Ah, the Atari Jaguar. Atari’s last ever foray into the video game market as something other than a software label. I actualy owned one of these things. I loaned it to Donovan when I went off to College (Corps of Cadets freshmen-sophomores get no television) and it was reportedly accidentally destroyed in a bizzarre filing cabinet moving accident. I do still have some cartridges and boxes for it, though, so it’s not a total loss. Whenever I start making more money I think I’m going to get another one off of eBay, probably about the same time I begin my Atari 2600 quest.

Atari made a good decision with the 2600, and that was about it. Every console they made after that one more or less tanked. They sold modestly, especially when Atari ventured into computers, but 2600 was their baby. At some point in their evoliution they split into two companies, Atari and Atari Games. Atari Games was sold to Time Warner and they went on to brand such games as San Francisco Rush. Atari was then the company saddled with making consoles and such. Word is they got saddled with some incompitent bosses after Bushnell went off to make some more millions with the Chuck E. Cheese line of restaurants.

There was a period of time between the 16-bit generation (Genesis, SNES, TG-16) and the 32/64-bit generation (Saturn, PSX, N64) where there was something of a “lull”. A few companies who would never have a chance unveiling a system during the non-lull seasons made their go. Trip Hawkins’ company 3DO had a modest amount of success with their vastly overpriced 3DO system, SNK handed us a CD based NEO GEO system, and Atari unveiled a 64-bit system, the Jaguar.

At this point in time the “bit” designation was everything. NES was 8-bit, SNES was 16-bit, so SNES is better than NES. However, Genesis is 16-bit, so is Genesis = SNES? No, the SNES had better technology (256 colors vs. 32, for starters) mainly for the virtue of being out last. Game companies started scrambling to make 32-bit systems, since a doubling was logical, so Atari started working on a 32-bit system called the Panther and a 64-bit system called the Jaguar. When Jaguar development started going better than the Panther, Atari decided to shelve the Panther and have a system that would “leapfrog” the 32 bit offerings being developed.

So me, being the person who for some reason skipped the 16-bit generation entirely and watched it from my couch, plus being somewhat nostalgic for Atari and wanting to help them along, I bought an Atari Jaguar and a copy of Alien Vs. Predator in early 1995. I thought the AvP game was good for what it was trying to do, and I loved the game Tempest 2000. I picked up the port of Doom and while it was better than what my 486/20 could do in low resolution mode, it was still lacking. And if I had gotten one of these for Christmas and the game Cybermorph was the pack-in, I would have probably returned it. Still, Iron Soldier and Rayman (still the best version of the first game on a console) kicked ass.

What I liked most of all, though, was the feeling of being hardcore and in on something. I loved the banter back and forth on mailing lists and news postings. I loved the fact that the games were at the back of the store and behind the counter. I loved the one “catch all” strategy guide on the Jaguar’s games. I also loved the fact that it was a black console with a cool name like Jaguar.

However, it had problems. Besides the lackluster software there was also the “version of” syndrome. Fighting games like Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter were popular, so Atari unveiled their version of a fighting game, Kasumi Ninja. I bought this game – I wanted so much to like this game I would lie to people and tell them how cool it was. Whoever did that voice in the game should be shot. There’s nothing more frustrating than waiting patiently for a game and then discovering that it was delayed, then rushed. Atari’s dev kits were lacking, so most developers didn’t want to bother with them. Continuing losses killed off further advertising and the console withered on the vine.

Then Atari committed the mortal sin of introducing a Jaguar CD add-on. Since they witnessed the rise of the Saturn and the PlayStation, both CD based systems, they figured the logical next step was for a CD add-on. This of course angered people like me as I didn’t want to plop down $150 bucks to help Atari more, but then I couldn’t play half the new games coming out. Plus, with the occasional exception of a Primal Rage, most of the games were standard, early CD-ROM shovelware, a Dragon’s Lair port, a Myst port, etc.

In 1996 Atari released the last Jaguar game, Fight for Life, their “version of” a 3-D fighting game. I remember this one had been in development forever, and I wanted to play it. One of these days I will, for completionist’s sake.

Atari slowly laid off everyone before selling lock, stock and barrel to JTS, who then sold the assets to Hasbro. Hasbro used Atari as a software label for a few years (Pong, Frogger) before selling again to Infogrames. Infogrames is about to publish PS2 titles under the Atari label and is reportedly considering changing its name to Atari. Picture it – Unreal II from Atari.

Atari is such a strong brand name associated with the 2600 that when I worked at Babbage’s people would ask if they needed their Atari to play Frogger for Windows 95/98. People say “my old Atari” in reference to their 2600 – negating anything else Atari ever did. Some people expressed disappointment when they learned that the recent title Atari Anniversary Edition was based off of arcade games.

As a result of the failure of the Jaguar and other consoles, no one wants to make a console to compete against the big companies, Sony, Nintendo and now Microsoft. One company, Indrema, wanted to make a new Linux based console. They ran out of funding when venture capitalists bailed. Nuon, a plan to make a game console by some former Atari developers, deteriorated into an “enhancement” technology for DVD players (though Nuon players are home to the Jaguar sequels Iron Soldier 3 and Tempest 3000).

To say that the Jaguar killed Atari is incorrect, however – Atari was dead already for the most part. They had no money to start with. Bushnell was good about patenting trivial things like the joystick, so whenever Atari needed money they would just sue someone like Nintendo for ripping them off. Settle out of court and you’ve got some gas money.

Atari lives on – I hope that Infogrames goes ahead and changes their name, and it’s just crazy to think that a PS2 title will read “Atari”. One of these days I’m going to get another Jaguar, but in the meantime there’s always the emulation attempts.