The Strange Alternate Reality of Old Atari TV Ads

Have You Played Atari Today?

If you were going to depict a dystopian video-game-influenced society, you may not need to look to the future as “Ready Player One” does, but backward to the world depicted in the marketing of the retro source material. The early 1980s’ universe of Atari TV commercials, populated by the very same characters you might stumble upon in the Oasis, very much offers up a chilling vision of pasted on ear-to-ear smiles out of a David Lynch scene that’s every bit as dark in its way as one where people turn to VR headsets to escape reality—and it’s all set to a soundtrack of teeth-shatteringly saccharine and inane jingles.

The commercials are pretty universally horrible, depicting the real world as a stiff, soulless, neon-hued hellscape. The tagline “Have you played Atari Today?” comes off as as much of taunt as an invitation.

It’s a strange and scary world.

Family fun came in hysterical, maniacal bursts from the original Pac-Man.


With this Ms. Pac-Man spot, Atari dispells the rumor that Ms. Pac-Man is Mr. in drag.


You know what’s cuter than adorable scamps? Confused old people! Especially when said confused octogenarian is Mr. Hooper from Sesame Street.


Really though, nothing beats a sassy granny.


Don’t forget about Clueless Dad!


This spot for Defender has a jingle with the line, “Every blip is a ship on a body snatching trip.” That is all.


With a narrative brilliance that would soon be echoed in Twisted Sister’s MTV music videos, Dad, Muffy, Buffy, and Biff Jr. get pulled into a friendly round of Pole Position.

The team here delves into some (light) social satire, as when mom says cheerfully of Dad, “He’s a corporate executive: He stops exciting things from happening!”

Also, it’ll leave skid marks on your soul.


Pitfall Harry had a quite a moment there for a brief crack of its Indiana Jones’ ripped-off inspired whip, and there are even ads touting how the cartridge had become so sought after that stores couldn’t keep it stock. But Activision was nice enough to call out the game designer.


One Pitfall Harry spot even legit featured a young Jack Black.


While Pitfall Harry was a massive hit, the video game version of E.T. was, to put it mildly, not. Sadly the adaptation of Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster was Atari’s most epic flop, partially blamed for its demise, and is widely (perhaps a trifle unfairly) derided as the worst video game ever made. There is even a documentary about the hole the cartridges filled when they buried them in the desert.

So, “Merry Christmas, here’s a box of hot garbage?”


It wasn’t all wholesome family fun though. Somewhere along the line, things began to get deeply, deeply weird. This spot for Centipede looks as though it could have been auteured by David Cronenberg.


This truly bizarre two-minute epic for Joust really defies explanation, but maybe does justice to a game where buzzard-men battle ostrich-men with lances. So good job?