Atari: The Golden Years -- A History, 1978-1981
August 21, 2008 Page 11 of 20
1979: Year End
With all of Atari's success in 1979, it was still a difficult year for the company. The VCS sold well, but did not yet have a "killer app" that would have made it a necessary purchase. As well, the 8-bit computer line was launched very late in the year, so its fate would not been known until the end of 1980.
The coin-op division had an amazing hit with Asteroids, but its full effect would also not be felt until the next year. Atari had spread itself into three separate markets and was finding it difficult to mater any one of them.
"As Atari grew -- wildly and with the uncontainable force of Mount St. Helens -- it also grew schizoid. It quickly evolved into a three-headed beast: the coin-op division, the consumer games division, and the home computer division all operated pretty much independently of one another." cxix
- John Anderson, Creative Computing
Added to this was the fact that many of the key people that had made Atari a success since 1972 were leaving the company. Nolan Bushnell and Joe Keenan were gone. Following the completion of the 8-bit computer hardware, Joe Decuir and Jay Miner left also.
Added to this was the defection of the "Fantastic Four". However, if Atari's brass understood the importance of these key entertainer engineers, they certainly did not show it. Ray Kassar might have been successfully building his marketing fortress, but slowly the ground beneath had started to crack.
"Remember that Atari senior management fundamentally didn't understand the business. They didn't seem to know much about or care about the engineer group. I can remember that during our negotiations my boss' boss told me that he could hire several engineers 'off the street' who could do what I did for the amount of money I was asking for. He was essentially clueless about the intricacies of programming the VCS and the creative challenges of designing good games." cxx
- Alan Miller
1980: The VCS Invades
With positive sales for the Atari VCS during the Christmas season of 1979, the rush was on to provide a huge selection of software for the new proud owners of Atari machines. Atari started the year with a huge presence at the January CES show in Las Vegas.
"Atari fueled the suspicion with their own game machine. Their Atari 2600 video game machine was truly the gadget of the year, and Atari's exhibit featured wall-to-wall games that attracted huge crowds." cxxi
- Michael S. Tomczyk
Atari followed its CES presence in January with a marketing blitz that included the largest TV ad campaign Atari had ever undertaken. One of the very first games advertised during this campaign in January was Space Invaders, programmed by Rick Maurer, (who had previously worked on the Fairchild Channel F) and it was a monster. Simply put, Space Invaders saved the VCS.
"The VCS was not doing that well -- there were only a few million in the field, and it looked like it was dying -- then Space Invaders came out, and bam! It exploded." cxxii
- Larry Kaplan
While both Manny Gerard and Ray Kassar have taken credit for licensing Space Invaders, it was Maurer who started with the idea to create a version of the game before anyone even realized it. Maurer started Space Invaders in 1978 when he was first trying to learn to program the VCS, a process that was not easy for him at first.
"With a VCS you have to unlearn every good programming practice you've learned." cxxiii
- Rick Maurer
He got a good way into development, but then he seemed to reach a programming dead-end. The game was working, but no one else in the consumer division seemed to care about a VCS version of Space Invaders.
"After a few months,I got it to where it was fun to play. But few seemed to be interested in it, nobody wanted to play it." cxxiv
- Rick Maurer
Maurer moved onto Maze Craze (also released in 1980) because he thought that programming Maze Craze would help hone him VCS development skills for Space Invaders.
Much later, in early 1979, Manny Gerard convinced Ray Kassar to license the game from Taito so it could be released for the VCS.
"Kassar went to Japan in 1979 for one purpose, and one purpose only -- to get Space Invaders. He did so, cutting a brilliant deal that would generate millions of dollars for Atari and launch the 2600 into orbit." cxxv
- Kevin Bowen, GameSpy's 25 Smartest Moments In Gaming
This allowed Maurer to continue making the game, this time in the light of day. For Maurer, developing Space Invaders for the 2600 was not an easy task. He used rudimentary "programmer art" for the visuals, but wanted to get the box designer to create his illustrations of the invaders on graph paper to use in the game. This never happened, so Maurer used his own drawings instead. cxxvi
Originally Space Invaders was 7K, but he needed to get it down to 4K, so he spent three months shaving code and re-writing as he tried to save every last byte. cxxvii By the time he was finished, his beautifully structured code was now a maze of "JMP" branches, but it was as tight as he could possibly make it.
The finished product was amazing to behold. With 112 game variations, Maurer was able to squeeze every imaginable take on Space Invaders into a VCS cartridge. While the game did not completely resemble the original, it played amazingly similarly. Maurer's fellow programmers were astounded by the game. Rob Fulop sums it up best: "Fucking brilliant."
When Space Invaders was released for the VCS in early 1980, it became an instant hit. Eventually the game made Atari over $100,000,000.
The game was so successful that it proved the staying power of the VCS for the long haul, and proved to Ray Kassar that the VCS could be more than just a seasonal product. Game releases were re-scheduled from the holidays to throughout the entire year.
It also prompted Atari marketing to try more arcade games and development began new translations such as Asteroids and Super Breakout for the VCS. Simply put, Space Invaders was the turning point for home video games. The stage was set for an arcade revolution in the home. By Christmas of 1980, the VCS, with Space Invaders, was the must-have toy for the holidays.
"...one of the biggest blockbusters this Christmas season is expected to be the Atari Space Invaders electronic game that every day draws lines at the model at Woodward & Lothrop's downtown store." cxxviii
- Douglas Chevalier, The Washington Post, Nov. 10, 1980
However, there was one victim in the success of Space Invaders: Rick Maurer. Both Space Invaders and Maze Craze are widely regarded as some of the best-programmed games for the VCS, but they would be the only games Maurer would ever create. As Space Invaders rocketed to success, it saved Atari and pretty much made the next 28 years of home video games possible, Maurer himself was compensated with a mere $11,000 bonus. Disgusted by the industry, Maurer left and never made another Atari VCS game.
With a new emphasis on releasing games throughout the year, and with hundreds of thousands of new customers to sell them to, Atari embarked on getting as many VCS games to the market as possible throughout the rest of 1980.
One of the first was Circus Atari, released in January, programmed by Mike Laurenzen. Circus Atari was a re-write of Breakout (and almost an exact copy of the Exidy arcade game Circus) in which you launched clowns on a platform in the air to break balloons. Though it was basic, Circus Atari was quite a good little game.
A myriad of other low-key titles joined Circus Atari in the wake of Space Invaders. These games were mostly older-skewing and designed to fill in gaps in the VCS line-up more than become huge hits. They included 3D-Tic-Tac-Toe and Video Checkers (both by one of the first female VCS programmers, Carol Shaw), Golf, the Sears exclusives Steeplechase and Stellar Track, and Othello.
"The 2600 version of Othello I did on the side until my boss caught me at work once making the final changes before it went into production." cxxix
- Ed Logg
One very unique game released in 1980 was Championship Soccer by Steve Wright. While the limited soccer game-play was not much better than the cut-down sports action of other VCS games like Home Run and Football, the reward for scoring a goal was unprecedented: a fireworks show.
"How about that fireworks show when you scored a goal -- was that awesome or what?"
- Bill Kunkel (Co-founder of Electronic Games magazine) cxxx
It was a stunning graphical effect that transcended the quality of the game. Some players would simply let each other score so they could see the fireworks explode. It's no wonder that programmer Steve Wright never made another game, and instead became a well-respected and successful digital FX and CGI guru for feature films and TV. cxxxi
One of the best games on 1980 was Night Driver, programmed by Rob Fulop and released in August 1980. A conversion of Atari's coin-op game, Night Driver used a pseudo 3D perspective to simulate high speed driving.
"My first project in this group was Night Driver, which started with Larry Kaplan handing me a bunch of code and saying, 'Maybe you can get this to work, it seems like too of a headache' ... Basically, I think he was mentally on his way out the door at that point and didn't want to start another game." cxxxii
- Rob Fulop
1980 also saw a growing a trend for VCS games: the unreleased gem. With Atari marketing pulling further away from engineering and refocusing away from unique concepts towards licensed titles, some finished VCS games were being shelved and never released. Stunt Cycle by Bob Polaro was one of the first such games.
Originally designed as a version of the Atari coin-op game, marketing attempted to get it converted to Dukes Of Hazzard game, and then ultimately it remained unreleased. cxxxiii Another such game from 1980 was Chris Crawford's Wizard, which was the victim of the move from 2K to 4K VCS games.
Page 11 of 20