Founded all the way back on June 28, 1972, Atari was the first video game company to become a household name. If you grew up with Atari like I did, though, you might find that to look at it now, however, you would be hard pressed to recognize it.
Atari was started by Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney and became a leader in arcade games and gaming consoles in the 1970s and in to the early 1980s. On October 14, 1977, the company released a product that would end up changing the history of gaming: The Atari Video Computer System (VCS), later known as the Atari 2600.
The console wasn’t much to look at, and it definitely had a 1970’s vibe (check out those faux wood grain accents), but that device really launched the home video game industry. Until its release, consoles played only one game at a time – which means you really had to enjoy Pong to buy the Atari Pong. (To be fair, the Atari Odyssey could fool you into thinking that you were playing a number of games thanks to various sports-themed overlays that attached to your TV screen.)
But the VCS was the first console to feature interchangeable cartridges, something that would stick with consoles up through the era of the original Sony PlayStation.
The Atari VCS became such a huge success that everyone under the sun started creating games for it, and that actually ended up fueling the world’s first tech crash. In the early 1980’s, the industry fell from $3.2 billion in sales one year to just $100 million the next, as a glut of low quality games turned off consumers.
One of the most famous examples of what went wrong at Atari was release of E.T. The Extra Terrestrial. Thinking that it could do no wrong, Atari spent only five weeks developing the title for release in December 1982. To this day it is considered one of the most abysmal video games ever released, topping many “Worst” lists. There is even an urban legend that several semi trailers worth of unsold and returned copies were buried in an Alamogordo, New Mexico landfill.
While the Atari brand still exists, it is definitely not the company you once knew. The brand name and its rights to the back catalog of titles has changed hands many times over the years.
No matter how out of style Atari may be now, or the mistakes that were made along the way, any video game console you currently have in your home owes at least a small debt of gratitude to the original Atari Video Computer System.
Thanks, Atari, and happy birthday.