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.