The Atari Jaguar is a home video game console that was developed by Atari Corporation. The console was the sixth and last programmable console to be developed under the Atari brand, originally released in North America in November 1993. Controversially, Atari marketed the Jaguar as being the first 64-bit video game console, while competing with the existing 16-bit consoles (Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo Entertainment System) and the 32-bit 3DO Interactive Multiplayer platform (which launched the same year).
Development on the Atari Jaguar started in the early 1990s, and was designed by Flare Technology, who were tasked by Atari to create two consoles; the Atari Panther, which would compete with the Genesis and the Super NES, and a successor, the Jaguar, which would surpass the capabilities of any other console on the market at the time. With development of the Jaguar running ahead of schedule, the Panther was cancelled, and the release of the Jaguar was pushed forward. It was originally released to test markets in New York City and San Francisco in November 1993, and to the general public in 1994, with Cybermorph as the pack-in launch game.
The console's multi-chip architecture made game development for the console difficult, and underwhelming sales further contributed to the console's lack of third party support. This, in addition to the lack of internal development at Atari, led to a limited games library, comprising only 67 licensed titles.
Atari attempted to extend the lifespan of the Jaguar by releasing a CD-ROM add-on known as the Atari Jaguar CD and marketing the Jaguar as the low-cost next generation console, with a price tag over $100 less than any of its competitors. With the release of the Sega Saturn and Sony's PlayStation in 1995, sales of the Jaguar continued to fall, ultimately selling no more than 250,000 units before it was discontinued in 1996. The Jaguar was deemed a commercial failure, and prompted Atari to leave the home video game console market. After Hasbro Interactive bought out Atari in the late 1990s, the patents to the Jaguar were released into the public domain, with the console being declared an open platform. Since then, the Jaguar has gained a cult following, with a developer base that produces homebrew games for the console.
The Jaguar was developed by the members of Flare Technology, a company formed by Martin Brennan and John Mathieson. The team had claimed that they could not only make a console superior to the Genesis or the Super NES, but they could also be cost-effective. Impressed by their work on the Konix Multisystem, Atari persuaded them to close Flare and form a new company called Flare II, with Atari providing the funding. Flare II initially set to work designing two consoles for Atari Corp. One was a 32-bit architecture (codenamed "Panther"), and the other was a 64-bit system (codenamed "Jaguar"); however, work on the Jaguar design progressed faster than expected, so Atari Corp. canceled the Panther project to focus on the more promising Jaguar.
The Jaguar was unveiled in August 1993 at the Chicago Consumer Entertainment Show.
The Jaguar was introduced in 1993 at a price of $249.99, under a $500 million manufacturing deal with IBM. The system was initially available only in the test markets of New York City and San Francisco, under the slogan "Do the Math", claiming superiority over competing 16-bit and 32-bit systems. A U.S.-wide release followed six months later, in early 1994.
The Atari Jaguar struggled to attain a substantial user base. In 1993, Atari reported that they had shipped 17,000 units as part of the system's initial test market. By the end of 1994, Atari reported that they had sold approximately 100,000 systems and had reduced the price to improve the competitive nature of the console. By the end of 1995, Sony and Sega had entered the marketplace with competing consoles and Atari's sales declined rapidly. In Atari's 1995 annual report, they noted:
"Jaguar sales were substantially below Atari's expectations, and Atari's business and financial results were materially adversely affected in 1995 as Atari continued to invest heavily in Jaguar game development, entered into arrangements to publish certain licensed titles and reduced the retail price for its Jaguar console unit. Atari attributes the poor performance of Jaguar to a number of factors including (i) extensive delays in development of software for the Jaguar which resulted in reduced orders due to consumer concern as to when titles for the platform would be released and how many titles would ultimately be available, and (ii) the introduction of competing products by Sega and Sony in May 1995 and September 1995, respectively."
The lack of titles was attributable to two main factors: the Jaguar's questionable long-term prospects among third-party game-publishers and the problematic nature of developing games for the Jaguar. Atari had one opportunity to convince third-party developers, vital for the diversity of Jaguar's game library, with a solid retail-performance, but as things played out, post-holiday sales figures questioned the viability of Atari's business; Atari failed to attract many third-party developers already committed to other game platforms. In addition, the Jaguar's underlying hardware was crippled by a flaw in the CPU's memory controller, which prevented code execution out of system RAM. Less severe defects included a buggy UART. The memory controller flaw could have been mitigated by a mature code-development environment, to unburden the programmer from having to micromanage small chunks of code. Jaguar's development tools left much to the programmer's own implementation, as documentation was incomplete. Writing game-code was often an endurance exercise in the tedious assembler.
In a July 1995 interview with Next Generation, then-CEO Sam Tramiel declared that the Jaguar was as powerful, if not more powerful, than the Sega Saturn, and slightly weaker than the PlayStation. Next Generation received a deluge of letters in response to Tramiel's comments, particularly his threat to bring Sony to court for price dumping if the PlayStation entered the U.S. market at a retail price below $300 and his remark that the small number of third party Jaguar games was good for Atari's profitability (which angered Jaguar owners who were already frustrated at how few games were coming out for the system).
By the end of 1995, Atari's revenues declined by more than half, from US$38.7 million in 1994 to $14.6 million in 1995. In late 1995, Atari Corp. ran early-morning infomercial advertisements with enthusiastic salesmen touting the powerful game system. The infomercials ran most of the year, but did not significantly sell the remaining stock of Jaguar systems. By November 1995, mass layoffs and insider statements were fueling journalistic speculation that Atari had ceased both development and manufacturing for the Jaguar and was simply trying to sell off existing stock before exiting the video game industry. In its 10-K405 SEC Filing, filed April 12, 1996, Atari informed their stockholders of the truly dire nature of the Jaguar business:
From the introduction of Jaguar in late 1993 through the end of 1995, Atari sold approximately 125,000 units of Jaguar. As of December 31, 1995, Atari had approximately 100,000 units of Jaguar in inventory.
Production of the Jaguar ceased after Atari Corp. merged with JT Storage in a reverse takeover. In a last-ditch effort to revive the Jaguar, Atari Corp. tried to play down the other two consoles by proclaiming the Jaguar was the only "64-bit" system. This claim is questioned by some, because the CPU (68000) and GPU executed a 32-bit instruction-set, but sent control signals to the 64-bit graphics co-processors (or "graphics accelerators"). Atari Corp.'s reasoning that the 32-bit "Tom" and "Jerry" chips work in tandem to add up to a 64-bit system was ridiculed in a mini-editorial by Electronic Gaming Monthly, which commented that "If Sega did the math for the Sega Saturn the way Atari did the math for their 64-bit Jaguar system, the Sega Saturn would be a 112-bit monster of a machine." On the other side, Next Generation, while giving a mostly negative review of the Jaguar, maintained that it is a true 64-bit system, since the data path from the DRAM to the CPU and Tom and Jerry chips is 64 bits wide. Design specs for the console allude to the GPU or DSP being capable of acting as a CPU, leaving the Motorola 68000 to read controller inputs. In practice, however, many developers used the Motorola 68000 to drive gameplay logic.
From the Jaguar Software Reference manual, page 1:
Jaguar is a custom chip set primarily intended to be the heart of a very high-performance games/leisure computer. It may also be used as a graphics accelerator in more complex systems, and applied to workstation and business uses. As well as a general purpose CPU, Jaguar contains four processing units. These are the Object Processor, Graphics Processor, Blitter, and Digital Sound Processor. Jaguar provides these blocks with a 64-bit data path to external memory devices, and is capable of a very high data transfer rate into external dynamic RAM."Tom" Chip, 26.59 MHz
Graphics processing unit (GPU) – 32-bit RISC architecture, 4 KB internal cache, all graphics effects are software based.
Core has some additional instructions intended for 3D operations
Object Processor – 64-bit non-programmable; provides all video output from system.
Blitter – 64-bit high speed logic operations, z-buffering and Gouraud shading, with 64-bit internal registers.
DRAM controller, 8, 16, 32 and 64-bit memory management
"Jerry" Chip, 26.59 MHz
Digital Signal Processor – 32-bit RISC architecture, 8 KB internal cache
Similar RISC core as the GPU, additional instructions intended for audio operations
CD-quality sound (16-bit stereo)
Number of sound channels limited by software
Two DACs (stereo) convert digital data to analog sound signals
Full stereo capabilities
Wavetable synthesis, FM synthesis, FM Sample synthesis, and AM synthesis
A clock control block, incorporating timers, and a UART
Motorola 68000 "used as a manager".General purpose 16/32-bit control processor, 13.295 MHz
RAM: 2 MB on a 64-bit bus using 4 16-bit fast page mode DRAMs (80 ns)
Storage: ROM cartridges – up to 6 MB
Antenna-port (UHF/VHF) Fixed at 591 MHz in Europe
Not present on French model
Support for ComLynx I/O
NTSC/PAL machines can be identified by their power LED colour, Red = NTSC, Green = PAL
Atari Games licensed the Atari Jaguar's chipset for use in its arcade games. The system, named COJAG (for "Coin-Op Jaguar"), replaced the 68000 with a 68020 or MIPS R3000-based CPU (depending on the board version), and added a hard drive and more RAM. It ran the lightgun games Area 51 and Maximum Force, which were released by Atari as dedicated cabinets or as the Area 51/Maximum Force combo machine. Other games (3 On 3 Basketball; Fishin' Frenzy; Freeze; Vicious Circle) were developed but never released.
The Atari Jaguar Duo was a proposed console similar to the TurboDuo and Genesis CDX. It was an attempt by Atari to combine the Atari Jaguar and Atari Jaguar CD to make a new console. A prototype model, described by journalists as resembling a bathroom scale, was unveiled at the 1995 Winter Consumer Electronics Show, but the console was cancelled before production could begin.
Prior to the launch of the console in November 1993, Atari had announced a variety of peripherals and add-ons for the Jaguar to be released over the console's lifespan. This included a CD-ROM-based add-on console, a dial-up internet link with support for online gaming, a virtual reality headset, and an MPEG-2 video card. However, due to the poor sales and eventual commercial failure of the Jaguar, most of the peripherals in development were scrapped. The only peripherals and add-ons released by Atari for the Jaguar were a redesigned controller, an adapter for four-players, a CD console add-on and a link cable for Local area network (LAN) gaming.
The redesigned second controller for the Jaguar, named the "ProController" by Atari, added three more face buttons, two triggers, and had a flat interface. The controller was created in response to the criticism of the original controller that the console came with. Sold independently, however, it was never bundled with the system after its release. A peripheral that allowed 4 controllers to be plugged into the console was also released. Dubbed the "Team Tap", it was released independently and as a bundle with White Men Can't Jump. However, the Team Tap was only compatible with White Men Can't Jump and NBA Jam Tournament Edition. Eight player gameplay with the Team Tap peripheral is also possible if a second Team Tap is plugged into the second controller port on the console. Local area network multiplayer gameplay was achieved through the use of the Jaglink Interface, which allowed two Jaguar consoles to be linked together through a modular extension and a UTP phone cable. The Jaglink was compatible with three games: AirCars, BattleSphere and Doom.
In 1994 at the CES, Atari announced that it partnered up with Phylon, Inc. to create the Jaguar Voice/Data Communicator. The unit was delayed and eventually in 1995 mass production was canceled all together, but not before an estimated 100 or so were made. The JVM as it became known, utilized a 19.9kbit/s dial up modem and had the ability to answer incoming phone calls and store up to 18 phone numbers. Players were required to directly dial each other for online game play. The only Jaguar game that supports the JVM is Ultra Vortek, the modem is initialized in the Ultra Vortek start up screen by entering 911 on the key pad.
The Atari Jaguar CD is an add-on to the Jaguar that made use of CD-ROMs to distribute games. It was released in September 1995, two years after the Jaguar's launch. Twelve games were released for the system during its manufacturing lifetime, with more being made after by homebrew developers. Each Jaguar CD unit came with a Virtual Light Machine, which displayed light patterns corresponding to music, if the user inserts an audio CD into the console. It was developed by Jeff Minter, who had created the program after experimenting with graphics during the development of Tempest 2000. The program was deemed a spiritual successor to the Atari Video Music, a system which served a similar purpose, released in 1976.
An additional accessory for the Jaguar CD, which allowed Jaguar CD games to save persistent data such as preferences and saved games, was also released. Known as the Memory Track, it was a cartridge that contained a 128 K EEPROM, and was to be inserted into the cartridge slot on the Jaguar CD while the user played a Jaguar CD game. The program manager for the Memory Track is accessed by pushing the option button while the system is starting, and exited by pushing the * and # keys simultaneously. There were plans to make a second model of the Jaguar console that combined both the Jaguar and the Jaguar CD into one unit, a la the TurboDuo. Originally codenamed the Jaguar III, and later the Jaguar Duo, the proposed model was scrapped after the discontinuation of the Jaguar.
A virtual reality headset compatible with the console, tentatively titled the Jaguar VR, was unveiled by Atari at the 1995 Winter Consumer Electronics Show. The development of the peripheral was a response to Nintendo's virtual reality console, the Virtual Boy, which had been announced the previous year. The headset was developed in cooperation with Virtuality, who had previously created many virtual reality arcade systems, and was already developing a similar headset for practical purposes, named Project Elysium, for IBM. The peripheral was targeted for a commercial release before Christmas 1995. However, the deal with Virtuality was abandoned in October 1995. After Atari's merger with JTS in 1996, all prototypes of the headset were allegedly destroyed. However, two working units, one low-resolution prototype with red and grey-colored graphics, and one high-resolution prototype with blue and grey-colored graphics, have since been recovered, and are regularly showcased at retrogaming-themed conventions and festivals. Only one game was developed for the Jaguar VR prototype; a 3D-rendered version of the 1980 arcade game Missile Command, entitled Missile Command 3D, though a demo of Virtuality's Zone Hunter was also created for Jaguar VR demonstrations.
An unofficial expansion peripheral for the Atari Jaguar dubbed the "Catbox" was released by the Rockford, Illinois company ICD. It was originally slated to be released early in the Jaguar's life, in the second quarter of 1994, but was not actually released until mid-1995. The ICD CatBox plugs directly into the AV/DSP connectors located in the rear of the Jaguar console and provides three main functions. These are audio, video, and communications. It features six output formats, three for audio (line level stereo, RGB monitor, headphone jack with volume control) and three for video (composite, S-Video, and RGB analog component video) making the Jaguar compatible with multiple high quality monitor systems and multiple monitors at the same time. It is capable of communications methods known as CatNet and RS-232 as well as DSP pass through, allowing the user to connect two or more Jaguars together for multi player games either directly or with modems. The ICD CatBox features a polished stainless steel casing and red LEDs in the jaguar's eyes on the logo that indicate communications activity. An IBM AT type null modem cable may be used to connect two Jaguars together. The CatBox is also compatible with Atari's Jaglink Interface peripheral.
An adaptor for the Jaguar that allows for WebTV access was revealed in 1998; one prototype is known to exist.
Reviewing the Jaguar just a few weeks prior to its launch, GamePro gave it a "thumbs sideways". They praised the power of the hardware but criticized the controller, and were dubious of how the software lineup would turn out, commenting that Atari's failure to secure support from key third party publishers such as Capcom was a bad sign. They concluded that "Like the 3DO, the Jaguar is a risky investment - just not quite as expensive."
The small size and poor quality of the Jaguar's game library became the most commonly cited reason for its failure in the marketplace. Jaguar did earn praise with titles such as Tempest 2000, Doom, and Wolfenstein 3D. The most successful title during the Jaguar's first year was Alien vs. Predator. Both it and Tempest 2000 were named among the system's defining titles by GamePro in 2007. However, these occasional successes were seen as insufficient while the Jaguar's competitors were receiving a continuous stream of critically acclaimed software; GamePro concluded their rave review of Alien vs.Predator by remarking "If Atari can turn out a dozen more games like AvP, Jaguar owners could truly rest easy and enjoy their purchase." In a late 1995 review of the Jaguar, Next Generation commented that "thus far, Atari has spectacularly failed to deliver on the software side, leaving many to question the actual quality and capability of the hardware. With only one or two exceptions - Tempest 2000 is cited most frequently - there have just been no truly great games for the Jaguar up to now." They further noted that while Atari is well-known by older gamers, the company had much less overall brand recognition than Sega, Sony, Nintendo, or even The 3DO Company. However, they argued that with its low price point, the Jaguar might still compete if Atari could improve the software situation. They gave the system two out of five stars. With such a small library of games to challenge the incumbent 16-bit game consoles, Jaguar's appeal never grew beyond a small gaming audience. Digital Spy commented: "Like many failed hardware ventures, it still maintains something of a cult following but can only be considered a misstep for Atari."
In 2006 IGN editor Craig Harris rated the standard Jaguar controller as the worst game controller ever, criticizing the unwarranted recycling of the 1980s "phone keypad" format and the small number of action buttons, which he found particularly unwise given that Atari was actively trying to court fighting game fans to the system. Ed Semrad of Electronic Gaming Monthly commented that many Jaguar games gratuitously used all of the controller's phone keypad buttons, making the controls much more difficult than they needed to be.
After the Atari Corporation properties were bought out by Hasbro Interactive in the late 1990s, Hasbro released the rights to the Jaguar, declaring the console an open platform and opening the doors for homebrew development. A few developers, including Telegames and Songbird Productions, have not only released previously unfinished materials from the Jaguar's past, but also several brand new titles to satisfy the system's cult following.
In the United Kingdom in 2001, a deal was struck between Telegames and retailer Game to bring the Jaguar to Game's retail outlets. The machine was initially sold for £29.99 brand new and software prices ranged between £9.99 for more common games such as Doom and Ruiner Pinball, and £39.99 for more sought-after releases such as Defender 2000 and Checkered Flag. The machine had a presence in the stores until 2007 when remaining consoles were sold off for £9.99 and games were sold for as low as 97p.
This deal was seen as a move to remain competitive with Game's rival at the time, Gamestation, who were well known for stocking retro formats.
Imagin Systems, a manufacturer of dental imaging equipment, has since purchased the molding plates for the Jaguar's casing as with minor modification they were found to be the right size for housing their HotRod camera. The game cartridge molds were reused to create an optional memory expansion card.
In December 2014, the molds for the console and cartridges were purchased from Imagin Systems by Mike Kennedy, owner of the Kickstarter funded Retro Videogame Magazine, to propose a new crowdfunded video game console called the Retro VGS, later rebranded the Coleco Chameleon after entering a licensing agreement with Coleco. The purchase of the molds from Imagin Systems was far cheaper than designing and manufacturing entirely new molds, and Kennedy described their acquisition as "the entire reason [the Retro VGS] is possible". However, the project was ultimately terminated in March 2016 following a long period of heavy criticism and controversy surrounding Kennedy's perceived dishonesty, unprofessionalism, and lack of technical knowledge in addition to the perceived lack of market demand for the proposed console. The project culminated with the production of two "prototypes" that were quickly proven to be fake, and Coleco removing their involvement from the project after Kennedy and his team failed to produce a prototype for investigation. After the project's termination, the molds were sold to Albert Yarusso, the founder of the AtariAge website.