I’ve been on a huge Atari kick lately, I’m not sure why to be exact but I’ll post something else related to a different platform here soon. I have a Shadow Warrior PC review pretty much ready to go, the only problem is that they recently gave that a huge 5.8 GB patch and I haven’t had any time to explore that yet and see how drastic the changes are.
Today I figured I would expand on a thread on the Atari Musuem Facebook page. A poster asked the following:
“So Nintendo has Mario, Sega has Sonic, XBOX has Master Chief… So who would Atari have? Pac-Man? E.T.? Okay, not E.T.”
What was surprising in the discussion was that many non-Atari characters were suggested – Pac-Man, Pitfall Harry, Darth Vader, etc. Some think the joystick should have been the mascot or the infamous CEO Ray Kassar. I think part of that came from “Atari” being associated solely with the Atari 2600, ignoring the arcades as well as the other systems they produced. The question above seems to be operating with that assumption as well but Atari was bigger than the 2600, it started as a video arcade company and it was the many arcade game ports that gave it the boost needed to gain the popularity and sales it enjoyed.
In the early 80s the mentality of a mascot representing a game company wasn’t really the mentality of the industry, not in the same way that it was when Nintendo and Sega were duking it out in the early 90s. In the hypothetical situation that Atari would or still could come up with a mascot, they had quite a few characters to choose from.
I should define what it is that makes a mascot a mascot. The first and most obvious defining aspect of a mascot is that when you see them, you automatically associate them with a particular brand. They will show up on multiple platforms and grace most of the marketing materials, sometimes on unrelated games.
For companies that produce both hardware and software, we have these examples: Mario has been on every Nintendo system produced; Sonic found his way onto Sega’s various platforms (including the arcade), Master Chief has been on every Xbox so far, etc. For software only companies like Ubisoft or Activision, they produced multiple games starring their “mascot” (Rayman for Ubi, Pitfall Harry for Activision). Had any of these characters shown up only once then few people would recognize or remember them now – plus many of these characters have shown up in the current generation of video gaming. One issue when discussing this about Atari is that after the early 80s they did little to keep their character based IPs in people’s minds.
So what did Atari have to choose from and which characters how would they stack up to become a mascot if someone wanted to do that? Read on….
The main focus will be on characters created by Atari Inc., which covers 1972-1984. Then I’ll spend a little time on Atari Games and Atari Corp. which came into being after Warner split things up with the sale to Jack Tramiel in the Summer of 1984.
Oliver the Elf Wizard or The Centipede– If we judge it based upon number of platforms that a game has appeared on then Centipede takes the cake. For the character you play as, that was developed more through Atari’s manual’s and comic books in the early 80s and was officially called Oliver the Elf. Granted they were not completely consistent on the character in the manuals but the comic book gives him a name and develops the character more than a fast-action early 80s arcade title would. One could consider the Centipede as more of the “mascot” due to name recognition although it was technically a villain. All Atari had to do was expand on Oliver and you would be good to go. At the very lease they have kept the Centipede alive through the generations.
For Centipede’s Atari system appearances you had the Arcade, Atari 2600, 5200, 800 & XE/XL, 7800 and Lynx. The Jaguar had a version in development, Centipede 2000 but that was shelved about 30% of the way in (it was going to be in 3D and include RPG elements; early in-engine video is here). For non-Atari systems the game showed up on a wide variety of platforms including Nintendo and Sega systems, all of which helped boost recognition for the game in the cultural ether.
Atari did use a different character for the sequel Millipede, to which they even created a backstory that was included on one of the arcade flyers. As a prince in a fantasy kingdom, the Archer also was prominent on the arcade cabinet and cartridge/box art:
Bentley Bear – The playable character from Atari’s Crystal Castles also fits the bill of showing up on multiple Atari platforms – the arcade, the Atari 2600, the Atari XE, the Atari ST and even the Atari Jaguar (in Atari Karts as a playable character). He soon will appear on the Atari 7800 in a brand new game called Bentley Bear Crystal Quest. He also appeared on some non-Atari computer systems in Crystal Castles ports, as seen in the video below
Bentley has the cute/kids appeal already built in and a universe to play with including crystalline castles, gems and several villains. If Atari had the vision to bring him into 3D, he could have worked in a Super Mario 64 style game while collecting gems. The only thing he doesn’t really have built in is a unique attack, excepting the Crystal Quest game where he throws crystals almost like they were fireballs. Since that isn’t completely established one could build on it if you were re-inventing the character.
Commander Champion and The Atari Force – Another character that showed up in more than one game, technically. I admit you have to stretch that a little since there is only one title that refers to him directly whereas in the other games it is implied through comic books and manuals. Commander Champion was the leader of the intrepid Atari Force, a kind of Star Trek crew to represent Atari properties around 1982. In essence, he was a cross between Captain Kirk and He-Man. His official appearance was in Atari’s Liberator arcade game, which was a fun reverse Missile Command type game. When Atari began including comic books with their official Atari 2600 releases, he was the pilot of the starfighter that you pilot in Star Raiders. Star Raiders is a game that also appeared on the Atari 800, Atari 5200 and the Atari ST, it also got a sequel for the 8-bit computer line. They way Champion was angled, he could have been the pilot for any of Atari’s space games where the player character is just a spaceship (thus covering Asteroids, Gravitar, Solaris or even Missile Command).
Eyes From Haunted House – If we were to base the popularity of this character on how Atari would use it through the 80s and 90s then it would be lower on the list but in recent years the current owners of the Haunted House IP have kept trying to make it a mascot of sorts. The problem has been that the games haven’t been very good. There was Haunted House on the Xbox 360, an endless runner version of the game for iOS and most recently Haunted House: Cryptic Graves for the PC. Perhaps one day they’ll get it right, I imagine they will keep on trying.
The Claw -With Atari’s Tempest came an abstract character, the claw. While there isn’t much too it apart from being able to blast enemies, it is more recognizable than a generic tank/car/spaceship. Tempest also appeared on a wide number of platforms apart from the arcade, which has kept the legacy alive even up until recently with TxK on the Sony Vita. For the Atari side of things a version was made for the Atari ST and you can play the arcade original in Tempest 2000 for the Jaguar.
Charley Chuck – Narrowing down the character based games that showed up on multiple consoles at the time was the kid who just wants his ice cream, Charley Chuck. He appeared in the Food Fight arcade game released in 1983, which was later ported to the Atari 7800 and XL/XE. An ST version was in development and almost finished but went unreleased.
He fits with a cute theme in the event that a company would want to go that route but the food fighting idea is fun and somewhat uncommon among game characters.
Tarra and Torr -These fraternal twins aren’t well-known so they probably wouldn’t be at the top of any list to be a company mascot but they were a part of a famous game series that Atari put on as a tournament – the SwordQuest games for the 2600. only 3 of the planned 4 titles were released and I wonder if it would have worked better as a game on the more powerful 5200 hardware. Either way they did star in the comics that accompanied each game and graced the artwork for the box and cartridge for EarthWorld and FireWorld. As such, they were the mascots for this particular game series and the contest behind it:
Yar – In 1981 Howard Warshaw created one of the most popular titles that would grace the Atari 2600, Yars’ Revenge. You wouldn’t think of a mutant fly being cool but thanks to the sci-fi elements of the story and the fun game that it was built around, millions would enjoy flying around eating shields and blasting spinning Qotiles.
With two types of attacks and the ability to zip around the screen, Yar had the potential for more but despite the huge popularity of the game, Atari left Yar in the dust bin for the remainder of the 80s and more of the 90s. Hasbro owned Atari created a version for the Game Boy Advance in 1999; there was the not-so-well received Yars’ Revenge for the Xbox 360 released a few years ago and there is an odd remade browser version that you can play here.
The Square Block (Knight or a Mage) – Another popular game that went underutilized was Adventure. A sequel by the original author was in the works before he left Atari and the aforementioned SwordQuest games started out as a sequel but it would take homebrew coders to give us the excellent Adventure II on the Atari 5200. Still, the block that is your character is something iconic, much like the duck dragons that chase you during the game.
Major Havoc – On the tail end of Atari Inc’s lifespan came a new sci-fi arcade game that focused on a new character – Major Havoc. The game itself combined elements of shooters like Galaga with platformer games to create a unique experience that was released at a bad time (1983) and with a technology that many arcade operators would no longer touch (vector monitor).
I’ll admit some bias here as this is one of my favorite arcade games of all time but what I think indicated that MH had mascot potential was his ‘cool’ factor. He could fly around the universe blasting nasty enemies or infiltrate enemy star bases and blow them up. As the story went for him:
“You are MAJOR HAVOC, leader of a brave band of clones. All from one, one from all, fighting for humanity … Eons ago the evil Vaxxian Empire overran the galaxy. Most of your ancestors were enslaved and taken to the Vaxxian home world. Only a few scientists escaped. Today, the Empire has all but decayed. Yet, Vaxxian space stations, controlled and defended by robots, still patrol the galaxy. The small band of scientists cloned you, MAJOR HAVOC, to fly your Catastrofighter through a wormhole in space, to lead your clone army against the dreaded Vaxxian robots, and to free your people by destroying the enemy reactors.”
Jeff Minter and Atari were considering bringing MH back in the 90s in Major Havoc 2000 but that never got past the concept design stages.
Robot 1984 – Also relatively unknown in the market at large was the revolutionary I,Robot arcade game, starring Robot 1984. The first game to feature filled polygons played kind of like Pac-Man with some shooter elements to it and your robot had a little victory dance.
Gunfighter from Outlaw – Nothing terribly special here character-wise as Atari wasn’t huge on Westerns but this could have been developed into a gritty cowboy character, if need be. Most are familiar with the Atari 2600 version but there was an arcade version of the game that was different, a light-gun game focused on the fast-draw shootout.
Black Widow – It seems that spiders have a hard time landing the role of cute and memorable mascot characters since they do tend to be hated by most everyone on planet Earth. This Robotron-style game also didn’t make huge waves back in the day and hasn’t been updated as an IP really but it was another Atari character to consider.
Super Bug – Most don’t remember this now but the Super Bug arcade game had a technological innovation of featuring an 8 way scrolling playfield. The car you drove was kind of like a pumped up version of Herbie from the popular 60s & 70s movies, although nothing about the game indicated that the car was alive. Admittedly this would be a tough one to build a mascot on without ripping Herbie off completely and it probably isn’t a wise idea to try and do that with a Disney owned property.
Pong – While not really a character, the appearance of the simple ball and paddle that we got thanks to that game became iconic in its own right. Pong wasn’t the sole release of the idea, Atari had Quadrapong, Pong Doubles, Video Olympics, Volleyball, as well as numerous other titles where the ball and paddle were the essential formula to the gameplay (which extends to titles like Breakout, Arkanoid and others).
ATARI GAMES – After Atari Inc. was split up in the sale to Jack Tramiel, the “original” Atari, the one that was about arcade gaming was left as Atari Games. Since they were no longer the same company, the chances of finding their titles ported to non-Atari platforms shot up. Unfortunately the IPs that were created remain separate from the home Atari stuff to this day (currently residing with Warner Bros. and used under the WB Games label). Before AG was changed to Midway Games West and before that was rolled into WB, they created plenty of games with characters that could be an Atari mascot, given the right games and marketing. As a note, any mentions of sales numbers I’m pulling info from this list(PDF), which I have been told isn’t 100% accurate but it is the only document I’ve ever seen that shows any details on Atari’s arcade sales from Pong to Rush 2049.
Paperboy – Delivering newspapers with charm and skill, the paperboy from this popular arcade game is often one of the first characters that come to mind when you think of characters from the mid-80s and the game was ported to numerous home platforms, including the Atari Lynx. I imagine that had Atari Inc. remained intact that they could have reused Charley Chuck for this, which would have pushed the line for a mascot type character.
The Characters from Gauntlet – One of Atari Games’ best selling arcade titles in their history, Gauntlet quickly became the mascot/killer app type game that everyone wanted to have at home. Kept fresh with Gauntlet Legends and Dark Legacy around the turn of the century, the current owners of the Gauntlet IP rebooted the game in 2014, maintaining the Warrior, Valkyrie, Elf and Wizard characters (it was actually a good game, which is something we’ve come to not expect from most modern Atari reboots).
Rock and Ace (Xybots) / Bif and Jet (Toobin’ ) / Jake and Duke (Escape From The Planet of the Robot Monsters) – In the late 80s, Atari Games had a thing for games for two players that featured a couple of named characters. This followed trends like the Super Mario Bros. In the instances of Xybots and Escape, the characters had some cool futuristic firepower and all three would find their way to a few home platforms at the time. Otherwise the games haven’t been given much attention in modern times.
Officer Bob – The friendly doughnut eating police officer from A.P.B. didn’t show up in any sequels to this fun game but the various home computers that were on the market at the time got to enjoy the game (for home consoles only the Lynx enjoyed it).
Hydra – Taking a Spy Hunter vibe, this action-packed boat game had a post-apocalyptic character “codename: Hydra” working as a tough-guy courier. Not exactly the most inspiring character for a mascot. Kind of the same thing in regards to STUN Runner, which was a great game but didn’t have much there for mascoting.
Peter Pack Rat – The star of this collect-a-thon platforming game was one of many mice based characters out there that failed to achieve success, shown in part by pretty low unit sales and the subsequent lack of home ports on top of that.
Fighting Game Characters (PitFighter, Guardians of the Hood, Primal Rage, Mace) – Fighting games took over a good chunk of development interest in the arcade industry at large in the 90s and Atari Games was no exception to that craze. None of their fighters became ‘the’ next Street Fighter and thus no equivalent to Ryu Ken, Guile or Chun Li would come out of these games. Probably the closest was Sauron or Blizzard from Primal Rage since they would appear in ads (like the arcade flyer below).
I’ll end it there as well as skipping most of the Tramiel Atari Corp. for now – I imagine that the point has been made already 😛 But there were titles with characters that could have been used more including Ninja Golf, Midnight Mutants, Off The Wall and a few others.
For the quick note on Tramiel Atari, they did attempt to come up with some official mascot characters in the 90s but they never got very far past conceptual design. In the days of the 7800 they had fans asking for Super Mario Bros. (and in the same issue of that official Atari magazine, Mario Bros. was rated as the #1 played game across 3 Atari platforms, something they probably weren’t terribly happy to see) which produced Scrapyard Dog but that didn’t gather any steam. In the Jaguar days, they came up with a couple of unused concepts: One was called Uncle Oswald, a 3D nerd and the other was Ally The Alligator, an anthropomorphic alligator that had a briefcase and overcoat. As the artist who worked on the projects commented, (paraphrasing him, BJ West): ‘what management didn’t understand about mascots is that the mascot games that Nintendo and Sega produced were fun and that’s why people liked them. The characters were secondary.’ Unfortunately the forum where details on those characters was shared closed a while back and with it a lot of the interesting data disappeared.
Which one would make the best mascot?
That is a matter of strong debate as seen when the subject comes up online. Centipede’s multiplatform reach is great for the Centipede itself but the player never looked like a character which anyone would know anything about so you would pretty much have a blank slate to go off of on the Elf Wizard. At this point you could say that for most of them really. Any number of the characters mentioned above could be built upon and the current Atari has certainly given it a few tried in the case of Haunted House (I’m not sure why that one was singled out, seems to me it is a weaker game to work with). But as the ex-Atari artist had mentioned, they can crap out titles based upon the old properties all day long and it won’t do any good if the games themselves aren’t fun and compelling or if they go completely off the rails like Asteroids Outpost.
So for now, whoever the “Atari Mascot” is going to be is whatever a person connects with from playing in the past on an Atari system. For me, I’ll stick with Major Havoc for now 😉