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How Did Atari Get Started?

Updated on December 13, 2013
NateB11 profile image

I am interested in all things Entertainment, including style, movies, celebrities and TV, action, comedies and sci-fi and even video games.

Eventually Mom got me the console and we were both hooked on playing Pac Man.

I remember it well. I was a prepubescent child in the early 1980s, checking out the new Atari game console at the local K-Mart. They had one on display that you could play for free. Well, I was hooked. Eventually Mom got me the console and we were both hooked on playing Pac Man, with the clunky sound effects and the awkward joystick controller. Loads of fun, though.

So, what were Atari's beginnings and what led to their end?

The old classic Atari 2600 game console.
The old classic Atari 2600 game console. | Source

How Atari Started: Nolan Bushnell

It was back in the 1960s when Nolan Bushnell lost his tuition money in a game of poker. I guess he'd long been into games.

Consequently, he had to get a job at a pinball arcade to start making the money back that he'd lost. This would be the beginnings of a long career in gaming.

At the University of Utah, Bushnell, being an engineering major, had access to the school's super computer and, specifically, to a game they had called Space War. He wondered how to put that game into the same basic structure of a pinball machine.

In 1968, he graduated from school and moved to California where he was turned down by Disney but ended up getting a job at an engineering company called Ampex.

Though at the job during the day, at night he worked on this idea of making an arcade video game. His daughter's bedroom became his workshop, he scrounged for parts from Ampex and friends that worked at other electronics company, and purchased a black and white TV from Goodwill. Along with all those parts, and a paint thinner can to be used as a coin-box, Nolan was able to create a prototype for his video game called Computer Space.

Nutting Associates agreed to distribute the game, though they pretty much failed at doing so effectively, so Nolan moved on to better and more independent things. With a friend, who pitched in some money, and borrowing a name from an old Japanese game, he formed Atari. He hired engineer Al Alcorn to make games for his company. Alcorn's assignment was to make a ping pong video game, though it is said Bushnell had no intent on keeping or using the game, and lied to Alcorn telling him they had a contract with GE to make the game; just to get him to make games. Bushnell's intent was to make more complicated games than ping pong. Alcorn convinced him the game was worth keeping and Bushnell tested it at a local tavern.

The local tavern owner soon complained about the game being broken, but in fact the game was chock full of coins because people had been lined up outside the tavern every morning just to play the game. Turns out “Pong” was a big success.

Over the years, Atari was a huge success with the introduction of their home game console. However, many disenchanted workers at the company left and started their own very successful careers and companies, including Activision. In addition, eventually the shine of Atari wore off and though hope and money were invested in such games as Pac Man and ET, the games became huge failures and the company had to give up and even dumped a bunch of game cartridges in New Mexico. Then they passed up the chance to partner with Nintendo who was looking to sell their own product to the American market. Nintendo, of course, went on to be a huge success in the US on their own.

However, surely many of us still feel those old Atari classics are timeless fun.


Nolan Bushnell's First Video Arcade Game: Computer Space

My Favorite Atari Classics

Pac Man

Still fun, though some people think it's hokey. Hard to control, true, plus the graphics aren't the best and don't match the arcade version, and indeed the sounds are clunky-weird, but this game is still one of my favorites. I consider it absolutely addictive and I used to spend hours running from ghosts, collecting pellets and trying to get to the next level. This game can't be beat. Truly an original, old-school favorite.

Asteroids

A space-ship sitting in the middle of the screen, rotating and shooting and blasting away asteroids to bits before they get close enough to destroy you. I consider that fun. It's challenging to say the least. This one I play on a game called Atari Classics Evolved for the Playstation Portable, which has the old Atari games and newer versions to boot.

Space Invaders

Sitting down at the bottom of the screen, you have to blow away as many aliens as possible as they march down on you from the sky; yes, march down from the sky.

Centipede

This is one I also found in Atari Classics on the Play Station Portable. You are at the bottom and the centipede starts rolling down to get you and you dismember (!) him by shooting off pieces of his body until you get rid of him entirely; but he gets faster as the game goes along, so there's a serious challenge keeping from getting over-taken by the bug.

Missile Command

Bombs are dropping on your city and it's up to you to aim missiles at the attack to neutralize it as it keeps coming. Move the cross-hairs around on the screen to catch every attack before it lands. Still loads of fun, another one you can play on the Play Station Portable in the form of Atari Classics.


Founder of Atari, Nolan Bushnell.
Founder of Atari, Nolan Bushnell. | Source

What do you think of the old Atari classic games?

4 out of 5 stars from 1 rating of Atari Video Games

Atari Come-back

A lot of things retro are cool these days, everything from old VW Bugs to 80s hair-dos. Old Nintendo games are cool and so are Atari classics. Turns out they really are still loads of fun. I know I spent a good part of my childhood and youth at the arcade and in front of the game console at home, playing Atari games for hours.

Good fun like Atari provides is simply timeless. Thanks Nolan and Al.

Al Alcorn, the original engineer for Atari who designed the video game classic, Pong.
Al Alcorn, the original engineer for Atari who designed the video game classic, Pong. | Source

Atari Games

What is your favorite Atari game?

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    • NateB11 profile image
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      Nathan Bernardo 3 years ago from California, United States of America

      You're right about that, Jean, those are some funny old games; though they can be entertaining. Yeah, I never see arcades anymore, but I have seen them at bowling alleys; just not arcades by themselves. Everybody has the Xbox.

    • Jean Bakula profile image

      Jean Bakula 3 years ago from New Jersey

      We had an old Atari we found in the attic, and brought it downstairs to show the relic to our son, in his 20's. He couldn't believe how bad Pong was. I liked PacMan, and Space Invaders was popular. The graphics really make everyone laugh now. But it was fun to play them in arcades, which I don't see much anymore. Kids are all in the house playing video games.

    • NateB11 profile image
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      Nathan Bernardo 3 years ago from California, United States of America

      Oh, I know, Janis. I haven't seen one in awhile, but I know there still around. I used to have a lot of fun playing them as a kid.

    • WriterJanis profile image

      Janis 3 years ago from California

      It's fun you can still find these games in arcades.

    • NateB11 profile image
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      Nathan Bernardo 3 years ago from California, United States of America

      Thanks, Kathryn. I very much appreciate that. I hope they like it. It did bring back some great memories for me just from writing it.

    • Kathryn Stratford profile image

      Kathryn 3 years ago from Manchester, Connecticut

      I'm back to say that I shared this on Facebook. I think my family would get a kick out of this one.

    • NateB11 profile image
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      Nathan Bernardo 3 years ago from California, United States of America

      Yes, I remember how it went from Atari, then Nintendo came out and I had to have that one and got hooked on Super Mario Brothers. I have been amazed at how much video games have evolved too.

      Thanks for stopping by, Kathryn, much appreciated. I hope you have a great weekend.

    • Kathryn Stratford profile image

      Kathryn 3 years ago from Manchester, Connecticut

      I remember the Atari very well, and it's been fascinating to hear the history behind it.

      I was about 9 when we got the Atari, as I recall. Shortly after came the Nintendo. It is fun to think of the 80s, and to see how far everything has come since then.

      I used to love Pac-Man, too, as well as Space Invaders. There was another one that fascinated me, too, but I don't remember what it was.

      Thanks for sharing this with us, and have a great night.

      ~ Kathryn