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The History of Video Games: Part 2 - The Fall of the Atari 2600.

The Great Video Game Crash of 1983

By Iain BakerPublished 7 years ago 4 min read
Top Story - August 2017
Even the mighty fall... 

Welcome back. Last week we took a brief look at the Atari 2600. This week we will chart its rise and its eventual fall.

The Atari 2600 was the first major console and in many ways set the stage for the consoles that would follow. Many of the features of video gaming we now take for granted started with the 2600.

For a start, its games came on removable cartridges. Therefore the size of your games collection was limited only by the size of your bank balance, and the amount of shelf space you had to store them on.

So many games, so little space...

The Atari’s game cartridges often featured highly decorative box art, which helped them to stand out on retailers shelves.

The games never looked this good of course.

This is in stark contrast to the earlier first generation consoles, which had their games "built in", and lacked any type of physical media port. And since there was no internet back then, the games which the console shipped with were the only ones it would ever have.

Before the Atari what you saw was all you got.

Secondly, its "input devices", i.e. controllers, were removable. Earlier consoles and even some of its contemporaries had their controllers hard wired to the console itself. This presented a number of serious problems. For a start, if a controller broke, it could not be replaced. This would render the whole console useless and consoles are expensive. Another perhaps less obvious problem is that it stifled developer creativity, as any game developed for such as system had to be based around that controller, and only that controller.

So many choices. Oh, Wait...

Image by Evan-Amos - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

The Atari was different. It had several input devices at launch, including the iconic joystick and the "paddles", which were an early analogue controller, ideal for games such as Breakout and Pong.

The original Atari joystick

Anyone for Tennis?

These were later joined by third party joysticks, such as the quickshot. This was designed to resemble the joysticks used in real world fighter jets and featured multiple buttons and a trigger. This could be thought of as the precursor of modern day HOTAS systems used in flight sims and space combat games such as Elite: Dangerous.

Anyone else feel the need, the need for speed?

Another input device was the Video Touch Pad controller, essentially a small twelve button keyboard. This was shipped with the Atari 2600’s killer app, the first person space combat game Star Raiders. A joystick would be plugged into one port and the VTP into the other. Although primitive by today’s standards, it worked, and it set the scene for later "space sims." These would go on to improve on this formula, culminating in the HOTAS and keyboard set up we see today.

Not quite the 96 keys we have today, but it was a good start...

Another similar game was Solaris, a game which pushed the Atari 2600 to its limits. This was one of the last games developed for the 2600 and showed just what the machine was capable of in the right hands. Technically it was *ahem* light years ahead of the competition and a fantastic game in its own right.

This versatility led to a staggering quantity of games being developed for the platform, with literally hundreds of titles being released, many of them by third parties.

Unfortunately, not all games were of this high quality. There were many mediocre games and a few that were simply terrible. This did not help consumer confidence, as it turned purchasing games into a crapshoot. It could be good, but it could be absolute garbage. This was pre-internet remember, so finding reviews to inform your purchasing decisions was not as easy back then.

You could be forgiven for thinking, Just stick to first party games, they should be fine. Unfortunately, this was not the case. Quite the opposite in fact. Towards the end, Atari’s first party line up was composed of cash grab "shovel ware" film tie-ins. One notable example being Raiders of the Lost Ark.’ It sold well enough due to the name, but as a game, it was subpar, inferior even to the earlier released pitfall.

Things went from bad to worse for Atari, as then came E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Being tied to one of the greatest movies of the early 1980s was a license to print money, or so Atari thought. It sold very well initially, with parents and grandparents in particular buying copies as Christmas presents. There was one problem, however: it was terrible. As in "regarded as the worst video game of all time" terrible. Not only was the game lacklustre in every way, it was full of video game "design sins" that made it pretty much unplayable.

Once word got out about just how bad it was, people stopped buying it. Atari manufactured more copies than were actually sold, with retailers returning them in bulk. This, combined with the high licencing cost, resulted in it being a significant financial failure for Atari. What did Atari do with all these unsold cartridges?

They buried them in the desert. Seriously, look it up…

Lack of consumer confidence in Atari hurt sales of other titles as well, including third party titles. This left many cartridges remaining unsold, with their shelf space reallocated to other pocket money sinks, such as He-Man and Transformer toys. This was the great video game crash of 1983. Atari’s share price plummeted and the company was bought out by Commodore. Some observers predicted the crash would kill the nascent video game industry completely, and viewed video games as a passing fad that had had its day.

Of course, we know today that this was not the case and the video game industry today is worth more than Hollywood. So what saved it?

That will be the topic of the next "History of Video Game" article.

See you all then!


About the Creator

Iain Baker

A 'pushing 40' life long gamer, reader, writer, film buff and amateur war historian. Loud and proud member of the 'The Oregon Trail Generation - the first gamer generation.'

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