If you were gaming in the early 1990s, chances are that you owned either a Sega or a Nintendo console. The Genesis and the Super Nintendo were the big hitters of the 16-bit era, and those two were pretty much your only options if you wanted the best new games in your living room. There were alternatives though, and for one reason or another they failed to penetrate the mass market to the same degree that Sega and Nintendo’s hardware offerings did. 3DO was far too expensive for the average gamer, the Amiga CD32 was never officially launched in the US due to a copyright infringement involving the internals of the system, and the Phillips CD-i confused consumers by not knowing whether it was meant to be a video player or a games console. The other alternative suffered from none of these issues and was backed by one of the biggest names in the industry: The Atari Jaguar.
Marketed as a ’64-bit Interactive Multimedia System,’ The Atari Jaguar was positioned as a console that was not one, but two generations ahead of the main Sega and Nintendo consoles; and a major advertising campaign was designed to hammer this home to prospective buyers by asking them to ‘do the math’ – why buy a 16-bit console when you can have a 64-bit one?! Obviously, Atari was equating more power to a better gaming experience, and initial sales of the console – released in 1993 – were promising. The Jaguar console came packaged with a 3D free-roaming shooter called Cybermorph which allowed the player to pilot a shape-shifting space craft around alien planetscapes, and really showed off the potential of the new hardware: while Nintendo and Sega were pushing 2D side-scrollers, Atari was pressing forward into the realms of fully 3D polygonal worlds with the Jaguar. Several more high-profile 3D games followed Cybermorph – titles like Iron Soldier, Doom, and Alien Vs Predator showed what the machine was capable of, while the arcade-style shooter Tempest 2000 showcased the console’s ability to produce great looking and great sounding arcade-style games.
So why have most people never even heard of the Atari jaguar? And why did the console eventually spell disaster for Atari? Firstly, while the console was championed by Atari as a 64-bit machine, lots of games were released for the system that were direct ports of Genesis and SNES titles with little or no enhancements at all – not exactly what the games-buying public were expecting from a console that was supposedly two generations ahead of it’s rivals. On top of this, the supply of new, exclusive titles dried up fairly quickly when publishers realised that the Jaguar just wasn’t selling in the numbers that Atari had first predicted it would. And then there was the looming shadow of the new systems on the horizon from Sega and Sony. In an effort to extend the Jaguar’s fairly short spell in the limelight, Atari rushed out a CD add-on for the cartridge-based Jaguar (that had more than a passing resemblance to a toilet), but this too suffered from a lack of decent software support. In the end, Atari only shipped 20,000 of these CD units and as such they are incredibly rare today.
Atari eventually pulled the plug on the Jaguar in 1996, shortly before the company went bust after merging with JT Storage, a hard drive manufacturer. All of the proposed peripherals for the machine, including a virtual reality headset and a modem for network play, were cancelled and destroyed and the Jaguar console was pretty much abandoned. Today, a fairly vibrant home-brew scene exists for the Jaguar, and several unreleased games have been rescued from the dustbin of time and released by dedicated fans.
The Atari Jaguar is often blamed for the demise of Atari and suffers a lot of bad press as a machine that was under-powered and a real pain to program, but in truth it is a system that had lots of potential but was marketed poorly. Atari started by wanting to usurp the Genesis and SNES as the console of choice, but ended up waging a war against the PlayStation and Saturn – a war it could never hoped to have won, even with the Jaguar’s CD drive add-on. Still, even though it is now considered something of a relic, the Jaguar is a retro console worth seeking out as it has some truly great games and is an interesting insight into an era where 3D gaming was still in its infancy. With a few minor tweaks to the way the console was promoted, the Jaguar could have been the success Atari were hoping. Prototype follow-up consoles were already in existence when Atari finally ceased to exist so there is an air of ‘what if…’ surrounding the whole Jaguar story, but sadly that’s all it ever will be.