Saturday, October 17, 2009

In Praise of Atarisoft

During the early 1980's, Atari ruled the home videogame roost, and in addition to their own sizeable stable of hits, they bought licenses for a number of popular coin-op arcade games, including computer rights for Nintendo's Donkey Kong and exclusive rights to the original, non-super, regular guy Mario Brothers.  The intent, I suspect, was to make the most desirable titles available exclusively on Atari systems -- the 2600, 5200, and 400/800/XE line of computers.

But a funny thing happened on the way to profit.  Many, many unofficial versions of these games had already been released for competing platforms.  While those of us with non-Atari systems may have preferred to buy an officially licensed product, in general we were content to play Snack Attack or Ghost Gobbler or Scarfman or Jawbreaker or Piranha; many of these clones were well executed, in contrast to Atari's awful official Pac-Man cartridge for the 2600.  We certainly weren't likely to buy a whole new platform for the sake of a handful of worthy games.  Atari tried to encourage us to do so -- the company filed a lawsuit over Magnavox's K.C. Munchkin for the Odyssey2, but after much legal wrangling the effort yielded no real reward.  There were so many clones on the market, and such a short profit window at hand, that further litigation likely seemed impractical.

Thus, the company swallowed its pride, acknowledged the fact of competitors' established market share, took a page from Coleco's marketing playbook, and launched the Atarisoft line.

To Atari's credit, these conversions were generally of competent quality.  I spent a little time with Atarisoft's Commodore 64 version of Centipede recently after finding a copy in a thrift store, and it sounds and plays very much like the arcade game.  The VIC-20 editions were a little more primitive, the Apple II versions on the sluggish side, and the IBM PC versions looked like Christmas in reds and greens, or woefully pale in pastel reds and blues.  But there's no question that Atari was in these markets to succeed and make money.  While schoolyard prophets predicted they would intentionally produce inferior versions for competing platforms, they did not treat the exercise as a hugely expensive PR campaign. 

Unfortunately, the timing was awful -- just as Atarisoft was ramping up, the videogame market was winding seriously down for a while (the ad above appeared in the very last issue of Electronic Games magazine.)  But it was a smart and forward-thinking idea, an attempt to make Atari a software leader beyond its own hardware, and it foreshadowed Sega's later decision to go software-only, following the commercial failure of the Dreamcast.

The effort was certainly appreciated.

1 comment:

  1. I've researched Atarisoft myself. I was looking for a list of releases and release dates, but that appears to be a MccGuffin that I will chase my entire life. You even have a call-out to Electronic Games magazine too.

    It certainly it appears that we operate on a similar wavelength! Bravo.