Atari Coin-op Archive Footage

Well here we are, the end of another year. I should offer my apologies for the slowdown in posts in recent weeks – real life has been all-consuming with one thing and another so work on the blog has had to take a back seat for a while. But the good news is there’s lots of things in the queue ready to go up, so expect an improved level of output on Arcade Blogger next year!

With that said, I thought I’d leave 2019 by sharing a few rare videos and tid-bits from the Atari archives relating to coin operated machines.

The featured image you see on this blog post, is from an original 1982 photo-shoot. Captured is Frank Ballouz – one of Atari’s executives responsible for sales and marketing at the company during its formative years of the 70s and 80s. The inference here is that Atari had the ability to pull hit after arcade hit literally out of a top hat – in true magician style. But just how did they do it?

Of course, Atari’s secret sauce was that of innovation, but there came a point when even the coin op division had to promote its product in video form, be it on the silver screen or television.

The first is a video that I’d not seen in its entirety before being sent it by a reader a month ago. This promotional skit was created to be distributed in B2B form. It wasn’t meant to be seen by consumers or players. I would date it at around late 1980. It showcases the quality control processes in place at the company at the time. Designed to reassure operators and distributors that Atari were “on the ball”, the video was clearly released to make sure that their customers had confidence that everything was being done by the company to maintain their position as market leaders in the industry. The message here was that Atari was serious about what it did, and everything was focused on releasing reliable, quality products that would not break down (cough!).

It is a full 17 minutes long and is packed full of great footage from the factory floors, interviews with senior staff such as the aforementioned Frank Ballouz, Don Osborne, George Opperman and Ed Rotberg (Battlezone). It is a great find and gives us a unique insight into what went into producing an arcade video game back during Atari’s heyday of the early 80s. You’re going to love this:

And talking of Atari’s factory floors, I’ve shared this video before but thought it worth linking to again – this is Atari’s Star Wars arcade upright cabinet design being built on Atari’s hallowed production line in California.

Also note that the build date of Star Wars coincided with Crystal Castles, as you can see rows of cabinets in the background in some shots. This is another super-interesting insight into the processes involved here:

Dig Dug of course was one of Atari’s first licensed coin operated video games in collaboration with Namco of Japan. Released in 1982, a total of 22,000 cabinets were sold, generating gross revenues for Atari of $46 million. Bizarrely, it is one of just a handful of coin operated titles to have media budget thrown at it.

Atari actually retained a production house, Young & Kubican Advertising to create a full blown two and half minute featurette to promote the release of the game. This is the rather bizarre ad that they came up with:

The Dig Dug film was made by well-known TV director Manny Perez, and the team providing the special effects also worked on the movie Poltergeist. Clearly, this was no low-budget enterprise. The punchline tells the audience to “Ask for it where you play coin video games”. The short was shown in movie theatres across the USA, which perhaps explains the rather extravagant production values used.

There’s additional detail worth sharing here. First, a “behind the scenes” video showing what went into the making of the commercial:

And then there this: You’ll notice in the ad, a soundtrack was written specifically for it. Amazingly, the song was originally recorded by non other than Chubby Checker. This discovery came about by chance. The son of the late Don Osborne discovered an old cassette tape at home:

My father, Don Osborne, was Vice President of ATARI at the time and he brought this home one day for us to listen to. I’m not sure how I actually ended up with it, but he may have lent it to me and I just never gave it back or he never asked for it to be returned. The only info that I have about it was that ATARI had envisioned a somewhat ‘50’s styled take on the song, inspired, in part, by Chubby Checker’s hit “The Twist.” At the time that I’d heard the song and had got possession of the tape, it was fully intended that Chubby’s song would be used in the final commercial. It’s been over 30 years, that and I was about 13 at the time, so details are fuzzy, but I remember my father being extra excited that Chubby was involved in the project and had great things to say about having met him. After that, I don’t recall why his song was eventually dropped in leu of the one in the final cut of the commercial. The only thing that makes sense is that Chubby might have appealed to a much older audience and not the one that the commercial was targeted towards, so they eventually choose a younger representation for the band singing the song. Still, try going online and digging up any history, or even a mention of Chubby’s involvement, and you will find very little.

Incredibly Matt Osborne shared the original recording. So here it is, the original version of the Dig Dug theme song, sung by Chubby Checker!

Great stuff. As Matt says, quite why Checker wasn’t used to voice the song in the final advertisement is unknown. Perhaps he wanted too much money or perhaps there were contractual issues in using his voice?

Missile Command next. I came across some story boards for a TV advertisement during research for my upcoming book about the game

The resulting production was released in 1981 and promoted the home version of Missile Command playable on Atari’s wildly successful 2600 console. A video of the final commercial is here:

Interesting there that Atari was making the connection between the coin operated arcade version of Missile Command, that consumers would be familiar with, and suggesting that the viewer had the opportunity to play Missile Command in the privacy of their own homes. This was a theme to be repeated many times with other games that received a makeover for home formats .

In fact only a handful of Atari arcade games received their own dedicated consumer TV advertising campaign. As we see above, Dig Dug was one, but Xevious was another. The video of the Xevious commercial has never surfaced, but someone recorded the audio back in the day onto cassette, and uploaded it to YouTube a couple of years back:

“Are you devious enough to beat Xevious?”. What I find interesting here, is that Dig Dug and Xevious were both game released under licence from Namco of Japan. I wonder if this expensive media support for both games in the USA was part of the commercial deal struck between Atari and Namco? Or maybe just Atari wanting to keep Namco sweet for future collaborations? I guess we’ll never know.

Later in 1985, a rather uninspiring animated commercial for Atari’s Gauntlet arcade game was released and shown on Saturday mornings in-between kids programming:

“The most fun a quarter can buy!”. Amazing that absolutely no in-game footage was used in the commercial.

Other companies managed to release TV specific ads also. Here, Sega sell Zaxxon to the consumer public:

Whilst not a commercial in itself, this I thought was interesting enough to share here. The Bond movie Never Say Never Again had a clear product placement from Atari in this casino scene featuring Kim Basinger and of course Sean Connery. Featuring Irish built Atari Gravitar, Dig Dug and Centipede cabinets, this indoor scene was filmed at Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire, England – the arcade cabinets used would have been sourced from Atari’s European factory in Ireland. The Gravitar cabinets shown here are particularly interesting – the Irish design is almost cabaret-sized, with the marquee and monitor bezel produced as a single piece of perspex. Only a handful survive today.

Thank you as always for your continued support of the blog. Here’s to 2020 – keep an eye out – lots in store to post up on the blog, and news soon on my book which is almost complete.

Credit: Atari Coin-op Archive Footage