back to article Atari turns 40: Pong, Pac-Man and a $500 gamble

Forty years ago today, one of the most iconic names in computing was born: Atari. With just $500 between them, Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney founded Atari on June 26, 1972. Atari quickly became a successful computer games company: titles for Atari broke the one million units sold barrier and 10 years later Atari was making $ …


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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I thought Woz only worked on Breakout, Bushnell offered Jobs a figure to get the number of chips down on the Breakout board, Jobs enlisted Woz to do the dirty work. Jobs lied to Woz about the figure they were promised to be paid and screwed Woz over.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Finally someone to blame for dumbing down the world. PAC MAN the new pub conversation killer....

    2. Paul Bruneau


      And it was the Arcade version of Breakout--the article skips the arcade aspect of Atari and goes right to the home console business, resulting in confusion.

      1. Kristian Walsh

        Re: Right

        The whole article is very confused, to be honest...It reads like the notes for a longer piece. I expect better from the Reg.

        Atari's story is very interesting, though, and deserves a telling. Here's something from a more coherent writer:

  2. Joel 8

    Apple I and II GUI? WTF?

    The Apple I and II were the first GUI based personal computers? LOL, I don't think so man. They were strictly CLI. The OS was Apple DOS and I remember it fondly. The Apple I could only muster monochrome graphics. The Apple II had very marginal (by today's standards certainly) 16 color @ somewhere less than 640x480 resolution (I do not exactly recall).

    1. Peter H. Coffin

      Re: Apple I and II GUI? WTF?

      280 by 192, and it was essentially 4 colors, with some funky tricks to overdrive it to six (or eight depending on your definition), with some rules about adjacent colors allowed. The waffling was that if you counted eight, there were two different blacks and two different whites.

      1. Joel 8
        Thumb Up

        Re: Apple I and II GUI? WTF?

        Yeah, the apple IIe and IIc were the 16 color versions.

      2. Joel 8

        Re: Apple I and II GUI? WTF?

        It also comes to mind, each pixel was memory mapped. Poke a logical 1 into a special area of memory using the included Apple Basic, that mapped pixel lit up. Ahhh the good 'ol days.

    2. Uncle Slacky

      Re: Apple I and II GUI? WTF?

      Also, I'm pretty sure the XE wasn't "Motorola-based", unless they'd taken up making 6502s. IIRC the XEs were just repackaged and memory-enhanced 400/800 designs.

    3. Uncle Slacky

      Re: Apple I and II GUI? WTF?

      There *was* the GEOS GUI for the Apple II, although it didn't exist until the 80s:

  3. Richard Jennings

    No noun that can't be verbised ...

    "and went on to architect the Apple I and II"

    How about "and went on to DESIGN the Apple 1 and 11" ?

    1. Sarah Bee's Love Slave

      Re: No noun that can't be verbised ...

      There are plenty of nouns out there that can't be verbised, but this is a perfectly good example of a word that is both...

  4. Triggerfish

    Atari joysticks

    They weren't ergonomic, but they could take hell of a lot of punishment.

    1. ThomH

      Re: Atari joysticks

      I'm a big fan of Atari joysticks; when gripped so that your right hand is nearly flat to the top of the base with the stick at the base of the join between your thumb and your palm, the fire button being under your left thumb I think they're quite comfortable.

      1. Fibbles

        Re: Atari joysticks

        Is it not possible that your misshapen claws hands have just moulded to the Atari joystick after a misspent well rounded youth spent playing vidja?

    2. No. Really!?

      Re: Atari joysticks

      The first time I rolled the score in Space Invaders the pain in my hand was getting pretty intense.

      Robust, indeed, those joysticks logged a lot of time without fail. And while not the best ergonomically, I liked them much better than the Nintendo controllers that came later.

      1. Richard Scratcher

        Re: Atari joysticks

        I was also a big fan of Atari joysticks. They were well constructed and were better than some of the fancy joysticks that came out later with all sorts of extra buttons, triggers and auto fire devices. Most of them had too much travel between positions.

        The biggest problem I had was getting my friends and siblings to understand that moving the joystick simply pressed a button inside and that applying extreme pressure will not let you escape from that fatal dive.

        1. TRT Silver badge

          Re: Atari joysticks

          They were good, but the plastic presser ring broke too easily. I preferred the Suncom Tac 2.

          Which you could take apart and customise with packing pieces if you liked something with less travel.

        2. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

          Re: Atari joysticks

          applying extreme pressure will not let you escape from that fatal dive

          Of course not. To escape from the dive you must pull the joystick back, lean your entire body back, and curse rapidly through clenched teeth. Everyone knows that.

          I always preferred Atari-style joysticks and other symmetrical sorts (like those on the Playstation's analog controllers) to "ergonomic" joysticks with molded finger-grips. The latter annoy me no end. But no doubt some like them.

      2. Graham Bartlett

        Re: Atari joysticks

        Too bloody right. Those cross-shaped controllers are bloody awful. When I was a kid, you got those on the cheap little hand-held games and they sucked. Proper games on a console or computer had a proper joystick. With suckers on the bottom so it stayed on the table. Now you just get some handheld piece of plastic tat that's only ergonomic for something with tentacles. Progress... :-/

    3. Tom 13

      Re: they could take hell of a lot of punishment.

      Absolutely. But even with that, a dedicated gamer could still break one.

    4. Homer 1

      Re: Atari joysticks

      I much preferred the Konix Speedking and Cheetah Bug. Both fantastic joysticks - absolute classics.

  5. Giles Jones Gold badge

    No mention of the huge assistance Atari received from MOS technology. The VCS wouldn't have existed without the 6502, the VCS used a cheaper version with more limited features. Even that limitation was worked around by MOS.

    Amazing how people credit the part the Apple founders had at Atari when in reality they did sod all. Even Apple had help from Chuck Peddle and MOS to get their own computer up and rubbing.

    1. Robert Heffernan

      History is written by the victor!

      It's definitely a case of history being written by the victor. Commodore and MOS played such a huge part in the early days that the whole face of home computing would be vastly different if they didn't exist. Since Apple, Microsoft and Intel eventually surfaced and Commodore and MOS were killed off, they wern't able to cement their place in history because the victors are taking all the credit.

      The current incumbents are really standing on the shoulders of giants.

  6. LinkOfHyrule
    Thumb Up

    Being of the Sega/Nintendo/Amiga/PC era meant that I actually got to play a lot of Atari as it was already the retro system by then - it seemed every other kid on our street had one of those "wooden" games machines with the "old fashioned" games with scary sound effects that was a hand me down from an older sibling or had been brought cheap at a carboot sale by their cheap-ass parents. We even had one ourselves and the first game I ever played and enjoyed was Mrs Pacman on the 2600.

    You could actually still buy the things new in the mid 90s and people did (probably from catalogue companies) - by that time they were being sold with multicarts with something like 40 games in one I seem to recall. I even remember my next-door neighbour getting a couple of "new" games in about 1991 which I think were actually new releases - cant remember much about them though. I think things like that helped cement its place as classic amongst hardcore gamers though even back then. It was amazing how many people had an Atari in the attic or in the airing cupboard (seriously, these things seem to always end in there where I grew up! I guess wood-grain affect consoles just love snuggling up to immersion heaters or something)

    1. sisk

      I found one in a used games shop just a couple years ago while I was on vacation. They had a nice selection of original cartridges to. Unfortunately my wife wouldn't let me pick it up. She was convinced it would end up just collecting dust.

      I have some fond memories of spending hours playing Battletanks and Pitfall on the Atari.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward



    1. TangD

      Re: Test


      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Test

        Success?: command not found

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Test

      Tested the downvote button for you.

  8. Jim Wilkinson

    Loved the ST

    My first foray into computers was the Atari ST - with a mouse and GUI. Never did the joystick thing. But the ST did have Lemmings which had me well hooked. Shame it was bought out by a certain Japanese company for their console.

  9. Andrew Moore

    Pac Man on the Atari...

    ...was generally considered crap by all.

    1. Tom 13

      Re: Pac Man on the Atari...

      Yep. It had to be played on the big arcade screen. Of course, the same was true of Space Invaders. I could easily clear the first level without losing a base on the console, almost never in the arcade. And I only got to play the console when visiting friends. My dad bought the Magnavox Oddesey II for us. At the time I was angling for a TRS-80. He got the Oddesey because it was cheaper but still had a module to teach "programming".

  10. Dire Criti¢

    Good God!

    Computers have been used for gaming? How come no bugger told me?

    All these years I could have been blasting shit in space instead of working!


  11. Dave 126 Silver badge

    I'm holding in my hand a 1983 Hamleys* catalogue. It contains systems from Texas Intruments, Vectrex, Coleco and Atari (£69.99). It also has something called the M5 Computer (the web now tells me it was a rebranded Sord M5**), a Phillips VideoPac and yes, a Sinclair Spectrum.

    More expensive than any of these system, at £168.95 was a Sensory Chess Challanger '9' board, rated on 1771 points by the US Chess Federation, apparently.

    Of these, the Vextrex vector console is worth a quick wiki, being based on a portrait CRT to display vectors. Colours or 3D could be added by means of a spinning disc in front of your eyes, synced to the console.

    *Like Harrods, but for kids. Six floors of toys, often on large tables so they can be played with.

    ** A bit like an MSX

  12. Admiral Grace Hopper

    The Curse Of Bladerunner

    Whenever I watch Bladerunner I get a twinge of nostalgia when I see the logos of the dead companies.

    1. Dave 126 Silver badge

      Re: The Curse Of Bladerunner

      Like seeing Pan Am, AT&T and IBM (consumer hardware) in 2001: A Space Odyssey

      1. John 62

        Re: The Curse Of Bladerunner

        Or Nokia in Tron: Legacy :D

  13. RyokuMas
    Thumb Up

    Those were the days...

    ... when games were actually games (and fun to play), rather than the all singing, all dancing, reality-simulating, hand-holding, sequel-spawning AAA money-sinks that we see today. Back then, we had "gameplay". Games didn't need 50 hours of content to achieve 50 hours of playing time - their simple jump-in-and-go grab kept people coming back for more.

    A mate and I recently launched three games on the Windows Phone - okay, I know that's immediately got me a slew of downvotes but hey - I don't have £1500 for a mac + iphone, not 1500 spare hours to maintain games across 400+ permutations of device+os. Anyway, reviews show than people seem to either love 'em or hate 'em - I wish I could do a review correlation by age chart, bet all the 4/5 star reviews are from people in the 35-45 bracket... :)

    1. DZ-Jay

      Re: Those were the days...

      Psst! Those games are still around, and there's a thriving community of programmers keeping the platforms and the retro-style alive.

      Head-on over to <> and take a looksie.

      Me? I'm in the "Intellivision Programming" forum garnering some enthusiasm for my upcoming title. ;)


  14. andy 45

    'Mrs' Pacman?

    I didnt know she went on to get married?!

    I do have fond memories of my Atari, but I always was a little disappointed that the actual games never quite lived up to the amazing pictures on the packaging...

    I was really jealous of my mates Intellivison however. It had speech synthesis and everything!

  15. TRT Silver badge

    "Did 1980s joystick deathgrip give you a claw hand?"

    Well, something along those lines... that's what I told my mum had happened when I got wrist-ache. That and "I've been doing soooooo much homework lately."


  16. Jim 59

    Real Inventers of Pong

    Bushnell attended a demonstration by Magnavox on 24 May, 1972. Bushnell founded Atari on June 27


  17. The answer is 42

    Those were the days..

    In the 70s HP computers came with a 5 1/4 demo disk that had Pac-Man and a op-amp circuit on it. One could vary the components round the op-amp and see the frequency response on a split-screen (wow!) underneath in real time. That was used once then it was Pac-Man all the way. The designers at HP had put some cunning anti-piracy on the floppy; it had 42 tracks instead of the regular 40, and if tracks 41 and 42 weren't there it wouldn't play. Sods!

    1. Tom 13

      Re: Those were the days..

      Yep. Commodore software had similar protection. Of course, you could buy a copy breaker to copy those. Which was itself copy protected. But if you had the other copy protector remover you could copy the first. And I think the first copied the second.

  18. Paul Bruneau

    Arcade roots

    The article seems to completely skip Atari's arcade roots, which would be fine, but it should at least mention that was the original product and vision of the company.

  19. Irongut

    As an owner of a still working 2600 with all the joysticks, paddles and Space Invaders I was looking forward to a cool article about Atari. But instead I get some arse spouting crap about Jobs, Wozniak and Apple. Do we have to mention Apple in every story or we don't get paid?

    You could have talked about Atari's arcade business but no you preferred to make up stories about how they only succeeded because Jobs worked there.

  20. ForthIsNotDead
    Thumb Up

    All hail Peddle and Miner

    Nice article.

    I'd just like to mention that the Atari VCS was effectively dependent on two men: Jay Miner, who developed the video chip that was used in the 2600, and Chuck Peddle, who took the chip that Miner had produced, and built it into a video game system based around his 6502 processor.

    Chuck Peddle went on to design the Commodore PET, and Jay Miner went on to produce the Amiga.

    Both visionaries and deserved of their position in home computer industry folk-lore.

  21. xperroni
    Thumb Down

    Not the Atari I knew and loved

    Atari continues to make games (...).

    No they don't.

    Infogrames bought the Atari name, and then proceeded to market its games under it.

    So while we may have some company called Atari marketing games now, the real Atari of my youth is well and truly dead.

  22. DZ-Jay

    A few corrections

    First, in 1977 Atari released the "VCS," or Video Computer System. It wasn't until some time in the 1980s that it was renamed the "Atari 2600."

    Second, the article gives the impression that Jobs and Woz worked on the Pong arcade machine. Jobs may have assisted (he was in and out of Atari payroll at the time), but Woz was recruited by Jobs to work on the Breakout arcade game later on.

    And third, one of the reasons Atari had an advantage over their competitors was due to a cheap license from Magnavox. By then, the full potential of the video game business was still not fully understood by anybody, and so Magnavox sold a license to Atari for what resulted in a very shortsighted price.

    Later on, when the video game business went gangbusters, there was not a soul in the industry that could match Atari's cost of production, in part due to high license tributes from Magnavox and the arcade franchises.

    And finally, lets not forget the huge influence that MOS Technology (and later, Commodore Business Machines) had on Atari. Bushnell was smart, and Atari was good, they could not have built their empire on on their own.

  23. Triggerfish

    @Richard Scratcher

    "I was also a big fan of Atari joysticks. They were well constructed and were better than some of the fancy joysticks that came out later with all sorts of extra buttons, triggers and auto fire devices. Most of them had too much travel between positions."

    Elastic bands ends hooked round the stem and under the base of the joystick in both the x and y axis helped with that.

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