There was much fanfare yesterday as Atari celebrated its 40th birthday. Only, it's not really Atari's 40th birthday. I hate to be that guy, but the Atari of 2012 has about as much in common with Nolan Bushnell's original company as my beard trimmings do. Maybe even less, since Nolan has a killer beard.
The original company called Atari was formed in 1972. From Pong through to the Atari 2600, this was the Atari, the ones people associate with so many classic games of the 1970s and early 1980s.
Note however that in 1976 Bushnell sold Atari to Warner Bros, which is where you'll see the wheels start to fall off.
In 1984, a year after the great Video Game crash, the company was cut in two. One half handled mostly arcade stuff, and was called Atari Games Inc. The other was called Atari Corporation, and handled mostly home consumer electronics.
Atari Games remained under the ownership of Warner. In 1993, when Warner merged to become Time Warner, it ended up under the management of Time Warner Interactive. Then, in 1996, what remained of Atari Games was sold again to arcade company WMS Industries, the parent company of rivals like Midway and Williams. As a result, Atari Games was renamed Midway Games West, and would ultimately fold when Midway exited the arcade business in 2003.
Atari Corporation, on the other hand, was the company responsible for products like the Atari 7800 and Atari ST home computer, and at least through the 1980s maintained a reasonable level of success. In 1989 it released the Lynx, a serious competitor for Nintendo's Game Boy, and in 1993 released the Jaguar, the Atari brand's last meaningful contribution to the home console market.
By 1996, with the Jaguar a failure, Atari merged with hard drive manufacturers JTS. Only two years later, JTS offloaded the Atari name and properties to Hasbro.
Still with me? Well, in 2001 Atari's corpse traded hands again, this time to French publisher Infogrames, who in 2003 then began adopting the Atari name for itself. By 2009 this process was complete, and the people once famous for publishing games from the likes of Microprose had completed their public cosplay act and become a company that, for all intents, didn't really exist anymore.
I realise this isn't exactly a secret -- indeed, the infographic posted earlier today has all the key dates of the company's metamorphosis listed - but I guess it just irks me a little. The company called Atari today has absolutely nothing in common with the Atari of legend with other than the name and the legal rights to its back catalogue.
To say it's Atari's 40th birthday is to claim a sense of continuity that simply isn't there.
If I changed my name to Elvis Presley, and bought the rights to all his music, I wouldn't suddenly start celebrating my birthday on January 8 and claim I was 77 years old. Well, I mean, I could, but that would be a little stupid.
Because of this, celebrating Atari's "birthday" just feels a little wrong. Jesus aside, you don't really celebrate the birthdays of people who are dead. At least, not with lavish public fanfare. Whether you mark the time of death to be 1984, 1996, 2001 or 2003, the fact remains the original Atari is long gone. Maybe we should be celebrating an anniversary instead...