When the Atari VCS launched in 1977, there were two racing games that went out alongside it. Indy 500 is almost without question the better of the two, and features some of the best racing action on the platform in its lengthy life. 

The overhead perspective and game mechanics seen in Indy 500 were pioneered by Atari in its March 1974 single-player arcade game Gran Trak 10, the company’s first true racing game. Gran Trak 10 was inspired by a pen-and-paper game called Racetrack published in the January 1973 edition of Scientific American. Developer Steve Mayer felt like the calculations used in that game to determine the movement of cars along a track could be used in a video game. Larry Emmons did the circuit design, and eventually Ron Milner came on board to help them finish the game, which included several firsts for arcade games: it’s the first game to use a ROM chip to store sprite data rather than hard-coding characters on the board. It’s the first game to use a dedicated monitor rather than repurposing a television, and it’s the first game to use interlaced video for its display. Essentially, the game will draw all the odd-numbered scanlines first and then circle back around for the even-numbered scanlines, which allowed for higher resolution and smoother animation. Despite all these innovations, Gran Trak 10’s production was a debacle, with manufacturing problems, pricing problems and expensive parts. The issues were great enough that even though the game sold around 10,000 units, Atari still took a hit in 1974 that put them $600,000 in the red. The game was nevertheless reportedly successful for arcade operators.

Continue reading “Indy 500 (Race) – September 1977”

When the VCS hardware was being conceived by Jay Miner and Joe Decuir, their mission was to build a console capable of playing, at minimum, home versions of Atari’s Tank and Pong arcade games. Tank was the proof of concept game that would later be fleshed out into the pack-in title Combat by Larry Wagner, but even after hiring a group of programmers in 1976, by early 1977 nobody had taken up the task of writing a commercially viable Pong game for the system.

  Of course, even by 1977 Pong was an old game concept. The arcade version launched in 1972 as the first commercial game released by Atari following the Computer Space game that Atari founder Nolan Bushnell had worked on alongside Ted Dabney. Computer Space had been published by Nutting Associates the previous year, but was considered in retrospect by Bushnell to be too hard to control for a game set up in bars and bowling alleys. Bushnell tasked early hire Al Alcorn with recreating a simplified version of the Magnavox Odyssey’s tennis game using arcade hardware as a test project, to familiarize himself with Dabney’s circuitry and their game design technology in general. Bushnell motivated Alcorn by telling him they already had a contract with General Electric to produce this game and that it had to cost less than $15 in parts. Alcorn simplified the game design from the Odyssey by eliminating the extra paddles that allowed players to move horizonally and affect the ball’s flight directly; instead, players can only move along a vertical axis, and the ball’s angle is determined entirely by where it connects with the paddles. Bushnell wanted cheering and boos as background audio, but Alcorn simply found tones that were already being generated by the game and hooked them into the speaker instead.

Continue reading “Video Olympics (Pong Sports) – September 1977”

While Atari was working on developing its first programmable machine, the Video Computer System, the bare-minimum goal was to have something that could run home versions of their 1970s hit games, notably Tank and Pong. The company hired a programming crew in 1976 to begin the task of turning what was the cutting edge of arcade releases into something playable on a dramatically less capable system, as well as beginning the work of making home-exclusive games.

Among those early hires was Larry Kaplan, who came on board in August of 1976 as the company’s first VCS software designer after impressing them by building his own Altair 8800 computer from a kit. Kaplan enjoyed taking advantage of the company’s free arcade game room and was a fan of the 1975 arcade game Anti-Aircraft located there, deciding to make that one of his first projects for the system still in development.

Anti-Aircraft, developed by Gary Waters and released in June 1975, is a fairly straightforward two-player game where each player fires anti-aircraft guns at horizontally passing planes or UFOs; in an early example of a video game easter egg of sorts, a minor board modification will change out the planes for alien ships.  Scoring is based off of how many aircraft the player hit, and whoever has the higher score at the end of the time limit is the victor. As a relatively recent arcade game and one suited to two players, it fit Atari’s ideal of bringing its arcade hits home.

Continue reading “Air-Sea Battle (Target Fun) – September 1977”

 

 

The 1970s were a time of rapid growth and change in the nascent video game industry. Over the course of the decade, arcade video games were commercially introduced, grew in complexity, and shifted from black-and-white to color. But the video game industry as we know it started in the home, and there was a great deal of interest in bringing those arcade experiences back to the rumpus room. Much like the earliest arcade games, early home consoles were dedicated machines capable of only playing whatever the circuitry had built in. There was no real programming involved because there weren’t really microprocessors available to run these games; as such game design was in large part a function of hardware design. Although Magnavox’s Odyssey system functionally was the home market for the first few years – featuring changeable cards that, under the hood, were little more than circuitry that told the hardware to use specific rules for whatever game – around 1975 the market was flooded with dedicated consoles that largely worked to recreate the popular arcade game Pong.  Such a market was always going at risk of becoming a fad the same way that CB radios or digital watches were, and electronics giants like Fairchild and RCA were in a race with arcade game developers such as Atari and Bally to change that paradigm and hit the storefronts with consoles capable of interchangeable, new games with a sturdier shelf life.

Atari’s effort, the Video Computer System, had its first proof-of-concept prototype design completed on paper in December 1975, by engineers Steve Mayer and Ron Milner of Cyan Engineering, which was a subsidiary of Atari. Mayer and Milner had been discussing how to follow up Atari’s Home Pong dedicated console that summer when Mayer suggested moving away  from dedicated consoles, which required designing from the ground up new circuits and hardware for each new game, to building a base unit with different ROM chips that could be plugged into it to run games instead. The idea of porting the popular arcade game Tank – which was produced by another Atari subsidiary, Kee Games and published in November 1974 – was in the front of the engineers’ minds as a natural follow up to Pong. The initial prototype design included the idea of running what would become Combat on the eventual system, and used the arcade machine’s dual-stick control setup to run a basic version of Tank as a proof-of-concept. A second pair of hardware designers named Jay Miner and Joe Decuir were charged with building out that prototype design and turning it into a commercial product, with one basic edict: That the VCS should be able to run home versions of Tank and Pong, as well as home versions of other popular arcade titles such as Jet Fighter and Gran Trak 10.

Continue reading “Combat (Tank Plus) – August, 1977”

Welcome to the Atari Archive homepage! Some of you may know me from my YouTube channel, Atari Archive, which since 2017 has been looking at the history of the early video game industry through the lens of each Atari Video Computer System (or 2600) release in chronological order. I really enjoy producing these videos, and am really pleased that they’ve found an audience. The problem with video, of course, is that once it’s done, it’s incredibly bothersome to go back and update… and certainly since I’ve started this project I’ve come across a variety of sources that I either couldn’t fit into the video for whatever reason, or discovered them after the fact. This website will serve as a repository for me to publish my findings, update items where applicable, and source my research for those who may want to do their own digging. Consider it a companion to the video series, if you will!

Despite the name of the website and the video series, I’m not *just* interested in Atari’s history. My research has involved numerous other players in the early game industry, from home game companies like Astrocade, RCA, Fairchild and Mattel to arcade developers such as Ramtek and Exidy… and even further back to the early days of computer gaming. These get mentioned in the relevant Atari pieces, but expect the periodic article specific to a non-Atari topic or company.

For a little bit of background on me, I’ve been interested in the early history of video games since I was a kid and came across a copy of the Winners’ Book of Video Games, by Craig Kubey, in my local library. At this point it had been out of date by about a decade, but it provided a tantalizing glimpse into an era of game history I’d known little about and discussed games I’d never heard of. I became pretty tuned in to early video game history and collecting websites as the internet matured, and a few years ago decided to start doing my own research, tracking down and interviewing former game-related folks, visiting archives to check out their periodicals, sifting through old newspaper ads and magazine reporting to try and formulate a list of when games actually came out. As a journalist by trade, these were all skills I’d already honed, and I decided to challenge myself to learn about video production with the Atari Archive YouTube series. As I see it, all of the games we know now as titles in a pile of cartridges or in a list of computer binaries came out in specific contexts and points of history, with their own legacies and development stories – my goal here is to try and tease out as much of that as I can to make the experience of actually checking out these games a richer one.

If you enjoy this page or my videos, please consider backing the Atari Archive Patreon. But either way, I hope you enjoy your time here and learn a thing or two you didn’t know before!