It’s hard to believe, but 50 years had passed since the moment when Atari taught people how to think symbolically by daring to visualize tennis through the medium of two rectangles and a square.
This year, gamers worldwide have invested hundreds of hours getting lost in games such as Elden Ring and Horizon Forbidden West in glorious 4K 60FPS HDR Gameplay. But to fully understand how we got here, we must take a trip back in time, long before Nintendo, Sega, and PlayStation would release consoles.
Our journey began on June 27, 1972, when Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney famously incorporated Atari in a moment that would forever unwittingly change the lives of people around the world. The Pong arcade game quickly became a hit in bars, amusement arcades, and restaurants, but the potential for home consoles rapidly became apparent.
However, before bringing an arcade game into people's homes, the company had to overcome many challenges to scale the concept and make money while making it affordable for consumers. It would take until the Christmas season of 1975 for the home version of pong to hit the market. Bushnell sold Atari to Warner Communications the following year for an estimated $28–32 million as the love of video games quickly began spreading worldwide, and a generation of gamers was born.
In 1977, the Atari 2600 arrived, and the videogames industry was primed for take-off. It's easy to forget in a digital age of consoles and streaming games that the four-switch "wood veneer" version that would follow is arguably the most beautiful videogame device ever made. Access to other worlds via low-resolution games in 2 K.B. chunky cartridges required a healthy dose of imagination to get the most out of the console.
The games were not much to look at, and beyond Space Invaders and Combat, graphic designers were challenged with setting the scene and bringing game concepts to life with the artwork on the VCS cartridges. For example, the artwork of the mega-hit Missile Command was designed to simulate players' imagination before the cartridge was even removed from its box.
In simpler times, generations would gather around the one television in the house to enjoy classics such as Frogger and Donkey Kong. Anyone who completed the 1500 meters race in Track and Field will have more than a few battle scars and war stories about the blisters that followed shaking their joystick for nearly five minutes. By 1982, Warner revealed that Atari's revenues would make up for 70% of its income which was outstripping music and movies. Something big was happening.
Good old-fashioned greed would lead to the birth of the dreaded movie tie-in games. Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial were perfect examples of licensed titles that would begin the demise of the iconic brand. E.T. would quickly become famous for becoming the worst game of all time. An incredible 4 million copies of the game were made, but between 2.5 and 3.5 million cartridges went unsold.
The game was considered so awful that thousands of copies were laid to rest in a shallow grave at a landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico, to prevent hardcore from scavenging them. The same brand credited with building the gaming industry we love today was also blamed for nearly destroying it. The E.T. game might have been the sacrificial lamb, but there were many other contributing factors, primarily the oversaturation of bad games that were rushed to market. A familiar tale that we would see repeated many times in the industry.
Generation X will have a strong sense of nostalgia when thinking back to the days of the Atari console and playing classics such as Asteroids, Yars' Revenge, and Pitfall. The graphics might have been poor, but the good still outweighs the bad for most. For example, in the Empire Strikes Back game, I still remember the joy of controlling Luke Skywalker in a snow speeder battling against Imperial AT-AT walkers on the planet Hoth. However, there is much more to this iconic brand than just nostalgia.
Before Atari, there was nothing
John Lennon once famously said that before Elvis, there was nothing when talking about how he changed the music world and inspired a generation of artists. Likewise, if we look back at the history of video games, it's impossible to comprehend the video games industry we enjoy today without the iconic Atari brand. Ultimately, it paved the way for a form of entertainment that would generate more revenue than music and movies combined while also inspiring many generations.
Modern gamers who cannot remember a time before the existence of game consoles might struggle to see the allure of Atari classics such as Breakout, Centipede, and Tempest or a primitive-looking joystick with one button. Sure the idea of being able to play arcade games in your home is no longer mind-blowing either. But every AAA Game we take for granted in 2022 and beyond owes more to a small company with a big vision that captured the world's imagination 50 years ago than most of us can ever comprehend.
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