In Defense of the Jaguar

In Defense of the Jaguar

In Defense of the Jaguar

What is it that makes for a truly exceptional gaming console? As the decades have crawled past, carrying with them a total of eight different generations of video games, dedicated hobbyists have witnessed the arrivals and departures of machines that have promised everything from undistorted, lifelike graphics, to economically priced games stemming from immeasurable libraries. In specific cases, the aforementioned touts have certainly been delivered upon, whereas others have been aggressively lobbied within advertisements, only to remain locked within the commercial realm, ultimately failing to meet consumer demand and expectation in the living room. Such was the case for Atari’s astonishingly ill-fated Jaguar system, an impressive, yet misunderstood and underutilized relic of the ‘90s that broke out of its cage with some of the sharpest claws the industry had ever seen, only to be quietly tranquilized a mere three years later.

The fifth generation of video game consoles will remain forever significant for a plethora of reasons, perhaps none more important than that of its introduction of texture mapping and 3D polygonal graphics, bringing forward the momentous shift from playing games in two dimensions to three. However, what the fifth generation of video games provided in abundance, was choice. Not since the infamous video game crash of 1983 had there been more consoles on the market, all of which were fanned for dominance and determined to showcase why one machine was superior to another. It was the mid ‘90s and everything from cartoons to comic books were overflowing with testosterone. Pugnacious and poised to make some serious money, video game companies were no different as they proclaimed supremacy over one another, contenders from a seemingly endless cornucopia emerged from the world of electronics’ woodwork, all attempting to strong arm one another with attitude laden advertisements. With the overwhelming array of selection available on the market, coupled with the increasingly complex descriptions of how each new system would operate, writers of the magazines at the time often predicted a disastrous second console market crash as the playing field continued to swell. Not only were previous generation systems such as the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo still selling well, but the compounded arrivals of the 3DO Interactive Media Player, SNK’s Neo Geo CD, the Nintendo 64, Sega’s Saturn, and Sony’s PlayStation (to name a few) were enough to send consumers into a collective tailspin. Which of the available consoles was the supreme system? Out of the bewildering selection, the likes of which hadn’t been seen within the previous generation of consoles, which machine possessed the elusive duo of having the most power and offering the best software? 

As contenders were inevitably edged out of the cutthroat console wars, Sony’s PlayStation had unreservedly dominated the fifth generation of gaming’s penultimate competition. Entering the North American market at a widely accepted price point of $300 and securing unrivaled third party support had consequently allowed Sony to ship 100 million PlayStation units worldwide – the first home console to ever do so. The Nintendo 64, predicted soon-to-be king of the living room, trailed the PlayStation in a surprising, very distant second, whereas the Sega Saturn, hampered by a multitude of poor marketing decisions and internal company squabbling, finished a disappointing third. As we scroll back a bit, the year 1996 proved to be an enthralling year in video games. While new titles were still being released for both the Super Nintendo and Genesis (including games for its struggling 32X add-on), the PlayStation was doing its best to fortify its lead with the contemporary crowd by battling the looming threat that was the Nintendo 64. While the war waged on for some, the dust was settling for others, primarily the Atari Jaguar. By the end of the year, Atari had pulled the plug on the big cat. Mass company layoffs would fuel the speculation, while third party developers, Beyond Games and High Voltage Software both stated that Atari were no longer returning their calls. Recall that the Sony PlayStation was able to ship over 100 million consoles worldwide, whereas by the end of 1995, Atari had sold a dismal 125,000 units of the Jaguar, with approximately 100,000 unsold systems remaining in inventory. To further put the situation into perspective, even the 3DO managed to sell over two million consoles when all was said and done. So in the case of the Jaguar, a machine that looked exceedingly impressive at its release, what went so wrong?

The Atari Jaguar launched on November 23rd, 1993 and was marketed as the world’s first 64-bit system. With its sleek design, accented with cool lines and those oh-so-‘90s vents, the console looked truly unique. Equipped with its dual 32-bit Tom and Jerry coprocessors, Atari reasoned (through very aggressive advertising) that if you simply took the time to Do the Math, you would see things their way. The reasoning behind Atari’s marketing was such that the data path from the console’s DRAM (dynamic random-access memory) to its CPU and the Tom and Jerry coprocessors was in fact 64 bits wide and therefore factually capable of displaying graphics that far outpaced those of the current competition’s. At the time of the Jaguar’s launch, Atari’s trivializations of the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo worked in their favor to showcase the impressive horsepower that the newest cat on the block was capable of, though the tables would dramatically turn with the arrival of the Saturn and PlayStation. In a 1995 interview with Next Generation magazine, Atari CEO Sam Tramiel scarcely admitted that the Jaguar was but an iota weaker than Sony’s PlayStation and actually more powerful than the Sega Saturn. Considering that the Jaguar was originally intended to stamp out and embarrass 16-bit yesteryear consoles from the fourth generation, Atari was swiftly treading into unplumbed water. 

As the year of 1995 progressed, the Atari Jaguar was becoming the butt of next to every gamer’s joke. Save for a sporadic release every now and then, the majority of the games introduced for the console were ripped apart by reviewers in the magazines, the software unambiguously unable to hold its own against the technologically imposing offerings coming out of the competing camps at Sega and Sony. What made matters worse was that Atari’s release schedule was becoming increasingly desultory, as by the end of the Jaguar’s lifecycle, a paltry 50 officially licensed games had been brought out for the system (with an additional 13 being released for the last ditch effort that was the Jaguar CD). Part of the issue stemmed from the Jaguar’s lack of third party developer support, of which Sam Tramiel remarked as being “good for Atari’s profitability”, further incensing Jaguar owners that were already frustrated with the lack of games being brought to the machine. But while the Jaguar’s games may not have always been quite up to par on the graphical scale set by the Saturn, PlayStation and Nintendo 64, that didn’t necessarily mean that the software itself was substandard. Throughout the Jaguar’s lifecycle, the console saw games released for it that ranged from fantastic (Super BurnoutAtari Karts) to absolutely incredible (Tempest 2000Alien vs Predator). It’s interesting to note that, in an unorthodox sort of way, the Atari Jaguar was a precursor of sorts to how consoles such as the Sega Saturn and Dreamcast are being held in such high regard today. All three systems were released with the belief that next to nothing could topple the graphical output that they possessed, only for the ever-crepuscular Sony and their PlayStation systems to lie in waiting, studying the efforts that had been brought to the table and trouncing them with something even more monumental (see: the PlayStation 2 subjecting the Dreamcast into total oblivion), but I digress. The point to be made is that akin to other, less favored consoles that flew under the radar during the fifth generation (3DO, PC-FX), the Jaguar is seeing its candle surprisingly relit, as inquisitive gamers from assorted age groups can’t help but want to learn why such a promising endeavor turned into a somber failure… and as to whether it should have been a failure at all. 

Pragmatically speaking, what went wrong for the Jaguar can be systematically summed up to poor timing regarding its release, an underwhelming selection of software, and overly aggressive marketing. It was an attitude fuelled 1993, and much like the rest of the mid-to-late ‘90s, it was a year of arm wrestling and insulting another person’s mother just to get your point across. Atari stuck with the times and took the utmost extreme approach with their marketing, more or less claiming that you were nothing less of a total moron if you couldn’t “Do the Math” and figure out that the Jaguar was technically superior to not only the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo, but also the recently released 3DO. Provocative commercials included everything from sexy women to severed limbs (not joking) and encouraged viewers to “Get Bit by Jaguar”. Looking back on Atari’s advertising campaign for the Jaguar promises some hilarious entertainment, so I would be remiss to suggest against checking it out on the web. That said, I can see how, in comparison to Nintendo’s family friendly way of enticing customers, along with Sony’s edgy, yet inoffensive tactics of appealing to the more mature crowd, Atari’s methods of netting the Jag some attention wouldn’t have been digested well by everyone… or even the majority. However, if your sense of humor is anything like my own, then you would’ve purchased the console in a heartbeat back when its buzz was at its highest. My argument for not doing so was that I was two years old at the time. 

The Jaguar is also infamously known for having a terrible roster of games available for it, the majority of which remain system exclusives. I’ll be the first to admit that a handful of titles released for the Jag are pretty mediocre (Zool 2, Checkered Flag), while others are downright atrocious (Club DriveTrevor Mcfur in the Crescent GalaxyVal d’Isère Skiing and Snowboarding) but to claim that the majority of a console’s game library is dreadful when only 50 games were released for it isn’t exactly justifiable. The Nintendo Wii’s library consists of over 1,500 games, some of which (if not the majority) are awe-inspiringly bad. Now don’t get me wrong, the Wii is home to some fantastic, groundbreaking titles, but it also has a reputation for being a hair-raising hostel for shovel ware. With its small-scale roster of games, it would be all too easy to dedicate a few of your weekend hours to playing through each and every Jaguar game ever released, whereas calculating the time needed to accomplish the same for the Wii or even worse, the PlayStation 2, would be unfathomable. The Jaguar definitely has a few funky looking spots, but it also boasts accolades such as possessing terrific arcade (Tempest 2000), racing (Power Drive Rally) and shooting (Raiden) games, along with the foremost console versions of two of the most influential games of all time; Doom and Wolfenstein 3D. In the case of Wolfenstein 3D, or JagWolf, as it’s fondly referred to by enthusiasts of both the game and console, the Jaguar port not only boasts four times the detail of its DOS counterpart (graphics no longer become blocky or pixelated), but also introduced two new weapons (Flamethrower, Rocket Launcher) and reversed a plethora of the unsavory changes that Nintendo had demanded be made to its Super Nintendo port of the game, among a lengthy list of other tweaks. It also shouldn’t go unmentioned that the original incarnation of Ubisoft’s Rayman was specifically designed from the ground up for the Jaguar, with one reviewer from Next Generation magazine going so far as to claim that the Jaguar version of Rayman was “impeccable” and that there was “little about the PlayStation or Saturn versions that could top it”.

In my opinion, the final nail in Atari’s coffin was the company’s overconfidence and narrow sighted reliance on their hardware, resulting in a consequent lack of drive regarding the procurement of third party developers to release games for the Jaguar. It was almost as if they were so proud of the system and what it was capable of that they simply expected developers to flock to them once they saw what the console could dish out – the elephant in the room being that Atari wasn’t the only fat cat in the alley now, with developers taking them less seriously than ever thanks to their checkered past. In an attempt to place the Jaguar on life support, Atari dropped the price of the console from $250 to $150 in 1995 and reignited their marketing campaigns. Combined with the auxiliary (and economically questionable) launch of the Jaguar CD attachment unit on September 21st of the same year, Atari was sinking more money into what was to be yet another doomed venture. The Jaguar CD, codenamed Jaguar II during development, did little to entice new gamers to the console. Unleashed on the market for an additional $150 (no small sum back then, especially for a console that was already on its last legs) and failing to see more than 13 games released for it (a handful of which were not even exclusive to the machine) only lead to more head scratching from the public and industry analysts alike. Knowing they were in dire straits, Atari bundled the Jaguar CD with two games (Vid Grid, Blue Lightning) alongside a demo disc for the Jag CD port of Myst and the CD soundtrack for Tempest 2000. Looking back on things, the Jaguar CD’s launch bundle was actually pretty substantial (at least in comparison to what you’re awarded in conjunction with purchasing a new console today) but as I mentioned earlier, both the Jaguar and its CD counterpart were put to sleep with the arrival of 1996. Of additional and particular note is that the Jaguar CD came programmed with the first ever form of Jeff Minter’s VLM, or Visual Light Machine. Working in conjunction with any audio disc of choice, the VLM is a software program that showcases corresponding lightshows to whatever selection of music is being played and was welcomed with warm reception at the time. The software would go on to be utilized within programs such as Winamp and the Neon light synthesizer for the Xbox 360.

Financially, it didn’t appear feasible for Atari to continue supporting the Jaguar or Jaguar CD into 1996, which is a shame considering that the company seemed to have finally reached out to more developers to bring their games to the big cat duo. Records will show that an overabundance of titles were planned to hit the Jaguar and its disc based companion throughout the mid ‘90s, some of which were ports of none other than ClayFighterEarthworm JimDemolition ManMortal Kombat and Quake, including brand new games such as Bomberman Legends (also known as Jaguar Bomberman) and the nothing less than revolutionary looking Black ICE/White Noise. With the arrival of the Jaguar CD, the potential to build upon the console’s library had increased by ten fold, but due to numerous delays in development, the peripheral had arrived all too late. Combined with the beating that Atari’s reputation had taken over the last decade, the company that originally introduced video games to the living room was about to be given an unexpected retirement package. 

Throughout its time in the limelight, the Jaguar took a lot of well-publicized flack, having little to none of its successes made widespread knowledge. So withstanding all of the criticism it received, did Atari manage to do anything constructive with their final system? Let’s take a look.

First of all, the Jaguar’s controller has been panned across the board for being too ugly, too bulky and having buttons that were unresponsive. Atari listened to the feedback they were given (by fighting game enthusiasts, in particular) and released the Jaguar ProController. Equipped with three additional, higher quality face buttons and two shoulder triggers, the new controller was met with favorable reviews.

According to some developers, the Jaguar was apparently difficult to program for – this complaint largely stemming from the console’s multi-chip processor, yet Tempest 2000’s Jeff Minter claimed that the console was, simply put, “easy” to develop for. Coming from the guy that made one of the Jag’s greatest games possible, I’d say that his was a statement in the positive direction. Additionally, John Carmack of id Software spent a scant three weeks converting the legendary Wolfenstein 3D to the Jaguar, all while managing to make several additions to it and improving upon its graphics, ultimately making it what most refer to as the greatest console port of the game ever released. So was the Jaguar really that difficult to program for? Or were certain developers just feeling less enthusiastic about releasing their software for it due to apprehension regarding whether or not the software would sell? 

Of all the colossal opposition that the ill-starred Jaguar faced, there was perhaps none greater than the near constant, hulking condemnation of the system’s library of software. Near and far, video game enthusiasts (most of which have never spent any appreciable amount of time with the console) love to hate the spotted cat and its unique offerings, fallaciously claiming that not a single game is even remotely playable, much less enjoyable. These false declarations couldn’t be farther from the truth as five star titles such as the aforementioned Tempest 2000, Alien vs Predator, Doom, Wolfenstein 3D, and Rayman substantially disprove them. Beyond the more well known contenders of Jaguar brawn are other fantastic games including Pinball FantasiesKasumi NinjaBreakout 2000Raiden and Theme Park. To say that the majority of the Jaguar’s library is second-rate would be a stretch.

The question of as to whether or not the Jaguar could have secured greater fortune had it launched a year or two before it actually did will forever remain unanswered. With Sega and Nintendo’s fourth generation consoles hitting western shelves in 1988 and 1990 respectively, I can only conceptualize that the Jag would’ve made more of a mammoth impact on the system stadium had it been released in 1991 or even 1992. In a generation when graphics meant just about everything, the cat’s library certainly would have looked a bit more impressive upon comparison to (what was then) the current crop of games from the leading competition (the visuals in Iron Soldier alone would have spun heads had it launched in ’93 instead of ’94), and if the Jaguar CD had released before the 3DO, Saturn and PlayStation, Atari may have been able to pocket a bit more consumer interest. Again, thanks to the peripheral’s incessant delays in development, the add-on arrived much too late to the party and ended up looking like yet another follower seeking to hop on the compact disc bandwagon, one that was quickly relegating the use of cartridges to yesteryear. Would’ve, could’ve, should’ve. I’m not necessarily saying that all of the Jaguar’s ruination rests in a matter of poor timing, but I do strongly believe that the hour at which it was released played a substantial part in regards to why it wasn’t the success it could have been.

As with most video game consoles hailing from history, the Atari Jaguar isn’t truly dead, as there exist impressively devoted fan circles dedicated to the system, all attempting to keep the clawed cat breathing and chugging out new games. Over 20 new releases (and counting) have graced the Jag and its CD add-on since the console was officially declared kaput, promising new content for aspiring enthusiasts that have grown interested in the machine and what it’s capable of. Don’t have a Jaguar but know someone that does? The console is also adept in the multiplayer department, offering a selection of titles that are as much fun with friends as they are in single player mode. WormsNBA Jam, Doom and Atari Karts all promise a good time with pals. Additionally, the Jag is well equipped to task when it comes to adding even more friends to the party courtesy of the JagLink (net link two Jaguar consoles together) and the TeamTap (add an additional four controller ports). And while I’m on the topic of Jaguar peripherals, Atari also released a MemoryTrack cartridge that allowed for Jaguar CD game save files while also planning to release the now mythical Jaguar VR headset. Initially showcased at the 1995 Winter Consumer Electronics Show, Jaguar VR was developed in response to Nintendo’s Virtual Boy system. Plans were eventually abandoned for the peripheral with all of the existing prototypes allegedly being destroyed in 1996, though two working units managed to survive the purge and continue to make appearances at various retro video game conventions. Remaining ever ambitious, Atari planned to release a second Jaguar model called the Jaguar Duo. Also known as the Jaguar III during development, the Jaguar Duo would have been similar to NEC’s TurboDuo system in that it would have combined the hardware of both the Jaguar and Jaguar CD. A prototype of the console was unveiled at the same 1995 Winter Consumer Electronics Show, but plans for system’s release were cancelled before it hit mass production.

The Atari Jaguar certainly has its shortcomings, but in all honesty, what console doesn’t suffer from a few flaws of its own? Like many others, I grew up surmising that the system was nothing more than a notorious paperweight, destined to forever be the trusty fallback of every gamer’s defensive argument regarding his or her own favorite console (“the Saturn may not be the best at 3D graphics, but it’s nowhere near as bad as the stinky Jaguar!”). As I’ve spent more time with the console and its unique library of games, I’ve grown to appreciate not only the fun that its capable of offering, but also what it relentlessly strove to accomplish in the industry. Iron sharpens iron, and whether some of their competition took them seriously or not, Atari pushed companies like Sega, Sony and Nintendo to stay on their toes in the fifth generation of the console wars, challenging them to bring their absolute best when it came to graphics and advertising. While the majority of people wrote the console off as a failure, some truly terrific games released for the Jaguar over the years, the bulk of which have held out as exclusives for the system. With Jaguar emulation still being tawdry at best, the superlative way to experience games like Alien vs Predator, Tempest 2000 and Wolfenstein 3D is by enjoying them on authentic Jaguar hardware, ironically placing the console in high demand for those peculiar hunters that are looking to bag the big cat for their collections. So now that you know the history, the facts, and the truth, of a console that isn’t quite as appalling as you once may have thought… 


Have You Played Atari Today?

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