As a Classic Gamer reader, it’s a safe bet that you’re aware that, up until recently, Hasbro owned the rights to Atari’s console-related properties. This, of course, included their Atari 2600 games. What you may not have thought about is just how many third party Atari 2600 games Hasbro also has the rights to. While I could simply list them for you and be done with it, that wouldn't be much of an article, would it? Although considering I’m writing this the night before my deadline, it would certainly be easier on me. (Writer’s block is a terrible thing.) So, let’s examine just how Hasbro wound up with the rights to so many Atari 2600 games in its holdings.
First, let’s start with Atari itself. Atari, incorporated in 1972, was the first of many companies founded by Nolan Bushnell. Although successful from early on, Bushnell had to call in debts every pay period to keep the payroll checks from bouncing. In 1976, Warner Communications paid Bushnell $28 million for Atari. Bushnell realized there was no way Atari would be able to afford getting their latest project, the Atari Video Computer System (VCS, later the Atari 2600), designed and into stores without the capital provided by a major company.
Unfortunately, the laid back atmosphere of Atari, Inc. and the more traditional corporate culture of Warner were like oil and water. In 1978, Bushnell could tolerate no more and left Atari. Atari went on to successfully launch the VCS and, after just a few years, became the dominant player in the home video game industry. In 1981, Atari’s annual sales were $35 million and a significant portion of Warner’s total annual income. Just two years later, in 1983, Atari posted losses of $536 million! Looking to get rid of the albatross that was Atari from around their neck, Warner sold majority interest in the home video game and computer divisions of Atari to Jack Tramiel, recently fired president and founder of Commodore. Tramiel called the new company Atari Corporation. Atari’s coin-op division was renamed Atari Games and went on, forevermore separated from the home division.
Fast forward to 1996. After the video game crash of 1983-84, Atari never recovered its former glory. Their last effort in the home video game market, the 64-bit Jaguar, was a failure. Tramiel had Atari Corp. do a “reverse merger” with hard drive manufacturer JTS Corporation. Two years later, in 1998, Hasbro bought the Atari properties from JTS for a paltry $5 million. Classic video gamers and Atari fans saw a glimmer of hope once again. Here we pause to look back at some of the other companies that created Atari 2600 games.
First, there’s Milton Bradley. Mr. Milton Bradley first started making jigsaw puzzles in 1880, beginning what would become his namesake company's entry into the toy and game business.A century later, in 1983, Milton Bradley published a whopping two games for the Atari 2600. A year later, in 1984, Hasbro acquired Milton Bradley.
Next is Parker Brothers. Founded in 1883 as the George S. Parker Co., George Parker’s brother Charles joined him in 1888 and the company was renamed Parker Brothers. Exactly 80 years later (1968), General Mills bought the company. In 1982, Parker Brothers began releasing video game cartridges for multiple platforms, including the Atari 2600. In 1987, Tonka Corporation acquired Parker Brothers. A few years later, in 1991, Hasbro acquired Tonka, and thus Parker Brothers, too.
Then we have Tiger Electronics. In 1982, they hopped on the bandwagon with, it seems, half the companies in the world to create video game cartridges. They sold their games under the Tigervision label. In 1998, the same year they acquired the Atari Corp. assets, Hasbro also acquired Tiger Electronics.
Lastly, there’s Avalon Hill. Avalon Hill was the publisher of many strategy war games. They also formed a computer game division early in the establishment of the home computer market. In what must have seemed like a good idea at the time, they too entered the home video game market in 1983. Today, their Atari 2600 cartridges are among some of the hardest to find. Timing is everything; Avalon Hill’s was bad. In 1998, determined to be the Borg of the toy and game industry, Hasbro assimilated, er, acquired Avalon Hill as well.
So, in 1998, Hasbro has acquired Atari Corporation’s assets, plus four companies that published Atari 2600 games as third parties. What does Hasbro do with all of these assets related to the Atari 2600, once the best selling video game console of all time? Absolutely nothing. Instead, from 1998 to 2001, they concentrated on Atari’s classic arcade games. They updated them for today's gamers and slapped the original name and Atari logo on them for brand recognition. The Cyberpunks even attempted to get Hasbro's permission to do an emulation package during this time, but Hasbro was simply not interested.
In fairness, I should point out that all of Parker Brothers' and some of Tiger Electronics' 2600 games were licensed in some fashion. Publishing them would have required new licensing deals that were unlikely to happen. While no one could seriously expect re-releasing the Atari 2600 version of Spider-Man or the Star Wars games would have any impact on sales of current games featuring those properties, legalities are legalities. Companies tend to give exclusive rights to their properties for a number of years when they license them, and exclusive means exclusive.
Resuming the tracing of the acquisition of the rights to Atari's assets we come to the present. Early in 2001, Hasbro sold their entire Hasbro Interactive division, including the Atari assets, to Infogrames for $100 million in stock and cash. What will become of the Atari properties now? That’s uncertain. Both press releases concerning the sale specifically mentioned Atari. One even mentioned that Hasbro had 60 titles in development at the time, but failed to include any classic Atari properties in the short list of specific titles. All that can be said for certain is . . . uh . . . er . . . um . . . . that writer’s block is a terrible thing.
SidebarOne of the nice things about writing articles for a magazine like Classic Gamer Magazine, as opposed to a college paper or article for a scholarly journal, is that I don’t have to give a reference for every little fact I site. Still, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the following sites for their help in researching some of this article.
- The Atari Timeline by Robert A. Jung – http://www.digiserve.com/eescape/atari/Atari-Timeline.html
- The History of Hasbro – http://www.hasbro.com/consumer/history.htm
- The History of Toys and Games by the History Channel – http://www.historychannel.com/exhibits/toys/inventors.html
- I.C. When by Don Thomas – http://www.icwhen.com/
Postscript (12 June 2013)
It is ironic that as I post this to my blog, Infogrames renamed itself Atari several years ago, but has now gone bankrupt and has its properties up for auction. And sadly, every single one of those pages I referenced in the "sidebar," including my own, are now gone. (Although you can find my timeline archived at the Internet Archive Wayback Machine.) I.C. When actually still exists and is still run by Don Thomas, but it no longer contains the wonderful timeline of video game history that it used to.
I wasn't kidding about writing this right before it was due back in the opening. I barely squeaked it in in time. Two days later I get an e-mail from Cav, the publisher.
We kinda have a problem. Your latest CVG 101 while good is extremely similar to Leonard Herman's "Ultimate Videogame Company" article from #4. I also had Sarah read them side by side and she also felt they were very alike.He went on to ask if I had any suggestions or another spin on it. Uh-oh! I respond.
Oops. I never finished reading #4. Sorry! In my defense, maybe great minds think alike? (Or maybe I did read the article and have forgotten about it. Regardless, I didn't intentionally set out to write an article similar to one already published.)
I went on to make some suggestion for new articles, wondering if I can write them fast enough. Cav offered me a choice of the video game sticker article I suggested within a week or "[taking] the time to research a real good article about emulators for the next issue." I took him up on the stickers article, which I managed to finish in the week I was given, and made a note of doing an article on emulators for the next issue.