‘Atari’ Is in Trouble Again

On the occasion of the video game legend's bankruptcy, a recap of its many lives.

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Atari's first game, Pong, on display at Berlin's Computer Game Museum.

Atari is declaring bankruptcy — twice. Both the U.S. video game company and its French parent have done so, the latest twist for the company which largely invented the video game industry and remains synonymous with it, despite having seen its glory days end by the mid-1980s.

But wait. Even though the Atari name celebrated its fortieth anniversary last year, it’s a mistake to talk about Atari as if it’s a corporate entity which has been around for four decades. (The Los Angeles Times’ Ben Fritz, for instance, refers to it as an “iconic but long-troubled video game maker.”) Instead, it’s a famous name which has drifted from owner to owner. It keeps being applied to different businesses, and yes, for all its fame, it does seem to be a bit of a jinx.

Here’s a quick rundown of what “Atari” has meant at different times (thanks, Wikipedia, for refreshing my memory):

1972-1976: It’s an up-and-coming, innovative startup cofounded by Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney.

1976-1984: It’s part of Warner Communications (which, years later, merged with Time Inc. to form Time Warner, overlord of this website). It’s a massively successful maker of video games and consoles, but then it crashes, along with the rest of the industry.

1984-1996: Atari morphs into a semi-successful maker of PCs when it’s acquired by Tramel Technology, a company started by Jack Tramiel, the ousted founder of Commodore.

1996-1998: Tramiel runs Atari into the ground. After merging with hard-disk maker JTS, the company and brand are largely dormant.

1998-2000: Atari resurfaces under the ownership of  toy kingpin Hasbro as a line of games published under the Atari Interactive name.

2000-present: It becomes a corporate entity controlled by French game publisher Infogrames, which increasingly emphasizes the Atari moniker over its own and takes over completely in 2008. In recent years, it’s focused on digital downloads, mobile games and licensing of its familiar brand and logo.

The above chronology doesn’t account for Atari’s original business: arcade games. As far as I can tell, the arcade arm was owned at different times by Warner Communications/Time Warner (twice!), Pac-Man purveyor Namco and arcade icon Midway, among other companies. But use of the Atari brand on arcade hardware petered out in 2001.

Basically, Atari has never been one well-defined thing for more than twelve years, max, at a time. That the name has survived at all is a testament to its power and appeal. And even though the current Atari has fallen on hard times, I’ll bet that the brand survives for at least a few more decades, in one form or another. Several forms, probably.