A few weeks back it was announced that video game pioneer, Atari, was entering bankruptcy protection. Atari has been split up, bought, sold and resold before, changing hands between numerous parent companies so it may not mean the end of the iconic brand; but it might be. In case it is the end for Atari let’s take a look back at some of their greatest contributions to gaming.
Before Atari and Pong, arcades were just noisy places to play pinball, or skeeball or fussball. Pong was almost single-handedly responsible for the shift from pinball machines to arcade games by demonstration that arcade games could be commercially viable. As crude and simplistic as it is (two-dimensional tennis, anyone?), Pong launched the video game industry so many of us now enjoy, participate in, work for, write about, lose hours too. It’s a 25 billion dollar a year industry built off of two moving lines bouncing a dot around.
Way back in 1977, when they didn’t believe people would want or need a home computer, the good folks at Atari believed people wanted video games in their homes. Sales that first year were underwhelming, it seemed, perhaps, people referred shelling quarter after quarter for minutes of fun. But the revolution had begun, and as young boys visited friends with an Atari and as more and more titles became available, sales steadily climbed and within a few years they had sold millions of units and home console video games began their rise to becoming a ubiquitous household appliance alongside the telephone and the television and, eventually, the home computer.
This is the game that made millionaires out of arcade owners and proved without a doubt that video games could be big money. The popularity of the arcade version of Asteroids literally caused a yen shortage in Japan, and forced game owners to customize larger coin boxes to hold all the quarters being pumped into them. Cha-Ching! Once they made a faithful version you could play at home, Bang! The Atari 2600 was the most popular Christmas gift of 1979, and they never looked back—probably why they missed Nintendo coming up behind before running them over.
In the early days gaming was strictly for the boys, or at least was seen that way by manufacturers and marketers. Atari, more than any other brand, is responsible for breaking down the gender barrier and actually making games that appealed to women, even if accidentally. The secret: eliminate all the tanks and bombs and rockets and spaceships and shooting. Pac-Man was the first game female gamers went for, and then Centipede did even better with the ladies, and Ms. Pac-Man really kicked some ass. But shameless gendered catering aside, Atari’s success at bringing women and video games together has lead to a world where playing video games with your girlfriend or finding a girl who plays video games, is not unheard of. So thanks Atari.
Not only has Atari given us many of the games the industry was built on, and the first home console, but they also provided the best urban legend the gaming industry has. Namely that Atari buried thousands of unsold cartridges of E.T: the Extra-Terrestrial in a landfill in New Mexico in 1985. Of course it is highly possible that this is not an urban legend at all. Reports from local papers at the time state Atari trucks were at the dump in the fall of 1985, but as that dump burns all its trash every night, and in this rare case cover the burned materials in concrete, we’ll never know what they deposited. Then again, it supposedly happened in New Mexico, “the urban legend state”, home of Roswell and the Trinity Nuclear Test, so who knows.
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