A Brief History of Atari

Atari was originally founded in 1972 by Ted Dabney and Nolan Bushnell.

Atari was incredibly influential on the early video games market and are widely accepted as the company that first popularised video games, helping them to become widely accepted. Although video games had been around before Atari, its breakaway hit ‘Pong’ was the first commercially successful arcade game. Although it’s an American company, the name Atari actually comes from a Japanese word that means “hitting a target” (it can also mean when a prediction comes true).

Pong is an early, graphically-simple game based off tennis. Two paddles are used to propel a square ‘ball’ across a screen with a white line down the middle, if you miss the ball, your opponent gets a point. The name was derived from “Ping Pong” and the game itself was lifted from the Magnavox Odyssey (the first home console unit). While it was originally designed as a training exercise for Allan Alcorn, Bushnell and Dabney were so impressed with the finished product they decided to produce it.

After Pong became a hit, many other companies cloned the game and released it under their own names. Magnavox ended up pursuing legal action against Atari over the patent, and they eventually settled out of court. Atari paid $700,000 for the licensing fees and Magnavox started charging the other companies royalties.

For such a simple game, I reckon Pong still has a lot of replay value. If you’ve never played it, you owe it to your forbearers to give it a go!

Pong inspired Atari to expand, and they encouraged their employees to be creative with new products. Seeing that there was a potential market with home consoles (and to pick up where the Odyssey left off), Atari developed the VCS (Video Computer System) which would become better known as the Atari 2600. It was also around this time Atari was sold to Warner Communications in an effort to bring said console to life.

The 2600 was released in 1977 and had an estimated life span of 3 years, but lasted considerably longer than that. Initially the 2600 was bundled with 2 joysticks and the game “Combat” (later Pac Man). There were a few different versions of the Atari 2600, the most famous being the ‘wood finish’ original version (which was actually just a vinyl sticker).

The 2600 gained momentum and by the early 1980s, Atari was synonymous with video games. Although the graphics were very simple, programmers were continually trying to push the consoles boundaries to see what they could accomplish. Games like ‘Adventure’ look very primitive by today’s standards, but were an important step forward for the RPG genre.

However, Atari put strict conditions on its programmers and refused to give them any credit for the games they made. Atari was worried that if people knew the actual names of programmers, they might be poached by other companies. David Crane, Alan Miller and Bob Whitehead left Atari in 1979 to form the first ever third-party games developer: Activision. They went on to produce the fun but incredibly frustrating game ‘Pitfall!’. Atari attempted legal action to prevent them from publishing their games on the 2600, but ultimately lost.

By the end of its run there were over 400 games available for the 2600. New variants were made, such as the 2800, 2800 Jr and in 1985 the 2600 Jr (all playing 2600 games) and were on sale until 1991, with the last licensed game being KLAX. In 2007, the Atari 2600 was inducted into the Toy Hall of Fame.

What is considered to be worst game? Well there is much debate, but the “Adults Only” game ‘Custer’s Revenge’ (an unofficial, unlicensed game) is one that consistently comes up. It’s pretty horrible.

But Atari didn’t just make consoles during the early 80′s; they released the Atari 800 (and Atari 400) home computer. These home computers were a modest success and most of their hardware was reused for the next Atari home console, the Atari 5200.

Atari 5200 was released in 1982; it had a numeric keypad as part of its controller as well as reset and pause keys, very new at the time. Most games came with overlay inserts that could be slotted into the controller so you know which of the numeric keys to press. This controller is possibly the worst ever created; it’s probably more fun to stick a fork in a toaster.

Most of the games were ports of old Atari arcade games, but there wasn’t a lot of difference between this console and the 2600. Coupled with the fact that the 5200 was much more expensive (not to mention huge!) the console is generally considered a failure, only 69 games for it were released.

In 1983, the great video game crash almost destroyed the home console market in North America (and indeed western civilization); it took Nintendo’s NES to revive consumer confidence. There were numerous causes for the crash, but saturation of the market with low quality products that confused consumers was the leading cause.

The two most famous games of the crash were E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Pac-Man. I’ve played both, and frankly crushing them, burying them in the desert and pouring concrete over them was probably the right way to go about getting rid of them. I could do a whole article on the crash, and perhaps one day, I will.

The Atari 7800 was released in January 1986 (originally meant to be released in June 1984 but stalled because Atari was being sold off). The great thing about the 7800 was that it was moderately cheap as well as being backward compatible with the 2600. A lot of peripherals were planned for the 7800, including a keyboard, a disk drive and even connectivity to a laser disk player but few eventuated.

The NES once again played a part, by barring software companies from releasing their works on other consoles for two years, a great impediment to the library of the 7800. Despite this, Atari did find a loophole and published some great arcade game ports for this system, and in the end the 7800 was actually profitable for Atari and still has something of a cult following to this day.

Atari XEGS is an odd one. Never heard of it? Neither had I until researching this article. It’s not surprising either; this was commercial and critical failure, yet it was compatible with all of Atari’s (then) current software and could be used as a gaming console or home computer (with a special keyboard). It could play Atari home computer games, but most of these were simply repackaged rather than updated. PAL versions are very rare, but NTSC mores are more common. When trying to obtain more information on this system, one thing was made clear to me: “Don’t Bother”, as there is nothing unique about it.

It was around this time Atari started thinking it would be a good idea to name their consoles after cats.

Atari Lynx was released in 1989 and was the first handheld gaming device with a colour LCD screen. It came out just a month after the Game Boy; the Lynx was actually quite ambitious. It was 16 bit, had very good graphics and was designed so left handed people could use it as well! It also had ‘Comlynx’ a multiplayer cable system wherein up to 17 could play simultaneously (though the maximum number of players in most games was 8)

The Lynx had moderate sales at first, but was continually losing ground to Nintendo’s Game Boy. In 1991 Atari released the Lynx II with battery saving options, stereo headphones and dropped the price to US$99. Although sales did pick up for a little while, Atari ultimately couldn’t compete with both the popularity of the Game Boy and the much larger library of games available for the Sega Game Gear. The Atari Lynx was another system that has quite ahead of its time in terms of the technology it used, but in the end the bulkiness, battery life and lack of third party games support was its downfall.

Most games were fairly average for the Lynx, but Batman Returns is by far the most difficult game for system. I’ve never been able to finish the second level.

The Atari Jaguar was the last original console made by Atari. It was a cartridge based system released nationwide in North America in 1994 and made to compete with (and indeed surpass) the Mega Drive/Genesis, Super Nintendo, and Panasonic 3DO (we might talk about that console another day). At the time Atari was also working on a 32 bit system called ‘Panther’ but work on the (supposedly) 64 bit Jaguar progressed much faster than expected so the former system was cancelled.

The Jaguar was heavily promoted by Atari with the “Do the Math” campaign (in reference to the fact it was 64 bit vs. 16 bit); however third party publishers had a lot of trouble programming the games. This led to a small and rather lacklustre library of games, and although there were great titles such as Tempest 2000, Rayman, and Doom (the best ever console port) they were few and far between.

The controller was also criticised heavily for containing a bemusing phone style keypad at the bottom that was awkward to hold. A CD peripheral was also released, but they were notoriously temperamental and difficult to operate.

Although Atari only ever sold 125,000 Jaguar consoles (and had another 100,000 in inventory that they couldn’t shift) people are still developing homebrew games for it. It was also the last console produced by an American company until 2001, when the Xbox came out.

Although Atari has been through many takeovers and mergers over the years, it will always be remembered for having a profound influence over early gaming. And while the name itself these days is simply a brand rather than an actual games company, it continues to be remembered fondly by many. In 2004 a “Flashback” console was realised that emulated the 2600 hardware and games. Although the games are very primitive by today’s standards, it’s still very interesting, and fun, to look back and see how it all began for us.

My Top Games for the Atari Consoles

  • Atari 2600: Pitfall
  • Atari 5200: Wizard of Wor
  • Atari 7800: Ninja Golf
  • Lynx: Rygar
  • Jaguar: Alien vs. Predator

What are yours?

- Andrew “ProdTally” Yoshimura

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