Revealed: Atari's hidden arcade history from the '70s and '80s

We have must-see ephemera created by the Atari team—including drawings of arcade machines that never saw production.

In the beginning...

Later this month, the National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York, will unveil its new exhibition, “Atari by Design: From Concept to Creation.”

Showcasing various pieces of conceptual art and industrial design created by the Atari arcade team of the 1970s and 1980s, the exhibit includes some of the world’s most iconic games—along with a few titles that were (probably wisely) relegated to the dustbin of gaming history.

I had a chance to speak with Jeremy Saucier, assistant director for the International Center for the History of Electronic Games (ICHEG), who walked me through some of the most interesting items featured in this little corner of arcade history.

Gotcha (1973)

You may not recognize 1973’s Gotcha. Few people do. This early maze-chase game would lead the way for games like Pac-Man. Promotional materials show how Atari originally targeted “the bar crowd” with art featuring young, scantily clad women. Yep, those were the ’70s.

Targeting a different kind of crowd

Notice the curious round controllers in this early mock-up of the game. These pink semi-spheres would later be replaced with more-traditional controllers. Do they remind you of anything that might entice the young male, bar-going demographic?

From a different era

Before the industry standardized cabinet design to fit as many games as possible on the arcade floor, designers were free to experiment with various types of chassis shapes. This design for 1973's Gotcha would never fly by the time the 1980s came around.

Dodgem (1973, unreleased)

Dodgem was an unreleased game from Regan Chang, who also created Gotcha. Dodgem never passed the design stage, but it is another example of how early designers were free to experiment with nontraditional shapes.

Gran Trak 10 (1974)

Gran Trak 10 was Atari's first driving game. The rudimentary monochrome racer proved immensely problematic to produce.

Original designs for the game ran way over budget, in part because the creators sourced actual car parts for the cabinet, raising costs considerably. In the end, Atari persuaded Pong creator Al Alcorn, who had taken a break from the company, to return and help finish the game.

Gran Trak almost killed Atari

Although Gran Trak 10 proved to be one of Atari’s first bestsellers, it almost destroyed the nascent company. Due to an accounting error, Atari was selling the game at a $100 loss per unit. The company barely survived one of its early successes.

Red Baron (1980)

Red Baron, the first vector-based 3D flight simulator, was the less-popular sibling of Battle Zone, a vector-based tank-battle game. Distributors could easily reverse-fit each game to become the other—a great way to run two games without purchasing a whole new cabinet.

The first fire button

The Red Baron is also notable for being the first game to include a fire button in the joystick that you used to navigate. Previously, game makers put the button off to the side of the joystick.

Gremlins (1984, unreleased)

Unfortunately, this particular Gremlins arcade game never entered production. The exact particulars of this decision have since been lost to history.

Peter Pack Rat (1984)

Not a particularly popular game, this side-scrolling platformer saw only 500 units produced. The concept art is probably more interesting than the game, which followed the adventures of a junkyard rat.

Gauntlet (1985)

In a bid to generate more revenue, Atari tapped programmer Ed Logg—creator of Asteroids and Centipede—to produce a multiplayer arcade game that wouldn’t take up too much valuable arcade floor space. The result was Gauntlet, a bird’s-eye-view take on Dungeons and Dragons.

Gauntlet control panel

Logg and his team created various designs in their quest to accommodate numerous players. This discarded design, for example, shows one attempt to fit in all of the controls for several players.

Gauntlet cabinet design

The team also had to facilitate a screen that would be visible and accessible to multiple players. In the unused design shown here, the team experimented with tilting the screen back so that it was nearly flat.

Gauntlet for multiple players

Arcade floor space was always limited. Here's a look at how the Gauntlet design team intended to conserve square footage.

Gauntlet: the final product

Originally Atari was concerned that gamers would feel uncomfortable playing with complete strangers, but the game’s initial field test proved to be one of the most successful in company history.

Gauntlet became a quarter-sucking bonanza thanks to its multiplayer (read: multi-paying) gameplay, innovations such as the characters’ losing “energy” if they just sat around, and the fact that the game is, well, unending and unbeatable.

Street Fighter (1987)

Although it’s overshadowed by its vastly more popular sequel, the original Street Fighter was innovative in its own right.

Most people will note that Street Fighter is actually a Capcom game. But you might not know that Capcom sourced out the cabinet design to the crew at Atari.

Street Fighter Deluxe (1987, unreleased)

Historians can confirm that Street Fighter Deluxe machines were produced, but no one is sure what happened to them.

The Deluxe version featured a pressure-sensitive interface that would register how hard the user pounded on the control, and then translate that action into gameplay. The constant pounding, however, led to machine damage, and this version of the game never had wide distribution.

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