Atari: The Lost Years of the Coin-Op, 1971 – 1975
Atari: The Lost Years of the Coin-Op, 1971 – 1975
Author: Steve Fulton
Editing and Online Layout: Bill Loguidice and Cecil Casey
Special Thanks: Dan Hower, who graciously allowed us to use many of the images from his collection for this story. You can visit Dan’s Websites at http://www.howervision.net/</span> and http://www.coinopvideogames.com/</span>. You can view Dan’s arcade flyers and many others at the fascinating http://www.arcadeflyers.com</span>
Additional Special Thanks: Curt Vendel, for his assistance to the author with this article. You can see his impressive collection of Atari information at http://www.atarimuseum.com</font>
Return to Part III of this Article
1975: Atari Releases Compugraph Foto Machine
Atari introduces the COMPUGRAPH FOTO, a coin-operated machine that printed life-sized pictures on computer paper for customers. The machine weighed-in at an astronomical 950 pounds! It contained a combination of impact line printer, computer and closed-circuit TV. It was advertised as Durastress™, with apparently several patents applied for, but little else is known.
1975: January 31: Atari/Kee Games Introduces Pursuit Coin-op
“It’s Plane Fun! …”
Pursuit was a one player World War I flying game where you shoot-down enemies in your crosshairs. Controls were an analog joystick with a single button for firing at enemies. The game had operator settings for several options, including extended play. Pursuit was advertised by Kee Games, but Atari handled all the distribution. At this point, Kee and Atari were no longer hiding the fact that they were the same company.
Pursuit was still a discreet logic design, with the game was advertised as Durastress™ and marketed with Atari’s Innovative leisure™ slogan. Production release of the game was December 17, 1974, but it shipped in January of 1975 according to the January 31, 1975, US Trademark First Use In Commerce date.
1975: March 11: Atari’s Hi Way Coin-op Goes into Production Release
“Hi Way – All It Needs Is Wheels …”
Hi Way was Atari’s horizontal scrolling driving game that came in a unique sit down cockpit-like cabinet. The player’s goal was to dodge cars and negotiate turns down twisting road. The hardware was a discreet logic design, advertised as Durastress™ and marketed with Atari’s Innovative leisure™ slogan. The unusual sit-down cabinet was patented October 20, 1975 (U.S. Patent # D243,626). In Europe, the game was named Highway from Atari France, but was only released in a standard cabinet. Production release was on March 11, 1975 (according to the service manual).
1975: April 14: Atari/Kee Introduces Indy 800
“New 8 Player version of the greatest money-maker ever! …”
Indy 800 was an eight player racing game with a full-color screen. The game resembled Gran Trak 10, but allowed for eight players at a time. An Optional control module would allow an official starter to facilitate tournaments. The cabinet included a mirrored canopy to allow spectators to view the racing action. Besides a steering wheel, shift and pedals, each driver had their own horn to honk at will. The game hardware was a discreet logic design, advertised as Durastress™ and marketed with Atari’s Innovative leisure™ slogan.
The major innovation with this game was its color monitor and eight player multi-player cabinet. The cabinet was so large in fact, that it required at least 16 square feet of space! The game cabinet was patented October 20, 1975 (U.S. Patent #D243,625). Production release for the game was March of 1975.
1975: May: Atari/Kee Introduces Tank 2, Tank Cocktail and Tank III
Tank was such a hit that the newly reformed Atari/Kee released several more versions of the game throughout 1975, including Tank 2, Tank III and a cocktail table version of the original Tank. Tank 2 added land mines represented by x’s. All the games still featured discreet logic hardware with ROM to represent the tanks and other objects. The advertising for all of these games said that each game was released by Kee Games, but now added “A Wholly Owned Subsidiary of Atari”. All games were advertised as Durastress™ and utilized the Innovative leisure™ slogan.
1975: May: 1974 - 1975 Fiscal Year
Atari's sales reach almost $40 million.
1975: June 6: Atari Introduces Anti-Aircraft Coin-op
“Put Anti-Aircraft In Your Battle Plans! …”
Anti-Aircraft was a one or two player game that would one day form the basis of the Atari 2600 cartridge Air-Sea Battle. Players used a gun that could rotate to three positions and attempt to shoot down aircraft that flew overhead. An undocumented switch could turn the planes into UFO’s. The hardware used was discreet logic printed circuit boards with ROM for the planes and guns. Atari continued to tout its solid state manufacturing with Durastress™ with the release of this unit and was marketed with Atari’s Innovative leisure™ slogan. The final engineering sign-off for the game was June of 1975. The game is also known as Anti-Aircraft II, but apparently is the exact same game.
1975: July: Atari Introduces Goal 4 Coin-op
“Start playing with the future …”
Goal 4 was a one to four player Pong-style game built into a cocktail table (one of the first for Atari) that allowed up to two people per team to sit down, rest their drinks on the game table and battle it out with Foosball-style play. On September 17, 1975, Atari filed a U.S. Patent for the Goal 4/Breakout Sit-Down Game cabinet ornamental design. Goal 4 was marketed as utilizing Durastress™ with Atari’s Innovative leisure™ slogan. The game utilized discreet logic printed circuit boards.
1975: September 25: Atari Introduces Shark Jaws (through Horror Games)
“Shark Jaws is closing in fast…on big profits…so don’t fall behind …”
Shark Jaws was a one player game designed to capitalize on the movie Jaws. Legend has it that Atari tried to secure the rights to the movie, but failed. Instead of potentially jeopardizing Atari, Bushnell created “Horror Games” specifically for this release and marketed it anyway. The game was very simple, consisting of a swimmer, fish and shark. The swimmer had to catch the fish, without being eaten by the shark. The monitor was black and white, but used a color overlay on the screen. The game was solid-state, utilizing discreet logic, with ROM chips to create the shark, fish and swimmer graphics. The promotional materials touted both Durastress™ and the Innovative leisure™ slogan.
1975: October 2: Atari Introduces Steeplechase
“Be a Sprint Winner, Order Steeplechase now! …”
Steeplechase was a horse racing game for one to six players. The player controlled the jumping of the horse as it moved steadily along the race track. Colored overlays were used for each lane (Atari’s recently designed color monitor was not incorporated). The game hardware was a discreet logic design, advertised as Durastress™ and marketed with Atari’s Innovative leisure™ slogan. The game was designed and programmed by Lyle Rains (Steeplechase was a Sears exclusive for the Atari 2600 and supported up to four players. No “official” Atari home version exists. –ed.).
1975: October 15: Atari Introduces Crash ’n Score
“Demolition Derby …”
Crash ’n Score was a one or two player game in which the goal was to run over as many randomly placed, numbered pylons as possible in the time allotted. Players could choose to play with or without barriers. The Atari service manual described the game like this: “Atari’s Crash ’n Score is a video action game in which one or two players drive race cars on a rectangular playfield and earn score points by driving through lighted score flags. During play a player has to maneuver his car around certain obstacles and has to avoid the opponent car.” A modified version of the game was released in Europe under the name Stock Car. Hardware was a discreet logic design, advertised as Durastress™ and marketed with Atari’s Innovative leisure™ slogan.
1975: October 15: Atari Introduces Jet Fighter
“Start Playing With The Future …”
Jet Fighter was a two player game that inspired one of the popular modes of the Atari 2600 Combat cartridge. Jet Fighter’s service manual for the game described play like this: “Atari’s Jet Fighter is a video action game in which players pilot two airplanes across the sky in a fast-moving duel”. The hardware was a discreet logic design that was advertised as Durastress™ and marketed with Atari’s Innovative leisure™ slogan. On October 20, 1975, Atari filed a U.S. Patent for the Jet Fighter game cabinet ornamental design. The second production release was September 30, 1975. The game was designed and programmed by Lyle Rains.
1975: Second Half: Atari Buys Grass Valley Think Tank, Starts Pinball Division
Atari started its own pinball division with the idea to make solid-state pinball games with pure electronic components. Gone would be the mechanical scoring and electro-mechanical parts that were part of the so elegant, yet so expensive to maintain classic pinball machines. However, this type of innovation would require more solid engineering personnel than Atari possessed. Atari decided to expand its in-house engineering team by buying the “Grass Valley” think tank that they had been contracting with since 1973 and incorporated it into their own R&D operation. They started their pinball division with five people in 1975, but would not see any pinball game releases until November 1976 with the Atarians table.
1975: December: Home Pong Debuts
As 1975 came to a close, so did Atari’s sole reliance on its coin operated games division. Christmas 1975 thrust Atari into the consumer product arena with the C-100 Pong console. The seeds of this console were sewn as far back as 1973. That was when two Atari engineers, Harold Lee and Bob Brown, discussed the idea of creating a stand-alone version of Pong on a single microchip. The idea was radical for Atari, which was then creating its coin-op videogames with discreet logic chips on printed circuits boards. The two sold Al Alcorn and Nolan Bushnell on the idea and set out to create the console.
By the fall of 1974, Al Alcorn had joined Harold Lee and Bob Brown in working on the home version of Pong, now code named “Darlene”. The cost of microchips had come down to a level that would make the project economically viable. Bushnell decided it was time to make the jump to the home market, even though most of his advisors told him to stay focused on coin-ops.
Atari attempted to sell home Pong, but almost all traditional retailers refused. The only interested party was Tom Quinn, the sporting goods buyer for Sears. He ordered 50,000 units and then increased the order to 150,000 by Christmas. The problem was Atari was still in financial jeopardy. Bushnell enlisted the aid of Donald Valentine to help secure venture capital. Valentine came through with $600,000 in the summer of 1975, and another $300,000 in December, which was enough to help get home Pong manufactured.
Home Pong became a surprise hit for Atari. The Sears deal infused them with some much needed cash and generated $40 million in gross sales and $3 million in profit. This success made Atari the first company to manufacture games for both the arcades and home consumers. This would have huge repercussions on the future of Atari and their games as they moved into 1976.
While Atari’s output from 1971 - 1975 might seem inconsequential at first glance, a closer look shows quite a different story. The games might not have been memorable enough to change history and keep the masses in the arcades, but the hardware innovations proved to be immensely important.
From the pure discreet logic chip designs of the very first Pong games, to the addition of ROM’s for more complex graphics, and from simple control knobs on a two-player cabinet to eight-player driving games with realistic controls and a color monitor, Atari pushed the hardware of the coin-op videogame in every direction.
While some of the games ranged from the mundane (Superpong, Pong Doubles) to the exceedingly odd (Shark Jaws, Qwak!), many titles (Tank, Jetfighter, Anti-Aircraft, Indy 800) laid the groundwork for many later products. The creative coin-op game designs and technical innovations from these early days became the forbearer of Atari’s future success, especially with home Pong.
In the coming years, Atari would go on to create some of the most memorable coin-ops the world had ever seen and eventually change the home videogame industry forever with the Atari 2600.