Arcade game pioneer Atari is back – sort of. The veteran game maker has confirmed it’s working on a new games console, in the hopes of capitalising on the trend for retro gaming and returning the company to its former greatness.
Fred Chesnais, chief executive, told GamesBeat Atari was “back in the hardware business” at this week’s E3, adding it was based on PC technology and that its design is still being finalised. A video uploaded to new site Ataribox.com appears to show a wood-paneled machine with a light-up Atari logo.
Formed in the early 70s, Atari was responsible for popularising video games with the creation of frustration table tennis game Pong on bulky arcade machines. Its phenomenal popularity with arcade-goers led to Home Pong, an incredibly basic games console consisting of two analogue sticks and two buttons which went on sale in 1975.
Video games ‘aid mental health and help prevent PTSD’
The 1977 Atari VCS, later known as the Atari 2600, cemented its place in video games history by supporting seminal titles Space Invaders, Asteroids, Star Wars and Pac-Man. It would go on to sell 30m units, but the video game crash of 1983 severely affected the company, and it lost $310.5m in the second quarter of 1983 alone.
From market leader to trailer: Atari’s sad decline
By the mid 80s Atari was working on arcade, consoles and home computer games in separate divisions. Nintendo’s NES console, released in 1985, destroyed the 2600’s remaining console market share, and parent company Warner sold the arcade arm of the firm to Namco the same year. The computing division, renamed Atari Corp, released a range of home computers until 1993, when it shuttered to concentrate on consoles. The Atari Jaguar failed to convince gamers it was better than the Super Nintendo or Sega Genesis, and while the company name has appeared in various guises thanks to its sale to Infogames in 2000, it has largely faded into obscurity.
Atari has continued to make money through mobile games in recent years following a recent brush with bankruptcy in 2013, but its ambitions to return to the console market as a viable player are fraught with danger.
From Final Fantasy to reality: inside the big business of video game fan festivals
For one, it goes without saying that gaming has moved on at an astronomical pace since the mid 80s. Microsoft and Sony are currently locked in a heated battle at the high-powered, sophisticated graphics end of the spectrum – a fight Microsoft is currently losing spectacularly – while Nintendo has the cutesy gameplay afforded by its untouchable franchises all sewn up at the more lighthearted end. The recent unprecedented success of its NES Classic Mini, a re-release of the much-loved 80s platform, has paved the way for future appetite for the forthcoming SNES remake later in the year.
Looking to the future of consoles
So, what is Atari hoping to make, a rival to the Xbox and PlayStation or a cutesy throwback? I suspect the latter – so it’s worth noting Atari it’s already made multiple comeback retro consoles in the vein of the NES Classic Mini. It released the Atari Flashback in 2004, complete with Millipede, Crystal Castles and Battlezone inbuilt games, which spawned another six replica units, the most recent of which went on sale just last year.
While these re-releases were relatively popular, they failed to spark a sensation on the scale Nintendo managed. Atari’s games, while both groundbreaking and influential, arguably lack the long-standing appeal of Nintendo’s stellar roster – Mario, Zelda, Donkey Kong, Kirby, Metroid, early Final Fantasy. It’s difficult to see who, beyond the hardcore purists, will care enough to buy yet another console in an ever-crowded field.
While Atari has undoubtedly set itself a tough challenge, you’ve got to admire its pluck. Retro games are still remarkably popular, and Atari is still a name which activates a great deal of romantic nostalgia. Yet given the ruthless nature of the industry (worth around $100bn) which has been so unkind to it in the past, it needs more than love to make its mark.
MEANWHILE, ELSEWHERE AT E3Atari’s announcement came at one of the industry’s biggest annual events, the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles, where the great and the good of the gaming industry gather to show off their forthcoming games, and on occasion reveal the odd console.This year’s E3 was dominated by gaming’s Big Three – Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony, all hoping to stake their claim in consumer pockets in the lucrative run up to Christmas. Nintendo showed off footage for the hotly-anticipated Super Mario Odyssey for its phenomenally popular Switch console and confirmed its 27 October release date. Microsoft revealed the Xbox One X, its latest weapon in its battle to take down Sony’s PlayStation, while Sony announced a PS4 remake of seminal game Shadow of the Colossus and new releases for its virtual reality (VR) headset PS VR, including Skyrim and a Final Fantasy XV fishing game.