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HOW I SURVIVED 4 INCARNATIONS OF ATARI IN 40 YEARS


Video 61

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THE UNAUTHORIZED AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF AN ATARI DISTRIBUTOR
Monday, September 18, 2023

 

:nintendo_professor_hector:  Hi and welcome to Lance’s Laboratory! This is the third entry of what will be my personal blog, sharing small slices of life with you from within my Lab. For those who are new to Atari I/O let me introduce myself. My name is Lance Ringquist, I’m from Minnesota, and I am the world's oldest surviving Atari dealer. You may have heard of me before as Video 61 Atari Sales which I have consistently operated since 1983 and I have been at it now for  more than 40 years!

I need to update my website about my longevity. I always have so much to do. Anyway, with everything going on in the Atari world right now, I had some thoughts from these 40 something years as an Atari dealer that I wanted to share with you. I have now survived at least FOUR incarnations of “Atari”. I started as an Atari dealer in 1983 under Atari, Inc. - “Warner’s Atari.” I really didn’t know anyone there.

 

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Steve Ross, CEO of Warner Communications in 1983. Steve Ross is not often spoken of within the Atari community, but it was Steve Ross who bought Atari from Nolan Bushnell, who both hired and fired Ray Kassar, who single handedly took control of Atari in 1983 often showing up in person to run the company, who ultimately sought out Jack Tramiel with a deal to take Atari off his hands, and who orchestrated the Time-Warner merger.

 

WARNER'S ATARI

Atari dealers at the time were contacted and supported by dealer representatives who were supported by Warner Communications and would occasionally stop by the stores. I had a good one that supplied me with lots of dealer cartridges, floppy disks, and promotional materials. This is essentially the same way PlayStation, Xbox and Nintendo support their retailers today, with reps who go into the stores to update the demo games in kiosks and make sure there’s current promotional signage in the stores. They usually have goodies to give to the workers too.

One day my Atari dealer rep came into my store and announced “This might be the last time I see you. A new owner is taking over… everything is up in the air, and the rumor is he does not support his operations in… let’s say… “a traditional way.”

That was Jack Tramiel, later on affectionately known as “Jack".

He was right. That was the last time I ever saw my friendly dealer rep, and I never heard another word from Atari until the Atari ST computer was released.

 

 

Alan Alda from the popular TV show M*A*S*H* was a celebrity spokesperson for Atari Home Computers during the Warner Communications era of Atari. (1984)
All high-paid celebrity endorsements were dropped when Jack Tramiel took over.

 

One day out of the blue I received a packet along with an Atari ST with some software. Gone were the days of glossy print ads in National Geographic, and sophisticated TV commercials with Alan Alda, the popular actor who played “Hawkeye” on the top TV show M*A*S*H* and was Atari’s spokesperson. The Atari ST that I was sent came with the instructions that - as a dealer - it was up to ME to educate my customers about the new Atari ST computer line, and it was up to ME to support and sell the machine as support from Atari would be minimal. STUNNING, to say the least.

This began the second incarnation of “Atari” - Atari Corporation, or Atari Corp., - “Jack’s Atari”. This was the incarnation of Atari that I was most involved in, and had a lot of day-to-day interaction with. That was sometime in 1985.

 

JACK'S ATARI

I did not hear from Atari again until 1986 or possibly 1987. It’s been so long that it’s difficult to remember the exact timeline, but around that time I received a letter from Atari Corporation with a hefty “release schedule” of games lined up for the Atari 2600, Atari 7800, and Atari XEGS. I was impressed! For nearly two years it was crickets out of Atari, and finally we were receiving real support and a commitment for new games.

At the time, the only real major supporter of the Atari 2600 was Activision. It felt like they were the only kid on the block. Atari had been quiet, and most other third party publishers like Imagic, Coleco, M-Network and Parker Bros. hadn’t survived the crash. Activision was still with us though, and at Video 61 Kung-Fu Masters, Ghostbusters, and Pitfall II were serious strong sellers.

 

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Jack Tramiel with the Atari ST

 

When I received the new release schedule from Atari, I thought “Hey, maybe the new owners figured it out!” There was still plenty of life left in Atari, even for the 2600, which I could see in my stores. To my dismay, many of Atari’s newly announced titles never came even close to being released on time, or worse - never came at all!

This was very frustrating because I could see the demand for new Atari stuff and yet the Atari potential was being pissed away. There’s this common belief that “The Atari 7800 was released in 1986.” That’s not really true. I had received a few 7800s from Warner’s Atari Inc. in 1984, and they sold quickly. This was in Minnesota, not California or New York City. I never got a thing from Atari again until 1986.

So as Nintendo took America by storm with Mario, Zelda and Metroid on the NES, and with Atari being run so poorly, I thought the jig was up.

 

 

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"When I received the new release schedule from Atari, I thought 'Hey, maybe the new owners figured it out!' There was still plenty of life left in Atari, even for the 2600 which I could see in my stores. To my dismay, many of Atari's newly announced titles never came even close to being released on time, or worse - never came at all."

- Lance

 

 

Then came the fury. After defaulting on their release schedule and missing any new releases at all one Christmas season in 1988, I was outraged. I picked up the phone and called Atari. I wasn’t just a customer, I was in business with Atari as a dealer responsible for a percentage of all Atari games sold that year. I was helping make them money. When I called Atari, I was given the run around about “how hard it was to keep these games in stock” and “how hard it was to bring out new games.” I interrupted the lady and told her what she was saying was word for word what Nintendo was saying to their distributors - she broke down and agreed that what she had been instructed to say was not really the case.

Later on I came to find out about certain “business details” and “practices” that were happening under “Jack’s Atari” which made it clear to me HOW and WHY Atari had missed so many release dates, launch windows, and even lost new releases, but thats a whole other story that we will go into another time in an upcoming Blog entry.

 

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Jack's Atari: This was the incarnation of Atari that I had the most day-to-day involvement with

 

I continued on the phone and was trying to be nice. It wasn’t this nice lady’s fault that she had been instructed to lie. So I asked what can be done. I was sent “upstairs" and told that Atari "had messed up and badly damaged the market" and had really had messed up in my region of the country, the upper midwest. Sales and support in our part of the country needed help, and I was asked by Atari Corp. to become a service department and distributor for Atari. I was stunned. I dealt with other Atari dealers, but it was mostly to buy or trade what was needed.

I said yes. I was blown away later on when I found out how just badly Atari had shrunk. They had lost almost 90% of their workforce. Yet the "Atari" brand still commanded household name recognition and selling power, which they underutilized thanks to certain business ideologies and practices from the Tramiel family.

Here is a link to my Atari distribution paperwork, which is hosted on my website:

 

:nintendo_professor_hector:  http://www.atarisales.com/dis.html

 

I became really enmeshed in this as Atari sent me to deal directly with third parties, who I then bought from as what’s known as “direct". During this time I got to know many good people in third party companies like Activision, Avalon Hill, S.S.I., Datasoft, Eypx, Sierra Online, Microprose and more.

As an Atari distributer I purchased immense amounts - truckloads - of games and software direct from Atari and all third parties at the time. When Atari pulled the plug, I had about 250,000 pieces of software in my warehouse. Today it’s dwindled to under 40,000 pieces left.

 

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Jack Tramiel's son Sam Tramiel took over leadership of Atari in the mid-'90s with Jack's continued close involvement.
Was the Atari ST named after Sam Tramiel? Was TOS the "Tramiel Operating System?"

 

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Jack Tramiel and wife Helen in their retirement years

 

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Jack Tramiel traveling the world

 

HASBRO'S ATARI

After Jack Tramiel pulled the plug on Lynx, Jaguar and the Atari computers, I could see what he was doing. Sam wasn’t going to save the company, and J.T.S. Corporation - an Indian hard drive manufacturer founded after the Jaguar’s launch - acquired Atari though a “reverse merger”. (Was Atari, as an entire company, "laundered" through J.T.S. so it came out nice and clean to be able to sell to a potential buyer?)

This lead to Atari, or what IPs and documentation was left of it, being sold to Hasbro. This became the third iteration of the of Atari that I dealt with, “Hasbro’s Atari.”

When Atari was sold to Hasbro, Atari gave Hasbro a list of contacts. I was one of them. Not only for service, parts, and software, but I was also Atari Corporation’s person who interacted with movie studios and television networks. Atari no longer had the game systems, computers, many times the software and games, nor the man power to supply the entertainment industry with Atari “props” when filming a movie or tv show that was to feature Atari in it.

Atari just sent them to me for systems, computers and games, and I supplied the movie studios and television networks with what was needed, under the license agreement from Atari.

 

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One day I got a call from Hasbro, and very arrogantly told me that they would do the supplying, and the legacy Atari market was really no interest of theirs. They were going to release new games for new platforms.

I supplied Atari items to Columbia Pictures (now Sony) Warner’s of course, Paramount, 20th Century Fox and others. I almost got some footage into one of the Alien movies, but Fox still owed me money from Fox Sports, and they could not come to agreements with “Jack". Many TV shows had my Atari stuff in it, one name I remember was The King of Queens, there was an Atari 7800 and Video Olympics if I remember right.

 

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Atari 2600 and 5200 game cartridges on NBC's cult classic show Freaks and Geeks (2000)

 

Later on, my contact at Paramount studios was dismayed they could no longer get legacy Atari hardware and software for their productions, and that Hasbro’s Atari would only supply them with the newest games, which in the case of the studios and networks, was not what they wanted. I apologized to her, and said my hands were tied, "I can’t do a thing."  These people at Hasbro were clueless as to what they bought. They didn’t understand what Atari was, what they still had, or the potential even for legacy markets. Hasbro really messed up quickly, and quickly sold Atari off.

Meanwhile - almost daily - ever since “Jack” sold off Atari, I would get calls from disgruntled stock holders, former suppliers, and people who were owed money by Atari. Some even made threats of suing me, because in their eyes, I was Atari. That lasted even into the early Infogrames days, which is what came next.

 

FRENCH ATARI

The French company Infogrames Entertainment SA acquired Atari in January, 2001 as the biggest part of their purchase of Hasbro’s software division “Hasbro Interactive”, which also included MicroProse, and Hasbro’s game.com monochrome handheld system which was a joke compared to what the Atari Lynx could do, even years later, and couldn’t compete contemporaneously against Game Boy Color.

This began the fourth incarnation of Atari - “Infogrames Atari” or “French Atari” which now goes by Atari, SA. (Infogrames rebranded themselves as Atari in 2003 and began releasing games like Splashdown, Driver 2, The Matrix and Ghostbusters for modern game systems of the time.)

 

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Splashdown was one of the first new "Atari" games released by Infogrames in November, 2001
The 
cover art featured branding for both Atari and Infogrames

 

Infogrames never contacted me period, until one day a fellow named “Wim” (not sure of the spelling…) gave me a call. I tried to enter him into my contacts database, he would not spell his name for me, and acted quite annoyed that he even had to speak with me.

I found out that Infogrames had an operation that was local to me in Minnesota’s Twin Cities, Minneapolis / St. Paul, in a suburb named Plymouth I think.

“Wim” wanted to know who I was, and he was looking for certain items. He would discuss nothing, could care less about Atari’s legacy, knew that many, many people were looking for Atari service, parts, games etc., but "Wim" was only interested in my Atari 2600 power supplies, Atari 7800 power supplies, TV switch boxes and R.F. cables.

He demanded to buy them all. I said no. “What about my customers?” I retorted … let alone the legacy Atari systems that found their way to me.

 

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"Wim" had no interest in the Atari legacy, nor the history I was privy to, and had lived through much of. "Wim" only wanted to get the people off his back who were looking for those particular legacy parts. Why?

I found this simply amazing. Here I was, and of course the two other legacy dealers (we’ll get into that in a minute) who could step in and help Atari’s legacy customers, and help guide Infogrames in making decisions around the needs and potential of the legacy market.

I thought to myself "Here we go again!” Never interacted with them directly again, only indirectly when I was contacted by a debt collector wanting to know “what happened to Atari" as they were owed money. Something I have heard about many times before before, and I thought “Man, will this ever end?”

I told the collector Atari was now located in New York, last time I heard. As it turned out the collector ended up being an old friend from high school that I hadn’t seen in decades.. small world indeed!

 

 

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"'Wim' wanted to know who I was, and he was looking for certain items. He would discuss nothing, could care less about Atari's legacy, knew that many, many people were looking for Atari service, parts, games, etc. but Wim was only interested in my Atari power supplies, switch boxes and R.F. cables... Why?"

- Lance

 

 

Here we are, now well over 20 years since Infogrames acquired Atari and has become the longest owner of the name, with new products being developed - finally - around Atari’s greatest strengths - it’s legacy.

So that's the history of my involvement with the many evolving incarnations of Atari. The history in my eyes that counts the most, was the "Jack" era. The stories, what happened within those walls, what they pulled off and what they got away with - it’s almost too amazing to be true.

When "Jack" merged with J.T.S., the government would only allow the "reverse merger" to proceed if Atari kept the American market supported. That was ignored entirely, and Atari was sold to Hasbro.

The other two legacy dealers are Bruce at B&C Computervisions who started in 1984, and Brad at Best Electronics who started in 1985. I was introduced to both of them by Atari Corp.

Together, the three of us became heavily involved day to day under “Jack's" Atari. This is just a minor rundown in who I am in the Atari world, and I wanted to share my thoughts and experiences with you. Today, after over 40 years, I continue to march forward in the legacy Atari world, still providing sales and support, and developing new games which I hope will continue to entertain and dazzle Atari players for generations to come.

What comes next?

Thanks for reading,

- Lance  :nintendo_professor_hector:

 

Please visit me online for more at www.atarisales.com

 

Edited by Video 61

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