As far as the [arcade] industry itself
goes it had become -- and still is -- severely polarized. The only titles that
were succeeding were SSJPK fighting games -- Side-Scrolling, Jump-Punch-Kick --
a very few sports titles, and high-tech driving titles. The market had become
completely indifferent to innovation in game design.
It seemed that all our
management wanted to see in development was whatever was currently earning
money. For so many years Atari had led the industry in innovation by constantly
looking forward. Now we weren't even looking over our shoulders, we were
struggling to climb on a tired bandwagon.
-- Ed Rotberg, speaking
around 1996, in James Hague's book Halcyon Days: Interviews with Classic
Computer and Video Game Programmers
What happened to the Atari fanboys? Nintendo
and Sega have theirs, Blizzard and Bungie too, Square and Enix, Capcom and SNK.
Yet Atari Games, in its
heyday, produced some of the most brilliant arcade game designs the world has
ever seen. Unique and idiosyncratic, at its best it made games the likes of which no one else could. Later, it
is sad to say, it produced games that no one else would want to.
Some people rave about Nintendo; how its designers come up with new ideas so
often, about its fearlessness in taking risks with unconventional designs, and
how it reinvents its franchises endlessly.
But even Nintendo has never been as
original, as brilliant, as determined to design what developers think best
regardless of what management, critics, and eventually, even players might have
to say, as was Atari Games in its heyday.
A trip through Atari's classic arcade game catalog is like a course in game design all by
A World of Ideas
Arguably, this was the company that kept the spirit of classic
arcades alive the longest -- as late as the early '90s. Even now, the
company-which-calls-itself-Atari -- which should not
be confused with the company this article is devoted to -- shills out the
memory of the former arcade powerhouse with GBA and DS ports of classic-era games.
Many of Atari's games were
the targets of unequaled numbers of home adaptations. Rampart has over a dozen, and no one knows how many versions of Breakout are out there, considering how
shareware authors have adopted and colonized the idea -- not to mention Taito,
Atari, particularly the arcade division that split off from
the company in the '80s rechristened "Atari Games," seemed restless
with ideas. A game where players race marbles through a world of grid lines?
Float innertubes down fantastic rivers? Defend castles with walls and cannons? Skateboard
while chased by bees? Deliver newspapers?
While the company also had its share of less-than-memorable
ideas (Pit-Fighter, Thunderjaws, Batman, most games after 1991), it is easy to overlook such
missteps when the company also gave us Tempest.
And at its best, Atari Games seemed almost embarrassingly creative.
Other companies could deliver with the absurd premise once
in a while (what the hell was Namco smoking when it released Phozon?), but Atari used to do it all
the time. At least, Atari didn't stop
doing it in 1986. It released an update of Breakout
the same year Capcom started selling Street
Fighter II. I consider this to be unspeakably awesome, but it should be
understood that most players at the time would have disagreed with me.