Atari: the company with nine lives (five are used, four to go…)

atariboxPoor Atari.  They announced that they are going bankrupt. Again.  The US arm of Atari filed for bankruptcy and intends to sell of its most prized possessions: it’s intellectual property from the 1970’s and 80’s as well as the name and logo.  That means we will very likely see yet another company claim the Atari name and sell remakes of games like Battlezone, Pong and Asteroids.

This will be the sixth incarnation of the storied name. Yep, sixth. Let’s take a look at the history of this company.

Atari, with Nolan Bushnell at the helm, began in 1972. Initially, the company sold a game called ‘Computer Space’, but it was complicated and, aside from being a cool prop in several movies, never gained any traction. The company’s next venture, Pong, was a huge hit. The company went on to develop home versions and, after settling a lawsuit with Magnavox over the home video game, had some success in that market. They developed the VCS but lacked resources to marked the new console. In steps Warner Brothers and sale number 1.

Warner held on to the company until 1984, when the market crashed.  Enter Jack Tramiel, founder of Commodore.  Sale number 2 happens. (The arcade division was sold to Midway Games.)

Tramiel had some success with Atari by marketing decent home computers. In 1986, he decided to market and support a new console, the 7800, which was actually ready to go to market in 1984, when he bought the company. Not wanting to sink the company in a market that was now dead, Tramiel shelved the console. By 1986, Nintendo and Sega were seeing a renewed interest in home gaming, so he introduced the now obsolete console. He also brought out a smaller and cheaper version of the renamed VCS (the 2600.)  Atari languished for the next few years and was reverse merged with the much smaller JTS company, a maker of mass storage for computers.  Sale number 3.

Not long after that sale, Hasbro Interactive purchased the name and assets of Atari.  Sale number 4.

Hasbro Interactive was then sold to Infogrames in 2000. Infogrames renames itself Atari, SA in 2001. The US division, GT Interactive, becomes Atari, Inc.

During the intervening years between JTS’s sale and Hasbro’s sale, nostalgia swept in and, suddenly, old Atari games were hot again. Other dead consoles also saw renewed interest and Atari’s biggest competitor in the 80’s, Intellivision, was probably more popular that it was new as a result of this nostalgia.  Indeed, I had to go off and buy every old game collection I could find. Atari VCS games, Intellivision games and others in both software collections for Windows and actual hardware like those plug and play units. 

What’s interesting, however, is the curse that seems to follow the Atari brand. Every company that has utilized the name has either gone out of business or was sold. Hasbro, perhaps, was most successful and that attracted the eye of the French company, Infogrames.  Even they, though, could not escape the curse and the US division is about to die.

What a shame.

Atari could be a great company.  They have a great heritage, but seem to be cursed.

I know we will see yet another incarnation and the beloved games will stick around. Maybe forever. Who knows. 

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