Posted on May 23, 2007
Atari History Through Commercials (Part 7)
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.