1980 January: Atari 2600 Space Invaders Commercial
If Ray Kassar had just waited a few more months, he would have seen the fruits of Bushnell’s push towards video game technology. Atari licensed the game Space Invaders from Taito in 1979, and proceeeded to created a version for the Atari 2600. When this game was released, it made the Atari 2600 THE product that every kid wanted to have. This game is the single reason the Atari 2600 became the dominant game platform in the very early 80’s. The game was released in January 1980, but I’d expect that this commercial was shown closer to the holidays.
The Space Invaders game for the VCS, along with the success of Asteroids in the arcade netted Atari Inc gross proceeds oft $415 million for the year. Suddenly Atari was a major portion of Warner Communication’s total annual income and was deemed the “fastest growing company in the history of USA” (at the time).
Instead of Atari brass realizing that Bushnell was correct about video games as opposed to computers, they opted to push the 2600 technology even longer without working towards a next generation machine. For a while, this looked like a good strategy. The 2600 was a huge hit, and with more and more games being released, it looked unstoppable. Their coin-op business was going strong as well, with Asteroids, along with new hits like Missile Command, and Centipede further cementing Atari’s hold on the business. The Home computer lines was still struggling, but that did not stop them from touting it as well.
1981 Q1: Activision “Sports” Commercial
With the Atari 2600 so popular, the game programmers that had been around for almost 5 years were suddenly in hot demand. Atari Inc. did not consider the programmers and game designers an import part of the process, and they paid for this mistake dearly. With Bushnell gone from Atari, the “developer friendly atmosphere” he created was soon crushed under the corporate weight of Warner Communications and Ray Kassar. Soon after the VCS became a household name, groups of programmers and designers started jumping ship to other companies. Activision was started April 25th, 19801 when David Crane, Larry Kaplan, Alan Miller and Bob Whitehead left Atari to create their own company with President Jim Levy. Their plan was to create their own games to play on the Atari VCS. The first Activision” games were released in the first quarter of 1981. This commercial highlights Skiing, Tennis, Dragster . These sports games so “pwned” the sports games from Atari, it was not even funny. However, what they added in graphics, they cut-down in options. Atari’s games were reaching “101 Variations” in some cases, where Activision chose to concentrate their efforts on a few good options. “Dragster”, while it looked good, was not fun to play at all. Atari did counter later with a “Realsports Tennis”, which was even better than Activision Tennis.
1981 Q1: Activision Ice Hockey Commercial
This commercial spot stars the late-great Phil Hartman as drooling game seeker in a the video game department.
1981 April : Atari 2600 “Missile Command Problem” Commercial
After the success of the licensed coin-op game Space Invaders for the VCS, Atari began to translate as many of it’s coin-op hits to the VCS. Missile Command was one of the first. It was also a pretty good translation of the coin-op into the VCS format. Atari also translated these games for their 8-bit computer line. This commercial highlights Missile Command for the 2600, Video Pinball, Warlords, and Air Sea Battle. Missile Command was released in April of 1981, and since “Asteroids” is not advertised, it must have been shown before the end of the year.
1981 September: Atari 400 Home Computer Commercial
Atari started a TV blitz in the fall of 1981 to promote their line of “Home Computers”. While the video game business was booming, Ray Kassar’s baby, the computer line was still struggling to find its footing. This ad focused on the fact that computers could be good for education. A boy learns to speak French using his Atari 400, and impresses his grand parents. A longer version of this commercial was shown later in the year and into 1982.
1981 October: Atari Home Computer Commercials
Another commercial from the fall 1981 TV blitz. This one features a man using his Atari computer for “serious” application like “Stocks And bonds” then sneaking in a game of “Star Raiders”. Atari was continually trying to show the diverse array of applications that could be used with their home computers. However, the public never caught-on until the games started flowing.
1981: Atari 2600 Asteroids Commercial
Personal Anecdote: Among my friends, the Asteroids cartridge for the VCS suddenly made it a must-have item. I recall going to the local HW Computers store with my mom in the summer of 1981. I was looking for “Space Invaders” for the VCS , but when saw the Atari 2600 Asteroids Cartridge in the glass case, I knew what I wanted more than anything: an Atari 2600 for Christmas. I recently added a blog entry about the run-up to Christmas 1981 and how we convinced our parents to get us an Atari 2600. You can read it here.
1981: The Competition
The Mattel Intellivision was test marketed in 1979 and released nationally in 1980. By the end of 1981 the system was a success and started chipping away at Atari’s market share. The Intellivision was (arguably) more powerful than and 2600 and could produce games that looked much better when compared side-by-side with Atari 2600 games. Mattel used this to their advantage in a series of ads .
Personal Anecdote: Our friend Eric Barth got an Intellivision almost on the day of release. Before we had a VCS of our own, we were at Eric’s playing Intellivision games. Even though the Intellivision games looked better that the ones for the Atari VCS, there was always an “odd” feel about them. The controller with it’s disc and keypad just did not feel right. The resolution was was not that great, and the games always seemed…weird. Intellivision might have had better technology than the VCS, but certainly did not have the “cool” factor to make it any kind of serious contender to the video game crown.
1981 Atari 2600 Toys R Us Commercial
By Christmas 1981, the Atari VCS was the hottest toy around. Expecting huge sales, and not wanting to miss the opportunity, Atari required many of its retailers to order overly large shipments of games for the holiday season. With exclusive, decent translations of it’s hit coin-op arcade games and and heavy promotion from retailers, Atari looked unstoppable.
Personal Anecdote: My brother Jeff and I finally got an Atari VCS for Christmas 1981. We were caught up in the Atari frenzy like almost every other kid around, and had dropped hints for more than 6 months about that would be the perfect Christmas gift for two 11 year-old boys. We didn’t get to play it Christmas morning though. The RF unit was broken as soon as we opened the box. However, after exchanging it at Gemco the next day, we were off to the Atari races! We received a “Breakout” cartridge with the system for Christmas, but we could not stop there. We spent the rest of the day traveling around to every major department store looking for Atari VCS cartridges to buy with our savings and Christmas money. We managed to haul back Activision Tennis, Activision Dragster, and Asteroids. We had a glorious next week of vacation, playing all of our new VCS games, reading the about all other available games in the catalogs inserted in each package, and sending away for our new subscription to Atari Age magazine.