Atari: The Lost Years of the Coin-Op, 1971 – 1975 (Parts I - IV)

Bill Loguidice's picture

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/ and http://www.coinopvideogames.com/. You can view Dan’s arcade flyers and many others at the fascinating http://www.arcadeflyers.com

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


The classic games of the Atari coin-op world have previously been well established. Books like The First Quarter explain the history of games like Pong, Breakout! and Asteroids in lurid detail, but leave out many of the games Atari produced in-between. Of the many recent “Atari Classics” game collections released by Hasbro and Infogrames (now using the Atari name), very little of this early history is covered. Most of these early arcade coin-ops were designed as discreet logic machines built out of individual integrated circuits with no microprocessor. This makes them very hard to emulate with applications like MAME because each game is essentially its own virtual machine that must be programmed and tailored for a single title. Added to that is the belief that many of these lost games are simple evolutions of Pong, so you can see why the games are almost universally dismissed. Why take the time to create a system to emulate a single, uninteresting Pong variant, when you could just as easily emulate a microprocessor that can play hundreds of games? However, a closer look at these very early games reveals some salient points of interest. Each game that Atari released was an evolutionary step towards a revolution: game play was more complex, controls more precise, graphics a bit sharper, the hardware more elegant, the cabinets more functional, the marketing more targeted. Further, while many think the first successful arcade conversion for the Atari 2600 Video Computer System (VCS) was Taito’s Space Invaders, this is simply not the truth. A good percentage of the original 2600 cartridge library was based on classic Atari coin-ops created from these “lost” years. We will explore these arcade coin-op games year-by-year.

Note: Look for the graphic above within the timeline, as this denotes the known or possible roots of famous Atari 2600 games.

1971

1971: Spring: Bushnell Creates Computer Space

Nolan Bushnell created the first coin-op videogame in his daughter’s bedroom in 1971 while working for Ampex. Inspired by Steve Russell’s Space War, a game he played on the DEC PDP-1 at the University of Utah in the 1960’s, Bushnell worked on his own way to bring the computer game experience to the masses. The largest technical hurdle he faced was inventing a way to fit a game designed to run on a mini-computer that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars into a marketable product that was as affordable as a pinball machine. His brilliant breakthrough was deciding to use discreet logic chips to design the game instead of a microprocessor. This process of creating a game in discreet logic involved assembling individual logic chips on printed circuit boards. The game was programmed completely in hardware. In essence, a discreet logic game was a computer designed for one purpose and one purpose only. While this idea might have seemed like a step backwards to computer engineers, a genius like Bushnell knew it was exactly the solution he was seeking.

1971: Autumn: Selling Computer Space

Bushnell sold his idea to Nutting and Associates, and in late 1971 they attempted to sell and market the game as Computer Space. Nutting had been very successful with a Quiz Show coin-operated game earlier that year, and hoped Computer Space would help them become the leaders in a new market. However, that was not to be. Computer Space landed with a resounding thud. Amusement operators at the 1971 AMOA (Amusement & Music Operators Association) show in Chicago were confused by Computer Space. They were used to buying jukeboxes and pinball machines and had no idea what to do with a videogame. The controls were too complicated and the game too confusing for the average bar room (read: drunk) player. However, the initial failure of Bushnell’s invention did not predict the meteoric rise to success that would soon follow. He had devised a way to make videogames available to the common person and was about to create an entire industry in the process.

1972

1972: May 17: Bushnell Visits Magnavox while working for Nutting

While still working for Nutting, Bushnell visited Magnavox to take a look at the TV videogame system that Ralph Baer had developed for the company. Magnavox had invited interested parties in the electronics industry to try to drum-up enthusiasm for their newest technological breakthrough. The Magnavox Odyssey could play several simple games on a TV, but required real world pieces like dice and playing cards. The game system was designed around an analog computer, which was a computer used for applications that required a continuous change of one or more variables, usually based on the then new idea of an IC amplifier circuit (although tube-based systems had been in use for years). Bushnell left unimpressed as the games did not inspire him and the visuals looked fuzzy. However, the inclusion of a ping-pong style game in the demo would come back to haunt him years later.

1972: June 27: Atari Incorporated

Bushnell, desiring more profits from his games, quit Nutting Associates and formed his own company with Ted Dabney. Bushnell founded Atari's forerunner, Syzygy Corp., with $250 from his savings account, some of it earned from Computer Space at Nutting and Associates. Ted Dabney also contributed $250. When the duo found out the name Syzygy was already taken, they chose the name Atari instead (Atari roughly translates to “you are about to be engulfed”, which comes from the traditional game of GO).

The first use of Atari’s signature logo or mark; the Fuji Symbol (), was registered on June 1, 1973. According to Atari’s trademark registration, it was a design “consisting of a stylized representation of Mount Fujiyama” (Mount Fujiyama, which overlooks Tokyo, Japan, is actually the incorrect way to say its name as the word “Yama” in Japanese means “mountain” already, so native Japanese usually call it “"Fuji-san").

It is interesting to note, the name Syzygy was not jettisoned as early as one would believe. Early flyers for Pong described the game as “From Atari Corporation, Syzygy Engineered.”.

Nutting and Associates did not stop making videogames after Bushnell left to start Atari. Billing themselves as the place “Where videogame technology began”, they went on to create the pong variants Computer Space Ball, Table Tennis, Table Tennis 2, Ric-o-chet and Paddle Derby, as well as one of the first shoot-em-up videogames, Missile Radar. Their most interesting contribution to videogame history was Watergate Caper, a safecracker/code breaker game released in 1973.

In case anyone is mistaken in thinking Grand Theft Auto was the first videogame to have players willingly commit a felony, Watergate Caper tempted gamers to “Break Into Watergate Yourself” 30 years prior. Nutting’s own literature bragged that the game “simulates the larceny in all of us to break in and not get caught”. The company’s last entry in the videogame arena was Wimbledon, a full-color version of pong, released in 1974. Dave Nutting went on to work as a contractor for Midway starting in 1975, where he helped produce the first microprocessor-based videogame (Intel 8080), Gun Fight (Strange Fact: This game started at Taito Corp., as a discrete logic game, and was bought and converted to the Intel 8080 by Nutting -ed.). He then went on to design and program two of the best coin-ops from the golden age, Gorf and Wizard of Wor.

1972: Summer: Pong Engineered

While Bushnell kept Atari in the black by servicing and leasing pinball machines, he hired Al Alcorn, a fellow engineer from Ampex, to develop another videogame. Nolan Bushnell lied to Al Alcorn about having a contract with GE for home Pong to lure him into working for Atari. At first, Bushnell wanted to create a driving game as he had a contract with Bally to do just that, but decided to have Alcorn work on something simple first. The primitive ping-pong game he had seen at Magnavox seemed like a good candidate, but had to be improved. Neither Alcorn nor Bushnell were impressed with Odyssey and its analog components. In any event, Pong was only practice and Bushnell was not planning to take it seriously.

Just like Computer Space, Pong was a discreet logic machine. It had no microprocessor, but instead used individual integrated circuits to create the logic for the game. The key to saving money was designing the game so well that it used the fewest number of chips. Alcorn added small details like “English” and simulated physics that went beyond Bushnell’s original concept, but still kept the circuit board design elegant and cheap.

1972: September: Pong Tested at Andy Capp’s Tavern

The first Pong game is placed in Andy Capp’s Tavern in Sunnyvale, California. People started lining up before the bar opened just to play the game. In some cases, patrons wouldn’t order any drinks at all, but just went in to play Pong.

Bushnell’s goal was for Pong to be designed to be as easy as possible to play. Instead of the pages of instructions for Computer Space, Pong instructions were the model of simplicity: "Avoid missing ball for high score." Two weeks after installing the game, Al Alcorn received a late-night phone call from the manager of the bar. T he game had broken down and he wondered if Alcorn could come fix it. When Alcorn arrived to check the machine, he found a most unusual problem—there were so many quarters jammed into the coin drop that the game had stopped working. Under the coin drop was a plastic milk jug with the top cut off, and it was so filled with quarters that the “credit” mechanism could no longer work!

1972: November: Bushnell Tries to Sell Pong, Decides to Manufacture it Himself

The Pong game was offered to Bally first in lieu of a driving game, but they declined to purchase it as they wanted something that didn’t require two players. Amusement manufacturers didn’t “get it” either. In 1972, pinball and other amusement game manufacturers made machines with many electromechanical and moving parts. Pong had only two moving parts and this baffled them. Few manufacturers could understand or envision the industry changing.

Instead of pursuing established manufacturers, Bushnell decided to manufacture Pong himself. It was his boldest move yet and would ultimately prove successful. He leased an old roller rink in Santa Clara and converted it into a production line. The first Pong game shipped from this facility in November 1972. Bushnell filed a patent for the Pong on-screen control mechanism on November 24, 1972 (US Patent 3,793,483), but not for the game itself.

1972: November 29: Pong Officially Released

“The Newest 2 Player Video Skill Game…”

Bushnell distributed Pong along the pre-existing arcade routes he and Ted Dabney had worked to keep Atari afloat while their first game was being created. Each machine took in around $200 a week, which was nearly four times what other (pinball) games and jukeboxes took in on the same routes.

Carl Sagan wrote of Pong, "As a result of Pong, a player can gain a deep intuitive understanding of the simplest Newtonian physics." The day Pong was released is marked by the coin-op industry as the first nail in the coffin of pinball.

 

 Atari: The Lost Years of the Coin-Op, 1971 – 1975


1974

 

1974: First Quarter: Atari Develops Growing Pains

The year 1974 proved to be a difficult one for Atari. The “Jackals”, as Bushnell had described them, continued to make copies of his games for distribution. The major Pong-style games that flooded the market in 1974 were:

  • Flim Flam by Meadow Game (a sit-down copy of Pong)

  • Fun Four by Bally Games (a Pong variant with four game variations)

  • Astrohockey by HID/Visco Games

  • Clean Sweep by Ramtek

  • Countdown by Volley

  • Challenge from Mirco

Competition was just one of Atari’s worries; manufacturing issues had also become a problem. Assembly line quality was terrible and $800 a day in equipment was lost to theft. The line workers were not happy and complained of low wages even though their $1.75 an hour was actually above the minimum wage. Bushnell hired outside managers to help solve these problems, but this only led to further unrest between labor and management. Bushnell was an engineer at heart and the details of being company president were bogging him down.

 

Bushnell’s concentration on engineering meant that while labor might have been problematic, R&D and engineering were still in good standing. Designers and engineers were having a blast designing and testing new games. They had “rip-roaring” brainstorming bashes at places like hotels and a condo complex where 40 people would get together and discuss ideas for games. Bushnell saw engineering as the core value of his business and made moves to bolster Atari’s engineering capacity even further. He contracted with ex-Ampex employees, Steve Mayer and Larry Edmonds, who were running a high-tech facility in Grass Valley. Atari started an exclusive relationship with this pair of engineers and the facility became known as the “Grass Valley Think Tank”.

 

1974: January 30: Atari Starts Using the Trademark “Innovative leisure”

 

 

January 30, 1974: Atari started using the term “Innovative leisure” to describe their business. They would file to trademark this term in April 1976, and be granted that mark in February 1977.

 

1974: January 30: Atari Introduces Superpong

“An Improvement On a Proven Money Maker From The Originators Of Pong…”

Superpong was a one or two player contest. This game was an evolution over Pong that used variable ball speeds, angles and three paddles (vertically aligned) for each player. To further spice-up the game, the ball was served from random positions on the screen. Atari described Superpong as “not easily mastered”, but since it is a relatively unknown game, it was probably too hard at a time where ball and paddle games were losing their appeal. Pong competition was too fierce at this point in the coin-op world for Superpong to make any sort of impact. The hardware featured a discreet logic design and was advertised as Durastress™, as well as marketed with Atari’s Innovative leisure™ slogan.

1974: February: Atari Introduces Rebound (Kee copies with Spike!)

 

“It’s A Whole New Ball Game…”

 

 

Rebound was Atari’s fourth coin-op game and was a simple version of volleyball that required two-players. Steve Jobs signed off on the wiring diagram for the cabinet. A schematic dated 11/31/73 describes this game as “Volleyball”. The game was like a vertical version of pong in which hitting the ball would send it on a parabolic path over four short lines that represented a net. The hardware featured a discreet logic design and was advertised as Durastress™, as well as marketed with Atari’s Innovative leisure™ slogan.

Rebound was also featured in an unreleased variation on Puppy Pong named Puppy Pong Volleyball. The game used the same cabinet as Puppy Pong, but used the Rebound game.

 

“The Spike-Man Cometh…from Kee …”

 

Spike was a copy of Atari’s Rebound. Like most Kee games, features were added to slightly differentiate them from their Atari cousins. In this case, the “Spike” button was added.

1974: March 4: Atari Introduces Quadrapong (Kee copies with Elimination)

 

“Another Video Action Favorite! Quadrapong is the newest addition to Atari’s Line of unique video skill games. …”

 

 

Quadrapong was a two- to four-player table-top, look-down cabinet. Each player was given four points and tasked with defending one side of a diamond-shaped screen. Players lost a point each time one of the others score in his goal and was eliminated if this happened four times. At that point, the goal was sealed and became a solid wall. Hardware was a discreet logic design, advertised as Durastress™ and marketed with Atari’s Innovative leisure™ slogan.

 

“The look of the future is yours’ today with Elimination! …”

 

 

Elimination, from Kee Games, was a copy of Atari’s Quadrapong from Kee Games. Like most Kee games, features were added to slightly differentiate them from their Atari cousins. In this case, “extra life pots” are randomly placed on the playfield and the player who hits the ball into one gets a point added back to their score.

 

1974: March 18: Atari Introduces Gran Trak 10 (Test Marketed)

 

“From the ‘Pong People’, New videogame concept, big racing action, fantastic sound effects, worldwide market in millions! …”

 

 

 

Gran Trak 10 was the first driving coin-op videogame with a steering wheel, gear shift, and gas and brake pedal controls. It was also the machine that could have ended Atari before they ever really got started. The game was a race against the clock on a single track and there were no other cars except for the player’s. Oil slicks made the player’s car spin-out and the side of the track had to be avoided at all costs. This was a very simple version of many racing games to come. ROM memory was used (in the form of diodes) to store the sprites for the car, track and oil slick.

 

Atari’s new Grass Valley (Most appropriately named at that time. -ed) think tank was used to design the game, but Atari proper was disappointed by engineering flaws in the original design. Al Alcorn had to step in and fix the game before it went into production.

 

This fix created costly rework and delays for the game. Worse, an accounting error had Gran Trak 10 selling for $995, when it cost $1095 to manufacture. Because of these problems, Atari lost $500,000 on Gran Trak 10, which was as much as the company had made the previous year. The European version of the game was called: Race Circuit Automaten. The game was advertised as Durastress™ and marketed with Atari’s Innovative leisure™ slogan.

1974: July 24th: Atari Announces Trak 10

 

Later in 1974, Gran Trak 10 was repackaged into a smaller cabinet and renamed Trak 10. The game cabinet was designed to fit into the smaller spaces that small bar, grocery store and laundromats could set-aside for games.

 

1974: April 1: Time Magazine Report on “Space Age Pinball” (and Atari)

Some interesting notes from the report:

  • Videogames have caught on on college campus, listed as the number two activity behind streaking
  • Appeal to businesses that would never have permitted “pinball” games (high class restaurants, hotels)
  • Pong machines make about $200 - $300 a week and cost about $1,100 each
  • Pong machines take quarters ($.25), while pinball mostly takes dimes ($.10), which makes pinball less profitable
  • “Screen games” (as Time calls them) are estimated to take-in $900 million a year
  • Industry is about $60 Million all together with 18 U.S. and 23 European (no mention of Japanese) companies

 

1974: May: Atari’s Second Fiscal Year Ends with a Loss

Atari loses $500,000 in 1973 - 1974 (mostly from the Gran-Trak 10 problems) and cuts half of its staff. Pong games had stopped selling and Bushnell started to look like a one-trick pony. He needed to turn-the-company around with a hit game and some engineering innovations if Atari was going to survive.

 

1974: Summer: Atari in Dire Financial Straits

In the summer of 1974, Atari was close to bankruptcy and very under capitalized. The company tried to grow too quickly. Atari Japan, set up in 1973, was a complete failure. Bushnell had no idea how to conduct business in Japan. He sold Atari Japan to one of the founders of Namco. The relationship between the two companies would continue for almost two decades.

 

1974: June: Kee Introduces Formula K (Copy of Gran Trak 10)

 

 

Formula K was a one player racing game from Kee games that was a copy of Gran Trak 10. The game featured a different cabinet than Gran Trak 10 and added a new “Lap Timer” feature. Hardware was discreet logic, with ROM used for car and oil slick graphics. No notes are available on how profitable Kee was at this time.

 

1974: June: Atari Introduces Coupe De Monde

 

This was a one player only soccer-themed Pong-style game released by Atari Europe. This game was sold in both upright and table-top models. Hardware was discreet logic.

1974: August 21: Atari Introduces Gran Trak 20

 

“Double your pleasure… double your earnings! …”

 

 

Gran Trak 20 was a one or two player version of Gran Trak 10 designed at Grass Valley and fixed by Al Alcorn. This game featured two complete sets of controls (steering wheel, brake pedal, gas pedal, four speed gear shift) and used a black and white screen. The game can be played one or two player, but the two player feature required one quarter per participant. If a player obtained a score of 40 or more, they were awarded a free game (both players if two were playing). However, reaching 40 points on your free game would not extend play another time.

 

The final date signed-off on engineering documents is August 26, 1974, but the game’s release to the public was later in the year. The hardware was discreet logic, with diode-based ROM used for the car and oil slick graphics. The game was marketed with Atari’s Innovative leisure™ slogan.

 

 

“The forerunner to this game, Formula K, Sold Out! An Industry first! …”

 

Twin Racer was a one or two player Kee Games copy of Gran Trak 20. This game added the new feature of the “ram effect”, which allowed you to knock your opponent off the track. Free play was awarded at 20 points instead of Gran Trak’s 40. Another Kee Games “innovation” with this game was the “Automatic Drive Button”, which was advertised as “for ladies and kids – must for arcades”. The hardware was discreet logic with diode ROM used for car and oil slick graphics.

 

1974: October 31: Atari Introduces Pin Pong Coin-op

 

“Atari’s New Unique Concept …”

 

 

Pin Pong was a one or two player black and white video pinball game, with a rather crude table. The Pin Pong flyer describes the game as: “In Pin-Pong a gravity algorithm accelerates the ball downward to give realistic pinball action on the screen”. The ball movement within the game was governed by a patented ball movement circuit. The hardware was discreet logic.

 

1974: November 5: Kee Games Introduces Tank!

 

 

The importance of the game Tank! in the history of Atari cannot be understated. It was the game that saved Atari from bankruptcy in 1974. The arcade version of Tank! is a two player tank combat game played on a black and white screen. It was very similar to one of the most popular modes of the Atari 2600 Combat cartridge: two player tank combat. Players each used twin joysticks to control their tank (Think of the Battlezone arcade control setup, but side-by-side for two players. –ed.). The game became so popular that the exclusivity agreements demanded by distributors were thrown out the window, allowing Atari and Kee to re-form as one company. The game was designed by Steve Bristow and Lyle Rains at Kee Games, with Lyle doing much of the programming. "I was working on it when I hired Lyle," Steve Bristow recalled, "Then I gave it to him and he finished it. A lot of the implementation was his, but the original idea was mine." The Game cabinet was designed by Peter L. Takaichi and patented October 20, 1975 (US Patent # D243,624).

 

Tank! is one of the first arcade games to use IC ROM read-only-memory as well as discreet logic chips. The ROM enabled the game to have distinct looking sprites to represent the tanks in the game. Gran-Trak 10 from the same year also used a ROM, but in a very primitive form that used diodes to store the ones and zeros.

 

1974: November 5: Atari Introduces Qwak!

 

“Qwak – It’s a Hit! …”

 

 

Qwak! was a one player light-gun controlled duck hunting videogame with a black and white monitor. The gun was shaped like a rifle with a security mechanism that would sound an alarm if it was stolen. This was not likely as it used a metal flex cord similar to a pay telephone handset cord to attach the gun to the cabinet.

 

One duck would fly across the black and white monitor at a time, giving the player three shots to hit it. A "hunting dog" would run out and collect the fallen prize if the player was successful with their aim. The game could be set by the operator to have time limits, extended time and free games. Hardware was a discreet logic design, advertised as Durastress™ and marketed with Atari’s Innovative leisure™ slogan, with the added tagline: “The sky’s the limit when it comes to our inventiveness”.

1974: November 13: Atari Introduces Touch Me Coin-op Game

 

 

Touch Me was a one player, discreet logic coin-operated game that was played without a video screen. Colored lights, aligned in a row, lit-up in succession. The player was tasked with memorizing the pattern, so they could repeat it. The game was very much like the handheld game Simon that would appear years later. Interestingly, Atari tried to combat Simon with a handheld version of Touch Me, but it was an unsuccessful venture.

 

1974: December/Year End: Atari and Kee Merge

Tank! was such a huge hit for Kee Games that by the end of the year distributors no longer demand exclusive rights. Bushnell was having cash flow problems at Atari (many of which stemmed from problems with Gran Trak 10 and an unprofitable venture into Japan.). Joe Keenan on the other hand was running Kee Games brilliantly. He was much more than a figurehead at Kee Games, and in fact, impressed Bushnell with his business savvy. Atari and Kee merged at the end of 1974. Joe Keenan became president of Atari, Steve Bristow became head of engineering and Al Alcorn became head of R&D. This allowed Bushnell to concentrate on engineering and not on the details of running the day-to-day operations of a company. (Joe Keenan is a bit of an enigma, as there are no detailed articles or interviews to be found by or about him on the Internet. If someone knows more about this fellow, speak up. –ed.)

 Atari: The Lost Years of the Coin-Op, 1971 – 1975


 

1975

 

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 Durastressâ„¢, 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.

Conclusion

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.

 

 

SOURCES

Websites

Magazines

  • "ATARI, INC. THE EARLY YEARS" by Colin Covert, HI-RES VOL. 1, NO. 1
  • Business Week, November 1976
  • Business Week, November 10, 1973
  • Newsweek, December 17, 1973

Books

  • Phoenix: The Rise Fall And Rise Of Videogames – Leonard Herman, pages 13, 14, 15, 17
  • High Score – Russel Demaria, Johnny L. Wilson, pages 19, 43, 55
  • The First Quarter – Steven L. Kent, pages 22, 46
  • Zap! The Rise and Fall of Atari – Scott Cohen, page s 42, 44

Public Records

U.S. Trademark Database

Other Sources

  • The REAL "PONG" F.A.Q. by Sly D.C.
  • Superpong Advertising Flyer
  • Twin Racer Advertising Flyer
  • Qwak! Advertising flyer
  • Hi-Way Service Manual
  • Puppy Pong Pamphlet