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 itself.
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, and Arkanoid.
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.