One thing Atari became famous for over the years were its prototype games. As we celebrate 40 years of Atari this month, it is a fascinating avenue to go down. Many never made it past the paperwork and brainstorming sessions but some made it far enough to have a cabinet created and location tested. Poor testing shelved many of the titles you will see below. If you are interested in prototypes for old Atari consoles then there is no better resource than Atariprotos.com. They don’t cover arcades but do cover the Atari 2600 – Atari 7800 as well as the 8-bit computers. There is a lot of ground to cover on their arcade prototypes, so lets get started.
Among the first prototype games that never were released was Snoopy Pong. The plan was to use the famous cartoon character from Peanuts by Charles Schultz but it wasn’t licensed or authorized by the author and after he threatened a lawsuit, the project was cancelled. They then went on to create Puppy Pong but this didn’t test too well at Chuck E. Cheese’s and so it was cancelled as well. These were not the lone Pong prototypes – as many companies were showing up overnight with their own Pong clones, Atari sought ways to offer the same game in a unique cabinet that would cater to particular venues and stave off some of the clones. Another interesting cabinet was Pong-In-A-Barrel, which was made out of wine barrels but they came apart so it never reached full production. It was not the same as Barrel Pong which used a different design.
For a little further down the road I’d recommend this article on Atarigames.com – May 1976 Game Ideas. Some of them made it to completion, others not so much. The Anti-Breakout mentioned could have eventually turned into Avalanche. Cannon Ball is mentioned, the first project Owen Rubin worked on while at Atari and was also among the first CPU games they were working on. While Cannon Ball was not released to arcades, it was released to the Atari 2600 a couple of years later. The City Driver game mentioned could be what Super Bug (1977) became as the concept sounds similar.
Also mentioned in that document was Mini Golf, which can be seen in this video
Sometimes concepts just weren’t fun and the limitations of the technology didn’t help much. Another game worked on by Owen Rubin called PT Commander sounds like it fell into that “not fun enough to release” trap. A game called Boxing went through various hardware adjustments to make the controls durable enough but once the game made it to test, it didn’t earn well enough. The concept was eventually released through Activision on the Atari 2600.
What I always enjoy the most about prototypes though are unique cabinet designs or technologies that they tried to apply to a game. Take games like Wolf Pack, Sebring and Qwak.
Wolf Pack used a periscope viewer that rotates around a monitor located in the bottom of the cabinet – it reminds me of the Turret Tower concept minus the moving platform. Had this game been released in 1978 it would have been the first to feature digital voice, two years before Taito made Stratovox.
Sebring (1979) was another title by Owen Rubin and Jed Margolin. It was a racing game that had multiple hardware features to it that were unique for the time – it was a sitdown cockpit cabinet that used a curved projection mirror to create a different way of displaying the image from the 25″ color monitor that was mounted in the top of the cabinet. It had scaling graphics and sounds like it was a first person Pole Position, the game began by starting the engine and a speaker was placed under the seat to give the players a buzzing feel from the engine.
Qwak (1982) was a game by Mark Cerny and it first tested out touchscreen technology for a puzzle game (it does share a name with Atari’s first light-gun title). Slide the pieces around to help the Mother Duck and her ducklings reach the river. Here’s a video of that one in action and if you would like to see the hardware, Atarigames.com has the pics.
The 80s would see Atari grow in every division and with growth came even more arcade concepts, some would get a release but many would not. You can read some brainstorming sessions from Atari in 1980 where they came up with the first concepts that would become games like Tempest and Liberator. They really wanted to pull off some ideas using a 1st person perspective. Session 1 and Session 2 for some interesting concepts they were thinking about. This page on System16.com also has some details on various prototypes from the 80s including minor details on an E.T. arcade that would have been different from the home version.
Maze games and shoters were all the rage in the early 80s so Atari gave it a spin with Maze Invaders. Ed Logg worked on this project which made it to location test but was canned after failing the tests. It used the same hardware as Centipede and seems to have been influenced by Stern’s Berzerk
Another puzzle game that just didn’t make it to the final release phase would be Runaway (1982). You have to move train track sections around to get the train to grab the mail bags while avoiding other obstacles such as other moving trains. Atarigames.com has a fascinating Focus Group and location test report where the issues with this game came to surface, mainly that it was too easy, the controls and the graphics needed improvement.
1982 almost saw the release of a strange turret shooting game known by a strange name - Akka Arrh (also called Target Outpost at one point). Here’s some footage of the game from California Extreme
Speaking of strange, Atarigames.com has footage of a prototype called Harescare where you control a box that can lay mines in fields. You lay mines for the foxes that come into the fields and you can also grab the roaming rabbits to put them into a truck. The concept is kind of like what they did for Gremlins on the Atari 5200, minus the mines. They have a lot of footage not found anywhere else of Atari prototypes - this unknown game that is like a cross between Tank, Centipede and Robotron; Jammin which was an early attempt at rhythm gaming; Accelerator, a 2 player space racing game where the screen was divided up like Xenophobe and your space ship rides on a pipe of some kind(seems like this one would have benefitted from a dual monitor widescreen); BMX Heat which used the Hard Drivin’ 3D hardware and it would have been an “exergame” as the player would sit on a BMX bike and pedal to move the virtual bike around the track; and finally Mean Streak, which was a vehicle combat game they slated for a release after California Speed.
One of Atari’s bigger names almost got a direct sequel in 1982 but it just didn’t work out, even after changes made to it from testing. Missile Command 2 would have allowed co-operative and competitive play using the MC concept with a unique kind of cocktail cabinet that used a curved mirror. In a way MC still got a sequel in 1982 with Liberator, which is a first-person Missile Command in reverse. MC2 will be seen in public for the first time in decades at the upcoming California Extreme show this summer. Atarigames.com has more info on this one including test reports where players complained it was too easy. Also this video below offers a preview of the game which will be at CAX.
Inspired by the Dragonriders of Pern (it was supposed to be that but the licensing fell through), Dragon Master/Firebeast (1983) is a colorful game that is kind of a tower defense sort of title, although it was obviously inspired by Exidy’s popular Crossbow. Dwarf miners walk from one side of the screen to the other and you control a wizard riding a dragon that has to protect them from strange energy beams that fall from the sky while also protecting them from attacking creatures. It even has a Dig Dug element to it at one point.
Also in 1983 was Cloud 9, a strange weather related shooter where you blast clouds. This was originally supposed to have been a project for Dona Bailey who worked on Centipede but Paul Resch picked it up after she left Atari.
Prior to getting out of the vector business, there was Tomcat, a first person flight combat simulator more advanced than Red Baron. Designed by Jed Margolin who had to shelve it after Atari wanted Firefox to be done, thus making it the last vector game worked on at the company. It was more of a research project at the beginning anyways but would have been a simulator with a moving seat and it had helicopter and fixed wing planes to control. More info on it can be found here.
Around that time Atari had released the first full 3D game, I, Robot to arcades. While it didn’t do terribly well as it was a very strange concept ahead of its time and it was during the middle of the US Game Crash, the technology behind it was used on other projects prior to Hard Drivin’. The most famous example of that would be the unreleased The Last Starfighter and a more unknown game called Air Race. The hardware these used was called System IV which produced more complex graphics than the I, Robot hardware, which included shaded polygons. Footage from both shelved games is right here. The Last Starfighter especially would have made for a great motion simulator game but I’m sure plenty of people would have been happy with the arcade cabinet as seen in the film(word has it that the game was canned because it would have cost $10,000 per cabinet, which would have been a tough sell even at the height of the Golden Age). Either way through Atari gamers were enjoying 3D games almost 10 years before games like Star Fox or the port of Steel Talons on the Atari Lynx made their way home, through games like the aforementioned I,Robot and Hard Drivin’
Atari released their first laserdisc game in 1983 called Firefox but the bottom fell out of the laserdisc craze almost as quickly as it had arrived. This left prototypes like Battlestar Galactica in the dust, which was actually being made as a conversion kit for Firefox. That was also affected by Atari’s internal changes at the time as 1984 was the transitional time where the arcade side was about to turn into Atari Games. Here is some footage of that game, which starts out with promotional material and then it turns into a collection of clips the game would have used. It is not actual game footage in the sense of this being patched together seamlessly with game code. Atari also tested out a Knight Rider concept using laserdiscs and proposed an Indiana Jones game using the technology. They would end up releasing Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom on traditional hardware in 1985.
Speaking of that, here is footage from the first version of Road Runner which used laser disc hardware. It looks like a lot of fun and a version very similar to it was released a couple of years later but without the cut scenes. I imagine that the Indiana Jones game would have done the same thing had laserdiscs worked out.
Here is footage from Golf Trainer, which was also in development around 1984 before getting the axe. This was worked on by Owen Rubin who was sent to MIT by Atari to study laserdisc technology which he recommended that they not use but they went ahead with this and the other laserdisc games mentioned above anyways. This is like concepts that came along years later for golf simulators, as this had players hitting real golf balls into a projection screen and sensors would detect the speed and angle of the ball and project that into the game. Another idea ahead of its time.
A project that would come along not long after they killed the laserdisc but was based on a movie was Gremlins. Atari did create some Gremlins titles for the Atari 2600, 5200 and 8-bit computer platforms (the 5200 version is excellent but it’s hard to find) but this one wouldn’t make it to the market at the end of the day.
One Atari game that everyone was familiar with at the time was the pack-in game for the Atari 2600 – Combat. It gave players multiple war simulations to play in, something that was recreated to a degree with various standalone arcade titles in the 70s like Anti-Aircraft II. In 1989 Atari tested out a game programmed by Ed Logg which was kind of like a modern Combat title called Guts N’ Glory. Here’s a video review of the game in action:
Before finishing out the 80s another game worth mentioning was a prototype of a couple of Atari pinball games. Atari produced the first solid state pinball with The Atarians back in 1976 and after that they made some interesting pins such as Hercules, one of the largest commercial pinball machines ever produced that used cue balls as opposed to standard pinballs. Sometime in 1983 a design was made for an E.T. pinball. As E.T. collapsed on the gaming market (Atari wasn’t faring to well with their pinball games either) the design was reused for a different theme, 4X4. Only two 4X4 pinball machines are known to exist and for a pre-ramp pinball it looks pretty fun. Atarigames.com has pictures. There was at least one more pinball prototype made called Neutron Star but it never made it past the whitewood stage.
The 80s were loaded with prototypes but the 90s wouldn’t be lacking in this regard either.
Another sequel project that was canned, due to the rising popularity of fighting games was Marble Madness II – Marbleman (1991). This differed in one great aspect from the original – it used joysticks instead of trackballs as Atari felt that the trackballs might have held the original back from greater sales. It also supported up to three players and a new “superhero” character, hence the Marbleman. They also gave the marble new abilities like invisibility and flight and it had some video pinball levels as well. The game made way for Guardians of the Hood which didn’t do too bad for the company being one of the few brawlers Atari would release. Which reminds me of a brawler game I wish the console side of Atari had released, Conan for the Atari Jaguar which looked like it would have been arcade quality had it been finished.
1992 saw a few of games go to the wayside. Atari Arcade Classics was created to celebrate 20 years of Atari and included new versions of Centipede and Missile Command called Super Centipede and Missile Command II. Both games were co-op games too which would have been a feature seen in the Atari 7800 version of Centipede at least. The same hardware for AAC was used for a cancelled puzzle game called Dr. Sparkz Lab.
Another 1992 game to get the boot was a sequel to Atari’s Road Riot 4WD, Road Riot’s Revenge Rally.Here’s a picture of it in a dual cabinet design Atari was fond of using in games like Space Lords and Cyberball as seen at CAX99. Source
After the release of Street Fighter in arcades, the fighter genre became the Next Big Thing. Atari would develop a number of fighters that just wouldn’t cut it starting with Cyber Storm in 1993. Not much is known about it except that you fought as robots and could damage legs and arms separately from the body. Source
Sometimes games are just too strange to make the big leagues but strange might be a light term for this 1993 game called Beathead. It’s kind of like a 2 player Q*Bert with some bad rhythm and funky graphics to boot. The premise behind it is nothing short of bizarre as this video states
Atari had some success in the market with their 3D simulator Hard Drivin’ and in 1993 they prepped a third installment to that series with Hard Drivin’ Airborne. The game focused on hitting huge jumps where you could turn your car into a glider. The cabinet also would reflect this change offering a complete redesign with a 33″ monitor, a cabinet shaped as a “glider cockpit” and it also had “wind tunnel special effects” which I assume to mean was a fan system. The flyer for the game can be seen below(or through this link, KLOV entry with some details here. Atarigames.com also has some memos on the project.
Continuing on with the 3D developments came Metal Maniax (1994). The hardware used to power this was nothing short of crazy, featuring 8 CPUs and hundreds of other chips to pull off textured polygons. The game itself was a vehicular combat game, along the lines of a demolition derby. It turned out that the game was too ambitious for the complex and expensive hardware and it suffered from an inconsistent frame rate which is not something you want to release a big expensive arcade game with. This caused problems with the location tests and it was cancelled shortly after that. A dual player cabinet was created for it, which is slightly similar to the idea they used with T-Mek . It also used their CAGE sound chip which made for some incredible sound behind T-Mek and Primal Rage. More info on the hardware at System16.
Developing 3D hardware from scratch was an expensive proposition so many companies, Atari Games included took to using home console boards and modifying them for some extra horsepower and use in arcades. Around the same time as Metal Maniax they took the Atari Jaguar and after infusing it with more RAM and a better processor began to work on a series of new arcade titles for it. It was called the CoJag and popular games like Area51 ran on it but so did several unreleased games including 3 on 3 Basketball, Fishin’ Frenzy, a puzzle game called Freeze and a fighter called Vicious Circle
Freeze is seen for a moment at the beginning of this video
Growing up in the 90s you probably heard of Beavis and Butthead even if you didn’t have MTV at home. A number of B&B games were released for home consoles but at some point it was decided that an arcade game would be suitable as well and Atari Games was brought on to do it. Using modified 3DO hardware, a home system quite pricey itself, some prototype cabinets of the game were made but the game was never fully finished.
The mid-90s were a time where one on one fighting games were the order of the day and after PitFighter Atari Games found some success with their dinosaur combat game Primal Rage. A couple of years later in 1996/97 Primal Rage II was in the works as a follow-up but it was ultimately cancelled. This would have had a six button layout like Street Fighter II and now you would select a human who could turn into one of the dinosaurs from the first game as a part of their attack combos. The human worshipers were still present as was the violence along with improved graphics. More pictures over at Unseen64.net. Another unreleased game that used the same hardware was a flight shooter called Die Alien Scum!!.
Speaking of fighters, not long after they cancelled PR2, they began work on a 3D fighter called Tenth Degree: Juko Threat. As they had some trouble coming up with a fighting game that would work, they enlisted the talent of James Goddard who had worked on the Street Fighter series. They managed to create a fast paced 3D fighter but in 1998 the fighter market was cooling off so it was canned anyways, along with another 2D fighting game called Bloodlust. Much less is know about the latter game other than it was also in the works for the PSX and for some reason they were tying it with International Karate from the 80s even though it looked nothing like it. Bloodlust info at Unseen64.net
We finally come to a close with the last project at Atari Games although by this time it was known as Midway Games West. After San Fransisco Rush 2049 they were working on a sequel to Rush called Hot Rod Rebels. It wasn’t terribly far along by the time it was cancelled and as it was, the content was more of a mod to SF Rush 2049 instead of a standalone game as the selection screens and the sounds were still 2049! Only when you got into the game it was different, along with an improved cabinet. It was going to have an enhanced sound system with extra speakers built into the seat, an 8-ball shifter and a foot pedal shaped like a caveman foot. System16 has many details and below is a video from Atarigames.com
Well I hope you enjoyed that extensive look at the prototypes of Atari. I know I didn’t cover every single one, but for the remainder so little is known about them that it’s not worth the trouble anyways. Prototypes are a window into what could have been, although at times it was obvious that the concept just wouldn’t work, which is why it was cancelled in the first place.