The legacy of the Jaguar
When you consider the Atari Jaguar failed so badly in the retail market it caused atari to quit the industry it helped start, it’s almost staggering to comprehend the impact that it had. on the console’s 25th ANNIVERSARY it’s time to explore that legacy
We’ve covered the history of the Atari Jaguar on these hallowed pages many times before, so we don’t want to go over that again, but a brief setting of the scene is definitely in order. Cast your minds to November 1993 where after several delays the console that was originally developed in Cambridge, England as the Flare 2 by a bunch of ex-sinclair engineers finally arrived. The console had been hyped by Atari and the press, and Atari was promising a rebirth of the company as it re-entered the market it’d ignited with the launch of the Atari 2600 back in 1977.
Unfortunately not everything went as planned, the production delays caused by manufacturers IBM had not only pushed the launch much closer to Christmas than Atari had initially wanted, but also left it woefully short of inventory. This meant the California-based company was only able to release the console into two test markets. New York and its own back yard of San Francisco where it sold out in a matter of days.
Darryl Still and his team at Atari Europe had managed to build up impressive preorder numbers of over 2 million units, only to be told that they were only getting 2,000 units for the UK launch party at Hamley’s and would have to wait until the following year for a full-blown rollout. By then it was too late, the gaming press had got bored of waiting, and the announcement of the upcoming Sega Saturn and Sony Playstation had left consumers holding onto to their pennies. Atari was determined to carry on, though, and despite the writing already being on the wall, it lasted out until 1996, and, ultimately, we’re glad it did, because from the clutches of failure came a legacy that is unmatched by other failed consoles.
We all know that a console is nothing without games and one of the chief criticisms aimed at the Jaguar over the years is that it just didn’t have enough of them. Neither did it have most of the big-name titles that everyone wanted. But that’s not to say it didn’t have any good games. Once you start to examine the Jaguar’s library in more detail, you actually discover that not only are there more good games than people give it credit for, but also a pretty
decent selection of system exclusives that can’t be played elsewhere.
Atari faced a huge amount of resistance getting people to develop for the Jaguar, and then it faced even more issues when those devs discovered just how difficult it was to make these games. A poor development kit, complicated multiprocessor architecture, bugs in the chipset, Atari’s reputation in the industry and a severe lack of money on Atari’s behalf were all huge stumbling blocks. The latter two of these meant that Atari went about recruiting developers in a different manner, looking for young upcoming teams with interesting new ideas rather than big-name established companies.
One group was Oxford based Rebellion, which is now an industry big-hitter but it wasn’t always that way, cofounder Jason Kingsley tells us about how Rebellion got hired. “Well, it’s actually a slightly bizarre story! My brother Chris and I had put together a demo of a game that involved Viking longships and dragons fighting, which one day we might return to. So we went along to Atari to pitch the demo to Alistair Bodin, who was impressed and said that
Bob Gleadow, the managing director of Atari Europe should see it. So Bob came to meet us and look at the demo – in those days this was in Slough, and Atari was a shadow of its former self. It was an office that was probably set up for 500 people, but there were about 20 people working in it. So everybody had their own office and an extra office, there was tons of space everywhere, and brown Hessian wallpaper – very Seventies. Anyway, when Bob saw the demo he said, ‘Wow, this is brilliant. This might work really
It was an office that was probably set up for 500 people, but there were about 20 people working in it Jason Kingsley
well for our new console.’ And Alistair said, ‘What new console?’ And that was the first time anybody else in Europe knew about the Jaguar. Chris and I were just sitting there slightly embarrassed as we realised we were there at one of those key moments in a corporation’s life. It was very funny.”
Sega had Sonic, Nintendo had Mario but who did Atari have? Nobody, as it turned out. But it was nearly very different indeed, as Ubisoft’s Frederic Houde explains. “We started our development on Rayman for the Super Nintendo, targeting the new SNES CD because of the size of our game. Unfortunately it never came to be, and so we had to choose a new target and we knew at that moment it had to be a next-gen console. That left us choosing between 3DO and Jaguar and while the 3DO scene was pretty active, Atari was an established games company. Then we also discovered that the 3DO was not able to render our Rayman demo at 60fps. This was something very important to us. A good arcade game or computer game that has a full screen scrolling should be 60fps! So we never built anything
on 3DO and started work on the
Jaguar game. We showed the demo to Atari and they liked it very much and wanted us to keep it on the Jaguar only. But once Sony showed up with their PSX and lots of cash Ubisoft were left with an easy decision to make.”
Whether the Jaguar having Rayman as its mascot would have brought success is up for debate, but the fact that the character still endures to this day shows his appeal. Sony’s interest caused Rayman to be delayed for nearly a year, but even when it did appear as a multiformat game, the Jaguar version was very impressive. “Jaguar Rayman is missing some of the PSX features, such as the sliding and CD soundtrack, because of the difference in production time but it definitely came off better,” Frederic says. “I remember many of horrible animations that were edited for use on the PSX and that we used less colours, it definitely didn’t look as good anyway and the Jaguar version is definitely my favourite. I still think it looks amazing 25 years on!” Although it wasn’t the first place he appeared, the Jaguar also got an exclusive Bubsy game, another character that’s recently starred in a new game.
Without doubt, one of the Jaguar’s finest moments was the utterly sublime Tempest 2000, although it was ported to other platforms later on the original version remains the best and was the only version coded by the legendary Jeff Minter. In fact, you could argue that the hiring of Jeff was Atari’s best decision in the Jaguar years as not only did it bring us the amazing reimagining of Tempest but also another solid update in Defender 2000, as well the Jaguar’s CD built-in Virtual Light Machine. That amazing piece of software produced trippy graphics in time to the music and remains one of the best reasons to own a Jaguar CD. It was later recreated by Jeff himself for both the VM Labs Nuon and Xbox 360.
We ask Jeff what his favourite memories of the Jaguar were. “It has to be the first time I let my dad play Alien Vs Predator” he explains before adding, “I stuck it on, gave him the controller and then turned the lights off to give him the full experience. The moment the Predator appeared on the screen he jumped so high out of his chair I thought he’d go through the ceiling!” Jeff’s love for AVP is clear as he continues to talk about it with us for a further ten minutes. He eventually stops to tell us why the Jaguar should be remembered, and what he thinks its biggest legacy is. “The Jag should be remembered for being a console where us coders were allowed to run free. Atari pretty much let us do what we liked, which really bred creativity. I don’t think Tempest 2000 would have turned out so great without that culture.
What’s its biggest legacy? Well, I think it’s the console that showed us there was new life in these old classics, something that very much seems to be the flavour of the month at the moment. It also had that multiprocessor hardware that allowed you to do all sorts of crazy things, it was the first system of its type in that regard.” Of course Jeff’s own Jaguar legacy lives on to this day with the recent release of Tempest 4000, a more-than-worthy successor.
One of the most important games released for the Jaguar was id Software’s seminal first-person shooter Doom. Not only is this still regarded as one of the Jaguar’s best games but it also left quite a impact behind it that not everyone seems to be aware of. Developed by John Carmack himself, it remains the only console version he worked on and was also the very first port to a non-keyboard-based system. Because of this, it also became the blueprint for all future console ports with the Playstation, Game Boy Advance, 3DO and 32X versions being based on the Jaguar code. The man responsible for getting Doom onto the Jaguar was Atari USA’S Jaguar product manager Bill Rehbock “It’s actually a pretty funny story, I had gone down to Lucasarts to do a demo of the Jaguar CD and its Cinepak capabilities,” he says. “After it was over one of the guys took me to the side and said, ’Hey, you’ve got to check out this new game called Doom?’ It was actually Mark Haigh-hutchinson who was the lead programmer on Zombies Ate My Neighbours, he’s sadly passed away now but he did me a solid favour that day as I got in contact with id almost straight away.
“I flew over to Texas and showed them the Jaguar and John Carmack loved the hardware, it was his kind of crazy technology with its advanced blitter and object processor. We signed the deal almost straight away and he was great to work with. In fact, as he was getting to know the hardware he decided one weekend, when he was bored, that he would port
Wolfenstein 3D to the Jaguar, too. Then he phones me up on the Monday morning and says check your server, I think there’s something there that you’ll like. So we wound up publishing that too!”
Perhaps one of the most surprising elements of the Jaguar’s legacy is its popularity amongst developers in the homebrew scene. With more new games being released for the system month after month, there doesn’t seem to be a simple reason for this. Some attribute this newfound popularity to the cultlike following it has as Atari’s last console, while others speculate that it’s because the machine was never truly exploited like it could have been so presents an interesting challenge.
Jeffrey Johnson of Wave 1 Games, one of the developers riding the Jaguar Homebrew scene, explains why he likes to make games for Atari’s final console. “Well I didn’t at first! I tried my hand at PC game development but I wasn’t able to find my market there. The more ideas I came up with for the PC the more I found myself mimicking things like Tempest 2000 and Defender 2000. Those games really stuck with me and are part of who I am now. Eventually after making enough weird stuff on the PC I decided to see if there was a market for indie games on the Jag. When I found the huge community devoted to the old cat I shared some of my ideas and I quickly learned that this was the place for me to grow. Back when I had my original Jaguar in the early Nineties I was just starting to learn to code and I remember fantasising about what types of games I would make for the Jaguar if only I knew how. I never thought that one day games like Jag Zombies and Fast Food 64 would actually be a reality!”
And which school of thought does Jeffrey belong to with regards to why the Jaguar gets so much support? “My guess is that most people are just hungry for more content for the Jaguar because they believed the hype back in the Nineties about it being a super beast and they still believe that today. Atari never really showed what the Jag could do, [and] they want to try and correct that.” Either way, it’s pretty amazing that the Jaguar has the afterlife it does after all these years. It’s the console that never dies and its legacy is pretty clear for all to see.
John Carmack loved the hardware, it was his kind of crazy technology Bill Rehbock
» [Jaguar] Regarded by many as the Jaguar’s best game, Tempest 2000 was recently resurrected for the modern age in the form of Tempest 4000.
» Jason Kingsley’s studio, Rebellion was behind the critically acclaimedAlien Vs Predator.
» [Jaguar] The Jaguar’s ‘killer app’, Alien Vs Predator was a groundbreaking title for the time.
» Frederic Houde was one of the programmers for Ubisoft’s smash hit, Rayman.
» [Jaguar] A sequel to the Amiga and Mega Drive game, Power Drive Rally is one of the Jaguar’s best exclusives.
» Atari certainly wasn’t shy when it came to aggressively advertising the Jaguar. It would turn out that Mario and Sonic had nothing to worry about.
» [Jaguar] Rayman, this is a great example of the Jaguar’s 2D prowess with over 65,000 colours displayed on the screen.
» An Alien Vs Predator advert, highlighting just how revolutionary the game’s concept was at the time of release.
» Bill Rehbock was responsible for Doom’s Jaguar appearance.
» [Jaguar] Without doubt one of best examples of what the Jaguar can really do is Rebellion’s Descent-like 3D shooter Skyhammer.
» Jeff Minter created Tempest 2000, arguably the Jaguar’s best game.
» Jeffrey Johnson is a well known name on the Jaguar’s bustling homebrew scene.