Don’t Watch TV Tonight, PLAY IT!

by Jeremy Couturier

ILLUSTRATION:  Jeremy Couturier

ILLUSTRATION: Jeremy Couturier

Nostalgia is a powerful thing. Those indelible first impressions in life will linger in the memory banks. A geek’s life is filled with many such moments that looking back invoke nostalgia. With technology being such a communal thing for geeks of all walks of life, can there not be a more nostalgic topic than electronic gaming? At one time or another we have all been in an arcade or owned a video game system or PC or played a game on our phones or other portable device. Gaming has made it’s way from a geek sub-culture to a mainstream billion dollar industry that is surely taking over all other forms of entertainment. It truly is the age of interactive experience. It wasn’t always like this though and it didn’t start in the land of the rising sun either.  Let’s get nostalgic. Let’s talk about Atari, because without them the whole face of gaming and geekdom would surely not be the same.

Let’s go back in time to the early 70s, 1971 to be exact. It was in this year that Noah Bushnell and Ted Dabney founded an engineering firm, Syzygy Engineering, that designed and built the first arcade video game—Computer Space for Nutting Associates. Check out this video of Computer Space:

An interactive electronic game that used quarters that was not a pinball machine. Primitive stuff to be sure, but for all intents and purposes a honest to goodness arcade video game. Later, on June 27, 1972, Atari, Inc. would be incorporated and Bushnell would hire Al Alcorn as their first engineer to basically produce what we all know as Pong, an arcade version of the Magnavox Odyssey’s Tennis game. Bushnell wasn’t content to produce games strictly for arcade consumption. He had the vision for grander things.

In 1976 Bushnell had a Grass Valley CA engineering firm, Cyan Engineering, start developing a video game console to play all four of Atari’s arcade games. That console would be the Atari 2600.

Bushnell needed massive capital to launch the 2600 and sold Atari to Warner Communications, the dubba dubba, and was eventually fired in 1978 over arguments about the direction of the company (most notably that the 2600 had a three year lifespan before it needed an upgrade). At the same time, the home computing revolution was raging, (hello Apple II!)  and Warner branched out in producing various Atari computing systems, including the 800 and its smaller cousin the 400. During the late 70s early 80s, Atari sold millions of 2600s and computers and accounted for a third of Warner Communications revenues. It was at the time one of the fastest growing companies in the history of the US, but poor management was their undoing.

The demise of Atari was imminent as the arcade, video game console, and home computing divisions were all independently run and were never on the same page. Throw in fierce competition and an over-saturation of games and systems and you had the great video game crash of 1983. Losses of 500 million dollars and a 40 dollar drop in Warner’s stock were bad enough. They were also to acquire Nintendo’s Famicon gaming system for US release, but that fell through. Nintendo would later distribute the Famicon themselves in the US….as the NES….doh! Almost a quarter century later, Nintendo is still the king and Japan is more or less the gaming center of the world. Microsoft is doing wonders and there are many amazing US developers who have cleaned up on the consoles and PC market, but Japan has, much like the auto industry,taken the lead. In the last decade Nintendo has swapped places with the former king, now struggling Sony. The X-Box is a very solid second backed by none other than the richest man/nerd in the world. You can blame this all on Warner Communications if you’d like. Enough with the history lesson, though.

Atari was truly the first entry in gaming obsession for Generation X. I was born in 1974, so I literally grew up in the formative years of the Atari 2600. I remember the Pong console my Dad got as a gift back in 1978, which was the first and clearest memory of home video game experience. The 2600 was the clincher though, and it found it’s way under the Christmas tree in 1980. It was crude and limited and looked clunky, but the doors it opened for a 6 year-old with a hyperactive imagination were unlimited. No longer were you passively watching a movie or reading a book or comics. You were an active participant in a digital world. You being represented by that crude little avatar that you controlled on your TV screen. Your imagination more than made up for the shortcomings of the graphics and sound. The game play was there for the most part, that same game play that suckered you in at the arcades. You weren’t at the arcades though, and you couldn’t run out of quarters.  You could play home versions of arcade games on your TV! The major players were there: Nintendo, Sega, Midway, Namco and on. You also had Donkey Kong, Space Invaders, Frogger, Dig-Dug, Pac-Man, Pitfall, Asteroids, etc. and all the various generic Atari titles you could get your hands on. Not to mention all the third party developers and the weirdness that brought (hello Q-Bert). Even throw in the phenom that was E.T., which was surely one of the worst games ever, unless you liked falling in holes the entire game.  To top it off you had two joysticks which meant you could play games together with your geeked out friends/family members. You could share all your geeky joy with whomever and wherever you had a tv and a primitive analog connection. Even back then it was an experience shared by adults and kids alike. Atari still exists today, though in a much reduced form. A few weeks ago, Namco Bandai acquired a majority share of the company. Namco being the company that created Pac-Man which helped make the Atari the success it was back in it’s early heyday. Ironic huh?. So let’s be nostalgic for Atari and it’s contributions to what is the fastest growing industry in entertainment today. As for myself, I hope someday to be like this guy:

Game on!