Observant Bigredcoat readers have noticed that I tend to use the Bad Controllers feature to pick on Atari. There’s a good reason for that– Atari spent nearly thirty years making terrible game consoles and could not once produce a game controller meant for human hands. Even their lone commercial success, the 2600, requires that you partake in a fair bit of nostalgic wistfulness before you can admit it’s controller wasn’t a catastrophic failure of the understanding of the design of the human wrist.
Now, I like Atari. I grew up with Atari, and Atari games are what made me fall in love with gaming. Atari is the gift that keeps on giving, as their commercial exploits– or failure thereof– have provided me hours of easy blog content. But sadly, the Atari gravy train is nearing its end, as today’s update will explore Atari’s last console and it’s into experimental interrogation techniques disguised as controller design, the Atari Jaguar.
One of the terms that sports writers get to throw around a lot is “historically bad”. “Historically bad” describes awfulness that goes above and beyond mere failure, awfulness that sticks out in a sea of suck, awfulness that sets the standard for futility for future generations. The 2003 Detroit Tigers were historically bad, having lost more games than any single team in American League history. The Carolina Panther’s Chris Weinke was a historically bad quarterback, having lost 17 games in a row and sporting two wins in five years in the NFL.
If any entity within the videogame realm qualifies for historically bad status, then it’s Atari.. We’re talking about the company that all but created the Crash of 1984 and the near-destruction of the console gaming industry; the company that turned away the rights to publish Nintendo’s NES; the company that thought it was a better idea to sit on a warehouse full of completed 7800 consoles for two years instead of actually selling the stupid things– So the infuriating thing about this article is having to admit that Atari very nearly came close to producing something that looked like a good system with the Jaguar.
Now, I don’t mean “good” in terms of hardware– the console itself was a nightmarish amalgamation of half a dozen chipsets running under radically different architectures with no clearly defined CPU– Nor do I mean they did a particularly good job marketing the system, as they forced the “64 bit” thing down everyone’s throat despite not being able to provide a clear case for why the Jaguar was a 64 bit system. Even the poorly documented development tools provided by Atari seemed designed to thwart any attempt at producing decent games for the system. Yet despite these flaws– and the overseeing malevolent eye of Jack Tramiel– the Jaguar managed to produce a handful of decent games, something Atari hadn’t managed to do in quite literally decades.
Well okay, maybe two. But still, this was more decent gaming than Atari had managed to pump out with the 5200 or 7800 or the Lynx, and we’re dealing with a period in gaming history when developers had a wealth of platforms to develop games for. They’re just lucky that Jeff Minter is more concerned with the benefits of psychotropic drugs than making money off his work.
But maybe it’s a good thing the Jag sported as few compelling games as it did. After all, if it had any more than Tempest 2k and Aliens vs Predator going for it, we’d have to actually use this goddamed thing:
The first thing you’re struck by when viewing the Jaguar gamepad is that there’s too many buttons, and nearly all of them are in the wrong place. This wealth of buttons has its roots back in Atari’s own pre-Crash roots, where plastic overlays were considered important elements of the gaming experience. More on that later.
The second thing you’re struck by is that despite this embarrassment of buttons, the thing somehow manages to not have nearly enough buttons, or at least enough buttons where they might be of some actual use. Remember, this was 1994– Games were massively more complex than what could reasonably be played on a 3-button pad and fighting and sports games ruled the market. Even Sega admitted that the standard Genesis 3-button gamepad simply could not compete with the wealth of input options offered by the SNES and released a superb six-button pad of their own in 1993. Yet here was the Jaguar sporting all of three action buttons and still Atari wanted to sell the Jaguar as the most advanced games machine ever released. I mean, maybe this was a workable gamepad for when you just needed to port Final Fight. Aliens vs Predator? Not so much.
The Jaguar was one of those weird transitional consoles that popped up between the end of the 16 bit era but before anyone was really interested in upgrading their systems, and in many ways its design reflects how it was stuck between the 16-bit and PlayStation eras. It was one of those systems that had an add-on CD player, for instance, back before console developers knew better than to split their userbase in two–
well, before they’d do it again, at any rate. The design of the controller itself is probably the best reflection of just how caught in time the Jaguar really was– in between not having enough action buttons to faithfully replicate a game of Super Mario World, the designers saw fit to re-introduce a design cue last seen in 1982–
You may remember these systems as being the last consoles released before the entire industry COLLAPSED UPON ITSELF. Now I don’t want to sit here and blame the entire Crash on controllers that looked like a Motorola DynaTAC 8000, but you will remember that the very first console to actually make money after the crash went back to two action buttons and a d-pad. Just saying. Anyway. This damned thing.
The idea was that gamers would pop in a plastic overlay over this section of the pad and thus every game developed could sport its own customized controller layout. Which was fine, until you realize that the keypad was so far away where a normal person would want reach while playing a game that it may as well reside on nether regions of an enraged gorilla.
The whole point of the overlay is vaguely silly anyway. If there’s any point in a game where I feel compelled to look down to see what button I’m supposed to be pressing, then you’ve failed as a game designer. This is why tactile feedback is so important to gamepad design and why the Genesis and SNES pads were rather outstanding– The SNES featured a row of scalloped and convex buttons, whereas the Genesis had a bump on the middle action button. You always knew where your thumb was resting .
(Sadly this idea was forgotten sometime after the release of the Gamecube pad– to this day I cannot tell you exactly where the face buttons are on any Playstation gamepad, and if prompted by a quick time event I have to look down at the buttons to see where the “X” button is at.)
And then there are the myriad of other, smaller problems with the Jaguar pad. The D-pad, for instance, is a flat featureless cross inexplicably surrounded by a raised circle that thwart attempts to make simple rolling motions, and the action buttons themselves are amorphous blobs with no analogous shape found in Euclidean geometry. The shape of the pad is not designed to be held as much as it is engineered to feel like it’s in constant danger of slipping out of your hands.
The baffling thing about the Atari Jaguar gamepad is that Atari would go on to use this same design to develop a very good gamepad, the Atari Pro Controller, representing the only example of Atari ever building a device that did not inflict intense physical punishment upon anyone attempting to interface with it: The Atari Jaguar Pro Controller.
Not only did Atari finally manage to develop a controller meant to be held by a human hand, having excised sloping surface present on the original controller, leaving a nearly flat surface that doesn’t actively try to squirm free from your grasp, and there were enough buttons present that you could wholly ignore the keypad, provided the game you were playing were developed with the Pro Controller in mind. Which, of course, seeing as the Jaguar itself only sold around 200 thousand units, meant that few games were developed to do so. But hey, if you ever want to play an authentic game of Primal Rage, this is the gamepad you want to have on hand.
Make no mistake, the Atari Jaguar would have been a colossal failure even if it sported the best game pad ever made. The whole operation was handled in the way the Tramiels always did business– cheaply, and with obvious contempt toward consumers and developers. Perhaps the greatest legacy of the Jaguar is that it’s failure would represent the final indignity the Tramiel family would be allowed to commit upon the gaming industry. By the time the Jaguar’s fate became obvious to everyone involved, Sony had so fundamentally changed the business of console gaming that it would be impossible for any company that wasn’t an enormous corporate behemoth to compete– which, when you’re dealing with a family as regressive as the Tramiels, isn’t always a bad thing.