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Atari at 40- 4k Memories

Last week, Atari turned 40. Like most gamers of my generation, the name conjures up a lot of great memories. I remember my parents taking me into a Rich’s department store in 1980 to buy me an “electronic game”. I thought I was going to get something like the Mattel handheld football game. What I got was one of the old wood panel Atari 2600 and a couple of games, including Asteroids and Missile Command. Paddle controllers. Warlords. Some math game, probably called “Math”. I was five years old. It made me a video gamer for life.

It was a very long time ago, but I can still feel the soft give of that orange button- a controller with X and Y buttons would have blown my mind. I still feel those rubber-booted controllers in my hand. And when that boot tore off, that meant that the controller would be used by the sleepover guest. When you were the sleepover guest, you could blame your terrible Combat performance on the busted controller. What was that rattling in the paddle after David Green turned it too far? The resistance of those metal switches. Having slide the switch from “TV” to “Game”. Sense memory.

I remember my parents taking me to Zayre and Service Merchandise to get Donkey Kong and Pac-Man on release, and I remember having to wait in a long line both times. The night I got Donkey Kong, I played it so long that my hand started to hurt. Yes, I had E.T. and I didn’t hate it at all. In fact, I loved it. I loved that bizarre Raiders of the Lost Ark game, and never realized that the part at the end where Indy is on that weird platform with the Ark was the “end”. Then there was Swordquest: Earthworld and Swordquest: Fireworld- never saw the other two. The G.I. Joe game with the giant Cobra that shot lasers from its eyes. All the Imagic games, with their silver boxes and all the Activision ones with their rainbow trails. Star Raiders, Space Jockey, Montezuma’s Revenge, Demon Attack, Pitfall, Barnstorming, Reactor, Spider-Man, Demons to Diamonds, Krull (!), Kaboom!

I remember so many particulars about those games- probably more than I remember about what I played last year. Indeliable, no-bit impressions of abstract shapes and the sound of bitcrushed crunches before bitcrushing ever existed. Ads in comic books, demo kiosks at K-Mart, “Yar’s Revenge, it’s new from Atari”, a TV jingle I never forgot. Have you played Atari today?

But I somehow never upgraded to the 5200 or the 7800, instead playing my 2600 until Christmas of 1985- in other words, the Christmas of Nintendo. I had friends that had the other Atari systems, and I was always jealous even though I hated the controllers. They seemed so sleek and modern at the time, especially compared to my old wood panel console. Then there were the Atari computers, which I never owned but always admired. This older kid called Eric that I knew had an Atari 800, and we played Temple of Apshai on it. He explained to me that the 400 had a membrane keyboard, which sounded very sci-fi, but you couldn’t feel the keys on it. I remember when his dad bought him a top-of-the-line 1200XL to replace it. I also never had a Lynx.

No, the last Atari console I ever actually owned was the Jaguar. Yep, I’m one of the few and the not-so-proud. I suspect that most Jaguar owners bought the console almost exclusively for Jeff Minter’s Tempest 2000, which at the time was not available anywhere else. And it was awesome, but then again Tempest is my all-time favorite arcade game. When KB Toys closed out their stock of the failed platform, I bought almost every game that was available for it at $1.99 a title. Very few were worth mentioning- Alien Vs. Predator and Defender 2000 were the only other titles worth owning. If you haven’t seen the Jaguar’s attempt at a 3D fighting game, you simply must get your hands on Fight For Life. It has to be the worst fighting game I’ve ever played in my entire life.

Of course, Atari has released games for other systems up through the current generation and their name- despite company sales, lawsuits bankruptcies, the Great Video Game Crash, dwindling reputation, and a general sense that this pioneering company got left in the dust- remains an important one. Whenever I see that logo with its retro-futurist font, it brings back so many memories from my life in games. I think of the great frontiersmen like David Crane and Larry Kitchen. I think of sitting in the living room floor wide-eyed in wonder that I could play video games in my living room. Yeah, they weren’t as good-looking as the games in the arcade and playing Robotron 2084 with only one stick sucked. But this was the company that, until Nintendo arrived in the US, was synonymous with video games on our living room TVs.

It’s sad that Atari is now more recognizable as a logo on a novelty T-shirt than as a significant part of the games industry. What they were doing in the late 1970s and early 1980s touched my life tremendously. Getting that “electronic game” when I was five years old is one of the reasons I’m here writing for a video games blog today.