Posted on May 25, 2007
Atari History Through Commercials (Part 5)
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.