Reality Check: Atari Did It First

Present-day console makers could learn a thing or two from the past.

While details at this point are scarce, it seems like a foregone conclusion that Nintendo's new console will follow in the Wii's footsteps in one crucial area: It will attempt to offer rich single-player content for "core" gamers while building on the soccer-moms-and-seniors markets that Nintendo tapped into with the Wii. Of course, with only a few strong single-player experiences this far into its life span, it seems the Wii is destined to be remembered as a console that succeeded in reaching those elusive markets that fall outside the demographic of core gamers, but in so doing, it has largely left the company's longtime fans in the cold. Given the disappointment of the Wii, it may seem that you can't have it both ways; a console needs to either focus on family fun or on core games and not spread itself too thin by trying to be all things to all people. But this isn't the case at all. Atari had this figured out in the earliest days of consoles, with the Atari 2600.

Atari's marketing for the 2600 was multifaceted. There were numerous commercials that showed the 2600 bridging age and gender gaps, where a kid would either be enjoying Berzerk with his grandma or entire families would be crowded around the console, cheering each other on in rousing four-player contests. These ads helped foster the perception that games were for everyone: men and women, young and old. And, at least in my experience, that's how people saw games at the time. My parents and grandparents--and the parents and grandparents of many of my friends--were no strangers to the Atari 2600's Warlords, and other exciting multiplayer games brought people together for a shared experience that everyone could enjoy.

The Atari 2600 was designed with experiences like this in mind, supporting four controllers without the need for a peripheral. For all their technical advancements, many later consoles represented a step backward in this area because they only supported two controllers out of the box. At the same time, Atari produced epic and bizarre commercials for games like Centipede and Dig Dug that appealed to those who wanted to spend hours alone in front of the television, joystick in hand while gunning for high scores. Thus, the 2600 was seen as a console that truly offered something for everyone.

But it didn't last. The video game crash of 1983 swallowed the industry whole. Then, after years of gloom and despair, a champion emerged and resurrected the fallen industry of games to make it bigger and better than ever. That champion's name was Nintendo. But in reviving the video game industry, Nintendo focused not on experiences that united families and friends, but on single-player experiences. The more powerful hardware of the NES allowed for the creation of cohesive worlds like those of Super Mario Bros., Metroid, and The Legend of Zelda. And in the marketing of those games, Nintendo portrayed epic adventures not as the kinds of experiences that could transcend age and gender, but as the domain of young boys.

Words of wisdom.

In the famous Zelda rap commercial, a nerd and a jock are united in their enthusiasm for the game and proceed to bust out some sweet rhymes ("It's The Legend of Zelda, and it's really rad! Those creatures from Ganon are pretty bad!"). The message that ads like this sent was simple: Video games are for boys. Not for girls. And parents? Parents couldn't appreciate awesome games any more than they could appreciate awesome breakfast cereal. Games were no longer for the entire family as they had been during the Atari age.

In recent years, the company that, more than any other, is responsible for shaping this perception of games in the first place has done a great deal to try to shatter it. Nintendo has put a lot of muscle into marketing the DS to women and into making the Wii an attractive purchase for moms and seniors. During its Electronic Entertainment Expo press conferences, Nintendo's Reggie Fils-Aime has often touched on the company's efforts to broaden the market and to bring in more gamers from outside the core, as if there's some secret to making this happen. But in many ways, Atari had it figured out from the beginning. The biggest obstacle now to making games universal is the perception that games aren't universal, which was fostered by Nintendo and the companies that followed its example for many years.

It takes time to break down a preconception that's been strongly reinforced for so long. Slowly, we're moving back to that place where we see that games are not exclusively any one group's domain. The difference is that, unlike in the Atari era, when the notion of all sorts of people coming together to share games was often the reality, what we have now are a number of disparate groups of gamers, with very little crossover between them. And let's be honest: Many of us who have been playing games for a long time look down on the efforts of Nintendo and other companies to break into largely untapped markets, as if the games and peripherals that result from those efforts could spell the end of gaming as we know it.

But that's just not going to happen. Games that appeal to the core are doing better business now than ever before. Call of Duty: Black Ops is the best-selling game of all time in the United States. We should be thankful that designers are working hard to broaden the video game market. The fewer types of gamers developers design for, the fewer types of games we get to see. And surely, even the most enthusiastic fan of military shooters doesn't want to live in a world where every game is a military shooter. Sure, there are a lot of really bad games targeted at young girls, players of social-networking games, and other groups, which is unfortunate because all kinds of players deserve compelling games.

But because of efforts to pull in people who haven't historically played games, we also have great stuff like Plants vs. Zombies, which just about everyone, from shooter fans and grandparents to grandparents who love shooters, can have a great time playing. Here's hoping that Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony all make stronger and stronger efforts to pull in those who, for decades now, have felt that games had little to offer them. There's no reason this can't be done while continuing to provide bigger and better experiences for core gamers. If this trend continues, we may approach the best of both worlds; a place where those who want them have the rewarding single-player experiences they crave and where there are games so universally appealing and fun that we'll be begging grandma to grab a controller and huddle around the TV with us. We'll be gaming like it's 1982.

Reality Check is GameSpot's recurring editorial column. Each week, members of the GameSpot editorial team sound off on current gaming events as well as various topics that surround the gaming industry.
Reality Check: No Country for Mortal Kombat
Reality Check: Duke Nukem Forever Isn't Sexist
Reality Check: 3DS vs. IOS

Got a news tip or want to contact us directly? Email news@gamespot.com

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80 comments
fightclubdoll
fightclubdoll

My first console was The Odyssey 2, but there was also the arcade influencing me in equal measure. From those I moved on to PC gaming and my Sega Genesis. I skipped some of the normal stepping stones along the way, like Nintendo and Atari. By the millenium, I moved onto Playstation and renewed my PC gaming pursuits, but my Playstation was stolen and I upgraded to a laptop only to discover that it eventually couldn't keep up with the demands of newer games. So one day I picked up my first Xbox, and gaming finally felt every bit as amazing as it had with my favorite games, but it felt that way far more often. And though there is a Wii, covered with dust behind the TV, and I did briefly own a used PS2 (which I traded in toward my 360),  I'd trace a direct line from my Xbox to my Xbox 360 and say that Microsoft's consoles have had the strongest influence over my gaming overall. The Xbox and Xbox 360 delivered the overwhelming majority of games I've played (of many hundreds in all) and I love them for it. True, I have missed out on some Playstation and PC exclusives, though I do play a bit on Steam and my newest laptop. I'm not into mobile gaming, but I won't rule it out. My favorite way to play is with a standard controller and a big television. I have to consider myself, more than anything, to be an Xbox gamer. 

But I really enjoyed your story... My own nostalgia is more of a mosaic of individual games, but I still get what you mean.

Roddimus09
Roddimus09

It seems that many of you missed the point or power-read through the article. Now that I am done ranting however, I loved this piece. Good job. You are absolutely correct that Nintendo has alienated part of its core gamer to amass the untapped markets, it was a crucial and genius strategy considering they had been lagging with the previous two generations of home consoles. One of the things that industry critics had lobbied against the Big N was that it had too much control over third-party developers. With the Wii quality control went unchecked and these vultures swarmed the system with shoddy shovelware, that I believe is what many people have begun to realize finally. The Wii is an incredibly innovative platform with a good library of games for core and casual players but has been overshadowed by the glut of me-too cash-in publishers that eroded the joy of motion gaming and have converted the platform to a non-stop argument on these forums. The point is that while I agree that there is room for every type of player, Nintendo did indeed follow Atari's business model and incorporate ads with family situations, but in turn it also followed the flawed business model of leaving quality control from third-parties unchecked. Nintendo, realize that these companies do not have your long-term best interests in mind.

ThePurpleBubble
ThePurpleBubble

@aerialstrike You're mixing up gamers and hipsters... Admittedly, I didn't start playing before video games were cool - I was born in the final years of the SNES, but I was practically born with a controller in my hands... Halo, Call of Duty... All fine and dandy. People love them, people hate them... I'm indifferent, personally. (If it says anything, I traded in Black Ops to buy Brink.) My view of the word "gamer" is an interesting one - play Final Fantasy? You're an RPG gamer. Play Legend of Zelda? You're an adventure gamer. Play Farmville? You're a time-waster-gamer. Play Call of Duty? You're a mainstream gamer. A game is a game, just like music is music... If you listen to Chevelle, chances are pretty good you don't wake up in the morning, bursting with excitement, because your radio woke you up with that new Miley Cyrus song. Likewise, if you're one of Justin Beiber's slave-puppet-girls (you probably aren't on this site for one thing) you will shriek in agony if you hear so much as the intro for Down with the Sickness. Do I like the way the industry is going? No, not really... Not much you can do to avoid it, though. The problem is, people are all out to make a quick buck... Casual games sell easily, it turns out.

nocoolnamejim
nocoolnamejim moderator

"The fewer types of gamers developers design for, the fewer types of games we get to see. And surely, even the most enthusiastic fan of military shooters doesn't want to live in a world where every game is a military shooter. " This isn't what makes certain groups of gamers angry. What makes them angry is when they feel they're being abandoned completely. Gamers like myself feel like the entire industry is slowly moving away from them. You see this with companies like Atari putting out statements that they are going to abandon their traditional audiences to focus on casual gamers. You see this with statements like those of Mike Laidlaw of Bioware clearly delineating a desire to move away from the core RPG fanbase with Dragon Age 2. So no, I can't really celebrate the broadening of the industry because I do think if current trends persist, it will end up with an industry where I'll get far LESS games that appeal to me rather than more. A good template for this is the movie industry where every other movie released these days seems to either be 1) Action thriller or 2) Romantic comedy with nothing inbetween. Dragon Age Origins has vastly outsold DA2 so far. That shouldn't happen for a sequel that had a ton of preorders already banked. It only happens when a company has gone too far in the opposite direction. Here's hoping that Nintendo, MS and Sony will do the exact opposite of what this article hopes for and remember who brought them to the dance in the first place.

roleplayer2004
roleplayer2004

The new generation of consoles are screaming for another Final Fantasy VII and Ocarina of Time. There's no excitement any more in gaming.

julianozuca
julianozuca

Nice read. Another thing I would point here is that the growing complexity of game controls were also responsible for setting "core" gamers apart from "casual" ones--even before those terms exist. :P I clearly remember my father (who was a 2600 addicted) having a tough time to adapt himself to NES games because of the 4-button, d-pad controller... Even I was scared by the huge amount of buttons when the N64 was released--after three generations of game consoles in my background! Motion controls can narrow the gap again but they're just terrible when they're only gimmicky. We'll see what's waiting for us...

Agelu
Agelu

Hmm... it's hard indeed to imagine segmentless gaming

Rafandrews
Rafandrews

@aerialstrike Oh, please! So what you're saying is that if you were born post 1990 you are not a gamer? Your logic makes so much sense. I've been gaming for as far as I can remember and I'm only 17. I grew up with a SNES got all of nintendo's consoles after it and today own all three current gen consoles. Granted, I do play Modern Warfare 2 and Halo Reach, but so what? They are far from my favorite games. Also would you specify when gaming became cool and normal? I estimated it was in the 90s but it's somewhat hard to answer back at you if you don't specify ;)

jdog8888888
jdog8888888

Nintendo was impressive with its hardware sales. Also the era of Guitar Hero, a very attractive crossover game that brought in gamers and non gamers. As rhythm games have dwindled, almost exactly has Nintendo's hardware dominance. There needs to be easy concept games that are naturally fun to play, whatever that takes.

digi-demon
digi-demon

Agree... as in the Wii & 2600 are both plagued by cheap and nasty 3rd party titles

digi-demon
digi-demon

Agree... as in the Wii & 2600 are both plagued by cheap and nasty 3rd party titles

aerialstrike
aerialstrike

some people now consider themselves gamers cause they play modern warfare or halo with the homies and have their own kick ass clan... shut the f*** up! those games are good actually but nowadays its cool to be called a gamer because you play a game that everyone talks about, from your 6 year old niece to your century old grandmother. im sorry but the only people i consider as gamers are the nerds and the ones that fell in love with video games long before it was considered cool and normal.

Wormkid_64
Wormkid_64

I don't get this article. I realize gaming has generally been marketed to young males,but Nintendo is the only company to have really tried to market outside of that domain.Their commercials today depict all kinds of people playing all kinds of games.Sony comes next in terms of variety,with a good selection of games anyone can enjoy.If anyone needs to work on diversifying,it's MS.I've seen it written,heard it said,and seen it in action that MS markets primarily to 30 to 40 something males,as well as 13-20 something males who think they are 30-40 something.Lot's of "serious" and "tough and gritty" games.Lighten up MS.Some of us don't want another shooter.

Metroidfire
Metroidfire

I first heard about the atari 2600 5200 and the 7800 from the angry video game nerd

chinchillables2
chinchillables2

Classic!Nothing beats PC though. My old 386pc was the bomb... I remember playing Bard's Tale II & the TSR RPGs on it... Oh and King's Quest... and Leisure Suit Larry... etc. etc.

GravyCrazy
GravyCrazy

I had a 360, and I also play on a gaming PC. The only reason I would get a Wii is if my girlfriend wanted it, and even then it probably wouldn't get played much. I'm glad the Wii has existed because like the article says, there needs to be games for everybody. I for one have greatly benefited from the change in opinion about games because now that most people play games I am not seen as weird for being a gamer. Now my habits are considered normal by my peers which is different from when I was younger in the days of n64 and Game Cube.

BFKZ
BFKZ

i think xbox360 and ps3 need more purely single player games, instead of trying to ram online multiplayer into every single game...i think thats why i like the WII...

Dualmask
Dualmask

@Skullcandy It's called personal preference. You prefer to play games on 360 and PS3 (despite the fact that so many games are released on both) and disregard the Wii. That's cool. Lots of other gamers prefer to play games on Wii, like FlameBeast4000 who has found plenty of single-player Wii games to fulfill his interest. (I admit that I have found the library somewhat lacking in that regard but that's just me). There's nothing wrong with either opinion.

Skullcandy
Skullcandy

"The Wii has just as much to offer to any real gamer as either of its competitors." That must be why I own a 360 and PS3 and still have no desire to purchase a Wii. Now it all makes sense....

FlameBeast4000
FlameBeast4000

There's one problem with this article. There are many more than a "few strong single-player experiences" on the Wii. The Wii has just as much to offer to any real gamer as either of its competitors.

halosqrrl
halosqrrl

great article i could not agree more

Megasus_
Megasus_

Nintendo has been ridiculous since late in the n64's life. Since then, the general quality of their games has not gone down, but the real value of the systems they make, down the drain. Nintendo is great at making fun games, and now they should focus on making fun yet WORTHWHILE consoles, not just a cash cow they can milk for another 8 years.

parrot_of_adun
parrot_of_adun

@mrboone01 Uh... No, Infogrames didn't fail they just renamed themselves (and isn't a developer), the development house they bought [original Atari] is still a genuine developer, and not Infogrames. New Atari just owns old Atari, but both still exist in the same way they did previously.

drjones96
drjones96

I remember my parents (who are not technology savvy) playing games with me on NES back in the day...or sitting and watching me play games at least. It seems like N has always tried to be family oriented. Whereas PS and XBox have been more targeted toward pure gamers. They can be all things to all people....they just need to build a box that is capable. Be able to play CoD or cutesy Mario games.....we're already doing it but the graphics just need to be up to snuff with the competition!

Pierce_Sparrow
Pierce_Sparrow

Still, the original NES was an equal opportunity gamer, and there was something for everyone, both core gamers and casual gamers had games to enjoy, and enjoy they did. Yes Nintendo marketed to males mostly because they were the majority of the audience, much in the same way professional sports still appeal majorly to males. However, plenty of girls, and even parents, played games as well, as I had grown up with this in the 80's when I was playing the NES. Nintendo's major problem has always been it's attempt to appeal to strictly one audience or another. This was almost unavoidable back in the 16 bit days with increased technology demanding a drive for more mature gaming, which would inevitably drive away casual gamers. But there's not excuse now. Gaming has become available for everyone, with mass appeals for all. Certainly the core community will always drive the gaming market, since they are the ones who shell out cash for every COD game that comes along, but nearly everyone I know right now has participated in some way in gaming. It's not going to be universally accpted, of course, but the majority of people have. Now it's time for the companies to meet the demand and cater to both audiences. There's no reason to pick and choose. Nintendo needs to learn this for their next console and deliver another Resident Evil 4. Let's not forget that Gamecube was once the proud, sole owner of this game....2/2

Pierce_Sparrow
Pierce_Sparrow

While I agree with some things, the majority of it I have a hard time with. Gaming is no longer a fringe hobby. It's a globaly accepted form of entertainment, even if it isn't something done by everyone. Nonetheless, nearly everyone will get a controller in their hands at some point. That's, obviously, exaggerated, but the point stands. When Atari made their debut, and there was all this family gathering, there was no core gamer. The industry hadn't been around long enough. It was an amusement attraction. Certainly, we saw the beginning's of an industry, but Nintendo is where core gaming began. Atari offered amusement games, and much like a carnival, they weren't for everyone, but everyone could enjoy the. Nintendo offered the same thing, but with a much deeper experience that divided the audience further. Those who didn't want to engage in epic quests or long challenges didn't. But there was an audience that did.... 1/2

Emerald_Warrior
Emerald_Warrior

[This message was deleted at the request of a moderator or administrator]

bLaiseC
bLaiseC

@mariokart64fan Your writing hurt my brain. I really would like to see Nintendo come back and do something good. Since the NES, SNES, and 64, nothing of theirs has made me want to be a customer.

mariokart64fan
mariokart64fan

miles is right on target , and you know why microsoft andsony should have left nintendos market alone,heres exactly why 1 they release cafe nothings on the market -easy successs for 3 yrs possibly getting presure after the 720 ps4 come in at expensive prices, then nintnedo comes right back at themin the heart , if the cafe does what it said itdoes (use 3ds as indication but drop the friend codes for online) andit will attract core again, just like anything all nintendo needs to do with this one is secure exclusivity with games like gtav-rumored , and then dlc and so on , then wait for ms and sony to fall into the trap their already half way there by releasing kenict and move , once 3rd party acknoledge nintendo with cafe , they will jump to it, after all some say they need more power cafe will have slightly more power probably enough for devs to jump on and tada ,ps4 comes and 720 comesat 600 a pop , no ones gonna drop 600 on somthing -see ps3 , nintnedo will be on their heels even with wii2 already sold millions thiswill spell doom for sony and ms if 1 they dontdrop xboxl ive prices to 0 2 they run power game

milesthewarrior
milesthewarrior

The wii was a massive success that no one ever thought would work, Just like the NES and DS before it. All of these systems made a user base that was never there before. Nintendo does try to be everything to everyone, while this isn't possible many people still are faithful nintendo fans. Though I consider myself a core gamer from the 90's, I like many causal games that have popped up lately. What I'm saying is, leave nintendo alone!

Braz_the_Mad
Braz_the_Mad

@Dualmask I think that the age of glossy graphics is close to being over. There are a lot of really expensive projects that are total failures for whatever reason, while some of the most popular and profitable games are coming from out of nowhere. I mean, Portal was a fracking HL2 mod, and now I see about 10 billboards for Portal 2 on my way to work in the morning.

Braz_the_Mad
Braz_the_Mad

@Magnificent_1 that is an absurd overstatement. I'm as nostalgic for the glory days of NES and sNES as the next 1980s born nerd, but to say that Nintendo is the be-all and end-all is ridiculous. The whole point of that article was that peoples tastes are disparate, and that there isn't a "best" anything. Rather, all game genres are matters of personal taste.

Magnificent_1
Magnificent_1

Atari was a monopoly before Nintendo, and it vanished after the NES came out. Who says Wii is dissapointing? It appeals to soccer moms, and everyone else. These haters need to get their facts straight, the reality check is that they are tired of Nintendo being the best and want Sony or Microsoft to be on top. There is no such thing as a Nintendo fanboy, only those who arent afraid of their roots in a qualitative-not quantitavtive gaming experience.

calvinsora
calvinsora

Wii a disappointment? Really, SMG2 is enough to make me feel completely satisfied with it as a system, and it has a lot of great single-player experiences, albeit almost all of them are first party. Also, that being said, I think it's rather silly to actually categorize shelved games as casual. Any game, whether it be Wii Sports or any CoD, can be played in a way that is "hardcore" in that definition. Actually, to me, CoD is more of a casual series than many other games, seeing how I know some people that are only interested in that series and no other games. "Hardcore" gamers are way too quick to judge a system, game or series for being casual. They should just stick to what interests them and stop complaining, there are more than enough games to go around.

Dualmask
Dualmask

Why do gaming journalists always point to Black Ops' success as proof that the industry is supposedly healthy and that "hardcore" gaming is where it's at? While Activision is celebrating the success of that game, so many other game studios are crying broke, or at the very least producing games that don't sell. It is true that there aren't a great many good single player Wii adventure games out there (they don't seem to want to come to the US even though the US is where the Wii sold best), but everything on the HD consoles starts to feel the same. I found deeper experiences on PSP than I ever did on any of the three current consoles. I would hate for the three systems to continue on the path they've been on. It's time to stop worrying about graphics and storage space and worry more about making more creative, engaging gameplay experiences. Less people are interested in games than they were in the past. Less games are being made, and among them, less memorable classics are being made. Why are we playing Street Fighter + 4,4520.045 or Call of Duty again and again instead of new concepts coming from these legendary game developers? What made the NES and other classic consoles legendary was all the new stuff coming out that was actually new, not sequels. Exploration of the art of the game has grinded to a halt in favor of a graphics and interface arms race, and gamers are getting bored.

franzito
franzito

I played Atari (used to love Frostbyte and Pitfall).

Gaoth
Gaoth

Great article! By the way, It's not only the console-makers that could learn from the past; even traditional game companies sometimes seem to forget what they've already done into this awesome industry.

buft
buft

the first console i owned that i could anyone else interested in playing was the N64, before that every console sat in my room and was played exclusively by me but when the N64 came out i could get my buddies to play Goldeneye and Mario Kart and get my mum and sisters to play Mario Party. I think a lot of that was to do with video game stores becoming more highstreet and less dingey back alley.

pH347m3
pH347m3

@m1rock Heck yeah, a WWI simulator! Level 1: Trench Level 2: Trench Level 3: Trench Level 4: Trench Level 5: Trench Level 6: Trench Level 7: Trench Level 8: Trench Can't you just smell the excitement? /sarcasm off

Tinhamodic
Tinhamodic

Before the home systems the original gamer was the arcade player. How many quarters you've dumped into those arcade games? Or crowd around a good player that milked a game on a single quarter? Now those were the days!

sayoose
sayoose

I hate marachino cherries

Scavengre
Scavengre

To me the hay-day of Nintendo was the N64; it had 4 player, a wide variety of games that catered to SP and MP game modes, that my brother and sister also enjoyed. I also remember that after getting my 4 controllers I took the shells apart and swapped the upper and lowers so that I had controllers unlike my friends. Black top Grey bottom and vice versa, Blue top and Green bottom. I even bought the GPU memory upgrade (to this day I say it didnt do squat) but I had it! Luckily I still have access to it (gave it to my nephew) and occasionally play it with family.

rhysthepriest
rhysthepriest

@m1rock You can't be serious. That would be so dull, with no variety.

Aletunda
Aletunda

games and consoles havent really taken a step backward, they have just marketed to an age and gender group that has been the most prominent, now that game consoles and games are becoming more affordable to some degree more demographics of people are engaging into the world of games.

maven_zer09
maven_zer09

but I can't remember girls playing Atari even remotely as much as they play DS now. Atari sucked at that demography too, Nintendo was the one to fix it with DS.