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Tuesday 12 May 2009
For my book report, I read Zap: The Rise and Fall of Atari.
I read Zap: The Rise and Fall of Atari so that you don't have to. While it didn't contain a lot of information that I hadn't read before, it was amusing to read a contemporary account of the collapse of the video game industry following its unprecedented boom in the early 80s. (The book was published in 1984, "the Year of the Apple," and chronicles the events at Atari through 1983, "the Year of the McNugget.")
Author Scott Cohen largely assumes that the reader is abreast of current events in the entertainment industry of the times, obliquely tying Atari's fall to such events as John Schneider and Tom Wopat walking off the set of the Dukes of Hazzard and IBM dominating the market for personal computers. And he doesn't seem to be much on fact-checking. (The man responsible for Wack-a-Mole and the glorious Rock-afire Explosion, one Aaron Fechter, is irritatingly repeatedly referred to as Aaron Fletcher.)
Despite Cohen's limited pop-style of prose -- he was a magazine editor who has penned such probing investigative reports as Don't You Just Hate That?: 738 Annoying Things and Yakety Yak: The Midnight Confessions and Revelations of Thirty-Five Rock Stars and Legends -- he was able to draw some pretty good conclusions about the future of the video game industry. " Selling computers, it would seem, will not be much different than selling cigarettes."
Most amusingly (and perhaps not too surprisingly), the best parts of the book are not what the author uncovered about the dismal state of affairs in 1983's Atari, but what he got wrong about the future. I'm not talking about simply understating how poorly the game E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial was received. (Cohen calls it a bomb, but fails to convey the weight of just how much the game's poor popular and critical reception lead directly to Atari's collapse. There's no mention of the estimated 5 million Atari 2600 E.T. cartridges buried in an Alamagordo, New Mexico landfill in the fall of 1983.) Examples include
- "No video game company is going to do as well as IBM, Apple, Commodore, or Radio Shack." Does anyone even remember the Tandy?
- "By, 1986, everyone who can afford and wants a video game will have one, and manufacturers will have to drop their prices further.... Any further growth at Atari and in the video game industry generally, in terms of selling units and bringing in earnings, is going to come from overseas." Cohen was speaking about selling Atari VCSs to overseas markets, and was not predicting the arrival of the Nintendo NES on American shores and the revitalization of the home video game market, even if that had the same affect of keeping the Atari name alive, if barely.
- And my personal favorite: "if there were a neat little terminal and it put people in touch with everything they wanted to be in touch with, people would stop playing video games." Hmm. I guess after posting this to the internet, I won't go and play xBox.
One more amusing note: according to Cohen, "if a movie were made of his life, Nolan [Bushnell, the founder of Atari and father of video games] says he would like Gene Wilder to play him, but he means Robert Redford." Point of fact is that there is indeed a movie planned for a 2011 release on the life and times of Nolan Bushnell (working title: Atari), and it seems that Nolan will not be getting his wish. It is rumored that Bushnell will be portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio. Fitting, I suppose, since Bushnell, like DiCaprio, was once the king of the world, even if that world was Pong.
UPDATE May 2021: I just re-read this post and thought I should mention that 12 years later, that Atari movie is *still* in pre-production, now with Chris Pine penciled in as Bushnell. Gene Wilder died in 2016.