A Retro Guide to the Atari Game Platform
A relic of gaming history, the Atari deserves more kudos than it gets. It holds a firm place in most Gen X gamers’ hearts, and rightfully so, in our humble opinion. It wasn’t the video computer system, and by no means will it be the last, but Atari led us to computer gaming as we know it today.
To make our case, we’re going through the history of the atari game platform. From the company’s fledgling days through to what they’re up to now…
Atari wasn’t always Atari. When co-founders Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney originally partnered up, they founded Syzygy. Their original aim wasn’t to revolutionize the computer gaming world either. They began with the goal of creating a clone of ‘Spacewar’.
They did achieve this and created ‘Computer Space’. Their game boasted being the first arcade video game and the first commercially available video game. While the game saw much success in arcades, success didn’t translate to sales for home gaming.
Having discovered the name Syzygy was already in use, the pair changed their company name to the now household name of Atari in 1972. The Japanese word is associated with good fortune, which the pair certainly went onto find after the name change.
Atari saw initial arcade success with Pong, as well as the many clones of Pong such as Pong Doubles, Super Pong, Ultra Pong… you get the point. But arcade gaming success was not enough to sate the pair. Gaming at home was the future.
With that, a home version of Pong was released in 1975 and saw incredible commercial success that their original idea did not. But competitors like Nintendo soon began to release their own knock-off versions of Pong, leading to an oversaturated market.
Fortunately, Bushnell and Dabney had been working on something else in the background… something special.
The Atari VCS
The trouble with Pong consoles was that they only had a few games programmed into the console, so they were limited. The new system Atari was working on was CPU based. It would be able to play any game from specialized game carts, inspired by home computer technology at the time.
The Atari VCS wasn’t the first video computer system. Their competitor Fairchild Semiconductor released the CPU-based Video Entertainment System. It didn’t plug into home computers, but televisions.
After getting more investment from a sale to Warner Communications, Atari was able to launch the Atari VCS on September 11th, 1977. The original console sold for $199, which is approximately $800 adjusted for inflation.
The original Atari VCS came with all hookups, 2 controllers, and a game called Combat. The VCS didn’t do as well as Pong, though. They sold 250,000 units in 1977 and a further 550,000 units in 1978. As tensions rose, Bushnell was forced out of the company.
While Bushnell left to found Chuck E. Cheese, employee Warren Robinett was saving the day back at Atari. Robinett was working on the first computer adventure game, aptly named “Adventure”. This was the first time a game had utilized more than one screen, allowing players to explore the game.
This led gamers to realize the VCS wasn’t merely a Pong console by another name. The VCS gained traction.
The Atari 2600
1980 was a huge year for the Atari game platform. The company released an updated version of the VCS called the Atari 2600. It was a far better seller than the VCS, though the main difference was moving two of the front switches to the back of the console.
This success may have been influenced by a little thing called Space Invaders. Atari licensed Space Invaders in 1980 and sold 2 million units.
There were 4 versions of the Atari 2600 released between 1980 and 1986. The main differences were the number of game ports, switches, aesthetics, and price.
Rightfully so, Atari only expected the 2600 to stay popular for about 3 years on the market. So the company had already begun work on its successor before it’s release, codenamed “Super Stella”. But you’ll probably remember her better as the Atari 8-Bit family…
Atari 8-Bit Family
The home computer exploded in popularity while Atari was working on a successor to the VCS. Switching gears, they decided to focus their efforts on this emerging market.
This culminated in what is fondly called the Atari 8-Bit family. Overall, the 8-Bit family ran from 1979 through to 1992, beginning with the Atari 400 and Atari 800.
The names of the computers were in reference to the RAM they had. The 400 had 4KB, and the 800 had 8KB. Both were well received in the market… unlike the infamous Atari 5200.
The Atari 5200
The Atari 5200 was released in 1982. It was marketed as a high-end version of the 2600. In reality, it was a strange lovechild of the 400 and 800 computers and the 2600.
It didn’t support the 2600 library and offered only a small selection of games. Most of these were updates of the 2600 games, with better graphics offered by the console’s computer hardware.
Fortunately, Atari abandoned the idea to continue developing a successor Atari 5100, and instead re-focused on the home computer market.
Codenamed Liz, Atari looked to create successors to the 400 and 800 computers. This ended up becoming one successor, the 1200XL. With 64KB of RAM, the 1200XL didn’t see much success due to its high cost and limited new functionality.
The company eventually released the 600XL and 800XL as the lower end successors. While the 1400XL and 1450XL were released for the high-end market. The 1400XL included a modem and voice synthesizer, while the 1450XL included a double-sided floppy disk drive.
Despite the technological advancements, manufacturing issues blighted the company. Competitors like Commodore and IBM began to take hold of the market despite Atari’s efforts.
The strain on the company led to it being sold off by Warner. The Atari Home Computer and video game console divisions were sold to Jack Tramiel, the previous owner of Commodore. While the Atari arcade division was sold to NAMCO.
The company continued in the home computer market under Tramiel’s ownership. The Atari ST series was made up of 12 computers:
- The 520ST
- The 520ST+
- The 260ST
- The 520STM
- The 520STFM
- The 1040STF
- The 1040STFM
- The 1040STE
- The MEGA ST
- The STacy
- The ST Book
The series saw some success, mostly due to the lower price point than competitors at the time, particularly in European markets.
However, the blighted reputation of the company in the home computing market remained an issue. The company also struggled in the video game console market as competitors like Nintendo continued to advance in technology and popularity.
We’ll give an honorable mention for the series of weirdly named cat video game consoles. The Atari Panther, which was never released. Instead, it was replaced by the Atari Jaguar, the company’s failed attempt at a 64-bit system to compete with the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis.
Last but by no means least, the Atari Lynx. A handheld console to compete with the Nintendo Game Boy and Sega Game Gear. The Lynx saw some success, but the Game Boy’s lower price point and game selection ultimately pulled customers away.
The Atari Game Platform Now
This leads us to today. The Atari game platform overall is mostly remembered by retro games enthusiasts fondly, despite their many hiccups. Maybe one day they will rise from the ashes again. We’d love to see what they came out with if they did.
You can find more retro games content on our blog.