"30 SECRETS OF ATARI"|
The real story of Asteroids, Pac-Man, Pong and Pole Position
Nolan Bushnell, Atari's founding father, originally named the company
Syzygy (the sun, moon and earth in total eclipse). He renamed it
Atari because another company already owned the name Syzygy.
Bushnell is generally believed to be the author of Pong, Atari's
first game. Actually, Magnavox released the Odyssey 100, the first
home video game system, which included a game remarkably similar to
Pong, several months before Pong's debut in the arcades in 1972. The
Odyssey 100 was invented by Ralph Baer.
Bally/Midway rejected Bushnell's Pong when he demonstrated the game
in its Chicago offices in 1972. Bushnell went back to California and
Given a choice between Mappy and Pole Position, two arcade creations
by the Japanese firm Namco, Bally/Midway amazingly opted for Mappy.
Atari had to settle for Pole Position, which went on to become the
biggest game of 1983.
Gravitar was one of Atari's worst selling arcade games. So they took
the game program out of the cabinets and converted them all into
Mike Hally designed Gravitar. He recently redeemed himself as the
project leader for Atari's spectacular Star Wars game.
Rick Mauer never programmed another game or Atari after he did Space
Invaders for the VCS. He is said to have earned only $11,000 for a
cartridge that grossed more than $100 million.
Todd Fry, on the other hand, has collected close to $1 million in
royalties for his widely criticized VCS Pac-Man.
The man responsible for bringing Pac-Man to Atari -- Joe Robbins,
former president of coin-op -- was severely reprimanded by the
chairman of the board Ray Kassar for making the deal with Namco
without consulting him. It seems Robbins was in Japan negotiating a
legal matter with Namco at the time, and Namco apparently demanded
that Atari buy the home rights to Pac-Man as part of the settlement.
Pac-Man had yet to take off, but when it did, Robbins' gutsy decision
paid off as Pac-Man went on to become the company's best-selling
The man responsible for bringing E.T. to Atari? None other than
Warner Communications' chairman Steve Ross. So convinced was he that
E.T. possessed video game star quality, Ross paid Steven Spielberg an
enormous sum (did I hear $21 million?) for the rights to the little
extraterrestrial bugger. Designer Howie Warshaw spun the game out in
four months, only three million cartridges were sold and Atari soon
began announcing million dollar losses. E.T. is now selling for as
little as $5 in some stores.
Warshaw also designed the Raiders of the Lost Ark cartridge and Yar's
Revenge, which started out as a licensed version of the arcade game,
Star Castle. "Yar" is "Ray" Kassar backwards.
One of Atari's most popular early arcade games was Tank, only it
didn't say Atari anywhere on the cabinet or screen. Instead it said
"Kee Games," which was another name for Atari from 1973-78. Atari
and Kee (named after Joe Keenan, Bushnell's longtime partner) put out
identical games in order to create more business for Atari. For
instance, Spike (Kee) and Rebound (Atari) were volleyball games that
came out a month apart in 1974.
Tank was designed by Steve Bristow, who is still with the company
after all these years. Most recently, he has been in charge of
Ataritel, Atari's telecommunications project which had been codenamed
Code-names have always been popular at Atari. The VCS was "Stella,"
the 400 computer was "Candy," the 800 was "Coleen," the 5200 was
"Pam." All were named after well-endowed female employees working
at Atari (except for Stella, which was a bicycle trade name).
And then there was "Sylvia," the 5200 that never was. Pam, as
everyone knows, was a stripped down 400 computer for the sole
purpose of game playing. Sylvia was intended to be Atari's answer to
Intellivision and was in the works long before Pam was born. But
problems developed largely because the 5200 was projected to be
compatible with VCS software, which limited the design of the new
hardware. When push finally came to shove, Sylvia went out the
window and Pam walked in the door.
Cosmos, Atari's experiment with holography, was a battery-operated
game system that was introduced at a New York press conference in the
spring of 1980. Created by Al Alcorn, Cosmos was never to be seen
Alcorn was the first engineer hired by Nolan Bushnell. His first
project was Pong. His second project was Space Race, the forerunner
Another project announced was a remote-control VCS. Since it was
wireless, you could play games at 30 feet without having to hassle
with the console. It too mysteriously disappeared from Atari's
catalogue. (Note: It looked almost exactly like the Atari 5200.
Nobody in Atari coin-op liked Dig Dug, the company's first Japanese
import, except for Brian McGhie, now with Starpath. It was McGhie
who added the finishing touches to Dig Dug. His latest game is
Quantum and Food Fight were not designed by Atari. They were the
work of General Computer Corp. of Cambridge, Massachusetts. GCC
broke into the business selling kits that would speed-up Missile
Command. Atari sued and settled with GCC for the above-mentioned
Tempest was originally intended to be a first person Space Invaders-
type game. Then Dave Theurer came up with the idea for tubes on the
screen. Theurer also designed Missile Command.
The first 200 Asteroids machines were actually Lunar Landers. Atari
was so hot on Asteroids that it cut short the production run on Lunar
Lander -- Atari's first vector game -- and released the 200 complete
with Lunar Lander cabinet art.
Asteroids had two incarnations before it achieved its spectacular
success. The first, Planet Grab, simply required you to claim
planets by touching them with your spaceship. The second version,
Cosmos, allowed you to blow up the planets and duel with another
ship, Space Wars-style. Only in Asteroids, which came along two
years later, did Atari engineer Lyle Rains introduce the concept of
Many at Atari, past and present, dispute Rains' claim that he was
solely responsible for Asteroids. Ed Logg, who programmed it and who
also had his hand in the design of Centipede and Millipede, is said
to be the true mastermind behind Asteroids.
One of Ed Logg's games that has never been released in the arcades is
called Maze Invaders.
Battlezone programmer Ed Rotberg left Atari after he was forced to
convert his favorite game to Army specifications. Dubbed the MK-60
by the Army, it included 30 game variations, improved steering and
magnification, and simulations of Russian and American tanks. It
sold for $30,000.
Rotbert joined two other Atari engineers, Howard Delman and Roger
Hector, and formed Videa, which not too long ago was bought by Nolan
Bushnell for more than $1 million and renamed Sente Technologies.
President of Apple Computers Steve Jobs began his hi-tech career at
Atari. He was known to walk around barefoot, kick up his dirty feet
on executives' desks, and talk continuously about going to India to
meet a guru. Not only did he do the latter, he designed Breakout
before leaving Atari for good.
Before they left Atari, designers Al Miller, David Crane, Larry
Kaplan and Bob Whitehead were working on games that would later
become Activision cartridges. Crane's Dragster was a spin-off of the
Atari coin-op Drag Race and Kaplan's Kaboom was based on the Atari
Warren Robinett, tired of Atari's policy of no author credit for game
designers, decided to sign his game, Adventure, in an obscure secret
room in the program. He never even told his fellow designers about
this for fear of word getting out and he being reprimanded.
Ultimately, a 12-year-old boy in Salt Lake City discovered the secret
room where it was written: "Created by Warren Robinett." To his
surprise, Robinett was never punished. He too left Atari shortly
Typed by Keita Iida