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40th Anniversary of Atari

July 5, 2012 - Dave Hecei

Just more proof that I’m getting old. Atari, my entry into electronic gaming and home computers, is celebrating their 40th anniversary this year. Back in 1972, Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney founded Atari, Inc. While today’s Atari isn’t directly related to Nolan Bushnell’s Atari, the name does live on.

Forty years ago Atari started with a bar game called Pong. Extremely simplistic compared to even casual gaming available today, Pong was an electronic version of ping-pong or table tennis. Pong was a huge success and started the coin-op video game revolution. A 19-year-old Steve Jobs worked at Atari before founding Apple. Jobs, mostly with help from Steve Wozniak, created the stand-alone Brickout electronic game.

Not long after Pong Atari went for the home market and created the Atari VCS, or the Atari 2600. The VCS was a fairly small box, with fake wood panels, that connected to a color television. What made the VCS such a hit was the cartridge slot. Now you can buy one box and play hundreds of different games.

Bushnell eventually sold Atari to Warner Communications and with the success of the Apple II home computer, Atari decided to jump into that arena too. The Atari home computer came in two models. There was the basic Atari 400 and the deluxe Atari 800.

From the late 70’s through the mid 90’s Atari created several game systems (2600, 5200, 7800, Jaguar, Lynx, and XEGS) along with several personal computers (400, 800, XL systems, XE systems, ST systems). They even created an MSDOS based handheld and desktop models along with portable versions of the ST line.

Along with all the home computers Atari was still very active in the coin-op industry. Even with the electronic gaming crash in 1983, Atari was able to muddle through and come back creating systems up until 1996.

Atari has had an amazing, and sometimes strange, history. Atari never really competed head-to-head with the Apple II line, they did compete heavily against other low-end computers especially the Commodore 64. In a strange twist, founder of Commodore Jack Tramiel left Commodore and eventually bought Atari from Warner.

Under the Tramiels, Atari became a low-cost personal computer. The Tramiels kept the 8-bit computers going for a long time but shifted Atari’s home computer into the future by creating the ST line of 32-bit computers. The 8-bit systems were based on the same processor in the Apple II and Commodore 64. The ST line used the same 68000 processor found in the Macintosh line. The 1040ST was also the first personal computer with 1MB of RAM that sold for under $1000. The ST also had a similar GUI operating system, but not quite as polished as the Macintosh.

Eventually, Atari computers ran out of steam. The 8-bit era was long over and the ST/Falcon line never really caught on in the U.S. but was a decent seller in places like Germany, France, and the U.K. Near the end, Atari pretty much gave up on the home computer market and tried to go forward with games and gaming systems. They put too much money behind the too-little-too-late Jaguar system and Atari just didn’t have the money to keep a poor selling system going. Eventually, Atari was sold to Hasbro Interactive and after a few different iterations is still alive and well under the name Atari, Inc.

Atari began 40 years ago and I started playing Atari 36 years ago so yes, I do feel old. I loved my first home computer, and Atari 400, but loved my next one even more, which was the Atari 800. I got my start with Atari home computers, which helped me decide on the Macintosh over Windows. The Atari 1040ST was functionally close to a Mac Plus but had a bigger (stand alone) high-resolution B&W screen, more RAM, and a two-button mouse. It could even do color if you opted for the Atari color monitor. At $999, the ST was a bargain compared to the all-in-one design Mac Plus at over $2000.

Unfortunately, the ST platform really didn’t go very far, though it did fairly well overseas in the UK and Germany. Soon, Windows 3.1 hit the market along with newer color capable Macintoshes. The fact that PCs and Macs had hard drives helped my decision to leave the Atari platform that I loved. I eventually tossed the 800XL and STe into the closet after I got my first Mac, a new PowerBook 100. From there I never really looked back. Well, that’s not completely true. I still take out the old Atari 800XL or STe to play some of the old classics now and then. You just can’t beat some of the old 8-bit titles, and Dungeon Master from FTL is one of the grandfathers of first person adventure games.


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