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Atari: The Golden Years -- A History, 1978-1981

August 21, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 20 Next

[Following his article on Atari's genesis, game historian Fulton returns with an amazingly detailed piece on Atari's 'golden years', from Asteroids through Battlezone.]

Atari was founded in 1972, but its crowning accomplishments in console gaming and computers were the Atari Video Computer System (or 2600) and the Atari 400/800 line of personal computers.

This four-year period -- from 1977 to 1981 -- contains some of the most exciting developments the company ever saw in its history: the rise of the 2600, the development of some of the company's most enduringly popular games (Centipede, Asteroids) and the development and release of its first home computing platforms.

This comprehensive look back, filled with quotes from the original creators and other primary sources, offers a detailed peek into the company that popularized video gaming as the '70s turned into the '80s, and created the first viable market for home consoles.

For more detail, be sure to read Gamasutra's first Atari history article, which covers the period of 1971 to 1977 -- the latter date being the year that the Atari VCS was first released.

Innovate, Kind Of Like You Did Last Year

"One of the guys at Warner said... I had made a proposal to make a really interesting set of games. I can remember him not even blinking and looking at me and saying 'Nolan, why don't you innovate kind of like you did last year, none of this new stuff?' He did not understand what he said, he was so out of tune with what the nature of innovation is, and I've been thinking I was going to get that put into needle-point sometime." i

- Nolan Bushnell

Innovative leisure. It was a concept that Atari, under guidance of Nolan Bushnell, had cultivated for its entire existence. The engineer entertainers of Atari either invented or were driven to invent by competition, some of the most mind-blowing gaming creations of the 20th century.

"These people were my friends and co-workers and we were sort of united in this quest for cool stuff." ii

- Nolan Bushnell

However, dreaming up ideas is only one part of a successful business -- you also need to find customers to buy them. The objective pursuit of engineering cool stuff is almost entirely at odds with the subjective nature of marketing it.

"The marketing department had never played a video game... marketing thought the programmers were lazy, the programmers thought marketing was stupid... we didn't like them, they didn't like us." iii

- Rob Fulop (Atari VCS game developer)

When Atari was focused on coin-operated games, marketing was not as much of a factor. The small audience that needed to know about its games (arcade operators and distributors) could be reached fairly easily through publications like Replay magazine and Coin Connection, mail-outs of advertising flyers, and trade shows.

However, with the Atari VCS effort, the company was firmly working outside the confines of its old business, and it required a more sophisticated marketing effort than Atari could manage on its own. Warner Communications brought this marketing focus to the table -- as well as the vast amount of money needed to make Atari's ideas come to life.

"Warner put a lot of money into the company, which certainly helped pay for marketing and manufacturing the games and computers." iv

- Alan Miller

However, the sudden oil and water mix of engineers and marketers at Atari almost single-handedly created a computer age cliché that is now common place in many failed technology companies: engineers and marketers can't coexist peacefully for very long.

"If there is anything engineers despise, it is dumb marketers defining the impossible." v

- Nolan Bushnell

Instead of celebrating the successful launch of the VCS in 1978, Atari was lamenting missed opportunities and mistakes that held sales back. While management scrambled to find ways to save the consumer business, programmers struggled to come to grips with the new technology, and R&D looked towards the future.

The eternal struggle of the marketing and engineering was set alight, and put on course to explode within the company, taking many of the pioneers along with it.

Article Start Page 1 of 20 Next

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Clay Cowgill
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Mr. Fulton-- you officially owe me about an hour and a half of my workday!

Thanks for the great article, although I must say that I find the claim that the VIC-20 was more powerful than an Atari 400 a bit tough to swallow... ;-)


Steve Fulton
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Thanks. That probably should read "arguably more powerful" or "perceived as more powerful". In retrospect, it wasn't.


Bruce Atkinson
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The Vic-20 had a real keyboard and similar processor. It didn't have the memory, graphics chips, or operating system that the 400 and 800 had. The Atari OS was much better than most people give it credit it for. It was general purpose with loadable device drivers, before most other home computers had that.

John Abbe
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I couldn't stop myself from reading this through either. And i'm so glad i did, because i'm pretty sure i played that game Nightmare that GCC made for Atari, at 1001 Plays in Cambridge - it was a *great* game, which i tried to find again for years. Too bad they never released it, i've e-mailed GCC to see if i can contact any of the developers to see if they have ROMs for MAME. I also updated their Wikipedia page, and referenced this article.

Thomas Djafari
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Great article!

Having worked at Time Warner, back in the SF Rush / Rise of the Robots era, I totally recognize the pattern that has also poisoned most large developers :)

Jason Cumming
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Enjoyed the article immensely.

Sorry to be a pingeek but I think there's a misplaced comma: Superman the pinball, more like 3500-5000 units sold according to the ipdb. 10 K sales from the late 70's on was blockbuster.

Mark Delfs
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This is another fantastic article--it felt as though I was there (We used our neighbor's 2600 because my parents wouldn't buy us one!) for the whole thing based on what you are reliving. Excellent, and please keep them coming!

Simon Carless
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We've fixed the misplaced comma on Superman pinball sales, thanks Jason.

shayne johnson
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Atari was not the first console to have Baseball

Channel F's Videocart 12 was baseball, released in 1977.

Steve Fulton
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Good catch, but I believe it says that it was the first "single player" baseball game. I believe the Fairchild game (which I played many times at my friend's house BTW...but my favorite game was Alien Invasion) required two-players. I was trying to highlight the A.I. of the VCS game.


Tomasz Primke
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We'd like to translate a decent articles "The History of Atari: 1971-1977" (
9711977.php?page=1) and "Atari: The Golden Years -- A History, 1978-1981" (
__a_.php) into Polish language and publish it on a popular portal (and/or Do you mind us doing so? Obviously proper attribution would be paid to you as the author.

Please let us know what you think about such re-publication. (My e-mail address is tprimke_at_gmail_dot_com.)

Best regards,


dz jay
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Your information regarding the Intellivision is not accurate. The Intellivision was not powered by a 10-bit processor, but by an early 16-bit processor. It did, however, performed 10-bit memory addressing, but this was due to the fact that the ROM chips it used were 10-bit. This happens to be purely an accident of history: a 16-bit microprocessor designed in an 8-bit and 10-bit world.

Moreover, it is very unlikely that the Atari 3200 was to be based on the same chipset as the Intellivision. The Intellivision was mostly a knee-jerk reaction to the Atari 2600 from Mattel, and therefore consisted of an pre-built, off-the-shelf game system created by chip maker General Instruments. In fact, it was an actual sku item on their 1978 parts catalog. It was later customized a little, mainly to allow for more ROM and custom graphic tiles, but it was generally an off-the-shelf product.

Therefore it seems unlikely that Atari would plan to replace their aging custom-designed Atari 2600 with an off-the-shelf product, whose technology, although having some more capabilities, was just as old.


Steve Fulton
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Thanks for that!

I'd say that from your description, the Intellivision processor could have still been one of the chips that Bushnell had tied-up in development, especially if GI was one of the companies he used. Remember, the idea that the Intellivision was based on one of those processors did not come from myself, but from a direct quote that Bushnell gave to me in an interview. Still, it's a very gray area and this why that part of the story is painted as "not definite".


dz jay
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Mr. Fulton,

Thanks for your response. You are right, the GI microprocessor could still have been the planned successor to the Atari 2600. However, I still think it unlikely due its many limitations (weird architecture, 10-bit memory addressing, etc.).

My point was that the only reason Mattel used it was not because it was considerably better, but because they needed a quick release, and chose the General Instrument's pre-built system in haste in order to jump into the new Video Game market.

The entire Intellivision console was indeed superior, with better graphics resolution and 3-channel DSP'ed sound (although the graphics were tile-based instead of pixel-based, limiting its practicality; not to mention the ill-conceived Disc Controller!), but its microprocessor and chip technology were the products of early 1970s technology, hardly state-of-the-art; and unlikely the first choice for a successor.

But, of course, we can't ever know, and I do concede it's possible.

I do agree that competition from Mattel could have been avoided if only Atari had adhered to Bushnell's strategy.

All in all, a very interesting and satisfying article; one that brought back wonderful memories. Please keep up with the thoughtful historical accounts of our wonderful technological roots.

Thank you,


P.S. Why, yes, I did (and currently) own a Mattel Intellivision, thank you.

dz jay
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P.P.S. My intention in the last comment was not to refute your assertions; I find your article very well written and accurate, and I enjoyed it immensely. I just wanted to enrich your historical account with further information from one of the little remembered competitors of the time.

Perhaps Gamasutra can showcase the Mattel Intellivision on a future article and fulfill my well of nostalgia, as it has already done with the Atari VCS, the Commodore 64, and Video Game arcades in general.


Mason Mccuskey
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Steve - great article, I especially like all the quotes. Thank you for going into detail, and including quotes from so many insiders.

Steve Fulton
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No problem! Thanks for adding to the discussion. I agree, the Intellivision story needs to be told. I'd love to try to tackle it someday, especially since it all went down near my home town (they used to frequent the local arcade here while making games), Keith Robinson from the Blue Sky Rangers draws a cartoon for the local paper, and Intellivision Productions is in the same office building as my favorite Sunday breakfast coffee shop), I currently work for Mattel.


I'm happy you noticed. The quotes, to me, are the most important part.

Ryan Ponce
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Although my first system was the Coleco Telstar Arcade. (Google it) Which had a drag racing game. Shoot the moving man on the screen and Pong. On one triangle shaped cart.

It was Atari that really changed my life. Starting with COMBAT. My brother and I played that till the wee morning hours and although it was simplistic. I never had so much fun in my life. That would be followed by Space Invaders. Asteroids, Adventure, which was the first game that gave me the sense I could explore a world in a game. I liked the Sword Quest series as well.

Seeing a TV ad for Atari. Going to store and seeing the box art for each game. Buying a game and taking it home and opening it up. Taking the cart out and putting it into your Atari. That was pure bliss when I was growing up.

Atari is my childhood. I love Nintendo as well, but I'm not the Nintendo generation. I'm the Atari generation. Atari forever!

Thomas Djafari
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I can provide you more information about the Intellivision; I did a little bit of work with Keith Robinson and his office is pretty close to my place, so I can go talk to him again.

We re-developed 2-3 years ago Intellivision cartridges as Keith acquired the rights to unreleased games and wanted to release them for the retro crowd.

The carts are not simple ROMs, but use a time multiplexed bus for address and data, and the Intellivision hardware is definitely odd...

We've also re-developed a 2600 clone, for a product that hasn't been released (distributor problem), so I can answer a lot of questions about the 2600 hardware and some of its history if you want to do a followup.

you can contact me at: my first name that you can see on this post @

Steve Fulton
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>>Seeing a TV ad for Atari. Going to store and seeing the

>>box art for each game. Buying a game and taking it home

>>and opening it up. Taking the cart out and putting it into

>>your Atari. That was pure bliss when I was growing up.


That is exactly what I can't shake Atari from my mind. Somehow i want to recreate those moments, but it is very difficult these days.


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I have to know, is it possible to begin another era of amazing gaming with a similar gaming box? Are these "xbox" and ps/3 - whatever-s REALLY that good? I, too, cant shake Atari. The late 70s and early 80's were golden years for me with that stuff. I had a bedtime, back then, but in front of that Atari 800 I was developing games. Amazing.

Scott Stilphen
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Nice article, although one error I noticed is Lookahead was by Dave Johnson (not Bob Johnson).