In the early 1990s, consoles were largely defined by how many bits they had. For example, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) was an 8-bit system, and the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis were 16-bit systems. The term is extremely technical, and many people didn’t understand what the terms really meant, but they did know that the greater the bits, the better, faster and stronger the system, which made for great marketing as companies began to use how many bits they had in the console name itself (i.e. Nintendo 64).
Atari was in a spin after releasing the Atari 5200, Atari 7800 and the Atari Lynx. The Atari 5200 and 7800 only achieved modest sales, but the Lynx, released in 1989, was the first handheld console with a color LCD. Despite selling well, it was completely dominated by Nintendo’s Game Boy, which was also released in 1989 and was monochromatic.
Atari planned a comeback in the early 90s at a time where 16-bit systems were the norm, such as the Sega Genesis, Super Nintendo, and other contenders such as the TurboGrafx-16. Atari was planning on making two systems: a 32-bit system, the Panther, and the 64-bit system, the Jaguar, but decided to just jump to the 64-bit system instead. The system was heavily marketed and released in late 1993 at US$249.99, under a US$500 million manufacturing deal with IBM. Their slogan, “Do the Math;’ and the accompanying advertisements stated its superiority over the 16-bit systems, and sported extremely advanced specs for a console at the time, including two 26.59MHz CPUs, nicknamed “Tom” and “Jerry;’ 2MB of RAM, and 6MB ROM cartridges as storage media. By comparison, it blew both the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo out ofthe water. It was even said to be just between the Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation in terms of computing power, both of which would come out two years later. The Atari Jaguar also had some games that were revolutionary for its time. Tempest 2000was unique in that it had its own soundtrack that was argu
ably more popular than the game itself. Doom, despite having no sound on the Atari Jaguar, was one of the more successful PC-to-console ports. Other popular games included Wolfenstein 30, which was also ported from PC to the console, and a console port of Alien vs. Predator.
Some accessories were planned for the Atari Jaguar, but only the ProController, the Atari Jaguar CD, and the Jag link, which allowed two Atari Jaguars to be attached together, made it to the retail shelves. Other accessories in development included a voice modem and even a VR headset, revolutionary ideas for their time, but like a lot of”knockout” ideas that the console world had in the 1990s (the 3DO Interactive Multi player, Virtual Boy and the extremely rare Pioneer LaserActive also met the same fate), it was just too much, too soon, and the Atari Jaguar had the distinction of being the last American-made console until the more successful Microsoft Xbox came out in 2001.
There were many things that spelled the demise of the console that was designed and marketed to knock out the competition. First off, the Jaguar sold poorly because of its lack of games. Second, its awkward looking controller was heavily criticized for its form factor and had an unheard of 17 buttons (the Genesis and Super Nintendo only had seven and eight buttons, respectively, excluding directional pads). The lack of games was largely attributed to the fact that the console’s technical specs were just way too advanced for developers to develop games for it, and also the lack of third-party developers. Some random bugs included a flaw in the CPU’s memory controller, which didn’t allow code to execute outside of system RAM. The final nails in the coffin were the arrival of the Sony PlayStation and Sega Saturn in 1995, and then the Nintendo 64 the following year. The Atari Jaguar ceased production at the end of 1996.
Words by Jose Alvarez
First published in Gadgets Magazine February 2013