Do you remember playing Atari as a kid? Whether it was on the classic wood-paneled console or a later model, Atari was likely a formative part of your childhood gaming experience. Atari has such an interesting history, from its beginnings in the 70s to its massive popularity in the 80s to its decline and recent resurgence.Atari started as a pioneer in the video game industry, releasing the first commercially successful video game console and going on to dominate the market. They were behind so many iconic games like Asteroids, Centipede, and of course the infamous E.T. game. Atari shaped gaming as we know it today. Though the company went through ups and downs over decades, Atari remains an integral part of video game history and nostalgia. This is the story of Atari, from its founding by Nolan Bushnell to how it shaped video game culture to where Atari exists today. Strap in, it's going to be an wild ride through gaming history.
The Founding of Atari in 1972When you think of pioneering video game companies, Atari should be at the top of the list. Atari was founded in 1972 by Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney, and it really helped launch the video game industry.
Bushnell had the vision for an arcade-style ping pong game, and he hired engineer Al Alcorn to build it. The result was Pong, one of the first commercially successful video games. Pong was a hit, and Atari went on to produce numerous iconic arcade games like Asteroids, Centipede, and Missile Command.
- In 1977, Atari released its first home gaming console, the Atari 2600. The 2600 popularized the idea of interchangeable game cartridges and brought arcade-quality gaming into living rooms. It went on to become one of the most popular consoles of all time.
Though Atari isn't the video game giant it once was, its role in pioneering the gaming industry and popularizing it in mainstream culture cement its status as an icon. Atari brought arcade action into homes, introduced innovative hardware and control designs, and produced some of the most memorable games of the 70s and 80s. For those coming of age during that era, Atari will always evoke nostalgia for the early days of gaming.
Atari's First Big Hit: Pong
Back in the early 70s, Atari was just getting started. Their first major hit? Pong. If you grew up during that era, you probably spent hours in front of the TV, gripping that paddle controller, batting the digital ball back and forth.
Pong was one of the first arcade and home console games that really captured mainstream attention. Atari initially released it as an arcade game, but its huge success led to the creation of their very first gaming console: the Atari 2600. When the 2600 launched in 1977, it included a home version of Pong that people could play right on their televisions.
The simple yet addictive gameplay of Pong is what made it such a massive hit. Using your paddle, you'd hit a square 'ball' back and forth across the screen, trying to outmaneuver your opponent. The basic yet effective graphics were unlike anything most people had experienced before at the time. While primitive by today's standards, Pong demonstrated the huge potential of video games as a source of entertainment.
Atari ended up selling tens of thousands of Pong arcade machines and millions of 2600 consoles. The milestone success of Pong marked the beginning of the commercial video game industry and propelled Atari to become a pioneer in the market. Although Pong is incredibly basic compared to modern games, its place in history as one of the most important and influential video games of all time is well deserved. Without Pong, who knows how different the gaming world would look today.
The Atari 2600 Video Computer System
The Atari 2600, released in 1977, popularized home video gaming and helped launch the video game industry. Atari's console made gaming accessible to the masses, allowing people to play arcade-quality games in the comfort of their living rooms.
Ahead of Its TimeThe Atari 2600 was a breakthrough system. Atari's co-founder Nolan Bushnell helped pioneer the video game industry with the launch of Pong in 1972, but the 2600 took gaming to the next level. It could play different games by swapping out interchangeable cartridges. The 2600 had an 8-bit MOS Technology 6507 processor and 128 bytes of RAM, which was advanced for its time. Atari continued improving the specs, releasing the 2600 Jr. model with an updated MOS 6502 processor in 1982.
Popular and Influential GamesThe Atari 2600 was home to some of the most popular and influential games of the era. Titles like Space Invaders, Asteroids, and Centipede helped popularize the shooter genre. Adventure, released in 1980, was one of the first action-adventure games and helped establish many of the conventions of the genre. Pac-Man, released in 1982, was the best-selling Atari 2600 game, with over 7 million copies sold. These games demonstrated the potential of home consoles and helped fuel the video game boom of the early 1980s.
The Crash and LegacyThough the North American video game crash of 1983 badly hurt Atari and the gaming industry, the Atari 2600's impact was immense. It brought gaming into the mainstream and introduced many people to the joys of playing and creating games. The console pioneered new genres, gameplay concepts, and business models in gaming that shaped the industry for decades. Though its time was short, the Atari 2600 helped launch a revolution.
Atari in the Early 80s: More Hits and Growing CompetitionAtari started the 1980s strong, releasing sequels to some of their most popular games. Asteroids Deluxe and Missile Command were hits, but competition from other companies was growing. Atari's biggest rivals were Activision, formed by former Atari developers, and Intellivision by Mattel.
The 2600's DominanceAtari's 2600 console was still the clear leader in the early 80s. They sold over 30 million 2600s between 1980 to 1982, capturing 65% of the home console market. Atari's game catalog for the 2600 grew to over 100 titles, including E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial in 1982.
The Crash of 1983Unfortunately, Atari's success led to some poor decisions. They overproduced copies of E.T. and other subpar games, resulting in a crash of the entire video game market in 1983. This "crash" was caused by a lack of quality control and too many consoles and games being produced.
Rebuilding and CompetitionIn 1984, Atari began to rebuild under new ownership. They released the 7800 ProSystem, a more advanced console to replace the aging 2600. The 7800 could have given Nintendo's Famicom (NES) a run for its money, but Atari failed to produce many strong titles for it. Meanwhile, Nintendo launched the NES in 1985, dominating the console market Atari once ruled.
Sega also entered the fray, releasing their Master System console to compete with the NES and 7800. Atari found itself struggling to keep up as strong competition and past mistakes made the 80s challenging. Still, for those who grew up with an Atari 2600 in the early 80s, the nostalgia for those simple games lives on. Atari and their classic titles from this era paved the way for modern gaming.
The Atari 5200 SuperSystem: A Bold Move
In 1982, Atari released the Atari 5200 SuperSystem, a second-generation console to replace their successful Atari 2600. The 5200 was a bold move by Atari to establish themselves as the leader in the home gaming market.
A Powerful New SystemThe 5200 was more advanced than the 2600 in every way. It featured better graphics with an analog joystick, greater memory, and higher resolution. The 5200 could produce more colors, larger sprites, and even simple 3D effects. It was compatible with the 2600, allowing gamers to play their existing cartridges. Atari hoped these major improvements would give them an edge over competitors like ColecoVision.
A Rocky StartHowever, the initial launch of the 5200 was plagued with problems. The first systems overheated frequently. The controllers were criticized as uncomfortable and unreliable. There were few games available and some lacked quality. These issues hurt initial sales and reviews.
Course CorrectionAtari quickly made revisions to fix the overheating issue and released an improved controller. They ramped up game development, releasing popular arcade titles like Centipede, Dig Dug, and Missile Command. Additional sports, racing and space combat games helped build the library. In 1983, Atari lowered the price and saw sales start to rebound.
The End of an EraThough the 5200 recovered and sold over 1 million units, it never achieved the success of the 2600. The video game crash of 1983 badly hurt Atari and the entire gaming industry. By 1984, the 5200 was discontinued after a short 2-year run. Despite its rocky start and untimely end, the Atari 5200 advanced console technology and represented an important part of early gaming history. Its legacy lives on today with nostalgic gamers and collectors.
The Atari 7800 ProSystem: A Comeback Attempt
Atari's first comeback attempt was the Atari 7800 ProSystem console, released in 1986. After the massive flop of the Atari 5200 SuperSystem, Atari redesigned their strategy.
A Focus on Backwards CompatibilityThe 7800 was fully backwards compatible with the Atari 2600, allowing gamers to enjoy both new 7800 titles as well as the entire library of 2600 games. Atari hoped this would bring loyal fans back to the brand.
Updated SpecsThe 7800 featured improved specs over the aging 2600, with an 8-bit CPU, increased memory and resolution, and support for more on-screen colors. While not as powerful as competitors like the Nintendo Entertainment System, the 7800 was a solid step up for Atari and made ports of popular arcade games possible.
Strong Launch LineupAtari came out swinging with ports of popular arcade titles like Galaga, Dig Dug, and Pole Position II available at launch. They also released 7800-exclusive sequels to hits like Centipede (Millipede) and Asteroids (Asteroids Deluxe). For retro fans, the ability to play enhanced versions of classic games was appealing.
A Fatal MistakeHowever, Atari made a critical mistake in limiting distribution of the 7800 to only select retailers like Kmart and Sears. This made the console difficult for gamers to find and prevented it from gaining momentum. Atari failed to get the 7800 on shelves during the crucial 1986 holiday season, allowing the NES to dominate.
By 1987, the 7800 was discontinued without reaching its full potential. Despite some good ideas, poor management and distribution were ultimately responsible for its downfall. The 7800 serves as an example of how Atari's disorganization and instability in the mid-80s led to missed opportunities and the loss of their leadership in the industry they helped create.
The Rise and Fall of Atari Games Corporation
Atari was the pioneer of the video game industry, but their success was short-lived. Atari Inc. helped popularize video games in the 1970s with their Atari 2600 console and arcade hits like Pong and Asteroids. However, their later years were marked by poor management decisions and a crash in the video game market.
The Golden Age (1972-1983)In the 1970s, Atari became a cultural phenomenon. Their Atari 2600 console, released in 1977, went on to sell over 30 million units. Atari also dominated the arcade scene with wildly popular games like Pong, Space Invaders, Asteroids, and Centipede. For a while, Atari was the fastest growing company in US history and helped launch the era of video game popularity.
The Crash (1983-1984)Atari got too ambitious and released the Atari 5200 console and Atari 7800, even though the 2600 was still popular. They also licensed too many mediocre games, flooding the market. Interest in Atari consoles and games declined rapidly. "The Crash of 1983" led to billions in losses and signaled the end of Atari's golden age.
Attempted Comebacks (1985-1996)Atari made several attempts to regain their footing. They released updated versions of the 2600 and 7800, but Nintendo's NES dominated the market. Atari then shifted focus to developing games for PCs, releasing hits like Gauntlet and Paperboy. However, competition from PC makers like IBM made it difficult for Atari to stay competitive.
The End of Atari Inc. (1996)After losing over $500 million in the mid-1990s, Atari was sold to JTS Corp in 1996. The Atari brand and properties were eventually sold to Hasbro Interactive, then Infogrames Entertainment. Though Atari lives on today, the original Atari Inc. that pioneered the video game revolution had faded into history.
Atari helped launch the video game industry, but poor business decisions and tough competition ultimately led to their downfall. Though their time at the top was brief, Atari's impact on popular culture and entertainment will not be forgotten. Their iconic games and consoles paved the way for modern video gaming as we know it.
Hasbro Resurrects the Atari Brand in the 90sIn the 90s, Atari was little more than a forgotten brand from the early days of video games. That is, until Hasbro acquired the Atari properties in 1998 with plans to resurrect the brand.
Re-releasing ClassicsHasbro's first move was re-releasing classic Atari 2600 games for the nostalgic fans. Titles like Asteroids, Missile Command, Centipede, and Pong were ported to modern consoles, handhelds and PC, giving gamers who grew up in the 70s and 80s a chance to relive the past. For younger players, it introduced them to the simple yet addictive games that started the video game revolution.
Reviving Atari as a Hardware BrandHasbro then set its sights on reviving Atari as a hardware brand. In 1993, Atari released the Atari Jaguar, the first 64-bit console, but it was a commercial failure. Hasbro tried again in 2000 with the Atari Flashback, a plug-and-play console preloaded with classic Atari 2600 games. It was a hit, selling over a million units. Several new Flashback versions have since been released with more games and features.
Rebooting Atari ClassicsThe early 2000s saw several Atari classics reimagined for modern platforms. Titles like Pong: The Next Level, Asteroids: Hyper 64 and Centipede: Infestation offered new takes on old favorites with 3D graphics, power-ups and online play. While reviews were mixed, they showed Atari's properties could work in today's gaming world.
Keeping Atari RelevantThrough re-releases, remakes and reboots, Hasbro has kept the Atari brand alive and relevant. Atari's simple yet challenging games from the 70s and 80s have enduring appeal, tapping into nostalgia for older players while attracting younger players with their pick-up-and-play arcade action. By resurrecting the brand for the modern era, Hasbro ensured that Atari's place in video game history will live on for generations to come.
FAQs: Your Questions About Atari AnsweredAtari has such a long and storied history, it's no wonder you have questions! Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about Atari answered.
When was Atari founded and by whom?Atari was founded in 1972 by Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney. Bushnell was an electrical engineer who had previously worked at Ampex and Dabney was a computer engineer who had worked with Bushnell at Ampex. They founded Atari to create and market the first commercially available video game, Computer Space.
What was Atari's first big hit?Atari's first major success was Pong, one of the earliest arcade video games. Released in 1972, Pong was a simple tennis-like game that helped launch the video game industry. It was a massive hit and led Atari to become a pioneer in the video game market.
What was the Atari 2600?The Atari 2600, released in 1977, was Atari's first successful home video game console. It helped bring video games into millions of homes and popularized the use of interchangeable game cartridges. The Atari 2600 included popular games like Asteroids, Centipede, and Pitfall. Over 30 million Atari 2600s were sold, cementing its status as an icon of the early home video game era.
What led to Atari's decline?A few factors led to Atari's decline in the 1980s:
- Competition from other consoles like the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) eroded Atari's market share. The NES offered higher quality graphics and games than the aging Atari 2600.
- Poor management and business decisions. Atari made some ill-advised acquisitions and failed to keep up with innovations in the gaming industry.
- The 1983 video game crash. A glut of low-quality games for the Atari 2600 led to a crash in the U.S. video game market that impacted Atari's profits and popularity.
- Internal conflicts and power struggles. Infighting between Atari's corporate owners Warner Communications and the game developers led to the departure of key talent.
Atari pioneered video gaming and introduced the world to some of the most iconic games and consoles. Though their time at the top was brief, Atari's impact on technology and pop culture was huge. Their story is a cautionary tale of how even the biggest companies can crash and burn if they lose their innovative spirit and connection with customers. But Atari also lives on through the nostalgia of those who grew up with their classic games and systems. The company may be long gone, but Pong, Asteroids and Centipede will live on forever. Atari shaped the world we live in today and inspired generations to push the boundaries of technology and gaming. Not too shabby for a little company that started out of a garage in Sunnyvale.