Why Did The Atari Jaguar Go So Wrong?

Updated: Oct 7

The system had some major hype and excitement prior to release and then it crumbled to ash in the wake of the Sony Playstation. If it would have released a earlier in the 16-bit generation it might have been very different! So what is the Atari Jaguar and where did it all go wrong? Lets take a peek!

Jaguar? What About The Panther?

Before we talk about the Jaguar we have to mention the Atari Panther. "I have never even heard of this" you might say and you are not alone! Atari desperately wanted to get back into good graces with gamers after the lack luster follow-ups to their phenomenal Atari 2600 with the Atari 5200 & 7800. While Sega and Nintendo battled it out in the 8-bit world, and with the announcements of the upcoming Genesis and Super Nintendo, Atari wanted to create a piece of tech that would leap over the competition. In 1988 early planning had began on a 32-bit system code named Panther. The plan was to release in 1991 to go up against the release of Nintendo's newest system.

Atari designed a 32-Bit chip capable of running at 32Mhz and was able to display 7,860 simultaneous colors with sprites that could scale to 320 x 200 pixels. The Panther claimed the ability to handle advanced 3D graphics due to it's powerful math capability with no slow down. They also touted a powerful sound processor called Ensoniq which "... had 32 voices in stereo which could be filtered with frequency interpolation, looped forward/backwards, and each voice's volume and stereo panning was to be controlled through software." This sounded very impressive compared to what the Nintendo Entertainment System and the Sega Master System were producing.

Surprisingly this wasn't the only system Atari had in the works as a second "secret" console was also being developed, a follow-up to the yet released Panther. With both systems being worked on and issues with Panther Development Kits (basically they didn't work) Sam Tramiel sent out a press release on May 16th, 1991 that the Panther was officially canceled and work was progressing on the Jaguar, a 64-Bit system!

Was It 32-Bit Or 64-Bit?

With the Panther laid to rest the Jaguar was now being developed as a direct competitor to the released Sega Genesis and upcoming Super Nintendo, and it looked like Atari would definitely come out victorious on this current gaming front, at least on paper.

There was much discussion on the internals of the Jaguar and if it really was a 64-Bit system or not. The main controlling chip, the Motorola 68000 was a 16-Bit/32-Bit CPU running at 13MHz. The graphics chips, known as "Tom" were comprised of a 32-Bit GPU, 64-Bit Object processor and a 64-Bit Blitter. The sound chip, known as "Jerry", was a 32-Bit Digital Signal Processor. The Jaguar's' marketing consisted of the slogan "Do The Math" as it compared 64-Bits to 16-Bits and as you can see it did some creative thinking to determine this system was actually 64-Bits (technically it was a probably somewhere between the 16-Bit and 32-Bit worlds).

Regardless everything about this system screamed next generation and some of the games, like Alien Vs. Predator and Rayman, absolutely destroyed what the 16-Bit consoles were able to do. One of the most controversal of design choices, however, was the controller!

This absolute ridiculous, un-ergonomic controller came in two flavors; a three button regular controller and the six button Pro variant. Both featured a digital pad and a 12 digit number pad with game overlays for "extra" control. The buttons and digital pad were at the top of the controller so it wasn't very easy to hold and the number pad wasn't easy to access during play and just added extra difficulty to the game play.

If Atari would have been able to bring in more third parties and actually control the quality of the games they might have succeeded. Some of the worst games are Kasumi Ninja, White Men Can't Jump and Bubsy. Steer clear of these games, even in emulation.

The Jaguar Is Loose!

After some delays the Atari Jaguar was finally released on November 23rd, 1993 with a retail price of $249.99. The system was initially available only in the two test markets; New York City and San Francisco with a full US release in early 1994. Sales of the Jaguar were underwhelming. In 1993, Atari reported that it had shipped 17,000 units as part of the system's initial test market and approximately 100,000 systems by the end of 1994. Then in May of 1995 Sega released the Saturn and on September 9th of the same year Sony released the original Playstation. Atari's sales declined rapidly. In Atari's 1995 annual report, it 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.

And The Roar Becomes A Whimper

With the arrival of the 32-Bit generation came the end of the "first" 64-Bit system and the end of Atari for 23 years until the announcement of the Atari VCS system in 2017 (and that is a topic for another article). If Atari management would have avoided some missteps then perhaps the Jaguar could have been a hit but history will remember it as possibly the worst console in gaming history. Sad but true.

- The Big Geek