This month, I bought a retro Atari gaming console for $39.99 at a Bed Bath & Beyond in suburban New Jersey. It was a few feet from a set of Calphalon pots and pans and a display of oven mitts 11 rows deep. So that tells you something about the intended audience.
“I can’t believe they still sell these,” the cashier, Vanessa, said.
Somehow, Atari never dies. The console, known as the Flashback, was one of the best-selling items in early November at Dollar General, one of the nation’s largest chains. Considering that Atari is down to a mere 18 employees, perhaps no company is squeezing more nostalgia out of an old product this holiday shopping season.
Atari once employed Steve Jobs as a technician and became an icon of the early home computing age, but then the company had a succession of near-death experiences.
Started in 1972, Atari was named by one of its founders, Nolan Bushnell, for a move in the ancient Asian game of Go. “Atari was what you said to your opponent if you put their stones in jeopardy, kind of like check in chess,” Mr. Bushnell explained in an interview. “I just thought it was a cool word and a cool name.”
He sold his stake to Warner Communications in 1976. When the video game industry cratered amid a price war in the mid-1980s, Warner sold off Atari’s home entertainment business. Then it was sold again in the mid-1990s and again in 1998, to Hasbro Interactive for just $5 million.
I could go on. Suffice it to say that in the 2000s, an obscure French company took over, a hedge fund got involved, and there was a 2013 bankruptcy filing in the United States. Today, the company is listed in France and down to a skeleton crew, mostly in New York. Operations are almost entirely outsourced to companies like Los Angeles-based AtGames, which builds the Flashback consoles at a factory in China.
Through all this, fans have helped keep Atari alive.
“I became a computer engineer because I fell in love with technology through Atari,” said Curt Vendel, a most devoted Atari buff and a computer engineer. The first time I met Mr. Vendel was in 1999, when he lived on Staten Island. He was running something called the Atari Historical Society, a virtual archive built on a voluminous personal collection spanning Atari coffee mugs and a couple Androbots, which were clunky robots built by a different company backed by Mr. Bushnell.
Mr. Vendel collected the company’s discarded engineering notes and chip schematics by Dumpster diving behind Atari’s old headquarters in California. A few years after our meeting, he began talking with Hasbro Interactive about a retro Atari console, and it asked him to develop one.
“Atari shaped my life,” said Mr. Vendel, who consulted with Atari for a few years afterward. “It made technology approachable.”
The Flashback is on its eighth version. The current company would say little about its sales or demographics, beyond that it sold more than 300,000 Flashbacks last year.
Frédéric Chesnais, the chief executive, summed up the appeal: “It’s simple, it’s addictive, you can have a fun experience in a couple of minutes.”
The Atari I bought at Bed Bath & Beyond is the first one I’ve ever owned. Don’t get me started. My mother would never let me have one, a deprivation she and I are still working through — or at least I am. At any rate, it only intensified my craving for video games, because I had to wait to play until I went over to friends’ houses.
I remember the stiff and unforgiving Atari joysticks, the white noise of Combat, the feel of the chunky game cassettes. Back then, video games were in their gestational, Cubist period. Images rendered in rectangles and squares were good enough.
To be clear, my official position on video games in my own house is hostile and can involve shouting. I once ripped our Nintendo Wii console from our television and stormed off with it, only to a find that a small and aggrieved child had attached himself to one of my legs like a mollusk.
My current thinking is not uniformly supported by research. A working paper put out this summer by the National Bureau of Economic Research cited video games as a reason young men are working fewer hours. But broader examinations of video games offer a range of positives and negatives. And it can depend on what you play. One study found that Call of Duty shrank the hippocampus area of the brain, while Super Mario caused it to expand.
I just think they are a waste of time and never play them anymore. Well, there was a brief and dominating run at Wii tennis. And I’m not counting Words With Friends. Or the Boggle app on my phone, because I use that strictly to expand my hippocampus.
All right, I have things to do. I opened up the Atari box and fumbled through the directions. I began running through the more than 100 games. Asteroids came first. I backed into a giant rock, then careened into an enemy ship. Weak start. Millipede quickly spiraled out of control. Things turned around a bit during Missile Command, and I had a strong run on Space Invaders.
“The games, while crude — graphically crude — the actual game play was very finely crafted because we couldn’t rely on sound and graphics,” Mr. Bushnell said. “We had to make the games really fun.”
Perhaps Atari will never die. Well, when Generation X dies, then it might. But we still have some time on the clock.
I turned to Pitfall. My muscle memory continued to falter. I jumped for a rope and plunged into a tar pit, then got hold of the rope but couldn’t figure out how to let go. It was humbling.
It’s O.K. I have big plans for Frogger.