Atari’s Last Console — Meet the Jaguar
In 1993 we saw the last real Atari system and by 1996, we said goodbye to Atari as we knew it
With the AtariBox slowly stealing headlines, it’s an interesting opportunity to look back at what Atari means to you. The original company founded in 1972 by Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney mostly dealt with cutting-edge arcade entertainment. Releasing games like Pong, Asteroids and Space Invaders into the arcades and eventually, on their Atari VCS home console (later named the Atari 2600).
In the mid-80’s, Atari was split into two departments. Atari Games was set up to continue work on arcade titles and Atari Electronics to handle home consoles and computer systems. It was at this point Jack Tramiel’s company, Tramel Technology Inc, developed the Atari ST range of personal computers and later on, Atari home consoles like the Atari Lynx and the Atari Jaguar.
For a lot of people, including me, this incarnation of the Atari Corporation stood as the last remnants of the organization that created those amazing games that hooked me as a kid. The same corporation that rolled out Atari’s swansong systems before being dissolved into a data storage company in 1996.
The AtariBox has been labeled the latest Atari system, but the company that built the name since the 70’s was effectively stood down and dismissed after the Atari Jaguar failed to compete with the Sega Saturn and Sony Playstation.
Why look at the Atari Jaguar now?
Let’s not make excuses for the Atari Jaguar. It didn’t compete with the 3D generation of consoles. Atari Corporation developed it to compete with the Super Nintendo, 3DO and the Sega Mega Drive. On a technical level, it could possibly compete with the Panasonic 3DO but it has the hardware to blow away both the Sega Mega Drive and Super Nintendo. Is it 64-Bits? I like to believe Atari’s side of the story, it is 64-bit where it needs to be. But hardware doesn’t make a console succeed. The Atari Jaguar pushed the 64-Bits hard in their marketing and it back-fired. Thankfully, the fad died down quick in the 90’s with the Nintendo 64 being the last system to really advertise their bits.
So let’s look at 3 reasons why you still might want to experience the Atari Jaguar in person.
The games will make or break a system. For anyone who bought the Atari Jaguar in the 90’s, the few games available felt like a slap in the face. Especially at the launch of the console, gamers looking at the Jaguar were given three different sci-fi shooters to pick between. Trevor McFur in the Crescent Galaxy, Raiden and Cybermorph. It’s easier looking back now to appreciate some unique, exclusive titles.
The Jaguar has a small library of games and some genres were severely neglected, but it did have a strong base of computer based ports. Games like Doom, Wolfenstein 3D, Cannon Fodder, Theme park and Syndicate all were ported with high-resolution graphics. Graphics that systems like the Super Nintendo and Sega Mega Drive (Genesis) couldn’t match.
I don’t think 3D was a strength of the Jaguar but it’s hard to deny some titles looked great at the time. Games like Tempest 2000 and Alien vs Predator were strong examples of early 3D games for home consoles. Both games handled the 3D experience differently but it’s clear that Tempest 2000 managed to really hold up over time. For me personally, its 2D games really excelled with titles like Raiden, Hyper Force and Rayman. Proving that the system was capable of massive sprites and fast-paced action. Even though 2D was going out of vogue, I think the unique mix of 2D and 3D titles make the Jaguar an interesting console to collect for.
The Atari Jaguar was a big research project. There’s a lot of unique and obscure titles. Do your research and maintain reasonable expectations, you’ll find a small but unique library of games with some real hits and misses.
Keep your eyes peeled for the big red buttons, A — B — C. These are the buttons you’ll be pressing to play the games. There’s a lot of complaints about the keypad. Well, it doesn’t do much. The keypad goes back to playing games on a PC where you’d use the number pad to switch between weapons, toggle music or open the auto-map. Take Wolfenstein 3D or Doom, you can strafe by holding C. You’re never expected to use the keypad during a firefight because, yes, that would be awkward. It’s main function is to swap weapons and bring up the auto-map feature. The unique design makes it easy to port those great PC titles.
The pad is big, but looks a lot like the Sega Dreamcast or Saturn’s 3D pad (some of my personal favorites). I prefer the circular faces and how they keep the buttons closer to my fingers. Allowing the game-pad to be wider and easy to grip. It feels like this style of control pad is geared towards some very specific genres, such as, PC ports and arcade style games.
Towards the end of the systems life, Atari released a pro-controller with extra buttons mapped to certain keypad buttons.
The Console Aesthetics
I have a games room. I love seeing the Atari Jaguar propped up in it. It’s an incredibly 90’s piece of hardware with the sleek, race-car style design and massive vents. In the same vein as systems like the Sega Mega Drive and Super Nintendo, these weren’t stylish home-entertainment pieces, they were raw gaming enthusiasm. All locked in a plastic box.
The base Jaguar system uses cartridges. There was a CD attachment which slotted into the top but securing one now can be incredibly expensive and the games available weren’t much better. Mostly including either FMV segments or CD quality audio. The Atari Jaguar CD attachment certainly dampened the cool, sleek look the system had.
Incredible 90’s Hyper Marketing
The Atari Jaguar is known for how hard it failed. Part of the reason I found it so appealing is because the system was pushed as an extreme system, for extreme gamers.
It was pushed as the ONLY 64-Bit gaming system. And it was pushed hard. The Jaguar dissed its competition, made massive promises and despite its promising hardware, failed to have the support it needed to compete. Especially by 1994 when the Sony Playstation and Sega Saturn started taking the headlines with their fully 3D, well-supported systems.
Stand Out Atari Jaguar Games
The Atari Jaguar was home to a unique collection of titles not found anywhere else, and with Jaguar emulation still on the buggy-side, the original hardware remains one of the best ways to experience what the system has to offer. 64-Bits of raw, video game power right at your finger-tips!
Alien vs Predator Rebellion 1994
The Atari Jaguar did an awesome job with porting PC titles, especially the First-Person Shooters like Doom and Wolfenstein 3D. Alien vs Predator stands out as the exclusive FPS game for the Jaguar, developed by Rebellion (who would later go on to tackle the Alien vs Predator franchise on PC, PS3 and XBOX 360).
The game itself isn’t as smooth as Doom, but I enjoyed the theme. 3 different races; Marines, Aliens and Predators, fighting it out with 3 different objectives.
- The Colonial Marine needs to activate the self-destruct mechanism on the ship then make it to the escape pod. Destroying both the Alien infestation and Predator Invasion.
- The Aliens need to locate their Queen on the Predator ship, fighting through the Colonial Marine ship before you can reach it. and
- The Predators need to destroy the Queen which is located deep in the Hive for their campaign.
Iron Soldier Eclipse 1994
This game has you piloting a massive mech on various missions, across various cities. Naturally, you’re the last hope for the good guys to win, but you’re well equipped for it. I loved the way this game broke down the missions and introduced some variety with different objectives, enemies and winning conditions.
As an early 3D game for the Atari Jaguar, they made Iron Solder big, bright and colourful. Big polygons without any texture. Once I got used to the controls here, it became really easy to appreciate what they’ve accomplished. For anyone looking at an entry-level, easy-to-find title to start their collection, I’d recommend Iron Soldier.
The game itself won’t emulate (yet), but you’ll be able to easily find copies of Iron Soldier 3 on the Playstation. It doesn’t have the same Jaguar charm, but you could also hunt down a copy of Iron Soldier 2. Telegames released the CD version in 1997 to a (small) Jaguar fan-base. A cartridge version was also produced. These are for the collectors out there but I’d recommend sticking with the original Iron Soldier.
Brutal Sports Football Telegames 1993
Again, we’ve got a fun, simple, 2-player game. I feel like this is what the Atari Jaguar needed more of. It’s not technically impressive but compared with the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis, it does stand out.
We’ve got a bunch of different teams; Goats, Lizards, Warlocks, etc. Competing in a generic ball-game where the real focus is on how badly you can physically beat the other team.
The game-field is strewn with weapons and powerups you can use, or simply use your attack to take down opponent players. Even if you lose badly, it’s fun to watch the whole game fall apart as less and less players remain on the field… It also was surprising taking an opponent’s head and using it as a weapon in the game. It’s chaotic fun, and I’m still surprised by what can happen in the game.
The game itself is a port of an Amiga computer game, but I’ll consider it an Atari Jaguar ‘console’ exclusive. It emulates well, but when it comes to 2-player games for the Atari Jaguar, the library needs all the help it can get. This is an awesome addition. Easily one of the best Atari Jaguar games for multiplayer.
White Men Can’t Jump High Voltage 1995
Here’s a controversial title for any ‘top’ list. White Men Can’t Jump got appalling reviews, but you can’t deny that classic 90’s attitude.
This is a 3D, 2-player game that can’t be emulated… And it shows off where Jaguar development was heading. We’ve got a game that uses 2D sprites arranged in a 3D world. The camera shifts and tilts to show off the court but being a half-court street basketball game, it doesn’t have to travel far.
One of the biggest issues with White Men Can’t Jump is the tournament mode. It’s incredibly anti-climatic and doesn’t feel satisfying. After completing all the street court games and making it to the stadium for the final, you get to play one game in the spotlight before walking away with the trophy.
I still feel this game was severely overlooked, it’s competent, carries a lot of 90’s ‘tude and is incredibly fun to go back and explore. I was also super-impressed with the amount of effort they put into the manual here and the descriptions for each of the teams.
Fight for Life Atari Corporation 1996
What a way to finish this top 5 list. Fight for Life is here for a lot of the same reasons as White Men Can’t Jump. We’ve got a 2-player, 3D, Jaguar game that can’t be emulated. It’s just too intense.
Again, the game itself wasn’t received very positively but everything feels like it was stacked against this one Jaguar title. Nearing the end of the life of the console, Fight for Life is the last game Atari Produced for the Atari Jaguar. Resources, time and spirits were in short-supply. What we got was the only 3D fighting game for the system that shows what was possible on the hardware. The polygons here have ‘some’ texture mapping. There’s a handful of fighters, each with their own moves but it’s obvious the game simply ran out of time. Programmed by one guy, Francois Bertrand, who previously managed the camera in Virtua Fighter, Fight for Life carries a lot of similarities to that franchise but lacked a lot of the polish.
The fights are slow, long and sluggish. You’ll quickly learn to use moves that can push an opponent around the ring. You need to dominate the field of play and work towards getting a ring out as quick as possible.
Fight for Life gets a bad wrap in Atari Jaguar circles. It’s not a great game, but it was the end of the line for Atari, and this game shows me what the Jaguar could have been capable of.
The Atari 2600 was an amazing console that made video games a household name and essentially dominated the industry right up until the video game crash.
The golden age of video games is interesting, and the 2600 deserves all the praise it receives. But sometimes its more fun following that screw-up grandchild. The Jaguar is an interesting look at what the most experienced and respected competitor in the video game market did when they were up against the ropes. As a final swan song from Atari, this console is rife with classic arcade games from Atari’s heyday. Games like Tempest 2000, Defender and Missile Command. As well as emerging PC-like shooters like Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, Alien vs Predator and Skyhammer.
The Jaguar never officially made it to Australians stores and just for that reason, owning a Jaguar in Australia makes it feel like a ‘rough’ jewel in my collection. It’s an oddity of a console that has some great games, titles that haven’t made their way onto other consoles and aren’t available through emulation.
The Jaguar is a lot of style, not so much substance. An interesting console that’s been severely overlooked. It’s wrestled with the cutting edge and traditional consoles, ultimately, this console offers plenty for anyone willing to do the research and maintain realistic expectations. You won’t be blown away by the Atari Jaguar, but you can have a lot of fun
Want to experience the Atari Jaguar for Yourself?
Emulating the Atari Jaguar can be notoriously difficult, but there’s never been a better opportunity to experience a little bit of what this system could offer.
Using a front end called RetroArch, it’s possible to load an ‘emulation core’ of VirtualJaguar. This version of the emulator will give you much better compatibility than the stand alone application and allow you to experience a large portion of the Atari Jaguar library.
Getting an opportunity to experience the Atari Jaguar, even via emulator, gives you a lot of insight into what the system was capable of doing.