Atari microcomputers

Atari microcomputers

Natàlia Cervelló Fenollar

It all started with an electronics engineer who felt passionate about videogames, Nolan Bushnell, who decided together with a colleague, Ted Dabney, to start a business which at first was intended to be about videogames. With this in mind and 500 dollars, they created Syzgy, wait a minute… are we going to talk about Atari? Yes, the name was already picked so Bushnell when thinking about an easy-to-remember name it came to his mind Atari. Now they had a name it was time to start making money (which was their main goal).

Regarding the name and logo, Atari is a word of Japanese origin. The word is used to designate something similar to the “check” of the chess in the Japanese board game Go. Its logotype was also created by a Japanese name: the three bars are based on the shape of Mount Fuji.

The company started working for more arcade game machines. With this Nolan Bushnell created the Pong game, inspired by another similar game which simulated table tennis. Pong became a very popular game around the world and with it they reached their first success.

Ted Dabney on the left and Nolan Bushnell on the right posing with its first game arcade machine, the Pong.

In the next video we can observe the game, inspired in the Ping-Pong.

Atari computers

Now we are going to focus on the microcomputers created by the company. These started in 1979 when Atari decided to go into the world of home computers, by creating the microcomputers Atari 400 and Atari 800. It was a revolution for the 8-bit computers, these computers had technical characteristics superior than the rest of computers, including Apple II and Commodore PET. Its main differences to other microcomputers were its specific integrated circuits, CTIA/GTIA to graphic, POKEY to audio generation and key control, and ANTIC which was in charge of the text.

It was not until the year 1983 when they designed one of the most popular microcomputers, Atari 800XL, with 64KB of RAM memory, a key improvement and a new exterior appearance, distinctive of the XL series. The Atari BASIC language interpreter was included in the system, with this you could make your own programs and games without inserting a special cartridge (in previous microcomputers it was necessary). In this series we also found the Atari 600XL (with less RAM memory) and the Atari 1200XL (only in the USA). In these models it was necessary the use of a translator cartridge to play Atari 800 games.

Simple program in Atari BASIC which shows us a sample of the salute answer depending on the choice.

This example has been programmed in the 8-bit Atari machine emulator.


When the company was bought by Jack Tramiel, who was the founder of Commodore International, it stopped producing XL series computers; instead, in 1985 it was created another computer series of 8-bits, the XE series, and another of 16-bits, the ST series. From these computers we can highlight the Atari 520ST, which had a new user graphic interface named GEM, similar to the ones that Apple used. Also, it is the first computer which incorporates sound input/output called MIDI, which caught the attention of musicians. During the following years they created other models of ST series with different modifications of the first one.

Finally, the company risked by designing 32-bits computer models, the Atari TT030 and Atari Falcon 030, very efficient to work with graphics and sound. These computers had a lot of improvements which made them superior than other competing computers, but as always, Atari products did not succeed as the company expected. Also, at that time a 16-bits portable computer was launched, the Atari Portfolio.


Television commercials helped to sell the products, the ones directed to microcomputers and game consoles showed families reunited in front of the computer enjoying games in family. This implied that a product of these characteristics reunited the family. Some advertisements were sponsored by famous athletes, as the football player Pelé.


An advertisement of Atari programs and games for computers.

A daughter and a mother play in their Atari computer, and thus they learn while they play. It also shows how a cartridge is inserted in the computer.


When microcomputers were on the market, magazines for the Atari user were launched, they were intended to be a support for beginners and showed programs and games; by listing program instructions users could write and run programs in their houses.

Two of the most significant magazines of Atari in the USA.

Antic and A.N.A.L.O.G provided information about 8-bits Atari computers, by offering programs and games in the form of an instruction list, in order that users could test programs by themselves and see the capacities of their machines.


Game consoles and videogames

Atari company had its main success with one of its products, which in fact has nothing to do with what we have seen until now. Atari started as an arcade machine company and with the Pong game. So it is no strange that its fame came with a videogame console they invented. This console was the Atari VCS, better known as Atari 2600. In it game cartridges were inserted, it was connected to a television and by using the joystick you could start playing. Atari developed a lot of games for this console and it also disposed of good performances which made them win many customers.

Advertisement about the Atari VCS (Atari2600).

With the pile of games on the left they wanted to show us all the available games for this console.

From its beginning the company designed many games, some of them (as the already mentioned Pong) that were very well received and because of this the potential customers chosen the Atari VCS instead of another console. Later, as there was no control over the game licenses, other companies, and also Atari started to launch game clones that others had already created, in search of customers.

As a curiosity, try to write “Atari Breakout” on Google images and you will find something interesting in this website. If you want to go directly you can click here: Atari Breakout

Games developed by Atari company: on the right the Breakout and the Asteroids.

The Missile Command and the Centipedewere also well known games.

Atari computers nowadays

Today if we want to experiment again how these computers were used, what we call retro now, there is available online a large list of emulators which imitate the behavior of this antique machines. Among them we can find the Atari800Win Plus, with an easy to use interface and very intuitive, which represents very well the 8-bits computers which were launched between the 70s and 80s.

Other interesting emulators are: Hatari, the Multi emulator M.E.S.S. (in which other machines can be found), Javatari (online and available to play), Steem Engine, Droid800 (for mobile devices) and many more available online. The majority of these emulators are open sourced, so if you want to experiment you can modify the code and get improvements or updates for emulators.

Nowadays, Atari is affiliated to the French company Infogrames which is dedicated to mobile and online games. Even they have launched an app for smartphones in which you can play again games from Atari 2600… We can find all this and more in the company website