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Game Design Essentials: 20 Atari Games

May 30, 2008 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 23 Next

Clarification and History

Before we begin, I need to more clearly define what I mean, exactly, by "Atari." The company's name is a term from Go; when a group of stones is one move away from being captured, they are said to be in "atari."

Founded as "Atari Inc.", the company was famously created by Nolan Bushnell to produce Pong machines in the early '70s, and there was no ambiguousness in the use of its name until Jack Tramiel bought the company off of Warner Communications after the great game crash of 1983, when mainstream tastes suddenly shifted away from the video game fad.

Tramiel, fresh after helming Commodore's success with the Commodore 64 home computer and seeking a repeat, bought only Atari's consumer electronics division from Warner. While Tramiel's "Atari Corp." did okay for a while, giving us the Atari 8-bit computers, the Atari ST, and the Jaguar, it didn't last as long as the arcade company -- Atari Games.

It's worth noting now that this article is not interested in the Tramiel Atari, the consumer products of the old Atari, Inc., nor will it cover Atari Games' home publishing efforts, either under the name Tengen or their own. We're interested solely in arcade games.

Atari Games' ownership changed hands frequently at that time, but that didn't prevent it from experiencing a great creative flowering. This is the era that gave us Marble Madness, Gauntlet, 720 Degrees, Atari's version of Tetris, Klax, Toobin', Vindicators, Xybots, Hard Drivin', S.T.U.N. Runner and many other unique games. Eventually Atari Games was sold to former competitor WMS, a.k.a. Williams Electronics, who also owned former competitor Midway.

The company's creative ascendancy seems to have ended around 1992. According to developer interviews from the various console compilations that have been released, Atari's developers had been continually stymied by the difficulty in coming up with original arcade ideas that tested well against fighting games, causing many projects to be abandoned.

One of the abandoned games was the sequel to Marble Madness, Marble Man. Little other than fighting games and racers tested well. Atari Games even tried making a couple of fighters of its own, with the most famous example being the moderately successful dinosaur fighter Primal Rage.

Some of the company's late successes include the Area 51/Maximum Force series of light gun games, the San Francisco Rush series of "exploratory" racing games, and Gauntlet sequels Legends and Dark Legacy.

By the time of Gauntlet Dark Legacy, the company had been renamed Midway Games West, and had found some work on the home adaptations of some of its arcade hits, but the continued implosion of U.S. arcades doomed the studio. Midway left arcades in 2001, and disbanded the studio formerly known as Atari Games in 2003. These days, the name "Atari" is used only by Infogrames.

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 23 Next

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