Comic Book Curious

The Western Video Game Crash of 1983 – Atari Shock!

July 5, 2021

by Captain Chris |

The early 1980’s saw a boom in video games. With the success of games like Pac-Man, Frogger, Space Invaders, and Donkey Kong, video games in arcades were becoming more and more popular. In 1982 20 Billion quarters were put into arcade machines in the U.S. alone and Japan had to mint more coins just to keep up with the demand.

With this popularity, as with anything in popular culture, people behind Pac-Man (Namco) wanted to sell merchandising rights to a popular game. A game would get popular, and people would buy merchandise from the game or the characters from the game; even a circle with a triangle mouth would be used to sell products. There was even a “Pac Man Fever” song that played on the radio. Yes, really.

Pac Man Cereal by Ralston Purina

As technology improved, video game systems became smaller and soon were available as home consoles that people could buy and then play at home. Some of these came with exactly ONE game (Pong) and couldn’t play other games.

One of the main problems was that there were SO MANY companies all making basically the same product, all making pong games.

But this is fine, because pong is so simple that it’s not going to be a major difference in how Pong is played. It’s like complaining over different kinds of nail clippers, they’re all pretty much the same at a certain point.

Atari Pong system

But then came the Atari 2600 and this had a huge development. It didn’t just play one game; you could swap out new games! Soon other video game companies followed suit and began making games and consoles to play them. Unlike arcade games, home video game consoles had much less power.

Atari 2600

Well… remember when I said that this technology was primitive, the laws around it were primitive too. There wasn’t really a copyright on many of these games, so any company could make any game. Nowadays XBOX can’t just make a Mario game and Nintendo can’t make a game about Halo. But at least there are not 12 different consoles at the same time! One was even made by Sears; this is like if Target made a game console.

In the early 80’s everyone was making games, often the same game, but the quality was all over the map as there was no quality control. No, literally everyone made games. This is a game made by a dog food company called Chase the Chuck Wagon.

Chase The Chuck Wagon

Here is a quote from the person who made it:

“I was approached by a good friend who ran TMQ/ICOM and he badly needed this game programmed over a weekend. Yes, it took me all of 3 days to cobble this game together. I had existing code from my first game, Artillery Duel, to look at. The sound effects were basically the same. I apologize for the weak gameplay, but I was rushed!

— Mike Schwartz

So he copied his own game and changed out the characters? Yes!

This “rush” was common, especially when so many people were making games, so many game consoles existed, and the technology was so limited. Also, honestly, how many games could you even list in terms of kinds of games? Many games at the time were “go through this maze” or “avoid the shapes”. Now make that game with less processing power than the remote control for your TV.

Players were flooded with a market of games with no way of knowing what was good or not, yet at the same time, some games were revolutionary in their ideas about what a game even is!

Then along came a game that crashed this entire house of cards: E.T. the game, based off of the 1982 movie, E.T.

ET for the Atari 2600

At the time Atari was the biggest video game company and had the most game developers and the biggest share of the market. The issue was that they made a huge number of games and rushed development of those games. Atari also was the most famous, so they had the most money behind any project they wanted to do, so they could produce games quickly to corner the market. Then again, they made 14 games for Quaker Oats and they made the dog food game.

E.T. the movie was a smash success in 1982. It’s still a recognised brand almost 40 years later. Atari paid 21 million dollars for the rights to make an E.T. game (so no other company could) thinking it would be a slam dunk, and they needed a big hit. By this point Atari was losing 2 million dollars a day due to their large workforce and equally large number of cheap games.

What they should have done was take their time to make a quality game that was innovative, like earlier people had done with Pac-Man or Donkey Kong. This should have taken a minimum of 6 months, but they spent 6 weeks starting in late July of 1982 looking to finish that September to make enough copies (5 million) to hit the holiday season. But hey, at least it wasn’t 3 days.

Atari needed to save money, and after spending 21 million to buy the rights to the game, cut their staff back from 10,000 to 400 while also not crediting their employees in the games, so the talented programmers left to start their own companies. All of this added up to a real disappointment and out of 5 million games produced, only 4 million sold, and many were returned for a refund. The rest were buried in a landfill.

Atari 2600 ET game

Now it’s not that the game is the worst game ever, it’s just the final drop in an ocean of disappointment. The E.T. movie was one of the biggest if not the biggest movie of that decade, and the game was such a letdown that the public lost confidence in video games all together. Seriously, people in the U.S. just went, “Oh well, I guess the fad of video games is over” because all games were just kind of bad or the same, and people stopped buying them. The games industry fell from 3 billion dollars in 1982 to 100 million in 1985. YIKES, that’s a loss of 97% of their market value.

This was the western videogame crash of 1983. Atari took a nosedive and totally failed, as did every other U.S. videogame company. I say U.S. because Nintendo of Japan watched all of this and said “Hmm… what will we NOT do as a company” and then did exactly the right moves. But we can talk about that next time.

Home computers held on by being more than just entertainment, you can do a lot more on a computer aside from play games, and for a few years, there just were no video games, or video games saw a massive decline in popularity on game consoles. This began a trend of computer game play, today called “PC gaming”.

Today, the market being flooded with games still happens; my mom has several different versions of Candy Crush, and Cookie Crush, and Cookie Crush Deluxe 2 … etc, and they’re all the same game.

Today these games are often called “shovelware” as they are shoveled out onto the public.

Most of these follow a pattern, they’re either made with a company (like the dogfood game), or are basically another game that has been “re-skinned” to be “new”.

To be fair, they’re not all bad, the Dorito’s game is actually a lot of fun and was free, it’s just that it is difficult to find a diamond in a pile of broken glass.

©2021, The Groovy Projects. All rights reserved. |