The real story of Asteroids, Pac-Man, Pong and Pole Position

    by Steve Bloom

    (Appeared in the February 1984 issue of "Computer Games" Magazine)

  • 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 started Atari.

  • 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 Black Widow.

  • 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 cartridge ever.

  • 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 "Falcon."

  • 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 again.

  • Alcorn was the first engineer hired by Nolan Bushnell. His first project was Pong. His second project was Space Race, the forerunner to Frogger.

  • 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 Rabbit Transit.

  • 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 games.

  • 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 floating rocks.

  • 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 coin-op Avalanche.

  • 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 thereafter.

    Typed by Keita Iida

  • Go to previous page