Last Updated on December 14, 2020 by Dave Farquhar
Is Atari still in business? That’s complicated. It might be better to ask is Atari still a company. A lot of things happened to the Atari name through the years and that can make it hard to keep track. It also gives retro gaming people something to argue about.
So let’s look at what happened to Atari. Atari is still a company, and that company actively uses the brand and Atari logo. But the ownership changed hands a lot in the last four decades, and sometimes multiple companies used the Atari brand at the same time.
The Bushnell Era
The Atari name changed hands multiple times, and it started early. We associate Atari with its founder, Nolan Bushnell. During this time, Atari thrived both in the arcades and in the home, selling first-generation Pong video game consoles.
The Warner Era
Bushnell sold the company to Warner Communications way back in 1977, before the release of the original Atari 2600 home console that most people associate so closely with the Atari brand. The purchase price was $30 million. So during the prime of Atari’s existence, Atari was a subsidiary of Warner Communications.
Atari thrived until the notorious Video Game Crash of 1983. So after 1983, Warner was losing money on Atari and wanted out. The reasons for the crash are complicated, but Atari didn’t help itself. One mistake Atari made that’s easy to overlook was its Atarisoft venture of 1983-1984, where it ported its best software to other computers and game consoles.
It just so happened that in early 1984, Commodore forced out its longtime CEO, Jack Tramiel. Tramiel wasn’t quite ready to retire yet, and he wanted to get back into the computer business in a hurry. Warner sold the computer and home console business to Tramiel for $240 million in promissory notes and stock, and only $50 cash upfront.
The Tramiel Era
Jack Tramiel had little interest in home consoles. He inherited Atari’s 8-bit computer line and continued to sell it, though with limited success. Under Tramiel, Atari developed the Atari ST line of computers, which featured the GEM graphical user interface, giving a Mac-like experience for a lot less money. But the ST wasn’t quite the Commodore 64-like success Tramiel wanted, selling 2.1 million units between 1985 and 1993. So Atari soon re-entered the game console business, re-releasing the Atari 2600, releasing the Atari 7800 to better compete with Nintendo, and then following up with the Lynx handheld and ultimately the 64-bit Atari Jaguar.
But in the mid 1990s, Atari had money but no product to sell. The ST and Jaguar had run their course and Tramiel was ready to retire. Atari estimated it would be out of business by 1998 if it didn’t acquire a product to sell.
The JTS era
On February 13, 1996, Atari merged with JTS, a maker of cheap hard drives. They were slow and unreliable, so their low price was all they had going for them. JTS needed money and Atari needed a product to sell, so the match worked for a time. The company never worked out its reliability issues though, and was out of business by 1999.
JTS sold the Atari intellectual property and name to Hasbro in February 1998 for $5 million. JTS didn’t last much longer than Atari would have lasted on its own.
Tramiel had no interest in the arcade game market, so Warner retained the Atari arcade division, renaming it Atari Games, and sold it to Namco in 1985. Namco sold it to Atari employees in 1986. Atari Games produced a line of game cartridges for the Nintendo NES, which it sold under the Tengen brand name. In 1993, Time Warner, the successor to Warner Communications, bought controlling interest in Atari Games. In April 1996, Time Warner sold Atari Games to WMS Industries, the owners of Williams and Bally/Midway. They discontinued the use of the Atari name in 1998, when Hasbro resurrected the Atari brand.
The Hasbro Era
After purchasing the Atari name from the struggling JTS in 1998, Hasbro used the Atari name and ported some of the existing titles to newer systems, but Hasbro quickly sold its Hasbro Interactive division to game publisher Infogrames in 2000.
Infogrames relaunched the Atari brand in 2001 with a big splash, and launched a European subsidary Atari SA in 2003. The structure was complicated, as it ran two subsidiaries in the United States under the names Atari Inc. and Atari Interactive. In May 2009, the parent company Infogrames took on the Atari name.
In 2013, the Atari companies filed for bankruptcy protection. After emerging from Chapter 11 bankruptcy, Atari announced plans to focus on the casino gaming industry, launching Atari Casino.
Through the years, Atari has licensed its name and the Atari logo for use on various plug-in consoles called the Atari Flashback, an obvious inspiration to the NES Classic, though it never developed quite the following the NES mini-consoles did. In 2017, Atari decided to try again to cash in on the mini retro console craze. Atari CEO Fred Chesnais announced a new console based on PC technology and running the Linux operating system, in a form factor that resembled the Atari 2600 VCS.
Atari has also been active in the mobile games market. It ported many of its older games to phones and tablets, which lend themselves well to simple, casual gameplay.
Is Atari still in business?
So is Atari still in business? A purist might say Atari ended when Jack Tramiel merged his company with JTS. But someone has been using the Atari name and Atari logo pretty much nonstop since the 1970s in spite of all the changes in ownership. The company’s focus has changed a lot, and it’s no longer the powerhouse it was in the 1980s. But it still carries name recognition and its intellectual property has value. When you own a brand name and that brand name still carries recognition and a good reputation, it makes sense to use it, as Black and Decker found when it dusted off the DeWalt brand name.