Atari was synonymous with videogames in the early ‘80s. It released some of the biggest hits of the arcade era, including such classics as Asteroids, Centipede, and Tempest. It dominated an industry that saw over $3 billion in revenue in 1983, owning almost 60% of the home console market. The Atari 2600 (previously known as the Atari VCS) was the standard bearer for home videogames, the system most likely to be found in American homes, and with a massive selection of games unmatched by any of its competitors. When 1983 started Atari defined the videogame industry at home and at the arcade, and was so firmly established that its iconic three-pronged logo shone brightly in the bleak skyline of Ridley Scott’s 1982 movie Blade Runner, which was set in the far-off future of 2019. At the start of 1983 Atari was here to stay, destined to drive the young videogame industry to new and sustained heights.
Over the next two years that industry saw revenues collapse by 97%, with Atari and the entire idea of home consoles feeling like a passing fad whose time was up.
Nintendo saved the videogame industry with the NES, learning from Atari’s many mistakes en route to becoming a deeply entrenched, decades-spanning part of the pop culture firmament. As Nintendo launches a multi-billion dollar theme park expansion based on a game first released in 1985, Atari celebrates its own legacy with Atari 50, a fantastic multimedia release that’s both a detailed documentary about the rise and fall of a company that has never been allowed to fully go away, and a playable library of its best and most notable games. In tracking Atari’s history, Atari 50 explains why the industry collapsed in the mid ‘80s, and then shows, perhaps unintentionally, why the once-dominant company never recovered.
The causes of the videogame crash are well-documented. By 1982 a glut of companies tried to capitalize on the industry’s popularity by rushing out bad games made by inexperienced designers, while Atari itself started sacrificing quality to hit release dates and exploit the popularity of arcade games and movies. Terrible games vastly overnumbered good ones in 1982 and 1983, some of them coming from Atari itself, and that drove away consumers and retailers alike. From personal experience, I was very young and continued to play our family 2600 into the Nintendo era only slightly conscious of the crash, but my older brothers, who were old enough to be more discerning and aware of trends and what kids and teenagers were into, both tuned out of the 2600 at some point in 1983. The tide turned fast against the 2600 and videogames as a whole throughout 1983 and 1984.
Atari 50 exists to celebrate the brand’s history, but it doesn’t overlook the crash. It digs into it with short videos explaining what happened and why, with game developers and Atari employees from the era discussing what went wrong. The modern version of Atari, which has no real connection to the classic company outside of the name and its intellectual property, happily plays up the always-popular story of unsold copies of E.T. being buried in a landfill. It also acknowledges that Atari’s post-2600 hardware, from the 5200 to the 7200 to the Lynx to the Jaguar, all bombed commercially to different degrees. Atari 50 broadly embraces Atari’s failures, but it fails to acknowledge something that’s quickly apparent to anybody who plays through the collection’s games. Atari never fully recovered from the crash because almost all of the games it made after the mid ‘80s are bad.
One of the reasons Atari 50 is such a cool retrospective is that you can play a game immediately after watching one of its designers talk about how it was created. You can jump straight into Adventure after watching a clip about its importance and the hidden in-game credit for designer Warren Robinett. You can learn about how Howard Scott Warshaw created Yar’s Revenge, and then go right into the 2600 classic or the new Yar’s Revenge Enhanced remake with the press of a single button. It’s like an interactive museum exhibit about some of the earliest and best videogames ever made, and it’s a structure that every major publisher should shamelessly rip off in celebration of their own histories.
The excitement of loading up these games dims quickly and considerably once you start creeping into the 5200 era. The follow-up to the 2600 was a confused mess, with an overly complicated controller and a lack of new, original, exclusive games. Today, even though 5200 versions of Atari arcade hits look nicer than earlier 2600 versions, they still can’t compare to the originals, and often can’t even capture the charm of the technically inferior 2600 ports. And although there are a couple of genuinely interesting games from Atari’s next console, the 7800, they’re still nothing but footnotes to the arcade and 2600 collections. And yet they’re both noticeably better than the two systems that came after them.
Atari 50 is divided into separate chapters based on the eras and console generations in which games were released, and once it enters the ‘90s it’s blatantly clear Atari had nothing left to give to games as a medium, an industry, or an artform. Its handheld system, the Lynx, might’ve had better tech than the Game Boy, but based on the five titles included in Atari 50, its games lagged far behind, both in terms of creativity, inspiration, and quantity. Its last gasp in the home market, 1993’s Jaguar, is a legendary failure, and Atari 50 makes it obvious why: its games were terrible. Of the nine Jaguar titles found here, the only ones that are playable for more than a few minutes are a video pinball game and remakes of Missile Command and Tempest, two of the early arcade hits Atari kept relying upon throughout its history. Only Tempest 2000 feels like a fully-formed game with any kind of imagination or unique style, and it’s a remake of a game that at the time was over a decade old.
Atari 50 makes it clear that Atari never recovered from the crash of 1983 because it completely lost the ability to make a good new game. The beating its name and reputation took during the crash no doubt hurt a lot, but if the games were good people probably would’ve played them. Atari’s best designers had left to start new publishers or work with Atari’s competitors, and the talented ones who remained didn’t have the time, resources, or corporate support to make quality games. Atari 50’s documentary clips don’t directly tell that story, but it’s unmistakable when you play through its many games. The oldest, least technologically advanced games in the collection are far more fun to play than ones from the late ‘80s and ‘90s, because they were made by skilled designers who knew how to balance entertainment with challenge and innovation.
If Atari had treated its best talent more respectfully—if they paid them better, publicly credited them for their work, gave them residuals like actors and directors—perhaps the company would have rebounded from the disastrous collapse of the game industry. Instead Atari drove its best designers away, engineered many of the causes of a crash that almost destroyed the medium for good, and was never the same company again. Today it lives on as a holding company that has spent at least as much time on short-lived hotel and crypto projects as it has games. To their credit, the current leadership at Atari has given us Atari 50—a crucial piece of videogame preservation, and the best thing anybody using the Atari name has made in decades.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.