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 the computer and video games, video game consoles, and video game handhelds available from 1976 to 1992. Notable platforms of the second generation included 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] following 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. it coincided with and was partly fuelled by the golden age of arcade video games, a peak era of popularity and innovation for the medium. Many games for second generation were ports of arcade games. The Atari 2600 was the first, with Space Invaders[6], and ColecoVision bundled in Nintendo's Donkey Kong.

Built in games saw limited use during this generation due to the invention of game cartridges by Jerry Lawson for the Fairchild Channel F. Some consoles, such as the RCA Studio II, came with built in games but also had the capability of utilizing cartridges. 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. 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. Other technology was also improving with better resolution, colour graphics, three channel audio and AI simulation.

In 1979, Activision was created by former Atari programmers and was the first third-party developer of video games.[7] By 1982, a glut of consoles, over-hyped game releases, and low-quality games from new third-party developers began to appear, overflowing the shelf capacity of toy stores. Partly due to this surplus, the video game industry crashed, beginning in December 1982 and stretching through all of 1984. Almost no new games were released in 1984.

While the generation ended on January 1, 1992 with the discontinuation of the Atari 2600, video game crash of 1983 caused major disruption to the market,[8][9] primarily in North America. An over saturation of consoles and games[10] coupled with poor knowledge of the market caused some developers to collapse and the market to not fully recover until the 3rd generation.[11]

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.[12] When Atari released their VCS the following year, Fairchild renamed the VES to the Fairchild Channel F.[13] 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.[14] Fairchild released twenty-six different cartridges for the system, with up to four games being on each cartridge and the console came with two preinstalled games, Hockey and Tennis.[15]

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.[16] 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. This need for price parity has influenced every console war since. The Atari 2600 went onto to sell over 30 million units over it's life time, considerably more than any other console of the second generation.[17]

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.[18] Atari 2600 cartridges got as large as 32k through bank switching.[19] 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. 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[citation needed], and was released in 1977, but was available only through mail order.[citation needed] 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.[citation needed] In this form, it sold mostly at computer stores and had little retail exposure unlike the Atari VCS. In 1979, Bally grew less interested in the arcade market and decided to sell off their Consumer Products Division, including development and production of the game console.[citation needed] In 1980, they re-released the unit with the BASIC cartridge included for free; this system was known as the Bally Computer System, but was changed to Astrocade in 1982. It sold under this name until the video game crash of 1983, and then was discontinued around 1983.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed] Although the Odyssey 2 never became as popular as the Atari consoles, it managed to sell several million units through 1983. A defining feature of the system was the speech synthesis unit add-on which enhanced music, sound effects and speech.[20]


The next major entry was the Intellivision, introduced by Mattel to test markets in 1979[21] 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.[22] However, programs were stored on 10-bit ROM. It also features an advanced sound chip which can deliver output through three distinct sound channels.[23] 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.[23] 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 to utilise a 16-bit microprocessor, to offer downloadable content through the PlayCable service[24] 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.[23] It sold over 3 million units[25] before being discontinued in 1990.[26]


The Vectrex was unique among home systems of the time in featuring vector graphics and its own self-contained display.[27] 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 $748.00 in 2019) US$200 (equivalent to $827.00 in 2019) US$299 (equivalent to $1.24 thousand in 2019) US$200 (equivalent to $768.00 in 2019)


US$299[28] (equivalent to $909.00 in 2019)
Release date
  • USA: November 1976
  • USA: September 1977
  • EU: 1978
  • JP: May 1983
  • USA: October 1977
  • USA: 1978
  • EU: December 1978
  • JP: 1982
  • BRZ: 1983
  • 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)[31][32] N/A N/A as of June 1983:[33][34]
Las Vegas Poker & Blackjack 1.939 million
Major League Baseball 1.085 million
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 N/A US$199 (equivalent to $517.00 in 2019) US$270 (equivalent to $701.00 in 2019) US$199 (equivalent to $517.00 in 2019)
Release date
  • USA: November 1982
  • USA: November 1982
  • EU: May 1983
  • JP: June 1983
Media Cartridge 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)[36]
  • 2 to 16 (out of 256) on-screen colors,[36] up to 256 (16 hues, 16 luma) on screen (16 per scanline) with display list interrupts
  • 14 graphics modes (6 tilemap, 8 bitmap)[36]
  • 8 single-color sprites, full height of display; 1/2/4x width scaling
  • Smooth scrolling (vertical and horizontal)[37]
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]

Console Units sold worldwide
Fairchild Channel F 250,000[38] (as of February 12, 2012)
Atari 2600 30 million[17] (as of 2004)
Bally Astrocade Unknown
Magnavox Odyssey² 2 million[39] (as of 2005)
Intellivision 3 million[25][28][40] (as of 2004)
Emerson Arcadia 2001 Unknown
ColecoVision 2 million[41] (as of 1983)
Atari 5200 1 million[42] (as of 1984)
Vectrex Unknown

Other consoles[edit]

Handheld systems[edit]

The first handheld game console with interchangeable cartridges was the Microvision designed by Smith Engineering, and distributed and sold by Milton-Bradley in 1979.[47] Crippled by a small, fragile LCD display and a very narrow selection of games, it was discontinued two years later.

The Epoch Game Pocket Computer was released in Japan in 1984.[48] 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]



The best-selling console of the second generation is by far the Atari 2600 at 30 million units.[49] As of 1990, the Intellivision had sold 3 million units,[50][51][52] a number around 1 million higher than the Odyssey2 sales,[53] and the ColecoVision's total sales at 2 million units by April 1984,[54] eight times the number of purchases for the Fairchild Channel F within one year, which was 250,000 units.[38]


Milestone titles[edit]

See also[edit]


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  2. ^ Forster, Winnie (2005). The encyclopedia of consoles, handhelds & home computers 1972-2005. GAMEPLAN. p. 27. ISBN 3-00-015359-4.
  3. ^ a b "The Odyssey² Timeline".
  4. ^ a b Intellivision History and Philosophy
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  11. ^ "Gainesville Sun - Google News Archive Search".
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External links[edit]