In 1971, engineers Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney organized the first company to commercially produce coin-operated video games. They applied for the name Syzygy, but it was already taken. The pair then compiled a list of terms with positive connotations from a favorite board game, Go, and submitted these as alternatives. From their list, the government selected "Atari", a Japanese word that loosely means "Score!"note
Atari's first game, Pong, debuted in 1972. It was a simple but hugely popular alternative to pinball machines, and other companies began to flood the market with imitations; Atari produced a home consumer version of Pong in 1975. In 1976, Atari was sold to Warner Communications; Bushnell used the proceeds and terms of sale to start up a family restaurant concept called Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza Time Theatre (which was Atari's Restaurant Operating Division before being spun off as an independent company).
In 1977, Atari introduced the Video Computer System or VCS, later known as the Atari 2600. 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 ][ 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 weren't self-centering and were so cheaply made that they frequently broke...after a few hours of use), and its lack of compatibility with either games for the computer line it was based on or its predecessor 2600. The 5200 also had the misfortune of being released right before The Great Video Game Crash of 1983 took hold. Atari soon discontinued the machine. An oddity 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.
Due to The Great Video Game Crash of 1983, Warner Communications broke the company up in 1984. The video game and computer divisions were sold to a small company called Tramiel Technologies, founded by Jack Tramiel (born Jacek Trzmiel), the founder and former CEO of Commodore Business Machines, who had been pushed out of his old company the previous year; he renamed his company to Atari Corporation. The arcade division was retained and spun out as a new company called Atari Games Inc., retaining most of Atari's arcade programmers and designers. Many divisions, such as a telecom division called Ataritel, were scuttled entirely.
In 1985, Atari Corp. introduced a 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 drop off when customers realized how much superior the Amiga was.
Shortly after Tramiel's takeover, in early 1986 Atari Corp. released the 7800, which, unlike the 5200, was backwards compatible with the 2600. While its graphics chip was 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 Nintendo Entertainment System and Sega Master System graphically, to keep backwards compatibility, it included the combined graphics and sound chip from the 2600 and used that as the only on-board sound chip, hampering the sound quality greatly. (The ability to include in a cartridge the POKEY sound chip used in arcade games was built into the design, but was rarely used because of the cost; only three games used it.) By that time, Atari Corp's reputation as poorly run (and Nintendo's licensing terms) lead to a minuscule library, which combined with very little marketing by the company led to it be a market afterthought (though it did outsell the Master System in North America).
Interestingly, the 7800 was originally designed and produced in 1984, but the rollout was held up under Tramiel's leadership, as he and Warner sparred over who should pay the designers (and because Tramiel didn't really care about video games, caring more about using Atari to get revenge on his old company). One 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 ambidextrous button layout and impressive graphics (4000 colors, smooth pseudo-3D, and an advanced sprite processor), its large size and short battery life (due to the processing power required by those graphics) meant that the Lynx never got the market share it deserved. Also of note was that its games took a long time to load, even though they were stored on cartridges. This was because, rather than directly access 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 1992 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 3D 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.
The Jaguar soon proved to be a failure, and Atari Corporation soon merged in 1996 with a hard drive company, JT Storage Inc., which became JTS Corp, practically exiting the video game industry.
In February 1998, JTS Corp. sold Atari's assets (including the name, logo and properties) to Hasbro Interactive subsidiary Hiat XI Corp, which was renamed Atari Interactive, Inc. after the purchase. Hasbro used the Atari name for 3D remakes of their arcade game leaching off the success of Hasbro's Frogger remake a year prior. Hasbro also published compilations of Atari's arcade games under their banner around this time.
Hasbro Interactive however led directly to many money losses following the burst of the dot-com bubble after the company purchased MicroProse and Avalon Hill, with loads of money in debt, and so in 2000 Hasbro Interactive, which included Atari and MicroProse, was sold to French game company Infogrames Entertainment, who were already one of the largest game companies in the world due to their "expand through acquisition" by purchasing other game publishers like Accolade and GT Interactive Software.
Early on, Infogrames continued to use the Atari name to release compilations, but in 2001 the company reinvented the Atari brand for use on most of their core titles like Stuntman and Enter the Matrix, keeping the Infogrames brand for more casual titles.
The Atari branding strategy was a success, and in May 2003, Infogrames announced to rebrand their subsidiaries into Atari branded names:
- Atari, Inc. (formerly Infogrames, Inc. and GT Interactive Software; acquired in 1999)
- Atari Europe S.A.S.U. (formerly Infogrames Europe and Infogrames Multimedia SA)
- Atari Interactive, Inc. (formerly Infogrames Interactive, Inc.; the former Hasbro Interactive)
- Atari Australia Pty Ltd. (formerly Infogrames Australia; acquired as OziSoft in 1998; sold to Bandai Namco Entertainment in 2009)
- Atari Melbourne House Pty Ltd. (formerly Infogrames Melbourne House; acquired from Beam Software in 1999; sold to Krome Studios in 2006)
- Atari UK Ltd. (formerly Infogrames UK; acquired from Ocean Software in 1996, sold to Bandai Namco Entertainment in 2009)
By the mid-2000s, the strategy proved to be a big failure, and Atari began to run out of money due to lack of successful titles. In 2006, many of the development studios were sold off, and by 2008, Infogrames had fully purchased Atari, Inc. and Atari Interactive. In 2009, Infogrames restructured itself as Atari SA, the first time since the company sold itself to Warner in the 1970s that a company called Atari wasn't owned by a holding company. Most of the European and Australian assets were sold to Namco Bandai Games that year.
In 2010, Bushnell returned to Atari as a member of its board of directors. However by the start of the decade, it proved the company was doing severely bad, and in 2013, the American division of Atari declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy in one of the few instances where such a thing is actually positive for a company: They want independence from the failing European side of the business, which has been draining the quite hefty income the American side has been making from sales of its classic catalog on smartphones and other platforms.
While all of this was happening to Atari Corporation, Atari Games Inc. continued producing arcade games with the caveats that Atari Corp owned the pre-1985 back catalogue and the Atari trademark and licensed it to Atari Games only for use on arcade games (and only with the full "Atari Games"). Warner continued to shop it to buyers (after Tramiel said no to the sale price because, again, he cared only about the computer division). In 1985 Warner sold a majority share to Namco while retaining a minority share. (The relationship between Atari and Namco dated to 1975, when Atari sold its Japanese subsidiary to Nakamura Manufacturing Ltd.) After a couple of years Namco sold some of their portion in a management buyout, reducing them to a minority holder, while Warner retained their own minority share throughout.
After that, looking to get into home publishing, but unable to use the Atari name because of the restrictions of their license from Atari Corp, Atari Games started producing games for the NES and other consoles through a new subsidiary named Tengen (a term referring to the central dot on the Go board). 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, with Atari Games suing Nintendo for monopolizing the market for NES cartridges, and 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.
The tumultuous relations between Tengen and Nintendo helped draw the former into alliance with the latter's main competitor. Some of Tengen's unlicensed NES releases were authorized conversions of Sega games, and the Sega Genesis became Tengen's favored platform in the early 1990s.
In 1990, Namco started releasing its games on its own account in America and sold its stake in Atari Games back to Warner, which had by now become Time Warner, making Time Warner the majority owner again. Shortly after settling the Nintendo lawsuit in 1994, Warner abandoned the Atari Games and Tengen brands and began putting out most of its releases under the name of Time Warner Interactive. They only retained ownership for a couple more years.
After providing developmental support for Mortal Kombat 3, Time Warner Interactive was sold to Midway Games in 1996, at the time a division of Williams Electronics, who would spin out Midway entirely two years later. It was renamed to Midway Games West in 2000, shortly before Midway abandoned the arcade business, and disbanded three years later, thus killing off the final remnant of the original Atari for good. In an ironic twist, when Midway itself fell into bankruptcy in 2009, its assets were bought by... Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment. Can't make this stuff up.
The pre-split games catalogue is now owned by the modern Atari Interactive, while all original games in the post-split Atari Games catalog (late 1984-1999) are part of the Midway Games catalog, which is currently owned by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment.
- Air-Sea Battle
- Anti Aircraft
- Cops N' Robbers
- Crash 'N Score
- Crystal Castles
- E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
- Gran Trak 10
- Haunted House
- Hi Way
- Indy 500
- I, Robot
- Jet Fighter
- Lunar Lander
- Missile Command
- Night Driver
- Raiders of the Lost Ark
- Shark Jaws
- Skull And Crossbones
- Space Race
- Sprint 2
- Star Raiders
- Starship 1
- 720 Degrees
- APB (1987)
- Area 51
- Awesome Possum... Kicks Dr. Machino's Butt
- Centipede (1998)
- Dragon's Revenge
- Hard Drivin'
- Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
- Marble Madness
- Primal Rage
- RBI Baseball series
- Rise of the Robots
- Road Runner
- STUN Runner
- Tetris (arcade and unlicensed NES versions)
- Virtua Racing (Sega Saturn version)
- Act of War
- Alone in the Dark (2008)
- Backyard Sports
- Boiling Point: Road to Hell
- Bullet Witch
- Champions Online
- Dragon Ball Z: Budokai
- Dragon Ball Z: Budokai Tenkaichi
- Freddi Fish: ABCs Under the Sea
- Ghostbusters: The Video Game (2009)
- Girl Talk: The CD-ROM Game of Truth or Dare (Steam Edition)
- Kya: Dark Lineage
- Marc Ecko's Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure
- The Matrix: Path of Neo
- Neverwinter Nights
- Pajama Sam: Life is Rough When You Lose Your Stuff!
- Pipeworks Godzilla Trilogy
- Putt-Putt: Pep's Birthday Surprise
- RollerCoaster Tycoon
- Star Trek Online
- Superman: Shadow of Apokolips
- Test Drive
- Test Drive Unlimited and Test Drive Unlimited 2
- The Witcher