The story of the 2800 begins in the late 1970s. At that time, while the video game industry was booming in North America, it was not the case in Japan. Japan had yet to become a force in the video game industry at that time and was merely copying concept that had some success in the West for the most part. This is mostly due to the fact that non-Japanese company had a hard time selling their product in Japan. Even if the name Atari does exist in Japanese (当たり: meaning to “hit” or “strike” or “to be right), the brand was unknown and needed to be sold under a Japanese brand to have a chance of being successful.
In 1979, Epoch, one of the leading Japanese videogame developers of the time, entered in a partnership with Atari and released 2 products to the Japanese market. First was the TV Block which was a redesign of the Atari Video Pinball C-380. The company then released in October 1979 a rebranded version of the Atari VCS (2600) under the name Epoch Cassette TV Game. At a steep price of 56,300¥, the console was not a success. As Space Invaders was really popular in Japan, Epoch asked Atari to create a version for the 2600 to try to boost the sale, but even with the release of Space Invaders on the VCS, the Cassette TV Game was not able to break into the market. Eventually, Epoch would stop selling the Epoch Cassette TV Game to instead sell their own console : the Cassette Vision.
Meanwhile, in North America, Atari was working on a redesigned version of the 2600. Under the supervision of engineer Joe Tilly, the new design would be much more modern with a minimalist design. The console would have four controller ports instead of the standard two on the Atari 2600. The controllers themselves were also redesigned by John Amber, and would serve as both an 8-direction digital joystick and a 270-degree paddle.
Sadly, by the time Atari was ready to release their new design in North America, the North American video crash had just started and the demand for new systems were winding down rapidly. Atari decided to release the 2800 in one of the only major video game markets that they didn’t have a presence yet : Japan.
Sadly for Atari, their release window was in the midst of the Japanese Console War. While the 2800 had a very strong line up and a bit of brand recognition thanks to the previously imported units by Epoch, the 2800 had few to none incentive over the powerful Nintendo Famicom.
The faith of the 2800 was quickly decided and the console felt in obscurity, at least in Japan. Sears released the same model under the brand Sears Video Arcade II in North America. The case design was later used by Barney Huang to design the Atari 7800.
After Warner Brother sold Atari’s home division to former Commodore CEO Jack Tramiel in 1984, Atari would go on with the release of both the Atari 7800 and a lower-cost version of the 2600, called the Atari 2600 Jr. While the 2800 was certainly an option, the 2800 was not as cheap to produce so Tramiel opted for the most cost-effective solution instead. After 1986, no other revision of the 2600 was produced by Atari therefore killing any chances to bring an Atari branded 2800 to North America.
Although the 2800 is fully compatible will all the Atari 2600 games, around 35 games were specifically released for it in Japan. The folks at www.freelancer-games.com have a very interesting article on the subject with a list of every game released for the system.