The American Era – Japanese games on the Atari Video Computer System

Until the mid 1980s, console gaming was dominated by the American company Atari, and their home platform the Video Computer System, or VCS for short.

Ports of Atari’s own arcade games were the main selling points of the system, alongside Atari’s made-for-home efforts and eventually games by the first third party developer, Activision.

The VCS was not officially supported in Japan in the 70s (it was eventually released in 1983 as the 2800, far too late), but was sub-distributed in the country by Epoch, who also had their own line of consoles at the time. Nintendo was still releasing their single game Color TV Game series consoles. Japan was pretty much just a minor regional market in the grand scheme of things.

However, this changed in 1978, when Space Invaders by Taito became the biggest video game hit of all time to that point.

It was so big in Japan that entire arcades opened dedicated to that single game, but it was a huge hit everywhere in the world where games were played. Space Invaders was the start of what would eventually become Japanese dominance of the video game industry.

An ‘Invader House’ in Japan

It was ported to the VCS in 1980 in the first ever licensing deal, and became the killer app for the system.

It was a decent port that resembled the arcade game well.

And was packed in with every console, leading sales to increase substantially.

From then on, all the biggest games seemed to come from Japan. Nacmo’s Puck Man (renamed Pac Man for the west) was the next big name, followed by Nintendo’s Donkey Kong.

Another small Japanese firm named Sega were also making a name for themselves too, particularly with racing games like Monaco GP and Turbo. Having previously made mechanical arcade games, Sega games were known for fancy custom arcade hardware.

Steering wheels and sit down cabinets were Sega’s calling card.

All these Japanese companies’ games made their home debuts on American systems. Pac Man had an infamously bad VCS port which was the start of a downward trajectory for Atari.

Pac Man? Is that you?

Coleco managed to sign up the rights for Donkey Kong and several Sega games for their Colecovision system, but also published them on the VCS. Though the ageing VCS hardware and shoddy ports did not do the games justice.

This was the last time for decades Nintendo and Sega games were officially published on the same platform, though some of Sega’s games turned up on Nintendo platforms in roundabout ways, such as Sunsoft’s publishing of some Sega games on the Famicom.

And thanks to Nintendo taking over Japan and then the world with the Famicom/NES, and then Nintendo or Sony winning every generation since, to this day Japanese consoles have dominated. Though admittedly western software has regained sales dominance worldwide in the last decade.

One final interesting note is that due to some licensing deals of the era, a Nintendo game was released on Atari VCS that never saw a release elsewhere. A 1981 Nintendo game called Sky Skipper was never released in arcades following poor reviews in location testing.

But a port by Parker Brothers made its way onto Atari’s system.

The port is not too bad, considering the hardware.

Sky Skipper was never released or ported to any other platform for 35 years, until it was finally released as part of the Arcade Archives series on Nintendo Switch in 2018.

Shortly after release of Sky Skipper on Nintendo Switch, I was #8 in the world on the high score table. I’m sure scores have exploded since then…
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