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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Fire power in SMB
Getting a ‘shroom in SMB
Luigi gives it a go in SMB
Death from above, in Super Mario Bros.
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.
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 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 versionhere 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.
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.
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.
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.
1983 may have been the waning days of the arcade era, but video game companies were still producing amazing products that pushed the envelope, and Atari’s Major Havoc coin-op was no exception. Designed by long-time Atari coin-op division employee Owen Rubin, and prototyped under the title Alpha-1, I had an obsession with the resultant released game. The “Breakout” and “Galaxian” modes were pretty blah, but the game really shone in the parts where the titular hero Major Rex Havoc would land his spaceship onto an enemy Vaxxian space station. The player would then guide him through the complex, avoiding the local enemies and obstacles, following arrows along maze-like corridors to the station’s reactor, which he would sabotage. Then it was a panicked, breakneck race through the floaty, near-weightless environment back to the ship and a blast off out to minimum safe distance for the explosion. All this while maintaining oxygen levels so Havoc doesn’t asphyxiate.
Colourful, complex vector graphics and a superbly animated main character added to the mystique of this classic arcade game, one of the few that you can play today and still be challenged and transfixed.
After he dropped out of Reed College in Oregon, in 1974 Steve Jobs joined a small tech company by the name of Atari, working at their Los Gatos facility in California. Legend has it that he showed up in their lobby, scruffy and lacking in perfect bodily hygiene, and stated to the receptionist that he wouldn’t be leaving the premises until he got a job. Instead of calling the police, she brought Al Alcorn to talk to him, and was eventually hired. In spite of being brash and over-confident (or perhaps, BECAUSE of those traits), Atari CEO Nolan Bushnell took a liking to young Steve. One day he approached Jobs with a game idea. We break into the TDE archives to continue the story:
In 1976 Nolan Bushnell offers the young Jobs $750 to put together the hardware for Breakout, a variation on PONG designed by the Atari founder, but instead of knocking the ball back and forth the player uses the paddle to send the ball at a wall of bricks across the top of the screen. The game is black and white, utilizing the old pre-1979 chestnut of overlays on the screen to simulate colour. The main mission is to reduce the amount of dedicated chips used in the construction of the game, thereby greatly reducing the cost to mass manufacture it. Bushnell promises Jobs a bonus of $100 for every chip he eliminates from the design. Even though he is not much of an engineer or ace programmer, Jobs promises to finish the game in four days, when a typical game’s development time would be several months. It is his ace-in-the-hole Wozniak who actually builds the machine, spending four consecutive nights assembling the hardware and still holding down his daytime job at Hewlett-Packard. The two meet the four day deadline, with Woz shaving the number of required chips down to 45. Jobs receives his money, and setting the tone for their business relationship, he fails to tell his friend about the now $5000 bonus. He pays Wozniak his share of $375 from the original $750 payment and furthermore takes all the credit when Breakout becomes a hit 15,000 unit seller for Atari. But Woz receives far more than simple currency with his fling with Breakout…for instance, one night as he watches technicians apply the overlays onto the Breakout screen in order to simulate coloured bricks, Woz starts thinking about how he could have a computer generate real colours on the screen. The way his later computer designs would introduce colour to the world of personal computers stems directly from his work on the arcade game, as well as his love for gaming in general. His work with Breakout also gives him a valuable education in logic design and its integration with a TV signal. And he uses his version of BASIC language to manipulate his computer version of Breakout, and is amazed how powerful a tool software is in creating games. Woz’s amazingly tight design for Breakout baffles Atari engineers, and it has to be redesigned with more chips added to actually allow it to be manufactured.
Jobs would later approach Bushnell with the idea of Atari producing a new computer he and Woz had developed, but the Atari boss passed on the offer. Atari would end up competing against that product with their 8-bit 400 and 800 computer lines. Woz and Jobs did just fine with their own computer: the venerable Apple II, by the Apple Computer Company.
Beloved comedy science fiction writer Douglas Adams postulated in his famous Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books that the answer to life, the universe, and everything was 42.
This may or may not be the case (we’ll have to find the question first), but the answer to fun, video games, and everything is indeed 42, as in 42 years ago today on Nov. 29, 1972. That was the day an upstart venture in Santa Clara, California called Atari announced a crazy product: a ping-pong game played on a TV screen, mounted inside a wooden cabinet.
It was the second attempt by the company to carve out a new entertainment genre: the first was Computer Space, a video coin-op game the company had produced the previous year under the uncomfortable business name Syzygy. Sketched out by co-founder Nolan Bushnell and assembled by Al Alcorn, PONG would go on to massive success, creating an entire industry that, within a decade, would be worth $3.2 billion dollars.
If you ask co-founder Nolan Bushnell, the main reason for Atari’s ultimate failure in 1983-1984, a failure so dramatic that it helped drag an entire industry down with it, was sowed back in ’78. That was the year he left the company, and new CEO Ray Kassar changed Atari’s focus from innovating in the video game space to marketing what they had already had. Sure, in the short term this strategy might have aided in Atari becoming the fastest growing company in American history, but it left the video game giant on a foundation of sand as the technology of video games and the tastes of players progressed through the years. Nothing quite crystallizes this attitude of marketing over innovation so much as the story of how the first third-party game maker for the VCS, Activision, was born. The story continues in the TDE Bitstory archive:
One day in 1979, [David] Crane finds himself intently analyzing a list of numbers on piece of paper. It is a memo from the marketing department, a part of Atari that has flourished with the ouster of engineer Bushnell and the instalment of salesman Kassar. The list, circulated throughout consumer engineering, ranks game sales figures for 1978, with each game as a percentage of overall sales for the company. It is Marketing’s not so subtle advice to the programmers: make more games like those at the top of the list, and less of those at the bottom. It also has an unintended effect on Crane and fellow game creators Larry Kaplan, Alan Miller and Bob Whitehead… they learn that the four of them are responsible for all of the top-selling games, 60 percent of cartridge sales for the year. Knowing that Atari made 100 million in sales that year, you don’t need a degree in computer mathematics to know that the four of them, each pulling in a salary of $25,000 – $30,000, have accounted for $60 million in sales for Atari. Armed with this evidence, the four meet with Kassar to request more financial compensation for their efforts. The CEO is unmoved, suggesting that making games is a team effort and their contribution on par with the assembly workers on the line who fit together the cartridges. Soon after this exchange, the group get in touch with an attorney about incorporating their own business, making software for game consoles. Kaplan leaves Atari soon after the meeting with Kassar, with Crane, Miller and Whitehead not far behind. The Gang of Four has left the building.
Activision went on to great success, producing hits like Pitfall! and Keystone Kapers for the 2600, as well as cartridges for Mattel’s Intellivision. Their pivot in 1983 to games for the home computers of the era allowed them to weather the storm of the Great Video Game Crash of 1983-84, and today remain as one of the largest video game companies around.