Atari Coin-Op Arcade Games
Atari was a lead manufacturer of coin-operated arcade machines from 1972 through 1999. Early games like Pong and Breakout established Atari as an industry leader, but it was a succession of games to follow that would set them in the stratosphere.
Some of Atari’s most popular arcade games included Asteroids, Breakout, Missile Command, Battlezone, Tempest, Star Wars, Warlords, Crystal Castles, Road Blasters, Marble Madness, Paperboy, Gauntlet, San Francisco Rush, and others. Atari was also responsible for classic arcade games such as Pole Position, Dig Dug, and Xevious in North America. Atari’s Coin-Op all-star programmers included Dave Theurer (Tempest, Missile Command), Ed Logg (Asteroids, Centipede), Dona Bailey (Centipede), and Ed Rotberg (Battlezone).
Atari broke apart in 1984 when its parent company sold the Home Consumer (game consoles and computers) Division of the company, separating it from the Coin (arcade) division. The arcade arm of Atari would be sold to Namco, and eventually Midway, who would shut it down in 2003.
“The Atari experience helped shape Steve Jobs’ approach to business and design. He appreciated the user friendliness of Atari’s “Insert quarter, avoid Klingons” games. That simplicity rubbed off on him, and made him a very focused product person.”
– Walter Isaacson, Writer & Journalist
Atari pinball machines, too.
Wait, what? Atari made pinball machines too? Yep! Atari created a pinball division in 1976 on the heels of their success in the arcades. The thought was that Atari had been so successful with video games in arcades, they wanted to explore what else they could come up with that could be successful in the same arena.
Atari differentiated themselves by making pinball machines that were absolute monsters in size, being much wider and longer than the norm. In fact, Atari once made the world’s largest production pinball machine, Hercules, weighing in at 93″ long, 39″ wide, and 83″ high. However Atari’s pinball machines were never quite as successful as they had hoped, especially when compared to the monumental popularity of their arcade games, and Atari closed the pinball division in 1979.
Coin vs. Consumer
In some instances, Atari 2600 programmers who developed ports of hit Atari arcade games sometimes received substantially more recognition from Atari management than the person in Coin-Op who had originally invented the game. A number of 2600 titles that were Million-sellers and made a slew of cash originated as Atari arcade machines. Frustration grew as arcade programmers were at times overlooked for their consumer counterparts, as the Home Consumer Division was often favored more than the Coin-Operated Games Division. This added fuel to the competition between the Home Consumer side of Atari, and the Coin-Op Division.
Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre
Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre was developed at Atari by Nolan Bushnell & Gene N. Landrum, Ph.D before being spun off on its own. Nolan had originally envisioned “a burger and milkshake joint with games” and turned the project over to Dr. Landrum to develop while Nolan Bushnell was preparing for the America’s Cup international yachting competition. Dr. Gene N. Landrum had been the Silicon Valley marketing guru behind the successful launch of Atari’s Home Consumer Division and the Atari 2600 VCS.
Dr. Gene Landrum developed the concept and characters that we know today as Chuck E. Cheese, and he served as the restaurant’s first President. Gene had a slightly different vision than the one Nolan had first pitched. Thinking that “burgers and shakes” were a very individualistic experience, Gene wanted Chuck E. Cheese to be social, with family and friends gathered around “pizza and a pitcher of beer” to share the good times together.
When Nolan Bushnell was “put on the beach” (fired by Atari, but given lots of money and other perks to go away) he purchased the rights to the theme restaurant concept and gathered Atari alumni Gene Landrum and Joe Keenan to build Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre into a household name.
In 1980 hotel magnate Robert Brock, Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre’s largest franchisee, decided to go rouge on opening day and rebranded his restaurants as ShowBiz Pizza Place, directly lifting the Chuck E. Cheese concept. Nolan Bushnell recently recited the story while speaking at Google:
“A guy named Robert Brock fell in love with the idea of Chuck E. Cheese. And he came and asked for a large franchise area, pretty much in the midwest, kinda Texas through Illinois. I don’t know if it was malice of forethought or what, but he went through all the training programs, we designed his pizza parlor for him, got everything all ready.. The day he was going to open his first Chuck E. Cheese for some strange reason he didn’t put the Chuck E. Cheese sign up, he put in ShowBiz Pizza and bought some animals from a guy in Florida. Really pissed me off. We sued him. Won a judgement for $200 million dollars that was to be paid over the next η years at the tune of 6% royalty, which is exactly what the franchise fee was. So, we ended up being a franchisor without portfolio, without control, of ShowBiz Pizza. […] It all came together in one big happy family. The gorilla and those guys died. We buried them and Chuck E. Cheese reigned supreme, as he should.”
– Nolan Bushnell, co-founder Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre
“Steve Jobs also absorbed some of Nolan Bushnell’s “take no prisoners” attitude. Nolan wouldn’t take “NO” for an answer, according to Al Alcorn. And this was Steve’s first impression of how things got done.”
– Walter Isaacson, Writer & Journalist
Atari Adventure Centers
In late 1983, as the affects of the video game crash were taking hold, Atari was putting the final touches on a brilliant retail concept that would present Atari as a lifestyle brand and place Atari in retail locations across the country. Called “Atari Adventure,” the stores would have been a retail experience unlike any other. Atari Adventure mixed ideas of arcades, interactive cinemas, amusement park attractions, computer learning, video game and computer stores, and world’s fair pavilions. Atari presented this concept in the video below:
The Atari Store of the ’80s.
Visitors to Atari Adventure stores would enter from the mall into an extraordinary environment where they could discover how Atari technology fit into their everyday lives and get up close with revolutionary new phones, computers, games and gizmos. Atari Adventure expanded on an EPCOT Center theme, making “tomorrow’s technology” accessible to people across the country — “Ever evolving, Atari Adventure will be the premier showcase for the newest innovations in computer learning and video excitement.” Atari 2600, 5200, and eventually 7800 video game systems would sit alongside Atari computers, software, even Atari telephones in a retail environment crafted to excite! Visitors to Atari Adventure were made active participants, being able to see and play with new Atari prototypes still in the polishing stages and offering opinions to representatives from Atari’s marketing department.
AtariTel smart telephones for everyone.
As Atari Adventure was readying nationwide, Atari, Inc. was on the cusp of producing a line of incredibly forward-thinking Atari telephones that would have sold in Atari Adventure stores alongside computers, software and games. Under the stewardship of Steve Bristow and his genius team, Atari had ventured into the emerging upscale telephone market with a line new “smart” telephones based on wireless intercom technology. AtariTel incorporated numerous features considered high-end at the time. AtariTel phones could store numbers, place a call on hold, and work as a speakerphone, but most notably they could use wireless intercom technology to turn an ordinary A/C outlet, and every A/C outlet in your home, into a telephone jack. “AtariTel is a new, dramatically capable home network for voice communications, communications management, appliance control, security and environmental control. The AtariTel system incorporates new technology and features not available in other residential telecommunications products.” Customers would experience these emerging technologies up close and hands-on, in many instances for the very first time. Alan Alda introduces one AtariTel product in the video below:
Reach out and touch tomorrow.
Computer learning courses featuring full-time one-to-one instructors would teach computer literacy to young and old in the most state-of-the-art classroom setting imaginable. Guests could buy time at a computer workstation to write a paper, do homework, print a document or play. The arcade drew guests in for fun and games, while the retail store sold Atari video games, merchandise, toys and software. “Adventure Time Theater” (pictured below) was an interactive video cinema that put participants in an immersive experience that enabled guests to “ride the video games”.
Cross country adventure.
What’s amazing is that some Atari Adventure locations were actually built, and they weren’t all in major cities. A handful of Adventure Centers opened just prior to Warner Communications divesting itself of Atari’s consumer assets and defunding the project.
Atari, Inc. had lined up locations in at least 44 properties prior to Atari being broken up. An “Atari Video Adventure” located at Marriott’s Great America in Santa Clara, CA had originally opened in 1982 as a somewhat different concept that was not focused on retail sales. The other Atari Adventure locations included Disneyland in Anaheim CA, a proposed Walt Disney World location in Lake Buena Vista, FL, Northwest Plaza in St. Ann, MO, Crestwood Plaza in St. Louis MO, Caesars Palace in Las Vegas NV, The Riviera in Las Vegas NV, Gwinnett Place Mall in Duluth, GA, Duval Street in Key West, FL, and Northpark Mall in Ridgeland, MS. The first Atari Adventure Center was an 8,000 square foot experience in St. Louis, MO planned as the corporate prototype for a nationwide roll-out which was canceled when Atari, Inc. broke apart in July, 1984.