Atari Games on Area 51

When the Jaguar was first introduced, there was all sorts of talk about other uses for its chipset -- set-top boxes, PC cards, arcade games ... In the end, only the last item bore fruit. Area 51, one of the most successful titles to come out of Atari Games in recent years, runs on a hardware architecture known as "Co-Jag", a modified version of the Atari Jaguar. The details of this system have remained a mystery ... until now.

This interview was assembled from a series of e-mail exchanges between myself and Atari Games Public Relations Manager Derryl D. DePriest, with technical backup from Co-Jag Hardware Engineer Brian McKee.

Be sure to visit Atari Games' web site at

Q: First, the big question: What does the "Co-" in "Co-Jag" stand for?
A: It's simpler than you think: Coin-Op.

Q: How did the whole idea of using Jaguar hardware in an arcade coin-op come about?
A: At the time, we were looking for inexpensive hardware for coin-ops, and most of the stuff we were developing in-house was expensive and high-end (in the end, all of our high-end hardware development was fruitless, and when Midway bought us last spring we quickly converted three of our titles to Midway's new hardware built around the 3Dfx chipset. Anyway...).

Naturally, since so much was touted about the Jaguar and 3DO chipsets, we investigated both of those for arcade suitability. They both offered features we thought would be acceptable, and we designed hardware around them, adding the elements that we felt were needed for an arcade game at that time.

Q: Does the Area 51 sequel (what was that title?) run on Co-Jag hardware?
A: Maximum Force, and yes. It is not a sequel of sorts (a true thematic sequel is in development right now). For the true sequel, we will try to sync up with the plotlines being developed for the Area 51 film currently in development by New Line. I don't know a projected release date, but I think it will be Fall '98.

Q: Any relation between Max Force and Nerf Max Force?
A: You do know your licenses (or you have kids!) [Ahem... no. --Ed.]. No relation, except we realized that if Maximum Force became a "property" like Area 51, we would be shutting ourselves out of categories like toys if there was licensee interest. We decided that the name was more important in this case than clearing merchandising categories (which can be an onerous task since many strong names can bear similarities to names already taken in other categories). I don't think that movie studios will be knocking on our door for the rights to a Max Force movie or toys, unlike Area 51. The story just isn't unique enough. The game was inspired by movies like True Lies, Die Hard, Under Siege, etc., which is why it bears such a strong resemblance to them thematically.

Q: What exactly are the differences between the consumer Jaguar and the Co-Jag hardware?
A: The arcade version has a faster processor that can run independently of the Jag chips, two times as much RAM (three times as much in the case of Max Force), and, of course, a hard drive with 1 gig storage (2 gig for Max Force).

Q: For the Nintendoheads in the audience, that hard drive capacity is in gigaBYTES, right? <g>
A: Yes -- standard SyQuest or Quantum drives.

Q: Can you say exactly what kind of processor was added, and how fast it is?
A: Area 51 had a split run: the first batch was 68ecO20, and the second batch was R3K. Max Force uses R3K. I believe they all run at 25 MHz.

Q: I'm not familiar with any of these chips. Who makes them? Are they instruction-compatible with some other more well-known chips?
A: They are MIPS/SGI processors designed and manufactured by IDT. They are instruction set compatible with SGI workstations.

Q: What is the primary function of the extra processor?
A: It's not extra, it replaced the 68ec020, which replaced the 68000. It runs all the game logic.

Q: Other than the extra CPU and RAM, were any of the other standard Jag components beefed up or accelerated?
A: No. Not possible.

Q: Does Area 51 use any special features of the Jag? It looks like it's basically being used as an FMV playback machine. Although, I'm still uncertain how you managed to change elements of a prerecorded video stream (barrels, windows, etc.). Overlaid sprites perhaps?
A: Area 51 uses all the special features of the Jag to do what it does. The way we do our movies is a secret.

Q: Did you use any of Atari's Jag development tools for Area 51/Max Force?
A: No, we developed our own.

Q: If I open up an Area 51 machine, will I find a stock Jaguar board tucked away in there?
A: No.

Q: Was Area 51 planned for home release on the Jaguar? Could the stock Jaguar handle Area 51?
A: Only in the sense that every product we produce will be ported over to every system that is viable or perceived to be viable at the time of consumer release. Unfortunately, the Jag never developed much of a market share, and while we did release consumer Jag titles, Area 51 was too late to save the system.   ; )

Q: What video codec was used for Area 51? What color depth does it run at?
A: The compression-ratio is custom and developed in-house. Our color depth is 15-bit on Area 51. We left 1 bit for Kronn Hunter mode, a secret game play mode. Max Force is a full 16-bit, dropping the secret mode. You can see the difference.

Q: Were there any other Co-Jag games planned or started?
A: Yes, a puzzle/character game called "Freeze the Cat." It was a nifty little game, but ultimately too complicated to be supported by today's player base. We are still looking at different options of release for the game on consumer systems.

Incidentally, we also had two projects being developed on the 3DO coin-op hardware as well, at the same time as our two Jag products. Both of these turned out to be fruitless, as much for the hardware as the game design. One was a Beavis and Butthead game, which we licensed at the peak of their popularity, and the other was a flying shooter. Both of them only earned mediocre dollars, and they were canned.

Q: Will the Area 51 sequel also use Co-Jag, or will you be trying to get away from the FMV format to a more Virtua Cop style using the 3Dfx chipset?
A: We will be using other hardware that can offer us more flexibility. I think we have pushed the Jag as far as we can go, and now I think we need to put other things into the game that will expand the richness of the experience, things that the Jag just wasn't capable of. Have I been vague enough?   : )

Q: Was anyone on the Area 51 programming team involved in any released Jaguar games?
A: Nope.

Q: Is it true a Tempest 2000 coin-op was considered at one time? And if so, why didn't it happen?
A: Yes, we considered it briefly. Incidentally, some rumors got started around that time that we weren't interested in the game because "Atari Games only wanted fighters and drivers." We actually thought that, given the arcade climate at the time, that the game wouldn't earn much money as a coin-op. We were also testing some other games at the time that could be called "niche" games, and they were doing horribly. We shut down a lot of projects around then and refocused on the core arcade staples, being drivers, shooters, fighters, and sports.

The arcade marketplace is still unfriendly to niche games, which is why players lament the lack of variety in the arcades. The trend toward large, glossy simulators like the Daytonas, the Alpine Racers, and the Wave Runners have actually helped us rebuild the arcade climate, but it is still nowhere near what it was a decade ago, where games like 720 and Cyberball had a strong following. We think now we can take a chance on some other game designs, but we are still being cautious - the arcade business is really a "hit" driven mentality. If your game doesn't earn enough money - you die.