Atari’s Jaguar is one of the most misunderstood and under-utilised consoles in history. In many ways it’s comparable to Sega’s Dreamcast: both had a short lifespan, have their own dedicated conventions, were the last consoles produced by their respective companies, and both continue to live on through thriving independent development communities.
Despite being championed as an American machine, Jaguar was actually conceived by British minds in Cambridge, Britain becoming a key supporter of Atari’s ill-fated beast. The planned VR headset, launch title Cybermorph, and critically acclaimed classics Tempest 2000 and Alien Vs Predator were all developed by Brits (though AVP had American assistance).
Martin Brennan and John Mathieson, who had left Sinclair Research after Amstrad took over, formed a Cambridge-based company in 1986 called Flare. It’s reported they took with them, or were at least influenced by, the designs of the aborted Loki computer project being developed at Sinclair. Regardless of Loki’s alleged influence, the pair began work on their own multiprocessor games machine, which eventually became the Jaguar. Alien Vs Predator lead programmer Andrew Whittaker has said on record that apparently some of the Loki technology also ended up in the SAM Coupé and as a result it “shared many interesting features with the Jaguar in terms of its video chip.”
Brennan and Mathieson wanted to enhance their system’s performance, so contacted Atari. Despite working on the eventually abandoned Panther console (which documents show had several similarities to Jaguar), Atari liked what it saw at Flare. Another studio, Flare 2, was formed to complete development of the new 64-bit system. Jaguar progressed quickly and in 1991 Atari cancelled the Panther, despite having said it was ready for production. Jaguar’s launch (which some call hasty) was in December 1993, but Europe was severely undersupplied. It was even released in Japan, though wasn’t popular (less than 5000 were reportedly sold), and in March 2006 Famitsu produced a satirical video on it. Strangely, Jaguar even officially made its way to Korea! Daryl Still, of Atari UK, spoke openly. “I was Marketing Manager, PR Manager, and Co-Managed the European Studios (producing titles like Attack Of The Mutant Penguins and Fever Pitch Soccer). There were only a dozen or so of us left, so we all multi-tasked!” Mr Still elaborated on initial UK reactions. “The press and retail reaction to the hardware itself was immensely positive. More importantly the public demand was huge. Some of the titles were revolutionary. Alien Vs Predator was probably the first FPS that focussed on tension and fear instead of non-stop shooting. As a result, Edge misunderstood it entirely and gave it 4/10 and got completely lambasted by the public. The issue we faced was availability. Europe was promised 250K units for the first Christmas, but received only 25K in early December, with a further 25K on Dec 23rd.”
Despite initially outselling the nearly triply priced 3DO, Jaguar didn’t succeed. Many blame Atari for rushing; higher quality titles were delayed for several months. I asked Daryl Still about any negativity in the UK. “To be honest, we didn’t detect any negativity regarding the machine. Some of the software titles were average, but we always had more demand than we could supply for hardware. Coping with consumer demand and frustrations at Christmas was probably the hardest thing. There is nothing worse than a mother who cannot get what her child wants for Christmas, and we had them camping out in our reception in Slough.” According to Mr Still, criticisms were raised not at the system, but their handling of it. “It was frustrating, because there was 12-15 of us TOTAL, doing a Europe-wide launch of a major electronic commodity with absolutely zero budget, getting pages upon pages of press coverage and building an enormous demand. And we were hearing that we were rubbish at marketing, from journalists who knew absolutely nothing about the reality of the situation. You felt like screaming at them ‘C’mon then, you come and see if you could do any better with our finances.’ But of course we couldn’t say a word. We just had to keep on going.”
The American side of things was markedly different according to Steven Kent, in his Ultimate History book. The Tramiels’ reputation and previous tactics alienated many; some retailers refused to stock Jaguar. Only a few of the supposed 200 developers that pledged to make games delivered. Of these, several were lazy 16-bit ports which didn’t take advantage of the hardware. With more powerful systems from Sony, Sega and Nintendo on the horizon, public apathy set in. People also disliked the controllers. While having 12 numerical keys which you can customise with game-specific overlays was brilliant in theory, most found them cumbersome, arguing they were inferior to SNES pads. Atari tried to remedy this with the Pro Controller, but few games utilised it.
In 1995, after two years of Atari haemorrhaging cash, Sam Tramiel had a heart attack. A year later Atari was ‘reverse merged’ with Hard Drive manufacturer JTS. Stock plummeted to record lows, the company went bankrupt, Jaguar ceased, and the Atari division was sold to Hasbro Interactive, later bought by Infogrames. Countless other publications have covered these events, but at Retro Gamer we tracked down, stalked, and like the proverbial Jaguar, pounced on those who were once there in the vortex.
One of the problems was publicly proving Jaguar’s strength, something not helped by confusion over 64-bit architecture. US magazines contested its power. Developers, those best to comment, saw things differently. Prolific assistant to 3D Stooges, Kevin Manne spoke on media attitudes. “It’s always been an ‘us against them’ feeling, trying to squelch common misconceptions. EGM once said the Jag was only 64-bit if you added up the ‘bitness’ of multiple processors, when in fact [it] does have fully 64-bit components. Once a system gets a bad reputation, it’s hard to gain mass acceptance.”
Doug Engel of ScatoLOGIC, who co-developed Battlesphere, and also ScatBOX hardware, responded fervently. “Jaguar was truly a ‘64-bit system’. Some people equate bitness with power on a linear scale. It’s like equating the number of cylinders in a car engine with horsepower. Most people think a V8 has a huge advantage over a 4 cylinder, but [early 20th Century V8s had less power compared to modern 4 cylinder engines]. A 64-bit processor from 12 years ago is easily bested by a 32-bit processor made today. There were lots of arguments saying the Jag wasn’t 64-bit. Speaking as a developer, I can say it was!”
Even without the confusion of how much “bit muscle” its Tom and Jerry chips pushed, many labelled the M68000 processor as not only weaker than up-and-coming systems, but barely superior to past consoles. Engel contests this and elaborates. “The Jaguar was most definitely not underpowered compared to systems like the SNES and Genesis. It was difficult to program for because the development tools were in an unfinished state and the hardware had crippling bugs. There was no knowledge base to consult and nobody had experience. Ten years later, there’s a lot of sample code and many with experience, so though we still have to use buggy development tools, it’s much easier to make games today than when it came out.”
At the time no one harnessed the system’s true power, only recently have developers really seen what’s capable. Skilled programmer Steven Scavone, key member of 3D Stooges which released Gorf, still develops for Jaguar. Comparing it to systems he’s worked on, Scavone elaborated on tech-specs, also explaining in laymen’s terms. “It should be coded in as much assembler as possible. This machine flies when fuelled by assembler. The RISCs in proper concert with the 68k will do some absolutely amazing graphics. The Jaguar could [utterly] crush any 2D system. It’s a lot easier to program 2D for than the PSX or N64. You can thank the Tramiels for it being ‘underpowered’. The chips were not complete and had bugs. The designers, who weren’t experts in silicon design, missed fundamentals. Just one more register and [it could have run without stalling all the time]! If they [had fixed this], the Jag would have blown away the PSX. Later 3D titles like Battlesphere proved that systems at the time were no match for it.”
Quite a revelation! I questioned Scavone further about the PlayStation comparison. “The textures are cleaner. PSX is faster but much uglier and unfixable [since it’s built into the] hardware. Jaguar is more flexible and can [remove texture] ugliness. Then there’s the VLM in the CD player, which blows PSX away in disc access speed, [which] was awful with load times. Jaguar was surprisingly fast.”
High profile coder Scott LeGrand, who co-developed Battlesphere alongside Engel, gave his own comparisons. “The Jaguar was anything but underpowered. It had more computational firepower than anything else of that era, including the original PlayStation. [Jaguar] was actually easier to code for than the Saturn. However, PlayStation had hardware 3D acceleration, was a dream to code, and had Sony’s marketing muscle behind it. Atari didn’t stand a chance.” PlayStation had built-in hardware acceleration; everything had to be done manually with Jaguar. LeGrand explains more, “BattleSphere might have looked better on the PSX [in terms of raw polygon count], but its gameplay would have suffered. The Jaguar’s multiple CPUs let me do things with physics and AI that were a good five years ahead of the rest of the industry. It wasn’t until Halo that I finally felt utterly outgunned.”
It had untapped potential, so I challenged the developers on its failure. LeGrand laments “Destiny, pure destiny. But not for the reasons everyone thinks. The Jaguar was a dream to code compared to the PS2. The real reason is that the Tramiels didn’t have the resources to put together an adequate developer relations program, nor did they spend money to [license] titles like Mortal Kombat 2 (would have been the smartest $1M ever spent). Sony had money, big money.”
LeGrand’s colleague Engel complains there’s too much to cover, adding, “Can’t you write a book on this instead of just an article? Most of the problems relate to the fact that Atari was too small to compete with the giants. Jaguar was rushed because Atari didn’t have the resources to [finish it on time]. Atari lacked the money to properly market it, and they made some poor choices when it came to [licensing] titles.” Atari needed a plan and it needed one fast…
Four Great Atari Jaguar Games
Alien Vs Predator