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Atari Jaguar CD

Atari Jaguar CD

For anyone that’s been following the site lately, you’ll notice that I’ve been putting a lot of time into this device recently.  While I’m at it, lets spend a little bit of time talking about Atari’s little-known add-on for a system that people might vaguely remember (the Atari Jaguar) if you reminded them (of the strangely aggressive, quintessentially mid-90’s commercials).  I’ll start you off with some background info, but chances are you already know most of this stuff if you’re bothering to read this at all.

Released on September 11, 1995, the Jaguar CD was Atari’s final foray into the hardware market, and arguably its least successful.  The Jaguar CD is an add-on roughly 50% of the size of the equally unsuccessful Jaguar and fits on top of the console, docking with the normal cartridge port.  It actually makes the whole thing look a lot cooler than the flat Jaguar.  Buy a broken one just for looks!  The unit also contains a cartridge slot of its own for playing original Jaguar games without having to remove the device (good idea) but oddly enough, if both a cartridge and CD are in the machine, it will automatically boot up the cart without even giving the user a chance to choose what media to utilize (bad idea).  Despite the Atari brand printed on the $0.03 plastic, Philips (manufacturers of the even more ill-fated CD-i) was the company that produced these miserable little red-headed stepchildren of the industry.  Even if the CD-i was the creepy old uncle, at least he could drive and gave you some decent cash on holidays. The Jaguar CD sleeps in your room and pisses on your toothbrush without even pretending to care.

The cartridge slot did have a couple of other uses, and likely would’ve had more had Atari continued development.  The first CD-related cart was a “developer’s bypass cartridge,” a tool not available to the general public that allowed game developers to test unencrypted games.  Today, replicas of the bypass cart are made and sold by third-party companies for the sole purpose of running a few homebrew and prototype games, but it’s completely unnecessary to buy one of these things when you can burn a Jagtopia Boot Disc for free.  The second and more interesting use for the slot was an item known as Memory Track, a cartridge that could save data from Jaguar CD games.  Basically it’s a giant, Jaguar-game-sized memory card.

Upon launch it retailed for $149.99, but by the end of its life in 1996 there were reports of units being liquidated for as little as $29.99.  Even today one can find lots of 20 or more factory sealed copies of some of the more well-circulated games going for $30 on eBay.  (Seriously, as I’m writing this there’s like 36 sealed copies of Blue Lightning going for like $33.) In the beginning the Jaguar CD was bundled with Blue Lightning and Vid Grid as well as an audio CD soundtrack of the Jaguar game Tempest 2000 and a playable demo of another Jaguar CD game, Myst.  Later reports would assert that as many as 4 total games were “bundled” with the unit after it was discontinued, but these “bundles” were likely promotions offered by retailers to clear their shelves of any and all Jaguar CD-related inventory.  The number of actual units produced is a matter of some speculation, as Atari was on the verge of being taken over by some other uninteresting company at the time. Initially Atari would report that 20,000 Jaguar CD units had been produced and shortly after launch had all been sold.  They then assured consumers that more would be available soon, but no one is really sure what happened after Atari’s acquisition.  In all likelihood, due to poor sales, the discontinuation of the device no more than a year later, and a dissatisfied user base, the original 20,000 units are probably the only Jaguar CDs that ever existed.

And you thought the Virtual Boy was rare?  Please.  Nintendo shipped out about 770,000 of them, roughly half in North America alone.

One cool but useless featurette of the add-on is its “Virtual Light Machine” or VLM.  The VLM was a little program built into the system that displays random light patterns based on the music playing if an audio CD is inserted.  It’s like the visualization thing on Winamp that fascinated you for the first 2 weeks you started using pot in high school.  It also replaces the usual intro screen of the Jaguar; the original is the word JAGUAR accompanied by a roar, while the one imposed by the Jaguar CD has no sound but generates random, unique patterns of colored light each time the console is booted.  While the device itself was up to snuff compared to the plethora of CD-based consoles hitting the market at the time, the architecture it was based on (that of the original Jaguar) was woefully underpowered and notoriously difficult to program for.

As I looked into the Jaguar CD’s wildly interesting and at times sexually stimulating history before writing this, I discovered something very unusual about the Jag CD’s games, something I’m surprised I didn’t run across sooner during my exhaustive search for any little spec of info to help me locate and burn games for the damn thing.  Apparently Atari said screw convention and, in order to squeeze a whopping extra 90MB of data onto their CDs, they used some weird technology based on audio CDs rather than whatever the industry standard of the time was.  I don’t know the gory details of it all, but perhaps this is why I’m having trouble burning games, although I’ve been having more success with it lately.  (More on this in a future article after further testing.)  At any rate it doesn’t matter because according to the files of every single Jag CD game, none of them even approach 700MB, the standard size of a CD-R.  If anything, the Dreamcast is the console where you have to worry about overburns and cramming more than 700MB on a single disc.

All told, the Jaguar CD spawned 11 glorious titles sure to find their place in the annuls of video gaming history in the years to come.  None of them have been particularly well received, and they’re actually so old, crusty, and awful that even the hipsters haven’t formed a cult dedicated to any…yet. Bad games + bad add-on + bad base console = bad life choice.  For anyone who cares, like me, the games are (let’s see how many of these I can get from memory):

Damn, I got 9, but Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace slipped away from me.  In addition to these 11, two more games were completed but never released due to the system’s discontinuation.  They are available on the web if one knows where to look, and can be burned and played like the “official” ones. Because of these 2 games, the Jaguar CD is often said to have “13 games” or “13 official games” or something of the sort.  Don’t give yourself a headache searching eBay for 2 years to find an intact version of Iron Soldier 2 or World Tour Racing, because they don’t exist.  And the 2 unreleased games are…

  • Iron Soldier 2
  • World Tour Racing

There is or was an active homebrew community based around the Jaguar CD, as well as a number of demos and otherwise unfinished games that eventually made their way to the internet.  For more info on this stuff, head over to my article about burning AJCD games.  Between that piece and this one, I just may have written more about the Atari Jaguar CD than anyone ever has. EVER

My irreverent tone throughout these last 1200 words may have clued you in to what I think of the Jaguar CD, but don’t let that fool you.  I have a soft spot for forgotten and derided hardware, even when I should be structuring a rant on the evils of capitalism and how these companies just wanted something else to suck dry the pockets of middle-class Americans without any regard to the quality of their product or devoted fan base.  Instead, I’m discussing it at length.  Atari did after all go under, I think they pretty much paid the ultimate price for their failure.  (However, their impending acquisition by some boring company probably had more to do with poor performance of the original Jaguar since the company was only months away from going under when the add-on was released, but whatever.  They exist now only as a logo on a T-shirt worn by kids younger than some of the posters on my wall who would probably rape you with their iPhone if you tried to get them to sit down and play some Canyon Bomber with you.)

I am now the proud/financially inept owner of 2 of these atrocities, which pretty much makes me the world’s foremost authority on the subject.  I can’t say I’m 100% satisfied with either of them, but both were what us game collectors would call “good deals” and for the most part they work as well as I’d expect for an almost 20 year old piece of junk that was already shoddy almost 20 years ago.  The units look and feel sturdy enough, but for whatever reason they seem to function and not function arbitrarily.  As long as you keep it still it should be alright, but even a simple move from one room to another can cause a 9 hour headache just to get the damn thing to successfully boot a game.  At times the gameplay is continuous enough that you’d almost forget you were playing a Jaguar CD game (if you had your eyes closed and accidentally picked up your SNES controller, for instance) and other times it repeatedly freezes or the sound of the laser motor ceases abruptly and the loading screen remains forever emblazoned upon your TV.

The entire opening and closing of the lid is one of the most ill-designed CD apparatuses I’ve ever encountered.  There’s a spring or 2 in there, but it’s like it’s not tight enough, or not stretched across the right parts or something, because it doesn’t really “catch” until the door is almost wide open. When closing it, you’re liable to break it if you don’t know what you’re doing.  At first you’ll think “ok, I guess I just have to slam the thing really hard.”  That will of course lead to you having to open up the whole thing because you’ve jammed down that little plastic rod that shouldn’t be jammed down.  Then, when you’ve gotten it back together, you’ll hold the Open/Close button as you lower the lid.  It’ll stay down, but once the button is released it won’t pop back up.  What does this mean?  Well, it means that the door is actually too well shut and your prized AJCD game will scrape across the top.  What’s the answer?  Well, it’s kind of like a more sensitive method of holding the Open/Close button down.  With the button held, you have to lower the lid and let up just a bit on the button so that it’ll catch at exactly the right place.  You’ll hear a “CLICK” of affirmation if done correctly.  Note that this procedure works slightly different for each of my 2 units, but it’s still the same mechanical defect manifesting itself.

It’s also really easy to think that you’ve got the thing placed on the Jaguar correctly when you don’t, resulting in hours of your life wasted plugging and unplugging cords, blowing on stuff, dragging out the Q-tips, and so on.  Then you take 2 seconds to look at the damn thing and realize half of the cartridge slot needs to be pushed down another half inch.  The good news is that it doesn’t need some wacky 1.5 inch link cable (yes I’m dissing the 32X) running to the Jag; the connection to the cartridge slot is sufficient.  However it does require its own power supply, so that’s kind of a drag, but so does the 32X.  And the Sega CD.

For my final words, I’d like to share an anecdote explaining why I even have 2 of these things in the first place, while also illustrating how temperamental they are.

I bought my first unit a couple of years ago while in a frenzy to buy up every little bit of even semi-mainstream console and add-on material.  I can’t say I used it much, but it did come with 4 games, it booted up alright, I could play CDs, I could play carts, everything was good. Then NerdBerry broke into my house one day, held me at gunpoint,FACT and demanded I let him play some of my rare stuff.  First, we pulled out my Amiga CD32 which he broke before we could even play it (I have since replaced it).  Then we got to work on the AJCD, only to discover that the CD wasn’t entirely level and was hitting the bottom of the unit when the door was closed.  So we played with the door open and life went on.

As the months wore on and I ran out of $200 items to carelessly purchase from the internet, the issue started nagging at me so I bought a new one.  It actually came at a pretty decent price, but didn’t include the power supply or any games.  That was cool with me since I didn’t really need that stuff again (although I secretly prayed for a cord, you should see the janky thing that the first guy simply called a “third-party power supply”).  So I pulled it out and it immediately did not work.  I blew in it and finally managed to get a cartridge to load.  As for CDs, nothing happened.  It would either pretend like it was booting but would go to a black screen where nothing would happen, or it would bring up the game’s first loading screen and freeze.

So I started talking to the guy about all the crazy stuff we had to do for a refund because he was real deal hardcore seller kinda guy.  Which is cool, it just meant it was gonna take some time to get everything in order.  In the interim, I took both systems apart.  Well I didn’t completely disassemble them, I merely unscrewed the outer shell.  My results yielded absolutely nothing.  Then I started trying to figure out what the problem with my old one was, and why the CD would sit level in the new one but not the other.  I took both apart again, and the issue was as simple as some stupid little hook that had come unhooked in the area where the spinning motor meets the metal plate underneath.  It fastens at 4 points, and with one point undone, the CD didn’t sit right.  Fixing it was a simple as a tiny push to reconnect the motor.

After all of this, I was super happy, but the tinkerer inside of me wanted to know what was wrong with the new one, especially since after corresponding with the seller he claimed to be an avid Atari collector and the unit had worked perfectly the day before he shipped it off.  Around this time I got interested in owning all 13 games for the device, and went through the long, unhappy, and borderline unhealthy process of figuring out how to correctly burn them as I’d done with other systems.  You can read about the fruits of those sad days here.  I don’t know what made me do it, but I gave the burned games a shot on the new unit just to see if they’d work any better.  And you know what?  That particular copy of that particular game on that particular try actually worked better.  I would later find out that the results of these early tests were absolutely random and really didn’t depend on anything that I was or wasn’t doing, but it definitely got me excited.  I slapped in a regular game, and it worked too.

Pretty soon, I was in Atari Jaguar CD paradise.  I had two working units, somewhat functional burned games, and all kinds of homebrew and prototype stuff left to fiddle with.  Now I have to look like a tool and tell the guy that it works after all, but that’s cool, because if I’m ever strapped for cash I can offload one of them for a couple hundred bucks.  The more I read about them though, the more convinced I am that I should probably hang on to both, and possibly insure them for $350,000.

My story ended happily, but yours may not.  No one will ever really know what goes on in the mind of a Jaguar CD, but one thing’s for sure (maybe): you’ve only got 19,998 chances of your own to find out.

Atari Jaguar CDs in good condition will fetch a bundle.  If you don’t have one or the original Jaguar, I’d encourage you to keep your eyes open for some guy offloading his entire stash, and go ahead and scoop up the Jaguar, the add-on, at least one controller if not 2, and a handful of games for both systems.  You might even get lucky and stumble upon someone who has the pro-controller to offer up as well.  If you do want just the unit, I suggest laying in wait for a good deal.  A lot of these things go for around $300 which is just ridiculous.  Should you ever find one for less than $200 that includes a power supply, snatch it up if you think you’ll ever be remotely interested in it.  You could probably find a comparable power supply elsewhere on the web, but I don’t know enough about what the little jacks and plugs are called to tell you what it is.  Whatever it is won’t be compatible with anything lying around your house though. I’ve checked for cross compatibility with everything similar looking that I have, and none of it is quite right.  Get the damn cord.

If you found any of this even remotely useful, you may also want to take a look at the following:

Reviewed by The Cubist

Written by The Cubist

The Cubist

Co-founder, Head Author, & Site Technician

Find out what these ratings mean and how I rate video games.

I collect as much video gaming paraphernalia as I can get my hands on, especially when it comes to hardware. With over 40 systems including oldies like the ColecoVision and Intellivision, obscurities like the CD-i and 3DO, and the latest and greatest including the Wii U, PS4, Xbox One, 3DS, and PS Vita, I get easily overwhelmed. Most of the time you can find me firmly nestled sometime between 1985 and 1995 when it comes to my games of choice, but I’m also having a great time seeing what the 8th generation has to offer.

Currently in love with: Mortal Kombat

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