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

August 21, 2008 Article Start Previous Page 16 of 20 Next

These high-profile defections were not good for the coin-op division's morale or for its ability to produce hit games. However, Atari found a couple ways to replace this brain-drain, and it was not necessarily by hiring the best and the brightest new game designers to work in the Atari coin-op division.

One way was to start licensing games from other manufacturers. Atari had always had a close relationship with Namco, and in November if 1981 it entered into an agreement to license several of Namco's arcade titles for U.S. distribution. However, these games would not show-up on Atari roster until 1982.

Another way to start using outside development firms to create games. In mid-1981, an opportunity to expand the coin-op division to an outside agency literally fell in Atari's lap.

In June, a small company made-up of MIT students named GCC (General Computer Corporation) created a "mod kit" for Atari's Missile Command coin-op named Super Missile Attack and marketed it for $295. The mod kit would allow arcade operators to change the game, add options, and make it more difficult for players.

Atari found out about this kit, and while it existed in a legal grey area, Atari was worried about its effect on the integrity of its products. It filed a lawsuit against GCC for $15,000,000.

"They (the General Computer game enhancement) appear to our customers and to the public as Atari products, creating confusion and siphoning off legitimate returns from our investment in research and development."

- Frank E Balouz, Atari coin-op marketing VP

It turned out that GCC engineers were fairly skilled at making arcade games. The engineers had created a mod-kit for Pac-Man named Crazy Otto that they eventually sold to Namco, which became Ms. Pac-Man.

Atari knew talent when it saw it. The lawsuit never happened, and Atari settled with GCC out of court.

"They started getting really annoyed that we weren't rolling away... finally the light bulb went on: 'They might as well design games for us', so Atari drops their lawsuit... we signed a development deal with Atari to do engineering for them." clxxiv

- Steve Golson (GCC Engineer)

Atari contracted GCC to develop new coin-ops for the company. GCC went on to create the arcade games Quantum, Food Fight, and Nightmare (unreleased) clxxv, VCS games like Ms. Pac-Man and Vanguard, and the original design for the Atari 7800 console, as well as some of the first games for the system.

However, unlike Grass Valley from years before, GCC was never really integrated into Atari as a whole, and in fact, took direction from the likes of Ray Kassar and Manny Gerard, and not necessarily the internal development teams. Atari management, it seemed, was hedging their bets with the engineering department. If they could not find cooperation inside, they could always buy it from the outside.

"Our contract was not with Atari, our contract was with Warner who owned Atari... Whatever we came-up with would be force-fed to the Atari folks." clxxvi

- Steve Golson

1981: Computer Business

Even though Atari had held back most of the technical documentation necessary for third party developers to create software for the 8-bit computer lines, developers had found their own resources to explore the machines.

Magazines like Compute had started running articles on the 400 and 800 as early as January 1980, and in them they explored topics on how the machine worked and how to write software for them. Some of these were written by Atari employees who were desperate to let the world know about the new machines.

"Anybody who has seen Atari's Star Raiders knows that the Atari Personal Computer System has vastly greater graphics capabilities than any other personal computer. Owners of these computers might wonder if they can get their machines to do the fabulous things that Star Raiders does. The good news is that you can indeed write programs with graphics and animation every bit as good as Star Raiders."

- Chris Crawford, In Compute's first Book Of Atari, 1981

The best news for Atari computer owners came in January when the first dedicated magazine for the Atari 8-bit machines, A.N.A.L.O.G., went into publication. With A.N.A.L.O.G., Atari owners had an independent resource for news that could both push the platform to computer enthusiasts...

"The Atari is also the 'hot' computer of the eighties: at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this January -- three questions frequently asked at the information booth were 'where's the best restaurant, which way to the rest rooms, and where's the ATARI booth?'"

- A.N.A.L.O.G. Magazine #1

...and double as leverage on Atari and computer stores to support the platform.

"The color TRS-80 is a joke in comparison to even the 400. The APPLE II is archaic in technology next to the 800, and any other micro on the market just can't match the Atari's built-in computing power. Many computer stores won't carry the 400 or 800... 'there just isn't any software available', well we receive software and new products at an almost daily basis at the ANALOG office, so much that we have a difficult time reviewing it all. I am very impressed with the amount of really good software available in just a year's time." clxxvii

- A.N.A.L.O.G. Magazine #1

One of the reasons for the emergence of a dedicated magazine was that sales for the computers had picked up dramatically at the end of 1980 and into 1981.

"We've been saying Atari sales are picking up, a more than gradual creep that's been in evidence since summer. The trickle has apparently turned into a roar: it seems the pipeline effectively ran dry in mid-December when dealers across the country were selling machines faster than they could get them."

- Robert Lock, Compute!, February 1981

However, much of this had to do with the cult status of the game Star Raiders. The Atari computers provided graphics and gameplay far beyond anything previously available, and die-hard gamers were buying Atari computers simply to play games.

"If you own an Atari 800 computer don't forget there are other game cartridges besides Star Raiders available."

- Robert Baker, Compute!, April 1981

Even though Atari wanted to prove that its machines could do more than play games, the company started releasing its own game titles again in 1981, including a near-arcade perfect version of Missile Command, a surprisingly sub-par Asteroids (with bit-mapped graphics), and a decent Super Breakout, plus Chris Crawford's two edutainment games, Energy Czar and SCRAM.

Atari still supplemented these games with a load of serious software (Conversational Spanish, Bond Analysis, Stock Analysis, Stock Charting, Mailing List, Touch Typing, Calculator, Graph It) but the whether Atari liked it or not, the games had become the hook for new users.

One unique idea that came out of Atari at this time further support the 8-bit platform with software was A.P.X, The Atari Program Exchange. The APX was the brain-child of Dale Yocam. The idea was to take submissions of software from the Atari user community and market the best ones right back to the users.

"The guy who cooked up the idea, Dale Yocam, was trying to explain to the management that there are a lot people out there that like to write programs and if we can publish these programs for them, it's a win-win. The management was not very interested in it. He put together a business plan for it and said 'Look, we only need a little bit of money and this thing can be self sufficient and it might make some money.' They very grudgingly agreed to let him do it. And so he did it and very quickly made it into a monster success. It was a major profit center for Atari. They rewarded Dale for his initiative by bringing in another guy to be Dale's boss... so Dale, in disgust, quit about a year later." clxxviii

- Chris Crawford

It's interesting to note that A.P.X. was not just a resource for Atari customers. Many of Atari's internal VCS development staff wrote games that were released as A.P.X. titles. Lemonade Stand, Mugwump, Preschool Games, Reversi, Space Trek, and Dice Poker were written by Bob Polaro. Avalanche and Chinese Puzzle were written by Dennis Koble. Centurion, Castle, Alien Egg, and Tact Trek were written by Rob Zdybel. Lookahead was written by Bob Johnson, and Load N' Go by Brad Stewart. clxxix

By far, however, the most popular game created by an internal Atari programmer for A.P.X. was Eastern Front (1941), by Chris Crawford, released in September 1981. Eastern Front (1941) was a tactical war game that simulated the battle between the Germans and Russians in World War II.

Unlike most other tactical war games of the time, Eastern Front included colorful graphics and joystick input that completely streamlined the interface for a war game. Even though Eastern Front did not include animated battles, compared to the text-based games from Avalon Hill, it was a cinematic masterpiece. It played well, too.

"I have no hesitation in calling this one of the very best war games available for a personal computer. It is also a virtuoso demonstration of the awesome built-in capabilities of the Atari computer." clxxx

- Creative Computing

With games like these Chris Crawford seemed be on an (almost) singular quest (as an Atari insider) to simultaneously tell the world about the capabilities of the Atari 8-bit computers, and show just what magic you could weave with them. It also sold well. Even with the 10% royalty rate, Crawford made $90,000 from the game. clxxxi

Article Start Previous Page 16 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).

Scott Stilphen
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Another error - VCS bank-switching was originally created for Video Chess, not BASIC Programming. Video Chess ultimately never used it (neither did BASIC Programming); the first game to take advantage of it was Asteroids.