Atari’s 50th anniversary plans include retro remakes, blockchain experiments, hotels, and more

In 2022, Atari will have a good time its fiftieth anniversary. In so doing, the corporate’s new boss, Wade Rosen, tells Polygon he’s decided to show a badly tarnished gaming icon into one thing related to the current, and to the long run.

Rosen took the highest place on the firm in March, and shortly introduced a brand new focus for the enterprise: fashionable variations of the classics that made Atari well-known. In current months, the corporate has launched “Recharged” variations of Centipede, Black Widow, and Asteroids, all of that are energetic and quick, with jaunty digital soundtracks. Rosen says extra revamped classics are deliberate for 2022.

His ambitions mark a shift away from Atari’s earlier mannequin of name licensing, together with a weird motley of partnerships and offshoots for lodge chains, casinos, film productions, and cryptocurrency — although the corporate stays concerned with a lot of these, leaving it with ill-fitting legacy offers and followers skeptical of the brand new route.

Rosen’s rapid plan facilities round upgraded retro video games, and in the long term, he says he needs to show Atari again right into a recreation publishing powerhouse. He’s frank concerning the limitations of an organization that at present employs round 25 folks, although: “It’s a lot simpler for us to make [retro updates] than to make a large open-world 100-hour gameplay expertise.”

Proudly owning Atari

At 35 years of age, Rosen is simply too younger to have skilled a lot of Atari’s unique video games once they had been contemporary and new. However he talks a superb recreation. Throughout our 90-minute interview, he spends not less than half an hour reminiscing about his favourite video games.

Raised in a small city in Minnesota, Rosen grew up with dad and mom who believed that video video games had been a waste of time. Lastly, and after a lot badgering, he says, “they compromised” and acquired him a Recreation Boy. He went on to play loads of Nineties RPGs like The Legend of Zelda: Hyperlink’s Awakening and Remaining Fantasy Legend 2, which, he says, “blew my head off.”

He nonetheless has that Recreation Boy — although it’s now held along with duct tape — and he says his favourite console ever was the Dreamcast, adopted by the PSP. In later years, he moved onto PC and PlayStation technique video games like StarCraft and Remaining Fantasy Techniques. He’s additionally a fan of FromSoftware video games like Demon’s Souls, and he admires newer video games like Hades and Slay the Spire.

After faculty, Rosen deliberate to enter the world of banking, however the crash of 2008 steered him towards startup entrepreneurialism. He co-founded two profitable corporations (ThrivePass and Wishlist) that created employer-targeted software program as a service.

He then determined he wished a change of tempo; he wished to enter the sport business. He regarded round for a method in, and opted for one of many largest names in gaming historical past: Atari. Rosen purchased sufficient Atari shares to put in himself as CEO, taking on from former incumbent Fred Chesnais.

“After I was youthful, I used to be informed you shouldn’t go into what you’re captivated with,” he says, “as a result of it’ll break your ardour. So I went into extra conventional tech and constructed a number of corporations. Then, I ended and sat again and mentioned, ‘What am I captivated with? What do I actually love?’ My complete life has been video video games. They’ve at all times been there for me. So I made a selection to enter video video games.

“I had this longer-term plan to step into it, however the Atari alternative got here up and it accelerated actually rapidly. [Chesnais] was the biggest shareholder and I bought most of his shares. He was prepared to maneuver onto one thing new. I used to be in the fitting place on the proper time.”

Profitable enterprise folks sometimes purchase their method into glamorous industries, from airways to film studios to sports activities groups. However most gaming entrepreneurs earn their chops within the enterprise, which is notoriously incomprehensible to outsiders.

“I didn’t goal Atari as a result of I noticed it as this nice monetary alternative,” says Rosen. “Extra, as a result of it’s one of many iconic names in video video games. I simply checked out it and I believed, OK, that would convey me pleasure. Doing that could possibly be an act of creativity and adventurousness and probably love if it had been profitable, and it had been executed the fitting method.”

Aside from Atari’s secure of mental properties and its title recognition, Rosen sees emotive and monetary worth in its brand, typically referred to as the Fuji due to its passing similarity to the mountain in Japan, and the Atari title’s connection to the well-known recreation of Go, which is well-liked in East Asia (very roughly, it’s a bit like saying “checkmate” or “bullseye”).

“I’d have mentioned this earlier than I ever acquired concerned in Atari: I believe the brand is likely one of the best logos ever made,” he says. “It’s good. It’s simply good.”

That brand

At present airing on Paramount Plus, Ghosts is a comedy sequence through which a younger couple tries to renovate an outdated mansion populated by a gang of, effectively, ghosts. The younger lady sees the ghosts and befriends them. The marginally dorky husband can not see the ghosts. He’s a likable, unemployed millennial, considerably hapless, however with a superb coronary heart. A little bit of a loser, he wears a T-shirt sporting the Atari brand. The identical T-shirt is available for purchase on-line.

Tim Lapetino, writer of Art of Atari, tells Polygon: “The brand is a stand-in for that complete period of early video video games. I believe folks smush collectively historical past, and Atari has turn out to be a regular for retro video video games. So that you see a 20-year-old strolling down the road with an Atari T-shirt. Did they play these video games? In all probability not. Did they develop up in that period? Absolutely not. However that Atari brand has a retro connection to that complete period.”

In a 1983 interview with Video Video games journal (as quoted in Artwork of Atari), brand designer George Opperman talked concerning the Fuji’s origins: “Symbols are simply visible nicknames that mix first letters and interpretive design parts. I stored attempting to stylize the A, then I checked out Pong, their large recreation on the time. Pong had a middle line and a power (the ball) that stored hitting its middle from both aspect. I believed that (power) would bend the middle outward. And that’s what I designed.”

“Brand design is commonly fairly subjective,” says Olly Wright, who spent 15 years as head of graphic design at PlayStation, engaged on logos in addition to recreation and {hardware} packaging. “However the Atari brand is objectively an actual triumph of design. That design aesthetic, having daring, easy, colour palettes and iconic diametric shapes, cuts via any surrounding visible noise. It has a satisfying geometric symmetry that appears to movement.”

Cover of Art of Atari

Picture: Tim Lapetino

Catherine DeSpiro is a historian and a collector of Atari arcade machines. She says the model has an emotional pull, particularly on those that skilled it the primary time round. “The Seventies was a tricky time to develop up,” she remembers. “Unemployment was loopy. Divorce charges had been hovering, and the American household felt prefer it was breaking apart. Children discovered sanctuary in arcades, and later, within the Atari 2600 dwelling console. It was a promise of hope at a time when there wasn’t a lot hope round.”

Today, Atari’s fall is as well-known as its rise. The spectacular failure of a single game, E.T., stands as an object lesson in hubris, and the way to not marshal a console platform. The 2600’s portfolio of later video games was stricken by poor high quality management, resulting in a glut of low-quality releases.

After 1984, Atari ceased to be a significant participant in console gaming, and was quickly outdated by Nintendo, which had watched and realized all of the onerous and costly classes that Atari had supplied. Nintendo was unbiased, centered, controlling, slickly skilled. The corporate’s leaders understood the way forward for gaming. None of this stuff had been true of Atari.

Atari’s afterlife encompassed varied also-ran merchandise just like the Atari ST dwelling laptop, the Jaguar console, and the Lynx handheld. The model went via a dismal sequence of acquisitions, relaunches, partnerships, and consolidations, lastly ending up at French video games writer Infogrames, which, in its personal frenzied dying throes, rebranded to Atari.

When that firm declared chapter, longtime Infogrames exec Fred Chesnais took management of the wreckage, and sought to extract as a lot worth from the model as doable, via a raft of licensing offers and offshoots together with a deliberate lodge chain, cryptocurrency, a house laptop, casinos, and film manufacturing. Buzzy initiatives abounded regarding NFTs, blockchain, and Atari’s rightful place as an actual property big within the metaverse. There have been additionally a number of recreation releases, primarily within the realm of free-to-play and cellular titles just like the licensed Curler Coaster Tycoon Tales, and Atari Fight: Tank Fury.

Within the media, every new announcement met with eye-rolling skepticism. The Verge described the corporate as a “stressed ghost.” Writing in PC Gamer, journalist Wealthy Stanton referred to as Atari “a zombie.”

New beginnings

Underneath Rosen, the corporate has made some cash by promoting NFTs, releasing digital 3D models of classic Atari 2600 cartridges. He’s cautious to emphasize that he’s standing by current offers, just like the resorts.

“We attempt to allow [licensing partners] to achieve success. We’re not similar to, OK, right here it’s — purchase it, and we’re arms off. We’ll present help, however we’re not lodge consultants. I draw a parallel with Nintendo working with Universal to make amusement parks.”

For Atari, comparisons with Nintendo are helpful. In spite of everything, that firm’s obsession with model integrity is a mannequin for any gaming firm. However Atari’s mess of extant licensing offers would doubtless make a Nintendo government blanch, particularly when issues go awry. In December, an Atari branded pre-launch on line casino metaverse was accidently published by a licensing companion. A spokesperson for Atari correct mentioned: “The content material has not been authorized or approved for launch by Atari” however wouldn’t be drawn on additional particulars. Atari’s web site consists of a licensing page, that includes the logos of 20 companions, and including that “we’re at all times looking for new cool, modern merchandise that match our imaginative and prescient for the model.”

Nonetheless, Rosen says his focus is on the nitty-gritty of constructing video games and publishing them. “I’m not attempting to criticize the previous,” he says, “however the very first thing we did as a crew was to say, ‘Sure, there’s licensing and different issues that exist out there, however we’ll be doing video video games, as a result of we’re a online game firm.’ That’s what we do. That’s what we’re honing in on. And we’re actually focusing and placing our vitality into making nice video games.”

“It’s OK for us, proper now, to enchantment to the individuals who know Atari finest, and to do the issues that Atari did effectively,” says Rosen. “We wish to make good video games that don’t mess up the method an excessive amount of, however that are modernized with problem modes, two-player modes, rating tags, issues like that.”

Recharged sequence producer Jason Polansky provides: “Anybody who’s tried to hook up a 2600 to HDMI tv is aware of how difficult that’s. Even then, you’ll be able to boot up the sport because it was performed within the ’70s or ’80s and say, ‘Wow, OK, that’s not precisely how I keep in mind taking part in it.’

“We modify the video games so that they provide the understanding that you just’re taking part in what you keep in mind, with out basically altering the expertise. Anyone who’s not aware of the video games can nonetheless leap in and play them and have simply as a lot enjoyable with them as someone who does get the nostalgic reference.”

He factors to Black Widow Recharged, launched in late October, for example. Within the unique 1982 arcade recreation, gamers took on the function of a spider on the middle of its internet, transferring alongside the tendrils and both pushing or taking pictures enemies and obstacles. The brand new recreation is identical, besides every little thing strikes a lot quicker, with a better number of enemies, colours, and sound results.

“Atari created these genres within the first place,” says Polansky. “However we now have to step as much as what the style is now. We are able to’t ignore the truth that Geometry Wars exists. Now we have to compete, whereas retaining the DNA of the unique.”

Polansky says gross sales of those video games are “according to expectations,” including that classics typically proceed to promote steadily lengthy after their preliminary launch. The benefit of manufacturers like Asteroids is that folks typically seek for the title fairly than, say, “spaceship-shooting-rocks video games,” of which there are a whole bunch.

{Hardware} decisions

Profitable recreation corporations like Nintendo take care to nurture their picture. Followers belief Nintendo to ship video games that sit inside an general aura of Nintendo-ness. In distinction, company homeowners of the Atari title have traditionally centered as an alternative on short-term targets.

The result’s that many individuals who view themselves as keepers of the Atari flame stand outdoors the workplace partitions. They’re the followers, collectors, modders, and historians who collect at retro expos and on websites like AtariAge (slogan: “Have you ever performed Atari right this moment?”).

We interviewed a handful of them for this story. Sitting of their workspaces, they seem proudly in entrance of unique arcade cupboards, which wink and tinkle within the background. Or they put on unique Atari-branded clothes. They’re all skeptical about this newest iteration of Atari.

Marty Goldberg labored with the Infogrames model of Atari and then-licensing companion AtGames again within the 2000s, serving to to convey the Atari Flashback 2 to market. It was a mini console that includes unique traditional video games.

“Re-releasing outdated video games does nothing new [for Atari],” he says. “There’s a bunch of latest variations already on the market. The place are the brand new concepts? That’s what Atari was all about. That’s the Atari I wish to see.”

“What would I do if it was me?” asks Cassandra Quirk, aka Vintage Arcade Gal, a blogger, collector, and historian. “I believe it will be superb if someone went in and mentioned, ‘We’re gonna reinvent arcade video games. We’re gonna return to our Atari heritage and create vacation spot arcade video games, with improvements in controls, screens, presentation. One thing that may’t be replicated within the dwelling.’ Atari must create one thing new.”

It doesn’t assist Atari’s trigger when the corporate stumbles alongside the way in which. In November, Atari launched three collectible Atari 2600 cartridges for Aquaventure, Saboteur, and Yars’ Return. Every included playable prototypes, hacks, and homebrew variations of the video games, with restricted editions together with bodily items comparable to pins and posters. Sadly, a number of the crediting details had been wildly inaccurate, resulting in frustration amongst recreation historians and the Atari devoted.

“In some methods, Atari’s historical past is a millstone round their neck,” says Tony Temple, who runs the web site The Arcade Blogger. “When they’re massively inaccurate about their very own historical past, they’re going to get came upon. It’s a must to marvel what’s occurring. You’re Atari. You’re purported to know these items.”

Quickly after that debacle, Atari introduced plans to purchase retro streaming service Antstream Arcade with an choice to purchase revered online game database MobyGames. These might give the corporate’s rank and file the type of historic experience it wants.

product shot showing the Atari VCS and its two controller types

The (new) Atari VCS
Picture: RC Rivera

The followers we spoke to are particularly scornful of Atari’s newest enterprise into the {hardware} enterprise, as soon as once more relationship again to the Chesnais period. The brand new “Atari VCS” was crowdfunded to the tune of greater than $3 million again in 2018. Remaining machines shipped out within the first half of 2021.

It’s a Linux field formed like an Atari 2600 that runs emulated retro video games. Its $299-$399 worth was broadly panned by {hardware} reviewers. IGN described it as “nothing greater than a watered-down mixture of a console and a PC,” including that “it positively doesn’t justify its price ticket.”

“It’s terribly costly,” concurs Quirk. “It’s very clunky. There’s no child on Christmas morning that’s going to open up a Christmas current, hoping they discover an Atari VCS as an alternative of a PlayStation 5 or a brand new Xbox. Making a streaming field that appears like an Atari 2600 shouldn’t be the reply. Neither is releasing cartridges full of misplaced prototypes.”

After I counsel to Rosen that the VCS shouldn’t be an ideal product, he visibly bristles, arguing that extra help is coming. He says that the {hardware} crew is at present struggling to supply sufficient parts to maintain machines on retail cabinets, half of the present scarcity of elements that’s affecting producers all over the world.

“I really feel actually passionately concerning the VCS,” he says. “It was one of many major causes I wished to come back into Atari. It’s an superior alternative.” He concedes that there’s work to be executed to ensure that others to understand its worth. “It ought to by no means have been referred to as a console. It’s a pc. It’s an open, out-of-the-box Linux laptop that appears cool. What makes our Linux field higher than different ones is basically as much as us. And that’s what we now have to show within the coming 12 months.”

Rosen provides: “I simply wish to say that it’s unsuitable to match us to PlayStation or Xbox. These are closed ecosystems, whereas we’re attempting to make one thing that’s versatile and open, with a ton of performance. Now we have not executed a adequate job actually articulating that worth.”

Time to have a good time

In addition to updating and re-releasing the classics, attempting to promote and help a Linux field, dabbling in NFTs and collectibles, and supporting an uncommon array of licensing companions, the brand new Atari can also be engaged on celebrations for the corporate’s fiftieth anniversary.

“Inadvertently, it’s taking over loads of time and planning,” says Rosen. “It’s always on our thoughts, however you’ll see us tying it into the video games we’re releasing within the subsequent 12 months that haven’t been introduced but. It’s a giant, large 12 months for us, however we additionally see it as a starting, not as an finish in itself. It’s the fiftieth anniversary of Pong [in 2022], however loads of different video games have their very own anniversaries developing, and we’re doing loads of prepping round these.”

After I ask if Atari is seeking to purchase and launch mental properties that weren’t initially from Atari, Rosen says: “Quick reply is sure. If you wish to be the retro firm that’s actually pushing retro gaming ahead, I believe it’s a must to take a look at that period as an entire and see what is smart. It’s positively part of the enterprise, and we’re actively doing that.”

A logo for Atari’s 50th anniversary shows the classic Atari logo inside the number 50

Atari isn’t the one firm seeking to flip outdated into gold. New variations or repackaged bundles of classics are a gaming staple. Taito not too long ago introduced a 10-game bundle for Nintendo Switch (by way of licensee Inin), and Bandai Namco’s Pac-Man Museum Plus is coming someday in early 2022.

Rosen sees co-op sofa play as a giant alternative. Like many dad and mom, he says he enjoys the feeling of taking part in the classics along with his little one. In a method, Atari’s technique now shouldn’t be dissimilar to the way in which dwelling consoles had been marketed within the early ’80s, with the completely different generations having fun with video games collectively. “We wish to seize superior household experiences,” he says. “We’re making video games that folks keep in mind, which can be approachable, and that join dad and mom with children. It’s like, Oh, I used to play this. Let me present you the way it works.”

For the second, he says the corporate has to begin delivering. “We all know we will’t come out and say that we’re completely different [from previous efforts to relaunch Atari]. Individuals are sick of listening to that. They’ve began to roll their eyes. Once you get to that time, the reply isn’t to maintain speaking. It’s to make the belongings you do actually matter. Now we have to begin exhibiting it each day.”

Referring to the skepticism of Atari followers, Rosen says: “It’s a ton of strain. They’re very vocal about what they need, and we now have to earn their goodwill and rebuild these relationships. I’m right here to assist restore one thing that’s basically nice, and it’s cool to see that so many different folks need the identical factor.”

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