[Editorial Tuesday] The History of Atari


When you hear the name Atari, what do you think? For some of us, we think eight-bit graphics, wood-grain paneling, blowing the dust out of a game cartridge and the unique smell we can clearly identify as part of our nostalgia. Magnavox Odyssey, Ping-O-Tronic, PC—50X Family, Video 2000 and the Fairchild Channel F were all gaming systems sold in the early days of the home console phenomenon. Yet if you ask someone born in the 70s about gaming they’ll probably tell you they had (or were very jealous of someone with) an Atari.

The Origin Story

Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney co-founded a game company in 1972 that was to be named Syzygy. The only problem -- other than it was almost unpronounceable -- was the name was already taken. Bushnell and Dabney were forced to go to their second choice, Atari. In a 2008 article Joel Miller, then the Manager of Marketing in the Atari Computer division, said that Bushnell and Dabney reported their best ideas came when drinking beer and playing the Japanese strategy game Go. Miller said the men called their system Atari because it’s an overtaking move in Go. Allan Alcorn, the first engineer they hired, quickly created a test game that became the first game they shipped: Pong. The first Pong wasn’t a console game. It was a large stand-alone arcade game that was placed in 12 locations around California.

Atari Gets Sneaky and Some More Talent

Bushnell and Dabney became frustrated by the constraints of the terms of their exclusive contracts with some of their distributers and decided to create their own competition. The company, called Kee Games, was run by Bushnell’s neighbor, Joe Keenan. Kee Games created and sold knock-offs of Atari titles and would go on to create its own unique games like Tank, a coin-operated game that used ROM for all of its graphics. The strategy worked and the company really began to grow. Sears, a department store and major force in retail at the time, wanted to sell the home version of Pong in the Sporting Goods Department. Atari was planning to sell 50,000 units; Sears upped the order, asking for an additional 150,000 units that they would sell under the name Sears Telegames.

In 1976 a young computer engineer was given the task of trimming the size of the circuit board for the game Breakout by reducing it from 110 chips to 60 chips. The employee’s name was Steve Jobs. We would later find out that his friend Steve Wozniak, who worked for Hewlett Packard, would come and visit Jobs at night and play video games and was instrumental in the success of the new circuit board. Wozniak and Jobs went their own way later that year to start some kind of fruit company.

Nolan Bushnell left the company in 1978 to pursue his lifelong dream of creating a business that was a combination of an arcade and carnival. The idea gave birth to an icon, Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theaters.

The Atari 2600

The Atari 2600 is the console we think about when we reminisce about Atari. Atari didn’t originally plan on the plug-and-play cartridge system and had designed it with an internal programmable motherboard but that was eventually deemed impractical and it was abandoned for the design we think of today with toggle switches, woodgrain panel and the classic black joystick – all icons in the history of gaming. You could only find 10 games when the console was launched and many were familiar favorites such as Pong, Tank and Outlaw. To take full advantage of the system’s abilities, Atari began licensing arcade titles like Space Invaders and programming Atari-compatible versions. The popularity of the system exploded like one of the eight-bit aliens after a direct hit. Atari attempted to market a better computer system, the 5200, in 1982 but due to poor timing and marketing by the new parent company Warner Communications the system was largely ignored. A new, sleeker 2600 was unveiled in 1986 and had some success but not even close to the success of the original 1977 model.

1977 Commercial

1986 Commercial WARNING! Extreme EARWORM!!!

The Crash

The market for video games and consoles bottomed out big time in 1983 as sales nosedived from 3.2 billion in 1983 to 100 million in 1985. We’ll do the math for you, that is a 97% loss. Atari survived the fall off the fiscal cliff but never regained the market share it once had. It is a long-held belief that the crash was caused by an oversaturation of the market, especially with hundreds of low-quality games turning off consumers.

A Missed Opportunity

What if Atari had the NES? Atari and Nintendo began talks in 1983 about the California company licensing the Japanese Nintendo prototype called the “FCS” or Family Computer System, which would be sold under the Atari name. The deal fell apart when Atari CEO Ray Kassar was forced out and Nintendo lost patience as Atari’s board reorganized. Nintendo then reworked its prototype and repackaged it as the Nintendo Entertainment System which hit shelves in 1985. The what-ifs of business are fun to imagine especially when it involves two systems so influential on our youth.

In 1976 one of the employees and his friend offered up a design for a home computer to Nolan Bushnell. Atari had all its resources tied up in creating the home gaming system for Pong because of the Sears contract and had to pass on the option but referred the two to some investors who were willing to take a chance. The employee and his friend were none other than Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak and their invention was the Apple Computer.

Not All Fun and Games

Did you realize that Atari made computers? After Nolan Bushnell sold the company for $28 million ($124 million in today’s dollars) to Warner Communications, a big push was made to get into the new home computer market. The transition was done so quickly that trailers were brought in for engineers to work in at the Atari headquarters. The Atari 400 and Atari 800 Personal Computer Systems also came with a lot of peripherals which communicated with the PC through a serial in/out, a kind of precursor to the USB. The USB was later designed for Microsoft by the former Atari employee that created the serial in/out (SIO).

The Atari 400 was designed for children and had a solid key board that would keep things, like crumbs and spilled drinks, from slipping between the keys. You used a TV as the monitor just like the gaming consol3. You couldn’t use a disk drive because of memory limitations and had to use a special 410 cassette recorder to save data.

The Atari 800 had double the memory and a much faster processer. A chip originally designed for the gaming division was integrated into the new computer system to up its performance.
The 800 personal computers were based around the MOS 6502 eight-bit processor. The new graphics/audio chip set the computer would come packaged with graphics and sound never before seen in a personal computer system. The 800 could produce up to 128 colors using the CTIA chip (Colleen Television Interface Adapter) and later updated to 256 colors using a GTIA chip (General Television Interface Adapter). With a maximum resolution of 320 x 192 the new line of Atari computer systems would have spectacular graphics for a system released in 1979. The computer was also expandable, designed with a convertible top to allow you easy access to BUS slots.

Atari continued to create computers even with less-than-stellar sales, including the 1985 Atari XE and Atari ST, nicknamed the “Jack-in-tosh” after the company’s new owner Jack Tramiel and the obvious design similarities to the Apple Macintosh. The XE and ST computers would use the Motorola 68000 processor, come with 512k of memory, use 3.5-inch disk drives, RGB monitors and a graphics user environment based on CP/M 68K and Digital Research GEM. The last of the Atari home computers was the Atari Falcon 030 which was sold until 1993. The computer specs gave it 1-14 megabytes of memory up to 32 MHz of processing speed.

Commercial Atari Mega ST Home Computer

Atari: A Tale of Two Kitties Lynx and Jaguar

Atari launched the Lynx, a portable gaming system, and though it would never rival the Gameboy in sales it outdid it in graphics. The Lynx had color graphics and was built for both zooming and scrolling. The processer was 16MHz compared with Nintendo’s’ Gameboy at 4.91 MHz; the Lynx was a monster for a portable gaming system. You could also link up to eight systems together for multiplayer action. The system didn’t catch on and was pulled from the market six years after its release.

The Atari Jaguar 64 was released into the wild in 1993 and was considered an extremely advanced 64-bit multimedia entertainment system. Jaguar had high-res graphics, stereo sound and could connect with a Digital Service Provider making it the forerunner to the platforms like XBOX. Atari’s move back into the console market didn’t last long -- no matter how revolutionary it was -- with Sega and Playstation ready to hit the market in 1994. The system was pulled from the market in 1996.

Atari Today

The most recent Atari system is the Atari VCS, a system that is simply there to tug at our nostalgia. You can play a multitude of the classic games from the Atari catalogue from the 70s and 80s with the retro-inspired console. The Atari VCS comes with a retro joy stick controller and the look and feel of the 70s Atari 2600 so you can sit back and blast Asteroids apart to your heart’s content.

Final Thoughts

Atari is a touchstone for a generation. The games they created dazzled us, leaving us wondering how they made such wonders. When a Gen-Xer plays a game of Asteroids on their phone, they aren’t just killing time, but rather they are reaching back to the early days of gaming for a reminder of how amazing technological advances in computers are. We don’t think you can say that of this generation or any generation that grew up with computers. The Atari was built before even 8% of us had a home computer, forget the idea of being online. At the time, a television remote was just as often a luxury. Phones were still rotary in the age of Atari, yet Atari led the way, bringing the computer into our homes not only for entertainment but for education, employment and enrichment. Atari was a trailblazer pushing the boundaries of programing and design and though they are pretty much relegated to the past as a player in the gaming industry, their influence can be felt in every game made since it hit the market.

Atari-2600-The-History-of-Video-Games-Capture-700x409 [Editorial Tuesday] The History of Atari


Author: Zeke Changuris

I’m a journalist, writer, photographer, video producer, social media manager and above all a storyteller. I’m located on the east coast of the United States but travel the world with the love of my life. I’ve been a nerd since birth with a love of history and science. I fell in love with anime, watching ROBOTECH and Venus Wars in the 80s when our only source was secondhand VHS dubs. A crazy new thing called the internet changed that, giving me access to new and amazing anime every day. I love to write for work and pleasure. I’m living the dream of every kid, getting paid to watch anime and loving every subtitled line.

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