Atari Timeline Special #1: Atari History Through Commercials
Atari and its commercials have always fascinated my bother and me. There was a time in late 70's and very early 1980's when we looked forward to nothing more than seeing an Atari commercial on television. This was a time long before the internet or even video game magazines, when there was so little information about Atari available, they might as well have not existed. The only way to find information was to haunt the TV department at Fed-Mart, Sears or JC Penny for a new game on display, read ads that were sparsely placed in comic books and magazines like Games, or when the proverbial needle in a haystack was found: we saw an Atari commercial on TV. So fervent became our quest to find and watch Atari TV commercials, that even after the video game magazines arrived on the scene with their previews and news (in late 1981), we still waited up at night to watch the NBC news capsule, or got up early on Saturday morning, just in case an Atari commercial was being shown. Video games were a visual, animated medium. What better way to see them, than in their native format: on the TV?
This piece was inspired by a simple search I made of youtube.com a couple weeks ago. I was looking for an Atari Commercial that had the jingle "Have You Played Atari Today" in it. For Atari fans, this is a very familiar theme that ran through a series of 1981 Atari ads. What I found was a wealth of video, but it was totally unstructured. Some comments about them were wrong or misleading, and there was no context to the video at all. It was as if each lived in it's own universe, unconnected to the rest. Out of my own mildly manic and insane need to put order to chaos, I took up the job of trying to make sense of this youtube.com mess. What follows is a history of Atari (1976-1996) via commercials/films/videos uploaded to youtube.com by various people across the world (including myself).I've added as much text as I thought necessary to round out the story and keep it flowing.
As well, I've added some personal anecdotes to this piece. I wanted to try to put some events into context from someone (me) who lived through the consumer side of it all. My brother Jeff and owned almost every one of Atari's consumer systems, right until the very end. However, I've also enrobed these remarks in the italics, making them very easy to skip.
One more note. Some of the videos here are not commercials, but are "sizzle films". The people who uploaded or described them on youtube.com as commercials might have been mistaken. After working in the toy industry of for the past decade, I've seen my share of "sizzle films" as opposed to commercials. "Sizzle films" are created for industry trade shows, presentations to retailers, etc. They are usually not for public consumption. Most of the time, "sizzle films" are internally created by a company, while commercials, like most of the 30 second spots below are made by large media and advertising firms. I make an attempt to differentiate the two where appropriate, mostly because, as a kid, I would never had the chance to watch them.
1976 Early : Pong Console Commercial
This is probably the first Atari commercial as it advertises their first consumer product, the Pong home console. The home Pong console was created over a 2-year period by several engineers at Atari Inc. including Harold Lee, Bob Brown and Al Alcorn. They worked the on prototype, code named "Darlene", attempting to perfect a consumer product that could play a game of Pong utilizing a single micro-chip. Atari launched Pong as a consumer product in December of 1975. At that time, Atari could find almost no retailer interested in the product, except for Tom Quinn, the buyer for Sears Sporting Goods department. Atari delivered on their promised 150,000 units for Christmas, and generated $40,000,000 in sales. This infusion of cash allowed the small coin-operated game manufacturer to extend it's reach into the consumer space for good. In 1976, they started marketing the Pong console themselves (as well as through Sears) and named it Model C100.
1976 November 21: Atari Super Pong Commercial
After being successful in 1975 and early 1976 with home Pong, Atari Inc. started creating other variations of Pong to market themselves and through Sears including C-160 Pong Doubles, C-180 Super Pong Ten, and the console advertised below, C-140 Super Pong. Atari was not the only company in this space in 1976. Atari might have made the first Home Pong unit, but just like they experienced with their coin-op Pong, dozens on imitators were on their heels. They tried to combat the imitators by generating a sense of loyalty in consumers to buy "A Real Atari".
And the fight continued. Coleco quickly jumped into the home Pong market in 1976 with the Telstar.
Personal Anecdote: I always wanted an Atari Pong console, but never got one on. Instead, my father bought is a cheap rip-off using something similar to the AY38500 from Radio Shack. While my brother Jeff and I had a great time playing it, we could never tell our friends about it. Having a Radio Shack product was akin to buying Kinney Shoes, or Tough-Skins jeans from Sears. You wore them because you had to, but you never brought attention to it.
Later that year, General Instrument created the AY38500 microchip that included paddle and shooting games in one unit. Coleco was the first buyer of the chip, and managed to outsell in Pong units Atari by the end of the year. As well in 1976, Fairchild debuted the Channel F ' the first video game to use programmable cartridges in 1976.
Personal Anecdote: My friend Wesley Crews had a Fairchild Channel F System bought before any of us had a VCS. Controlling the games was akin to plunging a toilet.
Atari had been working on it's own "programmable" system code named "Stella", but they did not have enough money to finish it. In order to keep Atari competetive, Nolan Bushnell sold the company to Warner Communications in November of 1976 for $28 Million dollars. With an infusion of cash from the sale, Atari was able to hire new staff and finish the prototype for the Atari VCS. By November 1977, the Atari VCS was ready for sale.
1977: Atari/Sears Telegame Commercial.
The Atari Video computer System (VCS) was released in November if 1977, along with 9 cartridges. Sears made their own version named the "Telegame" and marketed it the same way they had marketed Pong two years prior. They sold it under their on brand name, and even had a few exclusive cartridges (i.e. Steeplechase) through the years. This was most likely one of the first commercials that ever featured the Atari VCS. In this commercial, Sears actually counts all the game variations on the cartridges to counts how many "video games" exist for the system.
Personal Anecdote: I recall doing that myself when I first got my VCS to try to top my friends with other systems (i.e. look mom, "66 variations of Asteroids!)"
The 9 original cartridges were thought to stretch the Atari VCS to the limit and had taken it as far as it could go. Atari quickly started to work on a follow-up machine to the VCS. Nolan Bushnell, now head of R&D at Atari, wanted to create a next-generation VCS that fixed all the limitations of the original unit. However, with sluggish initial sales, the VCS had to prove itself in the marketplace first before any new consoles could be fully developed.
1978 November: "Don't Watch It, Play It" Atari VCS commercial
Initial sales for for the VCS were $120 Million throughout 1977/1978 with 400,000 units sold. however, manufacturing problems and late deliveries to retailers left the company with a $25 Million loss for the period. Instead of relying on the original 9 cartridges, Atari hired even more programmers, and started producing all types of games, including sports "inspired" games like Home Run. While Home Run is certainly not a "Baseball" game, it is a very aenjoyable "over the line" simulator, and has at least as much to do with Baseball as "Wii Sports Baseball" does . Atari had 20 games available at the time, but was still struggling to make a profit. Home Run for the VCS was released in June of 1978. This commercial was part of a multi-commercial series titled "Don't Watch It, Play It" It featured some of Atari's brand new games for 1978 including the aforementioned Home Run (with Pete Rose) as well as Atari's major Arcade hit from 1976, Breakout.
Personal Anecdote: Breakout was the best Atari VCS game at the time, bar none. I wrote a blog entry about my first personal experience with Breakout earlier this year. you can read it here.
1978 November: "Don't Watch It Play It" Atari VCS Commercial
The second in the series of "Don't Watch It, Play It" commercials highlighted some of Atari's new VCS games for holiday season including Starship, Blackjack and Basketball. Atari VCS Basketball was released in June of 1978. This commercial features Kareem Abdul Jabaar shilling for Atari.
In all, 11 new games were released for VCS by November 1978, bringing it's grand-total of games up to 20. Even though the VCS had yet to make a profit, Atari Inc. was putting as much effort behind it as they could possibly muster.
1979 November: "Nobody Has As Many Games" Atari 2600 Commercial
Throughout 1978 and 1978, Atari continued to sell loads of VCS systems, but still found it hard to make money. They doubled their sales from the previous year to 800,000 units, but with an unsold inventory of 300,000 they still managed to lose money. Still, the games kept coming. Atari made an attempt to expand their market by showing adults that the VCS could be fun for them as well as their kids. In this commercial, parents play Atari while their kid watches. This one highlights "Human Cannonball", "Miniature Golf", and "Breakout", with cartridges flying at the end.
While Atari was still struggling with the Home Products, their coin-op division was going like gang-busters. After a huge hit with Breakout in 1976, and then with Football in 1978. The dominance of Star Wars at the box office in 1977 had Atari moving towards space themed games. The first was Lunar Lander in August 1979, followed by one Atari's biggest hits, Asteroids in October 1979. The game was such a big hit that not only did it sell nearly 50,000 units (by contrast, Atari's previous biggest coin-op hits Breakout and Football sold about 11,000 machines each) but it unseated the Taito's Space Invaders in the mind share of American video game players as the best "space" game available. Atari was suddenly the hottest coin-operated games manufacturer in the world.
Personal Anecdote: My brother Jeff and I played coin-op Asteroids for an entire summer. I wrote a blog about it earlier this year. You read it here.
1979/1980: Atari Home Computer Commercial
By late 1979, the "next generation game console" that Nolan Bushnell wanted for Atari was still not finished. Instead, new Atari CEO Ray Kassar (Warner hired him in 1978 making Bushnell the head of R&D) had the engineers funnel those efforts into a line of "Home Computers" to compete with the Apple II in the burgeoning "personal computer" market.. With the VCS still not profitable, this must have seemed like a reasonable way to expand the business. However, Nolan Bushnell did not agree. He thought that the only way to make Atari profitable was to continue making strides in the video game space. Bushnell lost the battle ,and Atari prepared the 400 and 800 Home computers for release in late 1979.
This commercial features hardware and software from the November 1979 launch of the Atari Home Computer line, but it could have been aired later in 1980. At the time, Atari was the only company that was selling what they called "home computers". Everyone else was targeting the die-hard hobbyist market, or the business market.
It is interesting to note that these computers led directly to Nolan Bushnell leaving Atari for good. He never wanted the technology developed for the computers, but was still hoping to create a next generation video game system. He believed that technology had a 2 year life, and the VCS had reached it in 1979. If Bushnell had gotten his way, the "Atari 5200" would have been released in 1979 and not 1982. By 1982, Atari would have been wowing consumers with a 3rd generation console. If they had concentrated on video games, Atari might still be around today.
1980 January: Atari 2600 Space Invaders Commercial
If Ray Kassar had just waited a few more months, he would have seen the fruits of Bushnell's push towards video game technology. Atari licensed the game Space Invaders from Taito in 1979, and proceeeded to created a version for the Atari 2600. When this game was released, it made the Atari 2600 THE product that every kid wanted to have. This game is the single reason the Atari 2600 became the dominant game platform in the very early 80's. The game was released in January 1980, but I'd expect that this commercial was shown closer to the holidays.
The Space Invaders game for the VCS, along with the success of Asteroids in the arcade netted Atari Inc gross proceeds oft $415 million for the year. Suddenly Atari was a major portion of Warner Communication's total annual income and was deemed the "fastest growing company in the history of USA" (at the time).
1981: Atari "Discover How Far You Can Go" Sizzle Film/Commercial/Video Game/ Home Computers: 2600 Warlords, Atari 800:
Instead of Atari brass realizing that Bushnell was correct about video games as opposed to computers, they opted to push the 2600 technology even longer without working towards a next generation machine. For a while, this looked like a good strategy. The 2600 was a huge hit, and with more and more games being released, it looked unstoppable. Their coin-op business was going strong as well, with Asteroids, along with new hits like Missile Command, and Centipede further cementing Atari's hold on the business. The Home computer lines was still struggling, but that did not stop them from touting it as well.
1981 Q1: Activision "Sports" Commercial
With the Atari 2600 so popular, the game programmers that had been around for almost 5 years were suddenly in hot demand. Atari Inc. did not consider the programmers and game designers an import part of the process, and they paid for this mistake dearly. With Bushnell gone from Atari, the "developer friendly atmosphere" he created was soon crushed under the corporate weight of Warner Communications and Ray Kassar. Soon after the VCS became a household name, groups of programmers and designers started jumping ship to other companies. Activision was started April 25th, 19801 when David Crane, Larry Kaplan, Alan Miller and Bob Whitehead left Atari to create their own company with President Jim Levy. Their plan was to create their own games to play on the Atari VCS. The first Activision" games were released in the first quarter of 1981. This commercial highlights Skiing, Tennis, Dragster . These sports games so "pwned" the sports games from Atari, it was not even funny. However, what they added in graphics, they cut-down in options. Atari's games were reaching "101 Variations" in some cases, where Activision chose to concentrate their efforts on a few good options. "Dragster", while it looked good, was not fun to play at all. Atari did counter later with a "Realsports Tennis", which was even better than Activision Tennis.
1981 Q1: Activision Ice Hockey Commercial
This commercial spot stars the late-great Phil Hartman as drooling game seeker in a the video game department.
1981 April : Atari 2600 "Missile Command Problem" Commercial
After the success of the licensed coin-op game Space Invaders for the VCS, Atari began to translate as many of it's coin-op hits to the VCS. Missile Command was one of the first. It was also a pretty good translation of the coin-op into the VCS format. Atari also translated these games for their 8-bit computer line. This commercial highlights Missile Command for the 2600, Video Pinball, Warlords, and Air Sea Battle. Missile Command was released in April of 1981, and since "Asteroids" is not advertised, it must have been shown before the end of the year.
1981 September: Atari 400 Home Computer Commercial
Atari started a TV blitz in the fall of 1981 to promote their line of "Home Computers". While the video game business was booming, Ray Kassar's baby, the computer line was still struggling to find its footing. This ad focused on the fact that computers could be good for education. A boy learns to speak French using his Atari 400, and impresses his grand parents. A longer version of this commercial was shown later in the year and into 1982.
1981 October: Atari Home Computer Commercials
Another commercial from the fall 1981 TV blitz. This one features a man using his Atari computer for "serious" application like "Stocks And bonds" then sneaking in a game of "Star Raiders". Atari was continually trying to show the diverse array of applications that could be used with their home computers. However, the public never caught-on until the games started flowing.
1981: Atari 2600 Asteroids Commercial
Atari Inc released "Asteroids" for the 8-Bit computer line and for the Atari 2600 in 1981. Both games started to appear on the market between March and August of that year.
Personal Anecdote: Among my friends, the Asteroids cartridge for the VCS suddenly made it a must-have item. I recall going to the local HW Computers store with my mom in the summer of 1981. I was looking for "Space Invaders" for the VCS , but when saw the Atari 2600 Asteroids Cartridge in the glass case, I knew what I wanted more than anything: an Atari 2600 for Christmas. I recently added a blog entry about the run-up to Christmas 1981 and how we convinced our parents to get us an Atari 2600. You can read it here.
1981: The Competition
The Mattel Intellivision was test marketed in 1979 and released nationally in 1980. By the end of 1981 the system was a success and started chipping away at Atari's market share. The Intellivision was (arguably) more powerful than and 2600 and could produce games that looked much better when compared side-by-side with Atari 2600 games. Mattel used this to their advantage in a series of ads .
This continued in 1982 as Mattel concentrated on Atari's "Space Games" dominance.
Personal Anecdote: Our friend Eric Barth got an Intellivision almost on the day of release. Before we had a VCS of our own, we were at Eric's playing Intellivision games. Even though the Intellivision games looked better that the ones for the Atari VCS, there was always an "odd" feel about them. The controller with it's disc and keypad just did not feel right. The resolution was was not that great, and the games always seemed...weird. Intellivision might have had better technology than the VCS, but certainly did not have the "cool" factor to make it any kind of serious contender to the video game crown.
1981 Atari 2600 Toys R Us Commercial
By Christmas 1981, the Atari VCS was the hottest toy around. Expecting huge sales, and not wanting to miss the opportunity, Atari required many of its retailers to order overly large shipments of games for the holiday season. With exclusive, decent translations of it's hit coin-op arcade games and and heavy promotion from retailers, Atari looked unstoppable.
Personal Anecdote: My brother Jeff and I finally got an Atari VCS for Christmas 1981. We were caught up in the Atari frenzy like almost every other kid around, and had dropped hints for more than 6 months about that would be the perfect Christmas gift for two 11 year-old boys. We didn't get to play it Christmas morning though. The RF unit was broken as soon as we opened the box. However, after exchanging it at Gemco the next day, we were off to the Atari races! We received a "Breakout" cartridge with the system for Christmas, but we could not stop there. We spent the rest of the day traveling around to every major department store looking for Atari VCS cartridges to buy with our savings and Christmas money. We managed to haul back Activision Tennis, Activision Dragster, and Asteroids. We had a glorious next week of vacation, playing all of our new VCS games, reading the about all other available games in the catalogs inserted in each package, and sending away for our new subscription to Atari Age magazine.
1982 January : Classic "Have You Played Atari Today" Super Breakout Commercial
This one is an absolute classic. It features just one game, "Super Breakout" and highlights the family aspects of the "Video Computer System". I'm not sure when this commercial was produced, but Super Breakout was released in January 1982.
Here is another similar commercial from about the same time. This commercial is targeted at wives trying to get them to buy Atari for their husbands.
1982 Early: "Have You Played Atari Today" Rainy Day Commercial. This one contains some bizarre illustrations of a family playing Pac-Man (probably because the game was not yet available) and real shots of Asteroids. This one seems to be aimed at Mom's to show how they might end up playing the system.
These three "Have You Played Atari Today" contain one of best commercial jingles ever created for a product. Still today, just mentioning "Have You Played Atari Today" to many people will have them break into this song, or into tears, depending on their cusrrent state of mind.
1982 Q1: Activision Corporate Video/Sizzle Film
With strong sales for Activision games throughout 1981, the first 3rd Party games company started 1982 with several announcement of new games. In this corporate video you will the entire "Ice Hockey", "Kaboom!", ""Stampede", "Freeway" commercials, plus "Barnstorming", "Grand Prix", "Choplifter", "Starmaster" This was probably created for the January 1982 CES show.
1982 Early: "Discover How Far You Can Go" Atari Industry Sizzle Film/Commercial
Activision was not the only company that could brag about it's success in 1981, Atari created similar videos for many years. In a similar (yet much shorter) industry sizzle, Atari featured all three of it's main business units at the time: Atari Home Computers (Acoustic Modem, States And Capitals, Star Raiders) and Home Video Games (Super Breakout and Pac-Man) and Coin Video Games (Tempest). The Tempest Coin-op game was released in October of 1981, while Super Breakout and Pac-Man for the VCS came out in early 1982.
1982: Atari 2600 "8-Bit Virtual Reality"Sizzle Film/Commercial
1982 continued with Atari firing on all cylinders. This seemed to have an effect on the quality their promotional materials . Below is one of the best sizzle films/commercials Atari ever made. It includes a player" that is living Atari 2600 games in a sort of virtual world.. The 8-bit style 3D graphics were pretty amazing for the time, and very effective for showing the features of these 2600 games.This film includes coverage of Atari 2600 "Yar's Revenge", "Asteroids", and "Star Raiders". I'd like to call this one a a sizzle film, but the voice over at the end says "We're Atari, We have the vision and invented the technology, to bring it home to you" sort of implies that this was for consumers and not store buyers.
1982 February 19th: Demon Attack Commercial
Activision was not the only company that was making 3rd party games for the Atari 2600 in 1982, many other companies had started doing the same thing. Most of the companies were making very cheap rip-offs of other games, but the titles from Imagic stood out among the pack. Second only to Activision, Imagic's games were some of the best of the first generation of video game systems. Atari Programmer Rob Fulop left the company in 1981, and joined Imagic where he designed what is arguably, the best game ever made for the VCS: Demon Attack.
1982 March: Atari 2600 Pac-Man Commercials
This is an awesome animated advertisement for the supremely bad Atari 2600 version of Pac-Man. Notice, in this commercial how they try to hide how awful the game turned-out by masking it with some really cool animation. "Pac-Man" was created by Atari 2600 programmer Tod Frye, but it was not his fault it turned-out so badly. Frye originally wanted to create the game as a 4K cartridge, which would have allowed for a game that was closer to the original. However, Atari higher-ups were so sure that they could sell shiploads of anything with the name "Pac Man" attached, they forced Frye to fit the game in 2K saving a couple $$ per cartridge. The problem was not just how many Pac Man cartridges were sold (many, but not enough), but just how cheated all the consumers felt after they bought it. Pac Man looked all wrong, could only turn in two directions, had no prizes to eat except for a generic "vitamin pill", had dreadful sound effects, and suffered from a horrible flashing effect when trying to display 4 ghosts at once. The phrase "buyer's remorse" never fit anything better than how an entire country of kids felt after they purchased Atari 2600 Pac-Man. Those Atari execs might have saved $2 per cartridge by keeping the game 2K in size, but they would never be bale to save Atari's reputation after "Pac Man".
More like a standard Atari ad. This one was probably aired at night and directed at parents, while the one above was most likely shown on Saturday morning.
Personal Anecdote: Look, everyone that I knew wanted this game. Everyone I knew eventually had it. One of my friends bugged his parents so badly about it, that when his birthday came around they wrapped up a huge box filled with bricks, and Pac-Man cartridge, just to throw him of the scent. Quickly though, we all started feeling badly about the $39.99 we spent on the game. It was the first time I had ever felt a pang of real, honest disappointment about a game with the Atari name on it. It would not be the last.
1982 February: Atari Announces 5200 Super System "Club Centipede" Sizzle
1982 February (approx): Atari announced the 'Super System' Atari 5200. It also renamed the VCS the 2600. The 5200 was to be released in late 1982 for $349. The graphics and sound were to rival the Atari Home computers, mostly because it WAS one. There were new 8-directional joysticks, and there would be 10 games for the system at launch. The Super System was geared towards having much better looking and playing games than the VCS. This sizzle film for the home version of Centipede shows off the 5200 and just how close it's graphics could get to the arcade original.
Continuing with the creative streak shown in the "2600 Virtual Reality" sizzle from earlier in 1982, this "cinematic", music video inspired piece was quite stunning. By the way, this must be a sizzle film and not a commercial. The lingerie girl at the beginning and the "music video" style point towards this being an industry sizzle film for for Centipede. I mean, this is the same era that had "Electronic Games Magazine" put a "censored" bar over the lower-half of Pheobe Cates in an advertisement for the movie "Private School For Girls". There is NO WAY I can believe that this was for public consumption. As always, I'm probably wrong.
By the way, did you know that the Atari Centipede coin-op was the first "UL Approved" coin-op game? I bet you didn't!
1982 April: Sizzle film For Atari Dig Dug Coin-Op (licensed from Namco)
These coin-op sizzle films are cool because, where else could you see them? I mean the coin-op industry did not ever do much TV advertising, so the only place to see stuff like this is in archives like YouTube.com. According to the YouTube.com entry linked here, this film was designed by Y&R and shown in Movie Theaters. It won a Clio award in 1983.
1982: Atari 400 /Promotional Clip
As Atari continued to push its Home Computer line, it started to translate most of it's arcade ports to the computers as well. In this clip for the Atari 400, Atari tried to push it's cheapest home computer by showing that it was as easy to set-up as a "video game", and had a lot of software including the games Space Invaders, Star Raiders, Missile command, and the recently released Pac-Man. The appears to be a promotional video shown that would be shown in a kiosk or video player in-store to get consumers interested in the computer, and not an actual commercial.
Here is a similar video created to describe the features of the Atari 810 disk drive.
...and a similar one for the 820 Printer
and a still similar one for the 825 Printer.
The Atari Home Computer line included a full range of peripherals that were easy to use and set-up using a system of of "plug and play" interface cables. This was unlike most other computers at the time (like the Apple II and IBM PC) that were "open" and daunting to consumers as they seemed to require an advanced degree in engineering to configure.
1982 May: Yar's Revenge Commercial
"Yar's Revenge" was one of the great Atari 2600 games. It took what was basically a limitation of the 2600 (the limited number of on-screen objects) , and turned it around to make a compelling game. "Yar" refers to Atari President "Ray Kassar", as it is "Ray" spelled backwards. Yar's Revenge was released in May of 1982
1982 First Half: Defender 2600 Coming Soon
Defender was another licensed game for the VCS (now 2600) that really disappointed fans. It played OK, but the fact that the ship "disappeared" every time you fired your laser was inexcusable. This would not have been a great a problem if Activision had not released "Chopper Command" for the 2600 at just about the same time, which was essentially "Defender", it looked and played as good as any coin-op arcade game of the day.
This commercial also contains clips of Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Asteroids, Missile Command, and Breakout. Defender was released in June of 1982, so this commercial was probably aired before that time.
Here is the commercial for Chopper Command by Activision. Notice how much better they executed a "Defender-like" gane when they did not have to deal with the demands of Atari management.
1982 Summer: Atari/McDonald's Game Commercials
In the late summer if 1982 McDonald's ran an Atari "scratch and win" game promotion. All manner of Atari products (video games, computers, etc) were available to win. Below are a couple commercials from that promotion:
Personal Anecdote: My brother Jeff and I haunted the local McDonald's that summer, looking for game cards in the trash, on trays that people forgot, on the ground in the parking lot, etc. We must have found/scratched nearly 500 cards, and we won...absolutely nothing!
1982 August: Atari 2600 Berzerk Commercial
Atari 2600 "Berzerk" was an awesome translation of a rather boring game, especially without the digitized sound from the arcade.
Personal Anecdote: It still bought it though, and gladly paid $39.99 for the privilege. At this time, I recall a mounting sense of "buyer's remorse" for nearly every for Atari 2600 game I purchased, and this one ranks high in that category.
Electronic Games Magazine
Most Friday nights in the very early 80's, my twin brother and I would accompany my mom on the weekly shopping trip to Lucky's supermarket. In the late afternoon my dad would arrive home from work with his weekly paycheck cashed and ready for the weekend. He would lay the crisp $20 bills on his bed, one by one, dividing up what my mom would get for the 'house' , what he would 'sock away' for whatever it was that he was socking-money-away for that month (Motocross bikes, Civil War memorabilia, whatever). However, the most momentous portion of this ritual was the final act. Dad kept four $5.00 bills separated from the rest. If we had 'earned' it that week (or rather, 'not lost it' by being idiots), he would dole-out these bills as weekly allowance for each of his four kids.
With the house-money firmly placed in her smart-looking imitation red-leather purse, my mom, my brother and I would head-out to our sea-blue 1975, Datsun 710 station wagon (with a primer-tan back-end from the accident in 1978), and begin the weekly shopping sojourn. Even though this event had an air of the ordinary, my brother and I were always genuinely excited about the trip. The $5 bills burning holes in our O.P. velcro ripper wallets would soon be put to good use. Mad Magazine, $.07 cent Shasta Cola, dominoes, plastic army men, Twinkies, Topps Star Wars trading cards and/or whatever other contraband we could afford that would get us through the weekend of broadcast TV and lamenting about the seeming impossibility of getting an Atari 2600 video game system for Christmas.
On one particular Friday night in November of 1981, after we had helped our mom select stuff like individually wrapped Kraft Cheese balls, Peanut Butter Captain Crunch, and Fresca, my brother and I snuck to the magazine rack to try the MAD fold-in and see if the current issue was worth buying. I'm pretty sure though, on that night, we never found out. Before my eyes could reach the cover of MAD, they fixed on the following:
I quickly grabbed the magazine started paging through it. 'Electronic Games', just the name held so much promise. 'Games'. Is there a better word in the English language (when you are 11 that is). 'Electronic': it seemed so space-aged, so advanced. Sure, we had a few games that were 'electronic'. Mattel Electronics handheld Football , and Basketball, and baseball board-game we had gotten for our 10th birthday. Other than those things, and a few rudimentary 'pinball' games we had made out of spare rubber-bands and diodes from the garage, our actual ownership of 'electronics' had been quite minimal, which made the title all-the-more alluring. My brother pushed over my shoulder so he could look as well. I turned past the first page ads and table of context, and fixed my eyes on these words in the editorial:
Did you know that you're a member of the world's fastest-growing hobby group? It's true. Although the first Pong machine made its debut only a decade ago, today more than five million Americans regularly play electronic games. The introduction of space-age electronic amusements amounts to nothing less than an entertainment revolution.
I had no idea. I'd never really felt 'part' of anything before. Well, OK, soccer and baseball teams maybe, but they were short-lived: as soon as the season was over, so was the camaraderie. This seemed completely different. A 'member' of a 'revolution'? I had never thought it was possible.
Electronic Games truly was revolutionary. It was the first of it's kind: a monthly publication dedicated to video games and the video game phenomena. The Magazine started as a series of 'Arcade Alley' columns in Video Magazine in the 1980 written by Bill Kunkel and Arnie Katz and championed by Bruce Apar, editor for Video Magazine. Katz and Kunkel had been friends since the early 70's, turning their passion for pro wrestling into a radio show, and one of the first Pro Wrestling magazines. When that failed to catch on, they wanted to try to make a living at something fun. The seed of that idea blossomed into 'Arcade Alley', this success of which proved to Reese Publications (the publisher of Video) that a video game magazine might have a chance for success. Kunkel and Katz pitched the idea, and before the end of 1981, they had their first issue published. By 1982, Electronic Games became THE authority on video games, and along with it, writers Arnie Katz, Bill Kunkel, and Katz's girlfriend Joyce Worley, became household names to video game fans everywhere. The basic design of Electronic Games (editorial, news, letters, previews, reviews, strategy) was copied by every major video game publication that followed, and the structure can still be seen today in most video game and computer game magazines.
The names Katz, Kunkel and Worley would be branded into our heads in the coming years, but that this historic moment, in the magazine section, next to the party favors and across from the vegetable sprayer, all I cared about was the fact that I seemed to be holding the future in my very hands. I kept turning pages, thirsting for more and more. I knew that at any given moment, my mom could call us to leave the store, and we'd have to leave the magazine behind. There was no way such a practical woman, who had often eaten ketchup and salt soup as a little girl in great depression, would let us waste $2.95 on a magazine about video games, just the thought of asking her seemed silly.
However, when she finally called us to the check-out line, we arrived with 'Electronic Games' in-hand. Any thoughts of sneaking it through unseen were lost when she deftly asked me to show her what was clenched in the hand hidden behind my back. Her initial reaction to the magazine was mild horror, mixed with disgust. (the same reaction I had received in1978 when I suggested I buy 10 packs of $.10 'Star Wars' Blue Series 1 trading cards for my brother for our birthday). Surprisingly though, she gave 'in quite easily this time, and I've always wondered why. Maybe she saw and understood how much it meant to us, but I really don't think so. To this day, she still doesn't understand the appeal of video games or computers. I think it was something much more personal. There are points in a parents life when they realize the diminishing returns of trying to mold their children into their own image I think, for my mom, this might been one of those moments.
My brother and I split the cost of the magazine and took it home, where we traded turns reading/looking over the other guy's shoulder for most of the weekend. We missed the new episodes of 'The Incredible Hulk' and 'Dukes Of Hazzard' that night. Friday TV just could not hold a candle to our new discovery. To be honest, TV itself would never quite hold the same fascination ever again anyway. Well, not static, boring, non-interactive broadcast channels anyway. We drank-in the full-color pages, the reviews, and previews, the articles, and the advertisements. Every page held a treasure-trove of wonder and interest. Did all this stuff really exist? We not were complete virgins when it came to video games, but who knew the information about them could fill an entire magazine? It was a whole world we had been missing, and neither of us wanted to waste another second standing by it's edge: we wanted to jump in feet first and never look back.
Before finding 'Electronic Games' we were both interested in anything that had to do with video games, however, there just was not that much information to have. Furthermore, if information was available, it was either negative, misleading, or patently incorrect. We were constantly told by the TV news that video games were 'just a fad' and they would soon disappear. The parents in our city, Manhattan Beach, CA had recently risen-up to fight the opening of a themed arcade/restaurant named 'Magic Pizza' because of the 'bad element' video games were sure to attract. Even our parents, who were otherwise cool in so many ways, had a tough time understanding why we wanted an Atari 2600 and what it meant to us If we listened to others, video games were flash-in-pan bad habit sure to rot our brains as well as our teeth. In our hearts we knew they were fun and cool, however, we had no solid proof except for our own personal feelings. Now we had it. 'Electronic Games' magazine became that proof. Mom had given-in and let us buy it, and our dad started to act genuinely interested in our fascination after seeing it. The magazine was printed vindication for a couple of 11-year-olds whose infatuation started 1977 with 'Combat' and had gradually built every year since. The irony here, (and of course there must be since we Gen-Xers are supposedly full of it) is that while we had been exposed extensively to video games and electronic entertainment in the past, it took a printed magazine, a technology roughly ' millenium long-in-the-tooth, to make it all seem real. Within days, we would be hinting about that an Atari 2600 would be the perfect Christmas gift, and this time, the targeted ears seemed genuinely receptive. The prospects of seeing one under the Christmas tree no longer seemed all that impossible after all.
Last year I had the pleasure of meeting Electronic Games editor bill Kunkel for the time. After reading his book "Confessions Of The Game Doctor", I emailed him and invited him out to Mattel Toys to teach a his class on game design to our online games team. It was a thrilling couple days learning the ropes from an industry pioneer, and an honor have had him come out and spend time with us. -Steve
1982 August 9: Atari Gravitar Sizzle Film
This sizzle highlights ones of Atari best coin-ops, Gravitar. Gravitar was released in August on 1982, but this film was probably made for an industry trade show earlier that year, and/or shown in movie theaters before the trailers began.
1982 August 20th: Pitfall! Commercial
Pitfall was first shown at the 1982 June CES show, and released soon after. Pitfall was the precursor to nearly every side-scrolling platform game ever made, and it was technical wonder on the 2600.
Personal Anecdote: In 2001 I caught up with designer David Crane, when he was visiting Mattel with Skyworks Interactive to pitch for a game job. Besides having him sign our resident Atari 800 (David Crane helped write part of the OS), I asked him how Pitfall! was created. He told me that, to create the 256 rooms on the Atari 2600, he used a "polynomial" sequence (basically a set of random numbers that after being created for the first time, are always the same). The bits of each number were used to decide what appeared on the screen. He chose the best starting point for the game out of the sequence, and Pitfall! was born. He showed Carol Shaw how to use a similar technique to create "the river forever" for the game River Raid. Pitfall was released on August 20th, 1982, but this commercial probably came a bit later.
Here is another Pitfall Commercial. This is only part of it highlighting the fact that Jack Black is the kid in the commercial.
By the way, did you know that Pitfall spent 64 weeks at the top of the Billboard video game chart? Of course you did. If you have managed to find this blog entry it means you are already a crazy Atari fan and you will certainly be sending me a nasty email or write on the forum about thing like "it was only 63 weeks idiot" or "the actual name of the chart was The Billboard Home Video Game Chart, dumbass". Don't worry, I'm used to it.
1982 Summer: Commercial Film For 2600/5200 Centipede
Atari announced the "next generation" 5200 Super System in early 1982 to combat the growing threat from Mattel Intellivision. Code named "Pam" the 5200 was simply a reworked Atari 400 computer with a larger cartridge slot, and dreadful controllers. The 5200 could play some pretty impressive versions of games, but it had "designed by the marketing department committee" stamped all over it. The controllers were bizarre keypads (just like Intellivision) with non-centering joysticks that were supposed to "fix" problems that never existed with the 2600 controllers. The controllers were so bad, that made it impossible for Atari premiere arcade game, Asteroids, to be released for the system (a prototype was made, but never produced). again, the games that did exist for the 5200 were quite good...mostly because they were revamped ports taken directly from the 8-bit line of Computers.
The commercial below is a good example of how Atari tried to market the 5200. This is not like most Atari commercials as it is 60 seconds long (most were 30) and it contains mostly music. I'd call it a sizzle film if it wasn't for the "5200 Graphics" overlay at the beginning, and the "availability" promo at the end. The 2600 version of centipede was essentially "a block firing blocks at blocks" because all the mushrooms were rectangles. It was still fun though, but Activision would prove with "Spider Fighter" (in January of 1983) how to do this genre the correct way.
In August 1982, a true competitior to the 5200 and Intellivision was released. ColecoVision took the opposite route from the Intellivision collection of custom games, selling mostly licensed arcade titles from manufacturer like Exidy and Sega. Not only were the titles unique, but the games were the closest any system had ever gotten to the arcade experience at home.
Coleco's big score was licensing the king of coin-op video games in 1982, Nintendo's Donkey Kong. They even went so far as to make version for the Atari 2600 and the Intellivision.
Coleco's plan was to release an Atari 2600 adapter to allow 2600 games on its system. In this way, Atari fans would not have to give-up their old library of games when they invested in a new system. However, in practice, the device was of dubious utility. It cost almost as much as a 2600, and offered nothing in return except having to only have one system hooked-up to the TV at a time. Still, by even making this gesture, Coleco was acknowledging Atari dominance in the home video game arena.
With ColecoVision gaining mind-share and Intellivision gaining market share (1982 was Mattel's biggest year ever for their electronics division), Atari was on it's heels. The 5200 was turning out to be a disappointment, and the line of 2600 games for 1982 that appeared so impressive in January, now paled in comparison to the competition. The industry leader suddenly looked like an also-ran. By the end of the year Coleco had sold 500,000 systems.
Personal Anecdote: When my friend Brandon got his ColecoVision in Late 1982, we finally saw the potential of what "could" be in a second generation video game system. ColecoVision had all the "street cred" that the (positively dorky by comparision)Intellivision lacked, and a much more interesting library of games than the 5200's now stale (if superior) slate of Atari coin-op retreads. Suddenly all of our friends were congragating at Brandon's house after school to play arcade perfect version "Donkey Kong", "Mr. Do", "Venture" and "Slither", while making fun of anyone (Jeff and I) who still thought Atari was cool.
1982 Fall: Computer Competition
Not only was Atari Inc. seeing competition from Coleco and Mattel in the home video game front, but their computer division was being threatened by new products from Commodore. The Commodore 64 computer was released in January of 1982 and was priced at more than $300 less than the comparable Atari 800. Commodore and it's President Jack Tramiel made sure the world knew how much a better deal a Commdore Home Computer was than an Atari home computer.
Commodore also went after the Atari 2600 VCS with it's much lower priced Vic 20. In the commercial below, you will see how Atari's competitors were starting to use the abject failure of Atari 2600 Pac-Man against the company in new and interesting ways.
1982: Fall: Only On Atari Commercial
To combat these new threats to the 2600 from Mattel, Coleco and Commodore, Atari went on the offensive in an attempt to show that if you bought any of these other systems, you would miss out all of Atari exclusive coin-op game translations . This commercial shows Pac-Man Asteroids, Defender, Berzerk and Missile Command (all arcade translations) and advertised the fact that they can "Only Be played On Atari" This one had to have come after Berzerk and Defender were released (August/June 1982), but since it does not show Vanguard, it must have come out before that game was released.
Atari gave up this strategy rather quickly. In late 1982, they formed Atarisoft, a company dedicated to creating arcade translations for other systems...in fact as many systems as possible including Colecovision, Intellivision, the Apple II, Commodore 64, Vic 20, IBM PCjr, IBM DOS, TI-994A, and several British computer systems.
1982 September: "Galaxy To Earth" Star Raiders And Berzerk Atari 2600 Commercial
This commercial highlights more games released in the summer of 1982. Atari released many games that summer, hoping kids would buy them when they were on vacation. Sales were probably a bit sluggish, as this commercial offers $10 off many Atari 2600 games.
1982 October: Realsports Baseball Commercial
To combat the growing threat from Intellivision and it's damaging commercials comparing Atari 2600 games to its own, Atari came up with the idea of "Realsports" games, a series of sports titles that used a bit more memory per cartridge to produce better games than the likes of "Home Run". Even though they were a vast improvement, they were still not as good as the Intellivision titles. What's more, Mattel one-up 'd Atari by releasing Super Challenge Baseball for the 2600 on it's M-Network label that looked and played even better than Atari's entry. Curiously, the M-Network baseball game was programmed by Dave Rolfe, the same person who made the original Home Run.
1982 December: Atari 2600 Vanguard And Activision River Raid
Vanguard was one of the best Atari 2600 arcade translations. After a year of major disappointments, Vanguard really delivered the goods. It was too bad that it was a translation of a minor arcade hit. It Atari had put this much effort into Pac-Man and Defender, the story of the year might have been much different.
Also released for the holidays was "River Raid" by Activision. Along with "Pitfall", "River Raid" was one of the best games ever created for the 2600.
These games showed that, while the 2600 was certainly not as powerful as the 5200 or the ColecoVision, it was still capable of producing A+ games if developers were given the time and resources (in-cart memory mostly) to make it happen.
Personal Anecdote: I received both of these games for Christmas in 1982. I do not recall a time ever being happier with my 2600. Blasting through the caves in Vanguard, and blasting-up the shores of the "river forever" was some of the most fun I ever had on an Atari system. It made me forgot, at least for a while, about the other newer systems with better games and graphics.
1982 December: Atari 2600 E.T. Commercials
What can be said about the Atari 2600 E. T. cartridge that has already not been stated by others? This game was such a colossal failure that it almost single-handedly destroyed the American video game industry. It, along with Pac-Man and the 5200, certainly sent Atari into a downward spiral that they never recovered from. It can be argued that the corporate handling of this game is one of the main reasons we play on (mostly) Japanese consoles these days. These commercials show it all. The productions values are superb, with no expense spared to promote a game that just so happened to spare pretty much anything that would people want to buy it or play it.
Another commercial for E.T. The programmer of this game, Howard Scott Warshaw only had 5 weeks to make this game. The usual game at the time took almost 6 months to complete.
By the way, Did you know that the Atari 8-bit computer version of this game included 1K voice sample that said "E.T. Phone Home". Yeah, that made it worth $49.99.
1982 ended for Atari in a way that no one really expected. The mistakes of Atari 2600 Pac-Man, Atari 2600 E.T., and the Atari 5200, coupled with competition from Activision, Imagic, Mattel, and Coleco in the video game world, plus from Commodore in the Home Computer space had put Atari on notice. They had rested on their laurels for too long, and started paying the price. Sales were strong, at about $200 million, but profit was lower than expected (mostly from unsold inventories of unwanted cartridges) and earnings per share were much lower than Wall Street expectations.
One of the best things about game development is the plethora of great resources on the web at your disposal. From free sound and sprite libraries to tutorials on almost every subject, the internet is a great place to start your search when you need a new idea, are stuck on a problem, or just want something interesting to read. Blogs or or blog like deviices have been in use by developers well before others jumped on the band wagon. Unix developers created .plan files for years that could be read by anyone interested in reading about their progress. Today there any millions of blogs out there. Here are a few that I read as often as I can. Also, running your own site and blog will inevitably introduce yourself to many like-minded folks who are also happy to share ideas, code, and answers.
Jobe Makar's Blog
Jobe has been doing this for a LOOOONG time. His blog is relatively new, but he is an "old hand" at Flash game programming. Is is the author of 2 Macromedia Press books that were and still are the literal gospel to many Flash game developers. One of Jobe's latest entries deals with The ELO rating system for player matching. It is an ingenious way to match, rank, and "level up" players in a multiplayer gaming universe.
Mike Grundvig's Blog o' Stuff
If you have read any of my blog entries on Bitmap Animation caching and want further examples in AS3, look no further than Mike's blog. His latest deals with using the copyPixels method of the bitMap data object and a sprite map sheet (very similar to an AS2 approach I have here, but his is much more fleshed out and in AS3). Mike works with Jobe at ElectroTank. Together, they encompass one of the best Flash Game programming teams working today.
This is a relatively new blog, written by another extraordinary individual who wants to share his game programming experience and knowledge with others. He has many cool entries on this site, some for beginners and some for much more advanced developers. His latest also deals with Bitmap animation caching. He has taken some code ideas I presented to a new level by implementing three helper classes that do much of the work for the developer.
Make It Big In Games
This is not necessarily a Flash game programming site, but if you have any desire to make money from your games, this is the blog for you. It is chockfull of insight from Jeff Tunnel, who has been making games for ages. You can read his bio here . He is nothing short of a visionary in the field and we are lucky to have his thoughts to read on a daily basis.
The Flash Game Programming Wiki!
This is a great resource that needs all of our help to thrive. It already contains great tutorials on development, graphic techniques, story telling, tools and more.
Actionscript game developer
This one seems pretty promising. I haven't had time to read all of it, but he is yet another independent Flash game developer who wants to share his views and ideas with others. Guys like this need our support so they will continue to write good games and come up with unique ideas.
There are many other great blogs if you are interested in Flash Development. They don't cover games exclusively, but obviously much of the code and many of the ideas can be applied to game development:
Grant Skinner's Blog - One of the original Flash Bloggers, still going strong.
Keith Peters' blog - Author of many of the great math based books on Flash
Andre Michelle's Blog - A legend in the Flash game programming world
Colin Moock's Blog - The definitive source on everything Actionscript. If you have a favorite, drop us a line and we'll check it out.
1983 February: Atari Buy One Get On Free Offer
By early 1983, Atari was trying find answers on how to sell its cartridges.With the 2600 market completed saturated with cheap 3rd party games, they had to do anything possible. their first try was a "buy one get one free" offer. By the way, this has to rank as one of the greatest/most annoying (I can't decide which and, honestly, I don't want to) Atari commercials ever produced.
1983: Atari 2600 Ms. Pac-Man Commercial
Ms. Pac-Man was one of the best Atari 2600 games ever released. It completely made-up for the dismal Pac-Man cartridge, but it was too little, too late. I loved this version, and played it almost as much as "River Raid". This first Ms Pac-Man commercial shows 3 young boys dreaming about Ms. Pac Man. It zooms-in to show just how much better the graphics were than the Atari 2600 Pac-Man.
This second commercial does-away with any story, and uses an ut ra-cool "sync-generator" rotating video-cube effect to show the hour different levels in the game, and more of the detailed (for the 2600) graphics.
1983 Summer: Atari Sizzle Film/Commercial For Pole Position 2600
The Atari 8-bit/5200 computer version of Pole Position was almost pixel perfect, but this 2600 translation was not too shabby either. The graphics were still wanting (they had nothing on Activision's later entry named "Enduro"), but at least it had most of the game-play intact. The 5200 graphics are highlightes in the video. I'm torn as to whether is a sizzle film or a commercial. The "Corporate Executive" joke at the beginning and the 1:30 length point towards an industry sizzle, but it sure looks like a TV commercial.
1983 Summer: Sizzle Film For 5200 Joust
Joust for the Atari 5200 and Atari 8-bit computers was one of the best arcade translations of the early 1980's. The 7800 version even better. This film looks like it was created for the Summer CES to promote the 5200. The 2600 version is not mentioned at all.
1983 September: Pac-Man Rebate Commercial
Even though the quality of Atari's products had improved in 1983, they were still sitting on loads of unsold inventory and experiencing a huge slump in sales. To combat this effect, Atari and it's new President James Morgan (hired after Ray Kassar resigned while he faced charges of inside trading) opted to slash VCS prices with a rebate, and offer a free Pac-Man cartridge to new buyers of the system. It was a bold, yet desperate move to try to save a business that had suddenly turned from cash cow to dead sow. However, what it really managed to do was accelerate a market crash that was already in full-swing.
Personal Anecdote: At this time, I had no idea that the video game business was crashing all I knew was that the local Kay Bee Toys had Atari 2600 games for $5.00 each, and I was going to buy as many as possible. The summer of 1983 was filled with my brother and I buying and playing cheap, terrible games like "Space Cavern" and "Marauder" and loving every minute of it. We also picked up copies of some of the original VCS games (like Street Racer, Indy 500, and Video Olympics) for $.50 cents each at Fed Mart. We just went around buying everything possible, and playingthe hell out our Atari VCS.. We were 13 years old, and had no concept of a "market crash", or a "sustainable economy". We just wanted to play as many games as we could find and suddenly we had the opportunity.
Fall 1983: Atari Home Computers Commercial
This commercial features the Atari 600XL, 800XL, and Eastern Front. Atari was just starting to really feel the heat from Commodore. Just a year before The Atari 8-bit computer line was handed the "software crown" by Electronic Games Magazine, as they had calculated that the Atari 400/800 had more games available than any other computer line. However, the story in the fall of 1983 was not very good. Atari had tried to up the ante with the 1200XL in January of 1983, but it was too large, too expensive and had a buggy OS. The Commodore Vic 20 and C64 had undercut the 400/800 by almost 1/2 the price. The 600XL and 800XL were sleek new computers that were supposed to combat Commodore's encroachment into Atari's "Home Computer" territory. The severely underpowered 600 XL was a disaster, but the 800XL was a fairly popular machine that kept the Atari Home Computer business afloat for some time afterward.
Personal Anecdote: By this time my brother Jeff and I wanted an Atari XL computer more than anything else in the entire world. We also saw the limitations of the 2600, but instead of abandoning Atari, we wanted to take the next logical step and get one of their computers. We had both started making our own BASIC programs at school, and dreamed of the day we could program our own games on our own computer. We were such huge Atari fans that would have considered no other computer system except for Atari. I recently wrote a blog entry describing how we acquired our Atari 800 computer in 1983. You can read it here.
1983 Late: "Discover The Magic Of Atari" Atari 5200 Games Commercial
This commercial includes many Atari 5200 games that were released in 1983 (such as Realsports Baseball and Joust).
1983 Late: Atari 5200/2600 Mario Brothers
Atari made the original single-screen two-player "Mario Bros." game for both the 2600 and the 5200. If they had stuck it out long enough and had been given the opportunity to create a conversion "Super Mario Bros." for the 5200 or 7800, who knows what could have happened.
1983 Christmas Atari Commercial
Even though the games Atari produced in 1983 rivaled almost everything they had done in the past, they simply could not undo the damage done in 1982 by their poor decision making. This Christmas commercial highlights some of the best games Atari had ever produced for its home systems and they all came out in 1983. The games shown in the commercial below are from the 5200, even though Santa stuffs 2600 games into the stockings. Still, the 2600 versions of both Ms Pac Man and Jungle Hunt were very well done for the time.
By the end of the year Atari posted loss of more than $500 million dollars for their parent company Warner Communication. Most of the rest of the industry was affected as well. Within 12 months, nearly every major video game company would be out of business, or would radically change their focus.
Late 1983/1984 Alan Alda Atari XL Computer Commercials
After announcing a whole new set of computer products at the January CES show (the 1400XL and 1450 XLD computers among other items) in 1984, Atari Inc. hired Alan Alda as the spokesman for their computer line. In a series of commercials, Alda attempted to lend his familiar face to Atari's Home computers in the hopes that it would make the public more comfortable with he idea of Video Game company's computer wares. In this first commercial Alda attempts to sell the public on Atari's new word processing program AtariWriter.
In this next one, Alan Alda extols the virtues of Atari's learning software.
Personal Anecdote: There was one really good reason why I loved these commercials. My mom, who otherwise did not understand our obsession with computers and video games, absolutely adored Alan Alda. As soon as Alda started appearing in Atari commercials, she became interested in our computer adventures. All of of a sudden she was more willing to take us to store to buy software, the user group meetings, and over to friend's house to trade games. I'm not sure if she thought she could meet Alan Alda or not by doing these things, but anything that helped make my mom go along with our plans was OK with me.
1984 June: Atari Mind Link
At the June CES show in 1984, Atari Inc. was in shambles. rumors were flying about the fate of the America's first video game company. Atari was showing their newest generation video game system, the 7800, as well as new computers, software and peripherals. The 7800 was very promising, as it was fully Atari 2600 backwards compatible (a major flaw of the 5200 was its lack of backwards compatibility) and had the ability to closely simulate the hottest arcade games of the time (like Galaga) by sporting a very sophisticated graphics chip. Atari also showed experimental products like the "Mind Link", a set of games and hardware that would players play games using "mind control" (sort of).
Soon after this show, Atari was dissolved into two separate companies. The Home Division (computers and video games) was sold to ex Commodore President Jack Tramiel (the same man who had helped bankrupt Atari Inc.with his line of low-cost Home Computers). Tramiel instantly closed down the video game business, abandoning the 7800. For the second time in Atari's short history, that an executive chose to promote the failing computer business over the historically much more lucrative/and or promising video game business. It was a costly mistake that damned the company into obscurity. Tramiel's main goal was to use his "Business Is War" tactics to drive his old rivals at Commodore out of business, and the only way to do that would be focus Atari energies solely on the 8-bit computer line, and a new line of 16-bit machines.
1985: Atari 65 XE Commercial
When Atari Inc. was dissolved in June of 1984, it split into a couple parts. While the "home" division (computers and video games) was sold to ex-Commodore President Jack Tramiel, and renamed "Atari Corp.", the rest was kept by Warner Communications and renamed "Atari Games". Jack Tramiel's Atari Corp. set-off immediately to try to combat his old company, Commodore. The Commodore 64 had taken away so much Market share from Atari since 1983, that this would be no easy feat. As well as working on a line of 16-Bit "Mac-buster" computers named the ST, Atari Corp. developed a next generation of the 8-bit line to market directly against rival Commodore's offerings. The 65XE and 130XE were introduced in February of 1985 and the battle began.
While the Tramiel Era of Atari was not known for it's commercials, this one shows the business style of Jack Tramiel at the time. He would use any tactic to beat his old company and new rival Commodore, even if it meant pricing his new computers so low ($99) that there would be almost no profit made on any sale. The commercial also contains a few outright lies. For example, As Tramiel knew well, the Commodore 64 had much better sound than the Atari 8-bit line. Truth be damned though, this was war! Actually though, the battle was short-lived. Atari Corp. simply could not compete with the mind-share Commodore had created for it's arguably less powerful computer line. Atari's focus on the XE line dwindled almost immediately as they decided to concentrate on the new ST line of products.
Personal Anecdote: This was a very tough time to be an Atari computer owner. The "sections" of computer stores dedicated to Atari 8-bit computers had slimmed over the years. First they scaled down to a "wall", then to a "shelf", and after that, they disappeared completely. Finding any kind of software became a complete crap-shoot. When "Utlima IV" was released in 1985, I forced my mom to drive to dozens of software and department stores in vain attempt to find a copy. Nearing the end of our fruitless journey, I remembered that Crown Books had recently announced that it wanted to create a software section just like B. Dalton Software Etc. In the back of the local Crown Books, I found a single stack of Atari software, and in that stack was a single copy of "Ultima IV". It was a glorious moment, but also the last time I ever found a piece of software for my Atari 8-bit computer at any kind of normal store.
1985 October: Atari Games Gauntlet Commercial/Sizzle Film
The remaining part of Atari that Warner Communications kept was renamed Atari Games. Since the coin-op and home divisions of Atari Inc. were mostly separate, Atari Games continued almost as if nothing had ever happened. The division changed hands a few times, but continued to create magnificent coin-op games for the arcades well into the 90's. This film could very likely have been a commercial, but it could have been a sizzle film created for AMOA or some other industry coin-op trade show. Gauntlet was released in October 1985, so I'd expect this film is from about the same time.
Later in 1985, Warner Communications sold Atari Games to Atari's long-time licensing partner, Namco.
1985: Atari ST "Power Without The Price" Commercial
The Tramiel owned Atari Corp. was not well-known for their commercials...advertising...or promotion...or anything else for that matter. However, they did produce come commercials Unlike the Atari Inc of old though, hardly anyone ever saw them. These commercials were not being shown on Saturday morning any more, but instead at odd times at night, and during weekend talk shows. Atari Corp had trademarked the slogan "Power Without The Price" in September of 1984, but the ST was still not available. In fact the ST line of 16-bit computers was just an idea at that time. In 1984, a team of ex-Atari engineers (some of the same people who had originally designed the Atari 800) proposed a new 16-bit computer to Tramiel's Atari. This computer, the "Lorraine" was supposed to be the great next generation machine that could take on the Apple Macintosh and win the battle. However, machinations ensued, and Tramiel did not end up getting his hands on the "Lorraine". The machine was bought by Commodore, and ultimately released as the Amiga. Jack Tramiel and his sons, now working in Atari management, went ahead and designed their own 16 bit machine. The impressive "Atari ST" line was shown for the first time in April 1985. Dubbed the "Jackintosh", The ST,was only a niche seller in the USA, but made a sizable splash in Europe. It was not long before Atari Corp. started concentrating on the European market at the expense of the USA.
Personal Anecdote: Still being huge Atari fans, my brother and I could not see any other path than upgrading our Atari 800 to an Atari ST. If we had known the history of Atari well, and had we known that the actual successor to the 800 was the Amiga, we might have chosen a different path. However, at the time, we saved-up for An Atari ST for more an year. We sold our Atari 8-bit computer collectios and all of our software (including all the programs we wrote in Atari Basic to a guy named Manny. Manny if you are reading this, do you still have those?) to other local Atari fans. In January 1987, for our birthday, we bought an Atari ST. However, this was no easy feat. Atari had such distribution problems that we could not find any store to in which to buy one. We had to meet the the owner of the Orange California mail order computer store, Computer Games + in the parking lot of a Denny's, and make the sale that way. It's inconceivable now, that 20 years ago we would have given that much money to a guy in parking lot, but we did it.
1987 Q1: Atari Industry Sizzle For Atari 7800
Still struggling to get anyone to take them and their computers seriously, the Tramiels needed some sort of product to sell. Nintendo revitalized the video game market in the USA in 1985 with the NES and Super Mario Brothers. Since they had proved that video games could be a viable market again. Since Atari Corp. still had warehouses of old 2600 and 7800 equipment they could burn off, it was decided to finally launch the 7800, and take the 2600 Jr (a re-designed 2600 console) out of mothballs.
Atari "soft launched" the 7800 in June 1986. The machines trickled out for the next 12 months until Atari got serious, and by then it was too late. When the 7800 was designed in 1983/1984 by GCC for Atari Inc., it was a worthy successor to the 2600 and 5200. It had many advantages over those machines, and if it was launched that year, it could have formed basis for more machines to come. However, the advances by Nintendo had pretty much negated any advantage the 7800 would have had 2 years prior. The 7800 graphics were good, however, the sound chip was still the stinky old one from the 2600. With Nintendo/Square creating full sound tracks for games like "Super Mario Bros" and "Final Fantasy", the 7800 sound was too primitive to compete. However, and optional sound chip could be embedded in cartridges. The only game to use this was Lucasarts "Ballblazer"
Anecdote: Because it was obvious by at this point that Jeff and I were masochists for Atari torture, we asked our parents for an Atari 7800 for Christmas in 1986. We had seen an advertisement for the 7800 in the text of a mail-order computer company in the back of Antic magazine. We could not not pass-up our chance to get the "Pro System" we had drooled over in the pages of Electronic Games Magazine years prior. To our surprise, the 7800 was not a bad machine. The pack-in Pole Position II was more colorful and had sharper graphics than the original on the 5200 and 8-bit computers. As well, the other two games we received, "Food Fight" and "Galaga" were extraordinarily fun to play. The only bad part was trying to find more games for the system. None were available any where. Eventually Toy R Us stocked them, but it was very difficult to finally have the 7800, and have very little to play on it. Under the stewardship of the Tramiels' at Atari, this situation never rectified itself.
1987: Atari 7800 "The Choice Of Experts"
It's very difficult to let this one pass without a comment. Atari Corp. after Tramiel bought it, was not known for advertising. While they did produce a few ads (some of them below), they mostlyf suffered from the problems that this one suffers from. This commercial features "Donn Nauert" a member of the "U.S. National Video Game Team" explaining just how cool the Atari 7800 is (was). Look, I was more into video game than any other 17 year old at the time. I had followed video games for years, and played as much as possible. I even owned an Atari 7800 . However, no self respecting kid I knew would have bought anything that was advertised this way. No one I knew had any idea what the "U.S. National Video Game" team was, or what games they played. Let's be honest, the opportunity cost of any member of a "The U.S. National Video Game Team" playing the 7800 instead of honing their skills on "Super Mario Bros." would have been a national disgrace. If you are curious, you can read more of the storied history of the "U.S. National Video Game Team" and Donn Nuaert (who actually held or still holds a couple Guiness World Records) here or here or here or here.
1987 January Atari Mega ST Desktop Publishing System Comparison Commercial
For all that Atari fans criticize the Tramiels and Atari Corp. for, they did get some things right. The ST computer line was really good. They continued this line of machines with the Mega ST, announced in January of 1987. It was supposed to be the "serious" Atari ST. It had more memory, enhanced graphic performance (via the Blitter chip, already a feature of the Commodore Amiga) a detatchable keyboard, battery-backed-up clock, and a more serious design. Along with it, Atari Corp. announced a desktop publishing system that was supposed to take on the world.
Mega ST Vs. Mac Commercial (UK)
Still struggling to sell computers in the USA, Atari Corp. focused on the UK and Europe for the release of the Mega ST. In a series of ads and commercials Atari attempted to show how much of a better value an Atari ST computer could be over a standard Mac.
Personal Anecdote: As it turned out, acquiring software for the Atari ST was almost as hard as buying the machine in the first place. When Computer Games + opened a store front in Orange, CA, Jeff and I started making the the 3 hour round-trip at least once a month to satisfy our ST gaming desires. Since Atari was concentrating their efforts on Europe, nearly every game at the store was some kind of import from the UK or France. For us, companies like Ubisoft and Infogrames were household names almost a decade before most other gamers even knew France made software. The best games at the time came from Psygnosis and The Bitmap brothers i nthe UK. However, we always looked forward to a U.S. based company making games for our beloved Atari ST. We bought every game by FTL (Sundog, Dungeon Master, Oids) and SSI (Phantasie I, II,III, Questron, Wizard's Crown) until end of the decade when all state-side support of the ST completely dried-up.
1988 Q1: Atari XE Game System Commercials
Atari announced the XE Game Systems or XEGS at the June 1987 CES Show. After trying tried to re-enter the video game market with the 7800 and 2600 Jr. about a year before, Atari Corp. showed it's true colors. They had no desire to seriously make video games, they just wanted to burn-off the old stocks of hardware before they could announce this manchine. The XE Game System was essentially an Atari 65 XE (the long lost cousin to the Atari 800, and 800XL), redesigned with neon buttons stolen from a wall art at Miller's Outpost. It came with a light gun, a joy stick, and 3 games: Missile Command, Flight Simulator, and Bug Hunt. They fooled no on with this lame entry into the video game space. The technology was nearly 10 years old, the games were mostly repacked hits from the the same period, and the hardware was recycled from warehouses of unsold 8-bit computers. Not only was it a complete and total disaster, but it took the focus off the one product Atari that could have been a success: The 7800.
Because Atari had a banner year in 1987 with the 7800 and 2600 Jr. (doubling sales over the previous year) they started an advertising blitz in the first quarter of 1988 (always the best time to advertise...right AFTER Christmas). Some of those commercials are below
This one features for "video game company heads" espousing the greatness of the XEGS.
This commercial is for the baseball game Hardball. The game was already several years old, but that did not stop Atari Corp. advertising it for the XEGS, or the new versions for the 7800 and 2600.
This commercial attempted to show "how much better" the XEGS was than the Nintendo Entertainment System. Technically, the XEGS did have more software than the NES, however, Atari Corp. missed one huge advantage for the NES: "Super Mario Bros.".
It was not just the XEGS that got some commercial time in early 1988. The commercial below highlighted some of the brand-new Atari 2600 games that had been developed. Some of them, like "David's Midnight Magic" were not half-bad.
...and the 7800 was not forgotten either. To Atari fans, this seemed like a Renaissance. It looked like Atari was back for good.
Atari was really trying to push the fact that the 7800 could play "more games" than any other video game system (because it included the now ancient 2600 games). In this commercial they push the quantity factor, and also the fact that most new games were being sold for $19.99. Notice in this video, as the game screens fly by, that some of them are not for 2600 or the 7800 at all, but are instead 8-bit XL/XE games (i.e. David's Midnight Magic). Atari Corp. was not always as tight with the truth when it came its promotion practices, and this is another (albeit minor) example.
Of course all this promotion did not last very long. All of these systems were trounced in 1988. A DRAM shortage forced Atari Corp to focus all their money and energy on their biggest market: Europe. Focus and effort for the USA dwindled, so did advertising dollars. It's unfortunate, as Jack Tramiel had actually performed a miracle in 1987, turning Atari Corp. into a profitable company, but his hands were tied trying to sell his big money makers, the ST Computer line. They required loads of DRAM chips that were simply not available. There was still a huge supply of XEGS/7800/2600 hardware and software, but consumers, while being bombarded with advertisements from Nintendo and Sega, did not hear even a peep from Atari. The XEGS saw deep discounts in the Christmas season. Nothing improved in 1989, and by the end of 1991, all support for the XEGS/7800/2600 was stopped.
1988 Atari Games Tengen RBI Baseball Commercial For The NES
In very early 1988, Atari Games (the coin-op arm of the original Atari no part of Namco) created a company named Tengen to focus on making 3rd party games for the Nintendo Entertainment System. going even further than when Atari Inc. started a "home" division in 1975, Atari Games created Tengen as separate entity, and then licensed them their own games. The first games they created were versions of Namco's Pac-Man and Atari Games coin-op "RBI Baseball".
Tengen created many games for the NES including (what turned out to be) an unlicensed version of Tetris that embroiled the company in a series of lawsuits that did not end it Tengen's favor. In 1993, Namco sold the the controlling interest in Atari Games back to Time Warner, and changed the name of Tengen to Time Warner Interactive. Atari Games (the coin-op division) continued as an entity under Time Warner until they were sold to Midway in 1996, at which-time they became known as Midway Games West. They ceased making coin-ops in 2001, ending the efforts of the original Atari Inc coin-op division after nearly 30 years.
1989 November: Federated Group Closeout Sale Commercial
To help create a market for it's own products in the USA, Atari corp purchased the chain of "Federated Group" stores in August of 1987. The idea was to have it's own retail outlet that Atari could use as the epicenter for it's drive to take-back the video game and computer market. Problem was, Federated Group was more messed-up than Atari Corp. itself and fixing the problem was beyond the abilities of Atari's management. Visiting a Federated Group at the time when Atari supposedly "owned" them was a sad joke. Atari hardware was never in supply, and the software for it's own machines was limited or nonexistent.
Personal Anecdote: My brother and I bought a 1040 ST from Federated Group in 1988, and the mouse for the computer promptly crapped-out. We took it back to the store, and asked for a replacement. They could not offer one immediately, but they had useturn it into their "Service Department". We visited the store and called them many times over the next 12 months, but could never get a straight answer about when our Mouse would be fixed. Basically, they had no idea what had happened, and did not want to help us at all. Finally, we wrote a letter to the Bureau Of Consumer Affairs, and in about 1 week Federated Group was falling all over themselves to help us out. When we finally went in to pick up our ST Mouse, the manager of the store yelled at us for making his "life hard" because we had contacted the Bureau Of Consumer Affairs. Suffice it to say, that was the last we ever purchased anything from the store. Not surprising,in the fall of 1989, Atari liquidated their remaining Federated Group Stores and wrote off the experiment as a huge mistake.
1989: Atari Lynx Commercial
This commercial highlights some of the amazing features of the "Handy" Epyx Lynx designed by Dave Needle and R.J. Mical. . The Lynx had very little to do with Atari. The Lynx was created at Epyx, and all the best games were created by Epyx. Epyx could not get the money to market it themselves, so they made a deal with Atari. Rumor has it that Atari Corp. pulled one of it's "business is war" deals with Epyx, and withheld payments long enough for the company to go out of business, leaving them sole owners of the Lynx. I'm not sure how true this rumor actually is, but it sure sounds like something Atari Corp. might have done. Without the support of the Epyx programmers, most of the Lynx software (after the initial crop of games) was pretty dreadful .By the time programmers got good enough to make some decent games, it was too late.
1990 Atari "Lynx In The Can" Commercial
Today this commercial looks like one of those "retro jokes" where a guy takes out a "Mobile Phone" in a car and it's the size of a brick. The same can be said for this kid who somehow hides an enormous Lynx system in his pants, only to take it out in a stall and play it. There are so many things wrong with this one it's difficult to even start.
Personal Anecdote: Against our better judgment, Jeff and I purchased an Atari Lynx about this time. The machines were only available at Software Etc. at the time, and the cartridge selection was very limited. It was such a cool looking device, and played games so well, we were sure that Atari had finally created the hit system they had needed for almost a decade. The first games we bought did not disappoint either. Zolar Mercenary, Gates Of Zendacon, Warbirds, and Todd's Adventures In Slime World were all excellent games. Too bad we were the only people around who ever played them.
1992 June 20th: Atari Lynx "Batman Returns" Commercial
By the end of 1991, Atari had sold 1,000,000 Lynx games and was set to take on the world in 1992. They expected Lynx sales to double in 1992. 80 games were announced for release. "Batman Returns" was supposed to be the "Big Hit" for the Lynx. It was one of the few licensed/movie tie-in games that a machine with the "Atari" name had secured since the days of "Raiders Of The Lost Ark" for the 2600. Too bad it was a run-of-the-mill beat-em-up that did not offer enough value for anyone to take seriously. In less than 1 year, Atari stopped almost all support for the Lynx. The game was released on August 20th, so I assume the commercial was shown soon after. By the way, this commercial contains a half-truth that could be easily seen through by any kid who played video games at the time. the Lynx could display "4000" different colors, but only 16 of them at once.
By December 1992, Atari's plans for the Lynx were shattered. Sales for the year were far lower than expected. The Sega Game Gear color portable system had arrived, and Atari now did not have the only color hand-held on the block. The Lynx had some better features than the Game Gear (stereo siund, Comlynx support) but it was also almost twice the size of the Game Gear, and ate batteries at more than twice the pace. For Christmas, the price of the Lynx was reduced to $79.99.
Personal Anecdote: By the of 1993, the Lynx was a dead product in the USA. The only stores that sold it, Software Etc./Babbages were blowing out games at fraction of their original prices. 10 years to the date of the first Video Game crash of 1983, I was again, like a giddy school boy, running around trying to buy as many games as possible at almost unheard of prices, be damned the effects of the fallout. By Christmas I had found 14 Lynx games at various stores and paid no more than $7.99 each for them. I gave them all to my brother for Christmas. It was the last time I was ever able to buy a Lynx game at a regular brick and mortor store.