The Great Atari

The granddaddy of all platform and handheld game stations, the Atari Video Computer System remains a classic. In the tradition of trench warfare and bayonets, Atari maintains its appeal despite its antiquity. In the late 70s and early 80s, nobody played video games at home; they played Atari. One had to go to the arcade or to the corner of the local sandwich shop to play video games. Atari, on the other hand, offered a comparable selection of games, required no quarters, and could be played at all hours from the comforts of your living room.

Although the Odyssey actually introduced the concept five years prior, Atari was the first to successfully bring the platform game system into the home. No one could have predicted that the small plastic box with a wood-grain finish, option switches, and two sets of controllers would not only become the must-have toy trend of the eighties, but also usher in the multi-billion dollar home gaming era. Face it: it was hard enough to anticipate Pitfall Harry’s next obstacle, let alone the future of an emerging industry that would one day be known simply as “video games.”

Atari’s first splash came in 1975 with a made-for-home version of Pong, the success of which gave the first indication of the impending dawn of cartridge-based games. The prototype was developed into the finished product by virtue of generous funding from its parent company, Warner Brothers. Atari VCS made its historic entrance into the culture in the holiday season of 1977. The complete Atari package included the basics, a furniture blending box, a pair of one button joysticks and another pair of rotating paddle controls, as well as a certain coup de gras in Combat, a tank biplane jet mano-a-mano fighter game featuring such things as bouncing walls and invisible tanks. With such potential, how could holiday shoppers in 1977 look through the store windows and not think they were looking into the future?

Atari 1978 TV Advertisement


Within two years, Atari managed to follow Combat with several other titles. The dawn of video game consoles proved to be a battle in and of itself as Atari and its fellow competitors struggled to gain a permanent toe hold in the cultural landscape. While various arcade hits had modest success on home platforms, it wasn’t until 1980 that the Atari future was assured. Rick Mauer applied the license Atari had purchased towards an enormously popular arcade game called Space Invaders and adapted it for the home platform. From that point on, Atari was simply “the” home gaming platform, a distinction it held through most of the decade.

Space Invaders sent Atari’s profits up into the nine digit echelon, an indication of America’s children begging to get their hands on this piece of platform bliss. Parents answered by buying upwards of twenty five million consoles, a number that translated into $5 billion for Atari and Warner Bros. Various accessories followed such as keyboards, driving controls, Trak-Balls, and rapid-fire blaster. Atari’s software department also continued to score big, both with original hits and arcade crossovers, most notably Namco’s Pac-Man. By 1982, Atari, now redubbed the 2600 had made its way into seemingly every home in America and left its competition in the dust.

UK 1981 Atari Advertisement


Popularity never quite lasts forever though, and eventually Atari lost its footing atop its lofty perch. With the advent of the home computer, Atari found itself fading. Bloated licensing fees, particularly for E.T. and rushed titles diluted interest in the system. More importantly, the whole market crashed. In response, Atari sold their video game division in 1984, including the 2600, its infant upgrade the 5200, and the as of yet unreleased 7800. In the mid-eighties, a few 2600 games continued to be released, but the arrival of the brand new Nintendo Entertainment System was an insurmountable hurdle. In 1991, after an unduplicated fourteen year run, the 2600 finally put down its pixels for good. To date, no single console has lasted nearly as long.

A relic stands the test of time. And though it has been outdated and outdone, Atari has yet to be outcast. It speaks to the success of Atari and the 2600 that it continued to sell even after superior products had rendered it obsolete. In fact, many of the titles that Atari made famous can still be purchased in their original pixelated glory for the latest generation systems. Whether for novelty or nostalgia, Atari, the granddaddy of them all, keeps on ticking.


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