History of Atari – 50th anniversary of Atari


My passion for technology stems from a lifelong love for gaming. I received my first video game console when I was just 3 years old, a 16-bit Sega Genesis that my father passed down to me. And so this year is particularly notable in my book, because it marks Atari’s 50th anniversary. Without the flagship video game company, I couldn’t enjoy my favorite pastime today. Atari almost single-handedly created the video game landscape with just a few dozen pixels: pong, its 1972 table tennis-inspired video game. But while Atari was able to bring interactive entertainment to arcades and eventually living rooms, staying relevant was a whole other ballgame. The brand is now looking to regain its footing half a century later, with the launch of a new console last year.

Atari was founded by Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney. Electrical engineers saw the potential of the nascent medium of interactive video games after seeing Space war! in the computer labs of Stanford University. While video gaming was popular among programmers, it was not available to the general public since computers were primarily used in business and government. Bushnell and Dabney aimed to change the underground nature of video games, and on June 27, 1972, formed Atari to bring coin-operated machines to the masses. Atari is out pong this month of November.

Pong | Alamy

Even if you’ve never played pong, you’ve probably seen its classic black and white screen. The game placed two players face-to-face, each controlling a two-dimensional digital paddle via a dial to fly a ball back and forth. pongThe game mechanics of may seem basic now, but it was the first interactive video game introduced to the public. Plus, it was simple and fun. These aspects helped it become the first commercially successful arcade cabinet.

Now that the company was financially viable enough to research and develop new concepts, Atari focused on a home game console, called Home Pong, which could connect to a television. As fate would have it, the price of the previously expensive circuitry needed to make a home console had come down to make it affordable for more people. Atari released Home Pong during the holidays of 1975. Like the arcade cabinet, this system was extremely popular. This massive revenue and a variety of games from competitors prompted Atari to innovate further, which culminated in the 1977 Atari 2600 (originally called the Atari VCS, for Video Computer System).

The 2600 was a game-changer, literally. People could swap cartridges to play multiple arcade games at home. The console was built on, by today’s standards, a paltry 128 bytes of RAM, a 1.19 megahertz processor, and a custom graphics and sound chip. However, this system was ahead of its time and highlights the Atari 2600’s greatest contribution: it paved the way for microprocessor-based consumer equipment. Its maximum resolution was only 160 x 192 pixels with support for up to 128 colors via a television interface adapter to send both images and audio, laying the foundation for electronics plug-and-play television.

While the 2600 was the dominant home gaming system in America when it was released, five years is a long time in any industry. After the 2600 launched, Bushnell left Atari in the hands of Warner Communications, which led to a series of poor management decisions. One of these released the system’s follow-up, the Atari 5200 in 1982, with a limited game library consisting of 2600 revamped games with slightly updated graphics. At the time, this system was perceived to be stagnant, since other consoles offered a similar graphical experience while undercutting it on price.

Meanwhile, Atari had spent millions of dollars licensing popular media properties, but regularly released shoddy games based on them. One of the most infamous examples is when the company spent over $20 million to acquire the manufacturing rights AND the game. Executives pressured a single developer to release a fully finished product in just five weeks. Unsurprisingly, the game was poorly rated for being a boring, broken mess due to poor level design and graphics. Apart from corporate mishaps, third-party game developers were flooding the market with shoddy games. After poor sales and a loss of customer confidence, manufacturers and investors of all stripes retreated from the video game space, causing the industry to collapse in 1983.

Nintendo was able to help the market recover with the release of its popular Nintendo Entertainment System in 1985. It didn’t take long for the Japanese manufacturer to dominate the market that Atari had created. Atari responded in 1986 with their new Atari 7800 system with an architecture that more closely resembled that of then-modern arcade machines and their improved graphics. But the NES and Sega Master systems it competed with offered even better graphics, had larger game libraries, and their controllers came with directional pads rather than a dated joystick. Although the 7800 was a step in the right direction, it was too late to celebrate. Still, it sold well enough to retain some market share.

Then came the Atari Jaguar in 1993. The console was expensive and lacked in many ways while trying to compete with the already well-established Sega Genesis and Super NES. Atari made some bad hardware decisions (like a clunky controller with nearly a dozen buttons laid out like a phone keypad). Meanwhile, complex internals, endemic bugs, and a lack of development tools made it difficult for developers to create games for the Jaguar. Just a year after its launch, 32-bit systems such as Sony PlayStation and Sega Saturn came out, making the Jaguar obsolete with their use of 3D graphics. With dismal sales figures, Atari exited the console business altogether when it sold its name and divisions in 1995. Eventually, all divisions of Atari Inc. were acquired by European company Infrogames in 2008, which renamed itself Atari SA.

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Atari 2600 | Getty Images

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Atari Jaguar | Getty Images

To celebrate the company’s 50th anniversary, Atari SA released the Atari VCS micro-console, which puts a minicomputer inside the body of an Atari 2600 – an iconic walnut woodgrain panel and all. This system plays 4K video, streams games to the cloud, and runs less demanding titles from Steam and the Epic Games Store. The Atari VCS channels the gaming and home computing fundamentals that Atari has woven into its DNA throughout its life. While the VCS is ultimately a handy collectible, it brings many features to your living room that a streaming stick can’t match. There’s a certain charm to playing older game systems through emulators and watching Netflix from the very first home video game console.

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