people who had to port Ikari Warriors to home consoles. The controls seem especially difficult to translate. As the NES proved with Double Dragon, supporting two simultaneous players must be challenging.
Winner: 20 seconds ago I complained about flicker ruining Commando on the NES so I sound like a hypocrite giving this round to it. It's just a much more fun game. The 7800 port is a tad slow and the graphics look like a blur. I'm not blue-green color blind but it's really tough to tell the soldiers apart from the scenery. The NES version looks and plays better even with often terrible flicker. Also, A-B-B-A. The NES is pulling ahead again with the score now 3-5.
Box Score: Another staple of the '80s home port scene is Joust. It's obvious why - the game isn't complicated and is a great two-player experience. They need to figure out how to get the Joust guy into a Smash Bros. game. That might be the one thing keeping me from enjoying the series. Anyway, yeah, like Galaga these are both solid ports. Aside from graphics the 7800 plays a tad faster but it's not a huge difference.
Winner: It's really close but I'm going with the NES version. It looks a little better and I found the controls easier to manage. If you were an Atari 7800 owner in the '80s you definitely would not have been disappointed with this game though. It's now 3-6 in favor of the NES.
Box Score: It's a little unfair to include Klax since it never made it past the prototype stage on the 7800. After trying it a few times it felt complete enough to include. I hear there are some levels that can't be completed but I'll ignore those. In its unfinished form it's still one of the top 10 or so games on the 7800. The only notable difference between these is the graphics.
Winner: I have to give the nod to the NES version just out of the better visuals. On the 7800 it's sometimes tough to tell the colors apart. I think it would be unfair to claim it has more content or whatever since it's going against an un-finished game. 3-7 for the NES, it's uphill battle for the 7800 now.
Box Score: Sorry, I can't move past this. Why is Mario Bros. on the Atari 7800 in 1988? Look, I get it. Some dude from Atari and some dude from Nintendo talked while standing next to each other in the bathroom at the 198-whatever CES. Through this bathroom agreement Atari was able to license Nintendo games well into the lifespan of the NES. What I'm stuck on is why Atari thought this was a good idea. This was a launch title on the NES, anyone remotely interested in owning Mario Bros. had the real version already. Did they imagine some secret market of Mario fans that just weren't ready to give up on Atari?
Winner: The NES easily wins this one. The effort on the Atari 7800 version is admirable but ultimately it's not close. 3-8 NES.
Box Score: Most systems in the '80s also had Ms. Pac Man ports. Many of the '90s systems did too. On the NES we weren't content with one Ms. Pac Man port, oh no, we have two. There's the unlicensed Tengen port which is very close to the Genesis, Super Nintendo, and Master System ports. Then there's the oddly late in the NES lifecycle Namco port. I don't know how any of this licensing madness works. I also don't know why I can't take a screenshot with the energizers lit, you figure I have a 50/50 chance but I'm 0-6 here.
Winner: You would think in the face of two competitors there's no way the Atari 7800 would win. Well, it does so handily. The NES versions win in the graphics department but that's it. The Tengen version has scrolling mazes that are complete deathtraps. Every time you scroll you risk running right into an unseen ghost. The Namco version feels like Ms. Pac Man is unhappy with her relationship choices and started taking quaaludes to get through her day. The Atari 7800 version is a fast-paced & fun game that at worst has funky scaling. It's now 4-8, will Atari be able to pull off a late rally?
Box Score: Rampage is a timeless game. There's no arcade game of the '80s my kids have enjoyed more. I think 100 years from now people will still be playing Rampage. It will be downloadable for like $80 on the Nintendo Flob. Laugh at that name all you want but your great-grandchildren will be creating Flobatars on it - take that to the bank. There were many home versions of Rampage, even on the 2600 of all things. I can't even begin to imagine how difficult that was. I don't think I knew an Atari 7800 version existed until I found one for $1. Yeah, I'm an evil person who uses emulators to take screenshots but I own darn near every game on this page. Not a 7800 Klax prototype of course.
Winner: NES version all the way. Look how sad Lizzie is on that 7800 screenshot, that's how you'll feel playing it. 4-9 with two more to go.
Box Score: I get the impression most retro gamers don't like Xenophobe. I think it's alright, it's clearly an Alien knock-off but whatever. The controls are a bit wonky but you get used to them. There weren't a lot of home ports perhaps confirming the limited popularity. The Atari 7800 and NES versions are both generally accurate re-creations of the arcade version. Oddly this might be the only case where the Lynx port turned out best. They had to change the game to fit the system and it resulted in something better than the original. I guess I'll save this until I do some kind of Lynx vs Game Gear piece. I'm so not looking forward to that one.
Winner: This is the closest match-up since Joust. The re-occurring theme is the Atari 7800 games play faster but the NES games look better. I think in this case the NES just barely edges out a victory. 4-10 now folks.
Box Score: Confession time, when I first saw Xevious as a kid I thought it was the most amazing looking game EVAR. The scenery was simple yet perfect. Even today it holds up well. None of the home versions quite captured the aesthetics, some came closer than others.
Winner: I'm going with the Atari 7800 version because... how did they create such a bland, sterile looking version on the NES? Xevious isn't the most awesome shooter of all time. It's a maybe above-average shooter that benefits greatly from having nice scenery. You feel like you're flying over a real world. This appeal is totally lost on the NES version.
And the winner is..
I have the final score at 5-10 in favor of the NES. It could just as easily be 6-9 though I'm still not fully committed to the Joust decision. Dig Dug and Xenophobe are close too so if someone else scored this 7-8 I wouldn't argue. There's no easy path to victory for the 7800 as 6 games (DK, DK Jr, Mario Bros, Double Dragon, Rampage, Ikari Warriors) are completely lop-sided.
However it's scored, this is a strong showing for the 7800. This re-affirmed to me that it was a great console for arcade ports. That's not a bad legacy for the system, I feel the same way about the 32X and Saturn. This is all without including arcade ports like Food Fight that didn't have an NES equivalent. An overall "which system is better for arcade ports" battle could easily go to the 7800 when all the Atari games not released on the NES are included.
I know this is going to sound weird, but if you want to have an authentic '80s gaming experience you don't play arcade ROMZ - you play arcade ports because far more hours of gaming went into them. Sure, everyone played a net hour or two of Pac Man in the arcade. But everyone, I mean everyone, played 40+ hours of a home version. That's why arcade ports fascinate me. This is what people put far more time into.
So this was fun. I don't know if I'll do another of these anytime soon. On the last one of these I did I said Turbografx-16 CD vs Sega CD would be next. Let's just say I started on it and ran into some issues. I don't know what's next or when but I doubt this will be the last installment of Grudge Match.