Atari Factoids

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Was it all fun and games at Atari? I would have given an arm and a leg to had been part of this great company that brought video games to the masses. If only I was born in a different era and resided in California (Ed: keep dreaming!).

There has been much written about Atari – from well known facts to myths and even fan fiction. We set the record straight on a few unknown (and well known) historical facts at the once mighty Atari.

Fact 1. First video game to have background music
To contrary belief, it wasn’t Namco’s Rally-X that first featured background music (BGM), it was beaten to the punch by Atari’s Cannon Ball – an Owen Rubin developed game. Unfortunately, the feedback was not great from location testing. Arcade operators disliked the BGM, citing it as being annoying. Sadly, the game was never mass produced.

Fact 2. Space Duel was the first multicolour vector game
Another contradiction in video gaming folklore – Tempest was not the first multicolour vector game. That gong belongs to Space Duel – another Owen Rubin game. To rub salt into the wounds, Owen Rubin’s colour vector generator code was used by Dave Theurer in Tempest. Owen never received any credit for his effort.

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Fact 3. Missile Command was going to be called Armageddon 
Atari had designs and cabinet prototypes created for Armageddon, later to be renamed by Gene Lipkin as Missile Command.

Fact 4. The Last Starfighter
In 1984, when Atari was being carved up and sold, two games in development based on the film, The Last Starfighter were redone to become Star Raiders II and Solaris.

Fact 5. The naming of Yars’ Revenge 
Howard Scott Warshaw (from E.T. fame) named his game Yars’ Revenge after Ray Kassar (Ray spelled backwards). The ‘Razak’ solar system was also based on Ray’s surname, with the letters ‘ss’ replaced with a ‘z’ and the surname spelled backwards. Very clever indeed!

Fact 6. Championship Soccer / Pele’s Soccer
Championship Soccer, aka: Pele’s Soccer was the first video game to license a sports personality, the lovable Brazilian soccer maestro, Pele!

Fact 7. The Atari and Nintendo deal
Atari was in talks with Nintendo in regards to their Family Computer (Famicom). The deal would be for Nintendo to design the printed circuit boards and engineer all the electronics, while Atari would design the console case and packaging. Basically, Atari would be selling Nintendo’s product for them in the USA and the rest of the world under the Atari brand. Imagine if this deal had gone through.
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Fact 8. Naming the Atari 7800
After the Atari 5200 debacle, the marketing department at Atari would not dictate the functions or features of the new Atari 7800. However, they did come up with the product name by adding 2600 to 5200. Absolute genius (Ed: stop being sarcastic!).

Fact 9. Burying Atari
Atari could only wish they could bury the E.T. myths. When the decision was made to close the El Paso (Texas) plant, truckloads of unused and faulty stock was being ferried to the Alamogordo, New Mexico city dump. The deal was to dump the goods and steamroll them. As the media got wind of this, it was made out as if Atari was trying to “cover up” and they became the media whipping boy with the video gaming woes of the early 80s.

Fact 10. Cloak & Dagger
At the end of 1983, Atari was manufacturing upgrade kits to turn rival Williams’ Robotron:2084, Defender, Stargate and Joust cabinets into a new Atari game called Cloak & Dagger. Cloak & Dagger (originally titled Agent X) was designed to plug directly into the existing power supply in these games. Indeed, this was very cloak and dagger like of Atari. By the way, the movie of the same name was a gloried Atari advertisement.

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Fact 11. Clandestine sale to Philips 
Without the knowledge of James (Jim) Morgan at Atari, Warner Bros. management (Manny Gerard and Rob Newman) were surveying Atari at the request of Steve Ross (Warner Bros head-honcho). The staking out of Atari was to take visual inventory and current status of projects for a possible sale to the Dutch electronics giant, Philips. There were a series of talks between Steve Ross and Wisse Dekker (Philips CEO), but in the end, after being burned by the Magnavox Odyssey, Philips chose to walk away from the deal.

Fact 12. First Nintendo, then the Amiga Hi-Toro
It seems that Atari had a knack of getting itself into some wheeling and dealing, but ultimately, choosing to opt out of certain deals. After the Nintendo deal fell through, Atari struck a gentleman’s agreement with the Amiga Corporation in early 1984. The ‘Letter Of Intent’ between Atari and Amiga had Atari advancing $500,000 to  the cash strapped Amiga Corporation so that they could continue developing the ‘Lorraine’ chipset. Atari was never interested in acquiring Amiga, they just wanted to get their hands on the chipset that Jay Miner and Joe Decuir had created. The chipset was going to be used in Atari’s arcade machines, consoles and home computers. Dave Morse’s intention was always to find a buyer for his fledgling and struggling Amiga Corporation. This is where Commodore stepped in and the rest, as they say, is history. Hindsight is always 20/20!

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Fact 13. Shedding Atarians
The gravy train at Atari was coming to a screeching halt. Under James Morgan’s NATCO (New Atari Company) cost saving plan, Atari’s ranks shrivelled from 7,800 employees in January 1983, to an astounding 1,500 by the end of May 1984.

Fact 14. Atari MindLink – Bionic Breakout
Atari was always at the forefront of product development. Atari’s MindLink product was a headband controller that controlled game play by the player just looking at the TV screen and ‘thinking’ about moving an object. There was no extra sensory perception going on here, the MindLink controller would  read the resistance of the muscles in the player’s forehead and interpret them into the appropriate joystick or fire button signals. Was it ahead of its time, it sure was. The market did not take the product seriously so Atari chose not to pursue production of the MindLink.

Fact 15. I, Robot – The last Atari, Inc. Coin-op 
The final coin-operated game under the Atari, Inc. banner was I, Robot (1984). Created by Dave Theurer and Rusty Dawe, I, Robot was the first commercial arcade game to feature filled 3D polygonal graphics. Sadly, only 750 machines were produced, with even less being sold. If you have one in your possession, hold onto it, it is worth a small fortune!

With a vast amount of information out there on Atari, we cross referenced facts, myths and misinformation with the definitive book, Atari Inc. – Business Is Fun by Curt Vendel and Marty Goldberg. If you weren’t aware, Curt Vendel is an Atari historian (since the mid 1980s) and has the largest Atari collection in the world. Curt has collected vast amounts of Atari paperwork and other memorabilia over the last few decades. His intimate knowledge of Atari is second to none.