Sotheby's sells Atari-collection

on 21. June 2007
Sothebys wrotes:

An extensive archive of original marketing materials (as detailed below) from the „Golden Age“ of Atari, ca. 1981 to 1983, comprising more than 2,000 items of widely varying sizes and formats, including manuscript memorandum, internal specification guidelines, original sketches, blue lines, mechanicals, proofs, color separations (including acetates), and screen diagrams; the archive is mostly related to marketing materials for Atari games and game consoles, especially boxes and manuals, but includes some early design and graphic work for specific game characters and components; the archive contains mostly English-language materials, but proofs and mechanicals for cartons and manuals in French, German, Spanish, and Italian are also present. The whole archive organized into approximately 135 large file folders for graphic materials.

CATALOGUE NOTE

In the beginning was Pong: A remarkable survival from the adolescence (if not quite the infancy) of video gaming and a truly essential and consequential do*****entation of a pivotal cultural revolution.

Video gaming is now a multi-billion dollar entertainment industry with world-wide receipts rivaling Hollywood. The newest generation gaming platforms?the Nintendo Wii, Sony’s PlayStation 3, and Microsoft’s X-Box?provide hyper-realistic graphics that virtually bring fantasy worlds to life. But the fantasy of video games began on a much simpler scale, one that demanded greater imagination from its players.

The first and most fondly remembered incarnation of Atari was started by Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney in 1972. Atari was one of the first?and one of the most successful?firms to try to move the computer gaming industries out of arcades and bars and into homes. Atari first introduced Pong into traditional arcades, and it was not until the release of the home console Atari 2600 in 1976 that the company began to expand at an unprecedented rate. As new technologies improved, Atari developed systems that were compatible with both home computers and television sets?the games designed for the latter platform even promised color graphics on color TV’s. Atari was also responsible for the publication and distribution within the United States of many classic games developed by Namco in Japan.

Within a few years, gamers (as they were not yet called) were able to choose from among a huge variety of games in many genres: action, adventure, puzzles, mazes, fantasy, sports, and even education. (How many birthday parties were sidetracked when the guest of honor received Math Grand Prix and not Mario Bros., as he had requested?) The following games are among those represented in the present archive. Many of these games have been „re-mixed“ for current platforms and are still available in classic format on-line or in „plug-and-play“ systems.

Adventure
Air Sea Battle
Asterix
Asteroids
Backgammon
Berzerk
Bowling
Brain Games
Breakout
Canyon Bomber
Casino
Choplifter
Circus
Codebreaker
Cookie Monster
Counter Measure
Defender
Dig Dug
Dodge Em
Donkey Kong Jr.
Golf
Gremlins
Hangman
Haunted House
Homerun
Human Cannonball
Hunt and Score
Indy 500
Joust
Jungle Hunt
Kangaroo
Mario Bros.
Math Grand Prix
Maze Craze
Millipede
Miniature Golf
Missile Command
Moon Patrol
Night Driver
Othello
Outlaw
Pac Man
Pele Soccer
Pengo
Phoenix
Pole Position
Pong
Qix
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Real Sports Baseball
Real Sports Basketball
Real Sports Football
Real Sports Tennis
Robotron
Rubiks
Skydiver
Slot Cars
Slot Machine
Slot Racers
Soccer
Space Dungeon
Space Invaders
Space War
Starship
Steeplechase
Street Racer
Super Breakout
Super Pong
Super Pong Ten
Superman
Surround
Sword Quest: Earthworld
Sword Quest: Fireworld
Sword Quest: Waterworld
Video Chess
Video Olympics
Video Pinball
Warlord

Marketing graphics were particularly vital for these early games. While game designers could achieve a computerized Pac Man that looked essentially like the character on the box, sports games, especially, were an entirely different matter. The box for Atari Basketball might have featured generic versions of Willis Reed and Dave Cowens, but the players on the screen (limited to one per team) were bizarrely geometric. The basketball figures, like all video game graphics of the period, we formed by the combination of multiple micro-cubes: their arms resemble elephant trunks, and the body outline of each player is delineated by wildly prominent noses and knee caps. Even the ball is square. But elementary as these materials seem now, these are the games that animated designers and gamers alike to advance to such current hyper-real titles as College Hoops 2K7, NBA 2K7, and Backyard Basketball 2007.

In the same way, Pro Stroke Golf and Tiger Woods PGA Tour 07 are following a path blazed by Atari Golf. The player on the Atari box cover may have been a romanticized hybrid of Jack Nicklaus and Johnny Miller, but the video golfer more closely resembles a rectilinear Joseph Merrick.

By fortunate coincidence, some of Atari’s most popular and enduring games are among those with the deepest representation here. For example, Dig Dug, a maze game with the objective of eliminating underground monsters, has a huge group of materials ranging from typewritten copy for the game manual to original color sketches of the various bonus fruits and vegetables to geometric black-and-white versions of the same to a fine watercolor drawing of a Pooka to a mock-up of a TV-screen diagram.

The legendary Pole Position, which was developed by Namco and published in the United States by Atari, is represented a similar range of graphics. At one end of the scale is a rough pencil and red pencil sketch of a Formula 1 race on graph paper; at the other end is a thirteen-color TV-screen diagram depicting four race cars on the track.

In addition to games, the Atari archive also contains material relating to various game systems and consoles, the Atari Club, marketing tie-ins with Sears department stores, and hand-held games, including the Touch Me. Ironically, Atari first released Touch Me as an arcade game, which Milton Bradley closely imitated with their hand-held Simon. When Simon proved more successful than the arcade original that it was modeled after, Atari re-released Touch Me as a hand-held, but it never overcame Simon’s head start.

The most intriguing non-game material in the archive is probably the marketing drawings for the Kee Games Video Game System. An ostensible rival to Atari, Kee Games claimed that its system offered „fantastic variety [and] flexibility.“ But in fact Kee was a secret subsidiary of Atari, created simply to cir*****vent exclusivity deals demanded by some arcade and pinball distributors of the time. The subterfuge was soon discovered, but Atari continued to use the Kee brand for some marketing and distribution efforts.

This archive contains no material beyond 1983, the year of the so-called „great video game crash.“ The crash was largely spurred by the growth of the home computer industry, which promised all the games that dedicated video game platforms could provide, as well as many other benefits. Atari was one of many victims of the competition and contraction that resulted. Atari was also hurt when several key programmers defected to start up Activision. In addition, the company became involved in a lawsuit with Nintendo and Coleco over the rights to Donkey Kong. In short order the company’s chief executive was forced out and the home game console and home computer divisions were sold. The original Atari was no more.