Tag Archives | Atari

The Offbeat World of Atari

For a forty-year-old company that remains synonymous with video games, Atari has experimented with an awful lot of other businesses. In its early years, it made pinball machines, jukeboxes, video phones, digital photo booths, music-visualization boxes for your hi-fi, and more. Benj Edwards, who knows more about this stuff than anyone, has compiled a look at Atari Oddities–including the aforementioned and others, and some strange games, too. (If you remember Puppy Pong, I’m impressed.)


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Atari Oddities

Atari OdditiesForty years ago this June, Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney founded Atari, Inc. in California. And with it, they founded the video game industry as we know it today. Since then, the name Atari has become synonymous with the golden age of video games and a sense of Generation X nostalgia that will never fade.

If you’re reading this, I suspect you know the Atari 2600, 5200, and 7800 consoles. You’ve played the hit arcade video games, and you may have even used an Atari 8-bit or ST computer. But the story of Atari is filled with many unseen and little known oddities. Here are 13 examples of weird Atari products and strange Atari marketing you can use as trivia at your next 1970s or 80s theme party. When they ask, “How’d you know that?”, just tell them Benj Edwards sent you.


Computer Space and the Dawn of the Arcade Video Game

Forty years ago, Nutting Associates released the world’s first mass-produced and commercially sold video game, Computer Space. It was the brainchild of Nolan Bushnell, a charismatic engineer with a creative vision matched only by his skill at self-promotion. With the help of his business partner Ted Dabney and the staff of Nutting Associates, Bushnell pushed the game from nothing into reality only two short years after conceiving the idea.

Computer Space pitted a player-controlled rocket ship against two machine-controlled flying saucers in a space simulation set before a two-dimensional star field. The player controlled the rocket with four buttons: one for fire, which shoots a missile from the front of the rocket ship; two directional rotation buttons (to rotate the ship orientation clockwise or counterclockwise); and one for thrust, which propelled the ship in whichever direction it happened to be pointing. Think of Asteroids without the asteroids, and you should get the picture.

During play, two saucers would appear on the screen and shoot at the player while flying in a zig-zag formation. The player’s goal was to dodge the saucer fire and shoot the saucers.

Considering a game of this complexity playing out on a TV set, you might think that it was created as a sophisticated piece of software running on a computer. You’d think it, but you’d be wrong–and Bushnell wouldn’t blame you for the mistake. How he and Dabney managed to pull it off is a story of audacity, tenacity, and sheer force-of-will worthy of tech legend. This is how it happened.

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Atari Finally Sets Up Shop in the iPhone App Store

You may now count Atari among the classic video game systems to find a home in the iOS App Store.

Atari Greatest Hits should be available for the iPhone and iPad sometime this evening for U.S. users. The app includes Pong for free, and includes 99 games from the Atari 2600 and arcade system for purchase. Games are sold in bundles of three or four for $1 each, or $15 for the entire collection. A handful of games include local multiplayer over Bluetooth.

Some of the classics include Yars’ Revenge, Super Breakout, Centipede and Missile Command. I’m saddened but not surprised that Activision’s Atari games, such as Pitfall and River Raid, aren’t on the list. No Pac-Man or E.T., either, but that’s probably for the best.

This isn’t Atari’s first endeavor in the iPhone App Store. The publisher has previously launched modern-looking versions of Centipede, Missile Command and Super Breakout, but the games in Greatest Hits are the actual old-school versions. It’s also Atari’s first store within a store, joining Commodore 64 and VH1 Classic Presents: Intellivision in the iPhone’s roster of classic video game emulators.

I wouldn’t expect to see an Android version. As we learned from the Kongregate debacle, in which Google temporarily removed a Flash game portal from the Android Market, stores within stores are one way to run afoul of Market policy. But that shouldn’t be a problem for Android users, who are free to purchase a third-party Atari emulator and play the console’s entire catalog without paying a dime to Atari. Makes sense to me.


Atari May Plunder Its Classics for Remakes

Atari’s not the company it used to be — literally, it’s been swallowed up by a succession of larger companies since the 1980s — but it can still milk name recognition and classic video games.

The company, now a wholly-owned subsidiary of Infogrames, is remaking the Atari 2600 classic Haunted House, and a couple of listings on Gamefly suggest that Centipede and Star Raiders remakes could be next.

Given the timing, this wouldn’t surprise me. E3 was crowded with remakes of well-known or in some cases forgotten video game franchises. Fondly remembered games like Goldeneye and NBA Jam are being brought back to life, while franchises that never really went away, such as Sonic the Hedgehog and Mortal Kombat, are going back to their 2D roots. These are safe bets in the midst of a games industry slump. If Atari wants to jump on the nostalgia train, now’s the time.

The difference between Atari’s remakes and the examples I saw at E3 is that Atari’s games are so old, there’s very little to build from. Haunted House could be a great game, but it’s impossible to say whether the remake is faithful to the original, because the original is so primitive. If Star Raiders gets remade, it’ll probably resemble Wing Commander more than anything else.

Basically, I feel the same way about Atari’s games as I do about the upcoming surge of movies based on very old video games. They won’t necessarily be bad, but they’re just blank slates with recognizable names.


Hey, I’ve Felt That Keyboard Before!

As I spent a little hands-on time with an iPad at Apple’s event yesterday morning, jabbing away at the on-screen keyboard felt oddly familiar. It wasn’t a familial similarity to the iPhone keyboard–the fact that the iPad’s keyboard is so much larger gives it a completely different personality. But my fingers seemed to be telling me that they’d had a similar experience before.

This morning it dawned on me: The iPad keyboard feels a lot like the one on the first computer I ever bought with my own money, the Atari 400.

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Fifteen Classic Game Console Design Mistakes

15 Classic Game Console Design Mistakes

Video game systems may be toys of a sort, but they’re also complicated machines. They require precision engineering, specialized hardware design, and careful industrial design to successfully achieve what seems like a simple goal: to play games on a television set. Throughout the history of home game consoles, each generation of machines has brought new opportunities to innovate. Along the way, companies have often slipped up and made mistakes that came back to haunt them later–some of which were so serious that they helped to destroy platforms and even entire corporations.

This list is by no means exhaustive, nor are all of these consoles bad overall (see The Worst Video Game Systems of All Time for that list). And though some of these problems keep popping up in one form or another–like the bad call of feeding power to the console via the RF switch shared by RCA’s Studio II and Atari’s 5200–other errors in judgments were unique to one console. Thank heavens for that.

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Forty Years of Lunar Lander

Lunar Lander

Lunar Lander games abound on every platform. Along with Tetris and Pac-Man, the game–in which your mission is to safely maneuver your lunar module onto the moon’s surface–is one of the most widely cloned computer games of all time. But did you know that game players began touching down on the moon in Lunar Lander just months after Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin did so on July 20th, 1969?

lunarlander_tinyToday’s versions of Lunar Lander are easily taken for granted; they’re generally regarded as dinky games you can get for free–“Who would pay for that?”

But the mother of all realistic space simulations wasn’t always perceived that way. In 1969, it was, in its own way, a sophisticated, ambitious piece of digital entertainment. And during the BASIC era of the 1970s and 80s, many programmers cut their teeth by attempting to program their own version of Lunar Lander. David Ahl, founder of Creative Computing magazine, called it “by far and away the single most popular computer game” in 1978 (and he was only talking about the text version!). Indeed, Lunar Lander was one of the early computer games that helped define computer games.

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Seriously, Asteroids The Movie?

asteroids1According to The Hollywood Reporter, the classic 1979 arcade game Asteroids will be made into a movie.

No joke, Universal has picked up the film rights, prevailing in a bidding war against three other studios. Matthew Lopez, whose writing credits include Race to Witch Mountain and Bedtime Stories, will pen the script. Lorenzo di Bonaventura, who produced both Transformers movies and, fittingly, Doom, will be the producer.

Now, I tend to be skeptical when it comes to nostalgia acts — I skipped the 2007 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie on principle — but this idea is truly wacky. We’re of course talking about a video game that had no plot, no characters and really, no reason to be reincarnated in any form. Asteroids is a game whose most interesting development is the occasional appearance of a flying saucer that fires bullets at random angles (so you can bet this movie will have aliens!).

One could argue that Asteroids’ complete lack of substance opens the door to limitless possibilities, but then isn’t this movie just a cheap use of name recognition to cover for generic space opera? Unless Asteroids the movie features an endless battle against free-floating rocks, complete with ruminations on the inevitability of death, I won’t be moved.