It's Time to Say Goodbye to Atari, Once and for All

All the Atari name is good for anymore is nostalgia. It's time for it to go away, to spare it further indignity.

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All day Monday we saw "Atari Filing for Bankruptcy" headlines across the Web, accompanied by gushing expressions of nostalgia from anyone over the age of 30. The problem is that after nearly 41 long and arduous years, nostalgia is just about all the company is good for anymore.

I have as much of a bond with the brand as any other old fart who remembers the early days of video games. Some of my earliest gaming memories are directly attributable to Atari, and my entire career owes much to the brand. Were it not for an opportunity to scratch down some musings about an Atari ST game back in the mid-'80s, it's unlikely that I ever would have had the opportunity to be a part of the games business. Atari is in my blood. So if even my first reaction to the news was "about damn time," I think it's safe to say that we've finally reached the point where the dead horse has been whipped about as many times as it possibly can be.

Despite my fondness for the Atari ST home computer and the Jack Tramiel-era Atari Corp. years between 1984 and 1996, the last time the company we all claim to have such fond feelings for actually deserved such sentimentality was back in the early '80s. That's 30 years ago. What the hell happened?

If I were to ask for a show of hands of those of you who thought the company had already filed for bankruptcy or gone out of business before the news hit on Monday, I'm pretty certain I'd see a lot of arms in the air. Who can really keep track of the cavalcade of crap that has befallen the mighty brand over the past few decades? Let's try to summarize…

Atari's Complicated History

Founded in 1972 by Nolan Bushnell, and later sold to Warner Communications in 1976, the subsequent story of Atari is both complicated and filled with a mix of triumph and missteps. It was these earliest years, however, which yielded the majority of Atari's most beloved and important products. The most significant, of course, being Pong; the game that kicked everything off in 1972. The hand-assembled arcade units first shipped in November of that year and the home version followed in the holiday season of 1975. When it finally arrived on shelves, it amazed everyone that saw it and sold 150,000 units through Sears. After this, Bushnell began development of the Atari VCS (Video Computer System, later known as the 2600 - imaginatively named for the unit's part number), but was unable to complete development with the funds of the existing company. He sold Atari to Warner Communications for $28 million in 1976 with the promise that the project, then known as "Stella," would be completed as soon as possible.

The console eventually shipped in 1977, priced at $199 with two of the system's iconic joysticks and a copy of the genre-defining tank game Combat. It sold a relatively disappointing 250,000 units that year. The real success didn't come until 1979 when the VCS was the best-selling holiday gift in the United States, selling more than a million units that year.

1979 was also a banner year for Atari's arcade division, and for video games in general, as it saw the release of Asteroids; arguably one of the most important arcade games ever made. It also has the distinction of being Atari's most successful game of all time. It was so popular in arcades that it's said that operators had to install larger coin boxes to accommodate all of the money spent by players.

[It] amazed everyone that saw it and sold 150,000 units through Sears.
Asteroids was followed in 1981 by "tube shooter" Tempest, which was notable both for its influence on subsequent shooters, and also for the fact that it was one of the first arcade games to offer multiple difficulty levels. Originally conceived as a 3D interpretation of Space Invaders, it was changed to the style that we've all come to know and love because the original concept presented too many development issues. That same year also saw the release of Centipede, designed by Ed Logg and Dona Bailey--one of the few female game designers of the period. Like Namco's Pac-Man, which had been released the year prior, Centipede was considered unusual for the time as it had a substantial female fan base.

A couple of years after Centipede, Atari's history starts to get complicated. Bear with us here as the story breaks into two distinct (but sometimes confusing) threads, both with very similar names. It all started when Commodore founder Jack Tramiel purchased the home computer and consumer electronics division of Atari from Warner Communications in 1984. While the arcade division was going from strength to strength after the run of successes, the home market was starting to stagnate, and Tramiel saw a big opportunity.

This new hardware company was dubbed "Atari Corp," while the parts of the original company that were left were rebranded as "Atari Games" and continued making arcade games. A year later, the Atari Games group was sold to Namco, which quickly lost interest in it. After another year, Atari Games was picked up again, and by 1987 was making games for the NES under the Tengen brand name, pissing off Nintendo while it was doing so by sidestepping the lockout that prevented unauthorized third-party products. After lawsuits and other drama, the remaining parts of Atari Games were picked up by Warner Communications again in 1989, and got sucked into the ongoing Time Warner merger. A few years later, the Atari Games brand was again sold, this time to WMS Industries, which owned Williams and Bally/Midway. The company eventually morphed into Midway Games West, which now finds itself as part of Warner Interactive's portfolio.

On the other side of things, Atari Corp. threw all of its weight behind the burgeoning home computer and consumer electronics market of the time. Following the commercial disappointments that were the deeply unimaginative 2600jr and the Intellivision-bothering 5200 consoles, the new company iterated on the Atari 400 and 800 computer line (and the subsequent XL-dubbed reskins) with the XE series of 8-bit computers, and then followed this with the 16-bit ST line of machines. It also released the ill-fated 7800 console, which was crushed by Nintendo's NES in the late '80s. In 1989, the company released the technically impressive Lynx handheld, but it was gigantic and hardly something you'd slip in your back pocket; it ate batteries for breakfast and was ultimately destroyed by the Game Boy.

After an absurd lawsuit in which the company tried (and failed) to sue Nintendo for being a "monopoly" because it didn't like how much more popular than Atari Corp. the Japanese company had become, Atari Corp. released the "64-bit" Atari Jaguar in 1993 to widespread apathy. Despite the technically impressive Alien vs. Predator first-person shooter from Rebellion, the Jaguar contributed very little to gaming's rich tapestry, save for a CD-ROM add-on that made the whole thing look like a toilet.

By 1996 Tramiel had lost interest in the business, no doubt because he had been soundly beaten by both Nintendo and Sega as the market changed so dramatically in the early '90s. After a number of changes to the company, the once-mighty brand was faced with the ignominy of being merged with (now long-departed) hard disk drive manufacturer JTS.

The name fizzled out for a while, only to be picked up again in 1998 when JTS sold the Atari name to Hasbro Interactive for the paltry sum of $5 million. At Hasbro, the Atari catalog sat alongside those of Microprose and Avalon Hill and assisted the company's meteoric rise amid the dot-com boom of the time. The most notable Atari contribution? The appalling 1999 PlayStation reboot of Pong, dubbed Pong: The Next Level. GameSpot gave it a 4.5.

A year later, after a fall as spectacular as its rise, Hasbro Interactive was sold to French publisher Infogrames, which promptly changed its name to Atari because no one could ever remember how to spell or pronounce "Infogrames." After eight years of subsequent shuffling and corporate shenanigans, including the acquisition of massively multiplayer online game developer Cryptic Studios, and history repeating itself in the shape of Namco Bandai picking up a 34 percent stake of the European business, we were left with the Atari that filed for bankruptcy on January 21. Throughout this odyssey, Atari managed to publish some amount of games, but nothing approaching the iconic arcade classics of its past .

What's Left?

Arguably the most valuable thing that remains in 2012 is the Atari name itself and that iconic three-stripe logo. Licensing the name for other products, like T-shirts and merchandise, ended up accounting for 17 percent of the company's revenue, according to a story in the Los Angeles Times on Monday

If there's one thing that has been striking throughout the troubles of the past few decades, it's the hubris of all those who have come to touch the Atari brand. For a generation of gamers, the name has been synonymous with video games. The brands that it commands, such as Asteroids, Tempest, Centipede, and Pong, are an important part of our shared past, but individually none of them are powerful enough to move the needle--the catalog's significance is that of a portfolio that must stay together. The historical significance of Atari has always been both a blessing and a curse to all those who have attempted to wield it. Collectively, we tire of endless retreads of the same fundamental ideas, while we reject attempts to reimagine the core ideas and repackage these classics as something they are not. As the brand has been juggled like a hot potato over the past 30 years, its owners have each failed to really invest in expanding its portfolio beyond that of ancient history. Meanwhile, Activision--the first third-party publisher for the original Atari console--is now the largest and most powerful video games publisher in the world.

The time has come to say goodbye and to remember the classics for what they were: important parts of our shared history that should be shown due reverence. The games are far more important than the company that bore them. Let's hope the Atari brand is spared any further indignity.

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Discussion

200 comments
racerxgundam
racerxgundam

Its really interesting what happened to Atari....its rise is understandable in the context of its era...but its fall is quite perplexing when you analyze it. It had an installed base, known franchises that were popular, and a strangle hold on the arcade scene at the time. Nintendo just came up and WIPED the floor with them..even when Atari tried to out tech them. I guess the lesson here is that a system's strength in any given market is its diversity of software...third and first party publishing catapulted Nintendo over Atari simply because as more people licensed for Nintendo...different creative minds pushed the concept of "video game" further than Atari was able to do. Atari was slow to adapt to changes in software and expectations in consumers, and couldn't adapt to widening gaps in different markets..Atari really couldn't generate interest among niche groups either. All the loyalty in the world won't move consumers if you fail to address their needs and wants.

Its is funny how i definitely see a parallel with Nintendo...i hope it doesn't happen but i do see another fall in the works...

I hold no hate towards Atari though...<lights a candle> i remember scoring a 2600 and a copy of q-bert way after their cycle ended and playing the SHIT out of it! LOTS of good memories man!

RIP atari!


sykopat99
sykopat99

Atari owns the rights to Total Annihilation right?

I hope someone worthy picks that up and brings it back to life again.

MUKUSS
MUKUSS

My first console was an Atari 2600.RIP...You made me into the gamer that i'am today & I shall always have a place for you in my heart...thanks for the good times that we had :):):)

Scarshi
Scarshi

A company that died many years ago and was reburied in many locations hoping for resurrection. Finally someone has the manners to cremate.


RIP Atari.

luniac
luniac

listen atari made path of neo great game great game....

nbrady327
nbrady327

To me Atari is like one of those bands that you loved as a kid, but now going to see them is just sad, because they're all old and the magic you remember is gone. After the NES hit the scene I forgot about Atari and never had a reason to seriously look at them again, as awesome as the 2600 was for the time. Good article and summation of its plight, and though the original team deserves respect for laying the framework for the industry moving forward, I agree we should let it die peacefully. Go into the light!

maddog123
maddog123

holy crap reading this article made me feel old. I remember commercials for the jaguar, and the lynx. I remember playing combat with my dad when I was like 5 years old. Jesus, am I really almost 30?

HKILLER88888
HKILLER88888

This year started fine but we had 2 sudden death too : 1st Atari 2nd THQ!now we gonna put these two in their graves and move on...BUT we'll never Forget their glorious names!

youngzen69
youngzen69

I don't know which one is better, Atari's E.T. video game or The War Z?

LOVERPS3
LOVERPS3

goodbye ATARI > welcome PS4 & XBOX720>

jinzo9988
jinzo9988

I don't think Atari ever knew how to deal with real competition.  I'd almost be comfortable with filing the 2600 under "dumb luck".  A wonderful little box that gave me hours and hours of enjoyment as a kid, but a wonderful little box of dumb luck all the same.

VenkmanPHD
VenkmanPHD

It is about time. Almost every time I see Atari's name on something I cringe. The one SHINING exception being Ghostbusters: The Video Game.... But of course that was Activision until they dropped the ball like idiots.

Even so, thank you Atari for not letting the fine individuals who actually created the game FINISH their work.

Seriously, I couldn't be happier. Please go die Atari... and if Nintendo doesn't fix their act, I hope they are next.

Akira345
Akira345

Some things will never die and one of them is Atari, because it will live in here (heart) forever! ~ (sings) National Hymn ~ (may vary by country of residence)

jhonel83
jhonel83

As far as I'm concerned, Atari did enough good to deserve some slack from you. The fact that they had they hands in some of the best games on PC around 2000's should be reason enough. There's no reason for this slandering, let them go down keeping their chin up

jhonel83
jhonel83

Why the hatred John? This company is going down and you feel the need to kick it in the face while it's doing so?

MightyEzekiel
MightyEzekiel

They should have made Neverwinter Nights 3 :X

StarkJJ
StarkJJ

Gamespot..shitting on industry builders.

DecapitatedOrc
DecapitatedOrc

The Atari 2600 arrived in South Africa around 1979 or 1980, when I was 12. I wanted my parents to buy me one and I almost got my wish in early 1982, but the pushy salesman convinced my dad the Mattel Intellivision TV game system was a better buy, even though I wanted the Atari as it was more popular and far more games were available for it. I eventually got my own Atari, an ST, back in the late eighties, mainly just to play Dungeon Master on it! Sadly I didn't have it for very long as PCs were really taking off around that time and I eventually got my first PC (an XT with a 20mb hard drive!) in early 1989.....ah, good memories all around.....!

digitaltiger
digitaltiger

When I heard the news on monday I did mentally say wasen't Atari toast already? Ya there was some nostalgia for a few minutes, like many others Atari was my first glimps at gaming and it was cool. Although I had few games for it and the graphics were poor, for me there is a warm spot in my heart when I think back to the Atari and Nintendo NES days of my youth. Back then the world seemed like a safe and wonderful place, I miss those days very much. This feeling is whats missing in the gaming industry now, back then games were play. Now I play to escape the real world for a few hours, just like an alcohalic would.

Poodlejumper
Poodlejumper

Pointing out that the Atari brand name is only good for nostalgia is kind of like if Richard Simmons openly came out...

It's one of those things we've collectively known for YEARS.  Nobody really needed to say it because everyone knew it.  Thinking it collectively neither hurts nor helps anyone but hey I supposed it was catherdic to say.

No hate intended to anyone in saying that...but pointing out the obvious but unspoken really is just pointing out the obvious but unspoken.

Dirk_McHardpeck
Dirk_McHardpeck

One could also say that Atari is an example of the Theseus Paradox. There is nothing left of the Atari that people are revering. The employees that were there in it's heyday are long since gone and the ownership has changed hands. The only original thing left of Atari is the name and the logo.

Lach0121
Lach0121

I had a 2600, and a separate one which had a wheel controller for it. (don't remember that model of atari)

Joust, pong, tanks, pitfall, berserk, missile command to name a few.

Saketume
Saketume

I never understood why the original gameboy was such a success. Both the Lynx and the Sega Game Gear were superior in almost every way. Well except battery life. But I still don't get why anyone wanted the four shades of brown gameboy when they could have full color systems.


The Game Gear even had an attachment so you could watch TV on it.


As for not being able to put the Lynx in your backpocket... I'd like to see you do that with the org. Gameboy. Not sure why you'd want to though.


Anyway thanks for writing a proper article about Atari

max-hit
max-hit

I had one. Back in the days that consoles had a purpose. Computers where too expensive to buy and you'd be satisfied with one of these black boxes. There is no respect left for today's consoles anymore.

Wahab_MinSeo
Wahab_MinSeo

Well All Atari Games on PC i don't think it will be Good Bye just for Old Console to have a new & Unlimited numbers they won't say good bye for unlimited old consoles sells because it's Non-Stop.

nate1222
nate1222

I fondly remember the Atari 2600. My uncle and a few kids in our apartment complex owned it back in the 1980s. Frogger, Pac-Man, Joust, Demons to Diamonds...

But, by 1989, the Nintendo Entertainment System (now called "8bit NES") was the home console of choice.

I do feel that Atari published some decent games during the 6th gen. But mostly for PC. Neverwinter Nights and Chronicles of Riddick stand out.

cornbredx
cornbredx

Its actually surprising how long the name has been around. Ya people hold reverence for it, but only for the games it did, not the games it is currently making. The last big thing I can think of the Atari name being attached to was the attempt at rebooting Alone in the Dark and that game was awful.

People will always hold reverence for Atari for the shaping of the game industry it did, but there have been no games from them worth buying in decades and even their attempts at modernizing old ideas hold no sway (of course by this point it's not even really Atari, it's Infogrames or WB Interactive; only one of which says it is Atari).

So, I guess what I am saying is, Atari is a little long in the tooth and will be remembered but it's not quite as sad if it goes away as the name hasn't been able to keep up with the times and has done nothing to stay relevant. People will always look back on it fondly but they have done nothing worth investing in past that nostalgia.

wwlettsome
wwlettsome

I agree. I remember having fun with the original Atari consoles and games but Atari has really been dead for about the last 30 years or so. The fact that the brand kept popping up here and there just showed the foolishness of various businesses that thought it had any relevance. Put the zombie into the ground and leave it there.

Jedi4ce28
Jedi4ce28

Can't say I really have any fond memories of atari, when I was old enough to play games and such (around the late 80s) the nintendo had hit the scene. I remember my cousins owning an atari with a shoebox full of games and I was mostly in a meh sort of mindset. However I do have burning memories of the atari jaguar and the lynx, and at that time was old enough to recognize bullshit when I saw it. I kinda wish I knew the company in it's prime and have the fond memories I usually hear my older cousins speak of, Unfortunately I only know the years where they were the laughing stocks of the gaming industry.

bwgamer
bwgamer

Atari will be back!!!!!! (evil laughing voice)

Konuvis
Konuvis

I miss Infogrames! :)

Very good article.

Dirk_McHardpeck
Dirk_McHardpeck

You know what I remember most fondly about Atari? When you started a game you got that iconic three stripe logo and then you know what happened? The game started! Not like today's games where you put the disk in then the publisher's logo appears, then the developer's logo appears, then the company that made the engine appears, then there's some warning about seizures, then sometimes there's a ratings warning and then...OMFG start the game already! I've seen movies with fewer opening credits. Yeah, things used to be simpler. Ah memories!

ThAdEa82
ThAdEa82

Strange.. a "what should go away" article would have been better for yearly releases of copy and paste games as well as "trilogies" that go on for longer than 3 games

novak2k6
novak2k6

Still have my 2600 boxed with the greats  received for Christmas back in '81. I still remember the time we went to Sears to get it when I was 9 years old. Pac-Man was out and I got a t-shirt too. Asteriods, Moon Patrol,  Bezerk, River Raid, Dig Dug, Defender, Missile Command, and so on.. pure sweetness!!

VolcanoMan001
VolcanoMan001

You would think that the mobile app type games would be a perfect opportunity for Atari to profit again -- releasing compilation packs of old Atari 2600/5200 games. But NOO, they don't seem to know what they are doing over there.

Derugs
Derugs

Ohh my!  Who dug this one up from the cemetery?  

PixelHunter
PixelHunter

Does anyone else remember seeing the Atari logos in the movie Blade Runner? I guess that vision of the future will never happen.

sieg6529
sieg6529

Oddly enough, I completely missed the Atari systems.  I played the Magnavox Odyssey when I was pre-school age, and then spent a lot of time playing DOS games, and then I got the NES.  Sure, I played plenty of Atari games on other consoles, but the system itself just never made it into my house.

FlashCharge
FlashCharge

My first console and pong what an amazing experience. Still have the system resting in its box high above on a shelf. Thanks Atari for the family memories. We still talk about our early days of gaming and yes Sears was where we purchased it.

jwhdavison
jwhdavison staff

@StarkJJ curious what that comment is based upon, other than just the headline. The piece calls for important parts of our shared history to be shown due reverence, and gives an account of how such an important brand undermined itself over the years

Jedi4ce28
Jedi4ce28

@max-hit  dude, when you look at companies like Sega and the years when they released turn after turd onto the market, why exactly would that deserve respect? Or any other company that released half thought out bullshit and attempted to snatch hard earned money?

widdowson91
widdowson91

@PixelHunter Blade Runner has acted as a curse for many companies, as a lot of them featured as prominent businesses in the film no longer exist today.

Zanoh
Zanoh

@Scarshi @maddog123 

I'm nearing my thirties, and I can sympathise. My first two consoles were an Atari 2600 and NES.

max-hit
max-hit

@Jedi4ce28 @max-hit Buying a computer was not an option for anyone depending on where he'd live and his economical condition. But you could buy one of these for a fare price and play games on it. The games and computers however, have changed and the same thing can't be said today.