Launches of yesteryear – The Atari VCS

This two-page 1981 ad delivers subtle snark and a healthy chest thumping via Space Invaders and Asteroids complete with screens, paddles, and joysticks. It took a few years, but the Atari VCS had finally arrived as the big thing everyone had to have beating out its (often technically superior) competitors.

One of the surprising things I learned about the Atari VCS (Video Computer System) was that it wasn’t a breakout success when it came out in 1977. The revolution that would define video games and a generation that grew up with them didn’t immediately set the world on fire when it arrived.

It launched at $199 ($764.95 in 2013 bucks) including two joysticks and even a pack-in game, Combat. Eight games were also available for the Atari 2600 at launch — Air-Sea Battle, Basic Math, Blackjack, Indy 500, Star Ship, Street Racer, Surround, and Video Olympics. These were also the games advertised in one of Atari’s earliest catalogs, preserved over at AtariAge. But the console had a rocky road to success.

According to an article from IEEE Spectrum dated March, 1983, and preserved by the Atari Museum fan site, “Production problems in the first two years caused Atari losses estimated near $25 million.” Nolan Bushnell, the visionary engineer and entrepreneur who co-founded Atari, had even expressed doubts on the Atari VCS’ success in 1978 according to an article by Steve Fulton on Gamasutra covering Atari’s history.

Atari, by that time, was now part of Warner Communications who had become a majority owner thanks to an infusion of $28 million that helped the company launch the VCS. Warner was also concerned whether their investment was panning out and businessman Ray Kassar entered the scene to feel out the company’s health. When he saw the VCS, he knew that there was a lot of potential. However, the direction of the company in what Warner and Kassar saw versus Bushnell’s own vision would also clash, most notably over the fate of the VCS.

Bushnell sought to refresh the hardware and open it up to outside development, but Warner wanted to keep the console going as it was — especially when it was sitting on large numbers of inventory it couldn’t simply destroy. Warner also wanted exclusive control over software development instead of evangelizing the hardware to the rest of the development world. Eventually, Bushnell was forced out of the company he had co-founded.

Surprisingly, however, Warner was right about one thing — the Atari VCS would become a blockbuster hit a few years later thanks to a killer app. Programming for the console was also a challenge, something luminaries such as David Crane (who would go on to help found Activision) and Chris Crawford would cut their game design chops with as they literally invented their way through the VCS’ architecture to produce the games that are such icons today. It had a decent library, but it didn’t translate into the kind of massive blockbuster numbers that others felt it should have been raking in.

The game, however, that would finally demonstrate to the public just what set the Atari VCS apart from all others was Taito’s Space Invaders. Ray Kassar had gone to Japan with the sole intention of licensing the game and succeeded in bringing home the game that would change Atari’s future and that of the VCS. In a Herculean feat of programming, software engineer Rick Maurer managed to translate the game from the arcade and into the world of the VCS, squeezing it in under 4k (kilobytes). It didn’t look “exactly” like the arcade version, but it was an incredibly playable imitation that was close enough and nothing like anyone had ever seen before in the living room.

Released in 1980, it eventually created sales revenues of $100,000,000 for Atari which, in 2013 dollars, translates over to around $282, 700, 242. It was the Call of Duty of its day, pushing Atari’s console to the top of the competitive heap above others such as Mattel’s sophisticated Intellivision system. However, Rick Maurer would only receive an $11,000 bonus check for his efforts. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he left the company, and the industry, shortly afterward.

But it would be in 1982 that the Atari VCS would get the name that would be far more familiar to people today — the Atari 2600. The hardware would also go through several cosmetic changes over the course of its life, starting out with the six-switch version in 1977 (the “heavy sixer” due to its weight) which Sears had also licensed and rebranded for sale in their stores.

Today, the console is synonymous in both kickstarting the video game industry and for the Great Video Game Crash of the early 80s. Atari’s name would also share the same reputation after carving a place for itself in video gaming history. It wasn’t the first — the Fairchild Channel F was out a year before the technically advanced Atari VCS hit shelves. Yet it became a titan in gaming history, ushering in a competitive war between up-and-coming designers and manufacturers in what became the first true “console war” in the late 70s and early 80s.

As we head into another hardware refresh cycle this upcoming holiday season with the Xbox One and the PS4, it’s amazing to see how similar things are today to how things were back then as well as the lessons that are still being learned. Both Microsoft and Sony are offering slimmer models of their older consoles, much like how the Atari VCS did as it went through its own physical changes, and the idea of having a killer app is still with us nearly 40 years later.

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