Zap! The Rise and Fall of Atari

Scott Cohen McGraw-Hill 1984 177 pp.
Scott Cohen
McGraw-Hill 1984
177 pp.

Written during the video game crash of 1983, Zap! has an interesting perspective on the world of home interactive entertainment. Common among analysts from that period, Scott Cohen spends considerable time questioning the viability of the home video game market, theorizing that the home computer and its ability to play games, along with the saturation of the market by then-existing video game consoles make it unlikely that the industry could ever make a comeback. He compares home video games to the hula-hoop; a fad whose time has come and gone. While it’s easy to criticize this notion in 2009, in 1983 it was a valid point of view.

From the beginning, one is forced to question the objectivity of the author. Cohen makes disparaging remarks about video games even in the introduction, mentioning friends whose lives were all but ruined through their fascination with the arcade. He then goes on to point out how not only video games but the high tech industry in general turned Silicon Valley, once fertile agricultural land, into a wasteland of nondescript, soulless buildings. He makes a special point of discussing the nature of liquor stores in the valley and how they feed the litany of alcoholics who make up the high tech industry, which seems oddly out of place as it has nothing to do with the topic at hand. These comments seem populist in nature and meant to immediately capture the attention of the book’s intended audience, seemingly those celebrating the industry’s then-apparent demise.

Cohen makes a sufficient number of inaccurate statements to call his technological expertise into question. He asserts that lower-end computers cost the same as the Atari VCS, and that computers will always have better graphical capabilities than a game console, therefore rendering all consoles obsolete. While it is true that aging home “computers” like the Coleco Adam that were little more than a game console with a keyboard did have their prices dropped drastically around this time, it is because they represented an obsolete and unwanted technology that was being dominated by the likes of the IBM-PC, the Apple II, and the emerging Macintosh. He also suggests that because anyone can buy a computer and learn how to program a game in their garage, large game developers cannot succeed because there will simply be too much competition from these independent programmers. He goes on to further assert that game developers of any kind can never succeed anyway due to the ease with which users can make a copy of a game for free distribution to friends (note: floppy disk copy protection schemes already existed in 1983), so that “the only company that will benefit is the one that makes blank video cartridges.” Finally, he predicts that the computer will finally kill off the concept of the video game altogether because “if there were a [computer that] put people in touch with everything that they wanted to be in touch with, people would stop playing video games.” While his recognition of the impending domination of the internet is admirable, his assertion that it will supplant video games altogether is a theory with no logical base in reality and is a comparison between apples and oranges.

The bulk of the book is spent discussing the history of the Atari Corporation from its inception until then-present time. The acquisition of Atari by Warner Communications is blamed for Atari’s ultimate demise, primarily because they stifled research and development of successor technologies, relied solely on the aging Atari 2600, and published shovelware like E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial. Oddly, the author then goes on to explain that the Atari 5200 failed to gain any market share because it couldn’t play 2600 games (the Atari 2600 adapter had not yet been released), while the Colecovision and Intellivision were a success because they could play 2600 games (with adapters), and further suggests that subsequent consoles could not succeed in the market because too many households already owned a video game system and therefore would not be in need of a new one. You can’t argue on one hand that a company failed because it de-emphasized future development, and then on the other hand argue that the same company failed because they released more advanced console that wasn’t tied to the existing, aging technology, and that future technology would fall on deaf ears due to market oversaturation. If this were the case, then research and development at Atari would have been a fruitless endeavor and the lack thereof could not be blamed for the company’s lack of success.

Zap! leaves the impression that it was a book rushed out the door to capitalize on the collapsing video game industry, and the 161 pages of actual editorial content (excluding the index) comprised of large fonts and wide margins doesn’t help its case. At times the book reads like a Kitty Kelley-esque exposé, focusing on sour personal relationships between executives, questionable business ethics, and possible insider trading. This book may very well have been sold as an impulse item in grocery and drug store checkout lines to parents interested in reading why the seemingly successful home entertainment system that they bought for their children was suddenly tanking so badly that $35 games could be purchased for $5 in clearance bins. More entertaining than educational, Zap! is can be an interesting read for classic gaming enthusiasts if nothing else then for it’s time-sensitive perspective, provided that the reader has low expectations for the book’s accuracy and objectivity.

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