Atari Turns 50: A Look Back on the Original Name in Video Games
Atari launched a multi-billion-dollar industry, only to lose control of it in a series of missteps. But the name will always resonate.
On June 27, 1972, Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney incorporated Atari in Sunnyvale, California. And it’s safe to say that if this didn’t happen, I’d be a different person.
I spent my childhood living and breathing Atari: playing 2600 games, crowding Atari coin-ops crammed into pizzerias and bodegas, and running an Atari 800 bulletin board system (BBS) in the mid-1980s. These early experiences inform everything I write about technology now.
As an adult, I’ve written Adventure(Opens in a new window) , Breakout(Opens in a new window) , and Faster Than Light(Opens in a new window) , three books about the Atari’s 2600, 800, and ST, plus Attract Mode(Opens in a new window) , a book about arcade coin-ops that features Atari heavily. Many other tech enthusiasts of a certain vintage feel as strongly about Atari as I do. So in honor of the brand’s 50th anniversary, it seems appropriate to celebrate and look back on the storied history of one of the most iconic names in technology.
When I grew up, two common tropes were that the first video game was Pong and that Nolan Bushnell invented it. Although Bushnell and Pong both deserve plenty of credit, the real story is more nuanced. It evolved over the course of the 20th century, as amusement parks led to penny arcades, Skee-Ball, pinball, and other electromechanical attractions that relied increasingly on skill as well as chance. Inklings of video games appeared as early as the late 1940s with the very first vacuum-tube-based, room-sized computers, as researchers experimented with chess, puzzles, and displaying moving points of light on screens.
One of the most important and influential early video games was Spacewar!, developed in 1962 at MIT primarily by Steve Russell. Spacewar! was a two-player spaceship battle against the gravitational pull of the Sun. It was the first true title where two people could play, control, compete, and ultimately win a game that took place entirely on a screen.
It was this game that Nolan Bushnell, a young electronics enthusiast, came across. By the time he entered college at the University of Utah, he had already been a ham radio operator, ran his dad’s cement business, and managed an amusement park. Bushnell played Spacewar! and dreamed of building an amusement park-style video game of his own at a reasonable cost—certainly much less than DEC wanted for its PDP-8 minicomputer, which cost $120,000 in the mid-1960s.
After Bushnell earned his electrical engineering degree and went to work for videotape company Ampex, he began designing his own Spacewar!-like electronic coin-op game with his coworker Ted Dabney. They mocked up a prototype, and along with fellow Ampex employee Larry Bryan, they started a partnership called Syzygy Engineering. They soon joined forces with Dave Nutting, a local amusement park coin-op game manufacturer, and began to build, sell, and distribute their new creation, Computer Space.
“People would look at you like you had three heads,” Bushnell said of describing the game to others, in Van Burnham’s excellent Supercade: A Visual History of the Videogame Age 1971–1984. “You mean you’re going to put the TV set in a box with a coin slot and play games on it?” Two Stanford students also had the same idea in 1971 and developed Galaxy Game, another Spacewar! clone. But lacking Bushnell’s business savvy, they couldn’t figure out how to do it at scale and make money.
Computer Space had a striking fiberglass cabinet design that came in a variety of colors. It was clearly ahead of its time, and it even showed up in the Charlton Heston film Soylent Green (1973). It sold a reasonable 1,300 units. But Computer Space proved too complex for tipsy patrons to get the hang of in a noisy bar. Bushnell needed a new idea, and fast.
Avoid Missing Ball for High Score
The Magnavox Odyssey was the world’s first home video game console. The late Ralph Baer conceived the Odyssey way back in 1966 and built several prototypes of it. In 1971, Magnavox agreed to manufacture and sell Baer’s system. Bushnell saw an early version of it at a Magnavox dealer demonstration later in 1971. He played the built-in table tennis game and decided he needed to make a coin-op version.
Bushnell’s most important early hire was Al Alcorn, who was the brain behind Atari’s own first coin-op. Bushnell ordered Alcorn to get to work developing a coin-op game with two paddles, one ball, and a way to keep score, which he felt was important. The result was much more sophisticated; Alcorn added not just scoring, but sound, a sped-up mode once you’ve been playing for a while, and more precise control that changed the angle of the ball depending on where it made contact with the paddle. They named it Pong, after the sound it made when you hit the ball.
Birth of Atari, and Arcades
Once the game was finished, Bushnell and Alcorn installed a prototype(Opens in a new window) of Pong in a local tavern to see how it did, only to get a call a couple of weeks later that it had broken. It turned out so many people played it that the coin box was already overflowing and had jammed. The new Atari, Inc. began manufacturing and distributing Pong cabinets later that year and soon hit the big time.
Pong’s runaway success in bars immediately attracted dozens of competitors building Pong-like games of their own. So Atari iterated as it grew, releasing different kinds of games such as Space Race, Gran Trak 10, Tank, and more. It had another hit on its hands with 1976’s Breakout, the game Steve Jobs famously asked his friend Steve Wozniak to design for Atari, only to cheat him out of most of his deserved bonus once Wozniak finished it.
Video arcades grew in popularity throughout the 1970s, but Taito’s wildly addictive Space Invaders opened the floodgates. It signaled the arrival of a golden age of arcade games, the period between 1978 and 1983 when coin-op video games took off. No Atari coin-op was as big as Space Invaders, or Namco’s Pac-Man (1980), Ms. Pac-Man (1981), or Nintendo’s Donkey Kong (1981)—the first hit games with mascots, a concept Atari missed out on. But it still created some of the biggest hits of the era, including Asteroids, Missile Command, Centipede, and Tempest, a striking coin-op with color vector graphics.
Have You Played Atari Today?
Atari also broke into the home console market like Magnavox, but not until 1975 with Home Pong, a dedicated unit that played selectable variations of its first hit arcade coin-op. Other copycats followed this effort, too, and 1976 marked a brief wave of popularity for these devices. Soon, the microprocessor-based Fairchild Channel F arrived, a cartridge-based system that meant you could keep adding new games to it. It became clear immediately that cartridges would be the future. Luckily, Atari engineers were already working on one.
In September 1977, Atari released the Video Computer System, known today as the 2600 (a name it didn’t get officially until a 1982 revamp). The brainchild of Alcorn, Jay Miner, Joe Decuir, and some others, the 2600 launched the other half of the video game industry, the one in the home. The 2600 was a compact, attractive console that came with two joysticks, two paddles, and an adapter that let you commandeer channel 3 or 4 on your television set (whichever one had the most fuzz in your area) to use for displaying games.
Atari’s original nine-cartridge lineup wasn’t particularly amazing. The pack-in Combat played variants of Atari’s 1974 coin-op Tank. Video Olympics offered many sporting event variations that were essentially 50 ways to play Pong. Air-Sea Battle offered target practice with airplanes and boats. Indy 500 let you drive crude race cars in a top-down view like Atari’s Sprint 2 coin-op. But the difference was that you could play these games at home, on your living room television set while sitting on your fashionable shag carpeting (just watch out for static electricity).
The system’s cartridge slot beckoned, of course, and Atari programmers followed up the initial launch with many new games over the next several years. And soon, programmers figured out how to bypass the system’s tricky limitations and create more advanced, compelling games, such as the multi-screened Superman (1978) and Adventure (1979), or shoot-‘em-ups with many more on-screen sprites, such as Space Invaders (1980).
The competing Mattel Intellivision, released in late 1979, eventually sold three million consoles but never quite challenged the 2600 sufficiently, despite its superior sports and strategy titles. Other systems such as the RCA Studio II, the Bally Astrocade, and the follow-up Magnavox Odyssey2 barely made a dent in the market.
Computers for People
In 1976, Warner Communications had purchased Atari for $28 million, giving it the cash infusion necessary to properly launch the VCS. This move also proved problematic; in 1978, Warner installed Ray Kassar, a textile executive, as CEO of Atari. The ground immediately shifted, as Kassar and Bushnell battled over the company’s direction, most notably in whether it should release a follow-up game console to the VCS or a home computer to battle the Apple II, the Commodore PET, and Tandy’s Radio Shack TRS-80.
The computer won out, Bushnell left, and in late 1979, the company released its first home computers, the 400 and 800. These were revolutionary designs, with dedicated chips for graphics and sound processing. In this sense, they were the two first real gaming PCs, in that they had separate coprocessors that were designed specifically for this purpose. Doug Neubauer’s Star Raiders became the killer app for these early computers, a sophisticated and epic space battle game with incredible animation that was crammed into just 8K of memory.
Atari then squandered its early mover advantage in computers by not releasing the secrets of how its systems worked to third-party programmers, preferring to keep all the software profits to itself. As a result, those programmers all flocked to developing software for the Apple II, TRS-80, and Commodore VIC-20. Atari lost a crucial two years as the market for those systems skyrocketed.
Eventually, Atari management relented. Soon, plenty of storied developers and publishers got their start or became famous on Atari 8-bit systems, including Electronic Arts (Archon, M.U.L.E.), Sid Meier and MicroProse (Solo Flight, Silent Service, F-15 Strike Eagle), and Lucasfilm Games (Rescue on Fractalus!, Ballblazer).
Atari Becomes a Household Name
If you were a kid in the early 1980s, you had to have an Atari console, or at least know a close friend with one-particularly after Atari’s conversion of Space Invaders arrived. Excellent conversions of Atari’s own Asteroids and Missile Command arrived the year after. After a highly publicized break with management, third-party studios such as Activision, Imagic, and board game giant Parker Brothers released excellent 2600 games of their own, including Pitfall!, Demon Attack, and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.
Things especially heated up later in 1982, as more and more games arrived and the appetite for them only expanded. It was also time for new hardware. Coleco unveiled the ColecoVision console, with its arcade-like visuals and powerhouse licensed pack-in cartridge Donkey Kong. GCE launched the Vectrex, a nifty, self-contained game system with a built-in 9-inch monochrome monitor and tack-sharp vector graphics.
Atari battled these stalwart contenders with the 5200 SuperSystem, a repackaging of the 1979 Atari 400 in an oversized console. It was overmatched. The 5200 came with Super Breakout, a four-year-old variation of a six-year-old coin-op, and it had non-centering joysticks that confounded players looking to duplicate the arcade experience at home. I had one anyway, along with an Atari 2600 and Atari 800 computer. The 5200 let you play Robotron: 2084 with two joysticks, and Centipede or Missile Command with a trackball, just like the respective coin-ops.
The (Video Game) Music Stops
All three new consoles launched in 1982, but fizzled out within a year. So did everything else related to video games. An oversaturation of arcades, consoles, cartridges, and increasingly poor quality cartridges led to a massive video game crash in 1983. Atari was hit particularly hard, thanks in part to the colossal bungling of its home Pac-Man release for the 2600 console in early 1982, and perhaps to a lesser extent, its E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial cartridge, which cost $20 million to license from Steven Spielberg. Copies of E.T. famously ended up buried in the desert with thousands of other unsold Atari cartridges. Atari racked up $538 million in losses in 1983 and laid off nearly all of its 10,000 employees by mid-1984.
The biggest reason for the crash, though, was the rise in inexpensive home computers. Why pay several hundred dollars for a game console when you can buy a computer that does so much more? Commodore’s Jack Tramiel launched a price war with its VIC-20 and especially its excellent Commodore 64 computer, slashing prices in half soon after launch and then lower still. The rivalry between fans of these different computers was palpable: If you weren’t there, think of Commodore versus Atari as the Mac versus PC of the day. Guess which team I was on?
Ultimately, Tramiel wanted to not just win, but destroy his competitors at Atari, Apple, Radio Shack, and Texas Instruments. He wanted to ensure Commodore wouldn’t lose the way it lost the calculator market in the 1970s. Then, for rabid Atari fans, the unthinkable happened.
Atari Corporation: Power Without the Price
In January 1984, Tramiel and his sons had a falling out with other Commodore management. They left the company, entered negotiations with Warner, and then struck a deal to split off and buy Atari Computer from Atari Coin. The coin-op division became Atari Games. Tramiel bought everything else and named the new company Atari Corporation.
Tramiel immediately got to work building a new team—largely with ex-Commodore employees—and launching a new computer system. The 16-bit Atari 520ST, designed by Shiraz Shivji and unveiled at CES 1985, represented a new era for Atari computers. The 520ST was the first desktop system to deliver a color GUI with mouse control for under $1,000. Jack Tramiel took the battle not just to his former company-turned-competitor Commodore, but also to IBM and especially Apple with its new Macintosh. Early looks at the ST led some pundits to label the machine the “Jackintosh.” The following year, the 1040ST with its integrated floppy drive became the first machine under $1,000 with 1MB of memory.
The ST lineup developed a cult following in America and had more mainstream appeal in Europe, thanks to several well-advertised “Packs” that included plenty of quality software and games with every new machine. The ST also found footing in recording studios the world over, thanks to its built-in MIDI ports and locked-in sense of timing that attracted many musicians and composers of the day. Although the ST lacked dedicated gaming coprocessors, like the ones Jay Miner designed for the Atari 2600, 400, and the competing 16-bit Commodore Amiga, it was still a solid gaming machine, as evidenced by innovative genre-splitting games from Psygnosis and Michtron, hit graphic adventures from Lucasfilm Games and Sierra On-Line, and especially FTL’s Dungeon Master (pictured above).
Sputtering and Last Gasps
By 1990, it was clear Atari wasn’t doing well—especially in the US, where sales had reached a near standstill. Atari’s upgraded 1040STE model launched in late 1989 with support for 4,096 colors, digital sound, and hardware scrolling, which better positioned it against the Commodore Amiga 500, but it was two years late.
Otherwise, the operative word for Atari Corporation was “flailing.” The 7800 game console—which Tramiel canned after purchasing Atari, only to resurrect it in 1986 after Nintendo reinvigorated the video game industry with the stellar Nintendo Entertainment System—failed to find purchase. So did Atari’s XE Game System, another repackaging of the now eight-year-old 400 computer, and its Lynx handheld, which was in color and more powerful than Nintendo’s Game Boy, but had poor battery life and a meager cartridge lineup.
An ill-fated merger with retail store chain Federated Group in the late 1980s hobbled Atari and sapped it of crucial resources. And a series of more advanced Atari computers also bombed, including the 32-bit TT, the STacy and ST Book portables, a run of MS-DOS-compatible PCs, the Portfolio handheld, and the Falcon, a 16/32-bit hybrid system in 1992 with the looks of the 520ST but much more advanced hardware underneath. All struggled against the MS-DOS juggernaut and soon faded from the scene.
As Atari’s various new product launches fizzled out one after the other, in the early 1990s the company sharpened its portfolio, cut its (copious) losses, and put all its chips behind the Jaguar, the first so-called 64-bit game console that could leapfrog Nintendo and Sega. The Jaguar, too, landed with a thud, thanks to its mediocre pack-in game, difficult-to-program architecture, and spotty cartridge lineup aside from Jeff Minter’s stellar Tempest 2000. In 1996, JTS Corporation bought the remaining assets and rights to all Atari IP, eventually selling them to Hasbro in 1998. The Atari brand disappeared in a sea of cut-price overstock available via mail-order.
Atari Lives On
In 2000, French video game publisher Infogrames bought Atari’s assets from Hasbro and began an even longer and more convoluted series of reorganizations and mergers. I remember being especially perplexed when I bought the excellent CRPG Neverwinter Nights in the early 2000s and saw the Atari logo on the box. This “Atari” had nothing whatsoever to do with the consoles and computers I grew up with. Today’s iteration is hawking a crowdfunded microconsole with VCS branding, along with Bluetooth speaker hats and other apparel, a steady trickle of repackaged IP from decades ago, and an inexplicable push into hotels and cryptocurrency(Opens in a new window) .
But the real Atari can still be found alive in the forums and user groups of the internet, where thousands of enthusiasts continue to talk about old-school computers, consoles, and software. You’ll find websites, podcasts, YouTube channels, subreddits, Twitch streams, and Facebook groups. Take your pick of Atari Inc., Atari Games, or Atari Corporation—there’s room for fans of it all.
Even more impressively, hundreds of fans are coding up new “ homebrew(Opens in a new window) “ games on various Atari platforms, while hardware hackers develop mods that give the old machines new potential. My latest favorite mod is FujiNet(Opens in a new window) , an open-source network adapter by Thomas Cherryhomes that enables wireless internet connectivity, flash storage, virtual printing to PDFs, and more to Atari 8-bit XL and XE computers.
With all the twists and turns in Atari’s story over the years—and so many unforced errors—it’s amazing the brand is still around at all. But there’s no other possibility for such a resonant name, enshrined as it was on a billboard in the dystopian 1982 sci-fi flick Blade Runner, and still affixed to aging consumer electronics filling up the basements and attics of millions of homes worldwide. After 50 years, the final chapter of Atari is yet to be written.
So what are you waiting for? Dust off all that old gear and start playing with it.
Originally published at https://www.pcmag.com.