Atari History

1972 - 1984


History: Asteriods was released as an arcade game in 1979.

Yet another of Atari’s legendary, genre defining games - in an era replete with genre defining classics - in which a single player takes control of a ship trapped in the middle of an asteroid field. A number of large, slow-moving asteroids drift randomly around the play area and must be shot by the player. When shot, the asteroids will break into a number of smaller pieces which must also be shot until eventually, all of the asteroids and fragments will be destroyed and the next wave begins.
Asteroids introduced real-world physics to video-games for the first time, with speed and inertia all adding to the player's problems. As well as the inertia of the player's ship - forcing the player to allow for the ship slowing down and speeding up whenever the Thrust button was utilized - shot asteroids would often send fragments flying in seemingly random directions, and at varying and unpredictable speeds.
As well as the ever-present asteroids, alien saucers also make a regular appearance. These move diagonally around the screen firing at the player's ship and must be quickly destroyed.

The Asteroids cabinet was identical in construction to the Atari "Lunar Lander" cabinet. It was a black upright with side-art that featured a scene of a starship in a blue field of asteroids (with several red explosions thrown in for good measure). The marquee featured almost identical graphics to the side-art (with the addition of the familiar yellow 'Asteroids' logo).

The control panel was a busy looking red, white, and blue affair that had no joysticks (only buttons). While the monitor bezel had kind of a nebula scene printed on it (this did not really seem to match the rest of the machine).

The game was primarily shipped in the upright cabinet. The cocktail version was a little uncommon, it was rather unremarkable in appearance. It seems that Atari put all the effort into the upright, and merely shipped a generic cocktail version as an afterthought. 
Originally called 'Cosmos', Asteroids' original design brief was a simple copy of "Space Wars (Cinematronics)"; with asteroids littering the play-field purely for visual effect. 'Cosmos' was also once known as 'Planet Grab', in which the player had to claim a planet by touching it with their spaceship. 'Cosmos' allowed players to blow up the planets and duel with another ship, Space Wars-style. Only in Asteroids, which arrived 2 years later, did Atari engineer, Lyle Rains, introduce the concept of free-floating rocks.


Battlezone went into the arcades in November 1980 and created such a sensation that the U.S. army ordered modified versions of the games to use in training.
Battlezone was the first environmental 3-D landscape game. The game used a system of bit-slice processors called a 'mathbox' to do 3-D calculations for the display. This kind of 'squeezing the most out of minimal hardware' mindset was what led Atari to create the innovative games it did in the 1980's.

As Battlezone was so innovative for its time, the US Army commissioned Atari to create a version of the game for infantry vehicle training (called "Bradley Trainer"). Ed Rotberg was assigned the project, but was very opposed to it. Major Dave Robinson and General Donn Starry of the U.S. Army were responsible for bringing Atari the idea of making a military version to be used in training.

The volcano erupting in the background was created by Owen Rubin (Major Havoc). Rubin pestered Rotberg to add the volcano but he was too busy to write the code and told Rubin that if he wanted the erupting volcano he'd have to write the code. The next morning, Rotberg walked in to a volcano erupting onscreen and the code listing on his desk.


Centipede, completed in 1981, was an Atari coin-operated game that swiftly won a wide following in the arcades. Apart from its smooth game play, Centipede was praised for its refreshing approach to screen colors and for its whimsical mushroom world.
The first coin-op game designed by a woman, Dona Bailey. But Ed Logg did the majority of the work on Centipede, Dona only came up with the prototype idea, where the mushrooms were indestructible and it was more like "Space Invaders". Like "Pac-Man", this game has special appeal to women.
Centipede was written by veteran Atari designer Ed Logg, who has become something of a legend in the world of video games, and a young game programmer who was credited with bringing a gentler touch to the world of video games with the enchanted mushroom patch.
Centipede came in 3 different form factors, upright, cabaret, and a cocktail table.

Lunar Lander

Atari's first vector game. "Lunar Lander", was inspired by "Moonlander", a game written by Jack Burness in 1973 as a demo for the DEC GT40 vector graphics terminal (based on a PDP-11/05 CPU). This game used a light pen to control thrust and rotation.
If the player landed at exactly the right spot, a McDonalds appeared. The astronaut would leave the lander and walk over to the McDonalds and order a Big Mac to go, before walking back to the Lander and taking off again. If players crashed directly into the McDonalds, the game displayed a message reading 'You clod. You've destroyed the only McDonald's on the Moon.'

After a short run of Lunar Lander machines were manufactured, production was shifted over to "Asteroids" and the first few hundred Asteroids machines were housed in Lunar Lander cabinets.

Atari donated a gold edition version of the coin-operated video game to the Discovery Center of Science & Technology in Syracuse, New York.
On 17 June 1980, Atari's "Asteroids" and "Lunar Lander" were the first two video games to ever be registered in the Copyright Office.

Missile Command

The game was the perfect Cold War era video game. Released during the height of the Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union, the game play-field represented California and the six cities represented the six major cities of California, surrounded by 3 “ABM” Anti-Ballistic Missile defense silo’s.

This in fact was quite accurate of the real world “Ring of Fire” in which major cities in California, which were always thought to be the most vulnerable to Soviet nuclear attack were surrounded by Missile Defense silo’s.

Missile Command, was an immensely popular arcade game that combined great game play with a rather chilling message about the dangers of war. 14,044 upright versions of Missile Command and 3,005 cocktail table versions were produced. Originally called 'Armageddon'. Missile Command was originally going to have a large status panel as part of its marquee which indicated the status of the bases and cities but it was eliminated when the designers learned that players lost track of on-screen gameplay when they looked up at the panel. 
The idea for Missile Command began with a magazine story about satellites that captured the attention of Atari's president, who passed the clipping to Lyle Rains. Rains asked Dave Theurer to lead the effort in creating the classic, action-packed arcade game. The programmers main “rule” for doing the game – it would be a defensive game, not an offensive one.


Pong was original developed as a test platform for Atari’s first hired engineer – Al Alcorn to develop his skills on before moving onto more complex games, such as a driving game.

Pong developed into a fun and addictive game. It was then tested in a half height orange cabinet placed onto a barrel at Andy Capp’s Bar in California. After 2 weeks of successful gameplay, the system stopped working. The problem turned out to be that the coin holder was so full, no more quarters could be inserted to start a new game.

The first 10 units were hand soldered and built by Al Alcorn and Atari’s co-founded Ted Dabney.

To keep competitors from knowing exactly how many Pongs were built, Atari employeed a cryptic serial numbering system, starting at ZZ-001 and going to AA-999.

The control panel and all of the PC boards says Syzygy and or “Syzygy Engineered” which was the original name of the company before it was incorporated on June 27, 1972 as Atari, Inc. by Ted Dabney and Nolan Bushnell. Ted Dabney retained ownership of the “Syzygy Company” when Ted sold his share of ownership in Atari to Nolan in 1973.

Star Raiders

The game was sold shortly after the release of the Atari 400 and 800 Home Computer Systems in 1979. One of the principle designers of the POKEY sound/interface chip within the 400/800 computers was Doug Neubauer, who formerly worked on National Semiconductor's abortive home-computer project. While the Atari 400 and 800 computers were being finalized throughout 1978 into 1979, Doug started working on a game demo to show it off the computers capabilities. The Demo took on a life of its own and eventually became the first full 3D space combat game, Star Raiders is a real–time 3D version of the ever popular sci-fi show Star Trek from the 1960’s and 1970’s.

The game itself drew its inspiration from the Star Trek games Doug had played on mainframes, but taken to its logical extreme in terms of interface and gameplay by utilizing the highly advanced graphics and sound capabilities of the Atari 400/800 computers which were unmatched at the time. Working in his spare time and playtesting with fellow employees during lunch, Doug was able to get the game out for the 1979 launch of the machines, and has the distinction of having the first game on the platform. Sadly software licensing was different in those days, and he didn't make a penny off the game. The game was an instant success. It was far more advanced than any game at the time, including the newest machines in the arcades. It's is considered today to be Atari’s “killer app” for its home computer line. In fact, there were a huge number of people who bought Atari home computers specifically because they had seen and played Star Raiders at a local store.

1982 saw a faithful port of the game over to the Atari 5200 Supersystem. Using Atari’s unique 360 speed-sensitive analog controllers, it made the gameplay smoother and even more accurate then its Home Computer counterpart. A limited gameplay version was also released on the Atari 2600 VCS which required the game to be packed with a 12 key “video touchpad” to allow the player to access necessary functions such as shields, attack computer, galactic map, hyperspace and front view. The graphics were not as good as the home computer or 5200 versions, but the game sold well on the Atari 2600.

In the turmoil of the Summer of 1984, Atari’s consumer electronics and home computer divisions were sold to Tramiel Technologies. During this change of hands, one game Atari had developed specifically for the license from the movie “The Last Starfighter” was dropped. Sitting on a completed game with excellent sales value, the game was renamed Star Raiders II and released as a pseudo-sequel to the classic space combat game – Star Raiders. In 1986, Rob Zdybel, one of Atari’s programmers who came over from the early Warner Comm Atari days to the new Tramiel owned Atari Corp. saw the powerful gaming potential of the Atari ST computers and developed Star Raiders for that platform.