The Life and Death of Atari
A brief look back at the remarkable history of a video game icon
You may have heard of a little company by the name of Atari. It was once a giant of the video game industry. In fact, Atari is largely credited with building a home console market in the first place. Although it saw enormous success, the Atari of the ’70s and ’80s ultimately collapsed — and almost took an entire industry with it.
1972. THE LIFE AND DEATH OF ATARI
WHEN PONG CONQUERED THE EARTH
Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney founded Atari in California in 1972. Initially, the company designed arcade games. Their first breakout hit was the iconic Pong — a game that almost represents the DNA of video games in some sense. Even the most powerful video game company in the world today can attribute at least some of its success to Pong.
1977. THE LIFE AND DEATH OF ATARI
2600 ENTERS THE RING
Atari released its first home game machine — Home Pong — in 1975. Only two years later, in 1977, the company released the console that most of us recognize instinctively and automatically when we think about Atari (or video games in general): the Atari 2600. The stylish, woodgrain-clad device used interchangeable cartridges; at the time, cartridges were still a relatively new invention. Having sold around 30 million units throughout its lifetime, the Atari 2600 was — at least until the Nintendo Entertainment System — the most successful video game console. The biggest game on the system was Pac-Man, which sold around 7 million copies.
1979. THE LIFE AND DEATH OF ATARI
RISE OF THE HOME COMPUTER
Atari expanded its product offerings in 1979 with the Atari 400 and 800 machines. These were home computers, and sold around 4 million units (not too bad considering the Atari 800 was $1,000 USD at the time). Also, this machine was home to the famous Star Raiders game, which was arguably one of its biggest draw cards in terms of software. The bigger brother to these computers was the Atari 1200XL — but it flopped, largely because Atari was facing challenges from numerous competitors — including the likes of Commodore, for example — who were aggressively vying for market share at the time.
Atari released a successor to the 2600 three years later in 1982. But it never gained traction, and by 1983, the infamous Video Game Crash took hold.
1983. THE LIFE AND DEATH OF ATARI
AN INDUSTRY ON LIFE-SUPPORT
The Video Game Crash describes the near-complete collapse of the U.S. video game industry between 1983 and 1985. Many companies went bankrupt or were simply pushed out of the market entirely. This period also marked the end of Atari as it had been constituted up to that point. It was forced to split into two companies: Atari Games and Atari Corporation.
1986. THE LIFE AND DEATH OF ATARI
The Atari 7800 debuted in 1986. It was the direct successor to the Atari 2600 and 5200. It was actually a relatively impressive console, boasting backwards compatibility with games released on older platforms as well as significantly improved joysticks. Sadly, though, the 7800 never quite gained the traction of its predecessors — especially the iconic 2600.
Atari fought hard to re-establish its presence as a major video game company throughout the 1980s. In 1989, it launched the Atari Lynx, the company’s first dedicated handheld console. The machine was technically highly impressive, especially thanks to its advanced color display. However, it was thoroughly eclipsed by Nintendo’s Game Boy, which was released in the same year.
1993. THE LIFE AND DEATH OF ATARI
A FINAL FANTASY
The Atari Jaguar was a bold statement; Atari marketed the machine as the world’s first 64-bit console. However, its complex architecture, numerous hardware flaws, and threadbare developer support tools made it a difficult proposition for third-party developers to embrace. Lackluster controller design and very few compelling games ultimately condemned the console to an early grave. In the end, Atari sold about 250,000 units globally; Jaguar never came close to matching the success of the company’s previous consoles.
Sadly, Atari Corporation filed for bankruptcy in 1996 with Atari Games following in 2003. Since then, Atari has primarily lived on through gamers’ fond memories, an enthusiastic retro collector market, and a surprisingly healthy cult development scene (where fans are still creating new games for Atari consoles, including the 2600).
This is the (brief) story of the life and death of Atari. Of course, there’s a lot more to it; Atari was a pioneering video game and technology company. In some respects, it’s a cautionary tale, and a demonstration that even the largest and most successful companies can see rapidly-shifting fortunes.
Of course, the story of Atari isn’t quite over. The Atari VCS is a brand new game console that is currently available for pre-order.
The Atari brand is now owned by Infogrames (which changed its own name to Atari in 2009). The new VCS console promises to keep the company’s name and franchises alive thanks to its 100 built-in Atari games. Nevertheless, the Atari that exists now is largely a portfolio of assets — it isn’t the original company. Sad as it may be that the Atari of old is gone, we remain hopeful that the VCS will end up being a fitting tribute to one of the most important companies in video game history.