By Ben Beck
The world of gaming is full of intriguing “what if” questions — what if Sega hadn’t botched the launch of the Sega Saturn in the US? What if that caused the Dreamcast to be a hugely successful console, as it deserved to be? What if Microsoft was able to break into the Japanese market with the Xbox? What if Nintendo didn’t piss off all the third party publishers in the 1990s, losing them to Sony? And for that matter, what if Nintendo named the “Wii U” literally anything else?
These questions are eminently fun to wonder, but ultimately there’s no way of knowing what these things would really change. Only through a dissection of what went wrong can we understand what drives these unfortunate decisions, and the ripple effects that follow in their wake.
Atari always invites a number of those “what if”s situation, from its mishandling of the Lynx we saw last week to…the mishandling of the Jaguar. There really is no shortage of the bad decisions Atari made in the 1990s, and it spelled the premature end of their company in 1996.
Today, though, we’re looking at a prototyped console that was never made: the Atari Panther. What would it have been like? What would it have done?
The Panther’s story begins in 1986, when a group of former Sinclair Research and later Amstrad, engineers and developers founded Flare Technology in Cambridge, England. Flare began work on a 8-bit console known as the Flare One in 1986, and the project was noticed by British electronics manufacturer Konix. The Flare One’s custom chip-set was powerful enough to match performance from recently released 16-bit home computers like the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga, despite running on an 8-bit Zilog Z80 microprocessor (the same chip used by the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, as well as Sega’s Master System).
Konix acquired the project in 1988, and renamed it the Konix Multisystem. Production started on the project in earnest, and the first major change was Konix removing the Z80 microprocessor and replacing it with a sixteen-bit Intel 8086 processor.
From here, though, Konix and Flare ran into issues. The floppy disk format required a large amount of working ROM to read, and there were massive constraints on how much ROM and RAM could be slotted into the machine. Despite games in development by Electronic Arts, Psygnosis, US Gold, and Ocean, the project was put into turnaround in 1990, with Flare eventually licensing the technology out to arcade cabinet manufacturer Bellfruit, who used it to make slot machines for the UK market.
Flare’s issues with Konix forced them to seek out new partners to work on their prototypes. In 1988, concurrent to the development of the Multisystem with Konix, Flare brought their sixteen-bit Flare Two concept to a company hungry for console success: Atari.
Atari and Flare began work on the Flare Two, with a planned release date of 1991. However, early on in the development cycle, the Flare Two was split into two consoles. The original Flare Two design was codenamed Panther, while a more ambitious 64-bit machine (achieved through running two 32-bit processors, with a 16--bit Motorola 6800 chip helping them communicate) was codenamed the Jaguar.
The Atari Panther and Jaguar were joined by the Lynx in 1989, after Atari acquired Epyx’s Handy design. The line looked formidable, highly competitive products that were eclipsing the competition for memory, processing speed, and sound and graphical capabilities. The Lynx’s launch in 1989 was successful, and continued selling well into 1990. The Panther would be next.
The Atari Panther’s specs were purported to include a Motorola 6800 processor, running at 16mhz (in comparison to the 8mhz 6800 running in the Amiga, Atari ST, and also in the Sega Genesis), a 32-bit graphical processing unit, capability to create 262,144 colours (with a maximum of 7,860 on screen at any given time), up to 2000 on-screen sprites, a 29-bit Digital Signal Processor to produce up to 25 independent voices at any time, 32K of static RAM, 64K ROM, and 8K of memory devoted to sound.
Looking at these stats, it’s hard not to think of just how much more powerful the Panther would have been compared to the Genesis or the SNES. Despite running a sixteen-bit processor, these graphical stats out-class its competition.
But alas, it was not to be. As parallel production occurred on both the Panther and the Jaguar, Atari became concerned that they only had the resources to devote to the much more sprawling and ambitious Jaguar. After all, they conceived of the Jaguar of skipping over an entire generation (it didn’t).
The Atari Panther never materialized for its planned 1991 release date, being canned by Atari that same year. The Flare team continued working on the Jaguar, and saw it through to its completion and release in 1993. But that’s a story for another day.