The Interesting History of Atari and Its Impact on Pop Culture

When people think about retro video game consoles, there are two brands that come into mind most of the time. These two brands are Nintendo and Atari. Today, Nintendo is considered one of the biggest household brands in the video game industry, but for a few years, Nintendo wasn’t always at the top because it was competing with another large company, Atari.

Atari was founded by Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney on June 27, 1972, and is regarded as one of the biggest American manufacturers of video game consoles and computers during the 1980s. However, the company quickly sank in the 1990s due to many unfortunate reasons. To learn more about the success and downfall of the brand, here is the interesting history of Atari and its big impact on pop culture.

The Founding of Atari

Jack Tramiel, the founder of Atari Corporation (the second incarnation of the Atari brand), was also the founder of Commodore International, a home computer and electronics manufacturer that was created in 1958. One of the most popular computers of Commodore International is the Commodore 64, which was launched in 1982. The Commodore 64 became a massive success for the company, and the Guinness World Records even listed it as the highest-selling single computer model of all time.

However, Jack Tramiel resigned from Commodore International in January 1984 to create another company called Tramel Technology. The company would then buy the assets of Atari Inc., an American video game developer and home computer company. Tramel Technology would then be renamed Atari Corporation.

The first Atari company was responsible for creating home versions of classic games like Pong, as well as popular retro consoles like the Atari 2600. Through the late 70s and early 80s, Atari dominated the video game market, and it was the company that is believed to have started the golden age of video games because of their immense popularity. However, because of fierce competition with Nintendo and the 1983 video game crash in the United States, Atari was sold to Jack Tramiel, as the company was unable to recover from its losses.

Despite Atari suffering from devastating losses during the video game crash of 1983, there is no denying that the company is responsible for pioneering the video game industry. Without Atari, the gaming market today wouldn’t really be the same. In fact, Atari already inspired a lot of companies in the 80s to create their own gaming systems. One of those companies that was inspired by Atari was Coleco, who would release the famous ColecoVision in 1982. To know more about Coleco, check out our article, “Learn About Coleco, A Former Giant in the Toy and Gaming Industry.

Atari Corporation

Under the management of Jack Tramiel, Atari Corporation would shut down 80 domestic branches and lay off staff in order to stop the massive losses of the company during the mid-80s. Then, in 1985, Atari Corporation launched the Atari XE series and the Atari ST line of personal computers.

Atari Corporation would then return to the video game market with the release of the Atari 2600 Jr and the Atari 7800 in 1986, although the 7800 had a limited release in 1984. Unfortunately, despite the success of the new consoles and personal computers, Atari Corporation had a bad reputation in the tech industry because of Jack Tramiel’s business tactics, which included hard-nosed bargaining and penny-pinching. Even though the Atari personal computers were successful, they would eventually be outsold by Apple and IBM in the late 1980s.

The Atari Lynx

Atari Lynx

Because of the declining sales of Atari Corporation in the personal computer market, the company decided to focus on making video game consoles. In 1989, Atari released the Atari Lynx, which is a hybrid 8-bit and 16-bit handheld console. The Atari Lynx was quite innovative during that time, as it was the first handheld game console with an LCD screen. 

The Lynx competed with the Sega Game Gear, the TurboExpress by NEC Home Electronics, and the Nintendo Game Boy. Even though the Lynx was well-received by critics and video game fans, Atari wasn’t able to capitalize on the console’s popularity due to the shortage of parts, which kept the console under limited release and restocks. The Game Boy eventually won against the Lynx, and the latter would be discontinued in 1995.

The Atari Jaguar

The next video game console that the Atari Corporation created was the Atari Jaguar, which was released in 1993 and is part of the fifth generation of video game consoles. The Atari Jaguar competed with two of the most popular consoles of all time, the Nintendo Super NES (SNES) and the Sega Genesis.

The Atari Jaguar was marketed to be the first 64-bit game system in the world, and its fiercest competitors can only run in 16-bit systems. However, the Jaguar was not technically a 64-bit game console. Instead, it ran using two custom 32-bit processors. Because of how challenging it was to develop games for the Jaguar, as its components were too advanced during that period, there were not a lot of games that were released for the console. By the end of the Jaguar’s life cycle in 1996, there were only 50 licensed games released for it.

Atari’s Decline

Due to the failure of the Atari Jaguar, the Atari Corporation was forced to focus on publishing video games throughout the mid-1990s. The Tramiel family soon gave up on the Atari Corporation and sold the rights to own the company to JTS Inc., who agreed to merge with Atari in order to form the JTS Corporation in 1996. With the merger, many of the employees working for Atari resigned or were dismissed, and some that stayed in the company were absorbed to work for the headquarters of JTS.

JTS Corporation would sell the Atari name and assets to Hasbro Interactive on March 13, 1998. Then, in 1999 Hasbro Interactive released the rights of the Atari Jaguar into the public domain, which then allowed independent developers and game designers to create homebrew games for the system. In 2001, Hasbro Interactive and Atari were sold to Infogrames, who would develop and publish many games under the Atari brand, including remasters and remakes of popular Atari titles.

Even though the Atari Corporation has been defunct for more than a decade now, the brand would remain one of the most memorable names in video game history. So, Atari would never really be forgotten, as it was instrumental in the creation of the golden age of video games, which ushered in several generations of game consoles. Atari may never be as big as it was before, but it will stay in the history of video games forever.