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Atari Games' Coin-Op Artifacts Acquired By Museum

Posted On: 4/29/2014

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TAGS: Atari Games, Atari coin-op artifacts, video game history, videogame museum, International Center for the History of Electronic Games, The Strong, Asteroids, Missile Command, Centipede, Atari history, Maze Invaders, Scott Evans, Jeremy Saucier

ROCHESTER, NY -- The International Center for the History of Electronic Games, a "play partner" of The Strong, an interactive museum, has acquired an extraordinary part of early videogame history. The collection originating from Atari Games' coin-operated division includes the source code of such iconic games as Asteroids, Missile Command and Centipede, among other historical assets. ICHEG has also obtained one of two known existing units of the legendary unreleased coin-op game Maze Invaders.

Atari, coin-op, video game, International Center for the History of Electronic Games
PHOTO: Concept art for Atari's Return of the Jedi (1984) video arcade game. The
final product didn't use the elaborate speeder bike design shown here.

The entire collection was hauled on 22 pallets from a collector in California to ICHEG in Rochester, NY, and those artifacts made their way to the museum through a circuitous route. Atari Games was founded 42 years ago -- June 27, 1972, in Milpitas, CA. It was sold to Warner Communications in 1984, to Namco the following year and to Midway Games in 1996. The latter shuttered Atari in 2003, but the name has been revived as a consumer videogame source. Other classic Atari arcade video titles are Marble Madness, Paperboy and Gauntlet. Atari even had a short-lived pinball machine division.

Atari, coin-op, video game, International Center for the History of Electronic Games Collector Scott Evans, who worked in electronics recycling, purchased the collection when Atari was liquidated by Midway. While some of the material had been exhibited previously, the vast majority of it has remained in storage.

PHOTO: Atari licensed Star Wars (1983) to the Japanese videogame company Taito. Shown here is artwork for that Star Wars cabinet.

Among the items contained in the collection are internal memos, focus group reports, handwritten memos, production schedules and cost estimates, along with test market reports, original images for ad campaigns, circuit boards and film transfers for cabinet art. The source code for all the games between 1976 and 1983 is stored on antique 8" floppy disks from the era. There are also about 3,000 videotapes on Betamax, VHS and other legacy formats that include everything from gameplay to industry events and corporate parties. This material, museum officials noted, will need to be archived on more up-to-date formats for access and preservation purposes.

Atari, coin-op, video game, International Center for the History of Electronic Games "It will take years to archive," said Jeremy Saucier, assistant director of the museum. "We're dealing with things at higher levels. On one hand, the artwork can easily be sorted, conserved and archived. Other things, however, like our collection of source code for virtually all the games from 1976 to 1983, are on floppy disks that will take lots of time to examine. When you think of the different kinds of media, and media that are 20 years old, it poses certain challenges to archiving it and making it accessible. But we're in the right place to do it."

Among the treasures contained in the collection are binders filled with internal documents about games. Among the first discoveries were handwritten notes on game controls by Asteroids designer Ed Logg. Saucier believes material like this will uncover the stories behind the immensely popular games, and the ones that never made it, like Gremlins. "The data will give us a broader sense of how the industry worked, and how Atari worked within the industry," he said.

Although Saucier currently has no schedule for an Atari exhibit at the museum, he sees one for the future. In the meantime, the museum's new acquisition makes it a treasure trove for researchers and historians.

PHOTO: Atari artist George Opperman (center) discusses his backglass artwork for Atari's Airborne Avenger (1977) pinball machine.