Can Once-Famous Gaming Giant Atari Turn a New Generation on to Pong?

Reboots classics for online and mobile

Brands come and brands go, but only rarely does one dig its own grave.

That’s exactly what Atari did 31 years ago. It was 1983, and so poor were the sales of the brand’s 20 or so titles (in particular, E.T., generally believed to be the worst video game of all time) that the video game company dug a hole in the New Mexico desert and buried some 700,000 cartridges in it.

That story is just one reason the gaming world has been abuzz with Atari news of late. Not only was the fabled Alamogordo dump discovered and excavated in late April (more on that later), but the great ghost of Atari itself has also been stirring. Two weeks ago, Atari Inc.—which, not unlike E.T., exists as a kind of quaint, shrunken version of its former self—went public with a “new corporate strategy.”

Crawling out of bankruptcy late last year, the company that gave us legendary games like Pong, Asteroids and Missile Command will now attempt to refashion itself into what it calls an “interactive entertainment production company.”

What’s that mean? Basically, Atari will relaunch some of its classic games for online and mobile platforms. Atari will also conduct what it calls “a robust licensing business including hardware and apparel,” and in general promises to court new (read: younger) consumers.

“We can take these brands that have recognition—and the history of Atari as the progenitor of the video game business—and refresh them,” said marketing director Tony Chien. “These titles harken back to the original games, but we’ll put in new technology and quality so that new audiences can be captured as well.”

If Atari’s lucky, they can. Amid these big plans looms a big question: Can a technology company that last made headlines when the Bee Gees were a Top 40 act stage a successful comeback? In the view of Allen Adamson, chairman of brand consultancy Landor Associates, maybe—but it won’t be easy.

“Atari’s only advantage is that we’ve heard of them,” Adamson said. “But they’ll have to prove they can make good games and serve them up in a way that feels contemporary. They’ll have to quickly prove that they’re not your father’s Oldsmobile.”

Or his Space Invaders, either.

For the sake of those under 40, a bit of background: Once upon a time, Atari was the Apple of its day. Founded in 1972, the company took the world by storm with Pong, the world’s first arcade video game, and then followed it up with a killer string of games including Asteroids, Tempest, Missile Command and Breakout. (That last one dreamed up by two unknown programmers named Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs.) Beginning in 1977, Atari’s 2600 Video Computer System put joysticks into millions of American living rooms, and by 1982 the company was scoring annual revenues of $2 billion.

But a disastrous merger with Warner Communications sent Atari’s best talent running for the exits, and battalion of simply awful games (including the aforementioned E.T.) sent Atari into deep space. By 1985, with the appearance of a competitor called Nintendo, it was game over. 

Or almost over. With its name and trademarks passing from JTS Corp. to Hasbro to Infogrames Entertainment SA, Atari’s corporate heart never quite stopped beating. And now, fresh out of Chapter 11, Atari aims to quicken the pulse of a new generation of gamers.

Mainly, it aims to do that by reaching into its trove of illustrious games and updating them. A visit to Atari’s site reveals the new Asteroids equipped with the kind of dreamy deep-space background impossible in the old days, even as programmers have been careful to keep those familiar, crinkle-shaped planetoids floating past.

Meanwhile, Atari seems willing to bend the themes of its classic games to fit a far-out array of licensing partners. A just-announced deal with family-feeder chain Denny’s, for example, promises “remixed” mobile games including (get ready, folks) Centipup, Take-Out, and Hashteriods, which takes place aboard the "SS Denny's Condiment Transport ship."

Maybe the kids will think that's funny, but will serious gamers tolerate this stuff? Uh, no, says author and video game historian Curt Vendel. Not only is dusting off and reselling classic games a shortsighted idea, he said, “the company’s been pursuing this same strategy for the last 10-plus years.”

He means that literally. When Hasbro Interactive bought Atari in 1998, then president Tom Dusenberry hailed the brand’s “groundbreaking games [that] helped pioneer the video game industry” and promised to “bring these classics back to life by updating them with the latest technology and interactive game design while preserving their heart and spirit.”

Vendel believes that tactic is no more likely to work now than it did then.

“Unfortunately, extremely poor ‘reimaginations’ of original Atari assets only further insulted and pushed away the very consumer base Atari needed,” he said. “The new titles were mostly poorly designed and implemented adaptions which most major gaming sites panned.”

Vendel is no less pleased with Atari’s merchandising plans, which will see the company’s futuristic analog logo on everything from T-shirts to barware in the coming months. While mature fans (nearly 40 percent of gamers are 36 or older) warm to the idea of drinking from an Atari mug, Vendel believes this revenue stream is beneath the dignity of a once-great technology firm. “Atari has been diminished,” he said, “… for putting its name on shot glasses and underwear. [It’s] a sad example of how the brand that practically put video gaming into the collective conscious of the world has been completely shattered and destroyed.”

Which brings us back to those E.T. game cartridges. As the story goes, when Steven Spielberg’s film E.T. turned into a 1982 summer blockbuster, Atari’s developers rushed so fast to get a video game onto the market that they created the worst title in history. Many considered the story of the unsold units’ hasty burial to be urban legend—until Microsoft decided to finance the dig and find out. Backhoes uncovered the desert trove on April 26 and, according to published reports, the Alamogordo City Commission plans to sell 700 cartridges to the public.

There’s no word on when that’ll happen, but for the time being, Atari can be sure of one thing at least: Even old and dusty, its games can still make headlines.

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