Great topic! I wish I was able to get a 7800 back in 1984, but I (like most of us) was not able to do that.
I grew up in central California. We were definitely a test market for the Intellivision and (later) the NES, and I think we received leaks from the LA market as well, when it came to the Atari 7800. I'd heard through the grapevine that some friends-of-some-friends had gotten their hands on one, but it seemed a myth.
Back in the day, I had to wait until about 1981 to get my own 2600 (I was 9 years old), but I distinctly remember playing my brother's friend's 6-switcher for years prior, as he would bring it over when he'd spend the night. But boy, was the home video game market heating up right about this time! It was my shared-fence neighbors who scored a ColecoVision in the summer of '82, and I was instantly infatuated. It wasn't long after that I'd heard and read about the 5200 SuperSystem, and I knew one kid in my neighborhood who scored one of those. It didn't take long for me to see that it had the same "engine" as the Atari 800 (which I'd been drooling over for years, as it was on display at the JC Penney's and the Upstart Crow book store). Regardless, I could see the amazing improvements that were being made in the video game market in the early 80s.
As I begged and whined for the Atari 800 home computer for the next few years—I had no comprehension that this stellar machine had aged a good 5 years—my dad finally gave in and got one for me sometime during the crash. This was probably close to late '83 or even sometime in 1984 when prices had been severely lowered. I was eminently taken with my Atari home computer, but soon realized how ridiculously expensive all the peripherals would be! I scored the tape drive for cheap, but had to save up my paper route money to get that sweet, sweet floppy disk drive. By then, the video game market was severely in the red. Without being fully aware of this, I read somewhere about the impending release of the amazing Atari 7800 ProSystem.
The 7800... WOW! Atari is coming out with another video game system already?? I couldn't believe it, but was over the moon about it. Technology was finally being churned out at a much higher rate, and this answered the call of what to do with all of those 2600 carts (following the excellent move by their competitor, Coleco).
Cut to the crash... That sweet exciting dream of the 7800 never surfaced... I'd heard that some people had gotten their hands on one, but to me it was an invisible apparatus that I soon realized I'd never see. late 1984 was miserable... all the way through much of 1985. This coincided with my junior high years. It felt like the bleak, dry desert in terms of "new toys coming out" that I'd really wanted to see at Toys R Us! That didn't stop me from riding my bike up to that glorious vinyl-smelling candy factory to snag terrible 2600 cartridges at rock-bottom prices.
Playing with my Atari 800 home computer kept me busy through out those windswept years of a dead video game market. The 7800 vanished from my scope... and eventually, the NES came out to save the day! Because we were a test market, I was the first kid to snatch one up in my area. But that is another story...
I never forgot about the 7800, nor any of the vaporware titles from the 2600's lineup. The fascination of all things Atari lay deep within my soul through all of my years of adolescence and young adulthood. It wasn't until I chanced upon a dusty, old, and discarded 7800 unit in a crude and chaotic thrift store that I would have my chance to experience the Atari 7800 at long last! Sometime around 1995, I dragged this thing out of a literal pile of electronic junk that was heaped in the back of the store amidst cables and stinky discarded toasters. It had the Goodwill blue-crayon price of $19.99 scribbled on the sturdy black plastic housing. This thing came with no games and no power supply. Yes, it was extremely overpriced, but I had to have it! I must've waited a year or two before I could actually power it up and do anything with it. As an early eBay adopter, I think I managed to get the power supply, and I probably had an old RCA cable lying around. I discovered a gaggle of RCA-to-coax connectors in a shed in the back yard of the house where I rented a room. Somehow, I managed to snag a Xevious cart somewhere along the way. Finally, sometime toward the end of my college experience (in the late 90s), I was able to plug that thing in, and get a grainy but full-color picture of the notorious green Xevious attract screen on my old Panasonic 27" TV. Glory!
And that is the abridged part I of my Atari 7800 experience.