Atari vs. Intellivision: Which Was Better?

Joystick of a vintage arcade video game

Atari vs. Intellivision: Which Was Better?

In the early days of gaming, two consoles found their way into millions of homes around the world. The debate between Atari and Intellivision was something parents in the 80s never heard the end of, and it’s an argument that still rages among gamers to this day.

From the design to the games able to be played, these retro consoles provided two completely different experiences. Both consoles still have diehard fans today, although our comparison will help settle a few debates.

Atari vs. Intellivision: A Side-by-Side Comparison

Atari 2600Intellivision
What is it?Video game consoleVideo game console
Release Date19771980
Console GenerationSecond-generationSecond-generation
PredecessorAtari Home PongNone
SuccessorAtari 5200Intellivision II
CPU8-bit MOS Technology 65078-bit MOS Technology 6507
Memory128 bytes of RAM1k RAM, 6k ROM
MediaROM cartridgeROM cartridge
In ProductionNoNo
Original MSRP$189.95$275

Atari vs. Intellivision: 6 Must-Know Facts

  • The Atari company was sold to Warner Communications before the Atari 2600 was released.
  • Bandai, Sharp, and GTE Sylvania produced several Intellivision variants.
  • Mattel originally marketed the Intellivision as a modular home computer, not a game console.
  • Pac-Man is the top-selling game on the Atari.
  • The success of Space Invaders on the Atari VCS helped launch Activision.
  • Masters of the Universe was the first Intellivision game to run at 60 Hz.

Atari vs. Intellivision: What’s the Difference?

The first home gaming console from Atari was launched in 1977 as the Atari VCS. That was the same year Mattel began to develop their home video game system, which was unveiled at Consumer Electronic Show (CES) in 1979. It wasn’t widely available until the middle of 1980, however, which gave Atari a huge head start.

Both of these consoles and the industry struggled as the market saturated before Nintendo brought things back to life. They have both had a number of resurgences over the years as well through products like Intellivision Lives and the Atari Flashback.

While the Atari 2600 sold more units and is widely regarded as one of the best systems of that time, the Intellivision was its only true competitor before Atari Shock and the great video game crash of 1983. With that in mind, here are the key areas gamers compared then and today with the Atari 2600 and Intellivision.

Please note: As of July 18, 2023, Intellivision Lives is out of stock on Amazon. If you’re unable to locate this game elsewhere, check back with Amazon for future availability.

Atari 2600 Console
The Atari was released first in 1977 and then discontinued two years after the Intellivision stopped production.



Atari’s ability to get their consoles out first was an advantage, although that turned into a bit of a disadvantage with the Intellivision release. That’s because there is a significant difference in the graphics of both systems, due to the hardware inside each console.

The Intellivision was marketed for its hardware, and anyone who played the two can attest that it has better graphics. Playing Pac-Man really showed the difference between the console’s graphical capabilities, and the Intellivision used a 16-bit chip clocked at 2 MHz. The processor in the Atari 2600 was 8-bit with a speed of 1.18 MHz.

Mattel was early to the 16-bit party, and the audio was top-tier as well. This helped Intellivision sell out quickly in their first year, and gave them a distinct advantage over the 2600 in the audio-visual department.

Game Selection

The Intellivision may have had better graphics, but they didn’t have a larger selection of games. Atari is known for its classic titles, and it showed on its first home console with a massive selection featuring hundreds of titles.

Atari launched the 2600 with the Combat cartridge. It contained 27 game modes and three games with Tank, Biplanes, and Jet. Eight more games were sold at launch including emBlackjack/em, emAir-Sea Battle/em, emStreet Racer/em, emIndy 500/em, and classic emVideo Olympics/em.

By the end of 1980, there were close to 30 games on the market. In 1982, Centipede, emDefender/em, emPac-Man/em, and emRaiders of the Lost Ark/em were released followed by hits like Dig Dug, Joust, emDark Chambers/em, and emCrystal Castles/em. It’s a top choice for retro homebrew projects and has an expansive collection of more than 500 games.  

The Intellivision launched with a handful of games including emBackgammon/em, Armor Battle, and Math Fun. While that doesn’t sound appealing, they quickly began producing games that showed off the console’s power. emPGA Golf/em, emDonkey Kong/em, Pitfall, emBurger Time/em, and Beamrider were popular options along with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.

There were 118 cartridges for the Master Component Intellivision and around a dozen designed for use with their other peripherals. Given the amount of Atari games, they are clearly the winner when it comes to game selection.

Intellivision with AstroSmash
The Intellivision’s better graphics didn’t make it the winner, as the console had fewer games than the Atari.

©Gisela Giardino (TheAlieness) from Buenos Aires, Argentina / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license – License


A major difference between the Atari and Intellivision consoles is the controllers, which saw some interesting revisions on one system. One set of controllers broke new ground and is still around, while the other received a lukewarm reception.

The Intellivision shipped with two wired controllers. They were unique with a numerical keypad, side buttons, and a direction pad known as a control disc. It was a combination of a joystick and paddle controller, and not exactly well-received. They required plastic overlays when you changed games, and often bent quickly.

Atari shipped with a set of paddle controllers and their famous retro joystick. The CX40 joystick replaced the original and proved popular as it worked with other consoles like the Commodore 64 and Amiga.

Atari also had several additional controllers including the CX23, CX22 Trak-Ball, and a set of remote-control joysticks with the C42.


Both companies released additional peripherals which were just as interesting as the controllers themselves. The main part of the system or console on the Intellivision is known as the Master Component. It’s a fitting moniker, considering it’s marketed as one of the first modular home computer systems.

At the console launch, the company announced a keyboard component that worked alongside the console. It included a tape drive, which brought unique programs to the platform like Conversational French and Jack Lalanne’s Physical Challenge. After a series of setbacks, they manufactured 4,000 keyboards, although many never made it to store shelves.

The Entertainment Computer System (ECS) is another underwhelming PC-based modification along with Intellivoice. This aptly named add-on used a speech synthesizer to bring speech to games. While impressive, it was ahead of its time just like the Keyboard component and Intellivision thermal printer.

Atari released more controllers than Intellivision, although they attempted to launch the CX3000 keyboard before the idea was scrapped. The CX50 keyboard controllers were also an option that’s better off left in the past. Intellivision provided gamers with more options, but Atari had better controllers that were easier to use.

Atari vs. Intellivision: Which One is Better?

The answer to the Atari vs. Intellivision debate is the same today as it was in the 1980s—the Atari is the winner. It’s one of the most beloved retro consoles next to the NES, and while they put out some subpar titles, they truly have something for everyone.

The Atari 2600 has a larger collection of games, a better retro controller, and is also easier to acquire. There were more Atari 2600 consoles produced than Intellivision consoles, making it more affordable if you want the original hardware.

The Intellivision may have better graphics, but gamers can now enjoy titles from either console through emulation. There are emulators that can handle both consoles, but if you want to relieve the classics with accuracy, the MiSTer emulator is the best option for classic consoles and arcade games.


Frequently Asked Questions

Can you emulate Atari and Intellivision games on a smartphone?

Yes, through software emulation programs like RetroArch which mimic the gameplay of those consoles and others.

How much memory is on an Atari cartridge?

4KB, although 64KB is available through bank switching.

Is there a new version of the Intellivision?

There was one in the works through Intellivision Amico, although production has been delayed and the current status of the console is unknown.

How many Intellivision consoles were sold?

Over 3 million consoles were sold before the system was discontinued.

What is the rarest Atari 2600 game?

The rarest game is E.T. which was so bad it ended up in landfills before being sold in auctions for thousands of dollars.

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