All day Monday we saw "Atari Filing for Bankruptcy" headlines across the Web, accompanied by gushing expressions of nostalgia from anyone over the age of 30. The problem is that after nearly 41 long and arduous years, nostalgia is just about all the company is good for anymore.
I have as much of a bond with the brand as any other old fart who remembers the early days of video games. Some of my earliest gaming memories are directly attributable to Atari, and my entire career owes much to the brand. Were it not for an opportunity to scratch down some musings about an Atari ST game back in the mid-'80s, it's unlikely that I ever would have had the opportunity to be a part of the games business. Atari is in my blood. So if even my first reaction to the news was "about damn time," I think it's safe to say that we've finally reached the point where the dead horse has been whipped about as many times as it possibly can be.
Despite my fondness for the Atari ST home computer and the Jack Tramiel-era Atari Corp. years between 1984 and 1996, the last time the company we all claim to have such fond feelings for actually deserved such sentimentality was back in the early '80s. That's 30 years ago. What the hell happened?
If I were to ask for a show of hands of those of you who thought the company had already filed for bankruptcy or gone out of business before the news hit on Monday, I'm pretty certain I'd see a lot of arms in the air. Who can really keep track of the cavalcade of crap that has befallen the mighty brand over the past few decades? Let's try to summarize…
Atari's Complicated History
Founded in 1972 by Nolan Bushnell, and later sold to Warner Communications in 1976, the subsequent story of Atari is both complicated and filled with a mix of triumph and missteps. It was these earliest years, however, which yielded the majority of Atari's most beloved and important products. The most significant, of course, being Pong; the game that kicked everything off in 1972. The hand-assembled arcade units first shipped in November of that year and the home version followed in the holiday season of 1975. When it finally arrived on shelves, it amazed everyone that saw it and sold 150,000 units through Sears. After this, Bushnell began development of the Atari VCS (Video Computer System, later known as the 2600 - imaginatively named for the unit's part number), but was unable to complete development with the funds of the existing company. He sold Atari to Warner Communications for $28 million in 1976 with the promise that the project, then known as "Stella," would be completed as soon as possible.
The console eventually shipped in 1977, priced at $199 with two of the system's iconic joysticks and a copy of the genre-defining tank game Combat. It sold a relatively disappointing 250,000 units that year. The real success didn't come until 1979 when the VCS was the best-selling holiday gift in the United States, selling more than a million units that year.
1979 was also a banner year for Atari's arcade division, and for video games in general, as it saw the release of Asteroids; arguably one of the most important arcade games ever made. It also has the distinction of being Atari's most successful game of all time. It was so popular in arcades that it's said that operators had to install larger coin boxes to accommodate all of the money spent by players.
[It] amazed everyone that saw it and sold 150,000 units through Sears.Asteroids was followed in 1981 by "tube shooter" Tempest, which was notable both for its influence on subsequent shooters, and also for the fact that it was one of the first arcade games to offer multiple difficulty levels. Originally conceived as a 3D interpretation of Space Invaders, it was changed to the style that we've all come to know and love because the original concept presented too many development issues. That same year also saw the release of Centipede, designed by Ed Logg and Dona Bailey--one of the few female game designers of the period. Like Namco's Pac-Man, which had been released the year prior, Centipede was considered unusual for the time as it had a substantial female fan base.
A couple of years after Centipede, Atari's history starts to get complicated. Bear with us here as the story breaks into two distinct (but sometimes confusing) threads, both with very similar names. It all started when Commodore founder Jack Tramiel purchased the home computer and consumer electronics division of Atari from Warner Communications in 1984. While the arcade division was going from strength to strength after the run of successes, the home market was starting to stagnate, and Tramiel saw a big opportunity.
This new hardware company was dubbed "Atari Corp," while the parts of the original company that were left were rebranded as "Atari Games" and continued making arcade games. A year later, the Atari Games group was sold to Namco, which quickly lost interest in it. After another year, Atari Games was picked up again, and by 1987 was making games for the NES under the Tengen brand name, pissing off Nintendo while it was doing so by sidestepping the lockout that prevented unauthorized third-party products. After lawsuits and other drama, the remaining parts of Atari Games were picked up by Warner Communications again in 1989, and got sucked into the ongoing Time Warner merger. A few years later, the Atari Games brand was again sold, this time to WMS Industries, which owned Williams and Bally/Midway. The company eventually morphed into Midway Games West, which now finds itself as part of Warner Interactive's portfolio.
On the other side of things, Atari Corp. threw all of its weight behind the burgeoning home computer and consumer electronics market of the time. Following the commercial disappointments that were the deeply unimaginative 2600jr and the Intellivision-bothering 5200 consoles, the new company iterated on the Atari 400 and 800 computer line (and the subsequent XL-dubbed reskins) with the XE series of 8-bit computers, and then followed this with the 16-bit ST line of machines. It also released the ill-fated 7800 console, which was crushed by Nintendo's NES in the late '80s. In 1989, the company released the technically impressive Lynx handheld, but it was gigantic and hardly something you'd slip in your back pocket; it ate batteries for breakfast and was ultimately destroyed by the Game Boy.
After an absurd lawsuit in which the company tried (and failed) to sue Nintendo for being a "monopoly" because it didn't like how much more popular than Atari Corp. the Japanese company had become, Atari Corp. released the "64-bit" Atari Jaguar in 1993 to widespread apathy. Despite the technically impressive Alien vs. Predator first-person shooter from Rebellion, the Jaguar contributed very little to gaming's rich tapestry, save for a CD-ROM add-on that made the whole thing look like a toilet.
By 1996 Tramiel had lost interest in the business, no doubt because he had been soundly beaten by both Nintendo and Sega as the market changed so dramatically in the early '90s. After a number of changes to the company, the once-mighty brand was faced with the ignominy of being merged with (now long-departed) hard disk drive manufacturer JTS.
The name fizzled out for a while, only to be picked up again in 1998 when JTS sold the Atari name to Hasbro Interactive for the paltry sum of $5 million. At Hasbro, the Atari catalog sat alongside those of Microprose and Avalon Hill and assisted the company's meteoric rise amid the dot-com boom of the time. The most notable Atari contribution? The appalling 1999 PlayStation reboot of Pong, dubbed Pong: The Next Level. GameSpot gave it a 4.5.
A year later, after a fall as spectacular as its rise, Hasbro Interactive was sold to French publisher Infogrames, which promptly changed its name to Atari because no one could ever remember how to spell or pronounce "Infogrames." After eight years of subsequent shuffling and corporate shenanigans, including the acquisition of massively multiplayer online game developer Cryptic Studios, and history repeating itself in the shape of Namco Bandai picking up a 34 percent stake of the European business, we were left with the Atari that filed for bankruptcy on January 21. Throughout this odyssey, Atari managed to publish some amount of games, but nothing approaching the iconic arcade classics of its past .
Arguably the most valuable thing that remains in 2012 is the Atari name itself and that iconic three-stripe logo. Licensing the name for other products, like T-shirts and merchandise, ended up accounting for 17 percent of the company's revenue, according to a story in the Los Angeles Times on Monday
If there's one thing that has been striking throughout the troubles of the past few decades, it's the hubris of all those who have come to touch the Atari brand. For a generation of gamers, the name has been synonymous with video games. The brands that it commands, such as Asteroids, Tempest, Centipede, and Pong, are an important part of our shared past, but individually none of them are powerful enough to move the needle--the catalog's significance is that of a portfolio that must stay together. The historical significance of Atari has always been both a blessing and a curse to all those who have attempted to wield it. Collectively, we tire of endless retreads of the same fundamental ideas, while we reject attempts to reimagine the core ideas and repackage these classics as something they are not. As the brand has been juggled like a hot potato over the past 30 years, its owners have each failed to really invest in expanding its portfolio beyond that of ancient history. Meanwhile, Activision--the first third-party publisher for the original Atari console--is now the largest and most powerful video games publisher in the world.
The time has come to say goodbye and to remember the classics for what they were: important parts of our shared history that should be shown due reverence. The games are far more important than the company that bore them. Let's hope the Atari brand is spared any further indignity.'
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