How Atari Laid the Foundation for Modern Gaming

Back to the basics

Key Takeaways

  • Atari dominated the gaming world in the '70s with its coin-op games and home video game console. 
  • Popular games like Asteroids, Space Invaders, and Atari Football mark the Atari years. 
  • Former Atari gamers recall playing Atari games with fond memories of a time when gaming was simple.
An Atari 2600 VCS console, full view with joysticks and the Space Invaders games.
Robee Shepherd / Getty Images

Long before the Nintendo Switch or the PlayStation 5, video games took a much simpler form. Atari was a pioneer in American gaming that shaped childhood memories and future gaming consoles alike. 

While it may not necessarily have been the “golden age” of gaming, the Atari days helped make what the gaming world is today, experts and former Atari diehards say.

"I don’t know if I’d say it was the golden age, and I might reserve that for when the Nintendo Entertainment System came out and took gaming to the next level, but I‘d definitely say that the Atari days kicked it off," said Chris Spear, the host of the podcast, Chefs Without Restaurants, in an email interview with Lifewire

Work Hard Play Hard 

The original Atari was founded in 1972 and was known for arcade coin-op games and home video game consoles like the Atari 2600: a console where you could swap out different games to play (an entirely new concept at the time). 

Asteroids, Combat (which technically had 27 games in one), Crystal Castles, and Space Invaders all were Atari staples in its hey-day. The people behind these games were always trying to experiment with new ideas and new concepts.

Michael Albaugh worked in the coin-op division at Atari from 1976-2000, where he was involved with games like Pool Shark, Ultra Tank, and Atari Football

"It was interesting because there were a whole lot of things that we were trying there," he told Lifewire in a phone interview. "We would put games out on a field test to watch players react to gaming." 

An Atari Game system.
Boast / Getty Images

"I did a bit of work on a game I think should have been produced that was a game called Beat Head that I took over from Bonnie Smithson," he said. "Someone described [the game] as head-to-head Q*bert." 

Beat Head was a multiplayer prototype game where players had to jump on all of their specific colored tiles before their opponent did. Ultimately, Atari’s field tests didn’t work out with the game. 

Part of the reason some of these games never got produced was because of the Warner Communications (now known as Time Warner) takeover of Atari in 1976.

"My impression after the Warner takeover was if we had this great new innovative idea, we still weren't really allowed to pursue it unless someone else had done it," Albaugh said. "It always felt like they wanted the sure thing."

Still, Albaugh said he always loves to come across some of the older Atari coin-op games he built and remember his 25-year Atari journey. "It was a cool ride," he said. 

Atari Memories 

For those who only know Atari from the games they played, the mention of “Atari” conjures up memories of playing video games with friends at a young age. 

"I have fond memories of sitting on the floor in friends' basements playing Real Sports Baseball," John Frigo, the digital marketing lead at My Supplement Store, wrote to Lifewire in an email. "I enjoyed the simplicity of Atari being able to pick up a controller and instantly know how to play a game and pick it up right away."

Even today, the Atari ways of gaming are still very much alive for some. 

"I‘d definitely say that the Atari days kicked it off."

"To this day, Raiders of the Lost Ark for the [Atari] 2600 is probably the hardest game to beat," Spear said. 

What players miss about Atari games was the old-school gaming style and memories of playing a game surrounded by friends. 

"One thing I found really cool about the Atari was the joystick, there was something very reminiscent of being at an arcade with that style of joystick, and no system has really had that ever again after Nintendo kind of took over," Frigo said. 

Albaugh said that while Atari may not be the "golden age" for everyone, for some, it really was. "Everyone’s golden age of gaming was when they were approximately 14-18 years old," Albaugh said. "There’s a lot of nostalgia from when you were younger and when the opportunities were endless."

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