Jun 27, 2022 - Technology

Atari turns 50

Black and brown video game console with a joystick controller attached
Photo: Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Legendary video game company Atari turns 50 today, five decades after it was incorporated by co-founders Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney in Sunnyvale, California.

Why it matters: Atari popularized video games as we know them, first in public, then in the home.

Atari’s 1972 Pong, ubiquitous in bars and restaurants, was the first commercially successful arcade machine, credited by IGN with bringing “video games out of the realm of computer science, out of university labs, and into places where 'real people' congregated.”

  • Its VCS console, also known as the Atari 2600, was similarly revolutionary, enrapturing players in the late 1970s and early '80s with the likes of Asteroids, Breakout, Missile Command and Taito’s massive Space Invaders.
  • Not just the box: the 2600’s joystick — square base, black stick, big red button — became a tech design icon.

Yes, but: Atari soon began a decades-long slide, as its 2600 market collapsed beneath a glut of bad games like the notorious 1982 rush-job E.T.

  • The company has been a bit player in the industry ever since, releasing failed consoles like the 1990s Atari Jaguar, and switching corporate owners several times.

Atari’s current incarnation: a French-owned two-division enterprise.

  • One part is making games, including “recharged” versions of Centipede and other classics for PC and console (including its own newer version of the VCS).
  • The other half of the current Atari makes blockchain products.

A subtler legacy: In 1979, frustration by some Atari game makers who wanted better credit and pay led to the creation of an upstart developer-centric outfit called Activision.

Many of Axios Gaming’s readers wrote in to share their Atari memories. A sampling:

  • "My best girlfriend in school had an Atari that I pined after. We played endless hours of Pong, Asteroids, Frogger, Donkey Kong ... ah, a simpler time." — Jenn
  • "I remember playing Track and Field on Atari so much with my friends that we’d lose skin from moving that joystick back and forth so fast, trying to make that dude run." — Peter
  • "I had some absurdly high score on Space Invaders. Had to play for like an hour or more to get it any higher. I would really focus on the game and one evening as I was completely in the zone my 2-year-old daughter walked up next to me (I didn't notice her) and she pulled out the cartridge. I honestly thought I was dying or having a stroke or some other life-altering experience." — William
  • "Atari gave me my Silicon Valley tech career for all of two months, in 1976 … soldering switches for the Pong game. So for eight weeks, I sat with about five other workers at one of a half dozen or so rotating plywood tables in an industrial park building. We soldered all day long with two 15-minute coffee breaks and a 30-minute lunch, during which I ran. It was hardly glamorous and did not require any coding. But I gained a memorable taste of assembly line work, and a glimpse of a pioneering era." — Randall

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