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Atari is an ailing but crucial brand

Atari is at once ephemeral and immortal. Through thick and thin, from the birth of the video game industry to today, Atari has been with us in one form or another – starting with Computer Space and Pong, and taking us through Asteroids, Missile Command, and some of the biggest selling home consoles and personal computers of the 1980s and early 1990s.

The current version of Atari US – which is really Infogrames, a French video game publisher – just filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The true story is a little more complex; Atari's US operations are actually doing okay, and need to separate from the parent company in France, which isn't doing nearly as well. Still, a Chapter 11 filing is rarely a good thing.

As Time magazine's Harry McCracken correctly pointed out, Atari itself isn't so much a company as a brand, and one that gets affixed to various other companies that aren't strong enough to support it. The mismanagement of Atari is legendary at this point, starting with the lead-up to the unfortunate video game crash of 1983, and then more or less staying consistently mismanaged or neglected in one form or another all the way through to this day.

At various times in my life, I've owned an Atari 2600, an Atari 5200, two Atari 800s, an Atari ST computer, a vast array of Atari-branded peripherals including disk drives, cassette recorders, printers, displays, and interfaces, and later, an Atari Lynx and Atari Jaguar. I played Neverwinter Nights (the PC version) incessantly in the early 2000s. At any point, any given product was produced by one of several actual companies under the Atari brand as it bounced back and forth between owners.

A brand withered – but not gone

To many of us, the name Atari represents the birth of the video game industry, both in the arcades and at home – which, coincidentally, were also two separate Atari businesses. Either way, the name is synonymous with video games. It had higher aspirations at times, most notably during the Atari 8-bit (800, XL, XE) and 16-bit (ST, TT, Falcon) years; those machines didn't quite become mainstream largely because of how much people had already associated the name Atari with video games, rather than serious computers.

You could argue Atari hasn't been itself since Jack Tramiel took the helm in 1984, or since JTS acquired it in 1996. I was actually fine with most of that, and would really pinpoint the Infogrames years (2000+) as the time when Atari became a hollowed-out shell of its former glory, with the name appearing on video games but without any actual connection to the original company or hardware product lines. Infogrames Entertainment, eventually realising the power of the brand, actually changed its entire name to Atari, Inc. in 2009, after recognising its original name would never mean as much. Which leads us to today.

I think about all this every time the 1982 film Blade Runner comes up in a conversation, thanks to the massive electronic billboard for Atari that's supposed to represent one of the biggest advertisers imaginable in 2019, the year in which the movie is set. The "Blade Runner Curse" is a bit of a myth; not every brand featured in that movie has become defunct, even if the likes of Pan Am and Bell have disappeared.

Nonetheless, Atari continues to struggle. Commodore, another stalwart competitor at least in the home computer space, has endured different but equally crippling struggles over the years as well. It's tempting to say Atari will never recover, and that at the very least, its best days are behind it. But hey, I can still hope.