Have You Played Atari Today?
Atari’s infamous entry in the programmable home video game system race begins in the latter part of 1975. The first prototype begins development this year by Steve Mayer and Ron Milner, of the Atari consulting firm Cyan Engineering. Cyan is part of the company’s far-out Grass Valley, CA think tank, located northeast of Sacramento. A further prototype of the programmable system is then created by Cyan employee Joe Decuir, with Jay Miner (who later designs the ground-breaking Amiga computer) further refining the hardware at Atari’s Los Gatos plant. When Decuir is developing software for the system, he is required to create a password for the time-sharing computer Atari is leasing time on to compile the code. Thinking of his trusty bicycle with the label of its French bike manufacturer Stella printed upon it, he uses that for the password. This is then co-opted by Miner as the name of the chip that is the centre of the system, and then used for the overall project name, and thus solidifies a long tradition of naming Atari systems with women’s names (never mind that it was really Joe Decuir’s bike). Miner would eventually rename the chip the TIA or Television Interface Adapter. It is responsible for generating on-screen graphics, sound effects, and handling joystick control inputs. Miner would also lead design on the chipset for the Atari 400 and 800 computers, as well as the groundbreaking Amiga computer sold by Commodore.
The finished casing holding all this hardware for Stella measures 23.5″ by 13.45″, constructed of plastic with a simulated wood grain panel on the front to help the machine fit in next to family TV console sets. Two banks of three silver toggle switches perch near the top of the device, controlling power, B&W or colour display, difficulty levels for each player, game select to navigate through the various modes offered by some games and a reset switch to restart an inserted game. Named the Video Computer System (VCS), it barely arrives in stores in time for the 1977 Christmas season. It comes with the pack-in cartridge Combat, designed by programmer Larry Kaplan, along with DeCuir and Larry Wagner. Under the initial design of the console, Combat had been planned to be integrated right into the ROMs of the machine as a built-in game. The included cartridge combines two early Atari arcade games, Tank by the Kee Games subsidiary, as well as Atari’s Jet Fighter, released to the arcades in 1975. A dedicated home version of Tank, the name of which vacillates between just Tank and Tank II, is also announced by Atari for release in 1977. The console comes with two joysticks, rounder variations of the controllers that will eventually ship with the VCS, with a single fire button and a flared tip. These sticks can be placed into two holders in the Tank II unit, allowing one player to control the left and right treads of the tank separately. In two-player mode, the sticks can be taken out for each player. Tank II is quietly canceled by Atari after the release of the VCS and its Combat game. With the VCS setup, there are two rheostat paddle controllers included as well, to facilitate comfortable play of the various PONG-type games to be sold for the console. Along with the included Combat, the library of nine launch titles to accompany the console is composed of: Air-Sea Battle, Indy 500, Star Ship, Street Racer, Video Olympics, Blackjack, Surround, and Basic Math.
Mr. Bushnell, Here’s Your Hat, What’s Your Hurry?
Running a 1.19 MHz 8-bit MOS Technology 6507 microprocessor, the designers of the system initially figure that it would only be playing tank battle games and PONG–esque titles, so the allocated ROM memory for the programs is 2K. It is eventually decided to bump that to 4K, even though Combat itself is only 2K and there is little hope that any program would ever need as much as the allowed maximum. Upon release, nine cartridges are introduced along with the system. With an initial retail price of $249.95, there is very little markup on the machines due to the high price of the components, although the game carts cost very little to produce and sell for around $40 each. Sound is sent through the speakers of the television hooked up to the device, allowing users to hear the action as loud or as soft as they like.
For two years the VCS struggles to find a niche in the marketplace, and Atari profits drop precipitously, substantially dragging down parent company Warner Communication’s stock price. There are major production problems, including defective chips and cases, and the easy-going Zen attitude of Atari co-founder and CEO Nolan Bushnell, who describes himself as “a bizarre manager”. This extends to throwing big “kegger” drinking parties for employees every Friday in the company parking lot, and even going so far as having an oak beer tap in his office. The Coors would flow freely everyday after work, during informal manager meetings where the gang would peruse the latest game prototypes. Bushnell’s antics at Atari starts to wear out his welcome even with Warner head Steve Ross, himself a chairman noted for having a laissez-faire management style. Things get a bit rough with sales numbers for the VCS, so much so that Bushnell dramatically stands up during an Atari/Warner board meeting and suggests that the console has its price slashed, in order to increase market share and enlarge the market for the games the company also sells. Dismayed by the direction the company has decided to take, and himself increasingly absent from Atari offices as he loses interest in running things the way they are, Bushnell steps down from formal duties as chairman in late 1978, with a multimillion-dollar package. When his successors are named in early 1979, with former Burlington textile executive Raymond Kassar as president and Joe Keenan as CEO, the company announces that Bushnell will “continue to serve Atari in the development of coin-operated games,” but that he also will “devote more time to his personal affairs, investments and other interests, including politics.” His ultimate exit package comes with strings attached. A 5-year “no-competition” clause is cited by Atari for a later lawsuit launched against Bushnell and Sente Technologies, a video game company he starts in early 1983. Atari and Bushnell eventually reach an agreement in the fall of that year, with his former company gaining the consumer rights to any arcade games released by Sente.
After Bushnell’s exit, the work atmosphere changes perceptively as new head Ray “The Czar” Kassar cracks down on the relaxed attitude towards dress and work hours that the ‘hippies’ at Atari had previously enjoyed. Following a $120 million infusion of cash from Warner, in 1978 Atari produces 800,000 VCS units. The console is selling; Atari moves over a million units between 1977-1979. Still, that’s only on the cusp of the kind of mass-market penetration Atari is looking for to be a real success. Indicating his allegiance to marketing over technical innovation, Kassar quickly halts funds for R&D and pours $6 million into an advertising campaign to help move VCS consoles off the shelves. As a whole, 1979 sees about 1-1.5 million U.S. homes with some kind of game console. These systems require games, so somewhere between 3-4 million cartridges are sold for them this year. The projected explosive growth of the VCS market also spawns an industry for third-party video games for the system, starting with Activision in 1979. Founded by disgruntled former Atari game programmers Alan Miller, Bob Whitehead, David Crane and Larry Kaplan, their venture is quickly followed by others entering the lucrative market, including Imagic in 1981.
By 1980, there are 36 cartridges available for the VCS, including a simplified version of soccer featuring three players to a side, plus goalies. After signing Brazilian football superstar Pele in 1980 to a five-year contract as spokesman, Atari quickly changes the name of the game from Soccer to Pele’s Soccer, resulting in one of the earliest celebrity athlete video game endorsements. But the company is about to make a move that will truly blow the lid off the home videogame industry: Atari becomes the first home videogame company to license an arcade game. It is Warner executive Manny Gerard who realizes the enormous home potential for arcade hit Space Invaders, originally made by Japanese game maker Taito and then licensed for North American release by Midway. He persuades Kassar to enter into an agreement with Taito for exclusive non-coin-operated, personal computer and handheld video game licenses for Space Invaders, and the January 1980 release of Atari’s home video game version becomes the killer app for the VCS; people rush out and buy the system just to play the game. There are 112 different variations on gameplay available, including invisible aliens, moving bunkers and simultaneous two-player action. Selling over a million cartridges in its first year, the arcade adaptation rakes in over $100 million for Atari, as well as moving tonnes of VCS consoles to people who want to play the game. The designer of the game, Rick Maurer, was one of a few, if not the only, early programmer for the VCS with previous video game design experience: he had created Pinball Challenge, Hangman and Pro Football for the Fairchild Channel F game console. As an Atari employee, he only earns his $11, 000 salary that year in the wake of Space Invaders. He eventually moves to the Atari arcade division and their more favourable bonus program. Looking at the market overall, dealers buy 1.7 million video games in 1980.
Atari’s attitude towards the authors of games for their company is that they should remain anonymous and that the games are identified as a corporate creation rather than the effort of individual employees. In a response to that, Warren Robinett hides his name within his VCS game Adventure, a graphical version of Will Crowther and Don Woods’ text adventure Colossal Cave, aka Adventure. This is widely recognized as the first hidden “Easter Egg” within a video game, although it does attract the ire of upper management.
Over the next two years, the Atari VCS completely dominates the home videogame market, its only rival of any significance being Mattel’s Intellivision unit. Profits for the company jump from $6 million in 1979 to $145 million in 1981, on sales of over $1 billion. In November of 1981, Atari announces a deal with Namco for exclusive rights to license, build and sell their new arcade games for North America and elsewhere, along with home game rights for the company’s Galaxian and Pac-Man. This paves the way for Atari’s dubious version of the latter arcade game for the 2600 in 1982. Bucking industry convention, the idea of keeping toy promotion only to the end-of-year Holiday season is thrown out the window; Atari begins pushing the VCS and all of its games throughout the year, including a $75 million ad campaign through 1982. The company also spends $334,000 for a commercial spot during Super Bowl XVI. Combined with $25 million in cooperative ad dollars spent by Atari dealers, Atari figures this makes them the biggest spender in advertising for a single brand in America. This year also sees Atari provide full sponsorship of a prime-time science education series of TV specials produced by two alumni from the PBS series Nova, Graham Chedd and John Angier. Titled Discover: The World of Science, it is produced in association with science magazine Discover, and airs on around 75 stations across the U.S, covering more than 80% of American homes. Hosting duties for the show are carried out by Peter Graves, of Mission: Impossible and Airplane: The Movie fame. Atari co-produces some episodes at a cost of $1 million each which promote computer use and literacy, a nice bit of synergy with the company’s 8-bit home computer line. After the video game market evaporates in 1983-1984, the science series finds a home at PBS. The VCS monopolizes family use of the television set to such an extent that TV pundits start referring to the “Big Four” networks: CBS, ABC, NBC, and Atari. Over the course of its production run, over 200 games are produced for the VCS/2600 by 40 manufacturers. Approximately 120 million cartridges are sold, and there are 55 different compatible videogame systems eventually released worldwide. Atari, the company that had shrunk Warner Communication’s market share during the early days of the VCS is now responsible for half of the mother corporation’s profits, with revenues for Warner in 1981 alone amounting to $1.23 billion.
Riding the Digital Wake
The VCS also becomes a cottage industry for third-party developers of hardware add-ons for the system. The SuperCharger is released by in August of 1982 by Arcadia Corporation and designed by former Atari engineer and home PONG co-creator Bob Brown, also serving as executive vice-president of the company. Another former Atari employee, Craig Nelson, is also involved in the venture. They are forced to change their company name to Starpath after threats of litigation from Emerson Electronics, maker of the Arcadia 2001 home game console. The SuperCharger, initially offered at $69.95 and eventually dropped to $49.95, is an outsized cartridge that plugs into the VCS and adds an extra 6K of RAM memory available to the system. It also boosts the graphics capability, allowing for hi-res output. A cable comes out the side of the SuperCharger and ends in a 1/4 inch audio jack, which users plug into the headphone jack of any regular cassette recorder. They can then play games sold by Starpath on audio cassette tape, with each priced at an attractive $14.95. Loading a game in via this procedure usually takes about 30 seconds, and a clean duplicate version of the game is offered on the other side of the cassette if something goes wrong with the original. Phaser Patrol is the tape packed in with the SuperCharger, a graphically advanced version of the popular game Star Raiders for Atari’s 400/800 computers, then ported later for the 2600. Others games are released for the system, such as Escape From the Mindmaster (working title: Labyrinth), Rabbit Transit (working title: Harebrain and Hopalong Catastrophe) and Communist Mutants From Space. The company is also actually able to produce an official version of the arcade classic Frogger for the 2600, in the face of another version released for that system by Parker Brothers. This is because Parker Brothers only has the cartridge rights for the game from Sega, opening the door for Starpath’s version on tape cassette.
12 games are eventually sold for the SuperCharger, including two sold via mail order after Starpath declares bankruptcy. The company is eventually merged with computer game maker Epyx. One prototype product never released by Starpath, called Sweat: The Decathlon Game, ends up as the basis for Epyx’s hugely popular sports extravaganza Summer Games.
Following on the heels of the SuperCharger is the Power Module, part of The Power System line from Amiga. The company might be better known as the maker of the Joyboard, a 2600 controller that one stood on to use. Well, I suppose they might be more well-known as the maker of the Amiga computer for Commodore. Their Power Module plug-in cartridge memory expander for the 2600 would also run games off cassette, as well as add 6K of memory to the 2600. What’s more, it would hook up to other Power Modules over a phone line for multiplayer games, AND have the capability to play in real 3D. This last bit is proved by one of the two cassette games included in the package being 3-D Ghost Attack. The other is to be Depth Charge, featuring the online capability. Announced in early 1983, Amiga’s Power Module is ultimately cancelled; Amiga reasons that since cartridge prices are dropping like a rock, the main cost benefit of putting out games on cassette has been undercut. Their 3-game Power Play cartridges also in development for the 2600 similarly never make it to store shelves.
In the Key of Atari
A few companies also try to make good on the “computer” part of the name Video Computer System, developing prototype computer add-ons with keyboards and storage devices. In 1983, Atari announces an under-$90 attachment that fits easily into the 2600 cartridge slot, offering users a 56-key, chiclet-style keyboard and 8K of RAM, expandable to 32K with add-on modules. Inside the add-on is the vaunted 6502 microprocessor, also seen in Atari’s 8-bit computer line. The system will output a 192×160 graphics resolution and a text screen format of 32 columns by 24 rows. It also has two sound generators. Initially called My First Computer, built into the system is the Microsoft BASIC programming language, combined with specialized graphics and sound statements from Atari BASIC. There is also a connection to allow any regular cassette tape recorder to provide data storage. Atari’s add-on can also accept standard 2600 game cartridges through a slot on its side, as well as a planned library of around 20 new cartridges at launch, featuring entertainment and educational programs. some enhanced to take advantage of the keyboard. In addition, the expansion module will also be able to accept Atari’s planned storage system utilizing high-speed, 1/16 ” wafer-tape ‘stringy floppy’ cassettes holding 128K of data. Eventually renamed The Graduate, other peripherals are announced for the keyboard, such as a 40-column thermal printer, as well as a modem. Instructional software such as Introduction to Programming and Typo Attack, as well as home productivity programs The Home Filing Manager and Family Finances are announced with the add-on. It’s not all serious stuff though; adaptations of Donkey Kong, Robotron: 2084 and Caverns of Mars are also touted for the system. The whole shebang is promised by Atari for September of 1983 but is ultimately postponed indefinitely that month by the company after the introduction of their XL computer line, and also “in light of the turmoil in the under-$100 home computer market”, according to Atari. At $150, the 600XL home computer is priced only slightly higher than the projected cost of the Graduate.
The planned Entex Piggyback Colour Computer add-on stands out by sporting 70 keys that travel when pressed like a real computer keyboard. In spite of the name, the unit sits in front of the VCS as opposed to neatly on top of it. The keyboard contains nine function keys, as well as four cursor keys to control movement. The computer add-on contains a Z80A CPU, along with 8K of ROM to hold the internal instruction set. Only a meager 2K of RAM is available for the Piggyback out of the gate, although an expansion module is offered for boosting the unit through 16K memory cartridges to a respectable 32K of RAM, as well as an access port to allow a cassette tape for program storage. Onboard the Piggyback will be 8K of BASIC. With a price tag of at or below $125, for an additional $7 users will be able to purchase an adapter to allow the system to connect to the Intellivision, ColecoVision, or the Atari 5200. RS-232 and parallel ports promise connection to peripherals such as printers.
Other keyboard attachments for the 2600 are announced, such as Unitronics’ Expander (16K RAM), but only Spectravideo’s membrane keyboard Compumate (2K RAM), with its included music composition and Magic Easel drawing programs, makes it past the prototype stage and onto store shelves in 1983, only to disappear along with the videogame market by the end of the year.
Reach Out and Play Someone
One of the more interesting and far-reaching of the third-party companies servicing the 2600 market is Control Video Corporation (CVC), with a service called Gameline. The company is created by online information technology visionary William F. Von Meister, who had founded the first commercial online service The Source in June of 1979. He was eventually forced out of ownership of The Source that year by financial supporter Jack Taub in a power struggle, although receiving a million dollar payout for his trouble. In 1980, a controlling interest in the online service itself is eventually sold to Reader’s Digest for $3 million.
What would eventually become Gameline had originally been developed for Home Music Store, which had hoped to offer song selections to cable services via satellite. Audio music channels later become standard offerings on Cable TV, but at the time music retailers balked at the idea of this kind of distribution and lobbied the music industry to refuse participation in such a scheme. Von Meister and company then head back to the drawing board and turn to video games as a venue for their technology. Gameline offers downloadable games for the VCS over conventional phone lines through a modem which operates from between 900 – 1200 baud, in order to compensate for varying connection quality. This versatile yet inexpensive-to-make modem was the key to a viable dial-in video game service, and a large part of CVC’s $2 million R&D budget is devoted to building it, developed by vice president of engineering Ray Heinrich, as well as Hartsville, AL-based consultants Seven Systems. The games are stored on the 8K memory bank inside a special, $49.95 cartridge called the Master Module, which connects to the phone line. After dialing into the system via a local or toll-free number, the phone line is typically tied up for about a minute while retrieving a choice from the rotating roster of 30 games to be offered each month. Customers get a free subscription to Gameliner magazine, where currently available games are listed. There is a one-time hook-up fee for the service of $15, with a $10-$12 annual fee coming into play in the second year of membership. Charges are approximately $1 for up to an hour of play, and the system offers on-screen instructions for the chosen game, as well as a library of instructions for other games on the system. Parents can also set a weekly or daily limit, to prevent kids from overindulging.
GameLine is the first stage of a planned comprehensive online BBS type of system for the VCS including MailLine, offering text messages pecked off an onscreen keyboard with a joystick at 15 cents per 8,000 characters, sports news and scores via SportsLine, and home banking and financial management through StockLine. The two-way nature of the data connection also allows large, nation-wide video game tournaments. High scores are recorded by the system if the customer pays an additional 50 cents, and tournament prizes such as college scholarships, sports-cars and $100,000 in gold bullion are promised for the winners of Gameline’s World Video Game Championship.
Downloading of games also comes to the Intellivision via PlayCable, and Coleco announces a partnership with AT&T to deliver games over the phone lines to their ColecoVision console. Also touted is The Games Network, where players would rent a special box from their cable providers with a $20 deposit. With this equipment, an initial catalog of 20 games from various manufacturers would be available to gamers.
Gameline launches wide by mid-1983, but licensing disagreements with most of the big cartridge makers such as Atari, Mattel and Coleco prevent many of the biggest 2600 hits from appearing on the system. At launch, Imagic is the sole major manufacturer of games available on the system, although product from Fox, TigerVision and Spectravision are also planned. In a repeat of what had happened at The Source, CVC President Von Meister again is relieved of his duties, but not before he brings Marc Seriff and Jim Kimsey into the company. Steve Case, another key member, had been lured over to CVC in 1982 from PepsiCo Inc. When the Gameline system is eventually shut down in early 1985, these three execs reform CVC into Quantum Computer Services. The company develops a telecommunications network package dedicated to the Commodore C64/128 computers, a system based on tech licensed from an already existing online entity called PlayNET. QuantumLink is set for launch on October 1, 1985, and the system is operated jointly with Commodore International, who bundle QuantumLink products with their computers and modems. QuantumLink offers connectivity for a flat fee of $9.95 a month, and a registration charge of $25 is put into place at the beginning of 1986. A disk drive is needed to load the system software, and if you already have a modem for your 64/128, you get a month of free service. If you need a modem, you are provided one free if you sign up for a four-month term. Users are also billed six cents a minute for “Plus” features such as online chat, email, head-to-head games like Chess and Hangman, and the ability to download demo programs and public-domain software. You do get an hour of “Plus” time free every month, however. Operating hours for the service are 6pm to 7am on weekdays and 24 hours a day through the weekend. Users, or Q-Linkers as they’re called, can use up to five different accounts on one computer; great for parents, who can set time limited profiles for their kids. Or perhaps for those who want to juggle a few different online personalities. Q-Link eventually adds support for Apple computers under the AppleLink banner, and PC Link for IBM compatibles in a partnership with Tandy. An online service for IBM’s PS/1 operating system is also made by Quantum and called Promenade.
If you thought emojis or emoticons were a fairly recent Internet invention, then :p. They actually show up in email and chat room communications on QLink, such expressive symbols known there as QShorthand graphics or QGraphics for short. Hang around long enough and you’ll see happy :), a wink (;)), somebody angry (>:(), a glasses-wearing nerd (8)), or as I demonstrated above, someone sticking their tongue out… among many others. Things get even more visually expressive when the first virtual online graphical community ever is set up on QuantumLink, developed by LucasFilm and made available in a pilot project between 1986 and 1988. Called Habitat, it allows users to create graphical avatars and chat and barter for items in a real-time environment, including potentially hundreds of different areas, along with user-created rooms. Laws and acceptable behaviors are created by the users, including the robbing and killing of each other. At the end of the pilot period in 1988, Habitat is scaled down and opened wide to users as a simple graphical chat room called Club Caribe. In 1989, Case, Kimsey and Seriff morph QuantumLink and all its sundry services into another little online company…America Online. Von Meister does not share in the billion-dollar success of AOL, and succumbs to cancer in 1995 at the age of 53.
As an alternative to the delivery of videogames through a phone line like with Gameline, Atari and Activision join forces with an experiment to stream games via FM radio. Via a FM receiver cartridge with circuitry designed by Larry Karr of SCA Data Systems, Inc., an FM subcarrier signal of 12 kbits/s sending game data would originate from a local radio station and be received by either the 2600 console or an Atari computer. Tests in the field were successful, but the scheme to send Atari and Activision games over radio waves never takes off.
End of the Line
Atari itself milks the VCS for all it’s worth, trying to stave off the obvious obsolescence of the console by redesigning the same basic technology into smaller or more gimmicky versions, as well as sundry peripherals to “improve” gameplay. One such attempt is the CX-2700 Remote Control VCS, sporting wireless hand units with a radio connection to the game console, allowing gamers to control the onscreen action as well as pause or reset games without getting off the couch. The controllers also feature a combination joystick and paddle configuration similar to what will show up on the later 5200 Supersystem, along with heat sensitive, finger-touch buttons. The 2700 is unveiled at the 1981 Winter CES, and then quietly shelved by Atari. Voice recognition and voice synthesis for the 2600 is also dabbled with, via a device called the Voice Controller, manufactured for Atari by Milton Bradley. Surfacing at the Summer CES in 1983, the module plugs into the controller port of the 2600, with a headset attached to it. With this headset, players will then be able to speak commands and hear voice prompts in supported games such as RealSports Baseball, Star Raiders, Battlezone and Berzerk. Sporting a proposed retail price of $100, the system only supports one player; the other must use a regular joystick in the other port, and hopefully will refrain from shouting false commands and screwing his more technically advanced “friend”. Perhaps because of this fatal flaw in human gamesmanship, the Voice Controller does not make it to store shelves in October as planned. Even a system that is strongly inferred by Atari to allow players to control games by mind-control is prototyped, called Mindlink. Most media who check out the controller at the 1984 Summer CES comment that it appears to respond to mere pressure from the eyebrows. The dubious system is prototyped, but never released.
In 1982 the original VCS is remodeled in an all-black version referred to unofficially as the Vader console, the first to be given the new official name the Atari 2600 Video Computer System. The new title is based on the console’s model number and done to put the name in line with the new 5200 console, also released that year. This name is popularly just condensed down to the 2600. The pack-in cartridge becomes Pac-Man, an arcade license that the company figures will send the 2600 back into the top-sellers list. With Pac-Man in the title, the game sells over 10 million copies, but it is apparent the arcade adaptation is a rush job and critics declare it a creative disaster. It takes the development of Coleco’s graphically advanced ColecoVision to prompt Atari to offer more advanced technology with their 5200 Supersystem machine, although even this new unit is only a repurposing of Atari’s 8-bit computer line in console form. Groping for avenues to shoring up their market share Atari announces a series of signed deals with content companies: in early 1983 Atari announces deals with United Feature Syndicate and Charles Shultz Creative Association to create games based on the Peanuts characters; an agreement with Destron, Inc to create software around their coin-operated biorhythm and astrology machines; and an arrangement with the Children’s Television Workshop to make Sesame Street games under the label Children’s Computer Workshop. They also tout a long-term deal with Williams Electronics for first refusal of their arcade works for home video and computer games. Having previously made Defender, Atari also lands games like Moon Patrol and Joust out of this deal, and begins planning home versions while the arcade games are still in the R&D stage at Williams.
In early 1984, Atari releases 12 original and licensed games for competing computer and video game systems, under the Atarisoft label. The games include Centipede, Defender, Dig-Dug, Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, Robotron, Stargate, Picnic Paranoia, Protector, Shamus, Super Storm and Galaxian. They are released for systems such as the Apple II and IIe, IBM PC, C64, VIC-20, TI 99/4A, ColecoVision and Intellivision.
After the surprise announcement on Friday, January 13, 1984, that Jack Tramiel is stepping down as the President and CEO of Commodore, he and a group of investors buy the ailing consumer division of Atari for $240 million, taking the reins of the newly renamed Atari Corp. as CEO on July 2. The next day Atari presents its new CEO, holding a press conference at the 1984 Summer CES in Chicago and billing it as “The Day the Future Began”. The future of the coin-op division is that it is spun off the next year to Atari’s old arcade game partners at Namco America, and is renamed Atari Games, Corp…. makers of such arcade games as Gauntlet (1985) and Cyberball & Cyberball 2072 (1988-1989), among many others. On the consumer side, Tramiel remodels the 2600 into the even smaller $50 2600jr in 1985. Production of the Atari 2600 ends in 1991; its 14-year run marks it as the longest lasting home video game system in history.
Rewinding back to 1976, Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell is getting tired of the day-to-day operations at the company, and his constant run-ins with the suits at mother corp. Warner are wearing him down. He finds his interest drawn to a new project within the company, to develop a national chain of pizza parlours/arcades that intends to be a more family-friendly place to play video games than seedy bars or bowling alleys. He convinces Atari to set up a new department called the Restaurant Operating Division, headed by Gene Landrum. On May 16, 1977, they open a 5,000 sq. ft. prototype restaurant at the Town and Country Village in San Jose, the grand opening of which is attended by local dignitaries, including San Jose Mayor Janet Gray Hayes. Getting as close as Bushnell ever will to realizing his youthful dreams of becoming a Disney Imagineer, the restaurant concept includes a cast of animatronic characters playing in a musical band for the customers. Over 30 video games and other mechanical attractions surround the dining area in an enclosed environment to keep sound at a sane level. Controls are also in place to ensure only restaurant patrons are playing the games.
Atari is wary of expanding the restaurant experiment further, so Bushnell purchases the Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre concept from Warners for $500,000 in June of 1977, and after he leaves the company the following year, Bushnell furthers expansion of PTT, with Joe Keenan joining him soon after. After a successful IPO, share prices rise to over $25 per share through the video game boom. When Bushnell’s non-compete clause from his departure from Atari in 1978 expires, he forms new video game company Sente Technologies in 1983. Like his former company, the name of his new gaming venture comes from the game Go, this term meaning to make the first move. Plans for the new company include arcade games called SAC or Sente Arcade Computer, which would allow operators to change their offerings with just a swap of a cartridge and some decal changes on the cabinet. Bushnell enters into a contract with his former company, Atari, giving them exclusive home video game rights to any coin-op made by Sente or Pizza Time Theatre, starting on Oct.1 1983. On January 31 of 1984, Nolan Bushnell steps down as chairman of Pizza Time Theatre, while retaining 1.2 million shares of the company, or 19% of available notes. Bushnell moves to a chairmanship position at Sente, and Joe Keenan steps up as chairman of the restaurant chain the next month. Sente manages to roll the roller-ball controlled Snake Pit into arcades, before it is eventually folded into Bally/Midway as Bally Sente in April of 1984.
The game company manages to release a couple dozen other conventional arcade games, such as Hat Trick, Chicken Shift, Snacks’N Jaxon and Stocker. Sente introduces the 2nd generation SAC system, SAC II that same year. Hoping to energize the sagging arcade market by combining video games with motion control technology, SAC II puts gamers in a moving cockpit driven by hydraulic actuators to create a sense of actual flight in the first game for the system, Shrike Avenger, announced in 1984 but not released until 1986. One of the first games to charge $1.00 a play, with powerful actuators causing the motion it was also known to have flipped over and nearly injured a rider. Riding on the coattails of smash laser game arcade hit Dragon’s Lair, the planned model III SAC games are to be laserdisc machines. Pizza Time Theatre ends up going bankrupt in 1984, done in by the crashing videogame market and mounting debts via overzealous expansion and acquisitions. Bushnell’s company is then picked up by competitor Showbiz Pizza Place, and the two entities eventually merge into the modern Chuck E. Cheese franchise.
Doing the Robot
Bushnell engages in a myriad of other comeback attempts of varying success, including Androbot, a San Jose-based consumer robotics company that in 1983 produces Topo, the “world’s first personal robot”. A stripped down version is initially made available at a within-reach pricetag of $495; this model is eventually replaced with a more advanced version with all the bells and whistles at $1595. Sporting dimensions of 36.5″ x 24″, the 33-lb, battery operated Topo can move and speak via a remote IR interface card inserted into an Apple IIe or II+ computer, controlled by either joystick or keyboard. Interfaces for the IBM PC, C64 and Atari 8-bit computers are also promised by Androbot. Topo’s speaking ability uses text-to-speech, to simplify the programming process. The robot comes with TopoBASIC, which includes intuitive movement commands such as TFD (forward) and TRT (turn right) and TLT (turn left). Programmed distances are measured in Topo Steps, with one step equalling a centimeter. Also made available is TopoSoft, a programming language based on Forth, and a TopoLOGO programming package can be purchased for $125. This simplified language allows users without programming skills to easily input directional commands for the robot. The computer needed to program your new electronic buddy is not included in the price, but there is an emergency stop switch on the top of his head in case his programming goes wonky. Topo‘s name is derived from the word “topology”, meaning the study of spaces or surfaces.
Part of an overall incubation think-tank for high-tech start-ups called Catalyst Technologies that Bushnell had founded back in December of 1980, Androbot only manages to sell a few thousand robots. These include Topos, as well as B.O.B.s (Brains On Board), Topo‘s 43 pound, nearly four-foot high big brother that doesn’t require an external computer and runs about $4,000. The brains referred to in his name are represented by three onboard 16-bit CPUs, as well as 3M of RAM. Available options include the Androwagon and Androfridge, which BOB can pull behind him, weaving in and out between party-goers offering pretzels and beers. BOB has a certain amount of autonomy in comparison to his cousin, in that he contains five ultrasonic sensors, such as the autofocus sensors found in cameras, which allow him to move around freely while mapping the dimensions of his environment and the objects within it. He also has two infrared sensors to help him identify living things. Utilizing this feature, programming BOB‘s movements can be simplified using his Follow Me mode, where the unit will follow the user and remember the path and repeat it on command. Voice synthesis seems out of reach to its designers, so instead, he draws on a pool of over 100 pre-recorded, digitized phrases. Cartridges are to made available for BOB soon after his release, such as AndroSentry, which turns the robot into a mechanical night watchman for your house.
At the Summer 1983 CES Androbot announces a cheaper robot version called Androman, a 12-inch robot buddy for your 2600. Controllable by joystick, a cartridge for the 2600 would put obstacles on the screen for the device to avoid, and interact with an included 6’x8′ cardboard game playing field and set of data coded game pieces. Androbot also announces a $350 robot named F.R.E.D. (Friendly Robotic Educational Device) that includes a drawing pen attachment and a keypad for programming. It can also talk and sense drop-offs so it won’t roll off a desk. Androbot, however, eventually rolls off a cliff and goes bust, along with the idea of personal robots running households. Bushnell tries again with the company Axlon, that had originally gotten its start making add-ons for the Atari 8-bit computers, including the RAMCRAM memory expansion module. They retool F.R.E.D. into a new robot named Andy, selling for only $120. Also from Axlon comes a line of robotic pets called Petster, as well as the stuffed animal A.G. Bear, which responds to a child’s voice in gibberish “bear language”, as well as converse with others of its kind when in close proximity. The company also makes Party Animals, a line of six hand puppets with a light sensor in the mouth that triggers noise as the child makes them “talk”. Selling for around $25 each, kids can pick such animal pals as Silly Goose, Tetrazzini Turkey, and Dippity Dolphin.
Navigating His Way
Bushnell also gets in on the ground floor of in-car navigation systems, bankrolling the founding of Etak for $500,000. A pioneering company in the field, the idea behind Etak comes to electronics whiz Stanley Honey while navigating aboard Bushnell’s racing yacht. The Etak system uses the old-school nautical navigation method of “dead reckoning”, using the vehicle as a static point and considering the relative speed over time through the landscape around it to determine its position. Since the Polynesians had used dead reckoning to travel large swaths of the Pacific Ocean, Honey appropriates the Polynesian navigational term etak for his invention. In 1985 the company produces two versions of the first practical in-car navigational systems made available on the market, licensed to General Motors: one with a 7″ screen meant for commercial vehicles, selling for $1,595, and a $1,395 system for consumers that contains a 4.5″ display. Information on vehicle speed and direction is fed to the devices via a roof-mounted magnetic compass and magnetic sensors placed near the wheels. Various EtakMap videotape cassettes, sold for $35, are produced providing map coverage for the Bay Area in California, with an eye towards eventually covering SoCal and beyond. Drivers can input their destination via twelve buttons placed around the edge of the CRT display. The dead reckoning system can provide accuracy up to 50 feet, but errors accumulate over time which requires a position reset at the touch of a button. Eventually rendered obsolete by GPS navigation systems, Etak does pave the way for the later ubiquity of in-car map devices. After a series of acquisitions, Etak ends up being sold to Tele Atlas in 2000.
Bushnell later gains a minority stake and title Director of Strategic Planning in Aristo International Corp. in 1996, with a plan to build Internet-connected music streaming, messaging and video screens for installation in bars and other entertainment venues. Renamed Playnet Technologies, the enterprise eventually sinks. From this, started on July 1, 1999, is a new company called uWink.com, developing Internet-based gaming kiosks. The focus of uWink moves to developing electronic kiosk dining bistros, and after the opening and closing of several restaurants in the California area, eventually ends up licensing its technology under the name Tapcode. As for Bushnell’s former partner-in-crime at Atari and Pizza Time Theatre, Joe Keenan eventually ends up back in the game industry as president of Data East USA in 1990.
Bushnell’s contribution to the modern videogame landscape via the company he created and the console that company produced cannot be overstated, even though we now look back at the blocky graphics and limited colour palette of the VCS/2600 with nostalgic wonder that such a system could be the wellspring of today’s powerhouse monstrosities. It’s not often that a game console, or the company that produces it, penetrates the public consciousness to such an extent that a powerful Hollywood actor produces and stars in a film about its history. However, such a rumour is floated, concerning fervent video game player Leonardo DiCaprio producing and starring as Bushnell in Atari, developed by DiCaprio’s Appian Way production company and optioned in 2008 by Paramount. It makes sense to put the breakneck, roller-coaster story of Atari to film, since the company and its VCS console marked the ascendancy of video games to the top of the entertainment market, along with the programmers that wrestled with the restraining technology to produce some of the greatest games of all time.
Sources (Click to view; inert links kept for historical purposes)
Page 1 – Have You Played Atari Today?
Birth of the VCS
The Arcade Flyer Archive – Jet Fighter – flyers.arcade-museum.com/?page=flyer&db=videodb&id=540&image=1
Robert Jung’s Electric Escape – www.digiserve.com/eescape Image of Tank II home game console and other information from Radio-Electronics, “Videogames – Videogame History” by Jerry and Eric Eimbinder, pgs. 50 – 54, Jul 1982
Design case history: the Atari Video Computer System – 1984 IEEE Spectrum article – http://www.atarimuseum.com/videogames/consoles/2600/Atari_case_history.html
Saunders, Glenn. “Stella at 20, Pts. 1 and 2.” Glenn Saunders, 1997. Accessed 1998. Joe Decuir relating the origin of the Stella name. Image of VCS prototype with Combat! controllers. ;Nolan Bushnell discusses his plan to Atari board members to slash the price of the VCS to increase market share. ;Space Invaders designer Rick Mauer discusses video game design work he had done previous to his employment at Atari.
“Video Olympics.” Edited by Lumberjack42, Video Olympics (Atari 2600) – The Cover Project, The Cover Project, www.thecoverproject.net/view.php?cover_id=15534. Image of 2600 Video Olympics cover
“Atari Mania – Atari 2600 VCS Indy 500.” Atari Age, atarimania.com/game-atari-2600-vcs-indy-500_7642.html. Image of 2600 Indy 500 cover
“Atari Age – Atari 2600 – Street Racer [Atari].” Atari Age, atariage.com/box_page.php?. Image of 2600 Street Racer cover
“Atari Age – Atari 2600 – Star Ship [Atari].” Atari Age, atariage.com/box_page.php?SoftwareLabelID=493. Image of 2600 Star Ship cover
“Atari Air-Sea Battle box | airjmax | Flickr.” Flickr, https://www.flickr.com/photos/airjmax/15087404622. Image of 2600 Air-Sea Battle cover
“Surround.” Edited by Lumberjack42, Surround (Atari 2600) – The Cover Project, The Cover Project, thecoverproject.net/view.php?cover_id=14067. Image of 2600 Surround cover
“Atari Age – Atari 2600 – Basic Math [Atari].” Atari Age, atariage.com/box_page.php?SystemID=2600&SoftwareID=850&BoxStyleID=2&itemTypeID=BOX. Image of 2600 Basic Math cover
“Blackjack.” Edited by Lumberjack42, Blackjack (Atari 2600) – The Cover Project, The Cover Project, thecoverproject.net/view.php?game_id=9544. Image of 2600 Blackjack cover
Creative Computing, “Atari Speaks Out” by David Ahl, pgs. 58-59, Aug 1979. “Peter [Rosenthal, Atari marketing manager of personal computers]: We currently have sold more than a million programmable Atari video computer systems” Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Creative Computing collection, Sep 29 2015
Andrews, Mark, and Jason Scott. “’Exploding’ Industry Meets in Chicago.” Leisure Time Electronics, 1981, p. 12. Internet Archive, archive.org/details/1981SummerLeisureTimeElectronics/page/n11. Dealers bought 1.7 million videogames last year, the Association (EIA) reports…
Atari 2600 History and Commentary – www.geocities.com/SiliconValley/Heights/9176/2600essy.html
Discovery Online, You Shoulda Been There — Pong – www.discovery.com/stories/history/toys/PONG/birthday1.html
Page 1 – Here’s Your Hat
Bushnell pushed out of Atari
New York magazine, ‘On Madison Avenue: The Grant Tinker Show’ by Bernice Kanner, pgs. 16-20, Nov 29 1982
Image of Steve Ross, by Harry Benson, as well as other information from New York magazine, “Steve Ross On the Spot” by Tony Schwartz, pgs. 22-32, Jan 24 1983
Image of Warren Robinett from InfoWorld, “Computer Erector Sets: Software’s Missing Link” by Scott Mace, pgs. 38-40, April 1984. Photo by K. Gypsy Zaboroskie. Retrieved from Google Books, Sept 12, 2015.
RetroGameChampion, and John Sellers. “The Visionary.” Arcade Fever – The Fan’s Guide to the Golden Age of Video Games, Running Press Book Publishers, 2001, pp. 18–19. From Nolan Bushnell interview: I had a bunch of ferns and plants hanging down from the ceiling. And off to the side I had an oak beer tap. AF: Do you remember what kind of beer it was? NB: Actually I do: Coors.
Associate-manuel-dennis, comp. “California Clippings.” Cash Box 20 Jan. 1979: 44. Internet Archive. 26 Sept. 2016. Web. 22 Oct. 2019. <https://archive.org/details/cashbox40unse_34/page/44>. Following last week’s announcement that Raymond Kassar and Joe Keenan have been named president and chief executive officer and chairman of the board, respectively, of Atari, word this week from Atari’s parent company, Warner Communications, Inc. is that Nolan Bushnell… will “continue to serve Atari in the development of coin-operated games.” In addition, according to WCI, Bushnell plans to “devote more time to his personal affairs, investments, and other interests, including politics.”
Page 1 – Home Invaders
Home version of Space Invaders/Atari marketing focus
“Retroview: April 1980.” NextGen, Apr. 2000, p. 102. During January of that year , Atari would release a port of the immensely popular arcade hit Space Invaders for the VCS system.
Creative Computing, “Random Ramblings/The Consumer Electronics Show/Electronic Games and Craziness” by David H. Ahl, pgs. 16-18. “Earlier this year, Atari purchased exclusive rights to market the home video version of Space Invaders in the US. The game immediately became the fastest selling of Atari’s thirty-six games…” Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Creative Computing collection, Oct 21 2015.
The New York Times, “For Fans of Video Games, Fast Fingers Are a Big Help” by Paul L. Montgomery, Oct 11, 1981. “Ron Stringari, vice president for marketing in the consumer division, said Atari had sold more than a million cartridges for Space Invaders…”. Retrieved from the NYT archives, Sept 8, 2015.
Associate-manuel-dennis, comp. “Atari, Namco Game Agreement Told.” Cash Box 28 Nov. 1981: 39. Internet Archive. 26 Sept. 2016. Web. 27 Sept. 2019. <https://archive.org/details/cashbox43unse_26/page/38>. Atari announced that it has entered into an agreement with Namco, Ltd….for the exclusive manufacture and sale of the coin-operated version of Namco’s newest video game in the U.S. and Canada, among other territories; [Atari chairman Raymond E. Kassar] “Namco brought the world two of the most popular video games, ‘Pac-Man’ and ‘Galaxian’, to which Atari has the rights for its home video game system.”
1982 Atari trade ad from Billboard magazine, retrieved from Google Books archive
New York magazine, “On Madison Avenue: The Super Selling of Super Sunday” by Bernice Kanner, pg. 18, Jan 25 1982
Science on American Television: A History, by Marcel Chotkowski LaFollette, pgs. 160-161, University of Chicago Press 2013
Atari Connection, “Atari to Sponsor TV Science Show”, Vol. 2 No. 3, Sept 1982
Adilman, Glenn. “Videogames: Knowing the Score.” Creative Computing Dec. 1983: 224-31. Creative Computing Magazine (December 1983) Volume 09 Number 12. Internet Archive. Web. 27 Feb. 2016. Midway’s Space Invaders, the first massively popular video game, sold more than one million cartridges in its first year.
Page 1 – Riding the Digital Wake
SuperCharger/Amiga Power Module
“Starpath Corporation.” The Video Game Update, Apr. 1983, p. 1. The working titles for this game are “HAREBRAIN” and “HOPALONG CATASTROPHE”.
WallyWonka. “Atari 2600 3D Boxes Pack.” EmuMovies, 25 July 2018, emumovies.com/files/file/1487-atari-2600-3d-boxes-pack/. Images of game boxes for SuperCharger titles Phaser Patrol, Communist Mutants from Space, Escape from the Mindmaster and Killer Satellites.
Trost, Mark. “The All-Purpose VCS.” Comp. Zadoc. Electronic Fun With Computers & Games July 1983: 46-47. Imgur. 1 Oct. 2014. Web. 30 Sept. 2019. <https://imgur.com/gallery/cU9O5>. Image of Amiga Power Module and peripherals and game, 1983
Scottithgames, comp. “Output-input.” Electronic Fun with Computers & Games Sept. 1983: 11. Internet Archive. 28 May 2013. Web. 18 Oct. 2019. <https://archive.org/details/Electronic_Fun_with_Computer_Games_Vol_01_No_11_1983-09_Fun_Games_Publishing_US/page/n9>. The Power is going to be marketed as a super cartridge; one that has three, three, three games in one. The reason for this change of tack is cost. Since game cartridges are coming down so radically in price, there’s no point in putting games out on cassette in order to make them less expensive – at least that’s Amiga’s opinion.
Page 2 – In the Key of Atari
VCS keyboard add-ons: My First Computer/The Graduate/Entex 2000 Piggyback/Unitronics Expander/Compumate
Chin, Kathy. “Entex Takes Piggy Back to Market.” InfoWorld, Apr. 1983, p. 9. Built into the machine is 8K of BASIC…
Atari Age, “Keyboard Will Turn Atari VCS into Powerful Home Computer”, Vol. 2 Num. 1, May/Jun. 1983
Compute!, “Atari’s New Add-On Computer For VCS 2600 Game Machine” by Tom R. Halfhill, pgs. 44-46, May 1983
Scottithgames, comp. “Atari, Mattel, Coleco: How the Add-ons Add up.” Electronic Fun with Computers & Games Sept. 1983: 37. Internet Archive. 28 May 2013. Web. 18 Oct. 2019. <https://archive.org/details/Electronic_Fun_with_Computer_Games_Vol_01_No_11_1983-09_Fun_Games_Publishing_US/page/n35>. Software that will support the system [Atari Graduate] includes An Introduction to Programming…Donkey Kong, about…well, we’ll assume you know: Robotron: 2084 and Caverns of Mars. And, lest you think this is all frivolity and games, there are two home management programs: The Home Filing Manager and Family Finances.
“New Products.” Computers & Electronics, June 1983, p. 8. B&W image of Entex 2000 Piggyback.
Starlog July 1983: 43. Web. Image of Entex Piggyback
Images of the Unitronics Expander from Video Games Player, “How to Turn Your Atari Into a Computer” by Martin Bass, pgs. 28-30, Aug/Sep 1983. Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Video Games Player collection, Sep 11, 2015.
Atari Age, “Sneak Peeks – 2600 Keyboard Postponed”, pg. 14, Vol. 2 Num. 3, Sept./Oct. 1983
“Growing Pains for Stringy Floppy.” 80 Microcomputing, Sept. 1983, p. 294. At June’s Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago, stringy floppies appeared in several products, from Atari’s Graduate upgrade for the VCS to Unitronics’ 48K, $200 Sonic home micro.
Image of the Atari 2600 and The Graduate computer add-on attached together from Electronic Fun With Computers and Games, “Atari, Mattel, Coleco…”, pgs. 33-38,97, Sep 1983. Retrieved from the Internet Archive, EFWCG collection, Sep 9, 2015.
Ressner, Jeffery. “Video Game Manufacturers Planning Extensive Christmas, Survival Strategies.” Comp. Associate-manuel-dennis. Cash Box 10 Sept. 1983: 5. Internet Archive. 26 Sept. 2016. Web. 7 Oct. 2019. <https://archive.org/details/cashbox45unse_13/page/n5>. …”The Graduate,” has been put on the “back burner” indefinitely by the company “in light of the turmoil in the under-$100 home computer market.”
Popular Science, “New add-ons turn video games into computers”, by Myron Berger, pgs. 114-115, 166, Oct 1983
Image of CompuMate box taken at the Videogame History Museum display, CGE 2014, in Las Vegas
CompuMate image and information courtesy of the Spectravideo Campmate page
Page 2 – Reach Out and Play Someone
Byte, “Byelines: Reader’s Digest Buys The Source” by Sol Libes, pgs. 214-215, Dec 1980. Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Byte magazine collection
Nollinger, Maek. “America, Online!” Wired Sept. 1995: 158+. Print. …Case left Pepsi later that year  for Control Video Corporation… …it was at Control Video that Case met Jim Kimsey and Marc Seriff, his co-founders at America Online. Lacking the cash to go it alone, they formed an alliance with Commodore International Ltd…. In return, Commodore agreed to bundle the QuantumLink service with its computers and modems.
Image of William von Meister from Electronic Games, “Games on the Phone” by Arnie Katz, pgs. 32-36, Jun 1983. Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Electronic Games magazine collection
Antic, “Dial-A-Game” by Deborah Burns, pgs. 82,84, July 1983
Scottithgames, comp. “If a Pac-Man Answers, Don’t Hang Up.” Electronic Fun with Computers & Games Aug. 1983: 16. Internet Archive. 28 May 2013. Web. 14 Oct. 2019. <https://archive.org/details/Electronic_Fun_with_Computer_Games_Vol_01_No_10_1983-08_Fun_Games_Publishing_US/page/n15>. What games will be on the system? Specific titles weren’t available at presstime, but the lineup includes Fox, Imagic, TigerVision and Spectravision.
Libes, Sol. “Bits & Bytes: Atari & Activision to Broadcast Software.” Computers & Electronics, Apr. 1984, p. 13. Atari and Activision have formed a joint venture to broadcast video game and home computer software via radio.
Computer Games (ne: Video Games Player), “Telegaming” by Len Drexler, pgs. 34-36, 52, April 1984. “So far, of the major video game makers, only Imagic has agreed to allow its games to be used on GameLine.” Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Video Games Player collection, Sept 12, 2015.
Image of the QuantumLink menu, as well as other information, from Ahoy!, “Reviews: QuantumLink Personal Computer Network” by Joyce Worley, pgs. 63-65, April 1986
Baker, Robert W. “Inside QuantumLink.” Commodore Feb. 1987: 8. Print. Before Habitat, users relied on simple QShorthand graphics to represent facial expressions. …how to create more elaborate QGraphics.
Broadcasting, “Monitor: DWS”, pg. 51, Aug 16 1982
Image of the Gameline Master Module and box courtesy of Atari Mania
AtariAge, “Starpath” – atariage.com/company_page.html?CompanyID=32
Gap Khakis. Wired June 1995: 18-19. Print. Image of Steve Case sitting in chair
Page 2 and 3 – End of the Line
Remote control 2600/outside deals/Atari struggles in sagging market/AtariSoft/Jack Tramiel
Creative Computing, “International Winter Consumer Electronics Show, Video Game/Computer Systems, Atari” by David H. Ahl, pg. 62-63, Mar 1981. “Atari, the acknowledged leader in video games, unveiled a remote controlled video system.” “The controllers are an advance over the existing controllers in that they combine both a paddle and joystick in one unit. The firing buttons are heat sensitive, finger-tip touch controls…” Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Creative Computing collection, Oct 21 2015.
Ressner, Jeffery. “Factories Bullish on Home Video Licensing Possibilities.” Cash Box 18 Sept. 1982: 43. Internet Archive. 26 Sept. 1982. Web. 28 Sept. 2019. <https://archive.org/details/cashbox44unse_14/page/42>. According to Williams’ marketing director Ron Crouse, the company [Atari] is planning home version of arcade games while the upright modules are still in the R&D stages of design.
“Atari.” The Video Game Update , January 1983, p. 6.
Atari has entered a licensing agreement with United Feature Syndicate & Chas. Shultz Creative Assoc. for the design and manufacture of video games utilizing the Peanuts characters. Atari has also announced a long-term working agreement with Destron, Inc. The major thrust of the Atari show plans revolve around their recently announced deal with the Sesame Street characters and the Children’s Workshop.
“Warner Reels from Atari’s Unexpected Drop in Profits.” Editorial. Softalk Feb. 1983: 230+. Softalk V3n06 Feb 1983. Internet Archive. Web. 29 Dec. 2015. By 1981, Atari had sales of $1 billion, practically a monopolistic hold on the low end of the home entertainment market and what looked like an eternal money-machine.
Associate-manuel-dennis, comp. “Atari, Williams Pact.” Cash Box 7 May 1983: 42. Internet Archive. 26 Sept. 2016. Web. 27 Sept. 2019. <https://archive.org/details/cashbox44unse_46/page/42>. Atari, Inc. of Sunnyvale, Calif., and Williams Electronics, Inc. of Chicago, Ill., have jointly announced a long term agreement by which Atari will have right of first refusal to market home video and computer games based on Williams’ coin-operated amusement games.
InfoWorld, “This Week: Atari Introduces Keyboard with Software Packs & Peripherals” by Kathy Chin, pg. 13, July 11 1983. “The Voice Controller, a $100 module that includes an audio headset, will plug directly into the 2600’s controller port.” “Demonstrated at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago…” “Also scheduled to be available in retail outlets in October, the Voice Controller will support an initial library of games including RealSports Baseball, Star Raiders, Battlezone and Berserk.” Retrieved from Google Books, Sep 18 2015. The Video Game Museum – www.vgmuseum.com/
Scottithgames, comp. Electronic Fun with Computers & Games Sept. 1983: 38. Internet Archive. 28 May 2013. Web. 18 Oct. 2019. <https://archive.org/details/Electronic_Fun_with_Computer_Games_Vol_01_No_11_1983-09_Fun_Games_Publishing_US/page/n37>. The October introduction of Atari’s voice synthesis/voice recognition module for the VCS will be accompanied by four new cartridges designed to exploit this technology: RealSports Baseball, Star Raiders, Battlezone and Berzerk.
Image of Bushnell holding pizza and tokens, and image of Bushnell at Catalyst Technologies, photos by Roger Ressmeyer.
InfoWorld, Androbot advertisement, pg. 26-27, Dec. 26, 1983
Leyenberger, Arthur. “The New Atari.” ANALOG Sept. 1984: n. pag. Web.
“News & Products/Popular Games Released.” Compute! Apr. 1984: 183-84. Internet Archive. Web. Atari, Inc., has released 12 of its games for competing computers and videogame consoles in a new line of software called ATARISOFT.
WallyWonka. “Atari 2600 3D Boxes Pack.” EmuMovies, 25 July 2018, emumovies.com/files/file/1487-atari-2600-3d-boxes-pack/. Images of game boxes for Pac-Man, Snoopy and the Red Baron, Cookie Monster Crunch and Moon Patrol.
“1983 Atari Coupon Calendar.” Edited by Savetz, 1983 Atari Coupon Calendar, Internet Archive, 14 June 2017, archive.org/details/1983AtariCouponCalendar. Image of ‘Vader’ 2600; image of kids playing 2600 with black scottie dog
Edgemundo. “Microsoft MS-DOS 3D Boxes Pack (732).” EmuMovies. N.p., 17 May 2020. Web. 17 Aug. 2020. Images of boxes for Atarisoft PC games
Ahl, David H, and Jason Scott. “Atarian Goes to CES.” Atarian, 1989, pp. 4–5. Internet Archive, archive.org/details/atarian-03/page/n5. Images of Atari booth at 1989 Summer CES
Page 3 – Bushnell Rebounds
Bushnell founds Pizza Time Theatre and Chuck. E. Cheese/Sente
Atari Coin Connection, “Chuck E. Cheese Joins Atari”, edited by Carol Kantor, pg. 3, May 1977. “‘The Big C’ [Chuck E. Cheese] will be reporting directly to Mr. Gene Landrum, General Manager of the Restaurant Operating Division of Atari.” “The Grand opening on May 16 was a great success. Mayor Janet Gray Hayes, together with many other prominent people from the community and the press, came to welcome Chuck E. Cheese and The Pizza Time Theatre to San Jose.” Retrieved from Pinball Pirate, Sep 15 2015.
Sutton, Alan. “Atari Restaurant Combines Fast Food & Coin-Op Games.” Comp. Associate-manuel-dennis. Cash Box 25 June 1977: 50+. Internet Archive. Web. 24 Sept. 2019. A prototype restaurant opened in San Jose, Calif. on May 16, with Mayor Jane Gray Hayes and other community leaders on hand for the festivities.; Included in the 5,000-square-foot facility are over 30 video, pinball, foosball and air hockey games set up in controlled room environments… [etc. etc.]
“Chuck E. Cheese Joins Atari.” Atari Coin Connection June 1977: n. pag. Internet Archive. Web. 24 Sept. 2019. Image of interior of prototype Chuck E. Cheese store, San Jose 1977
St. Games, ne: Softline, “Infomania, The Laser Connection” by Roe Adams, pg. 48, Mar/Apr 1984. “Bushnell’s new company, Sente, is planning a series of arcade parlour game bases called SAC (Sente Arcade Computer). Into each SAC box would go a different game cartridge.” ;”The SAC model III will be a laser disk machine.” Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Softline collection, Nov 2 2015.
Electronic Games, November 1983, Hotline Article “Atari, Bushnell Bury Hatchet”, pg. 12
Chicken Shift. N.p.: Bally/Sente, 1984. Internet Archive. Denzquix, 1 May 2018. Web. 07 Oct. 2019. <https://archive.org/details/arcadeflyer_chicken-shift>. Arcade flyer for Chicken Shift, 1984
Associate-manuel-dennis, comp. “Keenan Named Pizza Time Chief.” Cash Box 18 Feb. 1984: 27. Internet Archive. 26 Sept. 2016. Web. 7 Oct. 2019. Image of Joe Keenan; Joseph F. Keenan has been named chairman of the board of Pizza Time Theatre, Inc., replacing Nolan Bushnell, who resigned from the position on January 31.
Blakeman, Mary Claire. “Video Games Interview: Nolan Bushnell.” Video Games May 1984: 68-73. Print. Image of Nolan Bushnell in front of ‘Snake Pit’, photo by Cooksy Talbott
Dphower. “Bally/Sente SAC 2 Game Cabinet.” The Arcade Flyer Archive, 13 July 2002, flyers.arcade-museum.com/?page=flyer&db=videodb&id=3060&image=1. Image of Bally Sente SAC III flyer, https://flyers.arcade-museum.com/?page=flyer&db=videodb&id=3062&image=1. Image of Snacks’N Jaxon
Rubin, Owen. “Shrike Avenger – 1986 Bally Sente Inc.” Atari History Museum. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Oct. 2019. <http://www.atarimuseum.com/orubin/shrike.html>. It had to large, very powerful linear actuators to move it….we still managed to flip a game over and drop a kid almost on his head.
Zorn, Eric. “Nolan Bushnell: Video Game Guru Dreams of next Toy.” Chicago Tribune 15 Mar. 1984: C1. Newspapers.com. Web. 9 Apr. 2021. Photo of Nolan Bushnell playing Snake Pit, photo by Karen Engstrom. Other info: Bushnell resigned as head of Pizza Time Theaters Inc. on Jan. 31….still controlling 1.2 million shares (19 percent) of company stock.
Page 3 – Doing the Robot
Bushnell founds Androbot
Zorn, Eric. “Nolan Bushnell: Video Game Guru Dreams of next Toy.” Chicago Tribune 15 Mar. 1984: C1. Newspapers.com. Web. 9 Apr. 2021. In December, 1980, Bushnell created Catalyst Technologies, a venture capital organization that provides seed capital, business advice and office space to small, high-technology firms….
Image of B.O.B., along with other information, from Electronic Fun with Computers and Games, “Congratulations! It’s a B.O.B.”, by George Kopp, April 1983. Photo by Androbot, Inc.. “He’s equipped with…a cassette player that gives him a voice.”. “Topo’s name comes from topology, the study of surfaces…”. Retrieved from the Internet Archive, EFWCG collection, Sept 8, 2015.
Compute!, “Androids and Robots” by David D. Thronburg, pgs. 18-22, Jun 1983
“Robots Come Home.” Softtalk Aug. 1983: 144-57. Softalk V3n12 Aug 1983. Internet Archive. Web. 18 Feb. 2016. Half an hour after opening the box and removing the thirty-three-pound plastic and steel robot…;Topo is controlled at this point through a remote radio link that connects to the Apple via an expansion board in slot 5.;Programming Topo in its TopoBasic is a snap…the commands are easy to remember – TFD moves Topo forward…TRT turns Topo right; TLT turns topo left…;Topo also works with Androbot’s special version of Logo – TopoLogo.; …the robot can also be programmed with TopoForth…;With AndroSentry, on of the planned plug-in cartridges, B.O.B. with reportedly be able to patrol and safeguard your house.
Ahl, David H. “1983 Summer Consumer Electronics Show.” Creative Computing Sept. 1983: 200-22. Creative Computing Magazine (September 1983) Volume 09 Number 09. Internet Archive. Web. 25 Feb. 2016. Androbot also introduced AndroMan…designed to be used with an Atari VCS and comes with a game cartridge, transmitter, 6’x8′ cardboard game playing field, set of game pieces imprinted with coded data…
McComb, Gordon. “Personal Robots.” Creative Computing Nov. 1983: 196-204. Creative Computing Magazine (November 1983) Volume 09 Number 11. Internet Archive. Web. 27 Feb. 2016. …Topo uses text-to-speech algorithms to allow easier programming.;B.O.B….draws on a ready set of digitized, pre-recorded phrases…he randomly chooses from over one hundred stored words and lines;image of Bushnell surrounded by Androbot robots.
Image of Topo by himself, along with other information from Antic, “Buyer’s Guide/Other/Topo”, pg. 98, Dec 1983
“Screening Room Rising Stars.” Editorial. K-Power Feb. 1984: 68. K-Power Magazine Issue 1. Web. 04 Feb. 2016.>/span>
Kid computer, image of F.R.E.D.
Atari Connection, “Robots Come Home” by Jim Inscore, pgs. 38-43, Spring 1984
Byrne, Betsy. “Rendezvous with a Robot.” Comp. Jason Scott. Family Computing Mar. 1984: 52-56. Internet Archive. 30 Aug. 2011. Web. 15 Feb. 2020. Unfortunately, this $495 Topo model is no longer available. A more efficient Topo with voice capabilities, a built-in memory, and other extras at a steeper price ($1,500) has replaced the earlier version. ;The manual told us that Topo had subroutines for each direction. For example, to make him go forward 100 Topo steps (each step is a centimeter)…
Kelly, Christina, and Jane King. “Will Robots Take Over the World?” Editorial. K-Power May 1984: 25. K-Power Magazine Issue 4. Internet Archive. Web. 05 Feb. 2016.
Image of Nolan Bushnell and robots, photo from Androbot
Bushnell is chairman of the board of Androbot, which makes B.O.B. (Brains On Board), Topo, and F.R.E.D. (Friendly Robotic Educational Device).
“Hotline: Atari to Market Robots.” Electronic Games May 1984: 8. Electronic Games – Volume 02 Number 12 (1984-05)(Reese Communications)(US). Internet Archive. Web. 09 Feb. 2016. Atari has entered into an agreement with Nolan Bushnell to market a line of products from his new company, Androbot, Inc.
Lewis, Jim, and Barbara Krasnoff. “Robots Come Home.” Enter, June 1984, pp. 24–27. FRED, which sells for about $350…
Herrington, Peggy. “The Robots Are Coming.” RUN Aug. 1984: 70-76. Bombjack.org. Web. Dec. 2016. B.O.B. stands just under four feet tall… One of it’s [B.O.B.] best features is a Follow Me mode, which makes teaching it to follow a path very easy – you walk and it follows. It will remember the route and repeat it by itself on command. …F.R.E.D., which is programmable with its own seperate keypad… [F.R.E.D.] can talk, draw and sense a void so that it doesn’t fall off the table. It sells for under $400.
Boy’s Life, “The Robot Invasion” by Scott Stuckey, pgs. 30-32, 78 Dec 1984
Image of Andy robot by Axlon taken by William Hunter at the Computer History Museum, Mountain View CA
Page 3 – Navigating His Way
Bushnell founds Etak/uWink
Image of Stan Lee playing Spider-Man from Blip: The Video Game Magazine, “Spider-Man Plays SPIDER-MAN!”, photographer Michael Tweed, pg. 3, Vol. 1 Num. 2, Mar. 1983
Image of Etak navigational system, as well as other information, from New York magazine, “Star Tech: Directional Signals” by Phoebe Hoban, pgs. 14-16, Jul 15 1985
Image of uWink facade from Chika’s Flickr photo stream
Hubz, comp. “Coin-Op Vet Joe Keenan Is New Prexy of Data East.” RePlay May 1990: 16. Internet Archive. 27 Oct. 2020. Web. 8 Apr. 2021. 1990 image of Joe Keenan. Other info: Joe Keenan is the new president of Data East, the firm announced in late March. he’s an industry veteran whose coin-op roots go back to being prexy and CEO of Atari in the early 1980s. Keenan helped Atari build Pizza Time Theaters into a powerhouse chain…
Photo of Nolan Bushnell glancing to his left from kandinski
Image of uWink 6-player PONG game from news report on CNBC’s Morning Call, 2007
Zorn, Eric. “Nolan Bushnell: Video Game Guru Dreams of next Toy.” Chicago Tribune 15 Mar. 1984: C1. Newspapers.com. Web. 9 Apr. 2021. Illustration of Nolan Bushnell by John Schmelzer
variety.com, “Leonardo DiCaprio to play with ‘Atari'”, Jun. 8, 2008
Unannotated, Uncategorized or I Just Don’t Damn Remember!
Electronic Games, “A Decade of Programmable Videogames”, pgs. 20-23, 34, Vol. 1 Num. 2, Mar 1982
Video Games, “Video Games Interview – Nolan Bushnell”, by Jerry Bowles, pgs.16, 19 – 20, 78 – 79, Vol. 1 Num. 1, Aug 1982
New York Magazine, “Can Atari Stay Ahead of the Game?” by Bernice Kanner, pgs.15-17, Aug 16 1982
Video Games Player, “Profile – Big Daddy: Atari Founder Nolan Bushnell is the Father of Video Games”, by Steven Slone, pgs. 16 – 18, 22, 56, Vol. 1 Num. 1, Fall 1982
Video Games, “From Cutoffs to Pinstripes”, by Steve Bloom, pgs. 37 – 50, 80, Vol. 1 Num. 3, Dec. 1982
Electronic Games, “1983 Arcade Awards”,by Arnie Katz and Bill Kunkel, pgs. 22-37, 120, Jan 1983. Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Electronic Games magazine collection
InfoWorld, “Atari: From Starting Block to Auction Block”, by Giselle Bisson, pg. 52, Aug. 6, 1984
Arcade Express, “Videogames Go to the Movies”, pg. 4, Sept 12, 1982. Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Arcade Express newsletter collection
Videogaming Illustrated, “Focus on: Sturm Und Drang”, by E.C. Meade with contributions from Jim Clark, Martin Levitan, Dale Rupert and Samuel Lawrence, pgs. 19-23, 74-75, Jul 1983. “Lou Abbagnaro, director of engineering, CBS Games: …realize that no games at that time used more than 1K of memory.” Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Videogaming Illustrated collection, Sep 17 2015.
Bushnell, Nolan. “How to Do It Your Way.” MicroKids Mar. 1984: 40-43. MicroKids – Issue 02 Volume 01 No 02 (1984-03)(Microkids Publishing)(US). Internet Archive. Web. 11 Feb. 2016.
Newsweek, “It’s All Fun and Games” Bushnell Interview, pg. 12, Aug. 18, 2003
The General Mills/Parker Brothers Merger: Playing by Different Rules, by Ellen Wojahn, pg. 126, Beard Books 2003
MetroActive News and Issues | Nolan Bushnell – www.metroactive.com/papers/metro/09.16.99/cover/bushnell2-9937.html
The Cover Project – www.thecoverproject.net/index.php
AtariAge Magazine Archive, Activisions Newsletter
El Atari 2600 celebra su 30 cumpleanos | Empresuchas – www.empresuchas.com/el-atari-2600-celebra-su-30-cumpleanos
Atari Inc. – Business Is Fun, by Marty Goldberg and Curt Vendel, pg. 384 – 385, Syzygy Press, Nov. 25 2012
The Atari History Museum- www.atarimuseum.com
Retromags – The VintageVideo Game Magazine Archive – www.retromags.com
Money for Breakfast, Fox Business Channel, 2007 Bushnell interview