30 Years Ago, One Video Game System Hoplessly Failed Kids Everywhere
The Atari Jaguar was so bad, it didn’t even have time to ruin our childhoods.
Exactly fifty years ago, Atari was still the leader in electronic entertainment, pioneering home consoles in the ’70s, innovating arcade technology, and developing addictive yet simple games. By the ‘90s, the industry changed, and Atari was left in the dust. The once-mighty brand had one last trick up its sleeve, a proprietary video game system perceived to be the most powerful console of its era. What should have relaunched the ailing company to dominance instead plunged them into abysmal failure.
The Atari Jaguar launched with great anticipation on November 23, 1993. It was the First 64-bit system, boasting capabilities its 16-bit rivals the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis could only dream of achieving. Its marketing campaign pressured potential customers to “do the math,” but no arbitrary number of bits could have helped the Jaguar succeed. Instead, this console sank Atari deeper than any pitfall imaginable.
When the Jaguar was being developed, it was smack dab in the middle of the Console War of the 90s, where countless companies raced to create the next hot system. Atari was relegated to the island of irrelevancy, their last attempt being the dismal Atari 7800 in 1986. Nintendo and Sega had run Atari aground, outselling them by millions, and combined with their fall from grace during the Video game crash of 1983 situated Atari in a precarious position.
After licking their wounds, Atari sought to bounce back stronger than ever, placing their hopes on a new console – the Atari Panther. The project began in 1988 with a planned release in 1991, but ultimately never happened. During the development of this opponent to the SNES or Genesis, a different console was simultaneously being worked on. It wasn’t the Atari Lynx, their handheld battery-eater that also featured the name of a jungle cat. It was the Jaguar, and Atari was banking on it being the next big thing in gaming.
On paper, the Atari Jaguar was a huge technological upgrade compared to other consoles on store shelves. All eyes were on Atari, eager to see what this underdog was about to deliver. The only problem was – they couldn’t hit their deadlines. Intended to be released in late 1992, the launch was delayed by a year, withholding the product to work out a litany of bugs. When it finally arrived in time for 1993’s holiday season, it was only available in North America. The U.K. was forced to wait until the summer of ‘94, while Japan didn’t receive it until that December.
Early reviews for the Atari Jaguar were mixed yet optimistic, but it didn’t take long for its shortcomings to be exposed. From a disappointing array of games to its confounding design choices, the Jaguar crumbled from a potential blockbuster to just plain bust.
The console itself puzzled customers, mourning the lack of dust cover where the cartridges were placed into the system. Without this simple slab of plastic, it wouldn’t take much to damage the contact points and cause connection problems. The bulky controller, featuring an unnecessary number pad underneath a three-button set-up, was clumsy to hold. It lacked the finesse of an SNES pad, or even a Game Boy, along with most other sleek controllers. The “Jag Pad,” as it’s affectionately referred to by nostalgic gamers, was originally the Panther’s controller, but Atari kept the unused design to cut costs. An ergonomic pro controller was later released with six buttons in a futile attempt to make amends, but it wouldn’t have mattered if they had a candy dispenser attached to it – nobody was buying the Jaguar.
As for the strength of the console, that’s where things become complicated. For video games in the ’90s, bits were everything. In an instant, consumers had a quantifiable amount they could understand as proof of power, even if there was more to it than just that number. In reality, the Jaguar used a 32-bit processing unit but tossed in other processors to cheat a 64-bit quantity on a technicality.
Very few of its 61 games are remembered warmly, with the majority being bad or forgettable. Despite its processing prowess, most developers didn’t take advantage of those slightly enhanced capabilities due to glitchy backend issues. 16-bit titles like Brutal Sports Football, Cannon Fodder, and Flashback: Quest for Identity were merely ported from other consoles without upgrading a single element.
Racing game Checkered Flag or mech sim Iron Soldier was among the handful of games to showcase the 3-D abilities those 64-bits could handle, as long as you didn’t mind looking at hordes of polygons stacked on more polygons. Just because it was 3-D didn’t mean it was great, as the 1V1 fighting game Fight for Life proved 3-D graphics didn’t equate to being functional.
The Jaguar lacked major franchises, aside from an inferior Double Dragon fighting game and a terrible entry in the Bubsy series. Instead, subpar clones were released, which made things worse. Kids went to the toy store asking for Mortal Kombat on the Jaguar, but their parents said “We have Mortal Kombat at home,” and handed them Kasumi Ninja. And the less said about scrolling shmup Trevor McFur in the Crescent Galaxy, the better.
It wasn’t entirely bleak for the Jaguar, as some games were decent, but not strong enough to redeem the system. Originals like fighter Ultra Vortek, racing game Atari Karts, and tank-based shooter Hover Strike comfortably sit atop many top 10 lists for the system. Doom and Wolfenstein 3-D are considered the best home console ports of the PC classics, even if they lacked background music. Alien VS Predator was a great first-person shooter that allowed players to take control of a Colonial Marine, Xenomorph, or a stalking Predator, each with different goals and gameplay mechanics.
Atari also dipped into its archives for a few updated classics that proved outstanding, like Missile Command 3-D, Defender 2000, and Tempest 2000. Rayman was their nearly perfect side-scroller on the console that could have been their big IP, but by the time it arrived in late 1995, the end of the Jaguar was already in sight.
The Jaguar’s rollout was so slow, that the system didn’t land in Spain until April 1995, months before Atari ceased development on the console in November. The company sold a measly 125,000 units across two years, losing its share of the market due to the emergence of the Sony Playstation, Sega Saturn, and even the mediocre 3DO, which substantially outsold the Jaguar.
Today, the secondary market for Jaguar is a hot one, with some titles fetching triple digits. Curious gamers can pick up the Atari 50th Anniversary Collection for current-gen consoles, which includes over 100 games spanning the entire Atari console ecosystem, with a few Jag games included. There’s also a strong homebrew community that uses emulators to create new games or mods pre-existing ones, including a wild 32-player version of Alien VS Predator.
By April 1996, the Jaguar was formally abandoned when Atari Corporation merged with another company, absorbed wholly two years later by Hasbro Interactive. The ultimate humiliation came when the remaining shells for the console were bought by a dental equipment company, repurposing the mold to make cameras to inspect teeth. Instead of hitting stores with a roar, the Jaguar limped out with an ineffectual meow. A footnote during the Console Wars, it lives on knowing that its unremarkable contribution to gaming went on to improve the oral health of dental patients around the world.
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