Atari, once a big name in home video games, is coming out with a new console for the first time in decades. I have no reason to believe that the crowdfunded Atari VCS will fail except for one fact: the Atari brand name seems to be cursed, and it has been that way since the 1980s.
The Video Game Crash of 1983
Way back at the dawn of home video games, Atari was the only game in town. Strictly speaking, there were several different console video games, but the Atari 2600 was the only high-profile console that allowed for cartridges to be changed in and out. This allowed it to play dozens of different games without having to buy a new console each time. Atari thrived, and all seemed well.
Of course, that market dominance didn’t last forever. Numerous other consoles rose to challenge Atari, creating a glut of products on the market. And in the midst of this oversaturation, Atari found several of its own software developers moving over to a company called Activision to create third-party games.
Activision was founded by Atari employees who wanted more pay and better credit for the video games they created. Creating third-party cartridges that were compatible with the 2600, the company drew the ire of Atari itself. The company survived the resulting lawsuit, paving the way to allow third parties to create games for Atari’s console. Unfortunately, that also resulted in a total loss of quality control in the industry.
With anybody now able to create games for this multi-million dollar industry, just about everybody did. Even Quaker Oats jumped into the fray with a subidiary called US Games. But the poster child for the upcoming market crash came from Atari itself…or rather, its parent company.
Warner Communications, which owned Atari, tried to cash in on the success of Steve Spielberg’s movie ET: The Extra Terrestrial by shelling out $21 million for the video game rights. The resulting game was rushed out in only six weeksso it could go on sale for the holidays and was an unplayable mess. Widely hailed as one of the worst games of all time, the game was an epic flop and symbolized the utter lack of quality that had struck the industry.
But it went even deeper than that. Atari produced more cartridges than there were Atari units on the market, believing that the game would sell consoles. As a result, despite selling 1.5 million copies of an unplayable game, more than twice that number remained unsold. Trucks filled with unused copies of ET dumped the games in the New Mexico desert, and the entire video game industry died for a short while.
Missing Out on the NES
Thanks to the video game crash of 1983, Atari got split up, with its video game and computer divisions going to Tramel Technology. But maybe it didn’t have to happen that way. The video game market would soon rise again thanks to the immensely popular Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), and Atari had a golden chance to make that console their own.
With Nintendo’s Famicom making a big hit in Japan, the company tried to get a revised version of the system, into North America. A deal for Atari to partner with Nintendo would be signed at the 1983 Consumer Electronics Show, which would allow the Atari-distributed Nintendo Advanced Gaming System to go on sale for the holiday season. But everything fell apart on the day of the deal.
Just prior to Atari and Nintendo entering an agreement, another company, Coleco, began distributing a version of Nintendo’s Donkey Kong without Nintendo’s knowledge and in what would have been a violation of the agreement about to be signed. Atari’s CEO Ray Kassar got angry about the potential breach of the licensing agreement, and the deal fell apart. Before the relationship could get patched up, Atari ousted Kassar as CEO, ending any potential alliance with Nintendo.
The Nintendo Advanced Gaming System eventually became the NES, which effectively resurrected the video game industry. Atari came out with the technically superior Atari 7800, but the scrambled state of Atari’s divided assets prevented the console from being released with an upgraded sound system and also prevented many new games from being created. As the video game market became a war between Nintendo and Sega, Atari fell by the wayside.
The Epic Fail of the Atari Jaguar
Despite remaining an afterthought in the revived video game industry, Atari did attempt time and again to reclaim its position as top dog. The Atari Lynx was a technological breakthrough in handheld consoles that provided color games as compared to the black and green screen of the Nintendo GameBoy. But it also had a cumbersome size and terrible battery life, keeping it from dominance on the market.
Then came the Atari Jaguar, which represented the first 64-bit video game console on the market. Unfortunately, while the processor may have been superior, the rest of the console was a technological nightmare.
The Jaguar had poor system documentation, which made it tremendously hard to create games for. Its controller was a cumbersome behemoth with 22 buttons, and it had a complete lack of dedicated sound hardware.
The system got an eventual CD add-on, but that provided no benefits other than the ability to read CDs, when it worked at all. On some units, the tight fit of the cover prevented discs from even spinning.
All of this conspired to a system that, while boasting more processing power than anything else on the market, had games that actually looked worse than its lower-spec competitors. The Jaguar never caught on and spelled the end of Atari’s console attempts for the next 20 years.
Largely gone from the video game market, the Atari name became property of Hasbro in 1998 for the relatively small amount of $5 million. It then moved over to Infogrames in 2000 as part of a sale of Hasbro Interactive. In a minor case of buyer’s remorse, Hasbro would go on to fight with Atari over the Dungeons & Dragons video game license, finally wrestling those rights back in 2011.
The Atari of today bears very little relation to the Atari that created the 2600 or even the company that pushed out an obviously unready Jaguar to its inevitable failure. However, there seems to be something haunted about the name itself, which is now tied to multiple embarrassing flops in the video game world.
Hopefully, the Atari VCS will change the brand’s trend of misfortunes. While Atari did get a little egg on its face when it was forced to delay preorders due to technical issues, it’s probably better for them to work out all the bugs rather than embrace old Atari’s legacy of forcing an unready console to market. Either the Atari VCS will represent a new chapter for the brand or I’ll be back here in a few years to detail yet another embarrassing chapter in Atari’s history.
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