Flush it Friday: Atari Jaguar Edish
Younger folks might never have heard of this unique (and failed) console, even though they may be familiar with the name Atari. Welcome to this bizarre, 5th generation console, and their final attempt at a gaming console: the Atari Jaguar.
In the early ’90s, gaming manufacturers were in the midst of a “bits war”, wherein each company would boast the number of bits their consoles used in their architecture. You’d see advertising campaigns highlighting that the new Sega Genesis, for example, was a 16-bit powerhouse in contrast to the aging 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System. To the general public, it was perceived that a console’s primary gauge of power was the number of bits its microprocessor could handle (rather than boasting the CPU’s speed or amount of RAM). Generally speaking, the higher amount of bits is somewhat indicative of a console’s power; but it doesn’t tell the full story.
The Atari Corp. had been in the gaming industry since 1984, manufacturing home consoles that allowed people to play their favorite arcade games at home. They were a household name, considering the number of homes that had an Atari 2600 console. Throughout the decades other manufacturers would release consoles to compete against the video game behemoth, and that’s when we see major contenders like the aforementioned Sega Genesis and Nintendo Entertainment System. It was a cutthroat arena with companies trashing other console in marketing campaigns, etc. Several generations of consoles came and went, leading us to the year 1993 when Atari would release a console they thought would just destroy the competition.
“Do the Math” was Atari’s primary campaign slogan, as they were claiming that their “64-bit” Jaguar completely overpowered anything else in the competition. In a way, it did; but many tech nerds realized that while technically it is 64-bits, the individual CPUs were either 16-bit or 32-bit (and it featured 5 different ones mounted on three chips). The memory bus was 64-bit, yes, but that just provided more bandwidth for the separate CPUs to talk to each other. Two of the 32-bit CPUs were coined “Tom” and “Jerry”, one handling complex instructions and the other on graphical duties (both are custom, in-house designed processors, making software development even more difficult). Then there’s an industry-standard Motorola 68000 processor (16-bit) which acts as a task manager (think of it like a foreman) to handle sending different instructions to appropriate destinations.
As I mentioned, development was beyond difficult due to the complexity of the hardware, but also less-than-stellar documentation and actual hardware bugs (which were listed in the technical documentation). Add to that a general skepticism and often distaste for the console, meaning there wasn’t a huge consumer base waiting for every new game to release. Because the general reception of the console was lukewarm or often outright cold, the console only moved between 150,000—250,000 units (that’s not a lot). If you want to purchase a working Atari Jaguar now, it’s going to hurt your wallet by around $300-600, depending on the condition.
Let’s face it, the strength of a console lies solely in the games one can play on it. If they suck, it really doesn’t matter how powerful the unit is. Well brace yourself for the quantity of officially licensed games for the Jag: 50, and many of them are below average. The pack-in game was Cybermorph, a StarFox like shooter, and let me tell you: nobody liked it. A kid might beg his parents to plop down $250 for a console at Christmas, only to find the game which came with it being such a let-down. Poor framerate, poor draw distance, repetitive gameplay, and a big green head appearing on the screen whenever you crash into terrain, mocking you with “where did you learn to fly?”
I purchased my first used Jaguar in 2022 for $350 and it required a somewhat difficult repair to get fully running. Games are not cheap, as I’ve paid $50 on average for each one. But after all I’ve described to you, I still think it’s a great console with a small amount of great games. I’ve amassed 11 cartridges and don’t really feel the need to purchase more though. Doom on the Jag was one of the best ports released on home console, as well as Wolfenstein 3D. There’s an amazing shooter called Tempest 2000, developed by gaming legend Jeff Minter, that provides fun for hours (along with psychedelic visuals and a pulse-pounding techno soundtrack). Raiden is a classic shmup title with a terrific Jag port as well. But the MVP of the console was the first iteration of Alien vs Predator, which features three individual campaigns as a marine, a xenomorph, and the mighty predator. As a kid, I was blown away by the display machine at Toys R Us running AvP and it was highly praised in popular gaming magazines at the time.
The Atari Jaguar is an oddity: a very powerful console but an incredibly complex one which was not really well received by the masses. But like all weird technology, there’s an enthusiastic community of gaming nerds who keep it alive with a decent homebrew scene, message boards where one can receive tech support, and a Reddit page with a decent amount of activity. I play the console almost every day and engage with the community of fans on a regular basis. The Jag could have been a great contender in the home console market, but so many things were working against it. After its demise, Atari essentially threw in the towel while Nintendo, Sony, Sega, and Microsoft took over the market. RIP to one of the most niche consoles out there. (But also not RIP to us weirdos keeping it on life support.)
The story of the Jaguar is way longer than what I could have written here, this just contains the broadstrokes. Anyway, it’s Friyay so feel free to share any interesting console stories you have along with your G, B, and U!
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