The Franchise Report: Atari
Posted by Kris Randazzo on May 3rd 2023
Welcome to The Franchise Report, where we take a look at a game publisher's catalog and see how their biggest franchises are doing these days.
Today we look at Atari, a company that’s somehow simultaneously a shell of its former self and more active than it's been since the 80s. They’re technically a 1st Party dev as well as a 3rd party one since they do have a platform in the Atari VCS, but they don’t really make anything exclusive for it. They’re weird, but it’s part of why we love them. Let’s see how their stuff is doing.
It’s Pong! Pretty much the most basic video game concept there is. You’re a paddle and you hit a ball back and forth trying to get it past your opponent to score. Like Tennis, but simpler and nobody has to run around. It’s one of the founding pillars of the video game industry, and it’s just as fun today as it ever was.
Health rating: Good
Pong hasn’t been quite as strong for Atari as some of its other brands in the last few years, but it’s a far cry from being in rough shape. While I severely doubt the announced Pong remake for Intellivision Amico will ever see the light of day, 2020’s Pong Quest did make it into the world and it was pretty neat. It failed to sell very well though, which is a bummer because it genuinely is a fun game. Regardless, Atari knows what it has in Pong, so it’s not going anywhere.
Ahh, Asteroids. It’s a game about shooting space rocks. What could be bad? This series started way back in 1979 as a vector-based arcade title. It was a pretty big success for Atari too, and as such it’s a well they’ve revisited often. There were several ports to their various home consoles, a couple of reboots, and a smattering of sequels over the years.
Health rating: Very good
Atari’s brands are all in pretty good shape right now because Atari doesn’t have any specific modern blockbusters in their roster, so they seem to value everything they have quite a bit. Asteroids did have some great sequels and reboots over the years, especially the PlayStation game that was published by Activision of all companies, but it’s been mostly dormant since. That is until 2021 when it got the “Recharged” treatment in Asteroids Recharged. The series has been pretty quiet since, but 2021 wasn’t exactly a long time ago, so I say it’s still in excellent standing.
Atari’s 1980 apocalypse simulator is a pretty grim game when you think about it. If you don’t think about it though, it’s just a really fun target shooting game! So let’s choose the latter and focus on the fun, which this game has in spades. Originally a trackball game in arcades, it’s been translated to joysticks, d-pads, touch screens, and more in the decades since its release. It was a massive hit for Atari back in the day, and it remains one of their most iconic brands.
Health rating: Excellent
This game didn’t just get Recharged, it got Recharged TWICE! Missile Command was actually the game that kicked off Atari’s Recharged line back in 2020, and it was a pretty good time. But since its release the series has become a lot more impressive, so they went back and redid the whole thing again! That was just in 2022, so I think it’s pretty safe to say that Atari is well aware of how important this brand is to them. Missile Command is doing just fine.
Up until recently, this wasn’t an Atari brand. It was probably best known in the US as an Atari game thanks to the excellent port on Atari 2600, but this was a Stern game. Now though, it’s all Atari’s, and it stands to reason that they have plans in store.
Berzerk is a somewhat unique game in relation to a lot of Atari’s classic stuff in that you actually move a person around instead of a spaceship or a tank. It’s all about a guy zapping robots in an endless series of mazes with electrified walls and an unstoppable bouncing smiley face named Evil Otto that relentlessly chases you. It’s weird as heck, but it’s also super cool.
Health rating: Looking good
There’s pretty much no chance a Berzerk Recharged doesn’t show up in the next year or two. It seems like the perfect game for that sort of thing, and why else would Atari pony up the cash to buy the brand? They immediately put the 2600 version of the game up for sale on the Atari VCS shop, so there’s no question in my mind that Berzerk is going to be okay.
Yars’ Revenge for Atari 2600 was a huge hit for Atari for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that it’s just a darn fun game once you wrap your head around it. You play as this cool little bug creature called a Yar, and you have to stop the Quotile from destroying your species. The original game even came with a comic book that dives into its lore.
Health rating: Excellent
Yars’ Revenge actually got a direct sequel on the Atari 2600 that wasn’t actually officially released until just a few years ago. It was seemingly out of nowhere ported to Game Boy Color for some reason, and it got a less than great reboot on Xbox Live Arcade. In 2022 though, Yars Recharged released and wow is that game ever great. It simplified the underlying concept a bit, but added wonderful layers of depth to it at the same time. It’s been one of the more successful Recharged titles as far as I can tell, so I think the Yars and their quest for peace and/or revenge will be around for a good long while.
Crystal Castles is where Atari introduced their first proper “mascot” character, Bentley Bear. It was a moderate success for them, but Bentley never stuck, at least not in the way Pac-Man, Mario, or Donkey Kong did. Still Crystal Castles is a fairly fondly remembered game for some, and frequently gets included in retro compilations.
Health rating: Okay
There hasn’t been much new as far as an actual Crystal Castles revival since, well, ever. Bentley Bear made a playable appearance in Atari Karts for Jaguar, but that wasn’t much of a successful game itself so the needle didn’t really move for poor Bentley. Nobody’s ever tried to give Crystal Castles a fancy modern style remake, and it hasn’t gotten the Recharged treatment. However, Bentley Bear did have a pretty good 2022 as one of the main characters in Atari Mania, a sort of micro game collection created in celebration of Atari’s 50th anniversary. There, Bentley had been corrupted and actually serves as the game's main antagonist. He also got a really nice redesign, and looks positively adorable when seen in his good guy form there. So while Crystal Castles itself isn’t looking so good, Atari definitely hasn't forgotten about Bentley. Hopefully we'll see more of him in the not too distant future.
Once intended as Atari’s more modern extension of their hugely influential success story Adventure, SwordQuest was perhaps a bit too complex for its own good. An ambitious series if there ever was one, it stretched the limits of what kind of game could work on the Atari 2600, so much so that it arguably didn’t work at all. There was a comic book series, and a massive promotional campaign where people could win real life gold and jewels for figuring out the game’s secrets.
Health rating: Okay
SwordQuest was intended to be a four game series, but by the time the third game came along, Atari’s fortunes had turned considerably. SwordQuest: Water World was only available through Atari’s mail-in service, and the fourth game was cancelled outright. However, in 2022 as part of Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration, Air World was actually completed and released. It made some waves in the retro community, but all in all Air World didn’t exactly set the world on fire. Still, there’s a lot of potential in the franchise, and with the long lost fourth game finally being completed and released to the public, there’s no better time for Atari to find a way to move the series forward.
You read that right. Bubsy. Originally conceived as the mascot for Accolade, Atari now owns Bubsy. In case you’re unfamiliar, Bubsy was supposed to be the next great animal cartoon mascot character back during a time when it seemed every video game company had one of those. Bubsy was a wise cracking bobcat who starred in increasingly terrible games, and has become the butt of more jokes than can possibly be measured. But now he’s owned by Atari. Yeah…
Health rating: What could possibly go wrong?
Honestly, I have no idea what to make of this. What remains of Accolade tried their hand at reviving the Bubsy brand TWICE in the last several years, and neither time proved to be any level of successful, even the one made by Choice provisions of Bit.trip fame. Still, it’s hard to argue that there isn’t some degree of potential there. Bubsy isn’t recognizable for a good reason, but he IS recognizable, and that’s not nothing. What the heck is Atari going to do with him? It could be as simple as re-releasing all his terrible old games on modern platforms. But that seems like a silly thing to do with an IP you just purchased. I find the whole situation fascinating, and I can’t wait to see where it all goes from here.
And there you have it. Atari is actually maintaining their properties quite well these days, which is great to see. So many bigger companies have a ton of great stuff just sitting here not being used, and Atari is over here actually trying to make something of their rich history. I for one hope it pans out for them.
Join us next time when we take a gander at Microsoft. They own a TON of studios, but we’re going to try and focus on the brands they tried to put into play before they dropped a bajillion dollars on owning as much of the video game industry as humanly possible. Should be fun.