Atari Jaguar, do the math!
I am sure you are wondering what the hell an Atari system is going on a website devoted to the Dreamcast? Well, back when I was a child, although I wanted a Sega Saturn to arrive down the chimney one Christmas it seemed Santa was on a budget and couldn't afford the ridiculous £399 Sega were asking. Instead, he had come across a flop of a console which was being sold of at the local market for a bag of crisps and a pork pie. Yup, I was on of the kids who ended up with an Atari Jaguar for Christmas. Anyway, I thought it would be fun to delve in the not so distant past and take a look at a console which has a lot similarities to our beloved Dreamcast.
The Jaguar is a system often mocked due to an advertising campaign which touted the console as a 64-bit power house, and for players to "Do the Math", comparing their rival's inferior "bits" (how come nobody seems to give a rat’s arse about bits these days?); while in reality only two fifths of the machine's processors were actually 64-bit, and most games looked largely like 16-bit games. Yet, the machine remains something of a curio due to it being the last ever Atari console, and it also played host to a small number of exclusive titles and a few interesting, if not particularly revolutionary, loftier versions of classic 16-bit games. Bits, bits, bits.
|The Atari Jaguar, prononced JAGWARRR over the pond!|
The Atari Jaguar was launched in 1993 but the systems origins can be traced back much further. In 1986, Martin Brennan, Ben Cheese and John Mathieson formed a computer design company named Flare where they created the blueprint for a potentially exiting new game processor. Realizing upon completion that they needed more funding to increase the performance of the processor they approached Atari who decided to back the development with the aim of creating a new console for the home market. Atari ran two simultaneous projects, one a 32-bit architecture named, “Panther” and the other a 64-bit system titled “Jaguar” (just like Sega with planets, Atari had a thing about cats).
The Panther was abandoned and Atari decided to go with the Jaguar project to supersede its major 32 bit competitors; the 32X, Phillips CD-i and the 3DO. The cartridge based system was released in December 1993 in the US at a retail price of $249.99 and launched with the rather hapless Cybermorph. A 3D shooter, the game was near-universally panned by critics for its poor graphics, and lack of any kind of excitement. Playing this shooter again recently there really is nothing good I can say about the game, it is just terrible. Unfortunately, early adopters of the system had to endure a bit of a wait to play any games deserving of the “64 bit” moniker the company had been so proud to plug.
|The design of system is great despite the unwieldy controller|
The first game to make a real splash on the system was the console’s release of Doom. It blew all other contemporary releases out of the water, even without having any music during gameplay (the Jaguar’s Digital Signal Processor was busy rendering the game and did not have enough CPU cycles left to process music). Upgraded versions of 16-bit and PC classics came to console, such as Theme Park, Sensible Soccer, Syndicate and Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, which gave the console some much needed variety and some fairly enjoyable titles. The problem was that despite Atari's constant boasting about the Jaguar's bits there was still not a single game that couldn’t have been produced for a 16-bit console.
One game was to change that; "Alien vs. Predator," a game overdue by seven months from its targeted release date, finally made a successful debut in late 1994. The game’s dark tone and mature gameplay was exactly what the system needed in convincing people to upgrade to their system. A first person shooter, it featured great 3D graphics for the time and was an extremely atmospheric affair in which you could take the role of an Alien, Predator, or marine. Each species had its own particular objectives and strengths and the game was a relative success for Atari. As with all Jaguar games, Alien vs. Predator came with insert cards to place over the controller's keypad. The cards, were a sort of add-on, akin to the Dreamcast's VMU as they used icons to help quickly identify key functions for each character such as weapon selection. Again, like the Dreamcast's, the Jaguar's controller is a particular issue of debate amongst retro gamers. While it won’t win any awards for its looks, I do think that the ergonomics of the controller are pretty good, and the ColecoVision inspired insert cards really help when playing games with complicate controls such as Doom.
|Insert cards helped with games like Doom|
The end of 1994 was a brief golden age for the Jaguar with the system receiving its only other game that could be classed as a “must have” title. Jeff Minter’s, Tempest 2000 was another release in a long series which had started in 1981 in the arcades and had been ported to various home consoles over the years. The game is essentially a shooter, whereby the player controls a small spaceship at the edge of a set hollow tube shaped environment, and has to shoot off various alien invaders before they reach the screen. It’s an age old concept that has been done numerous times but in Tempest it works so well; the visuals, the techno soundtrack, all comes together to make a great package.
|Once you are in the zone, Tempest is relentless!|
Releases during 1995 were indeed sparse and so Atari decided to release a CD system unit for the Jaguar to cut down the cost of producing the expensive cartridges. Released at $150 along with 2 games: Blue Lightning and Vid Grid (both tragically bad), the unit, like the 32X add on for the Megadrive, plugs into the cartridge slot and permits the play of full-motion video at a whopping 24 frames per second. The system played host to a couple of notable releases; Dragon's Layer was a decent conversion of the laserdisc arcade classic. Primal Rage on the Jaguar, although requiring the 6-button controller to play with any skill, was probably one the best home conversions of that game, and there was even a sequel to the systems' launch title in Battlemorph. Ultimately, the add-on, like the Jaguar itself suffered from a lack of third party support and like all add-ons was a complete disaster for Atari. The end for the system was in sight when Sony and Sega released their latest 32-bit home consoles, the PlayStation and Saturn, in 1995 and the system never recovered. Sales for the Jaguar were pretty turgid overall with only 135,000 units sold, worldwide!
Looking back, there are lots of similarities between the Jaguar and the Dreamcast .Obviously, they both represent the last hardware outputs from the former bastions of home gaming, Atari and Sega respectively (hardware which in my opinion was both refreshingly simple and still aesthetically pleasing) and both were also tragically absorbed into other companies. However, while Sammy has continued to exploit the well known Sega franchises like Sonic and Outrun, Infogrames seems happy simply to use the Atari names without taking advantage of the company's heritage. Classic games like Centipede, Frogger, and Asteroids to name just few would really benefit from updates and it is a shame that Infogrames, or Atari, or whatever the company is now called is happy to let these franchises rot.
|Special Brew; like the Jaguar, not for the faint hearted|
Still, as a retro enthusiast who clings to the past like a thirsty alcoholic does his Special Brew, I have fond memories of the Jaguar. Esthetically pleasing, the system has some great must-have games like Doom, A.v.P, Tempest 2000, and Iron Solider. There are also some great ports, Sensi, Theme Park, Syndicate, Brutal Sports and Rayman to name just a few. The system has a great, if not tragic background, which is reminiscent of our beloved Dreamcast, and its a shame that both were largely cut short without their full potential ever being released but if you’re looking for something fun to collect or unique to play, and that won’t break the bank then you should take a look at the Atari Jaguar. Do the math!