WASHINGTON, November 13 (By Carl Schreck for RIA Novosti) – It was a battle of the titans that defined the early 1980s as the Cold War was hitting its peak: Atari vs. Commodore.
And Soviet diplomats, it seems, preferred Atari.
With the Commodore 64 home computer pounding competitors, a Silicon Valley marketing stunt inspired by the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics yielded an unlikely glimpse into computing tastes at the Soviet Embassy in Washington.
Capitalizing on growing Olympic fever, California-based computer game maker Epyx was preparing to release “Summer Games” – a home entertainment experience that would enable game-players to practice seven sporting disciplines without ever leaving the living room.
And then disaster struck.
The Soviet Union announced it would not send a team to Los Angeles because of what it called the flouting of Olympic ideals by the United States.
The move was widely seen as retaliation for the US boycott of the Moscow Games four years earlier.
With less than three months to go until the Games, Epyx decided against removing the Soviet team from the game, which played the national anthem of the winning athlete’s country in a given event.
“It would have taken too much trouble, been too expensive, and taken too much time,” Michael Katz, the company’s chief executive at the time, told RIA Novosti.
Shortly after the boycott was announced, Katz and his colleagues were batting around ideas at a meeting when someone joked that they should send a copy of “Summer Games” to the Soviet Embassy in Washington.
“We kind of said, ‘Jeez, they’re not coming to the official games, why don’t we send them our game so they can still participate?’” said Robert Botch, who was vice president of Epyx at the time.
Botch described the stunt as “just a bunch of Silicon Valley guys sitting around laughing about the thing,” but Katz latched onto the idea as a way of ginning up some press for the game.
The Commodore 64 was by far the most popular home computer in the world at the time, followed by personal computers made by Atari, Apple and IBM.
So Epyx wrapped up several copies of “Summer Games” for the Commodore and dropped it in the mail with a wry letter telling Soviet diplomats that here was their chance to compete in the Olympics.
To Botch and Katz’s shock, a reply arrived a week later.
The Soviet Embassy said it was grateful for the discs, but that there was one small problem.
“They said that they had an Atari computer and couldn’t play the sample product we sent them because they didn’t have a Commodore,” Katz said.
That was hardly surprising, since Atari was also highly popular at the time.
“We went into crash mode and got a copy of the Atari game and sent that to them,” Botch said, adding that he wondered whether the Soviets were “even allowed” by their government to use such foreign technology.
Neither Botch nor Katz could recall what media coverage they got for the marketing stunt, though Katz says “Summer Games” and Epyx’s related “Winter Games” and “California Games” series went on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies worldwide.
Epyx never heard back from the Soviet Embassy about the Atari version of “Summer Games.”
“I was impressed they were interested enough to tell us that they didn’t have Commodore computers, which indicated that they were very interested in seeing the game,” Katz said.
Botch said he regrets that they did not keep a copy of the letter. “It would probably be a collector piece, but unfortunately we were young and not thinking that far ahead,” he said.
A Russian Embassy spokesman in Washington told RIA Novosti that he did not know whether Soviet diplomats used Atari computers in the 1980s. But he said there are no Atari computers or copies of “Summer Games” lying around in storage at the embassy.
If the Soviet diplomats did pop the discs that Epyx sent them into a computer, they might have been puzzled by the tune that the developers of “Summer Games” selected for the Soviet national anthem.
A copy of the 1984 version of the game could not be immediately located, but a YouTube video featuring the anthems for “Summer Games II,” released the following year, uses the revered socialist song “The Internationale” as the national anthem.
The Soviet leadership had scrapped that song as the national anthem four decades prior to the original release of “Summer Games.”
“The Internationale” was replaced by the music that will accompany Russian athletes on the podium at the Winter Olympics in Sochi next year.
“I would not be surprised if a lot of the anthems of countries we did not know much about would have been wrong,” Botch said.