Atari and Entering a Brave New World

Remember Atari? Remember when Atari used to make consoles? No? It was around the same time Sega were still in the hardware business. It was a simpler age. DLC was a dream of the future. Multiplayer gaming meant the guy or gal next to you on the couch, and a flatscreen TV… hahahaha. No chance. No, this was a golden age back when consoles were just gaming systems and expansion packs were rarities that were released mostly on PC.

I’m talking about 1996. The year Atari hardware died.

Before I get into the meat of my question about Atari’s mysterious Ataribox, I want to step into my hot tub time machine and take you back there. We’re going to return to a time when the console gaming market wasn’t just three manufacturers, it was a time when every electronics giant was trying to get their own seat at the table. However, we’re going to go to a dark time, a time when a once-powerful name fell from hardware grace…

The Death of Atari Hardware

I don’t need to go into detail about the history of Atari. Many fine documentaries exist out there on YouTube that detail the rise and fall of the once gaming giant – instead, 1996 was a landmark year because it saw one of the father’s of the console market forced into retirement. The once-proud name sold off as nothing more than a name for marketing and that was that. Atari as a hardware maker were no more. And what was it that Atari bowed out with? The Atari Jaguar of course.

Claiming to be ‘the world’s first 64-bit console’, Jaguar competed against the Sega Saturn and the Sony PlayStation, although technically the Jaguar had two 32-bit processors and not a true 64-bit architecture. It also suffered from a lack of a game library, and was difficult to develop for, making appeal to third party developers unattractive. Also the controller was perhaps one of the worst controllers ever Made. Ugly and clearly not designed for a human hand, Atari failed to capitalise on the console and after three short years hung up the controller for good.

As ugly as it was unique

So where do we go from there? Well, after being sold to Hasbro, and then again to Infrogrames in 2001, it became a brand name, and was publicly sliced up into shares between various companies. Apart from the Flashback consoles that have been released over the years, Atari have done little to suggest they would be making a hardware comeback. And why now? Surely this is madness.

In 2016 Sony had a 57% share of the home console market, with the rest being carved up between Xbox and Nintendo, so with that kind of established lead, why would Atari think about entering the hardware game again?

I am actually all for the idea of healthy competition, after all, competition drives innovation, and innovation drives imagination, so it could be good to have the apple cart upset by the entry of some new blood, but it’s been tried before, very recently by the Steam Machines, and they barely managed to make a dent. Whilst it could be said the Steam Machines were not a traditional console they were close enough. Steam also had the benefit of having a library of thousands of games already available to them, and these games are what current-gen console gamers are also playing so the migration from one to another wouldn’t have been too painful – and they couldn’t achieve it with the infrastructure of Steam already in place. So how could what is essentially a whole new console trading on the old Atari name hope to make a road in on the console game.

I would say they can’t. It’s an impossible mission. Unless it is a console that is purely for nostalgia, then we are going to see another commercial disaster for them. It’s unkind to say that this will be the case, and Ouya tried to squeeze their way in with their Android console and that too failed. The thing that sells consoles now, apart from brand loyalty, are exclusives, and the days of console-exclusive games seem to be becoming a thing of the past. Nintendo are perhaps the console that has the most exclusives, a fair point as most of them are made by Nintendo, then after that it would be Sony who have the biggest must-play games out there. Then we have Xbox who are more interested in their one game on either PC or console approach, so unless Atari can get some major exclusives, and I’m talking brand new IPs that are only available on the Ataribox, then it seems their efforts are going to be futile.

Atari are a company that have a treasured past from the dawn of console gaming, but their time has past. Much like Sega, they are just pages in history. It doesn’t mean I won’t be interested in what Atari offer us, but I can’t see a lot of consumers digging into their wallets to invest in this PC-based console that they’re working on.

Only time will tell, but for Atari, I think their time has passed.

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