I recently picked up the Kindle version of Phoenix IV, the definitive history of console video games. It can be a bit dry, but wow, there was a lot of stuff that I didn’t know/remember, and I LIVED through that time. I let my my wander through and I came through some “What If’s” at key points of history. Here’s the first of an irregular series.
1. The Atari-Nintendo Alliance that was, and then wasn’t
Atari and Nintendo had a very checkered history (any one remember Tengen? Tetris?) but at the very beginning of Nintendo’s rise, Atari had a shot to nip the burgeoning Nintendo juggernaut in the bud, as they reached a deal with Nintendo to manufacture, distribute and promote the Nintendo Famicom (what we here in the United States would call the Nintendo Entertainment System, or the NES). The terms were agreed, and Nintendo expected to sign the deal at the 1983 Consumer Electronics Show. Atari wasn’t sure whether to sell the NES or another system they were working on (what would become the Atari 5200), but they had the chance to lock Nintendo out.
However, that stubborn ape Donkey Kong went and ruined everything.
Because when Atari got to the CES, they saw the Coleco Adam playing a version of Donkey Kong. Now, Nintendo had licensed Coleco to make a version for the ColecoVision, but the rights that Coleco had were ONLY for gaming systems. Not computer systems. Atari (who held the computer rights to Donkey Kong) were apoplectic. Not only was the pending deal not signed, but Atari CEO Roy Kassar threatened Nintendo with all kinds of lawsuits.
You know that saying, that all shit runs downhill? Well, Atari yelled at Nintendo, and Nintendo then had to bring the hammer down on Coleco. At a meeting, Coleco’s CEO tried to explain that since the guts of the Adam were the same as the ColecoVision, they thought it was covered under their license. Needless to say, Nintendo execs were not amused. All reports of the meeting indicate that Nintendo of Japan president Hiroshi Yamauchi entered the room, stood at the head of the table, and started screaming at the Coleco executives in Japanese without even saying hello, or waiting for his translator.
As it turns out, the bump in the road took long enough that the deal dissolved (Kassar would shortly be forced out at Atari due to allegations of insider trading and failing to improve Atari’s position from the great Atari Crash.).
We would see the question of “What is a computer versus what is a gaming system” pop up again a few years later with regards to Tetris, but this was one key moment where Atari could have at worst had the US field to themselves, and at best been the name behind the NES,.