Monday, February 3, 2014

Console Graveyard Series: "Bleep n' Bloop" The story of the Atari 2600.

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    I have really been wanting to do something special in remembrance of the ol’ Atari 2600 (or VCS if you’re a hipster) so I decided to sit down today to write out a detailed history about the first successful video game console the world has ever seen. I’m going to call it, “Bleep n’ Bloop” after some of the sound effects the games on the 2600 made during play. Not a bad name, eh?
image    Some reading this may already know about the rich history of Atari and this piece of writing  may be nothing more than a brush up for them, while others may be new to the subject and are looking for as much information as possible. Maybe you’ve been a 2600 fan and collector all your life and still don’t know the interesting details of the consoles life, or maybe you know more than even I do about what happened during the company’s life. Whatever the case may be if you decide to sit down and read this then allow me to thank you for taking the time to do so and please get comfortable and enjoy the history lesson.
    A long time ago in a galaxy far away (the early 70’s) a guy named Nolan Bushnell created a game known all over the world as Pong. As simplistic as Pong was, it would help to launch the arcade movement and eventually bring electronic video games into the public eye. After founding Atari in 1972, Bushnell decided that Pong was going to be the company’s first major foray into what would be known as “video games” and launched Pong into a few remote locations in hopes that people would pay to play it. It was a heavy risk for him to do seeing as how the company wasn’t making a ton of money at the time but eventually people would begin to pour cash into Bushnell’s Pong machine. The game began to bring in a steady income for Atari and eventually Bushnell and the rest of his Atari crew released the machine into more locations and eventually manufactured a home unit of Pong in 1975 that would go on and become fairly popular with consumers. 
     Once Bushnell saw that there was a market for playing video games inside of a living room and not just in bars and restaurants he went to discuss with his team that there may be a market for a machine that could play more than one game at a time. Nolan thought that maybe they could create a console that would play individual games that people could purchase to play on the unit. It didn’t take long before things were rolling and the “Atari VCS” (Video Computer System”) was born. Something of a strange fact, the VCS was internally known as the 2600 though Atari marketed the unit as the VCS, but eventually the console would be known to consumers and collectors as the 2600 even though it was never marketed that way until the “2600 Jr” hit stores in the late 80’s (after Atari’s popularity). 
     Now, the VCS wouldn’t be the first home video game machine to play cartridge based games, that would go to the “Fairchild Channel F”, a console that went on sale about a year previous to the VCS but lacked a solid library of games and a user base. The Fairchild saw a very limited release and had an even more limited selection of games and the company behind the unit quickly faded after the machine went to market. Atari knew they had already won over consumers with Pong and that they could change the way that people spent time with each other in their living rooms and Nolan wanted to release a machine that would launch a revolution. After a year or so of messing around with demo units and production kits Atari finally finished the project and released the VCS in the Fall of 1977.
image    The system launched with 9 games to choose from but it took a while to catch on with consumers and Atari struggled with the VCS during the Christmas seasons of 1977 and 1978, it brought Nolan Bushnell to believe that maybe Atari should discontinue the VCS and move onto something else. A problem eventually occurred in that copycat consoles that played VCS games were coming out at an alarming rate, this issue just added more fuel to the fire and Nolan was adamant about Atari dumping the 2600 in favor of new technology. And Atari would have done just that if not for Time Warner purchasing the company in 1976. The reason for the sale is that Time Warner saw some profitability in Atari prior to the launch of the VCS and bought the company from Nolan for about $32M. When things began to go poorly for Bushnell’s company after the 2600 saw life on retail shelves Time Warner brought in a man named Ray Kassar to oversee the daily operations in hopes that he would discover what wasn’t running properly and fix it. Kassar was a true professional in every aspect and the people upstairs knew that he could step in and right the ship toward success, something Atari quickly needed. Instead of agreeing to new technology Kassar did some research and found a few ways to improve the VCS and to build a user base who would purchase games for it.
     One of the first things the company decided to do was to license a highly popular arcade game known as “Space Invaders” for the VCS, which was something that had never been done before for home consoles. It was a move that Atari hoped would create the first must have game on their home console, and much to a lot of peoples surprise it worked. Atari began moving 2600’s out of their warehouse in tremendous speed and Space Invaders became the highest selling home video game of all-time at that point, the mothership was happy and Kassar looked like a genius. The problem was that behind the scenes things weren’t looking so hot for Bushnell. He created a lot of issues behind closed doors and his actions brought Time Warner and Ray Kassar to an easy decision to let him go. All in all it wasn’t a bad move for Bushnell because of some stipulations that were placed in his contract upon the time of Atari’s purchase. Due to these contractual obligations he was still going to receive a paycheck based upon the success of the VCS and he stood to make a killing for doing absolutely nothing. Nolan, forever the hungry business man, would eventually make a comeback and go on to create a highly popular chain of pizza and arcade restaurants known as Chuck E. Cheese.
    Meanwhile at Atari things were off and running. On top of the success of the 2600, Atari decided to release the 5200 sometime in late 1982, yet the 2600 remained the king of the mountain of video game consoles. The 5200 was not a commercially successful unit and struggled to find a footing in a marketplace dominated by it’s little brother, the 2600. The 5200 was marred by a weak library of games and controllers that were considered to be some of the worse that video gaming has ever seen and the machine was discontinued a mere 2 years after it’s release. As the success of the 2600 continued to rise the company licensed more successful arcade games like Asteroids, Missile Command, and Defender for release on the VCS and the system was finding it’s way into homes from from coast to coast. Ray Kassar and Atari couldn’t have been more pleased as their financials skyrocketed and the 2600 was gearing up for another remarkable year. At one point during this stretch of success it’s been noted that Atari was bringing in a third of Time Warner’s income and profit, that’s a lot of revenue to bring in for a massive media mecca such as Time Warner and the folks at Atari were on top of the world and extremely happy. Well, the powers that be who sat in comfortable chairs on the 43rd floor were happy I guess I should say, not the developers who created all of the games.
image   Game creators were becoming frustrated with little to no recognition and low pay at Atari which is something that would eventually bite the gaming giant in the ass. Over time more and more massive hits would find a home on the VCS with companies like Activision and Imagic coming into the fold. The short of the story here is that many of the game developers and programmers at Atari became very upset over Kassar’s rule of not wanting game developers being credited for their work and eventually branched off to create their own companies. Some of the 2600’s best games would come out between 1981-1982 with huge titles like Pitfall, Cosmic Arc, and a slew of sports games that would bring a whole new dimension to Atari’s console despite Atari’s disdain for these companies producing games for the VCS. Atari would even go on to fight for their case in supreme court, but they would come up short multiple times.
    After enjoying a few years of much needed and much deserved success in the home video game market, Atari began to make some poor decisions and blew away hundreds of millions of dollars in an attempt to scoop up as much licensing as possible. The Colecovision and the Intellevision were both on store shelves and were considered threats to Atari’s throne for a short while and many consumers were left unimpressed by many of the games that saw release on the VCS during 1983/1984. Two of the biggest games in question were the arcade port of Pac-Man and the movie adaption of E.T, two games that Atari had poured millions and millions of dollars into in hopes they would help to move more 2600’s into living rooms. They manufactured more cartridges for those two games than there were 2600’s in circulation and paid out the nose for the licenses to release the games exclusively on their system. Unfortunately all they did was buy Atari a massive loss in 1983 and cause the higher up’s to re-think the brand as a whole.
    Pac-Man was released to huge numbers despite the game not resembling the arcade version whatsoever. Millions of people purchased the game with most being disgusted at how the game looked and controlled in comparison to the arcade, this caused a lot of returns and a stream of negative press that hurt Atari’s reputation in a medium in which they had the biggest hand in creating. Personally, I loved Pac-Man on the 2600 when I was a kid and played the game to no end, and I still even enjoy it to this day, though I’m more apt to play it on the NES than anything else. But despite my own admiration for the game I can see where people would be upset with it seeing as how it’s nothing like it’s arcade father. But hey, I was a kid when it was released and had no idea that Pac-Man was a “bad game”, but as an adult I can see it’s flaws and can see that the game was very rushed and very unpolished.
image    For the 2600, E.T was the final nail in the coffin. Much like Pac-Man was, E.T was over manufactured and Atari hoped a game bearing E.T’s image would sell in great numbers. The problem is that the sales figures couldn’t keep a title like this afloat and when orders for the game ended up being poor to mediocre at best Atari was left with warehouses worth of product that they couldn’t move. I was surprised as an adult to read about E.T selling poorly, especially since almost every kid I’ve ever known owned a copy of the game back in the mid 80’s when I was actively playing. Heck, I didn’t even know there was a video game crash going on, I just played the games happily in my room and ignored the real world. In fact, I played E.T quite often as a child and really liked it. But again, as a really young kid you don’t tend to sit and think about whether a game is bad or not, you just play it regardless. Well, thanks to poor sales Atari was left with millions of unsold carts and after mulling it over a bit they decided to do something that still hangs in video game lore to this day. As the tale is told, Atari crushed, dumped, and buried what was rumored to be between 10-20 dump trucks worth of inventory in a desert landfill in New Mexico. When they realized that the dump site was being looted by locals they sent in more trucks to pour cement over the lot so that it would become inaccessible.
image    The story of the dumping has become such a huge part of video game history and lore that people from Atari have both confirmed and denied the rumor. At the end of the day it all depends on who you talk to. More to the rumor is that it wasn’t just E.T cartridges that were buried in the landfill and that many rare prototypes, games, and systems were a part of the burials too. Whether it’s a true story or not it still remains an interesting mystery to this day. After this all went down (or didn’t…) it wasn’t long until Time Warner sold Atari off and the 2600 and 5200 found themselves heavily discounted in retail outlets until they were phased out altogether. But this wasn’t the last that we would see of Atari’s 2600 console. Eventually in the late 80’s Atari would release the 2600 Jr, a redesign of the original console with hopes that people would buy the machine thanks to a recent boom within the industry sparked by Nintendo in 1985/1986. The unit found itself on store shelves right next to the Atari 7800 and they both spent time collecting dust together as the world walked right by them and over to the Nintendo products. At least they tried.
    Well, that’s it for now! Thanks for checking out my telling of the history of the Atari VCS/2600 and I personally hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. Until we meet again dear friends, keep on gaming!

© B-Sly The Gamer Guy

4 comments:

  1. Accurate to a point, though much of Atari's real history remains a mystery. Written extremely well and great mentions of Ray Kassar and Time Warner. A+!

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  2. I still have my Atari! It's in my basement with like 20 games, played it last year.

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  3. Thanks for the kind words, gents! Always a pleasure!

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  4. Informative to someone new to the hobby. Thanks!

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