Category Archives: Atari

The Visual Cortex: Intellivision Attacks!

Today the Visual Cortex is sporting an Intellivision magazine ad, featuring the system’s well-heeled attack dog, author George Plimpton.

Plimpton featured prominently in a series of attack ads by Mattel that highlighted their system’s advanced graphics capability, especially when compared with the anemic visuals of their chief rival, Atari’s VCS/2600 unit.  You might be excused for thinking, “Why Plimpton?”.   Well, Plimpton came to national prominence as a kind of high-brow intellectual for the Budweiser set, a sportswriter who would poke fun at his high-falutin’ ways by attempting to play sports at the pro level and then write about his haplessness.  So he was a pretty good fit for the Intellivision, which specialized in sports games like NFL Football and MLB Baseball that blew away the Atari versions in terms of both graphical quality and realistic gameplay.  Here is the ad:

Magazine attack ad for the Intellivision, a home video console by Mattel

George lays into Atari

 

These hard hitting attack ads irked Atari president Ray Kassar so much that he complained about the “unfairness” of the comparisons to the TV networks airing them and threatened legal action.  Eventually Atari would come out with their own version of the highly intellectual pitchman; a child dressed up in a suit and glasses who would  point out the versions of popular arcade games that were absent on the Intellivision.  Of course, Mattel then struck back with Plimpton schooling their own version of the pint-sized pitchman.

As a couple of bonuses, here is John Hodgman’s spoof on the Plimpton ad, used to shill his own book The Areas of My Expertise in 2006,  as well as a link to Newground’s hilarious (and fun to play) fake web-based ColecoVision game George Plimpton’s Video Falconry, created in 2011.

An ad for John Hodgman's book The Areas of My Expertise, meant to spoof the George Plimpton Intellivision ads 2006

A spoof of the Inty ad featuring John Hodgman, 2005

Click to play.

For more information on the Intellivision and the Great Mattel/Atari Video Game Wars, consult your local Dot Eaters entry.

This article was originally posted to The Dot Eaters on Jan. 9, 2013

What Nolan Said: Needs vs. Wants.

Nolan Bushnell founded Atari, and when he left the company he tried his hand at a myriad of start-up attempts.  He had a particular obsession with robotics, from developing the animatronic animals in his Pizza Time Theatre restaurant chain, to household robot company Androbot, to the Axlon company responsible for the oddball scheme he is shilling here in the picture used for today’s What Nolan Said:

The picture is of Bushnell presenting a “Petster” to a crowd at the New York Toy Fair in 1985.  You can see the Catster version rolling around at the bottom of the image; they also released a dog, hamster and even spider edition of the toys.  The idea was to sell robotic animals to people who want to have a pet, but don’t care for the shedding or the pooping or the bringing of dead mice to the door as an offering to the master.  At the time, Bushnell was barking up the wrong tree, and the prohibitively priced Petster line went nowhere. Petster did, however, help sow the seeds for spatially aware household robotics such as the Roomba and other robotic vacuum cleaners.

In the picture, even Nolan seems perplexed he’s standing there trying to sell the idea that people would have this particular want.  I’ll leave you with a TV spot showing the Petster in action. At the end of this article, find a YouTube video of a Petster advertisement.

For more information on Nolan Bushnell and the foundation of Atari, consult your local Dot Eaters entry.

source:  Computer Entertainment magazine, “Bulletin Board, Bushnell’s Pet Project”, pg. 8 June 1985

This article was originally posted to The Dot Eaters on Jan. 23, 2013

Screenshot of Pong

PONG Turns 40

This article was originally posted to The Dot Eaters on Nov. 29, 2012

On November 29, 1972, a recently incorporated company in California named Atari announced the release of its first product, an electronic video arcade game called PONG.  Two players would stand at the wood-grain and yellow cabinet, twiddling the control knobs that moved two paddles displayed on a B&W TV screen.  With the paddles they would play an electronically abstract game of table tennis, batting a little white blip back and forth in an attempt to “Avoid Missing Ball For High Score”, as the simple gameplay instructions prompted.

Conceived by Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell and designed by Al Alcorn, Pong was a smash success, giving birth to the video game industry.  Fast-forward nearly 40 years later, in 2011 that industry was worth US$65 billion dollars.

Ad for a Pong-type home kit, Visulex 1975

This newfangled electronic Ping Pong thing comes home, 1975

 

Among other celebrations of Pong’s 40th birthday, an attempt to enter the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s largest game of Pong was made on Nov. 16, 2012.  A 22-story version of the game, complete with festive lighting, was played on the side of the Downtown Marriott hotel in Kansas City, MO.

In a lead-up to the anniversary, earlier this year Atari announced the Pong Indie Developer Challenge.  Offering a grand prize of up to $100,000, the company solicited independent app developers to submit their take on the venerable Pong.  The three winners were announced on Aug. 2, and they will participate in a profit sharing scheme divided between the three Pong apps that will see them collect royalties up to the winning prize amounts.  The top winner, the freemium-based PONG World by zGames, can be snagged at the iOS App Store here.

Pong put Atari on the road to becoming the fastest growing company in American history.  It’s no stretch to consider that when you say Pong is 40 years-old today, you’re also saying the video game industry is 40 years-old.  So like those tipsy patrons of Andy Capp’s bar in Sunnyvale California, who played the original Pong prototype until it broke and convinced Bushnell and Atari to produce the game commercially, raise a glass to the grand-daddy of the video game industry.  Your serve, PONG!

You can play an updated version of PONG online at Atari.com for free.

For more information on the history of Pong and Atari, consult your local Dot Eaters article

Ad for the Jaguar, a video game system by Atari

The Dreadful 1995 Atari Jaguar Infomercial

If you can think of anything less cool and hip and high technology than a television infomercial, please write in and let me know. But the ad gurus working for Atari in the mid-90’s thought this format would be a great way to move the Jaguar off shelves.

The Jag had already been on the market two years, and in 1995 had Sony’s PlayStation and the Sega Saturn breathing down its neck. Touted by Atari as the first 64-bit game machine, inside there were actually two 32-bit chips called Tom and Jerry connected to system memory by a 64-bit wide data path. This configuration made developing games for the machine difficult, hence third-party games were slow in coming. Meanwhile, the game libraries of its rivals swelled, and Atari discontinued the struggling Jaguar the next year.

Hard to see why, with hip and happening advertising like this. C’mon, Bob!

The 40th Anniversary of the Atari VCS/2600

While not the first programmable home game system, the Atari Video Computer System (VCS), later renamed the 2600 after its model number, was definitely the console that put home video games into the public consciousness. Released in 1977 and bundled with the cartridge Combat , it had a rocky beginning, with production problems and lacklustre sales haunting its launch. Things got so bad that Atari co-founder and CEO Nolan Bushnell dramatically stood up during an Atari/Warner stockholder’s meeting and suggested that the 2600 have its price slashed and be discontinued by the company.  It remained in Atari’s catalog, but Bushnell was pushed out of Atari in 1978.

Image of the prototype for the Atari VCS/2600, 1977

First VCS prototype, assembled in 1975

With the home licensing of Taito/Midway’s arcade smash Space Invaders in 1980, the 2600 went on to become one of the most successful home video game consoles of all time. So wide was its installed base with users that two companies sprang up to become major third-party suppliers of games for the system. Both Activision and Imagic produced some great games, but only the former was able to survive the big video game crash of 1983 – 1984 by pivoting to the home computer market, eventually becoming one of the largest video game manufacturers and remaining so to this day.

The VCS/2600

VCS/2600

The 2600 itself fought off all comers, including game machines from Magnavox and Mattel, until the 1982 release of the ColecoVision usurped the throne with powerful arcade-like graphics. Still, the 2600 held on in budget form as the $50 2600 Jr., until eventually discontinued by Atari in 1991. The system is truly one for the history books.

For more information on the Atari VCS/2600, consult your local Dot Eaters Bitstory entry.

Title screen for Missile Command, an arcade game by Atari 1980

Missile Command and Centipede Getting Movie Adaptations

It looks like Emmet/Furla/Oasis Films and Atari are getting together to make movies out of two of the video game company’s best-known properties.  Missile Command was released in arcades by Atari in 1980, created by famed game designer Dave Theuer. Centipede was the product of Donna Bailey and Ed Logg, also released in 1980. Bailey was one of the few female designers in the industry at the time, and Logg might be more famous for creating Asteroids the previous year. 

The plotlines of retro video games of the 80’s were notoriously thin; the  geopolitical climate that would result in ICBM missiles raining down from the sky towards six nameless cities was never revealed in Missile Command, nor was the exact nature of the natural disaster that would create giant centipedes, mushroom-laying fleas, and giant spiders touched upon in that game. So the writers of these films really have their work cut out for them. They’ll have to fire up their favourite arcade game emulator and see if inspiration strikes.

The NES, a home video game console by Nintendo

The 30th Anniversary of the NES

It’s a toss-up as to what I would consider the most important video game console ever made. I could say the Atari VCS (later renamed the 2600), for it helped popularize the market for programmable video games. It wasn’t the first, but it was certainly the most popular of the first-wave game machines.

But as ground-breaking as the VCS was, I have to give the nod to the Nintendo Entertainment System, first hitting American shores on October 18, 1985. In the face of the collapse of the entire video game market in 1983-1984, the NES was test marketed in the NYC area over the Christmas season. A redesigned version of Nintendo’s popular Japanese market Famicom console, great pains were taken to inoculate the NES from video gaming’s diseased past, diseased at least according to retailers and distributers of video games. The NES was made to look like a sleek piece of A/V equipment, to the point where the action of inserting a game cartridge was made to be analogous to putting a videotape into a VCR. It was also accompanied by a robotic game mate called ROB, to capitalize on the then-current wave of toy robots like Teddy Ruxpin.

 

This all helped to move NES units, with 50,000 consoles sold during the NYC test. By the time the NES rolled out wide in the fall of 1986, 350,000 to 400,000 sets had been sold.  But nothing helped spur sales like the 1986 release of Super Mario Bros., a magnificent side-scrolling adventure by Shigeru Miyamoto that caused NES units to fly off shelves faster than a Koopa Paratroopa. By 1987, the NES was the most popular toy in America, and had made the video game industry the fastest-growing segment of the toy industry, again.

The Atari VCS may have helped popularize the industry, but absent Atari, somebody would have come up with an improved, programmable video game system eventually. Only Hiroshi Yamauchi and the NES could have saved video games.

For more information on the Nintendo Entertainment System, consult your local Dot Eaters Bitstory. If you’d like to enter the Mushroom Kingdom yourself, or try your hand at some of the other cartridges that helped save videogames, you can Buy Nintendo NES Games here.

Atari’s Epic Dig Dug Commercial of 1982

As part of a marketing push (an area where CEO Ray Kassar excelled at), Atari created a two-minute ad for arcade game Dig Dug. The funny thing about all this hoopla is that Atari hadn’t actually made the game: it was licensed by the company from Namco for release in North America. 

Dig Dug, an arcade video game by Atari and Namco, 1982

Dig Dug gameplay

 

The longer ad ran in theatres during the summer of 1982, while a shorter 30 second version ran on TV. Originally, 60’s singing and dancing sensation Chubby Checker (The Twist) was to sing the catchy theme song in the ad, but Atari ultimately went with a younger singer, perhaps for reasons of demographics. You can hear Chubby’s version here on the Atari Museum Public Group on Facebook. The song was posted by Matt Osborne, the son of Don Osborne, who was Atari’s VP of Marketing at the time. Upon listening to it, I’m sure you’ll agree that Atari made a huge mistake not going with Chubby.

As for the visuals, the various special effects in the ad were handled by production designer Jim Spencer and crew, who among other projects had the effects-laden movie Poltergeist under their belt. They would subsequently work on films like Innerspace and Gremlins.

Created by advertising agency Young & Rubicam and directed by Manny Perez, the spot would go on to snag a 1983 Clio award in the Cinema and Advertising category. It might not be high art, but at least it reflects the most important aspect of the video game it’s shilling: it’s a lot of fun.

For more information on the history of Atari, consult your local Dot Eaters Bitstory. 

 Sources:

Atari Coin Connection, “Dig Dug Meets Clio”, pg. 2, Aug 1983
Atari Museum Public Group, Facebook
1982 Entertainment Tonight segment on the making of Dig Dug ad

What Starts With an “F” and Ends With “uck”?

Fire Truck. What, you thought I meant something else?

Of course, this game just might have caused you to drop a few F-bombs in 1978, as your buddy sat in the seat steering the titular vehicle and controlling the gas and breaks, while you struggle to keep the trailer straight with a tiller wheel mounted behind on a control panel. The game can be played solo, but since it’s the first arcade game to offer simultaneous co-operative play, a two-person crew is really necessary to get the most out of it. A purely one-player version would be released by Atari later as Smokey Joe.

firetruck-crunch

Try to keep collateral damage to a minimum as you fight fires, will you?

 

I’m not sure if I always ended up finding Fire Truck cabinets with defective second steering wheels, or if the game was shipped this way from Atari’s factory, but I found it impossible to control the trailer with the tiller wheel.  No matter how gently I handled that second wheel, the trailer would seem to have a mind of its own and just swing all over the place, usually into houses or other vehicles.

Still, Fire Truck was a unique game that had players working together instead of against each other. That’s worth a few smashed and/or burned houses, I guess.

For more information on the early days of Atari, consult your local Dot Eaters bitstory.

Image Source: The Arcade Flyer Archive

fire-truck-flyer-1978

Flyer for Fire Truck

 

George Lucas Takes His First Flight in Atari’s Coin-Op Star Wars Game

On August 10, 1983, the creator of Star Wars sat down for the first time to play Atari’s vector arcade game based off his famous film, via a cockpit cabinet installed at the Lucasfilm HQ in Marin County, CA.

And what a game! Colourful and detailed Quadrascan vector graphics, an elaborate and responsive flight yolk from famed Atari controller engineer Jerry Liachek, a digitized version of John Williams’ rousing score, along with actual spoken snippets of movie dialog. All this, and lots of exciting game play that nicely amps up the difficulty as you advance. You’ll notice a small plaque on the side of the machine on the first picture, towards the nose of the cabinet above Vader’s head. It reads “A special thanks for creating the Force behind so much fun.” A nice sentiment from Atari, indeed.

Watching Lucas on that August day were several anxious Atari and Warner Communications (mother corp. of Atari) execs, along with some Lucasfilm employees. In the middle of the crowd, wearing dark pants, is president of Atari’s coin-op division John Farrand. I believe that’s Warner Communications executive Manny Gerrard, the man who guided the purchase of Atari by his company, standing to the right of Farrand.

In typical style, while George played the game he remained deadpan, without much visible enthusiasm. The execs grew even more nervous, until Lucas emerged from the cabinet saying “That was great!”. 

For my money, Atari’s Star Wars is one of the greatest arcade games ever created. George approves.

For more on the Star Wars arcade game, check out this entry from TDE’s Oscar Week series, 2014.

For more information on Atari, consult your local Dot Eaters bitstory.

Onlookers watch George Lucas play Atari's Star Wars arcade game, 1983.

Onlookers watch George Lucas play Atari’s Star Wars arcade game, 1983.

 

Atari arcade game being played by George Lucas, creator of Star Wars

A reverse angle, with Lucas being advised by Don Osborne, VP of Marketing for Atari.