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. And like Kleenex or Xerox, the word itself became synonymous with the activity it represented. In the late seventies and early eighties, nobody played video games. 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. Let’s look back at this innovative video game from yesteryear.
Although the Odyssey actually introduced the concept five years earlier, 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 virtual 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 as “video games.”
Atari’s first splash came in 1975 with a made-for-home version of Pong, the success of which gave the initial 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? Here’s what the future looked like:
Within two years, Atari managed to follow Combat with several other titles. The dawn of video game consoles proved to be something of an extended one 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 future was assured. When Rick Mauer used the license Atari purchased to convert popular arcade sensation Space Invaders to home platforms, Atari had an immortalizing hit.
Space Invaders sent Atari’s profits up into the nine-digit echelon, an indication of children climbing up their parents’ backs all across the country in order to get their hands on a 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 (Brain Games), driving controls (Indy 500), Trak-Balls, and rapid-fire blaster. Atari’s software department also continued to score big, both with original hits and arcade cross-overs, most noably Namco’s Pac-Man.
Atari (now redubbed the 2600) heralded the game into homes in 1982. It became the biggest hit in the history of VCS. Here’s a look at a commercial from this era:
With the advent of the home computer (and home computer gaming), Atari found itself fading. Bloated licensing fees (particularly for E.T.) and rushed titles diluted interest in the system and before long, the market crashed. 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 despite the appearance on the scene of the brand new Nintendo Entertainment System. In 1991, after an unduplicated fourteen-year run, the 2600 finally put down its pixels for good. To date, no other system 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 pixilated glory for the latest generation systems. Whether for novelty or nostalgia, Atari, the granddaddy of them all, keeps on ticking.
If you have your own fond memories of this beloved game, share them in our comments section. Tell us about being wrapped in a blanket in the wee hours of the morning, hoping your parents wouldn’t wake up to find you still curled in front of the television as you blasted floating Asteroids with reckless abandon and half-opened eyes. We know you have some stories to share. We all do.