If anybody that’s flirting with middle age starts talking about old school video gaming in the home it doesn’t take long for the name Atari to turn up does it? Back in the early 80’s it was a part of almost everyone’s life. Even the pretty girls that were cheerleaders played that horrid version of Pac-Man for the 2600 way back in the those glorious days of gaming.
I honestly believe that the Atari 2600 led two different lives during it’s run in the late 70’s and early 80’s. When it debuted in 1977 and for the first 3 Christmases it existed it was a rich boys toy. It was a luxury to have one in your home. If you were lucky enough to have a friend who owned one it was a marvel to play. Sure the first games released were mostly simple and often lame but it was new and cool.
In 1980 Atari captured the rights the arcade smash Space Invaders and that blew the lid off of the home gaming market. Atari followed that up by bringing their arcade smash Asteroids home in 1981. These two titles justified parents caving in to their kids demands. Many consumers picked up an Atari just to play these two games.
Atari had some competition from Mattel’s Intellivision which did boast better graphics and sound but didn’t have access to the big name titles that Atari had locked up. The Intellivision was also more expensive than the Atari 2600. These were the golden years for the 2600.
1982 would also be a good year for the 2600 system. Activision made some classic games for the Atari and Pitfall was one of those games that my Mom put on layaway for me at the local Gaylord’s department store that summer. By the fall a new home gaming system called the Colecovision was coming out and it looked awesome!
Atari had countered by introducing their new advanced Atari 5200 system into the marketplace. This is where I get confused on this whole subject. You see, once the home gaming market took off every jack-leg that could write some lame code started making games for the 2600 system.
Problem was the vast majority of the games stunk and were terrible. But Atari is just as much to blame as these shady companies. Remember how bad Pac-Man was? Sure, we lived in denial and played F95ZONE that garbage because it was the only home version out there when it was released.
The Colecovison was a big hit even though Coleco was caught totally off guard and couldn’t produce the systems fast enough to meet demands during the Christmas season of 1982. Meanwhile Atari had there equally powerful 5200 but decided to keep riding their older 2600. By this time the old horse was panting pretty hard!
You would think that Atari would have had the common sense to slowly phase the 2600 out and start throwing their support for their far superior 5200 system. That however was not the case. Two things happened in the fall of 82 that ultimately spelled doom for Atari and the Video Gaming Industry as a whole.
For the Holiday Season Atari rolled the dice on two huge projects for the 2600. The Swordquest Series and ET The Video Game.The dice would come up snake eyes. The Swordquest series boasted four adventure games in a series and included a contest for solid gold prizes for players that could solve the puzzle.
The problem was the Swordquest games were terrible with gameplay that made no sense at all. It was heavily promoted by Atari and was a total flop. ET was a pure example of Atari being run by a bunch of corporate morons that knew nothing about programming and didn’t really care about providing a quality product.
ET was thrown together in a mad rush just so the game could be shipped for the Christmas blitz of 1982. Then someone at Atari thought it would be a good idea to mass produce more copies of ET than 2600 systems that existed in American homes at that time.
As you might expect the game was a complete flop! Atari found themselves stuck with millions of copies of ET that they couldn’t give away. Eventually Atari was forced to bury the unwanted games in a landfill in New Mexico. That was really the beginning of the end for Atari and for the home gaming market as a whole.