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Iconic Atari turns 40, tries to stay relevant

From 2-d to today's blockbusters, game maker still at play

By Barbara Ortutay

Associated Press

Published: Friday, June 29 2012 10:10 p.m. MDT

NEW YORK — A scruffy, young Steve Jobs worked at Atari before he founded Apple. "Pong," one of the world's first video games, was born there, as was "Centipede," a classic from the era of quarter-guzzling arcade machines. "Call of Duty" creator Activision was started by four of Atari's former game developers.

The iconic video game company turns 40 years old this week, much slimmer these days as it tries to stay relevant in the age of "Angry Birds" and "Words With Friends."

But Atari's influence on today's video games is pervasive.

Although it wasn't the first company to make video games, Atari was the first to make a lasting impression on an entire generation. At arcades — or at video game bars such as Barcade in the trendy Williamsburg section of Brooklyn — nostalgic patrons still gather around such Atari classics as "Asteroids," "Joust" and "Centipede."

The Atari 2600, launched in 1977, was the first video game console in millions of homes, long before the Nintendo Entertainment System (1985), Sony's PlayStation (1994) and Microsoft's Xbox (2001).

Today's younger iPhone gamers might not remember how "Pong," that simple, two-dimensional riff on Ping-Pong, swept across living rooms and arcades in the 1970s. But they might recognize elements of it in easy-to-learn, hard-to-master games based on simple physics — among them, "Angry Birds."

"For tens of millions of Gen X-ers, or kids who grew up in America in the '70s and '80s, Atari is a cultural icon, an intrinsic part of childhood," says Scott Steinberg, tech analyst and author of "The Modern Parent's Guide to Kids and Video Games."

"Pong," he adds, was in some ways the very first social video game, one designed to play in bars, at home or at an arcade, while spectators crowded around to watch the action.

Launched in 1972 from Atari's Silicon Valley headquarters, "Pong" featured a basic black-and-white screen (that's black and white only, no shades of gray here), divided by a dotted line. Short white lines on either side stood in for paddles. Two players controlled them and tried to get a moving dot — the ball — past their opponent.

With "Pong," Atari introduced video games to the masses just as Apple and Microsoft ushered in the personal computer era by bringing computers to people's desktops in the 1980s.

"It makes me think that I am getting really old," says Nolan Bushnell, the co-founder of Atari. "I'm 69, which means I was 29 when I founded Atari. It seems really young in retrospect."

It doesn't take much effort these days to see 20-something entrepreneurs in technology. Mark Zuckerberg was just 19 when he started Facebook in his Harvard dorm room. But back in the early '70s, Bushnell said, "no one in their 20s started companies. In some ways it paved the way for Apple, Microsoft and those guys."

Bushnell said Atari succeeded early on because it nurtured ideas from its engineers and computer programmers.

"We dominated not because of our manufacturing and marketing prowess but because of creativity," Bushnell says. "The lasting legacy: That creativity is a real weapon. And in some ways Apple has shown that as well."

Jobs was just 19 when Atari hired him as a technician, making $5 an hour. He worked the night shift because many of his co-workers didn't get along with him and didn't appreciate his refusal to wear deodorant, according to Walter Isaacson's recent biography of the late Apple chief executive.

He wasn't there for long — he left the company in 1974 to travel to India and co-founded Apple two years later, in 1976.

Dona Bailey, one of the creators of "Centipede," recalls a notebook that Atari had with maybe 30 ideas for games in it.

"Most of them were laser games," says Bailey, who was the only female programmer in Atari's arcade division when she was hired in 1980 and when she left in 1982. "I wasn't really interested in war, or lasering anything, or violence."

The only ideas in the notebook that didn't have to do with "lasering things or frying things" were two sentences about a multi-segmented insect that walks out on the screen and winds its way down the screen toward the player, she says. There was implicit shooting, as the player at the bottom had to destroy the insect before getting hit by it, but "it didn't seem that bad to shoot a bug."

Thus, "Centipede" was born.

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