Guest Article: Jack's Last Word

This article was written by freelance games journalist Kieren Hawken in April 2012 to commemorate the life and times of former Atari President Jack Tramiel, who sadly passed away on the 8th day of that month. It was originally due to be published in issue 4 of Pixel Nation magazine but the publisher was put into receivership before the issue was published. Kieren kindly forwarded it to Do The Math for publication online, and here you can read it in its original form.

The influence of Jack Tramiel on the video game industry simply cannot be underestimated. From the Commodore VIC-20 to the Atari Jaguar he released a string of powerful games machines that had a profound impact on many of our lives. Sadly April 8th 2012 marked the death of the Polish holocaust surviving computer entrepreneur but his legacy lives on. In this article we look at the very last machine released under his management before he retired from the industry – the Jaguar CD, a machine that might not have been worth owning in 1995 but is more alive than ever in 2012.

The date was September the 11th 1995 and the long promised Jaguar CD finally hit the market at a price of $149.99 (£129.99 in the UK). An add-on for Atari’s already failing 64-bit Jaguar console that they hoped would help turn the tide on the Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation. It featured a double speed CD-ROM drive using a unique system that gave up to 790 Megabytes of storage. This was far more than other CD-ROM systems of the time. While it helped combat piracy it also made it more prone to disc reading errors. The unit was manufactured by Philips and used mostly standard parts to keep the cost down. The only extra hardware was a chip called Butch that interfaced it with the main unit and added Cinepak for full motion video. The initial production of 20,000 units sold out within 2 weeks and a second batch was then ordered. However it is unknown if that second batch even went into production or what the size of it was as Atari went into the reverse merger with JTS only months later liquidating all Jaguar stock. Many people who worked for the company believe that the original 20,000 units were the only ones ever made and this would certainly explain why the system is now so rare.

Sadly it was just too little too late to save the system, people had already lost all faith in Atari to deliver after the terrible launch of the Jaguar. The slow supply of games, many of which were downright terrible, and ports of titles already found on the 16-bit systems of the time helped put the nails in the Jaguar’s coffin. The Jaguar badly needed more titles the quality of the highly acclaimed Alien Vs. Predator, Tempest 2000 and Missile Command 3D. They promised the Jaguar CD would deliver them but the announced line-up of games were less than stellar. In fact half the games that appeared on the box for the Jaguar CD didn’t even get released at all! The one big thing it did have that got people talking was the Virtual Light Machine or VLM for short. Written by the legendary Jeff Minter this was built into every unit and was used when music CDs were played on it. An evolution of his Trip A Tron light synthesiser for the Atari ST it used complex algorithms to display graphics on screen that moved along with the music. The keypad on the Jaguar controller could be used to select different graphical styles or to make your own sequences, most people just stuck it on random and enjoyed the show. The system also came bundled with a demo of the game Myst and 2 complete games. The first of these - Blue Lightning - was a sequel to the famous Atari Lynx launch title but failed to impress as much as its original iteration did. The other game, Vid-Grid was a quite unique and highly enjoyable CD title that crossed a puzzle game with FMV music videos, and was later ported to the PC. The other item released for the Jaguar CD at launch was the Memory Track cartridge. This plugs into the cartridge slot on the unit and uses flash memory for saving up to 250 different games.

Only 11 titles were released for the Jaguar CD, several of which were 3rd party titles. It also received 2 after market releases from Telegames in 1997 - Iron Soldier 2 and World Tour Racing, both games were originally meant to be released by Atari. There were over 50 games that were announced and in various stages of development before being canned due to the demise of the system. Some of these have since seen release such as Brett Hull NHL Hockey, Varuna’s Forces starring Michael Clarke Duncan from the Green Mile and the fairly recent release of Silmarils’ Robinson’s Requiem (May 2011) by Songbird Productions. There is also highly regarded Jaguar CD version of Soul Star by Core Design. An update of the highly acclaimed Sega Mega CD game it has ended up being copied and shared in secret by the community after the owners of the game (Eidos and then Square Enix) repeatedly refused to allow a legal release for some reason. The real star of the original games was Battlemorph, a brilliant sequel to Cybermorph – the game that originally came bundled with the Jaguar. Some 17 years later unreleased prototypes continue to turn up, Highlander II has been recently confirmed as existing, Country Grid and Kid Grid are in the hands of a collector and 3 titles from Elite Systems were recently confirmed including the FPS game Virtuoso. Hopefully all of these will see an official release sooner rather than later.

Commercial Jaguar CD Games

  • Dragon’s Lair – By Readysoft
  • Myst – By Cyan Inc. / Sunsoft
  • Battlemorph – By Attention To Detail / Atari
  • Baldies – By Creative Edge / Atari
  • Highlander – By Lore Design / Atari
  • Hover Strike: Unconquered Lands – By Atari
  • Space Ace – By Readysoft
  • Iron Soldier II – By Eclipse / Telegames
  • Primal Rage – By Time Warner Interactive
  • World Tour Racing – By Teque / Telegames
  • Braindead 13 – By Readysoft
  • Vid Grid – By Geffen / Jasmine Multimedia
  • Blue Lightning – By Attention To Detail / Atari

Released Jaguar CD Prototypes

  • Varuna’s Forces (early beta)
  • Robinson’s Requiem (complete)
  • Caves Of Fear (early beta)
  • American Hero (early beta)
  • Soul Star (complete)
  • Native (1 level demo)
  • Demolition Man (FMV only)
  • Brett Hull NHL Hockey (near complete)
  • Dragon’s Lair II (demo)
  • Commander Blood (FMV only)
  • Thea Realm Fighters (early beta)
  • Jeff Minter Collection (tech demos)

In the year 2012 the Jaguar is a highly sort after machine that is increasing in value all the time. The CD unit is even more prized and regularly goes for £150+ on eBay, more than its original retail price! This is partly down to its rarity and also because there are many broken units out there, although the reputation that the Jaguar has for being unreliable is totally unfounded the most common fault is simply a pushed down spindle. The main reason for the machine’s current popularity though is its vibrant homebrew scene. This story starts in 1999 when Hasbro, as the then owners of the Atari brand, released all rights to the Jaguar and its encryption key into the public domain. This meant that anyone could develop and release games for the system without needing a license. However it was still expensive to produce cartridges and many of the early homebrews used the BJL set-up, this streamed code into a modded Jaguar via the second controller port. This was a very long a laborious process so the Jag CD was soon seen as an alternative. The problem was that while the encryption key for the Jaguar had been released the one for the Jaguar CD had been lost. A bypass cartridge was released to get round this that you plugged into the cartridge port in order to use self-burned homebrew games. Eventually the encryption code was found and that is when homebrew for the Jaguar really took off with people like MD Games, Reboot, Stormworks Interactive, Sinister Developments, Jagware and 3D Stooges all producing new games to play on the Jaguar CD. Many more simple titles have even been made available for free so you can burn them to CDR yourself and play them!

The Jaguar CD may have been a failure in its commercial life but it’s now a massive hit in its afterlife, and this is all down to the wonderful homebrew community. There isn’t another CD system out there with a scene as vibrant or as interesting (although the Dreamcast has it's fair share of homebrew/indie projects in 2014! - Tom). This makes the Jaguar CD a must have machine for serious retro gamers these days and it will be supported for a long time to come if the current output is anything to go by. Jack Tramiel will be looking down with a big smile knowing his last word was now so important!

Once again, massive thanks to Kieren Hawken for allowing Do The Math to publish this article.

No comments:

Post a Comment