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Second generation of video game consoles

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. The generation began in November 1976 with the release of the Fairchild Channel F.[1] This was 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. By the end of the era, there were over 15 different consoles. It coincided with, and was partly fueled by, the golden age of arcade video games. This peak era of popularity and innovation for the medium resulted in many games for second generation home consoles being ports of arcade games. Space Invaders, the first arcade game to be ported, was released in 1980 for the Atari 2600.[6] Coleco packaged Nintendo's Donkey Kong with the ColecoVision when it was released on August 1982.

Built-in games, like those from the first generation, saw limited use during this era. This was due to the invention of game cartridges by Jerry Lawson for the Fairchild Channel F.[7] The first system of the generation and some others, such as the RCA Studio II, still came with built-in games[8] while also having the capability of utilizing cartridges.[9] The popularity of game cartridges grew after the release of the Atari 2600. From the late 1970s to the mid-1990s, most home video game systems used cartridges until 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 such as screen resolution, color graphics, audio, and AI simulation.was also improved during this era.

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, the shelf capacity of toy stores was overflowing with an overabundance of consoles, over-hyped game releases, and low-quality games from new third-party developers. An over-saturation of consoles and games,[13] coupled with poor knowledge of the market, saw the video game industry crash in 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 North American market.[14][15] Some developers collapsed and almost no new games were released in 1984. The market did not fully recover until the 3rd generation.[16] The second generation officially ended on January 1, 1992, with the discontinuation of the Atari 2600.[17]


Home systemsEdit

Fairchild Channel FEdit

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 similarly titled console the "VCS", Fairchild renamed the VES to the Fairchild Channel F the following year.[19] The console featured a pause button that allowed players to freeze a game. This allowed them to 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. The console came with two pre-installed games, Hockey and Tennis.[21]

Atari 2600 & 5200Edit

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. They 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 lifetime, considerably more than any other console of the second generation.[24] 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.[citation needed]

Early Atari 2600 cartridges contained 2 kilobytes of read-only storage. This limit grew steadily from 1978 to 1983: up to 16 kilobytes for Atari 5200 cartridges. 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] The Atari 2600 cartridges got as large as 32 kilobytes through this technique.[26] The Atari 2600 had only 128 bytes of RAM available in the console. A few late game cartridges contained a combined RAM/ROM chip, thus adding another 256 bytes of RAM inside the cartridge itself. The Atari standard joystick was a digital controller with a single fire button released in 1977.[27] The port of the Atari joystick was the de facto standard digital joystick specification for many years.[citation needed]

Bally AstrocadeEdit

The Bally Astrocade was released in 1977 and was available only through mail order.[28] It was originally referred to as the Bally Home Library Computer.[28][29] Delays in the production meant that none of the units 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. 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 suit. It sold under this name until the video game crash of 1983 when it was discontinued.[30]

Magnavox Odyssey²Edit

In 1978, Magnavox released its microprocessor-based console, the Odyssey², in the United States and Canada.[3] Is was distributed by Philips Electronics in the European market and was released as the Philips G7000.[31] A defining feature of the system was the speech synthesis unit add-on which enhanced music, sound effects and speech capabilities.[32] The Odyssey² was also known for its fusion of board and video games. Some titles would come with a game board and pieces which players had to use in conjunction to play the game. Although the Odyssey 2 never became as popular as the Atari consoles, it sold 2 million units throughout its lifetime. This made it the third best selling console of the generation.[33] It was discontinued in 1984.[citation needed]


The Intellivision was introduced by Mattel to test markets in 1979[34] and nationally in 1980.[4] The Intellivision console contained a 16-bit processor with 16-bit registers and 16-bit system RAM. This was long before the "16-bit era".[35] Programs were however stored on 10-bit ROM. It also featured an advanced sound chip that could deliver output through three distinct sound channels.[36] The Intellivision was the first console 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 kilobyte ROMs, which grew to 24 kilobytes for later games.

The Intellivision introduced several new features to the second generation. It was the first home console to use a 16-bit microprocessor and offer downloadable content through the PlayCable service.[37] It also provided real-time human voices during gameplay. It was the first console to pose a serious threat to Atari's dominance. A series of TV advertisements featuring George Plimpton were run. They used side-by-side game comparisons to show the improved graphics and sound compared with those of the Atari 2600.[36] It sold over 3 million units[38] before being discontinued in 1990.[39]


The Vectrex was released in 1982. It 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. 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.[citation needed] It was on the market for less than 2 years.[citation needed]


Name Fairchild Channel F Atari VCS/2600
Sears Video Arcade
Bally Astrocade Magnavox Odyssey² Intellivision
Manufacturer Fairchild Semiconductor Atari Bally Technologies Magnavox Mattel
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 ¥75,900 in 2019)

US$299[34] (equivalent to $910 in 2018)
Release date
  • USA: November 1976
  • JP: October 1977
  • 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)[44][45] N/A N/A :Las Vegas Poker & Blackjack 1.939 million
Major League Baseball 1.085 million (as of June 1983)[46][47]
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 1.79 MHz (PAL 2.00 MHz) Fairchild F8 1.19 MHz MOS Technology 6507 1.789 MHz Zilog Z80 1.79 MHz Intel 8048 8-bit microcontroller 894.886 kHz General Instrument CP1610
Memory Main RAM 64 bytes
Video RAM 2 kB (2×128×64 bits)
128 bytes RAM within MOS Technology RIOT chip (additional RAM may be included in game cartridges) Main RAM 4 kB (up to 64 kB with external modules in the expansion port) CPU-internal RAM: 64 bytes
Audio/video RAM: 128 bytes
Main RAM 524 bytes

Video RAM 932 bytes

Video Resolution

102×58 to 128×64[48]


True: 160×102
Basic: 160×88
Expanded RAM: 320×204

160×200 (NTSC)

160x96 (20x12 tiles of 8x8 pixels)


8 colors

128 colors (NTSC)
104 colors (PAL)
8 colors (SECAM)

32 colors (8 intensities)

16 colors (fixed); sprites use 8 colors

16 color

Colors on Screen

8 simultaneous (maximum of 4 per scanline)

128 simultaneous (2 background colors and 2 sprite colors (1 color per sprite) per scanline)

True: 8
Basic: 2

16 simultaneous



2 sprites, 2 missiles, and 1 ball per scanline

Unlimited (software controlled)

  • 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

8 sprites, 8x16 half-pixels

Other Smooth multi-directional hardware scrolling
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
Launch prices US$200[49] (equivalent to $520 in 2018) US$175[41] (equivalent to $450 in 2018) US$270[41] (equivalent to $700 in 2018) US$199[50] (equivalent to $520 in 2018)
Release date
  • USA: November 1982
  • USA: November 1982
  • EU: May 1983
  • JP: June 1983
Media Cartridge[49] 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 3.58 MHz Signetics 2650 CPU 3.58 MHz Zilog Z80A 1.79 MHz Custom MOS 6502C 1.5 MHz Motorola 68A09
Memory 512 bytes RAM Main RAM 1 kB
Video RAM 16 kB
Main RAM 16 kB DRAM Main RAM 1 kB
Video Resolution

128x208 / 128×104


80×192 (16 color)
160×192 (4 color)
320×192 (2 color)[51]


16 colors

15 colors, 1 transparent

256 colors

2 (black and white)

Colors on Screen

16 simultaneous (1 color per sprite)

16 simultaneous,[51] Up to 256 (16 hues, 16 luma) on screen (16 per scanline) with display list interrupts

2 simultaneous (black and white)


32 sprites (4 per scanline), 8×8 or 8×16 pixels, integer zoom

8 single-color sprites, full height of display; 1/2/4x width scaling


Tilemap playfield, 8×8 tiles

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 standingsEdit

The best-selling console of the second generation was the Atari 2600 at 30 million units.[53] As of 1990, the Intellivision had sold 3 million units.[54][34][55] This is around 1 million higher than the Odyssey² and ColecoVision sales[56][57] and eight times the number of purchases for the Fairchild Channel F, which was 250,000 units.[58]

Console Units sold worldwide
Fairchild Channel F 0.25 million (as of February 12, 2012)[58]
Atari 2600 30 million (as of 2004)[24]
Magnavox Odyssey² 2 million (as of 2005)[33]
Intellivision 3 million (as of 2004)[38][34][59]
ColecoVision 2 million (as of 1983)[60]
Atari 5200 1 million (as of 1984)[61]
Bally Astrocade Unknown
Emerson Arcadia 2001 Unknown
Vectrex Unknown

Other consolesEdit

Handheld systemsEdit

The Microvision was released in 1979. It was manufactured and sold by Milton-Bradley.[68] It 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. The LCD screen could also rot. These two factors contributed to its discontinuation two years after release.[69]

The Epoch Game Pocket Computer was released in Japan in 1984.[70][71] It featured an LCD screen with 75 X 64 resolution and could produce graphics at about the same level as early Atari 2600 games.[citation needed] Due to poor sales, only five games were made for it.[citation needed]


Console Microvision Entex Select-A-Game Adventure Vision
Manufacturer Milton Bradley Entex Industries Entex Industries
Launch price US$49.99 (equivalent to $173 in 2018) US$59 (equivalent to $163 in 2018)[72] US$79.99 (equivalent to $208 in 2018)
Release date November 1979[68] 1981[69] 1982[73]
Units sold Unknown Unknown 50,757
Media Cartridge Cartridge Cartridge
CPU 100 kHz Intel 8021 None (CPU was contained within the cartridge) 733 kHz Intel 8048
Memory 64 bytes RAM 64 bytes RAM (on CPU)

1 kilobyte (on main PCB)

Video 16 x 16 pixel LCD 7 x 16 pixel VFD

2 colors (red & blue)

150 x 40 pixel spinning mirror system


Audio Piezo Buzzer National Semiconductor COP411L @ 52.6 kHz
Console Super Micro Epoch Game Pocket Computer Game & Watch
Manufacturer Palmtex Epoch Nintendo
Launch price US$39.95 (equivalent to $96 in 2018) ¥12,000 (equivalent to ¥14,547 in 2019) ¥5,800 (equivalent to ¥7,031 in 2019)[74]
Release date May 1984[75]   1984[76] 28 April 1980[77]
Units sold Fewer than 37,200 Unknown 43.4 million
Media Cartridge Cartridge 1 built in game per device
CPU None (CPU was contained within the cartridge) 6 MHz NEC D78c06
Memory 2 kilobytes RAM
Video 32 x 16 pixel LCD

57.15 x 38.1mm

75 x 64 pixel LCD Segmented LCD
Audio Piezo Buzzer


Milestone titlesEdit

See alsoEdit


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