It's no secret that the Atari Jaguar was a terrible failure—one of gaming's worst. The last dud in the sordid history of Atari's Tramiel family ownership, the Jaguar followed the Lynx's underrated hardware debut in the late 1980s with an early '90s abomination of poorly designed hardware and software that barely competed against its 16-bit forebears, much less the higher-tech Neo Geo, 3DO, CD-I, Sega 32X, and Sega Saturn technologies against which the system was supposedly targeted.
Whereas those systems also underperformed in an increasingly crowded home console market, the Jaguar's true achilles heel was its total lack of support… support from consumers, 3rd parties, and even 1st party games that were consistently delayed (some to the point of such obscurity and derision that they easily could have been seen as the predecessors of vaporware like Phantom console games and Duke Nukem Forever). While a handful of titles (namely Tempest 2000, Battlemorph, Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, Iron Soldier, and Aliens vs. Predator) rose to relative critical acclaim, the system itself never became so much as a blip on most gamers' radar. According to GamePro, the Jaguar ended up selling less than 250,000 units. To put that number in perspective, that's less than half the number of CD-I consoles sold, around one-tenth the amount of 3DO and N-Gage consoles sold, and even one half the number of original Xbox consoles sold… in Japan. The system is infamous among critics and game historians and is well known for its cult homebrew following, but for the average gamer, the Jaguar hardware is obscure to say the least.
So why bring up this sore spot in 2009, roughly 16 years after the Jaguar's ill-fated launch? Because as an artifact of video game history, the Jaguar speaks volumes about where we've been, where we are, and where we're going.
Depending on your age and tolerance for design whimsy, the sight of the overly complicated Jaguar controller either conjures fond memories or churns your stomach. On the one hand, the part of the controller that was utilized in almost every game is nicely set apart from the phone pad and resembles the simplicity of Sega's original Genesis controller. Moreover, those unfortunate enough to have owned a Jaguar will recall that despite its plasticky appearance, the Jag controller was a sturdy and extremely comfortable piece of hardware. So comfortable, in fact, that I have yet to hold another controller to equal the Jaguar's in terms of weight, shape, and ergonomics. Gamers tend to shy away from large controllers—the original Xbox's "Duke" controller was perhaps the last of a now dead breed—but it is undeniable that human hands hold up best when they are able to grip a molded, fairly sized controller… rather than, say, struggle to maintain an awkward and unnatural grip such as that needed for Nintendo's various DS models. (I continue to marvel at the fact that two of gaming's most comfortable controllers, those of the Jaguar and Virtual Boy consoles, belonged to two of its least successful systems; and that some of the most successful systems have had some of the least comfortable controllers.) Surely, modern console designers could stand to learn a thing or two from the Jaguar's gamepad.
On the other hand, there's that hideous phone pad, complete with space for the various cheap-looking (and often useless) overlays packaged with Jaguar games. While the phone pad and overlays represented an interesting throwback to the button arrangement of consoles like the Intellivision and Colecovision, it was also aesthetically unpleasant, distracting, and relatively impractical. The last part was evidenced by the sheer number of Jaguar games that barely utilized this part of the controller. Did Tempest 2000, for example, really need twelve additional buttons?
We've learned now from Sony's PlayStation and Nintendo's DS and Wii that a system's controllers should be designed around its preeminent first-party software. Sony's shoulder-buttoned and, later, dual-sticked PlayStation controllers functioned perfectly for movement in the kinds of 3D environments its PSOne was pushing (e.g., Jumping Flash, Warhawk, and Ace Combat). The Wii's wiimote and nunchuck don't work perfectly for every game type, but they work for the games that best demonstrate the system's design sensibilities. By comparison, the Jaguar's controller worked for… nothing. A cute yet completely extraneous anachronism.
Thus, the Jaguar controller itself is a bridge between gaming past and history. It borrowed novel ideas from both successful and bizarre design antecedents, blended them together in a controller as comfortable as it was unappealing, and continues to serve as one of gaming's most unfortunate symbols of form over function. (Take note, PSP Go!)
As represented by its complicated controller, Atari's Jaguar was a vehicle for a company trying to do too much. Instead of focusing on quality control for its games, pushing design teams to meet release dates, and proper advertising, the Tramiel family focused it attention on bridging gaps with future technologies. The most famous of these were the Jaguar CD add-on, released far too late in the system's brief stay on the market, and the proposed $250 VR helmet.
The CD add-on, of course, was far less risky than the VR helmet, but that didn't make it any better a strategic decision for an already obscure console. While the system was always designed with the CD expansion in mind (represented by the grooves in the middle of the console itself), the fact that the CD player was not present at launch, added little in terms of gameplay advancement, was far too expensive at $150 (over the already inflated launch price of $250), made the system look bulky, and had very little in the way of software support, all contributed to the appearance of the Jaguar CD as an excessive afterthought. By the time the CD player arrived in 1995, the Jaguar was on its last legs, and an expensive piece of technology didn't help matters at all.
I'm sure trying to tap into the early '90s fascination with CD-based technology seemed like a safe bet to the Tramiels. After all, computer CD games and the Sega CD had already paved the way into the gaming mainstream. Competitors 3DO and CD-I both made the technology readily available in their products (albeit at a much higher price). Even Nintendo looked eager to introduce CD technology into its home console market, partnering with Sony on a SNES CD add-on project prior to a breakup that would result in the PlayStation a few years later. CD was all the rage.
Unfortunately, at the time, CD just wasn't the right decision. Despite widespread marketing, Sega's CD unit sold very few units relative to the installed base of the Genesis console. Nintendo decided not to go with an add-on, instead focusing on upping the size of its SNES cartridges and pushing 16-bit to its limits (the products of which were the highly successful Star Fox polygonal game and CGI-based Donkey Kong Country). Plus, Atari simply did not have the manufacturing know-how of a Sony, whose PlayStation would be the first truly successful introduction to CD-based console gaming.
Even worse was the idea of an extremely complex, motion-tracking VR headset, much publicized at trade shows but which never surfaced save for incomplete prototypes. Again, the idea itself was novel—in the same way Sega's ill-fated hologram arcade titles seemed novel—but the demand for VR technology wasn't strong enough to account for Atari's research and development focus.
Atari's doomed love affair with relatively high-tech upgrades should have signaled to all companies then and there that risky moves rarely pay off. Still, game companies continued to introduce all sorts of wacky and unnecessary add-ons and gimmicks to the market. Sega's 32X add-on for the Genesis was a tragedy of brand mismanagement and stillborn technology. Nintendo's Virtual Boy was an overpriced and headache-inducing experiment in 3D monochrome graphics. Neo Geo experimented with the release of two CD versions of its console (in single-speed and double-speed drive forms) so as to push its exorbitant software prices down. Microsoft made a deal with Toshiba to introduce the now-defunct HD-DVD technology to the gaming market in the form of an expensive add-on drive. And so on.
Sometimes, almost by serendipity, these experiments turn out well. Most recently, perhaps motivated by the enormous success of the DS's stylus-based controls, Nintendo has made a hit out of its Wii's motion controls, combining inexpensive gyroscopic technology with an inclusive, family-friendly design concept. If the price for the Wii hadn't been just right, it's a technological experiment that could have just as well ended up in a heap next to the unappreciated GameCube.
Nevertheless, Atari's Jaguar serves as a reminder that while safe bets don't always break the bank, they rarely break a company. In the case of Atari, unnecessary risks in technology resulted in an inattention to key problems the company had suffered since the decline of the 2600.
Bits, Bytes, Whatever
The Jaguar's infamous claim to 64-bits worth of processing power is not only laughable; it's perhaps the key reason why we no longer care about "bits" or even the necessity of power in modern gaming.
Whereas the previous 16-bit generation had built its success upon rival claims to hardware power—illusory "blast processing" on the side of Sega and true hardware superiority on the side of Nintendo—and seemingly arbitrary boasts of large cartridge sizes (16mb, 32mb, or even whopping sizes in the hundreds of mbs in the case of Neo Geo games), the Jaguar helped to usher in an era of processing irrelevance.
No one cared that the Jaguar had 64-bits of processing power (which it didn't; it used two 32-bit RISC processors, codenamed "Tom" and "Jerry," concurrently and arguably delivered 64-bits worth of graphics processing), just as no one cared about the 3DO's then-mindblowing 32-bit power or the CD-I's crystal clear delivery of full motion video.
Why? Because 1.) these systems were priced so highly that no one could afford them, and 2.) they simply didn't have the gameplay or exclusive licenses to back up the technological claims. True, the Jaguar featured one of the best and most technologically proficient ports of Doom at the time, but by the time Doom arrived on the Jaguar, it had already run its course of fame and media obsession on the PC, long before PC-centric gamers began to move to consoles.
Unlike the 3DO and CD-I, however, the Jaguar emphasized its processing power in every way it could. Atari commercials asked gamers to "Do the Math," comparing the 16-bit processors of the SNES and Genesis with the Jaguar's supposedly mighty hardware. Once again, Atari put all the emphasis on all the wrong things, and the gaming market's mass rejection of Atari's claims would serve as a harbinger for console wars to come.
Nintendo's N64 marked the last system to make explicit reference to the number of "bits" powering a console, and no evidence shows that the "64" moniker resulted in any distinct preference for Nintendo's cartridge-based system over Sony's 32-bit PlayStation, a console that outsold the N64 over 3:1.
But Nintendo learned its lesson. Today, a relatively underpowered Wii handily outsells Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 hardware. Nintendo's DS stomps the PSP in sales 2:1. When it comes to processing power, David steadily trumps Goliath in 2009… because David tends to be more affordable and better marketed.
Pre-Xbox: The Death of the American Game Console
Even though America is the originator of Computer Space and Pong, and game companies regularly look to Europe and America for their most profitable sales territories, game players and critics alike have a tendency to look to Japan when discussing the roots of modern gaming.
And rightfully so. While the Atari 2600 was the first truly successful home console, it was Japanese companies Nintendo and Sega who revolutionized the business, introducing new technology, game genres, and some of gaming's most hallowed and venerable properties—including Mario, Sonic, Donkey Kong, and Tetris—to households the world over. America invented the RPG; Japan made it a viable game category. America started the arcade and multiplayer crazes; Japan turned gaming into an entire way of life.
So I look back on the death of the Jaguar with a bit of sadness, not just because it represented the death of an American icon, Atari, but because Atari itself represented America's last best chance to be relevant in the video game market. After all, the Jaguar and Lynx featured mostly Western-designed first and third party games from primarily American publishers. Art styles and gameplay types, while often off-kilter (anyone remember Kung Food on the Lynx? Ultra Vortek on the Jaguar?), stood apart from their Japanese counterparts in a way that made one feel like there was still such a thing as an American influence in gaming outside of the PC market.
Today, Microsoft represents the major American presence in gaming, yet it's hardly the same. Game development and publishing has become such a global, ubiquitous enterprise—and Microsoft itself is such a globally diversified force—that you can hardly call the Xbox 360 and its products the mark of a distinctly American viewpoint. It all meshes together… Halo reflects the American tradition of first-person shooters, yes, but the 360 equally relies on Japanese-style platformers, European role-playing games like Fable, and third party titles like Ninja Gaiden II, Resident Evil 5, Dead Rising, and Soul Calibur IV.
If Atari had gone on to survive as a hardware designer, who knows what different sorts of art styles and design viewpoints we would have inherited prior to the true globalizing of the video game?
Of course, such sentiment runs the risk of coming off as too nationalistic or myopic. Let me be clear, however: I am all for multiculturalism and thinking outside one's cultural box. I certainly enjoy the current state of the video game. I simply wonder what kind of intra-cultural sensibilities we have lost along the way.
And… there's nothing wrong with a smidgen of home-team pride.
(Photo of the Atari Jaguar infomercial… is that the Bat Cave?)
Going to Pasture in the Most Unpleasant Way Imaginable
The death of Atari and its Jaguar console was unbearable to watch. In its final days, the only mention of the Jaguar was made on late-night television infomercials about as silly and repellent as the console they advertised. Atari knew it was doomed, and the Tramiels spared no dignity in the fire sale of what remained.
By comparison, Nokia re-strategized (and continues to strategize) its place in a cell phone market that now includes the iPhone. Sega faded away into a smaller role as concentrated software developer (of Sonic titles for the most part) and outstanding publisher along with partner Sammy. SNK, which failed in the home market with its overpriced cartridge-based Neo Geo console, poorly made CD spin-off, and undervalued portable console, relied on its expertise in Japanese arcades to remain a player in the game development and publishing markets.
All three companies continue to hit bumps in the road, and none of them faces the extraordinary collapse suffered by Atari before merging with JTS, Time Warner, and becoming part of Hasbro (a long line of mergers and sales moves that have resulted in the current Atari publisher, a combination of former GT Interactive and Infogrames entities). Still, the Tramiels had millions of dollars to spare before they wisely fled the game market, and the Atari property which so many had fondly remembered from the consoles of the previous two decades deserved much better.
Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo all appear to be on relatively firm footing. Apple's iPhone continues to be a successful hybrid communications/entertainment tool with over 40 million units sold. However, I'd like to think that if a smaller company looked to stake out territory in the extremely competitive and economically shaky gaming market and did not succeed—which is remarkably likely given the forthcoming launches of unproven Otoy, OnLive, and Gakai streaming game "consoles" and lines of PC software—they'd take a stark lesson from the Jaguar's more respectable successors and learn to either quickly improvise or die with dignity.
The reason? Because I'm all in the interest of competition, and I'm not so sure that Nintendo, Apple, Sony, and Microsoft have all the answers where hardware is concerned. After all, SNK's Neo Geo Pocket Color was a remarkably graceful little system, featuring the absolute best joystick control I've ever experienced. The Dreamcast had some truly unique ideas, such as the VMU, that I'd like to see re-attempted. But if more companies go the way of Atari and its Jaguar, the video game market, tumultuous as it is in this economy, will become less of a dream for burgeoning business and more of a horror story. Strange as it may sound, dying with dignity is an important part of the business process: It signals financial ruin, true, but it also represents the possibility of corporate rebirth and learning from one's mistakes. It leaves the door open for others to succeed where you have failed.
And in an extremely ironic way, Atari didn't leave the door open… but its Jaguar, a striking juxtaposition of ideas both terrific and terrifying, continues to pry that business door open a little… if only by showing precisely what NOT to do.
Read more on the Game in Mind blog.