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

August 21, 2008 Article Start Previous Page 18 of 20 Next

1981:The VCS Becomes Unstoppable

Still feeling the effects from the defections of the "Fantastic Four" and the mild reaction of management to it, but bolstered by the massive success of the VCS in Christmas 1980, the Atari Home division entered 1981 on uneven ground.

The VCS had also found new, hearty competition in Mattel's Intellivision, and for the first time had to compete in the home against a (seemingly) superior console, and on the software front with a third party developer -- Activision. Still, the Home Division continued to produce high quality games for the VCS.

One misstep Atari made in early 1981 would start a trend that would haunt Atari for the rest of its existence: vaporware. In this case, it was vapor-hardware in the form of the Remote Control VCS.

Atari introduced both the Atari 2700 Wireless VCS console and a pair of Remote Control Joysticks for the 2600. Both were announced at the January CES, but only the wireless joysticks ever saw the light of day.

"The units were complete, boxes were manufactured, color dealer flyers were sent out, it appears everything was ready. Apparently during the Quality Assurance testing of the Atari 2700 RC Stella by John Protsman, it turned out that the controllers emitted a signal within a 1000 foot radius. What this meant was the units would cause havoc with other Atari 2700s nearby. Also the controller electronics were based on the design of a garage door opener, so the controllers would have the possibility of causing other remote controlled devices to operate." clxxxvi

- Curt Vendal, Atari historian

As far as games went, the Atari VCS started the year with the March release of the very solid Video Pinball by Bob Smith. Even though playfield did not remotely resemble the Atari coin-op of the same name, the pinball action was decent.

A few other releases made their way to the stores in 1981, significant because they were both programmed by one of Atari's first female game developers, Carla Meninsky. First up was Dodge 'Em, an award-winning maze racer in which the player had to drive around and collect objects (dots) while avoiding computer controlled chase cars. It was an imaginative cross between Indy 500 and Pac-Man.

"For Dodge 'Em I was the centerfold for both Playboy and High Times as being the best game of the year... so I thought I'd really made it." clxxxvii

- Carla Meninsky

Meninsky's second game was the VCS conversion of the Atari coin-op Warlords. While not quite the sizable hits of the year's next releases, both games proved that Meninsky had the programming chops to take on one of the biggest VCS projects for 1982: Star Raiders.

"Even now, where I work I've got a Warlords sign out... from the arcade game, the panel. People go by everyday and they go 'Wow, remember Warlords' and 'Wow, that was a great game.'" clxxxviii

- Carla Meninsky

One of the biggest VCS games of 1981 was released in April. After the success of the licensed coin-op game Space Invaders, Atari began to translate as many of its own coin-op hits to the VCS. Missile Command was one of the first.

Aside from Space Invaders, Missile Command for the VCS became well-known as one of few arcade translations for the platform that were as enjoyable to play as the original coin-op.

Rob Fulop programmed Missile Command as his next project following his "re-imagined" version of Space Invaders for the 8-bit computers.

"I did end up getting some flack for the changes I made (to Space Invaders for the 8-bit) though, not via management, but from my peers. Such is why I ended up making my next project, Missile Command, as faithful a replica to the original coin op, as I possibly could." clxxxix

- Rob Fulop

Missile Command was an amazing success for the VCS, selling millions of copies. It also helped send out the message to consumers that, while there were other system like the Intellivision around, the Atari VCS was the only place you could play true arcade games. However, if that message was merely sent with Missile Command, it was received loud and clear with the year's most significant release for the VCS, Asteroids.

Getting the Asteroids coin-op to fit into a cartridge for the VCS was not an easy task. Brad Stewart, the programmer responsible for the VCS version of Breakout, took on the task, and it was not an easy one. Fitting all the Asteroids graphics and game play into a standard 2K cartridge was impossible. In fact, even a 4K cartridge could not hold it all.

"Asteroids needed the 8K, though. After the game was complete, Bob Smith and I spent some time using every trick we knew to try to get it into 4K, but it just... would... not... fit!" cxc

- Brad Stewart

To get access to 8K, Stewart used a newly devised scheme called bank-switching (originally created for the VCS Basic Programming cartridge) that allowed a programmer to access multiple 4K banks of memory. This was a breakthrough for the VCS.

"The present invention provides a bank switching memory and method for increasing the number of individual address locations that can be addressed in a digital system. The present invention expands the available memory space beyond that capable of being addressed by a conventional addressing having a unique memory location associated with a unique address. Specifically, the invention is used to expand the number of ROM memory locations contained in the game cartridge of a video game system without requiring additional address lines."

- Carl J. Neilson, Bank Switchable Memory System patent, filed May 7, 1981

Bank-switching opened up the VCS to a whole new world of crisper and more elaborate graphics. It made Asteroids possible on the VCS, which in turn would make Atari VCS the need-to-have item for Christmas 1981.


"The ultimate electronics toy won't be found in a toy department. Alongside the TV sets and stereos, merchants are pushing such electronic marvels as Atari's Video Computer System, featuring 18 different games and a price of $169."

- Covey Bean, Daily Oklahoman, December 11, 1981

Going into the Christmas season of 1981, Atari's marketing side was flowering to full bloom. It blasted the airwaves with the biggest television and newspaper marketing push the company had ever put forth.

In all, Atari spent $18 million on TV advertising in 1981, cxci nearly triple what it had spent in 1980. Atari put everything on the line for a huge Christmas in 1981, even going so far as to push its retail customers to make large orders of games that they otherwise would not have purchased, just so they could get their allotment of Atari's hot products.

"Atari, for years, was using the leverage that they had to just screw distributors everywhere. When they had a hot game, they would force distributors to buy copies of the old games that weren't selling anymore, just to get copies of the new game." [1]

- Howard Scott Warshaw

It was not something that those retailers would soon forget. However, the ill feelings were masked by the massive sales for the VCS. In Q4 of 1981, the Atari division saw $511 million in sales. None was more pleased with the success than Ray Kassar.

""We all go to bed dreaming we'll have the kind of Christmas sell-through that we had this year." cxcii

- Ray Kassar

Atari was a monster-sized company by the end of the year. Total sales in 1981 were $1.1 billion cxciii and Atari owned 70-75% of the total video game market. It had 10,000 employees and sprawled across 50 buildings in the Silicon Valley.

Since the coin-op conversions on the VCS were Atari's point of differentiation and the biggest sellers, Atari had set itself up to dominate the home video game market into the future, by licensing as many hit games as possible to re-make on the VCS. Atari licensed five games, including Pac-Man and Galaxian, from Namco, and six games, including Berzerk, from Stern.

Ray Kassar and the Warner brass had seen their vision all the way through to success. Atari pushed the VCS hardware, then five years old, helping to make it a breakthrough success. They put more money into marketing than had ever been spent to sell a video game, and the fruits of that decision were now readily apparent.

Warner had developed a "take no prisoners" attitude, with the development teams, and the good products still flowed. The sales showed, in every way, that Ray Kassar and Manny Gerard had been proven correct. Bushnell had spent too much effort on technology and engineering, and not enough on marketing. With marketing the dominant force at Atari by 1981, it had become the largest player in the world.

Article Start Previous Page 18 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.