by Brian Rittmeyer
- Reprinted with permission of the Butler Eagle -

For Atari information, go to these Web sites, most of which include links to countless others:


Video games were no doubt a popular gift this Christmas.

Sega's new Dreamcast was likely a big hit with those looking for the latest and greatest, and price breaks made the Sony Playstation and Nintendo 64 popular with cost-conscious consumers. I, too, remember a Christmas where the star attraction was a new video game system.

It was unlike anything we'd ever seen. It let us do the unimaginable on our television and recast the box in our family's living room in a whole new role.

The game was Combat. It was included with our Atari 2600 Video Computer System.

Right there I just lost any of our readers under 20. Or maybe even 25.

Video game players, by their desire for the next big thing, don't have much interest in the industry's history. Most probably aren't aware that the star of the latest Donkey Kong for Nintendo 64 was once a thug who kidnaped Mario's girl.

While a game today will take its player into a virtual world, Combat was little more than two square blocks (we saw them as tanks or planes) shooting little blocks at each other. It was mesmerizing.

Atari, whose name was once synonymous with video games, wielded as much power in the late 1970s and early '80s as, say, Microsoft does today. But for a variety of reasons, Atari's empire crumbled and it's now all but forgotten.

Sure, Hasbro Interactive picked up the remains of Atari in March 1998 for a mere $5 million. The company, catching the "retro" wave, has set about updating classic titles such as "Pong" and "Missile Command" and, coming soon, "Combat".

For first generation video gamers like myself, their efforts have been commendable. Some of the updates are really impressive, and they usually include "classic" modes. It's comforting seeing the Atari fuji logo back on the shelves.

But Atari had hung on longer than most know.

Atari's last effort at a video game console was in 1993 with the 64-bit Jaguar Interactive Multimedia System. (Nintendo wasn't the first 64-bitter.)

The system had some stunning games, like Tempest 2000 and Alien vs Predator, among others. There were also a fair number of stinkers, like the nausea-inducing Checkered Flag.

But up against Nintendo, Sega and Sony, Atari's "cat" couldn't compete and the system officially died in 1996 with a library of 60-or-so game titles on cartridges and compact discs.

But in what many say is unprecedented in video game history, the Jaguar has found life after death. Connected by the Internet, Jaguar enthusiasts have banded together to create a type of virtual community, or self-help group, depending on your point of view.

The Internet is also the only place left to "shop" for Jaguar merchandise, whether it's by bidding on the eBay auction site or buying items from specialty dealers across the country.

But beyond that, the Jaguar is also enjoying what, for its current state, could be called a "flood" of new games.

Texas-based Telegames kept the cat alive by releasing new games in 1997 and 1998.

The Jaguar's only new game in 1999 appeared thanks to Minnesota-based Songbird Productions, which in November released a Defender-clone called Protector. It has three more in the works and scheduled for release this year.

Songbird is even releasing new games for another Atari cat, the Lynx, a color handheld that came long before Nintendo finally gave color to its ancient Game Boy.

One quartet of dedicated developers, who go by the name of 4Play, continued to work on a 3D space combat game called BattleSphere despite the Jaguar's demise and the now-limited audience.

"With the game in an almost finished state, it didn't make sense to quit work on it," said Douglas Engel, 34, of upstate New York and a part of 4Play.

Finishing and releasing the game is "our way of showing thanks for the support we've received from the Atari community," he said.

While 4Play hopes to make a version of the game for a current console, for now it's a Jaguar exclusive.

"Even now that the performance of the Jaguar has been surpassed by newer and more advanced systems, the graphics and sound and gameplay of BattleSphere are still impressive," Engel said.

Music from the game can be found at and BattleSphere itself is expected in the first quarter of 2000. 4Play is planning to donate its profits to a diabetes charity.

The new games are in part thanks to Hasbro, which released the Jaguar into the public domain, clearing up any messy legal complications.

It's all been enough to make Atari and in particular Jaguar enthusiasts just giddy. The future, once bleak and relegated to talking over the same subjects again and again, is now full of new adventures.

But if you want to play, you need a Jaguar. New systems can be found cheap on the Internet. While the new games will be comparable in price to new popular games, the older titles can be found for much less, and some are still worth it.

By next Christmas, Sony is expected to come out with its powerhouse Playstation 2, and Nintendo's next machine is expected.

But for me, I'll still be playing Atari in one form or another.

I might even fire up the old 2600 and play a round or two of Combat.

- Brian C. Rittmeyer

Brian C. Rittmeyer, who suffers from a severe form of 20-something nostalgia, is a staff writer for the Butler Eagle.

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