In 1972 Atari was founded by Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney. Formerly the team had begun an engineering firm under the name Syzygy Engineering (syzygy meaning: a conjunction or opposition, esp. of the moon with the sun) in 1971 and called their new venture ‘Atari’ (from the Japanese verb ataru; ‘to hit the target’). While Syzygy would develop the first arcade video game (Computer Space), Atari would go on to bring the home video console into worldwide gaming history.
In its history of bringing record-breaking entertainment to the world, Atari often had culture clashes with business partners. Nolan Bushnell became known for his unorthodox antics and Atari employees were noted for their laid back attitude and relaxed work culture. When Atari went into cahoots with traditionally-minded Sears Roebuck in 1977 to sell the Atari 2600, it seemed like a case of opposites attract. Once when Sears came to inspect one of Atari’s manufacturing plants, employees from both sides met at a local restaurant for dinner at the end of the day. Bushnell and his board decided they ought to end the encounter at a compromise: the Atari crew came in suits and ties. It seemed Sears had the same idea; they showed up in tees and denim.
Right out of the gate in 1972, Atari engineer Al Alcorn churned out the game to start it all: Pong. Pong was made as an arcade version of the Magnavox Odyssey‘s game Tennis. And if you were alive anywhere in the world in the 70s and 80s I’m sure you can recall what a pop culture icon Pong became. Pong had such success that by 1975 Home Pong consoles kicked Sears’ bestseller Adidas shoes off the map and by 1976, 75 other companies tried to emulate it with their own home TV tennis games.
1973 followed with more great history making events. To drum up business, Nolan Bushnell’s neighbour Joe Keenan began Kee Games as a ‘competitor’ in the arcade business. Releasing Atari ‘clones’, Kee Games was kept a secret from the public until they were found out within the first year and merged with Atari shortly thereafter but continued to publish games under their own name until 1978. If you’re not familiar at all with the name Kee Games, you’ll certainly recall their biggest success, Tank. After the ’78 merger, Joe Keenan became president of Atari.
1981 Atari 2600 courtesy Jason Harder
Atari’s early years brought many now famous names into the video game business. Don Valentine, an early venture capitalist in the computer industry, invested in Atari in it’s infancy and became part of the board of directors. Though not a video game fan, he stayed on for two years. This was not the end of Valentine’s presence in the computer world- he also helped get Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak’s Apple Computer started financially. Valentine went on to aid Cisco Systems in 1986 who had much to do with the development of the internet and today supplies VOIP phones to businesses worldwide.
Unfortunately Atari became plagued by management clashes- Nolan Bushnell and Al Alcorn went head to head and employees were told by both parties to follow conflicting orders. Bushnell began to spy on Alcorn using an informant who turned out to be Steve Jobs, the future icon of Apple. Despite this, production pressed on.
In 1976 Atari’s biggest competitors were Magnavox with their Odyssey 100 and National Semiconductor. While Odyssey 100’s sales weren’t stellar (it only played tennis), Magnavox held serious advertising power to carry it through. National Semiconductor had formerly manufactured chips for Atari arcade games but after Kee Games merged into Atari they began making financial demands that nearly took Atari down. A Kee Games employee, Steve Bristow, developed equipment that allowed Atari to kiss National Semiconductor goodbye as a supplier. This was by no means simple due to patent laws and in 1976 National Semiconductor tried to compete with Atari with consumer games of their own.
Onward and upward, Atari’s next foe became the Connecticut Leather Company, known to ’80s kids across the U.S. as Cabbage Patch Kid supplier Coleco. Not just a dolly-maker, Coleco also got into the tennis console business and released Telestar. While Telestar offered a direct threat to Atari sales due to problems with chip supply, it wouldn’t have been possible with the development in 1976 of the Channel F console by Fairchild Camera and Instrument. The Channel F was the first system that offered multiple games on one console in the form of interchangeable cartridges, thereby making then-current one-game consoles look like dinosaurs. Buyers didn’t see any sense in continuing to buy one game consoles and Atari had to get creative to keep up with even more new competitors in the games marketplace such as RCA.
They did this with the development of the Stella chip by the Atari Grass Valley team which became part of the Video Computer System (VCS). Not just a console, the VCS was a computer with an 8bit processor that would be the leg up to save Atari from the financial doldrums they’d fallen into since Home Pong’s decline. But to help funds before this really took off, Nolan Bushnell sold Atari in 1976 to Warner Communications for $28 million, staying on with Joe Keenan and getting into the Pinball manufacturing business to ride on the tail of the mid-70’s pinball craze. Atari specialised in making extra-wide pinball machines for game arcades.
In 1977 Atari released their VCS with 9 game cartridges ( Combat, Surround, Blackjack, Video Olympics, Air Sea Battle, Star Ship, Indy 500, Street Race, and Basic Math) and the new ‘joystick’. RCA responded with Studio II which quickly tanked because it’s games were in black and white only and Magnavox released Odyssey2 in the fall of that year. Unfortunately VCS sales were crap that year. Shipping the VCS units for demand was a problem; Mattel and Coleco hit the market 1st with handheld electronic games and Christmas saw the video game market crash. Atari and others had to sell off inventory cheap. On top of this, internal problems dragged on in management over the company’s pinball production and the sell-price of the VCS.
1978 saw a resurgence in arcade games and luckily Atari had success with its new trackball controller for Football. Though Japanese firm Taito made video game history with Space Invaders that year, Atari rode off into the national arcade craze and straight through to the golden age of video games in the early 1980s when so many others quietly withdrew from the market. Though Atari had not developed Space Invaders, they did make their name permanent to 80s history with Asteroids, selling over 70,000 game units in the U.S. alone. Other notable hits were Super Breakout, Centipede, Gauntlet and Steel Talons (all by engineer Ed Logg) which would later be reissued as home console cartridges.
’78 was also the year of Cosmos, another console designed by Al Alcorn, though Cosmos did not plug into the television like the VCS. Cosmos was unique in that it used mylar overlays to give 3D effects to its games, However, the technology used in Cosmos for effects was incongruant with the actual game play of the time and Cosmos faded into obscurity.
The early 1980s found Atari a new rival- Midway games, owned by Bally who also distributed Namco games, (Namco had been a distributor for Atari in Japan). Midway would go on to become the distributor of Pac-Man and then Ms. Pac-Man whose sales in 1982 helped Midway well surpass Atari.
Unfortunately, success didn’t make life easier at Atari. By 1981 Busnell, Alcorn and Keenan were gone and remaining designers were unable to be credited for their games. A group of retired army generals who approached Atari to develop training simulators for soldiers rankled employees who personally opposed the military. But at work, there was no choise to turn the project down.
Atari’s line of 8-bit computers starting in 1979 came into being as a follow up to the Atari 2600 as competition to Apple II’s success and as a better gaming system for home users. First premiering with the Atari 800 Personal Computer System (Protoype “Colleen”) at a retail of $1,000 USD, Atari followed with Atari 400 (Prototype: “Candy”), a half-version at $550 USD. Legend has it the models were named after 2 particularly eye-catching co-workers….
Atari 800 featured 8KB RAM (yes, that’s 8KB seriously – most mobile phones in 2014 had around 1 gig), which was expandable to 48 KB. Plug-in cartridges eliminated game loading delays and the 800 used both the 410 Program Recorder and the 810 Disk Drive for data storage through an external port. With 4 joystick ports and analog paddle controllers in addition, the 800 was the original gaming computer accomodating up the 8 players simultaneously. The whole point of the 8 bit computer was to combine plug-and-play ease with great computing and Atari did it well with their SIO serial bus system very similar to today’s USB.
The 800 suffered some speed issues however, problems with overheating and of course limited expansion. The Atari 400 offered even less in the way of upgrading and both were phased out by 1982; succeeded by the Atari 1200XL. XL didn’t offer much more, making the 800/400 seem not so shabby as fans rushed to the stores to buy units up before production end. 1200XL only lived on the market for six months before along came the 600XL and 800XL in 1983. Realising they were going in the right direction, Atari also plotted out models repleat with voice synthesizers and internal modems but these never made it to market. Additional prototypes included never sold were the 1400XL, 1450XLD, 1600XL (Project Shakti), 1650XLD, 1850XLD (based on the chipset of the early Commodore Amiga). Much of this was owed to after affects from the video game crash of 1983 and parent company Warner wanting Atari to stay in the games business and keep out of the business business.
Tramel Technologies under Jack Tramel (Commodore founder) bought Atari Computer Division in 1984, effectively cancelling work on Atari XL line with the 80XLF being sold in Europe in 1985. The last 8bits produced were the XE line of 130XE and 65XE / 800XE (European) followed by the XEGS, an 8 bit gaming system using a joystick and light gun.
Atari XE advert courtesy tv2zebra
1985 also saw the beginning of Atari’s 16 bit computers, the ST line, beginning with 520ST and followed by MegaST, STe, Mega STe, TT30, and later laptops Stacy and STBook (a mini laptop under 5lbs in weight). Protoypes during this time that never made it to light were a touch tablet and pen stylus names respectively, STpad and STylus. 1987 brought even better models- IBM compatibles. Atari PC-1 started off the line to include the Atari Falcon 030 as well as 386SX laptop and IBM-compatible XT Palmtop, also known as the Atari PC Folio.
While Atari computers were made for the gaming community and put out some awesome games such as Montezuma’s Revenge, Gauntlet and GORF, Atari’s love for secrecy over its products and their specs left 3rd party developers at a disadvantage when attempting to design quality software for Atari models. They did, however, put out a free quarterly mail order catalogue under the name APX (Atari Programmer Exchange) that listed user-written software and any Atari computer user could access a copy of. Of course this sort of programme fostered creativity as well as excellent new product- anyone could submit software and receive a small sale royalty as well as have access to purchase from fellow developers. Memorable games to come out of the programme were Dandy, Eastern Front and Alternative Reality: the City. As for the wealth of official Atari 8-bit games you don’t have to fire up an 800 to enjoy any more- online emulators abound! Give em a try at Atari Mac, Atari Age or XLAtari
Atari effectively ended its golden-age of production in 1993 with a 64-bit Interactive Multimedia System named Atari Jaguar 64. The Falcon 030 was its last personal computer.
Atari has been featured in over 50 films and featured in an encore cameo in Blade Runner 2049 (2017).
In 1998 Atari was sold to Hasbro which then sold it to Infograms Entertainment in 1999 which THEN renamed itself as Atari in 2009.
Nolan Bushnel came back on board as an adviser to Atari in 2009.
Atari has published over 400 games across all platforms.
Atari’s Greatest Hits was the #1 mobile phone app in the Apple App Store in 2011.
The world record High Score for Asteroids is 41,338,740. Battle Zone comes in second at 23,000,000 even!
Atari 400/800 “Atari Family” advert courtesy ScottithGames
The Art of Atari
One of the only game companies with their own in-house art department, Atari put a lot of effort into their packaging. Arcade console art (including both graphics and cabinet design), game packaging, sales flyers and promotions were seen as essential methods to both sell games to arcade vendors and excite the imaginations of game players. Admittedly, while Atari was a leader in game graphics and programming, the genre itself was extremely limited and Atari recognised that it needed exciting, graphic packaging to help the gamer envision gameplay where the actual product lacked. Arcade consoles also had to compete with existing popular pinball machines so Atari made sure it was easily identifiable in any arcade just by a quick glance around the room. It was a time when human imagination still made up the 360 experience before technology caught up and began to do it for us.
Those can’t-miss titles on Atari game cartridges were often in either Bauhaus or Harry Fat typefaces (Bauhaus comes already installed on most Windows operating systems today) and the colourful, intricate art pulled from the styles used in popular concert posters of the 1960s and ’70s. Under the direction of designer George Opperman who designed the Atari logo, artists were paid well for the time and encouraged to reach to the skies in terms of design and materials. Some of the firm’s most memorable games which have endured in gamer memories were brought to life by cabinet designers Barney Huang, George Faraco and Ken Hata, and illustrators:
Cliff Spohn- Air-Sea Battle, Backgammon, Basketball, Bowling, Brain Games, Breakout, Championship Soccer, Codebreaker, Combat Football, Home Run, Human Cannonball, Indy 500, Miniature Golf, Starship, Super Breakout, Surround, Video Chess, Video Olympics, Wizard
Rick Guidice- Basic Programming, Blackjack, Breakaway, Canyon Bomber, Casino, Memory Match, Night Driver, Space War, Street Racer
Susan Jaekel- 3D Tic-Tac-Toe, A Game of Concentration, Adventure, Basic Math, Circus Atari, Fun with Numbers, Hangman, Hunt & Score
Steve Hendricks- Breakout, Defender, Golf, Haunted House, Missile Command, Night Driver, Othello, Pole Position, RealSports Soccer, Steeplechase, Video Checkers, Warlords
Terry Hoff- Asteroids, Countermeasure, Moon Patrol, Phoenix, Pole Position, RealSports Basketball, RealSports Tennis, RealSports Volleyball, Star Raiders, Superman III, SwordQuest Waterworld
Hiro Kimura- Berzerk, Centipede, Crazy Climber, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Frog Pond, Galaxian, Joust, Krull, Mario Bros, Millipede, Pac-Man, Pele’s Soccer, Pengo, RealSports Football, Yar’s Revenge
James Kelly- Dodge ‘Em, Galaxian, Maze Craze, Pele’s Soccer, Raiders of the Lost Ark
Warren Chan- Choplifter, Dukes of Hazzard, Math Grand Prix, Moon Patrol, Raiders of the Lost Ark, RealSports Tennis, SwordQuest Airworld/ Fireworld/ Earthworld/ Waterworld, Track and Field
Marc Ericksen- Galaga, Midnight Magic, Pole Position