The People Who Made The Jaguar Roar

Atari Jaguar Tempest and Controller
Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

Like all gaming systems, the Atari Jaguar was the work of many individuals in terms of hardware, software, marketing and business strategy. We speak to a selection of people who played significant roles in the development and evolution of the console during its short lifespan.

Darryl Still, former Atari Europe Marketing Manager

What was the setup like at Atari Europe when the Jaguar was released?

Well, let’s just say we were somewhat reduced in the staff and budget we had when I was managing the ST or even launching the Lynx. It was more heavily managed by the US (art, packaging, etc) which is probably why they got most of the first year's stock.

What were your first impressions of the system? Did you feel it was a console that could seriously challenge the likes of Sega, Nintendo and 3DO?

I loved it. Some of the games were stunning, I liked the style and even the 'toilet' CD player. Bugger to develop for, apparently, but I didn’t have to do that.

Many have expressed the opinion that the Jaguar's launch in 1993 was rushed, with buggy hardware and poor development documentation harming its chances. Would you have liked to have given the machine more time to mature before release?

I’m not sure the developer documentation was poor; just very complicated and different to what many dev studios were used to. Those set up mainly as porting houses were unable to cope which is why the best games came from the best studios and coders, many of whom are leading the industry today for that very reason. Hardware wasn’t any more buggy than other systems I worked on either, just in shorter supply.

Darryl Still
Image: Darryl Still

Much has been made of the Jaguar's '64-bit' credentials; given how this was pushed in the marketing for the console, did the debate about whether or not the Jag is a 'true' 64-bit system become annoying?

It was white noise really, mostly from our rivals. We knew exactly what it was. You got to remember Sega and Nintendo only had 16-bit systems, and Tom and Jerry were each more powerful than the 3DO alone, so the bus/blitter thing being 64-bit was a bonus. It may have created controversy, but it was legally correct and put us firmly in the conversation – which, as a marketing man, was a dream.

You've spoken in the past of the financial and inventory restrictions that were placed on you when it came to marketing the machine in Europe; do you think a larger budget and more stock could have changed things?

100%. Not so much the budget. I mean, we were getting 16-page EDGE specials without paying, so coverage was no issue and we had a decent ad spend. Lack of stock killed it stone dead the first Christmas. We only supplied 10% of the orders we had and when little Johnny wanted a console for Christmas, mum and dad would buy the second choice if they couldn’t get first, so there was no coming back from that.

Are you proud of the job you did marketing the platform in Europe, given your limited resources?

Very. Was pretty much a team of one by then as Germany had little interest in the system. We made a lot of noise and got a lot of orders. We just couldn’t supply them. You see the common theme?

Accessories such as the CD drive and VR headset suggest that Atari was committed to backing the Jaguar as much as possible, but do you think the company should have perhaps been more focused on making a successful base system?

They were all part of it. Again, the base system would have been a huge success if we’d not been shorted on a key processor in the manufacturing process. That wasn’t anything that the R&D team had control of so they just kept developing the great and exciting accessories.

Do you have any memorable anecdotes from this period that you could share with us?

One I can think of was taking Jeff Minter into a replica of the pub from American Werewolf in London that was (I think) in Washington Square, New York. The pub was called “The Slaughtered Lamb” and Jeff almost had a breakdown!

When did you become aware that it was game over for both the Jaguar and Atari, and how did it feel?

I think after we’d missed that first Christmas. I lasted a little longer, and they were great people, but EA called and I was the eigth-from-last person out.

Did you play games much at the time? Which title do you think shows off the best side of the Jaguar?

The one I was most proud of, as we developed it from the UK, was Zero 5. Unfortunately, I left before it was finished and it only came out later still in an unfinished state, but it has potential to be a groundbreaking shooter. The other fun game I worked on personally was Attack of the Mutant Penguins. I think it was a little ahead of its time and people didn’t get it back then, but I’ve seen it often in modern games. I doubt it was a direct influence but think we had something before the world was quite ready for it.

What do you think is the lasting legacy of the Jaguar?

You guys and people like you keep the flame burning. I’m proud of the heritage but to me it’s only memories. My own kids and the young people around me are more impressed that I worked on FIFA at EA and Call of Duty at NVIDIA.

The main legacy, I think, is that companies like Rebellion and Attention to Detail made their name there and have gone on to create some of the worlds great games.

Jeff Minter, Llamasoft

Legendary independent developer Minter started his career in 1981 and has released cult classics such as Gridrunner, Attack of the Mutant Camels and TxK, the latter of which is a spiritual successor to his 1994 effort Tempest 2000, one of the Jaguar's most critically-acclaimed titles.

What were your thoughts when you first saw the Jaguar?

Jeff Minter: I was very impressed. I'd worked briefly on its unreleased predecessor, the Panther, and whereas that had been designed to be purely a sprite-based powerhouse, the Jag with its additional RISC CPUs and versatile Blitter setup allowed for a lot more graphical capability than anything we could reasonably lay hands on at that time. These were pre-Playstation times and nothing in the console space could match the Jag, and it effortlessly trounced the Amiga which was the best in the home computer space. So the Jag looked pretty exciting.

What would you say were the format's strengths, from a technical perspective?

I liked that it had a 68K CPU, which everyone was familiar with by then, so you had a nice familiar area to start out in, which could then be augmented by running most of your graphics setup on the RISC CPU/Blitter combination. The Blitter itself was a lot more versatile than the sort of thing we'd grown used to on other systems, which usually were limited to doing 2D raster ops. The Jag's Blitter could be set up to draw lines, and it could interpolate a colour value between its start and endpoint; you could set it up so you "walked" down the edges of a polygon, filling with shaded lines as you went, and ended up with a Gouraud-shaded polygon. Being able to draw polys this way was actually a big step forward - this was before the days when you could just tell the GPU "here's a list of triangles, draw them please". You could also use the blitter to do some cool raster tricks, like feedback in the frame buffer, and breaking bitmaps apart into particles, which I used a lot in T2K. It was no slouch in the audio department either; in T2K I remember the audio driver Imagitec provided being roughly the equivalent of 2 Amigas' worth of MOD player output, with near zero impact on anything I was doing, so not affecting the speed of the game at all. It was just a lot more powerful than anything I'd used prior.

What were its weaknesses?

It was good at Gouraud shaded stuff but it wasn't really set up to do texture mapping very efficiently, it'd've been nice to be able to do that easily, something which was much easier on the PlayStation. And developers might have found it a bit of a faff having to walk the edges of their triangles by hand, being able to use a more traditional vertex buffer arrangement and have the hardware deal with that would've been nice. This kind of stuff is easy to see in hindsight, at the time we had no such luxuries to compare it to so what the Jag had seemed mighty nice.

Jeff Minter
Image: Jeff Minter

What was the Jaguar like to code for when compared to other formats of the period?

I liked it! As I said before, it had a nice familiar 68k to start out on and the RISC CPU was nice to code on too. Maybe it wasn't for everyone, since at that time there was a general movement towards devs using C rather than writing straight assembly, and certainly once Playstation came out I think devs came to expect hardware to do more of the lower-level stuff for them. But I was an assembly nerd and I loved nothing more than getting onto a new and experimental system and seeing what I could do with it, so I absolutely loved coding on the Jag. Between the RISC and the blitter you could do a lot more with it than anything I'd coded on before.

What was Atari like to work with as a publisher?

Atari of that era were fine to deal with - when I was making T2K I had the benefit of having an excellent producer, John Skrutch, who was real "old school" Atari and knew exactly how best to handle someone like me who had never really worked under the direction of anyone else given all my stuff up to that point had been Llamasoft games. John knew how to nudge me in the right direction without making me feel I was being led by the nose, and I think the game is the better for his deft guidance. Not everything about my Atari experiences of that era was rosy (I was very upset years later when I found out that the reason T2K was ported to the Playstation as Tempest X3, with slight modifications to the gameplay, was to deliberately change the game enough so as to not have to pay me any royalties on that version). But by and large, at the time, I got on well with the people at Atari, I enjoyed my time spent there, and I got to work on some things I really enjoyed developing.

Tempest 2000 is referred to by many as the console's killer app – does it fill you with pride to hear it spoken about in this fashion?

I'm just pleased that the game came out well, and that it's still remembered fondly even today. It was quite daunting for me when I took it on, as I'd never done any 3D/polygon stuff at all at that point, and I had to learn a fair bit to get it working. But I loved Tempest and was determined to give it my best shot. Plus I was extremely fortunate to have John Skrutch as my producer, and Imagitec doing the music side of things, and who came up with exactly the right kind of tunes for the game and the driver to be able to play them without impacting the game speed at all. Plus I had an exemplary game design to build on in Theurer's original Tempest. If T2K ended up being a good game, it is because of the coming together of all these things, not just my coding alone.

You also worked on the Jaguar CD drive via your VLM - what did that bring to the console?

It brought a lot of potential, really, but it was never really fully realised in the end, coming as it did towards the end of the Jag's life cycle. There was the potential to have made some groundbreaking games for it - the cyberpunk project Black Ice White Noise springs to mind - but in the end everything fell apart before anyone got to dig deep into the potential of Jag plus CD-Rom. Then shortly afterwards PlayStation came out and it was pretty much game over at that point. I did enjoy the work we did on the music visualiser for the CD-Rom, "VLM" or Virtual Light Machine. It gave me a chance to play around some more with the Jag's graphics hardware, using it purely as an abstract graphics synthesiser. Visualisers were quite new at that time, and the Jag CD-Rom VLM did inspire the creators of one which became far more widely distributed - which is why theirs came with a tagline about "whipping the llama's ass"!

What do you think Atari could have done differently to make the Jaguar a success?

I'd've liked to see them develop more of the IP that they had at their disposal - they had the rights to a lot of classic arcade IP which would still have been memorable and attractive to potential buyers at that time. If they'd had excellent versions of stuff like Missile Command, Asteroids, Centipede, Breakout, Star Raiders - all highly regarded classics - developed and updated in the same kind of way that we did with Tempest, then it might have been enough to gain the Jag more of a toe hold - and Atari itself an updated and modernised presence in a rapidly evolving games industry. And who knows, maybe with a start like that and continued development support maybe it could have had a chance to hold some ground against the subsequent release of PlayStation. But they never really leaned into that IP, Tempest was a lucky fluke, and not a lot of their other IP was really developed for the Jag, at least around the early days when it would have had its greatest relevance. Of course the Jag did get some strong new IP, like AvP and Doom and such, but I do think if it'd've launched on a wave of excellent updates of Atari's best known IP - "Hey, Atari's BACK! and look at how awesome our games are NOW!" kind of thing - that could have tremendously helped early uptake of the console.

Jason Kingsley OBE, Rebellion Developments

UK-based Rebellion Developments was one of the first companies to pledge support for the Jaguar and produced a number of titles for the console, including Alien vs Predator and Chequered Flag.

Time Extension: What were your thoughts when you first saw the Jaguar?

Jason Kingsley: It was great, but just a lot of electronics in a big beige case, nothing like the eventual form factor. We were impressed with what it put on the screen, though.

What would you say were the format's strengths, from a technical perspective?

Being able to use 16-bit colour and with a fairly fast processor and some specialist additional tech, so it was the beginnings of specialist games hardware in some ways. The controller keypad was an interesting idea too, with lots of game input potential.

What were its weaknesses?

Custom tech, so no one had any experience in using any of it.

What was Atari like to work with as a publisher?

Full of characters and a little chaotic, but enthusiastic and full of exciting energy.

Jason Kingsley
Image: Jason Kingsley

AvP is noted as one of the console's stand-out games - how did it feel to get that kind of recognition?

We obviously hoped it would be a big hit and we pushed the tech innovation and graphic innovation hard with a relatively small team, but it was great to be so appreciated at the time.

Chequered Flag was compared to Virtua Racing at the time, but launched to mixed reviews - were you pleased with how it turned out?

The machine was probably not really up to the task of pushing all those polygons, but we tried and I think ended up with a good, but not an outstanding, game.

Skyhammer came out long after the Jaguar had died a death at retail, and is regarded as one of the best titles on the console. What did it feel like to see all of your hard work on that title finally reach the general public?

That was wonderful to see it come out eventually. It was a shame how the financials for the Jaguar turned out in the end, but it was a wild ride at the time.

Rebellion worked on multiple Jaguar projects; could you tell us a little more about the stuff we didn't see?

I remember we did a couple of demos of some games; one based on a dungeon-crawler springs to mind, the other I can’t remember.

What do you think Atari could have done differently to make the Jaguar a success?

I have no idea, I think it was a great success in many ways, but obviously too big a project for a much smaller Atari at the time.

Fred Gill, Former ATD Co-Founder And Technical Director

Attention to Detail (ATD) was instrumental in the Jaguar's short life, producing two of the platform's most notable titles, Cybermorph and Battlemorph. Gill, who co-founded ATD alongside Chris Gibbs, Martin Green, Jon Steele and Jim Torjussen, is now Head of Tech at Titanfall and Apex Legends developer Respawn Entertainment.

What were your thoughts when you first saw the Jaguar?

Depends on what you mean by "first saw". We were involved from the very early stages through to shipping. We got the work with Atari due to a hastily knocked-up demo (less than 3D) on the Flare One - a Virus-like (David Braben title) landscape that had a message embedded into the landscape. We were also very excited that Atari were pushing ahead with new hardware - many of ATD had grown up with Atari STs (a few of ATD's founders did Super Sprint on the ST and Amiga between 2nd and 3rd year of university), and in the first few years of ATD we used them as our development platform.

The Jaguar chipset was designed by the same hardware engineers that worked on the Flare One and Konix Multisystem, but was a significant step up from the both, due to the co-processors (Tom and Jerry), which were very exciting to work with as they offered significant additional processing power; one was linked to audio (and ultimately the CD drive), and the second general purpose, so able to control the blitter as well as read/write shared memory.

We loved working directly with the low-level hardware , and so the flexibility afforded to us by the Jaguar was brilliant.

What would you say were the format's strengths, from a technical perspective?

There were several strengths. The co-processors were powerful, running in parallel with the main CPU, and the blitter chip was powerful, able to handle texturing (not perspective correct), and the display-list-interrupts gave an extra level of control and performance optimisation.

Fred Headshot
Image: Fred Gill

What were its weaknesses?

The main CPU (68000) was one of the limiting factors. For a small period of time we were working with the 68020 (maybe even the 68030), which would have been a great boost to the performance of the games. Sadly, it was deemed that a newer-generation 68000 was too expensive to ship.

What was the Jaguar like to code for when compared to other formats of the period?

The Saturn and the PlayStation hadn't been released yet. As we had been involved with that platform for a few years prior to ship, the other platforms at that time that we'd been working on were PC, and Spectrum, Atari ST, Amiga, etc. - the Jaguar allowed a lot of flexibility with the 3 different chips, and that could be daunting. It was also liberating.

What was Atari like to work with as a publisher?

There was a pioneering spirit when working with Atari. John Skruch was our main point of contact, but we also worked closely with several of their design team on all the titles we worked on, and also had many meetings with Sam Tramiel (he headed up Atari, though Jack was still in the background, but we only spoke to him once), and Leonard Tramiel, who was on the tech side.

At ATD, you had the fortune of creating not one but two killer apps for Atari in the form of Cybermorph and Battlemorph. Do you feel like you achieved everything you wanted with those titles?

I am very proud of both titles. Cybermorph was particularly challenging as we were trying to finish a game as the hardware was being finalised. I remember spending a week travelling to Cambridge each day to try and isolate a hardware bug we believed we had found via Cybermorph. We managed to generate a small piece of code, of about 20 lines, that could trigger the bug within a few minutes and it was confirmed that it was a hardware bug. The Jaguar was so close to shipping that Atari couldn't revise the silicon (and it was also very expensive) - I am pretty sure the chipset designers figured out a software workaround for the hardware bug, which meant the silicon didn't have to be revised.

I'd have loved to improve the performance of both games - the team behind Iron Soldier discovered a great performance boost, which doubled the speed of texturing by utilising palette memory; we could have squeezed a few more FPS in Battlemorph, which would have been great.

What do you think Atari could have done differently to make the Jaguar a success?

Consoles need a large roster of must-have games to launch and be successful. Atari had trouble persuading the major publishers that their marketing and launch plans would take a large enough slice of the market for those publishers to put their premier IPs/games on the platform - it’s either a virtuous circle or vicious circle, and sadly for Atari, it was a downward spiral. It may have been that Sony was courting those same publishers at the same time, as the PlayStation came out shortly after the Jaguar.