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Creator / Atari

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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 home console and computer divisions, along with the library of games released up to that point, 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 spun out separately as a new company called Atari Games Inc., which was partly owned by Creator/Namco and retained 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 the POKEY sound chip used in arcade games on a cartridge was built into the design, but it was rare because of the cost; only three games used it.) By that time, Atari Corp's reputation as poorly run (and Nintendo's licensing terms) led to a minuscule library, which combined with very little marketing by the company led to it being a market afterthought (though it did outsell the Master System in North America).

Interestingly, the 7800 was originally designed and produced in 1984, and some systems were sold in a few markets, but the full rollout was held up under the change to 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's computer division 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 a place in the computer market, which was now dominated by PCs and the Amiga, in 1990 Atari Corp. released the 32-bit TT, a beefed-up entry in the ST line that Atari hoped would give it much-needed market share, but it was too little too late. It was replaced in 1992 by the much cheaper, consumer-aimed Falcon, which sold for a grand total of one year before being discontinued when Atari decided to focus on the console market, which they had largely ignored in recent years.

See, the company had designed a system, codenamed Panther, that would have been released in late 1991 as an entry to the 16-bit generation, but cancelled it outright when the initial batch of the custom graphics chip failed upon testing. Turns out there was a design error made when miniaturizing the prototype breadboards into a single chip, which rendered the whole thing, and the whole batch of chips, useless. Even though the batch was small, the error would set the whole project back long enough that the decision was to just focus on the more pie-in-the-sky advanced design that the outside consultants of the Panther design team had been working on and which was much further along than expected.

This resulted in the infamous Jaguar in 1993, which was billed as the first 64-bit console. However, it actually had a 32-bit GPU with a 16-bit Motorola 68000 CPU (same as the Amiga and ST, and Sega Genesis, for that matter; it was meant to help the GPU work in conjunction with a 32-bit sound DSP),with the only thing that was truly 64-bit being the 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… and that was when developers bothered to try working through the convoluted and poorly documented architecture, with many simply opting to use the 68000 as the main processor, resulting in most of its library looking no better than what available on the 16-bit Super Nintendo at the time. However, it was in the Jaguar era that modernized remakes of classic Atari games started to find success with Tempest 2000, considered by many to be the system’s Killer App.

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 game library) to Hasbro Interactive, the video game division of Hasbro, which formed a subsidiary named Atari Interactive, Inc. to control them. Hasbro Interactive also purchased MicroProse that year. However, the company suffered large losses as part of the dot-com bubble bursting, and so parent Hasbro sold the division to French game publisher Infogrames Entertainment SA, which was already one of the largest game companies in the world due to their "expand through acquisition" strategy of purchasing other game publishers like Accolade and GT Interactive Software.

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 early Japanese subsidiary to Nakamura Manufacturing Co. Ltd.) After a couple of years Namco sold some of their portion in a management buyout, reducing their holdings to a minority interest, while Warner retained their own minority share throughout. With no single majority owning parent company, this effectively made Atari Games an independent company again.

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 in 1993 sold its stake in Atari Games back to what had by then become Time Warner, making Time Warner the majority owner again. Shortly after settling the Nintendo lawsuit in 1994, Time Warner abandoned the Atari Games and Tengen brands in favor of the name Time Warner Interactive. They only retained ownership for a couple more years, as Time Warner Interactive was sold in 1996 to Midway Games. The Atari Games name was briefly restored before being renamed to Midway Games West, though it was shut down in 2003 (Midway had left the arcade business in 2001), 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, including the post-1984 Atari Games library, were bought by... Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment. Can't make this stuff up.

Back on the other side of the Atlantic in France, Infogrames continued to use the Atari name to release compilations as Hasbro had done, but in 2001, after Midway dropped all use of the Atari name, the company began to use the Atari brand on most of their major 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 a rebrand of all their subsidiaries into Atari branded names:

  • Atari, Inc. (the US publishing arm, originally GT Interactive Software; acquired in 1999)
  • Atari Interactive, Inc. (the former Hasbro Interactive, a holding company for the Atari brand and classic games library)
  • Atari Europe S.A.S.U. (the European publishing arm, formerly Infogrames Multimedia SA)
  • Atari Australia Pty Ltd. (Australian publishing arm and development studio, acquired as OziSoft in 1998 and sold to Namco Bandai Games in 2009)
  • Atari Melbourne House Pty Ltd. (another Australian studio, acquired from Beam Software in 1999 and sold to Krome Studios in 2006)
  • Atari UK Ltd. (acquired from Ocean Software in 1996, and sold to Namco Bandai Games in 2009)

However, by the end of the decade, the company was in major financial distress following a series of flops and began selling off or closing development studios, as well as selling most of their distribution branches to Namco Bandai in 2009. That year Infogrames reorganized as Atari SA, fully taking the Atari name, but by 2013, the American divisions of Atari declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy in one of the few instances where such a thing is actually positive for a company: they wanted independence from the failing European side of the business, which was draining the quite hefty income the American side had been making from sales of its classic catalog on smartphones and other platforms. Although not entirely successful (the American branches still remain legal subsidiaries of Atari SA), they did manage to shed debt and in 2017, Atari announced that they are re-entering the video game console business after 20 years, with a new system called the Atari VCS, though its full launch was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, things were not all hunky-dory. Atari SA chief Frederic Chesnais's turnaround strategy eventually saw the company getting involved in questionable practices, such as launching a cryptocurrency called the Atari Token and what was supposed to be big money licensing deals for Atari-branded hotels that never went anywhere. His backers in these ventures were apparently shady Middle Eastern money, and after the Atari Token crashed in an obvious pump-and-dump rug-pull scheme, Chesnais was ousted from the company and even forced to pay back his recent salary.

The sole saving grace of Chesnais's final years running the company into the ground was that he brought in as a new investor a young but wealthy businessman and longtime Atari fan named Wade Rosen. Chesnais probably thought Rosen in his relative youth would be a naïve patsy for his shady schemes, but it turned out Rosen was savvy enough to have been the one to push Chesnais out, extract Atari from the shady businesses, and get it back to actually being a game publishing company. Just in time to release the highly successful Atari 50, a massive compilation of video games created by Atari Inc. and Atari Corporation (but not Atari Games, the post-1984 arcade company, the library of which is owned by Warner Bros. Games; the latest arcade game included is I, Robot, which was released only a month before Warner sold off the consumer division to Tramiel), celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Atari brand. Under Rosen's leadership, Atari was able to re-acquire many of the game IP rights it was forced to sell off to other companies, acquire Digital Eclipse, and eventually regain the rights to Rollercoaster Tycoon 3 as well.

Other licensing of the catalogue, acquisitions of other vintage game catalogues (including ones that had been sold by the company in the late 2000s), buying development studios specializing in retro game preservation and emulation (like Digital Eclipse, who developed the Atari 50 compilation), the release of a new Atari 2600+ that can play vintage – and new, yes new – 2600 and 7800 cartridges (and uses actual 9-pin connector joysticks, which actually have gone back into production, not USB controllers) and the revival of Infogrames have positioned the company as a retro gaming-centric publisher.

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    Atari Game Systems 

    Atari Pinballs 

    Atari releases (pre-crash) 

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

    Infogrames releases (pre-merger) 

    Atari releases (post-Infogrames) 

    Former Atari-owned brands, studios and game libraries