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HOW ATARI XE MARIO BROS. GOT THROWN IN THE DUMP


Video 61

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THE UNAUTHORIZED AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF AN ATARI DISTRIBUTOR
Tuesday, March 26, 2024

 

:nintendo_professor_hector:  Hi and welcome to Lance’s Laboratory! This is the eighth entry of what will be my personal Blog, sharing small slices of life with you from around the Twin Cities and 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 over 40 years!

Before we jump right into the story of the Atari XE Mario Bros. cartridges, let’s take a giant step back and see the big picture of how Atari was ran in those years. Have I ever told you about the 400 400 computers? Well, in one of Atari’s warehouses around Sunnyvale they stumbled upon 400 Atari 400 computers they still had brand new in the box, that they had inherited from Warner. This was in the early 1990s during the time of the Atari Lynx when Jack Tramiel ran the show with his three sons. When this happened, Jack’s people at Atari called up and wanted to know if Bruce, Brad and I wanted to go in on this together and buy out their remaining inventory of 400 400 computers. We said “YES! We’ll be there to get them the next day.” - But that’s not what ended up happening. More on that one in a minute…

 

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It had come down from Jack that this was the only way they would sell to us. Let me tell you how expensive it was for Atari to process an order - it cost them about $125 to write out a single invoice. And you have to understand, even under what Jack had done to Atari, his austerity measures, cutting down their workforce by over 80%, it was still a huge company. Efficiency experts had figured out that for Atari to write out one invoice and ship an order, it was $125, regardless if it was one video game cartridge or 100. This wasn’t the shipping expense, this was Atari’s time and labor. So when you’d send in an order to Atari for one 2600 game or one 7800 game, a new joystick or something like that, it cost Atari $125 to fulfill the order in time and labor - for someone to write out your order, for someone else to find your game in a warehouse, for a worker to pack it, label it, and ship it to you. For it to cost them $125 to fulfill an order for a $15 cartridge, Atari went in the hole. They’d lose money, and Jack wouldn’t have that. That’s why when you’d pick up the phone and call Atari in those days for a cartridge order or service repair, they sluffed that off onto me because it cost them too much money to do it themselves, although it shouldn't have. It was much easier and much less expensive for them to just answer the phone. It became a very expensive thing.

 

 

 

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"Many of the people who try to pry information out of me, like the Vice guy who ran the hit piece on Brad, have this idea in their head that Atari only had one warehouse. NO THEY DID NOT. They had MULTIPLE warehouses around the world, and it was expensive to have all these employees and insurance, air conditioning and electricity, property upkeep, taxes, everything needed to keep those warehouses going day in and day out. It's expensive for me too."

@Video 61 

 

 

 

Jack Tramiel never looked at video games as a premium. He looked at games as too costly, too much money to develop, publish, warehouse, retail. And of course that’s how he made money, but he just didn’t understand it. He thought it was all hardware sales and games were up to third party developers who were left all on their own. "Here's a Jaguar and a dev kit, you go do it." Jack would do everything he could to sluff off sales onto other places like Federated electronics stores, which Jack Tramiel owned through Atari Corporation from 1987 - 1989. Jack used Federated as a way to directly retail warehouse loads of Atari merchandise almost into the 1990s and beyond, especially overstock remaining from the Warner Communications days:

 

 

“Business is war” Jack said. I’m sure every little boy or little girl buying Mario Bros. understood that. They were so eager to make me a distributor - “We need somebody in the midwest to help us out, we made a lot of mistakes” - and me not having been a distributor before and not knowing the ins and outs, of course I said YES. Boy, I had no idea just what I was in for.

 

 

 

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"I didn’t realize they were setting me up to be not just an Atari Distributor and Service Department for them, but also a public relations sort of thing for them too. You wouldn’t believe how many invoices I wrote for $9.95 power supplies and TV switch boxes. $10 orders that would’ve cost Atari $125 or more to fulfill. So just think about all the money I saved them, and I think that’s one of the reasons why they looked so fondly on me and didn’t want to burn me, because if they had burned me then I would’ve been just like everybody else. Everybody else got burned but us."

@Video 61 

 

 

 

Just to give you some sort of idea how Jack managed things and micromanaged almost every aspect of the business: This one time, one of the developers who was working on one of the Jaguar CD games (I can’t remember which one) needed more blank CD-Rs for testing the game. This was a game that Atari had over $1 million bucks tied up into developing. This was before CD-Rs were in peoples' homes and spindles of CD-Rs would not have been commonplace yet in stores like Office Max, CompUSA, or Sam's Club, but they should’ve been available within a place like Atari.

 

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The programmer went up to the office manager and requisitioned more blank CD-Rs for testing and development, expecting that there’d be a spindle of them somewhere. “We don’t have any” the office manager told him. The programmer thought the manager didn’t understand what he was asking for. “What do you mean, this is a million dollar game with a deadline and I’m under pressure to get this done. When are you going to get them in?” Manager said “I don’t know, Jack’s waiting for a sale.” So he held up production on these games waiting for one of his suppliers to have a sale on blank CD-ROMs, and only then would he okay the office manager buying them. That’s called micromanagement, and it’s not something the President or CEO or Chairperson of a company that size should be doing.

 

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POW! Losing Sleep Over A Plumber And A Trucker

So the Mario Bros. story: There was another time when there were 1,500 brand new Atari XE Mario Bros. cartridges sitting at Atari new in the box, being offered to me and I wasn’t able to get them. I’m still sick over that one. I had accepted Atari's offer for me to purchase the Mario Bros. cartridges and they slipped through my fingers like sand.

You really don’t know what “pinching pennies” means until you hear this stuff Jack Tramiel used to do. He did this sort of stuff all the time. I still lose sleep over this XE Mario thing. This is a story that should be told, though. Atari had me as a distributor supplying foreign Atari dealers. I was told it was cheaper for Jack to have me deal with these Atari dealers in Latin America and Europe than for Atari to do it themselves. But if you knew some of the reasons why, you’d be stunned, because he’d probably have made more money directly dealing with these people.

 

 

 

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"I was on the phone with Atari as much as ten to twenty times a day, if not more. It was a constant barrage."

@Video 61 

 

 

 

You see, one of the ongoing things was Jack didn’t like dealing with all these dealers and distributors - he just wanted to deal with a couple of them. I don’t know why. It's how Jack did business. So I had Atari’s inventory and I was watching it GO-GO-GO. It sold well, and of course I had access to all of that stuff and the ability to buy more directly from Atari. But I couldn’t buy it all, because of course there were millions of cartridges. So I was trying to buy up the cartridges that were going faster because I knew those were good games. And Mario Bros. was one of them, especially the version that had been released for the Atari XE. Atari wisely made this Mario Bros. for the XE, and there was still a huge userbase for the Atari 8-bit computer from before Jack took over that would love to have a Mario Bros. game for their Atari XL computer too. So I put an order in for a couple of master cartons of Mario Bros. cartridges for Atari XE. That’s 72 cartridges to a master carton. I receive them at my warehouse and they sell through quickly. I come back later to order more from Atari, and another huge chunk of XE Mario Bros. cartridges are gone from their inventory. They were going fast!

 

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One time I went to order some and there were only 1,500 left. “I’ll take them all...” I said to the person from Atari the phone, "...everything you have left." Atari came back and said “Well there’s something here you might be unaware of about those Mario Bros. cartridges.” I said “Well, what are they?” and they said “Those games are locked up in semi truck trailers in our lot.” Okay, fine. I asked that they open the semi truck trailers up and take them out - “We can’t do that” she said, “because they are parked against each other, bumper to bumper, so you can’t open them.” Hmm, okay. I said “Well get a truck and move them.” Atari responds: “Oh we can ’t do that.” I asked why. “Oh Jack won’t let us, that will cost money.” Me: “Well how do I get them then?” Atari: “Well you’ll have to hire a trucking company to come in and do this. You’re just going to have to do this on your own. Once the trucking company comes in and moves the trailers apart and we can get into them, then we will call you back and tell you what cartridges we have, but for sure we have 1,500 new Mario Bros. for the XE game machine. What else is in there we’re not exactly sure.”

 

 

 

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"Yep, that's me. You're probably wondering how I ended up in this situation. Here I am on the phone ready to buy 1,500 Mario Bros. cartridges directly from Atari, who wants to sell them to me, but are held back by Jack’s penny-pinching policies. Spend a dollar to save a penny. This is just how things were ran. This is the reality of things that I dealt with day in and day out."

@Video 61 

 

 

 

So to get access to the Mario Bros. games in the semi trailer, I have to go and hire a trucking company myself, to go do the work for Atari. Remember the $125 it cost Atari per invoice to fulfill an order? Not only was Atari not paying for the trucking company to come do the work, they were having me do all the legwork with making arrangements with the trucking companies, so that Atari didn't have to pay their employees to do it themselves. That's a cost saving measure. 

I called some trucking companies here in Minnesota to see if they had anybody out in California who could do this for me. Yeah, some of them had some guys available out there near Sunnyvale, CA - but this wasn’t over yet, it would take some time. The trucking companies came back and said YES, they could do the job of going out to Atari, hooking their truck up to the trailers and pulling them apart - but I’d have to pay for the licensing and insurance, yada yada yada, pay for the truck drivers to go in there, move things around, unhook the trailers, and then let Atari go in and take inventory and wait for DAYS. So I would have to pay for the truck and the driver, for all of those days, until they are done with Atari going through everything and taking inventory. For every minute of every day they are doing that, I would be charged by the trucking company to sit and wait. So you can only imagine how much that was going to cost me.

 

 

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This took some doing, but I got it all sorted out. I called Atari back, and said the expense of the trucking company could cost me $5,000 - $10,000 dollars. In those days that was the price of a nice new American car. Atari said “Don’t worry about it. Jack got mad and we just trashed it all. We sent the semi trailer full of games off to the scrappers.” I said “Well then you had to hire a trucking company to come in and do the work.” Atari: “Yeah we did. But the thing about it is we didn’t have to have any of our Atari employees inventory anything. The truck drivers just pulled the trailers apart and hauled it away. We didn’t have to spend money on employees doing inventory.” You got to remember those trailers were rented also, so by throwing the Mario Bros. games in the dump not only did they avoid having to pay the expense of employees inventorying the games, they also didn’t have to pay the rental on the trailers anymore or the taxes on the inventory. That was "Jackthink".

 

 

 

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"When I say 'Bruce and Brad' I'm referring to my old colleagues, Bruce is Bruce Carso of B&C ComputerVisions, and Brad is Brad Koda of Best Electronics. The three of us have operated independently in the Atari business for many, many years, and we dealt directly with Atari every day. Yes, Bruce and Brad are my 'competitors' but not really, we each have a speciality: Mine is games, Brad is parts, and Bruce is mostly computers."

@Video 61 

 

 

 

People think the E.T. in the garbage dump in New Mexico story is bad. This was insane, I still can’t believe it. Jack would rather manufacture cartridges to just sit unsold, parked in a hot trailer in a parking lot, and then throw a truckload of brand new Mario Bros. games in the garbage - than to spend a few extra pennies inventorying the games so he could sell them to me and have plenty of room for him to make a profit in the end. This is how this guy thought, it was just beyond unbelievable.

In the end, Brad, Bruce and I managed to get all the 7800s out of Atari and we managed to get what was left over of the Lynx stuff except for 10,000+ units sitting in Hong Kong that needed to be repaired. I may have gotten some of them, I don’t remember it’s so long ago, whatever happened to the bulk of them. Brad doesn’t have them, Bruce doesn’t have them, and I don't know what happened to the rest of them but, that will be a story for another day.

 

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Oh, and what happened to the 400 400 computers you ask? Well when we went there the next day ready to buy them and load up the truck, Atari had already tossed them into the dumpsters and the dumpster divers and scrappers got them for $ZERO. Most of the Atari 400 computers went to the scrappers because if the dumpster divers had gotten them we would’ve known immediately. Many of the dumpster divers at Atari would call us up immediately, because they knew they could only sell them to flea market type things one or two at a time, and it was easier for them to call me, Bruce, and Brad, and try to get money out of us because they knew we’d buy a bunch of them. And they were right.

This was Jack saving money. Instead of waiting a day or two for me to get everything organized, it was “Well we don’t need the labor, we don’t need the added expense of paying more employees to do more work, just get rid of the computers now.” That’s the way things operated under Jack. It was ran as a feudal system with Jack as King and his three sons as Princes. They wouldn’t wait five minutes, they’d just ask if you wanted it or didn’t. Sometimes Atari wouldn’t even ASK if you wanted it or not, they’d just ship it to me. Things would arrive on trucks to my warehouse that I didn’t order, or ask for, or knew anything about. Jack would decide to get rid of something and use Lance as his dump. That’s how I ended up with so many random things out of Atari that I’m still uncovering and have to make heads or tails out of. (See my recent series of Blog posts titled “Raiders of the Lost EPROMs”.) That was the frustrating problem - there’s quite a bit of Atari stuff that I have no idea what it was or asked for, and some of the Atari stuff I wanted bad went to the scrappers or the dumpster. Had I been able to purchase them back then, today they'd all be in the hands of loyal Atari players out there like you, instead of in the dump.

 

Thanks for reading,

- Lance  :nintendo_professor_hector:

 

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

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Another great read Lance. 🙂 I want to pull my hair out along with you, over those lost Mario Bros. XEs and the 400s. A shame so much good hardware thrown away over Jack's pigheadedness. 🤬

More XE Eproms is great too! A shame the one is not reading, but looking forward to your next EPROM post. :D

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Wow, I don't want to say this but Jack really was a cheapskate miser.  He actually thought he can save money by throwing out inventory instead of selling it?

No wonder why Atari Corp. was dead last in everything...

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