Happy birthday, Atari Jaguar

The Atari Jaguar 64-bit interactive multimedia system.

The Atari Jaguar 64-bit interactive multimedia system.

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the release of the Atari Jaguar in San Francisco and New York City.

Last year I wrote about Christmas 1993 when my parents surprised me and my brothers with an Atari Jaguar. Because the Jaguar wasn’t available nationwide yet, my parents teamed up with an uncle in California to obtain it.

In the 20 years since then, I sold or gave away all my other old Ataris — the 2600, 800, 130XE, 520ST and 1040STe — though I wish I still had all of them.

But the Jaguar remains — and it has new life because my kids now enjoy it.

Here’s a look back at this console that meant so much to us.

The legacy

My brothers and I were familiar with the popular consoles of the day. We spent many afternoons in the basement of our neighbor friend’s house, playing Super Mario Brothers or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles among others. There were long sessions of SMB3 in my friend John’s living room. And I remember a birthday sleepover at a classmate’s house where we played the then-new Super Nintendo late into the night.

But my family never owned anything popular — or current. All our computer equipment had been hand-me-downs from relatives, several years out of date.

We never had anything state-of-the-art — until the Jaguar.

So we played it all the time. We also talked about it to friends. It was an underdog system, and we were the only ones we knew who had one. Unfortunately, that never really changed because the system didn’t sell well.

A humanoid is in trouble during a session of Defender 2000.

A humanoid is in trouble during a session of Defender 2000.

And that leads us to the console’s main issue: games.

The Jaguar’s library was fairly weak. The system was capable of so much more, but since it didn’t sell well, there was never a solid ecosystem of developers. No games that truly pushed the machine to its limits.

But we were kids. And we were happy with what we had. Here’s what I remember about some of our early experiences with the Jaguar’s games.

The pack-in, Cybermorph, was a simple but fun flight game. Your “T-griffon” ship is transported to different planets where you blow up bad guys and rescue yellow pods. The graphics were impressive at the time — A world built of 3D polygons, with Gourad shading to smooth it all out. The worlds were wide-open, and I thought it was cool that I could fly anywhere, unlike other space games where the player is restricted to a particular path.

I spent a lot of time with Cybermorph, and was able to beat it eventually. But I never warmed to our second Jaguar game, Trevor McFur and the Crescent Galaxy.

This is kind of surprising, because I was generally like sci-fi and space games. Trevor McFur was a sidescroller, in the vein of Defender or R-type. But I thought the visuals were kind of corny, and didn’t care for the the music or sound effects.

It was exciting to see occasional Jaguar TV commercials and big write-ups in gaming magazines. Atari was in the news! It was like a miracle after years of obscurity.

Still, we weren’t big spenders. We subsisted on this meager diet of games until 1994, when we got Tempest 2000, one of the best titles ever made for the Jaguar. Everything about it is awesome from the techno soundtrack to the smooth gameplay to the beautiful graphics. The bursts of colorful pixels as you earn power-ups, the trippy way visuals melt and blur away. I spent hours and hours whirling around webs.

Over the next two years we finally diversified beyond space games. Troy Aikman Football, NBA Jam, Pitfall: The Mayan Adventure, and Syndicate. Each of these was loved and well-played at our house.

And after Atari finally folded up shop, we got a last load of games: Alien vs. Predator, Defender 2000, Hover Strike, and Flip-Out. Because we got these so late, I never got far into any of them, though AvP and Defender 2000 are particularly strong games.

When the late 1990s rolled around, I was at college. I was working on Macs at school, and eventually bought an iMac. I spent less time on our Atari computers and the Jaguar. Eventually the Jaguar ended up with my brother Justin when he lived in another town.

My son Joseph presses "B" to fire in Defender 2000.

My son Joseph presses “B” to fire in Defender 2000.

Rediscovery

My brother had the Jaguar for most of the 2000s before giving it back to me a couple years ago. For a while it stayed in its box, but occasionally I would take it out and play. This past year, I took it out and installed it permanently in the basement. I also ordered a custom-built S-Video cable to get a better picture.

My kids love to play it, particularly my oldest (Jadzia) and youngest (Joseph). Their favorite games are NBA Jam, Tempest 2000, Cybermorph, and Defender 2000.

Joseph is nuts about the space games. It’s been interesting to watch the way he incorporates aspects of all three space games into his own imaginative play. I was too old to have done that as a teen, but Joseph is just 3 and a half.

My son Joseph is engaged playing Defender 2000.

My son Joseph is engaged playing Defender 2000.

Joseph is particularly into Defender 2000 right now, a fast-paced side-scrolling space shooter. So much so that he even makes up songs about it.

I dismissed Defender 2000 when I first tried it in the late 1990s, because it was so fast. I was familiar with the Atari 8-bit version of Defender, but with the Jaguar version, I found I couldn’t control the ship at such high speeds, and frequently crashed into bad guys.

In trying it again with Joseph this year, I have come to realize I was playing it wrong. One day Joseph started beating levels (mostly by accident) and even got himself onto the high-score list. I was surprised, and tried playing it again myself. That’s when I realized you are not meant to hold down the left- and right-arrow controls. What’s needed are occasional taps, so that you keep a slower, more manageable speed. After that I, too, started beating levels and making progress. It’s a fun game, with great effects and music.

There are a number of Jag games I’ve never tried, that I’d like to obtain: Rayman, Bubsy, Myst, and Battlemorph are high on the list. We’ll see what the future brings.

Over the last year I’ve exposed my kids to more retro-computing stuff than ever before. My daughter has learned how to BBS, they’ve watched me play SunDog in an Atari ST emulator, and they’ve embraced the Jaguar.

It’s not that we’ve rejected modernity. No, they’re familiar with games like “Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy” or “Machinarium” on the Mac, or “Bumpy Road” or “Real Racing” on the iPad.

But some things stand the test of time.

The Atari Jaguar 64-bit interactive multimedia system.

The Atari Jaguar 64-bit interactive multimedia system.

4 thoughts on “Happy birthday, Atari Jaguar

  1. Schmüdde

    Great retrospective. Thanks for sharing!

    I got mine in 1994. I saved and saved through late ’93 and into ’94. I didn’t own Trevor McFur until later – I never liked it – but I played a lot of Cybermorph at first and Tempest 2000 shortly after it was released. Alien Vs. Predator was a major purchase as well (expensive!), as was Rayman. Man, there are some great great games for the console but there were a lot of stinkers too, like Troy Aikman Football. Man that game was terrible, but I loved Brutal Sports Football, even though the graphics weren’t that impressive.

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  2. Jose

    Thank you for sharing your great retrospective, it brought back many fond memories for me. My dad took me to Radio Shack to buy me the Jaguar for my 12th birthday in April of 1995. Radio Shack had become my go-to gaming store since in 1994 they “resurrected” the Atari 2600 and 7800 and began selling their remaining stock of games and systems. This was before I had a computer so I really had no way of obtaining 2600 games aside from garage sales. I was thrilled to finally explore my older sister’s Atari 2600 which dad had kept in the storage closet for me to discover. I was a big Atari fan and appreciated their legacy. My collection would grow to include an Atari 7800 so the next logical step was their current generation console – the Jaguar.

    By 1995, I knew that the Jaguar wasn’t a hot console. I had both the SNES and Genesis and while the PS1 and Saturn were the next generation, the SNES and Genesis were still kicking and I was happy. However I fondly remembered Game Informer reviewing the Jaguar when it was first released and heaping praise on the console. So from my vantage point, reviews of the Jag were mixed.

    I remember that trip to Radio Shack very well. I flipped through their catalog until I finally stumbled upon the Jaguar pages. I immediately said I wanted it, one sales associate, jumped up in excitement, “you’re getting the Jaguar?” In retrospect he was probably over-selling since the console was a poor seller, but I was more than happy to buy into his excitement. As I walked away to the register I overheard another sales person say “the Jaguar sucks, why doesn’t he just get a Saturn.” I willfully ignored the remark. I was rooting for Atari and was eager for them to have a comeback.

    That birthday was a lot of fun, matter of fact, the Jaguar is one of the few birthday gifts from my childhood that I remembered. I loved most of the games that I would eventually have in my collection – Cybermorph, Iron Soldier, Rayman, Zool 2, Tempest 2000 and Defender 2000. Luckily I had avoided most of the terrible games. I remember my birthday party where for that one night, in my living room, full of my friends, we all took turns playing the Jag, and for that one brief moment, it didn’t seem like an underdog system.

    Atari would fold soon after and I would sell the console in the early 2000s, but I’m glad I stumbled on this retrospective for it brought back many fond memories of my childhood. Happy 20th birthday, Jaguar!

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