The iconic video game company turned forty last week.
Although it wasn’t the first company to make video games, Atari was the first to make a lasting impression on an entire generation. At arcades — or at video game bars such as Barcade in the trendy Williamsburg section of Brooklyn — nostalgic patrons still gather around such Atari classics as “Asteroids,” “Joust” and “Centipede.”
The Atari 2600, launched in 1977, was the first video game console in millions of homes, long before the Nintendo Entertainment System (1985), Sony’s PlayStation (1994) and Microsoft’s Xbox (2001).
Today’s younger iPhone gamers might not remember how “Pong,” that simple, two-dimensional riff on Ping-Pong, swept across living rooms and arcades in the 1970s. But they might recognize elements of it in easy-to-learn, hard-to-master games based on simple physics — among them, “Angry Birds.”
“For tens of millions of Gen X-ers, or kids who grew up in America in the ’70s and ’80s, Atari is a cultural icon, an intrinsic part of childhood,” said Scott Steinberg, tech analyst and author of “The Modern Parent’s Guide to Kids and Video Games.”
“Pong,” Steinberg adds, was in some ways the very first social video game, one designed to play in bars, at home or at an arcade, while spectators crowded around to watch the action.
Launched in 1972 from Atari’s Silicon Valley headquarters, “Pong” featured a basic black-and-white screen (that’s black and white only, no shades of gray here), divided by a dotted line. Short white lines on either side stood in for paddles. Two players controlled them and tried to get a moving dot — the ball — past their opponent.
With “Pong,” Atari introduced video games to the masses just as Apple and Microsoft ushered in the personal computer era by bringing computers to people’s desktops in the 1980s.
Feeling old yet? Atari is still around, but they’ve bounced from owner to owner and aren’t exactly an industry leader any more. But video games wouldn’t be what they are today without them. I’m going to hunt down a Centipede console and celebrate. What was your favorite Atari game?