AGH -- Atari's Legacy to the Videogame Industry


by Kevin Williams

  • Originally appeared in the September 1997 issue of Amuseument Europe Magazine. Authorized for publication on AGH from Mr. Williams.

  • For the last 9 years, Kevin Williams has been a freelance feature writer for the amusement trade in Europe, (his full time work is in the LBE and VR business). Along with his regular column in Amusement Business Europe ( he has a regular 'Blast From The Past' feature covering what happened 10 and 20 years ago in arcade development. The article below is an Atari 25th anniversary article he wrote for the publication.
  • While many celebrate the 25th Anniversary of the most influential video amusement manufacture of the industries short history, few seem to be taking the time to look at the true impact of Atari's involvement in video amusement. The future trends and technology now so successful were once the idea of one company. Can observation of their past, point to our present and future?

  • For those with only a short memory of the last five to ten years of video gaming, you could be forgiven for thinking that every great advance being presented by the Japanese near monopoly in dedicated machines is completely original. But peal back the creative curtain and a startling realisation can be made. Nearly 80% of the current new gaming technologies employed in amusement products was invented, patented and applied, nearly twenty years ago. The lion's share of these concepts coming from one amusement manufacture. Who is not Japanese!

  • Away from the daunting track record of products, and the fact that without Atari, this industry would not exist, (Atari developing the first truly successful video game, and then going onto establish nearly every category of game style). The advances that lead towards our hopeful new horizon for video amusement, were first enacted by Atari. It is correct to say that a glimpse of the future was achieved by this Californian manufacture, only to be successfully applied by foreign manufactures.

    Player Interaction

  • By the late 1970's a number of different game controls had been attempted, with differing rates of success. But it was the creation of the TrakBall, used for the first time in Football during 1978, that Atari started a move towards more immersive player interfaces. This popular concept seeing continuing success when used for the 1984 game Marble Madness. The strength of this interface can be seen in Namco's recent use of the same system in the game Armadillo Racing, benefiting from a simple means for players to control their character. Imaginative joystick construction was a vital component in Atari's armoury. The original Yoke style design used for the Atari game Star Wars originated from observation of a Military driving control for an APC project at the time, the design created for arcade adaptation proving a impressive unit employed again and again in Atari products, a firm favourite with players.

  • The one under estimated feature of player interaction has always been physical impact, in sync with action on the screen. Atari's 'Rump Thump' devise employed on Road Riot 4WD and Steel Talon in 1991, offered a simple but effective reaction. Today the use of special seat speakers and actuators achieve the same effect on games such as Tokyo War, Gti Club and Scud Racer.


  • The need for the player to relate to the action on screen is essential to continue the enjoyment of the experience, and have them come back for more. Atari's 1976 Night Driver bridged two fundamentally important requirements. The game offered a First Person Perspective driving game, (though hindered by the restrictions of graphics of the period), with simulation style controls. In later years, the need for better graphics led Atari to develop the first arcade game to use polygons (the 3D objects crucial to all 3D games developed) creating the 1983 game I,Robot. Finally these components of 3D graphics, first person perspective, and the first Force Feedback steering wheel led to the launch of Hard Drivin', in 1989. The game is the Grand daddy of every 3D racing game right up to the revolutionary Racing Jam by Konami. What Hard Drivin' created was a direct racing and driving simulation which paved the way for this genre to be more than just flat 2 dimensional entertainment personified by Namco's Pole Position. The games bequest is even more important when it is known that the same pysical model used in that game is installed in the current mega-hit, by Atari, San Fracisco RUSH.

    Graphical Representation

  • The road towards 3D graphics has proven a rocky one. The development of sprites, and their animation saw many advances by Atari, the ability for the player to move beyond the restrictions of the size of their displayed was the result of side scrolling, the first game to employ this being Atari's Sky Raider in 1978. But sprites are limited in the detail and realism that they represent, for some time Atari had developed Vector graphic experiences which pulled the player into the game. As with Night Driver, BattleZone offered the first true graphical simulation of a environment in a video game, but had the power of graphics to make this environment one that could be navigated. The tank combat game redefined the stage for combat scenarios, and when followed with the first flight simulator arcade game, Red Baron the genera was established. Games such as Namco's AirCombat 22, and Sega's Sky Target, but more recently Desert Tank and Tokyo War hark back to BattleZone in their implementation.

  • As a wise Chinese philosopher once observed, "A man who forgets his past will be cursed to constantly repeat it". But sadly it is not seen as being important, by the current manufactures of video games, to evaluate past products for future merit. The re-releasing of the same genre style product with only the improvement of graphic quality seems important, and it took the re-vitalised Atari, (under the financial wing of WMS) to create the most impressive driving game of recent times, borrowing heavily from Hard Drivin's proven features.

  • With the popularity of 'Retro' games, many of these mentioned past successes from Atari's library's are receiving a new lease of life. It can only be hoped that for the first time in many years the lesson will be learned and these advancements improved upon in future products from all the manufactures.

    Copyright 1997 by Kevin Williams.

    Authorized for publication on AGH, this article may not be posted to other web-sites or printed without express permission of the author.

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