When it comes to gaming household names, there are few more beloved than California’s Atari. The software house that birthed classics like Pong, Asteroids, Breakout and Centipede, this 8-bit behemoth once ruled the retail roost. Yet after years of poor licensed games in the ‘80s – culminating in the mass burial of thousands of E.T game cartridges – and a misjudged noughties pivot to mobile, many wrote off the once legendary company for good. Now, however, an ambitious new CEO is looking to put Atari back in the game.
Speaking to NME ahead of the company’s 50th anniversary, CEO Wade Rosen makes an immediate impression with his disarmingly laid-back presence and genuine passion.
“It’s exciting,” Rosen says. “Now, Atari almost transcends the games on which it was originally founded. You know the 13 year olds who wear Nirvana shirts? Atari shirts are in that same genre.”
“Take something like Pong,” he continues, “The amount of people who have actually played the original Pong is quite small – but everybody knows what Pong is. As a pop culture brand… appearances in TV, movies, licensing etc, [Atari’s] never been stronger.”
While flogging t-shirts, branded Lego and licensing appearances in Ready Player One and Stranger Things undoubtedly rake in a few quid, it’s a somewhat sad fate for the industry’s original innovators – the games company that no longer makes games. It’s a perception Rosen is keen to correct:
“Licensing is a big part of Atari, but we’re also focusing on making premium games for modern platforms.” replies Rosen, “[Scepticism] is understandable, but everybody at Atari today loves games – and they love making Atari games. We’re not trying to be anything that we’re not. We’re not trying to compete with companies that we can’t compete with… we’re just trying to make great Atari games.”
It’s not just lip service, either. Despite his relatively short time as CEO, in the last 10 months Atari has released eight new games. Thanks to a renewed focus on PC and consoles for the first time in decades, Rosen tells of a newly energised era of Atari, which kicks off via a ‘Recharged’ line of games. In these £7.99 updates, classics like Gravitar and Breakout get a modern lick of paint, bringing them to consoles with quality of life changes like leaderboards, achievements and of course, shiny HD graphics.
“The reception to Recharged has been great.” Rosen beams. Yet he reveals that these modest updates are just the beginning: “I think what the community is starting to see – what will become more apparent – is that Recharged is the first of a lot of new games that we’re going to be putting out, some in the Recharged line, but a lot of them are sequels to classics, or re-imaginings of classics.”
While this may scratch a nostalgic itch for gamers of a certain age, Rosen acknowledges that the industry has moved on:
“When you want to make a new Asteroid, you can’t pretend that Geometry Wars doesn’t exist – because it’s great,” he smiles.” So I think, OK, look at the positive challenge that [games like Geometry Wars] present and the opportunity, which is how can we take what has been done, and then push it further?”
This isn’t the first time that Rosen gushes over indies. Where Atari’s gameplay-first coin guzzlers once dominated the arcade, the last twenty years saw indie devs pick up that mantle, bringing the feel of the arcade to modern consoles. For Atari’s next line of releases, the inspiration has clearly come full circle.
“We would call these next games re-imaginings. It’s using the original mechanics and mixing it with some of our favourite games. Whether that’s, FTL, Into The Breach, or Metroid, you can kind of pick some of the iconic [indies] in the various genres and say, well, could we do a metroidvania and combine gameplay from an Atari game? Could we have human sim components Like Faster Than Light and still have active gameplay? That’s the challenge, looking at what’s been done well by indies and finding a way to cross it with Atari.”
As well as being spliced with indie-inspired modern gameplay, proposed titles like this all-new Asteroids will even feature fully-fledged narratives.
“In the original games, you jump in and you’re immediately in them, and you don’t really know why you’re blasting asteroids, or shooting centipedes. With Recharged…there are characters and an entire world built around [their mechanics], with an engrossing plot moving it forward.”
Will these story-led, indie-inspired twists on arcade classics be enough to stand out in a crowded market? We’ll see. Still, it’s an Atari that feels a world away from the low points of aggressive microtransactions or burying unsellable games in a New Mexico landfill.
Speaking of hunks of plastic, there’s one last piece crucial to Rosen’s retro resurrection: new hardware. “If we look forward, hardware will continue to be a part of it… a big, big piece.” Rosen teases. “I think there is a place there for Atari, given its legacy in retro and so the goal now is to figure out what that looks like,”
Largely forgotten 2017 console aside – the Atari VCS – it’s a space where Atari has undoubtedly lost its market share. Now, with rom-loaded handhelds already a fully cornered – and legally dubious market – what modern relevance does he think an Atari box can have?
“For [Atari], hardware doesn’t mean competing with Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo,” he replies. “It’s about offering value. What we’re really doing is we’re stepping back and saying, if we’re going to do this, where can we be best in class?”
“Do I love the fact that there’s a really large, illegal rom scene? No, but at the same time, it challenges us.” Rosen continues, “the product we put out has to be that much better as a result. It’s the same with Spotify, because that product is so good, why would I want to download music illegally? That’s what we need to capture. Sure, I can have a Raspberry Pi with 5000 games. but you don’t really ever want 5000 games. I don’t think many people are suffering from not having enough games, if anything, we’re struggling with the opposite.”
Rosen also sees a future where internal studios eventually sitting under the Atari umbrella.
“On the software side long term, you do eventually probably have to have some internal development. I think it’s a combination of working with great external developers, and then, over time, building or onboarding studios and bringing them in for an internal studio.”
One of the more impressive announced offerings is Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration. Teaming up with the studio behind porting arcade classics to Gameboy – Digital Eclipse – this 50th-anniversary collection features interviews from Ernest Cline to Cliff Blesinzki alongside a playable timeline of Atari’s classics to date.
While Roseen teases a Warioware-style mini-game collection filled with Atari IP, that sees you playing a caretaker at the Atari museum, Rosen is tight-lipped about what else we can expect.
“We’re looking to do about one or two, new IPs a year. So we’ll have another one to announce this year… and it’s gonna be a fun one.” He does hint, however, that he’s won over some surprising dev talent:
“I think that was an advantage I didn’t anticipate with Atari,” says a smiling Rosen. “[Studios] really want to work with you because of the IP. You get the opportunity to work with really great partners in a way that I’ve never experienced before.”
Still, there’s a lot of work to be done. Google Atari, and the first question that appears is: Does Atari still exist? What, I ask, would Rosen say to NME readers still sceptical of Atari’s gaming intentions and even relevance in 2022?
“Look, if there’s doubt, it’s understandable. But understand that change takes time. A company with a 50-year history doesn’t turn around in 12 months – it doesn’t turn around in 18 – It takes literally years to create new content, to build on the IP and to find new partnerships, but that’s what we’re working on every day.”
“I think the real surprise for the 50th anniversary is just how many people had planned their own celebrations – how many people still really love this brand. I love the brand too and we want to celebrate that with you.”
You can check out Atari’s Recharged collection here.