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"Have you played Atari today?"


Founded in 1972 by Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney, Atari was the only company that made both coin-operated video games and home computers. The name Atari comes from a term in the Japanese board game Go, loosely translated as, "Prepare to be attacked!"

Atari's first game, Pong, debuted in 1972. It was a simple but hugely popular alternative to pinball machines. Other famous Atari coin-operated games included Asteroids, a vector-graphics space game; Missile Command, one of the first trackball games; Gauntlet, the first four-player video game, and the North American version of Tetris.

In 1977, the Atari 2600, also called the Video Computer System or VCS, was introduced. While not the first cartridge-based console (that honor goes to the Fairchild Channel F released in the previous year), it was much more successful and had several hits (most notably Pitfall! and Chopper Command).

Two years later in 1979, after a nasty boardroom fight shoved Bushnell out of the company, Atari introduced its first home computer line, the 800 and 400 (designed by famous engineer Jay Miner, who went on to design the Amiga). These computers received minor upgrades throughout the 1980s, and had their fair share of games, too (such as Rescue on Fractalus! and Archon), but never reached the popularity of the Apple II or the later Commodore 64.

In 1982, Atari created the 5200, a game console largely based on its home computer line (in fact, it was little more than an 800 with no tape or disk support and joysticks instead of a keyboard). It was a flop, largely due to its infamously bad analog controllers (they were not self-centering and so cheaply-made that they frequently broke...after a few hours of use). Atari soon stopped producing the machine. An interesting aspect of this console was that a single cable ran from the back of the machine to a small box, to which an RF cable and power adapter connected. The console was also incredibly large (even larger than the Xbox), due to a built-in controller storage compartment.

Due to The Great Video Game Crash of 1983, Warner Communications, Atari's parent company, broke the company up in 1984. The video game and computer divisions were sold to a small company called Tramel (sic) Technologies. The arcade division was retained as a new company called Atari Games Corp. Many divisions (such as a telecommunications division called Ataritel) were scuttled entirely.

In 1985, Jack Tramiel (born Idek Tramielski), the founder and former CEO of Commodore Business Machines, who had acquired the consumer division of Atari the previous year (and renamed his company to Atari Corp.), introduced his 16-bit computer design, the Atari ST. While technically far inferior to the Commodore Amiga, the ST was marketed much more adeptly, and quickly cornered the 16-bit market. Later, though, it would fail when customers realized how much superior the Amiga was.

Shortly after that, in 1986, Atari produced the 7800. While its 256-color graphics were a huge step up from anything that the company had previously produced (and its potentially infinite number of sprites even gave it an edge over the NES and Sega Master System), its 2600-sourced sound chip and minuscule library, combined with very little marketing by Atari, made it a flop. Interestingly, the 7800 was originally designed and produced in 1984, but the project was shelved under Tramiel's leadership. A new sound chip, dubbed GUMBY (a nod to the POKEY chip in the 800 and 5200 - which had nothing to do with the Gumby shorts), was planned, but Tramiel cancelled development on it, preferring to focus on the computer line. One troper wonders what might have been had the 7800 been released on time and with all of its planned hardware.

The following year, in 1987, Atari released the XEGS game console. This was a strange decision, as it was virtually identical in concept and capability to the 5200 of 1982, the only difference being that it included a keyboard and support for cartridge-based 800 games. The XEGS also used the then-standard 2600-style joystick. It was incredibly dated, though, as it ran on 9-year-old technology, and was a commercial failure.

Then, in 1989, Atari released the Lynx, its first handheld console and the first color handheld ever. Despite its advanced features (it had color graphics, an advanced sprite processor and smooth 3-D graphics) and reversible button layout (it had two sets of buttons, allowing the user to flip it over and play with the D-pad on the right if he were left-handed - of course, the screen was also re-oriented to match), its large size and short battery life (due to the processing power required to handle the advanced graphics capabilities) meant that the Lynx never got the market share that it deserved. Also of note was that its games took time to load, even though they were stored on cartridges. This was because, rather than directly access the game data from the cartridges themselves, the Lynx actually copied it into system memory (taking unnecessary time and draining the batteries in the process).

Hoping to recapture the home computer market, which was now dominated by PCs and the Amiga, Atari released the 32-bit TT. Atari hoped that its 32-bit computer would give it much-needed market share, but it was too little too late. It was replaced in 1993 by the Falcon, which sold for a grand total of one year before being discontinued when Atari decided to focus on the console market (remember, Atari had abandoned development on the 7800 in order to focus on computers).

This resulted in the infamous Jaguar in 1993. Designed by an outside team, it was billed as the first 64-bit console. However, it only had a 16-bit CPU, with a 64-bit sprite processor. Customers hoping for incredible 3-D graphics to surpass the 32-bit 3DO released in the same year were disappointed by the Jaguar's untextured, blocky models. However, it was in the Jaguar era that modernized remakes of classic Atari games started to find success with Tempest 2000.

Atari merged in 1996 with a hard drive company (JT Storage Inc.), which became JTS Corp. and sold out the Atari name to Hasbro (JTS Corp. then went bankrupt a year later). Then Hasbro sold the name to Infogrames, which then used it to sell licensed Dragonball Z fighting games, other licensed games, and most successfully, anthologies of classic Atari console and home games (Hasbro started doing this in the early 2000s, but the former Infogrames heavily stepped up in promoting the Atari back catalog on modern consoles and computers). In 2009, Infogrames went bankrupt and restructured itself as Atari Inc., the first since the company sold itself to Warner in the 1970s that a company called Atari wasn't owned by a holding company. In 2010, Bushnell returned to Atari as a member of its board of directors.

Meanwhile, Atari Games went through a variety of owners; it became independent from Namco in 1987, but remained the U.S. distributor for Namco's games. Atari Games started producing games for the Nintendo Entertainment System and other consoles through a new subsidiary named Tengen. Though Tengen was initially a Nintendo licensee, Atari Games acquired the source code to the NES's lock-out system and Tengen, having found a way to circumvent it, started releasing its games for the NES on unlicensed black cartridges. Lawsuits began immediately, Atari Games suing Nintendo for monopolizing the market for NES cartridges, Nintendo claiming patent violation. Another legal battle between Atari Games and Nintendo, concerning the rights to Tetris, was more quickly decided in Nintendo's favor.

In 1990, Namco started releasing its games on its own account in America and sold its stake in Atari Games to Warner again, which had by now become Time Warner. Shortly after settling the Nintendo lawsuit in 1994, Atari Games abandoned the Tengen brand and began putting out most of its releases under the name of Time Warner Interactive. Atari Games finally became part of Midway Games in 1996. It was renamed to Midway Games West in 2000 and disbanded three years later. The Atari Games catalog is in turn considered apart of the Midway Games catalog, and are currently owned by Warner once more.

Atari Games/Tengen/Time Warner Interactive releases (post-crash, pre-Midway):