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True Life: I Have an Atari Jaguar


True Life: I Have an Atari Jaguar

We sat down with AiPT! co-founder Russ Whiting to let him vent about something that we had absolutely no previous knowledge about.

Disclaimer: this interview may not have been conducted in concert by two living, breathing, unique individuals but in all actuality, inside Russ Whiting’s own demented, unbalanced mind.

So you wanted to see me? Something about a tell-all confession?

Nah. Wasn’t me.

So this note here which reads: “I need you to hear me out on something I’ve needed to get off my chest for the longest time… this is definitely Russ,” followed by your handwritten signature and “XOXO?” That wasn’t you?

Alright, yeah. That was me. Might as well get this over with. Who knows, could be cathartic.

You’re not coming out right now, are you? Because I’ve already known for a while and like I’ve told you countless times before, it doesn’t affect our friendship one bit.

No, but it’s something even more antiquated than your sense of humor. I… dammit, this is harder than I thought. Alright, fine. I’ve got an Atari Jaguar. There, I said it. The “cat’s out of the bag,” so to speak.

What a terrible and contrived pun.

My bad. Didn’t mean to make you feel like a cat on a hot tin roof. Pretty apropos for the topic at hand, though.

Atari? Good Lord. The rudimentary contraption you could play Pong on?

No. I’m not that ancient. Despite popular belief, Atari released a system in the fifth generation era of gaming that took place shortly after the Super NES and Genesis were nearing the end of their lifespans.

Well color me surprised. What’s with the strange jungle cat/English car based name?

I take it you’ve never heard of the Atari Lynx?

Sure haven’t.

Came out in 1989. The first color handheld portable system; held its own against the mighty Game Boy before eventually tapering off due to poor availability and lack of killer apps. Kind of ominous portent for what was to come. But yeah, Lynx was the first big cat or family Felidae-based name and Atari decided to keep rolling with the motif.

You’re either pedantic or just an asshole for using the term “family Felidae,” but I would actually like to know more. So back to the Jaguar?

I’d wager a little bit of both. Anyways, the year was 1993. A time when N64 was but a mere conception called, “Project Reality,” and kids in my 6th grade classroom had only “Who friggin’ cares?” whenever I mentioned Sony was bringing a system called the “Playstation” overseas.

Atari had been developing the Jaguar since 1991. They also had a 32-bit system called the “Panther,” in the works as well but when production on its more powerful 64-bit brother went faster than they’d hoped, Atari decided to go all out with their more powerful pussycat.

True Life: I Have an Atari Jaguar
Another lesser-known scrapped Atari system was the 48-bit, “Fat Shit Alcoholic Cat.”

You keep mentioning “32-bit this” and “64-bit that” like the words actually have any modicum of relevance to me. What in the blue hell are you ranting about?

Oh, that’s right. I know I might as well be speaking Cantonese to you right now, such is the archaic nature of those terms, but in my day bit-count was a pretty big fucking deal. Basically showed the size of a console system’s nuts. Or as Wikipedia more tactfully puts it:

The number of “bits” cited in console names referred to the CPU word size and had been used by hardware marketers as a “show of power” for many years. However, there was little to be gained from increasing the word size much beyond 32 or 64 bits because once this level was reached, performance depended on more varied factors, such as processor clock speed, bandwidth, and memory size.

Come to think of it, I’ve heard some debate over the subject; was Jaguar really even 64-bit?

Alright, first, here are the official tech specs for the Jaguar. Second, here is what John Mathieson, the designer of the Jaguar said of its specifications in the Atari Jaguar FAQ:

Jaguar has a 64-bit memory interface to get a high bandwidth out of cheap DRAM. … Where the system needs to be 64 bit then it is 64 bit, so the Object Processor, which takes data from DRAM and builds the display is 64 bit; and the blitter, which does all the 3D rendering, screen clearing, and pixel shuffling, is 64 bit. Where the system does not need to be 64 bit, it isn’t. There is no point in a 64 bit address space in a games console! 3D calculations and audio processing do not generally use 64-bit numbers, so there would be no advantage to 64 bit processors for this.

Jaguar has the data shifting power of a 64 bit system, which is what matters for games, so can reasonably be considered a 64 bit system. But that doesn’t mean it has to be 64 bits throughout.

Third: The Jaguar wasn’t exactly well received by magazines. In fact, most of the popular gaming magazines of the time, EGM most vividly coming to mind, shitted on the thing every opportunity they had. EGM’s perverse logic that bordered on damn near yellow journalism? Since the Jaguar had two 32-bit processors running in parallel, Atari had simply tried to pull the wool over the public’s eyes with the logic, “32+32=64, everybodies!”

The problem is that their argument was erroneous. The important components of the Jaguar were in fact 64-bit. Did it contain architecture within that was considered less than 64-bit, such as a Motorola 68000 chip? Yes. But every fucking system does that. The purpose of that particular chip was less significant than say, a 64-bit object processor; in fact, the 68000 chip was used as communication between the Blitter (a 64-bit RISC architecture) and the graphics processor.

By that same logic, EGM should have been bemoaning the fact that the 16-bit Genesis had an 8-bit audio card every issue or that Super NES had a main CPU chip with an 8-bit address bus.

I had no idea you were such an Atari apologist.

I mean… if I had owned the system and it wasn’t 64-bit, that would have been one thing. But maligning the system with made-up facts is a douche move.

So why such intense hatred for the Jaguar?

Can’t say exactly.

Maybe those particular writers were getting paid off by Nintendo and Sega. Maybe their parents had divorced on account of their dad coming home to find Mommy spread eagle and undulating while straddling an Atari paddle. But more than likely, the magazine writers were probably frustrated. Here was Atari with another cutting-edge piece of technology (like the Lynx) and yet again, they were dropping the damn ball. Not fulfilling one’s potential was a cardinal sin back then, especially with the Super NES and the Genesis milking everything for what it was worth with specialized chips accompanying the game cartridges themselves which made games like Donkey Kong Country, StarFox and Virtua Racing possible.

Well Playstation was 32-bit if I recall correctly. So how can that be more powerful than Jaguar?

Playstation was released some time after the Jaguar. It also had Sony’s deep pockets backing it, myriad developers, and said developers fully utilizing the system’s potential. Also, an explanation which sums things up really well, courtesy of kevincal from the AtariAge forums:

Imagine the Jag as a 1993 Mustang V8 with 225 horsepower (V8 equalling 64-bits)
& imagine the Playstation as a 2000 Honda S2000 I4 with 260 horsepower (I4 = 32-bits)

So basically, the Playstation only has a 4 cylinder engine (32-bits) while the Jag has an 8 cylinder engine (64-bits) Yet the 4 cylinder PS engine is much more refined and thus produces more power than the 8 cylinder Jag engine.

The Jaguar IS 64-bit, but it’s an archaic 64-bit, one of the first 64-bit systems ever If I’m not mistaken.

The Playstation is a 32-bit powerhouse with a LOT of money put into its development. It was designed atleast a few years after the Jaguar with newer technology.

So it boils down to, the Jag is a weak 64-bit system and the Playstation is a very strong 32-bit system. This means in the end, the Playstation is more powerful than the Jag, even though it is only able to compute half the bits as the Jag.”

Makes sense. As time elapses, natural progression takes place. You have to look no further than your computer to know that. They’re coming out with new ways to squeeze more and more power and data into more compact mediums every day.

So what were some of the games like for the Jaguar?

True Life: I Have an Atari Jaguar

Iron Soldier: Arguably the best game for the system and my personal favorite. In it you piloted a 50-foot mech, or the titular Iron Soldier, destroying everything that got in your way. And when I say everything, I mean just that. You could unleash fury on helicopters and enemy mechs with gigantic, shoulder mounted rail guns or missile launchers; but that was too easy. The real fun came in stomping the shit out of tanks and peering down with your mech’s head to watch the events unfold; or punching every edifice on the map with your massive mech fists until the things crumpled like paper.

The graphics were smooth, and crystal clear. Oh yeah, and when you fired the cruise missile weapon, you actually piloted it for the five to ten seconds after launch via a sexy missile cam. That had me cheering in my bean bag chair the first time I ever did it and pretty much every time after that too.

True Life: I Have an Atari Jaguar

Alien vs. Predator: Another strong title and a Jaguar classic. One of the few games that truly showed that the Jaguar had the potential to be ahead of its time. A first-person shooter that let you take control of a Space Marine, an Alien, or a Predator, each a unique and enjoyable experience. Impressive graphics and great sound effects, (complete with Alien hisses and the classic Predator snicker and whispers. “Anytime.” “Turn around.”) though no music. Although that might have contributed conducively to the eerie ambiance of the game.

Cybermorph: This is the game they bundled along with the Jaguar in its initial release. After about fourteen seconds in you realize you’re not only playing a poor man’s Starfox, but the people who have been chained and held immobile since childhood in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave’s version of Starfox.

Even your cohorts suck. Instead of anthropomorphic wingmates… you get a green bobbleheaded Sinead O’Connor.

Suddenly Slippy bitching every two seconds and spewing cryptic gibberish doesn’t seem so bad. In conclusion, a poor choice for a pack-in game, and one that needed some major polishing.

The sequel for the Jaguar CD was vastly improved however, mainly due to the narrator doing his best Sean Connery impression.

Wolfenstein 3-D/Doom: Perfect ports of the game, sure. But no new levels, weapons, or even a palette-swapped Nazi stormtrooper/imp to its name. Nothing to differentiate themselves from the PC game, which everyone and their grandmother (who still referred to every video game as “Mary-O Brothers,” or “electronic moving pictures,” and the characters therein as “hooziewhatsies”) had played.

Fight For Life: This was supposed to be the Atari Jaguar’s saving grace, its analogue of Sega’s groundbreaking Virtua Fighter. Made by Sega AM2 programmer Francois Bertrand in fact. So I waited for it. Cooed like an overgrown infant at previews in magazines, and waited some more. Salivated over little snippets of development progress thrown out in newsletters. And wait… well you get the point. Unfortunately, I couldn’t tell you a mere sentence fragment more, because the game never fucking came out despite being in development for 19 months. Maybe the game’s title was meant to be taken literally. (It was eventually released in 1996… and it sucked. Seanbaby has it as #3 in his 20 Worst Games of All Time.)

Kasumi Ninja: Sure, the game isn’t much more than a banal Mortal Kombat ripoff, right down to the digitized graphics, egregious amounts of blood (if the average human body holds 5.6 liters of blood, then these guys carry about 69 quarts… in each gonad), and palette-swapped ninja rivals; but I’d be a goddamn liar if I told you that at ten years old I didn’t have a blast controlling a Scottish caber tossing champion named Angus MacGreggor, who lifted up his kilt to unleash a fireball or listening to the announcer spewing a baleful, “Show no mercy,” in what sounded like a five year old’s conception of what an Asian person should sound like based on a brief encounter in a Chinatown fish market.

Oh yeah, and the blood? Shit stayed on the ground. Your fighters could fight in pools upon pools of their very own vascular fluid.

True Life: I Have an Atari Jaguar
Unfortunately, I wasn’t making that shit up.

Checkered Flag: Apparently based on a Lynx game of the same name that received rave reviews. It’s too bad some of that success couldn’t have rubbed off because this iteration featured piss poor blocky graphics with Indy-style cars that looked like LEGO blocks your little brother accidentally swallowed and subsequently shat on the carpet, aberrant camera angles, and controls that were about as effective as trying to open a car door with your ass cheeks. Which is to say, not as easy as it sounds.

Some other notable games were Tempest 2000(believed to be the best by many Jaguar enthusiasts), Rayman, and Super Burnout.

Well, those don’t sound too terrible. Every system has some clunkers. So what was it like owning a Jaguar?

Right. We’ll come back to that “clunker” thing. But I’ll be frank and forthright with you: I had a lot of fun playing the Jaguar. I grew up with it. Some of it might be nostalgia, and the fact that it was the last system I really played every day after school with my little brother, but it kept me entertained. And it was awesome… at least, at first. Ya see, back then, I didn’t exactly make the most prudent decisions. Nor did I necessarily equate what you or I might refer to as “logic,” or “common sense,” with some of my hard earned allowance money.

I can see not much has changed.

Yeah, except I probably make less money now than I did as a mere child. At the end of the day, the Jaguar was a rare cat. Sam Tramiel, the CEO of Atari Corp. back in 1995 estimated that they had sold roughly 150,000 Jaguars up until that point. I’m almost willing to wager my bank account that he was embellishing, but the fact remains: that’s a paltry amount. Compare that to the SNES, which eventually sold 49.10 million and the Sega Genesis with 30 to 40 million.

So yeah, I took a chance on being the unique little snowflake with the very first sleek, sexy 64-bit gaming machine sitting there in my living room. For my friends to regard me as some kind of preternatural alien rape wizard with a mystical talisman in my possession was like adding several inches to my e-penis before I knew such a thing existed. But when it boiled down to it, I didn’t care if the system was 44-bit or was powered by a hobo running on all fours in a gigantic hamster wheel. I wanted a system that was going to keep me entertained. And sadly… the Jaguar failed to deliver that after the hype surrounding it had died down.

So what happened? I mean, I know the Jaguar is renowned as a dismal failure, but what was the big problem besides the media hatred?

The easy answer: Atari jumped the gun with the system’s release. Kind of similar to what Sega did with the Saturn. (And Dreamcast.) They were so convinced that being the first “next-generation” system was the key to success that they ignored the fact that you kind of needed to have good relationships with developers… you know, so they would make good games for the system? When the Jaguar was released in 1993, there were only ten games in total for that first year. Ten games. The whole. Fucking. Year. Sure, there were a few good ones. But ten games in a year is just paltry and unacceptable.

Yikes. So what could Atari have done better to make Jaguar a success?

Hindsight’s always 50/50, isn’t it friend?

Can you just let me ask the questions?

Alright, I didn’t know this was a court hearing, but sure thing pal.

First, I think that part of Atari’s 1993 release date reasoning with the Jag was that they didn’t want the Panasonic 3DO to capture too much of the market as the first “next-generation” system, but 10 games is clearly not enough to carry any system through a year. Atari should have waited until Christmas of 1994 to release the Jag; that way they would have had time to fully polish the release games, as well as having more available like Aliens vs. Predator, Tempest 2000, Doom, and Iron Soldier right from the onset. That way they make a better, more indelible first impression on the market. Instead of “Well, I’ll wait and see how the system does and what the games are like,” people would have been more inclined to want to buy it right from the get go.

Second, better relationships with the game developers. This includes pursuing a wider variety of them, including those outside the US. Japanese ones you may have heard of like Squaresoft, Capcom, Konami, Namco. Atari needed to realize that companies such as these were ushering in a new age of gaming and they were being plain ignorant if they thought churning out 2nd-rate rip-offs of Mortal Kombat and Centipede were going to set the industry afire.

Also, many programmers cite that the Jaguar was notoriously difficult to program for because communication between the main chips was broken, making it necessary to code subroutines by hand to compromise the blunder. This might have made programmers more willing to actually tap into and utilize the Jaguar’s power, instead of directly porting 16-bit games that had come out a year or two prior. Who knows… if Atari had made better decisions with the machine, we might have seen something like this transpire:

True Life: I Have an Atari Jaguar
::Twilight Zone music plays::

Yikes. So that’s it, Atari pretty much just threw in the towel and the Jaguar faded into obscurity?

Oh, not exactly. There’s a little bit of Atari Jaguar all around us. All you have to do is look hard enough. Maybe a little perusing at your local dentist’s office.

Where the fuck are you going with this?

Oh, nowhere.

True Life: I Have an Atari Jaguar
“Alright Billy, once you’re done rinsing three times, go ahead and play some Trevor McFur in the Crescent Galaxy to divert the pain while I scrape the plaque from your bicuspids with a razor-sharp hook.

They sold the design of the Jaguar as a design for some sort of weird dental camera?

Yeah. A pretty damn good one too. But despite that seemingly incongruous fact, and even though Atari folded, there is still a devoted and loyal fanbase and group of developers:

After Hasbro bought out Atari, it took relentless lobbying by the BattleSphere fanbase and much behind the scenes persuasion to convince Atari to release the Jaguar console into the public domain. This makes the Atari Jaguar the very first proprietary console to be officially completely released to homebrew development. Without this event, BattleSphere, though completed in July 1998, would not have been allowed to be encrypted and released.

Concealed within Battlesphere lay JUGS (The Jaguar Unmodified Game Server), JUGS allowed anyone to develop and run Jaguar games if they owned a copy of BattleSphere and a Catbox. BattleSphere was the first Jaguar game to include a development system hidden within it.” (via Wikipedia.)

Alright, are we done here? Did you absolve yourself of your sins or let your neglected Jaguar console grow angel wings on account of divulging all this admittedly interesting history to me?

Am I proud that I owned a Jaguar? Not really. Am I ashamed? Not at all. Would I plug it in and fire up some of the games if I weren’t missing one of the power adapters? You bet your sweet ass. And I’m willing to wager the other few 100,000 (give or take) people who bought an Atari Jaguar back in the day would be willing to do the same.

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