Welcome to the end of the beginning, the final act for the company that in many ways started it all, where my love for video games began. Ladies and gentlemen welcome to the last days of Atari.
I could begin this article by giving you a massive intro to Atari as a company but it’s my hope that as this website grows others will speak in more detail on this extensive subject, I am by no means an expert on them in any way shape or form even though I am old enough to remember the original Atari VCS system introduced in the late 70’s, it was after all my first experience with gaming.
The short version of this tells a story of a company that pioneered the birth and rise of videogames from arcades into the home. Atari at one point during the early 80’s were everywhere, if you thought games you instantly thought Atari such was the almost overnight success followed by total market dominance they achieved. Due to many factors over the course of several years the once giant of industry slowly began to lose their grip on everything culminating in single-handedly bringing the games industry to it’s knees during the 1984-1985 period. Had Nintendo not taken the lead and pulled everyone out of the fire with their behometh of a console the NES then one wonders what would have happened to gaming as a whole, would we have the scene we enjoy today? That’s a debate however for another time.
For what seemed like an eternity Atari had stepped back from home console’s instead deciding to focus on the then massive boom in home computers which they were holding their own in thanks to the superb Atari ST range of machines. This boom however lasted but a few short years and during the early 90’s consoles once again returned to being the choice for home gaming, thanks mainly to Sega and Nintendo and their lovely little 16-Bit war. Atari had lost the console market already, now the computer market was eroding, something had to be done.
Much like companies such as Sony, Panasonic, Philips and 3DO the top brass at Atari knew that 16-bit was starting to look out of date, people wanted more now, since the late 80’s thanks to the Amiga/ Atari ST, PC Engine and Megadrive everything had basically stalled. Whilst certain people i.e. Sega thought add-ons would work other companies like 3DO knew that a real next gen leap was needed so taking the lead and initiative Atari decided to go even further, they would side-step 32-Bit altogether and go for the throat, it was the dawn of 64-Bit, forget CD-ROM, Forget FMV, Forget multi-media the real difference was going to be flat out power. Great idea and a real bold move from them, ultimately though….Fail, and then some.
Development of this new console would be handled by a newly formed company made up from previous KONIX MULTI SYSTEM workers, another system that was massively ahead of it’s time regarding idea’s and power, in fact everything about the Atari Jaguar can be summed up by knowing these people were involved.
Atari’s brief to them was simple, make it fast, make it 3D heavy, allow for stereo sound and keep costs to a minimum, the last part of that brief is what ultimately killed the entire project but I will get to that later. In order to make sure gaming was fast Flare II (designers) opted for what was already in use everywhere i.e. cartridge as the media for play, it was a safe bet that meant low costs for Atari themselves as the reproduction costs for games would then just be placed onto the developers, a move that again was a long term stab in the back for the entire project.
To make sure everything ran fast they split the entire functions of the console into 2 parts meaning one dedicated 32-bit processor for graphics and the other for processing and sound, on paper this was brilliant but in reality without the correct development tools games makers simply had no idea how to make it work properly, some games are quite frankly a shambles, a few of them even run like they are out of synch.
What the Atari Jaguar did do well however was 3D, for a console released during this time it blew other efforts like the 32X out of the water however again due to memory concerns and how the software tools were made available meant that so many of the games are full of loads of 3D graphics with almost no textures to them, essentially multi-coloured triangles all over the place. To sum up the hardware it was a lovely bit of kit with terrible software tools for it, in many ways the Jaguar is a powerful car engine with no actual car built around it. Another great analogy for it would be all show and no go.
Atari launched their new console in North America on November 15th 1993 which was around the same time as 3DO was coming to market, the battle for the next gen dominance had begun. Initially Atari had a huge marketing spend and a manufacturing deal in place with IBM in order to sell it on the concept of real power at an affordable price, it sold under 20,000 units in it’s launch week and fell flat on it’s face.
In the world of retro you will be hard pressed to find a console release that was so utterly terrible in pretty much every single way, 3DO had made the mistake of coming to market at an insanely high price with very little software support and Atari had also made similar mistakes regarding their launch line-up, it was completely awful.
During it’s development cycle Atari had not managed to attract many third party developers or publishers to it’s console, instead deciding that they could produce enough games themselves just like Nintendo had once done, like they themselves had managed during the early 80’s. This huge lack of software diversity meant that they had almost no momentum regarding industry or retailers, in fact it’s not to far an over statement to say that quite frankly nobody cared.
Price wise however Atari had got their sums right, the console was priced at $249.99 which was absolutely in the price range of the mass market the problem was not one single game could be placed on demo to show people this was the future, there was no killer app, no system seller, sure they had screenshots of a few titles that were due in 1994 that would make you sit up and go….Oooh but nothing consumers could take home and play on day of console purchase.
This trend would unfortunately continue right through the next year (1994) which included the European and Japanese launches both or which were total non events, in the UK games magazines such as C&VG and EDGE had no intention of taking it seriously, to them it was honestly a joke from start to finish (based mostly on the terrible controller) or at least that’s how it all felt reading their monthly issues. At the end of the year Atari announced sales of around 100,000 units which was way below their forecasts and sent a clear signal to developers that releasing games onto the system was pointless, a signal almost everyone received and took notice of.
During 1994 however several key titles had snuck out, under the radar of course because no magazine really cared enough to tell most folk but it wasn’t all doom and gloom, if you looked hard enough you could maybe find a decent game to play, maybe!
Not realising the project had failed completely Atari in true corporation tradition pressed on refusing to accept defeat, throwing more and more money at it regarding advertising when what they should have done is spent the money on making better games or even better still buying the license to port more titles from other systems. Although the 3DO had also struggled to take off one thing was for sure CD-ROM was absolutely going to be the future and Atari had been developing an add-on to make sure they could keep up.
In late 1995 the CD add-on was released as a means to make the system more in line with rivals Sega Saturn and the Sony Playstation, more money thrown down the toilet and that’s not just a clever pun the add-on made the whole system now look like an actual toilet hence it’s nickname around the retro community as the Atari Crapper. It had very few games available for it none of which stood out at all and was yet another complete bomb, less than a year after its release Atari had called it a day with less than 250,000 total worldwide sales and massive debts, they could no longer afford the war, a war they never had a hope of winning.
Talking about older systems makes this writer get all nostalgic and warm and fuzzy however there are a few instances where that feeling is replaced by complete and total sense of Meh. Being an original Atari Jaguar customer from it’s UK release in 1994 means I vividly remember never really having anything to look forward too, it also means I remember……. That CONTROLLER……(shudder)
Without doubt the biggest problem with the Jaguar was in how you played it, the controller was a mess. It’s design was that of a technician gone mad, it had a terrible D-Pad, 3 face buttons and 9 soft rubber buttons on a telephone keypad type part of the controller itself. The keypad was supposed to enable more varied and in-depth games by allowing programmers so many buttons to use for things such as quick shortcuts for sim type games, camera angles for shooters and weapon selection shortcuts for FPS games, great idea for sure but terrible implementation.
To best describe the Atari Jaguar controller all I can say is this: Grab a Frisbee, cut it in half then add buttons that feel horrible to the lower middle part and finally angle the face buttons away from the gamer, yuk! This by the way is not just my humble opinion but the collective retro scene opinion, in fact whenever the worst pad of all time is brought up the Atari Jaguar one is almost always number 1. So how has history judged the Jaguar? Not very well in all truthfulness and in many ways that’s a perfectly valid judgement however it is important to remember the good aspects of this last true home console from Atari, it’s swan song should be remembered and ultimately judged on the most important aspect, it’s games.
The software library for the Jaguar is very small, for a home console it’s quite frankly tiny and the vast majority of it are astonishingly bad games, titles such as Club Drive are so bad as to render them nearly unplayable. On the plus side however retro lovers looking to take a trip down memory lane need to check out the stunning conversion of DOOM and it’s partner in crime WOLFENSTEIN, both of which were prime examples of what could be done with the power under the hood.
The real big hitters here however are IRON SOLDIER, TEMPEST 2000, RAYMAN and ALIEN’S Vs PREDATOR.
Iron Soldier was a polygon beast of a game, it really was a great effort to show how much 3D the Jaguar could push around the place but unfortunately the lack of textures meant that it never really felt complete, I always thought it just felt samey. Tempest 2000 however was absolute class, a simple yet addictive arcade style shooter using shaded in wire frame graphics where you had to kill stuff coming from the centre of the screen before they reached the edge and fried you. Tempest 2000 stood out due to the amazing use of colour in the game, the fantastically addictive nature of it all and the soundtrack which was out of this world, CD stereo sound on a cartridge, wow!
Rayman was intended to be exclusive to the Atari Jaguar, some even go so far as to suggest it could have easily ended up being the mascot for Atari, it was a side scrolling plat former that although hard to play was beautiful to look at and the animation was breath taking.
The number 1 game however was the game Atari used to advertise the system from day one, AVP. Produced from UK software house Rebellion this title stood out a mile in graphics terms, everything moved so smoothly with stunning textures and gave you the option to play as either a colonial Marine, an Alien or the deadly and totally over powered Predator. If you owned an Atari Jaguar then this is the game you shoved down your friends throats, it was also the game that best showed the keypad’s good side. If this game could look and move this good then how come 95% of Jaguar games were quite frankly rubbish?
Everything came back to that, why were most Jaguar games flat out filth and the answer was the software development tools, so bad were they that interviews published after it's demise with people who made games for the Jaguar tell stories of games simply not running the way they were coded. This is where the comparison between the Jaguar and the Konix Multi-Game System I made earlier come into play, the same team of core designers had done the exact same thing all over again in creating some serious hardware without any real means to make the most of it. At least the Konix had the good sense to never make it to actual release eh?
Of all the articles I will write for this website this was the one I dreaded the most because reading it makes me out to be just one of the herd that trashes the Jaguar for trashing sake and that could not be more wrong. It’s no secret that I don’t like it, it’s no secret that I cannot understand the cult following it now has thanks in most part to the excellent work done post project cancellation from the homebrew community that has given the software catalogue a huge boost or some really quite great games such as I-WAR and Defender 2000 etc. The main thing to note here is that although I have no love for it, it belongs on this site for several reasons including the fact that it was Atari's last ever true console, it needs to be documented for that alone, so do however the many reasons it was in my opinion bad and how it was a commercial disaster.
The problem is that as a gaming system it was just not good, the controller is flat out rubbish, the games are mostly poor to the point of being broken or simply no fun to play and that even the best games on it are either on other systems as well or AVP and Tempest 2000 aside just don’t stand the test of time. There are 3D games on the megadrive such as Virtua Racing that are vastly superior to most of the Jaguar software library, that cannot be right in any sensible world, even if that game did have a chip inside to boost the megadrive's capabilities it's still a 16-bit system completely destroying a 64-bit system.....In graphics of all things.
I sometimes wonder if I’m being too harsh on this system then I’m reminded that I paid my dues on this one by getting it day 1 and sticking with it right through until 1996 when it finally bit the dust and even though common sense told me right from the off that this was a bad call and a bad purchase I kept faith and waited and waited and waited for all those games I was promised to come, they of course seldom did. Purchasing the CD add-on in 1996 still didnt convince me to give up hope, I guess the love I had for Atari as a company and at times blind loyalty to them because of the 2600 console I grew up with had clouded everything, my how dumb the young me was.
At RetroGameGeeks it’s important to us that you don’t take any of our words as gospel, they are of course simply opinion from a perspective and meant for fun as well as information sharing, nobody should read this and not at least try out the Jaguar for themselves after all this website was created to encourage people to give as much retro a go as they can possibly get their hands on and that’s something this writer stands firmly by, so much so he would fight a war to protect all gamers rights to this end. I don’t like this system at all, I see no real positives in it however you may just fall in love with it, how amazing is that eh? I do love the world sometimes.
Atari in North America used the advertising slogan of DO THE MATH, it was supposed to tell you that power simply meant better games but even now as I run the numbers myself once again they simply don’t add up, they never did. They never will. This was a failure of epic proportions that rightly went the way of the dodo and took a company so out of date business wise along with it, neither will be missed.
You were my first love Atari, I loved you before I loved a football team, before a favourite food, before I even understood women and what real love was and this is how you repaid me, I didn’t deserve this, none of us did, shame on you.