King Pong

Atari Fan Builds a Monument to an Era

Curt Vendel witnessed the final death rattle of Atari. It happened like this. Early last year, the 32-year-old Staten Islander got a call from a friend in California who told him the last remains of Atari, Inc., were about to be liquidated. Permanently. The news of Atari's demise was not a shock. The company hadn't been a force in the video game industry for several years, and the memory of the once billion-dollar video gaming empire that sharpened the hand-eye coordination of a generation had mostly faded to black.

But not for Vendel. As Atari's unofficial, guerrilla historian and the online impresario of the Atari Historical Society, he had spent 14 years chasing down former employees, scouting for artifacts, and Dumpster-diving behind the company's Sunnyvale, Califoria, headquarters. With the end at hand, he booked a flight west.

Two days later, he found himself standing at a warehouse in San Jose, on a dry California morning. He sneaked inside for a quick peek. All that was left was four or five dozen cardboard boxes, stacked in the lonely shadows of the mostly empty warehouse. Vendel opened a few of them. There were no game cartridges. No vintage copies of Asteroids. No Centipede. No obsolescent joysticks wrapped in wire. Just paperwork packed with legal details he could hardly understand.

"The company had dwindled down to a few dozen boxes of paperwork," recalls Vendel. "That was the final marker." For most people, Atari's demise was reason enough to forget the company. But not for Vendel.

"There are so many technology companies that are seeded with former Atari employees, and there are so many technologies themselves that were originally patented and brought out from this company," he says, explaining his mission. "I think it's important that everyone should know where all this has come from. What is it they say on the X-Files? 'The truth is out there.' "

Curt Vendel is a normal guy. Mostly. By day, he works as a computer engineering consultant for Manhattan investment banks. He has a wife. He has a dog named Gizmo. Then there's his other life. He estimates he spends about $15,000 a year on Atari, and when he starts talking about the company his dark brown eyes can wander a bit, as if fixed on a higher purpose. His calling— preserving Atari's history— might sound odd, or funny, or just a tad obsessive. Who cares about Atari anymore anyway?

Take a look on eBay. Enter "Atari" and you'll find 1411 items on the block, not far behind the 1533 for "Playstation." (Of course, Sony Playstation still actually exists.) There are too many Atari-related Web sites to count, and hobbyists' clubs from Edmonton to Australia. Vendel has positioned himself as something of a shepherd among true believers, and maybe even some of the uninitiated too. Visitors to his site, atari-history.com, generate between 500 and 1000 hits a day. And numbered among his fans is Atari founder Nolan Bushnell.

"For those of you who weren't there," Bushnell wrote in a letter recently published on Vendel's site, "this may be the closest you will get to experiencing 'Camelot.' "

Vendel's virtual version of Camelot started with a collection. He began building it in the early '80s, bartering and bantering with other Atari enthusiasts on a series of electronic bulletin boards the hobbyist community used to contact each other, before starting his own message board in 1986. His Atari arcana grew to the point that he had to rent three separate storage units. But he keeps his prized possessions at his home base.

The Atari Historical Society sits off I-278, about midway between the Verrazano and Goethals bridges. From his second-floor office in his condo, Vendel, a big guy, neatly dressed in a dark blue Old Navy pullover, jeans, and a Playstation baseball cap, can hear the buzzing cars from 278. Rows of cookie-cutter town houses are framed by a slip of window. But the most compelling sight is the Atari 5200 dealer display kiosk. The monitor is cued up to Ms. Pac-Man; the lemon-hued nymphet is smiling coquettishly, as always. The display gets your attention. It's seven feet tall. "My wife hates that," Vendel says.

Ms. Pac-Man is just the beginning. Vendel got his first taste of Atari growing up on Staten Island. A junior high buddy introduced him to Adventure, a primitive video variant of Dungeons & Dragons. He got hooked, and the following Christmas his parents bought him the Atari 2600, the faux-wood-grained gaming flagship that launched the entire industry. Now he's got Atari coffee mugs, an Atari belt buckle, faceplates from arcade versions of Asteroids and Defender. He's got a failed remote-control game system, with joysticks that work from 30 feet away. That was pretty cool, unless any of your neighbors happened to have one too.

And there are big-ticket items, like the "androbots," sad-eyed, clunky white droids that are about four feet tall and have octagonal heads. (Think C3PO, only shorter, paler, and less fleet of foot.) Androbots were built in the early '80s by another company funded by Nolan Bushnell, with help from Atari. They were supposed to teach kids basic programming skills, and apparently, they still do. Vendel has two, and recently fixed a third that belonged to a New England elementary school. (He's probably the last guy on the east coast who can hold forth on the variations between the "TOPO1" and "TOPO2" models.)

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