The Atari Jaguar was a fifth-generation video game console developed by Atari Corporation and released in 1993 in North America under a $500 million manufacturing deal with IBM (International Business Machines). It competed with the 16-bit Super Nintendo Entertainment System and Sega Genesis consoles. It became Atari's last major console to hit the market until the release of their 2021 Atari VCS console as Atari SA.
It used two custom 32-bit processors - Tom and Jerry - (whose names come from the cartoon series of the same name), two 64-bit processors (the Object Processor and the Blitter), and it featured the popular Motorola 68000. It was marketed as the first "64-bit" console, emphasizing its 64-bit internal bus.
A CD add-on for the Jaguar, the Jaguar CD, was released in late 1995, however it still didn't perform well and became one of the biggest video game hardware failures of all time.
Why It Flopped
- Difficult architecture & Bad Marketing: The Jaguar was a hybrid of 16-, 32- and 64-bit components, but since only one of these was well-known to developers at the time (the Motorola 68000), and the custom RISC chips were buggy, this made the development process particularly challenging and lengthy. The Tom and Jerry processors did not have C support and had to be coded entirely in assembly. The "64-bit system" of Atari's marketing also became something of a meme after the more powerful Sony PlayStation and Sega Saturn were released, since gamers had been told that graphics = bits for several years by TV commercials. While this is inaccurate for any company, general perception wrote the jokes, and game magazines like EGM started to mock the console by saying that they were adding bits together to come up with that number. That being said, however, the Jaguar did actually have a 64-bit internal bus, RAM and two of the graphics processors. On the bad marketing side, there were some TV commercials for the system, but they often ran at late hours, particularly the infamous "The Cave" infomercial that was a last-gasp, desperate attempt to get people to buy the system.
- Due to the complicated architecture, a lack of cash and a bad reputation, very few third-party developers supported the Jaguar. Only 57 licensed games were commercially released in the Jaguar's lifespan, although several unreleased games developed during the 1994-96 period were later finished and released to the public in the late 90s, bringing this total to 74.
- Most developers struggled to take advantage of the Jaguar's hardware and instead used the Motorola 68000 chip included as a stand-in CPU. As a result, many Jaguar games weren't much different from a typical 16-bit game. The system did come with hardware support for Z-buffering, 32-bit color and transparencies, but when it was designed, the creators thought that gouraud shading would be the future of 3D instead of texture mapping, so texture maps are uncommon in the 3D games since it is particular difficult and slow to do these in a Jaguar game.
- The 68000 chip was also the CPU for the Sega Genesis, Commodore Amiga, Atari ST and various arcade games.
- While the pack-in game Cybermorph was technically impressive in 1993, coming with 50 levels and full 3D graphics, the gameplay was subpar, requiring players to constantly be hunting for pods instead of mission objectives. It lacked music and in some spots the game computer Skylar would mock the player for crashing into a mountain, even though it was more the fault of the hit detection. Either way, it wasn't exactly a system seller.
- The system quickly gained a negative reputation for hosting mediocre or outright bad games like Club Drive, Checkered Flag, Trevor McFur in the Crescent Galaxy, Supercross 3D and White Men Can't Jump. Double Dragon V was also hot garbage, but that was published by Williams, not Atari, and it was equally crap on other systems like the SNES.
- The controller was bulky, not very ergonomic and had the very uncomfortable "phone pad" button scheme used in early 80s controllers in addition to the A/B/C buttons. It was also recycled from the Power Pad controller, which was used on Atari's STE series and Falcon computers.
- Some games included overlays that could be attached to the controller to indicate how to use the "phone" buttons, but the keypad wasn't really used in most titles. When it was, most of the keys weren't used for anything special or creative.
- The system did not have a dust cover to protect the cartridge slot from dust. Not even the CD add-on that was released two years later had a dust cover for the cartridge slot, so people could play Jaguar games with their CD add-on connected. It was necessary for the owner to put tape over or otherwise cover up the cartridge slot in order to protect it from dust.
- The cartridges also have pointless curved handles that aren't even labeled, making stacking and organizing them difficult.
- The console got peripherals like the Jaglink (a LAN adapter) and the Team Tap (an adapter for four controller ports). However, almost none of the games on the system even utilized them. The only games to use the JagLink were: Doom, Air Cars, and BattleSphere. The Team Tap was only used for White Men Can't Jump, where it was included as a pack-in with the game.
- Finally, it was quickly overshadowed by the PlayStation and Sega Saturn, both of which having more powerful hardware and even better 3D polygon graphics capabilities. It didn't help that the price of the Atari Jaguar was eventually reduced from $249.99 to only $149.99 as an attempt to catch up the sales of the PlayStation and Saturn.
- It does have some good games, such as Rayman, Tempest 2000, Alien vs. Predator, Super Burnout, NBA Jam, Wolfenstein 3D, Missile Command 3D, and Raiden. Alien vs. Predator was the best selling game on the system, programmed by Rebellion.
- Its port of Doom comes the closest of all console ports to the PC original, as John Carmack led the port's development (though it does have the massive downside of lacking music except during intermissions). It used 65k colors instead of the 256 that the PC had, which gave it a darker, grungier look. It is also one of the few games to make use of the JagLink LAN adapter to connect two consoles together, although depending on the quality of the phone cord used to make the link and the map played, the game can frequently crash in this mode. It also features a great port of Wolfenstein 3D, done by John Carmack, which includes more detailed graphics than the PC or 16-bit console versions, and runs at full screen at 60 frames per second.
- The music in Jaguar games was often a source of rare praise for the system, from the soundtracks to Tempest 2000 and Defender 2000, to others. The soundtrack to Tempest 2000 was remixed and released on CD, where it was included as a pack-in with the Jaguar CD. GameFan editor ECM declared of the 1998 Telegames release Zero 5 that the game had "better music than 90% of the games on the N64," also referring to how both the Jaguar and N64 were cartridge-based systems.
- The source codes for the system and its CD add-on became available for homebrewers after the system was discontinued along with the CD add-on. It was declared an open platform by Hasbro Interactive on May 14th, 1999 after they purchased all of Atari's properties. Some of those homebrews have shown that the Jaguar had plenty of potentials that just weren't utilized. Good examples of this are the games BattleSphere (which allowed up to sixteen Jaguar consoles to be networked together and played similar to Star Raiders in 3D); Iron Soldier II (more texture mapping); and the unreleased game Phaze Zero (height mapped terrain, often mistaken for voxels).
- Although no games on the Jaguar other than White Men Can't Jump ever utilized that feature, its Team Tap peripheral can actually support up to 8 players if another Team Tap is plugged into port 2 of the console, which is ahead of its time.
- The Pro Controller released in 1995 was more ergonomic than the original, came with a better D-pad and it mapped keys 4 and 6 to a pair of shoulder buttons while providing X, Y, and Z buttons above the A, B, and C buttons (Mapped to 7,8, and 9 on the keypad). This made games much better to control, particularly for games that were specifically optimized for the "Pro" layout.
- The Jaguar CD came with a built-in music visualizer known as the VLM, created by Jeff Minter. This would play whenever a music CD was inserted into the CD unit and was interactive. This was one of the first interactive visualizers on the market. Later, Minter would create the VLM2 for NUON DVD players and a visualizer for the Xbox 360.
- Atari didn't shy away from graphic violence on the system at a time where video games were under fire for such things. Games like Kasumi Ninja, Ultra Vortek, Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, Alien Vs. Predator and Brutal Sports Football featured no censorship and were not afraid to throw a lot of blood around. Atari even commissioned a game loaded with violence and nudity for the Jaguar CD called American Hero, which was canceled, but will see a 2021 release on PC through Ziggurat.
Though it is a commercial failure that ended Atari's venture in the home console market with only 250,000 units sold, it developed a small fanbase, especially with its open-source code allowing homebrew games to be released on actual cartridges. Atari essentially ceased to exist after the Jaguar as they had sold themselves to a storage company and ceased all hardware operations.
The modern company called Atari is little more than a simple brand name owned by a holding company Atari SA, formerly Infogrames (a company known for making TV show-based video games).
GameFan awarded the Jaguar "Best New System" for 1993. Gamefan would also review the late release 1998 Telegames titles, giving the games solid scores.
- The boot sound is an instrumental of the famous Have You Played Atari Today? jingle.
- The system was initially to have had a predecessor model, a 32-bit console known as the Panther, which was canceled in favor of the Jaguar. Naming systems after large cats started with the Lynx, their color handheld released in 1989.
- When the Jaguar CD add-on is put onto the system, the console looks like a toilet (the Jaguar itself serving as the bowl and the add-on unit serving as the lid).
- Atari sold the Jaguar body molds to some fairly unusual customers, most strangely including a company that cast up white Jaguar body shells as casings for dental cameras with cartridge casings for memory expansion units. These were still closer to being functional consoles than one of the other things made with a Jaguar body shell, the Coleco Chameleon.
- The Jaguar's chipset was used as the basis for an arcade system board platform that ran some of Atari's arcade games of the mid-1990s, known as the "COJAG" (short for Coin-Op Jaguar). The COJAG, compared to the original Jaguar, had more meat on the bones, so to speak; It had a Motorola 68020 or MIPS R3000-based CPU (depending on board version), 4MB of RAM instead of 2, a full 64-bit wide ROM bus (compared to the standard Jaguar's 32-bit wide ROM bus), and for some games, a hard disk drive. Only two games were released for it, Area 51 and Maximum Force, but several others were in development and went unreleased. One of those titles included an early version of Primal Rage II.
- A combination of the Jaguar and Jaguar CD platforms, similar to the Genesis CDX and TurboDuo, was proposed, dubbed the Atari Jaguar Duo. A prototype of the aforementioned system was unveiled at the 1995 Winter Consumer Electronics Show, but Atari cancelled it.
- Atari was developing a Jaguar 2 in 1995-1996 that was meant to address the Jaguar's downsides in the face of competing consoles, but due to their reverse merger with JTS in 1996, this was canceled. Several people at Atari would move on to create a spiritual successor to the Jaguar that was called the NUON, but that flopped even harder than the Jaguar did.
- Quite a large number of games were in development for the system, but were never released. This included an early version of Tetrisphere known as Phear; Mortal Kombat 3; Centipede 2000; Asteroids; Doom II; Earthworm Jim, Tomb Raider, The Need For Speed, Wing Commander III and many more.
- Atari collaborated with the Virtuality Group, famed for their line of virtual reality arcade machines, to develop the Jaguar VR, a virtual reality headset peripheral with corresponding receivers and a space joystick for the Jaguar console, in response to the Nintendo Virtual Boy. The Jaguar VR was showcased at the 1995 Winter CES, and was targeted for a commercial release before Christmas 1995. However, the deal with Virtuality was abandoned in October 1995. In 1996, following the JTS reverse merger, all prototypes of the headset were allegedly dismantled. However, two working prototypes were recovered; a low-resolution headset with red and grey graphics and a high-resolution headset with blue and grey graphics, and are regularly showcased at retro gaming events. There was only one Jaguar game that was commercially released which could take advantage of the stillborn Jaguar VR, Missile Command 3D. A demo of Virtuality's Zone Hunter was also made for the Jaguar and optimized for the Jaguar VR.
- However, the design of the Jaguar VR headset did see some form of release, particularly as the Dynovisor HMD by Takara and the Scuba by Philips, both of which, however, were not true VR headsets, as they work similarly to the VictorMaxx Stuntmaster.
- In 1994, Atari was developing a voice modem for the Jaguar that would have allowed users to play a P2P game with their friends, and be able to phone chat while you played. Inexplicably, they decided at some point to only allow local/short-distance calls. A number of test units were produced, but since it was never commercially released, it is very rare. Iron Soldier and later Ultra Vortek were developed with it in mind, although no version of Iron Soldier has been discovered with the netcode in place for it. You can access the modem menu in Ultra Vortek, but without a modem, it doesn't let you do anything.