Atari vs. Commodore: Which Was Better, Really?

As home computing took off in the 1980s, two names dominated the American market. Atari and Commodore experienced mainstream success, and in the eyes of many fans, a sort of rivalry began to form.

So which system was really better: Atari or Commodore? The answer is largely in the of the beholder, as both systems offered similar features in terms of computing power, memory, graphics, and price points. While on paper, the systems were virtually the same; however, the Commodore system dominated in sales throughout the 80s.

Category Atari Commodore
Inital Price $550 $595
Units Sold4 M12.5-17M
Operating SystemCustom OSCommodore KERNAL
Commodore BASIC 2.0
CPU MOS Tech 6502B
@ 1.79 MHz
MOS Tech 6510/8500
@ 1.023 MHz
RAM8 KB64 KB
Graphics384 pixels per TV line,
256 colors,
8 x sprites,
raster interrupts
320 x 200,
16 colors,
8 x sprites,
raster interrupt
Sound4 x oscillators,
sound mixing
SID 6581/8580
3x oscillators,
4x filter,
wave, ADSR, ring

That said, for anyone interested in retro computing, there’s still plenty to learn about both systems and the rivalry they formed in American at home computing.

What is the History of the Atari?

Atari-v-Commodore

The Atari 8-bit family of systems was the first of the two to be introduced, with a debut in 1979.

Manufactured by Atari Inc., the systems offer far more than what was otherwise available in an at-home computer. Built on the MOS Technology 6502 CPU, the initial system ran at 1.79 MHz with custom co-processors. This feature allowed sound and graphics capabilities that far exceeded competitors of the time.

These features also added to the Atari’s draw as a gaming console, something that it is now almost exclusively known for.

The Different Atari Models: The 400 and 800 Model

Released in November 1979, Atari initially released the machine in two models, differentiated originally by the intent to produce them with different amounts of storage:

  • 4KB in the 400 model
  • 8KB in the 800 model

As they went to production the price of RAM dropped, and Atari opted to include 8KB of RAM in both.

During development, Atari had planned the 400 as a lower-end model designed primarily for gaming, and the 800 to be a higher-end machine with greater capabilities. As such, the 400 initially lacked a keyboard in the early stages of design.

As the process went on, however, Atari decides the 400 would be a full computer, only one geared towards children. Thus, the 400 was launched with a spill-proof membrane keyboard.

The 800 was released with easily accessed expansion slots for RAM and ROM, two 8 KB ROM cartridge slots, RF and monitor outputs, and a full keyboard. Both models were released with four joystick ports, though few games allowed for four players to play at the same time.

Despite being designed as a pared-down version of the 800, some estimates believe the 400 outsold the 800 by a ratio of 2:1.

Atari Sales

The Atari 8-bit computer line is estimated to have sold over 2 million units during its main production run from 1979 to 1985.

Atari benefited from a lack of real competition in the home computer market until the release of the Commodore 64 in 1982. The series also experienced a rebirth in the early 1990s, as former Soviet bloc nations opened their markets to the West.

Atari Corporation officially dropped support for the 8-bit line in 1992.

What Is the History of the Commodore 64?

Atari-v-Commodore

Released in 1982, the Commodore 64(C64) manufactured by Commodore International would go on to become the highest-selling single computer model of all time, with estimates at somewhere from 10-17 million units sold.

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Released in only one format, the C64 came with the full 64 KB of RAM, far larger than the standard model of many of its competitors. Built with a closed architecture, the C64 came with just one external ROM cartridge port, unlike many of its competitors.

Unlike its competitors, the Commodore 64 offered a number of external ports built into its motherboard that was designed for a number of common peripherals. These peripherals would have normally taken up a ROM cartridge in order to work.

How Commodore was Different from Atari

Where Commodore really differentiated itself was in its aggressive marketing of the C64.

Initially released at $595, a reasonable price for the number of capabilities it was providing. As sales got off to a slow start after the initial release, however, Commodore dropped the price down to $300.

In addition to the steep price drop, Commodore began selling the C64 not just in computer and electronic speciality shops, but also in:

  • Department stores
  • College bookstores
  • Toy stores

Commodore also updated the way in which home computers were sold, arranging for stores to locate the product in the electronics section, something that hadn’t really been done to that point. This placed it directly next to contemporary video game consoles, whose technology was far inferior to that of the C64.

Adding to its accessibility, the C64 could be plugged into just about any television set through its built-in RF modulator.

Commodore wasn’t done with its aggressive tactics, however. In January 1983, Commodore began a rebate program that would give any customer buying a C64 a $100 rebate if they traded in another video game console at purchase.

The Results of Commodores Business Tactics

For many, the rebate program was one of the major catalysts for the video game crash of 1983, as the number consoles in the market shrank and the number of resources devoted to making software and games for those consoles shifted towards catering to the influx in C64’s in the market.

Notably, the tactics helped to push Texas Instruments out of the home computer market. Many viewed this as a personal battle for Commodore International president, Jack Tramiel. Throughout the 1970s, Texas Instruments applied many of the same tactics to the electronic calculator market. Nonetheless, TI exited the home computer market in October 1983.

Commodores Continued Success in the Computer Market

As a result of Commodores business tactics, they dominated the low-end computer market.

  • For a stretch from 1983 to 1986, Commodore had anywhere from a 30-40% share of the US market
  • Sold almost 2 million units
  • Some estimate that the company was selling almost 400,000 units in some months during that stretch

Commodore experienced success in the UK market as well. While not quite on the same level as its US success, the C64 was one of the two most popular computers in the UK.

Some compare what Commodore did for home computers to what Ford did for cars, as both companies were the first to make their respective products widely available to the middle class. Commodore was able to reach this level through its ability to keep the price low for consumers, despite the C64 is one of the more capable home computers on the market.

The reason for this was Commodore’s vertical integration. By owning MOS Technology’s semiconductor fabrication facilities, Commodore was able to keep the production costs of the most expensive piece of hardware to a bare minimum.

As with all technology, eventually, the market moved past the Commodore 64. As the 90s opened up, 8-bit and 16-bit systems had essentially been knocked out of the game as PC compatibles began to take off.

Commodore stopped production of the C64 officially in 1994.

What are some of the top commodore games?

Though Commodore dominated the retail market, many of the classic 8-bit games that we all know and love were actually licensed to Atari. That said, there are still a number of classic games for the Commodore 64 that you may have heard of.

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Wasteland

One of the more highly acclaimed games to be released for the Commodore 64, Wasteland was a classic PC RPG that offered one of the deepest RPG experiences the game had to offer.

While you maybe haven’t heard of Wasteland, you’ve probably heard of the super successful video game series it inspired: Fallout. Following a similar plot to the Fallout series, Wasteland was based in a post-nuclear attack America and followed the classic RPG narrative tropes from there.

Wasteland is still one of the most recognizable names for the Commodore, and with the Fallout series, it is also one of the most influential.

Skate or Die!

With a fairly self-explanatory title, Skate or Die! was released by Electronic Arts, inspired by Epyx Games series, Winter Games and Summer Games.

Skate or Die! asked players to choose from a selection of skaters with varying skills, and then successfully run down a variety of courses. While the premise was fairly straightforward, the game was endlessly entertaining, and though vaguely a sports game, the title reached mainstream success outside of the genre.

You can see Skate or Die!’s influence in much more recent series, like Tony Hawk Pro Skater and SSX, both of which have been wildly successful.

Ultima IV

With the original released in 1985, the fourth in the Ultima series improved on an already widely successful game series.

Ultima IV reportedly featured a world map reportedly 16 times larger than that of the Ultima III. The game also improved upon the dialogue and world interaction of past releases, impressing both returning gameplayers and new introductions alike.

The game is regarded by many as one of the best PC games ever made, and while it might look quaint by today’s standards of technology, many would place it in the pantheon of video games in general.

Maniac Mansion

Developed by Lucasfilm Games, Maniac Mansion was released in 1987. In many ways, Maniac Mansion is a classic videogame and a representation of some of the best features of video games in the 1980s.

A graphical adventure, Maniac Mansion featured one of the more elaborate narratives for its time. Additionally, it’s a great example of the point-and-click form, a staple of the 1980s.

Maniac Mansion sees players working to help Dave Miller, the main character, rescue his girlfriend from a mad scientist. Along the way, you’ll toggle through a number of side characters that are there to help in the quest.

Ghouls ‘N Ghosts

Released in 1988, the side-scrolling action game by Capcom is one of the more memorable Commodore games.

An arcade action game is the truest sense, Ghouls ‘N Ghosts advanced the idea of what it meant to be a difficult video game. Impressive gameplay and an addictive quality helped it to stand out in a crowded field.

For those who think they’ve mastered the game, there’s a replay factor that might come as a rude awakening. While not always the most merciful, Ghouls ‘N Ghosts is always a lot of fun, and is considered one of the Commodore 64’s best games.

Several other games are worth noting as Commodore classics. Turrican II: The Final Fight was a sci-fi exploration game that required the player to find and use a number of powerups as they battle enemies. Many are still impressed by the depth of the narrative on display.

Titles like Lode Runner and Bubble Bobble brought the classic arcade platform-style game to the Commodore, both to high degrees of success. California Games, by Epyx Games, brought a California spin to their Winter Games and Summer Games titles. Sporting events included skateboarding, hacky sack, surfing, and BMX.

What Are Some of the Top Atari Games?

While Atari was thoroughly outpaced in sales by the Commodore 64, many classic games with name recognition to this day were exclusive to the Atari, making it in some ways the premiere at-home computer for gaming.

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Ms. Pac-Man

Though it sold millions of copies, the Atari 2600 Pac-Man released was widely panned as inferior and lacking much of what made the original so great.

Released in 1982, Ms. Pac-Man helped to restore the good Pac-Man name to its original lustre. Ms. Pac-Man in many ways was an improvement upon the original Pac-Man and helped to bring the greatness of the arcade version into living rooms everywhere.

Ms. Pac-Man is still recognizable to many today.

Asteroids

Released in 1981, Asteroids was another title that helped to bring an arcade classic in the home.

While some of the graphics quality needed to be reduced, the gameplay mirrored that of the arcade original. Asteroids differed from other shooters of its era by allowing the player to move on multiple planes, rather than just the one at the bottom of the screen.

The influence of Asteroids can still be seen today in games like Geometry Wars and Super Stardust HD.

Space Invaders

Another absolute classic of both the arcade and the Atari system, Space Invaders was released for the Atari in 1980.

The game involved rows of pixelated aliens in formation moving towards a shooter located at the bottom of the screen. The idea was to eliminate all the potential space invaders before they could bear down on you, working against their ever increasingly rapid advances.

Space Invaders is another name that is almost immediately recognizable by just about anyone today.

Adventure

While Adventure may not have the same recognizability of the other titles on this list, it helped to revolutionize the action-adventure genre.

Released in 1979, Adventure essentially created the action-adventure genre, as players were tasked to explore and discover various tokens and prizes. The game was also one of the first to feature an Easter egg, as designer Warren Robinett hid his name in one of the rooms.

While the graphics were fairly primitive when compared to today’s standards, Adventure is nonetheless considered a classic for its contribution to the action-adventure genre.

Pong

One of the first games released by Atari Inc., Pong was released in 1977. The game is a cultural symbol to this day.

Atari’s take on table tennis, the game involved to players controlling paddles on either side of the side while trying to knock the ball off on the other player’s side. That was it.

Exceedingly simple in design and structure, Pong was nonetheless endlessly entertaining. Adapted in some form to almost every gaming system, Pong is one of the most recognizable titles to come out the library of Atari games.

Atari’s library included a number of other recognizable and influential games.

Frogger, adapted to the Atari in 1982, is still one of the most recognized arcade games of the 80s, even receiving a feature in a 1998 episode of Seinfeld.

Pitfall, released in 1982, is largely credited with creating the side-scrolling platform format, a format later used by Super Mario. The game featured Pitfall Henry being navigated through a treacherous jungle, filled with crocodiles, scorpions, and, of course, pits.

The adaptation of Pole Position in 1983, saw one of the more popular arcade racing games come to the Atari. For many, this game essentially created the racing genre and set the bar for a future version to build off of.

While the Atari may not have been the most popular home computer, many still opted for it over the Commodore because of the gaming. This helped to give the illusion of a rivalry. While the Commodore dominated the market, gaming fans flocked to each system in roughly equal numbers.

As the 80s wore on, and these systems became increasingly game focused, this parity helped fuel the rivalry. While most people when asked will have a strong opinion about which system is better, when basing it on the actual features and capabilities of the systems, there’s no clear superior. In many ways, your decision on whether the Atari or the Commodore is superior will be based primarily on personal opinion.