Hope Fading at Atari
February 10, 2006 8:03 AM   Subscribe

Video games pioneer Atari fears plug set to be pulled. Hope is fading at Atari, a company that has existed in many forms over the years, but was founded in the United States in 1972 by Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney. Now might be a good time to take a walk through the Atari Museum, ponder the Zen-like instruction: AVOID MISSING BALL FOR HIGH SCORE, see the world's first video game 'Easter Egg' and pay your respects at the E.T. Landfill. But whatever you do, don't lose hope.
posted by Otis (25 comments total)
Hasn't Atari already folded, or at least been sold off, on multiple occasions?
posted by antifuse at 8:10 AM on February 10, 2006

Atari is just a name and has been for years. They were totally gone and then bought as a trademark and passed around.
posted by selfnoise at 8:11 AM on February 10, 2006

Ah yes. I dug around a little bit, since I remembered a European company buying the name. It was Infogrames.
posted by selfnoise at 8:17 AM on February 10, 2006

Excellent Video (QT) of the Wintergreen song,
"When I Wake Up", which has the story of the landfill.
posted by about_time at 8:18 AM on February 10, 2006

Yeah, the Bushnell Atari was dead and gone many many years ago. It's just a brand name now. If you want to know more video game history, this is a good book.
posted by Nelson at 8:44 AM on February 10, 2006

Bushnell Atari was never it, guys, it's all the Tramiel Atari for me. Smushy keys, some weird parallelogram fetish, built in MIDI, man.
posted by neustile at 8:53 AM on February 10, 2006

I'm getting a major Pac-Man flashback.
posted by orange swan at 8:59 AM on February 10, 2006

Heh, Steve Jobs and Woz worked for Atari. And that video ommits the fact that more cartridges were produced than there were Atari consoles at the time.
posted by furtive at 9:02 AM on February 10, 2006

That video ruled, about_time. (the song and band, not so much)

One of my major regrets in life is having no way to prove to anybody that I found the Adventure easter egg before it was well known. I spent hours and hours looking for eggs in other games. There were a few more but none as good as what Mr. Robbinet did.
posted by bondcliff at 9:04 AM on February 10, 2006

Cool. At least that's got the Mario theme unstuck from my brain.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 9:14 AM on February 10, 2006

I remember being hooked on anything Atari, but as the company changed so often, I really didn't care that much anymore. The name is the same, but I don't get the sense that the history really is.
posted by Todd Lokken at 9:27 AM on February 10, 2006

Brands used to exist no longer than their associated corporate entities. In the Age of Information, though, certain patterns - specific ideas and cultural tropes - began to outlive their legal and economic hosts. Think of the thousands of lines of Atari code cached and adapted away around the net - the millions of people who grew up staring into that blinking buzzing oracle of Futurity - the memes that have wound themselves around the deepest parts of the people building this Brave New World. All there, like seed cast on the wind of corporate and technological culture.

When the Singularity occurs, when we meet our new servant/master/replacement, when we are No Longer Alone, I know exactly what symbol I expect to see flash on every computer screen in the world. Game in no way Over.
posted by freebird at 9:33 AM on February 10, 2006

All the developers at my work name their dev boxes. You know, fanciful hostnames like 'racecar' and 'falcon.' One of them is named 'atari.' The other day, I was in a meeting and a coworker with a very heavy french accent was trying to tell someone else 'The files you want are on atari,' but the word sounds very different with french vowels and a back-of-the-throat rolled "R." She was asked to repeat herself about 4 times until she finally thrust the word out through her pursed lips and spat it out with her best impersonation of an American accent. It was pretty funny. I love seeing Brits break down and say "wadder" instead of "woo-tuh" when they want something to drink and the waiter can't understand them.
posted by scarabic at 9:49 AM on February 10, 2006

More on Atari

Atari was bought by Williams (the Pinball people, who later changed the name of their entire video game department to Midway, to match another acquitision). Later, Atari's name was changed to Midway Games West because of the "other" Atari, but now that division is closed for good. One of the people let go was Ed Logg, one of the grand men of the industry, who worked on both Centipede and San Francisco Rush, who created the original Gauntlet and at lest worked on the more recent arcade updates Gauntlet Legends and Gauntlet Dark Legacy.

That's Atari A, who were owned by Namco for a time. Right after the Warner Bros.-instigated split in the company, they were known as Atari Games. While their heyday was the classic era, they could be counted on to produce ingenious games with great play concepts even as late as the Street Fighter II era. Rampart (my vote for the best game ever made), came at the near-end of this time, but it also gave us Marble Madness, Paperboy, 720 Degrees, Toobin, I Robot (first polygonal game), Hard Drivin' (first polygonal driving game), Stun Runner, the underrated APB, and many others. (Many of these games can be found on one version or another of Midway Arcade Treasures, for current-gen systems.)

Lost to the world in the SFII age were countless great ideas that were abandoned by their typically-clueless managment (including a sequel to Marble Madness) because, at the time, teenagers were going crazy over beating people up on a 2D plane. If one thinks about that long enough, one will begin to lose respect for the infalliblity of the market. Beware!

Atari B is the other half of the company created during the Warner split. They made the home computers, the consoles, and ultimately the Atari ST computer. They were bought by Mr. Commodore, Jack Tramiel when he left that company. Commodore's fortunes would soon begin to falter in his absense, but honestly he wasn't very good for Atari, and that Atari closed up shop long ago.

Atari C, which I would say doesn't deserve to be called Atari at all, is really Infogrammes, who changed their name, logo and other corporate markings to "stealth" as the old, good Atari right around the time their Exploitation Almanac indicated that Atari retro would become hip. They had bought these trademarks, as well as ownership of the old, classic games (Asteroids-era), from Williams/Midway/Atari/Bally, at an earlier date. Williams, unfortunately, had not read the almanac, and sold them. Since then, Infogrammes has basically gone on doing what they were doing before, just marketing their Atari Classics compilations with a little more gusto than usual. Their corporate culture is very different from the classic, or even later-day Atari Games.

Infogrammes was an okay company, but not Atari-level cool in any form, and their exploitation of the brand has an air of necromancy about it. I don't, and you shouldn't, mourn for them.

What we *should* mourn for is, where will the game rights for the many early Atari classics go? Back to Midway (best case, who will then probably release Midway Arcade Treasures 4 based from them)? Will they be locked up in some holding company, never to see the light of day again until Jesus returns or copyright expires, whichever comes first? Or, will they get bought by someone else who, like Infogrammes, thinking they've found a singing frog in a box, will quickly pin their company on them but then go under when it's demonstrated they really know next to nothing about the games?
posted by JHarris at 10:17 AM on February 10, 2006

I guess it's true -- the 360 really has caused quite a bit of damage to the gaming industry. Way to go, Microsoft...
posted by clevershark at 10:24 AM on February 10, 2006

JHarris has it pretty much summed up accept for the Hasbro Era. In the Mid 90's a europeon company owned the name Atari. I believe when they bought the rights to Atari B (Computer Company) after it went kaput.

In the later half of the 90's Hasbro's interactive game division who were making video games based off there board game licenses. They bought the rights from the europeon company and changed there name from Hasbro interactive to Atari. They produced new 3d versions of frogger and astroids and even pong.

Hasbro in the early 00's decided to get out of the video game business and sold the name and the rights to infogrames.

Infogrames released some of there newer games under the Atari name like the Matrix game.
posted by Dreamghost at 10:43 AM on February 10, 2006

I liked Frogger 3D. I still have a PC version at home. It was also released on Playstation. Centipide 3D came with a modem I bought (for some strange reason) and although fun, I never spent as much time with it.

I also have one of the Infogrames-released Atari Arcade sets, so I can use my 64-bit Turion + 1 gig RAM to play Pong. That never fails to amuse me.

My wife had a vintage Atari jacket. Silver, to boot. I'm not sure if it was sold off, thrown out or if it is still hidden away in her parent's house somewhere. Now that would be a cool thing to have... I'd probably frame the damn thing.

(And Adventure? Heck yeah. I wasted hours on that game. Damn bat... )
posted by caution live frogs at 11:18 AM on February 10, 2006

On a slightly related note, remember those Atari mini-comics? How about weird Atari Atari Superheroes laced with xenophobia? (page 2)
posted by ooga_booga at 12:05 PM on February 10, 2006

Great summary, JHarris. Another great Atari A video game was Off the Wall (self-link), a Breakout game that was innovative both for gameplay and it's aesthetic. Beautiful music.
posted by Nelson at 1:35 PM on February 10, 2006

Ah, Off the Wall, interesting because:

1. Atari created Breakout back in the REAL old, pre-Space-Invaders days.
2. Atari followed it up with the more well-known Atari 2600 port, Super Breakout, and a handful of other versions of the game. Then, they drop the idea.
3. Some time later Taito releases Arkanoid, which is essentially Breakout with powerups and special blocks. People seem to like it a lot.
4. Atari goes back and releases Off The Wall, aka Breakout Updated Right (but is hard), but the game is almost ignored.

Of course since then, every two-bit shareware author wannabe who thinks they can follow in id's footsteps usually starts out in life with an Arkanoid clone, but none of those tend to be even a tenth as cool as Off The Wall.
posted by JHarris at 1:46 PM on February 10, 2006

Ha, that Superheroes link was great! I also like this page from the same issue featuring the "Eye Pod" character from the game Necromancer. Maybe Atari can fix their solvency problems with a well-timed lawsuit against Apple?
posted by idontlikewords at 2:11 PM on February 10, 2006

Coincidentally, I just recently stopped working for them. Or was it a coincidence?

Here's hoping the value of my employee-only t-shirts will go through the roof.
posted by Durhey at 3:26 PM on February 10, 2006

Bushnell Atari was never it, guys, it's all the Tramiel Atari for me. Smushy keys, some weird parallelogram fetish, built in MIDI, man.

The Jaguar, man! I remember my P.E teacher in middle school asking me what I thought about it, then telling us to buy one -- turns out she owned some stock in the company. I advised her to sell.

As I remember, the Jaguar was actually a more powerful machine then the playstation and the Sega Saturn (but probably not more so then the n64). They just couldn't get any good games for it made. It had a super-goofy architecture that made development a huge pain.

Anyway, that company died after the Jaguar did, and was sold to JTS: an absolutely terrible hard drive maker, who died shortly after.

The arcade division lived on as a part of some other company, and eventually ported games to other systems under its trademark name. But yeah, the company is dead as dead can be, but the name still has some value, for some reason, and will probably be sold to some other company, which will die, ad-infinitum.


Remember when gateway bought the Amega brand name, and then shuttled off it's crappy employees to that division in order to get rid of them? Heh.
posted by delmoi at 8:54 AM on February 11, 2006

I was in a meeting and a coworker with a very heavy french accent was trying to tell someone else 'The files you want are on atari,' but the word sounds very different with french vowels and a back-of-the-throat rolled "R." She was asked to repeat herself about 4 times until she finally thrust the word out through her pursed lips and spat it out with her best impersonation of an American accent.

Was this co-worker hot? Because for some reason I'm imagining her as being pretty hot.

God I'm such a nerd.
posted by delmoi at 8:58 AM on February 11, 2006

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