Atari 8-Bit Memories

After reading Danny Major’s recollections of owning a Commodore Amiga, I was taken back to my own memories of owning an Amiga 500.  I loved my Amiga, but there was a hint of sadness about its arrival into the household as my beloved Atari 800XL died that same day. It was almost as if that 800XL felt betrayed, that it had decided it wasn’t going to function anymore and couldn’t cope with being ousted as the top dog even though it shared the Amiga’s father, Jay Miner.

In many ways the Amiga architecture was an evolution of the Atari 800 that had itself evolved from the Atari VCS console (later rebranded the 2600).  The Atari 800 was released with it’s cut-down sibling 400 in 1979 in competition with the Apple II, TRS-80 and Commodore PET.  It outperformed the competition significantly in graphics and sound as you would probably expect from a company synonymous with games after the success of the VCS.  With graphics co-processors “ANTIC” and “GTIA”, a sound chip “POKEY” used in many Atari arcade machines and 48K RAM, the 800 outclassed every home machine for games until it’s nemesis, the Commodore 64, appeared in 1982.  To compare them I would say the 64 was tailor made for the sprite-based 2D games you would typically find in the 80s and in which it excelled with a higher colour resolution than the Atari. The Atari has a more “raw” feel – a slightly lower colour resolution, graphic changes over the screen that show off it’s colour palette along with a healthy dose of speed as a result of the flexible graphics modes and faster processor. In sound I believe it’s a matter of taste, the 64’s SID chip is legendary but I don’t believe the Atari’s POKEY is inferior, just different. For me SID is better for music, POKEY for sound effects but then beauty is in the ear of the beholder.

The 800 was replaced with the restyled and cost-reduced 800XL and 600XL computers that increased the available memory to 64K in an attempt to match Commodore’s all-conquering machine.  Commodore’s sacked chairman Jack Tramiel would later buy out Atari’s computer division and release the last in the 8-bit range, the XE range, styled to match the new 16-bit ST machines and sporting up to 128K in the 130XE.  This took production up to the beginning of 1992 and not a bad run at over 12 years for the platform.  All of the peripherals, whichever styling they had, worked on all of the 400/800/XL/XE ranges using Atari’s serial bus ‘SIO’, a forerunner of USB designed by Joe Decuir who would also go on to co-design the Amiga and later help develop the USB architecture.

Living in the UK and owning an Atari wasn’t the easiest situation for a computer owner in the 80s. The landscape was full of Sinclair Spectrum and Commodore 64 owners and Atarians were definitely in a minority in my corner of the world.  No playground tape copying for me, at least not for a year or two when I finally met another Atari owner at university, bought a disk drive and copied a whole load of disks.  One thing that struck me though, is that for all the C64’s dominance my Commodore owning friend was always blown away by how fast and smooth Atari games were. Rescue on Fractalus was something amazing in the speed of drawing the fractal mountain landscape that faded into view, Bruce Lee was a faster more action-filled game than it’s 64 version, Encounter and Elektra Glide were blistering colour filled 3D experiences.  Of course, I only showed him the best!  The big down-side of owning an Atari in the UK though was to miss out on a lot of the home grown titles of the time from the intensely imaginative and quirky UK games industry that understandably focused on the larger user base of Spectrum, C64 and Amstrad machines.  Unfortunately no Ultimate releases made it to my Atari though it did receive many great titles from it’s native USA, some of which were brought to the UK by publisher U.S.Gold. C64 owners really had the best of both worlds in software availability though.

The Atari 8-bit range’s contribution to video gaming history is often overlooked but it has had played a very important part with some very famous titles being released originally on the platform.  Atari games can have a certain quality that may not be to everyone’s liking, but the typical well-implemented titles tend to be fast as the machine is no slouch and loud with that lovely authentic 80s arcade sound. For me that’s a real retro-gaming feel.

Ten To Try

Star Raiders

Atari’s own Star Raiders is regarded as the Atari 800’s killer app and has been cited by Jeff Minter as his favourite computer game in numerous interviews.  A 3D space battle action game with strategy elements, all contained in an 8K cartridge in 1979 and it makes the later Elite look pedestrian. Coded by a genius named Doug Neubauer.

Boulderdash

Originally on the Atari, it’s the smoothest, most colourful and playable version out there.  Dig for diamonds and evade falling rocks you have released in a large smooth-scrolling cavern. It’s hugely addictive, has many sequels and was converted to almost every other platform.

Koronis Rift

Now, I could have picked any of the Lucasfilm games and many would go for Rescue on Fractalus but I just feel that Koronis Rift is the more rounded game.  Travel around a fractal mountain landscape in 3D dodging enemy ships that hunt you while trying to scavenge spare parts from wrecks.  Lucasfilm adopted the Atari as their platform of choice when setting up for it’s graphical flexibility and performance and their titles really showcase the platform’s visual and audio powers.

Alternate Reality – The Dungeon

I wanted to put a role playing game on the list and just plumped for this ahead of Ultima IV and Wizard’s Crown as the Alternate Reality series began life on the Atari.  ‘Alternate Reality – The Dungeon‘, the sequel to ‘The City‘ is to this day the only RPG that I have played to completion more than once.  There is an amazing depth to it that really makes the world feel real, be it the way shops have opening times or how taverns have songs playing with karaoke lyrics scrolling across the screen.  There’s also a subtlety that means the illusion is not broken.  For example, carrying too much doesn’t produce a “you can’t carry that” message, it just means you will attract ‘The Devourer’ that loves to steal your items and eat them.

M.U.L.E

Best played with three other players on an Atari 800 as that machine has four joystick ports.  A classic strategy game where the players are settlers on the planet Irata competing with each other for resources but also work together for the survival of the colony.  Trying to end the game with a successful surviving colony while still being the richest colonist is quite the balancing act.  The highlights are the competitive auctions that are a kind of forerunner to eBay sniping!

Dropzone

Another Atari original that made it to most platforms, even the NES, but again it’s Archer Maclean’s original Atari version that just seems to work best.  This ‘Defender‘-like shooter really has the playability and sound that for me just feels like an Atari game should.

Rainbow Walker

Synapse made some excellent well-crafted Atari games in their heyday and I could easily also have picked Necromancer, Alley Cat or really anything else from their back-catalogue.  I love this rainbow-painting game along the lines of q*bert that really shows off the Atari’s colour palette.  Start with a grey rainbow and jump on the squares to make it brightly coloured while avoiding the enemies who really really want to keep that rainbow grey.

Bounty Bob Strikes Back

The sequel to Miner 2049er which was in turn the inspiration for Manic Miner.  This game is so much bigger than 2049er, well crafted and the best platformer on the platform.  Lots of devices, a difficulty level that is just right and a very polished title.

Yoomp!

There’s still a very active development community for the Atari and this game is a prime example of just how good modern homebrew can be.  Guide a bouncing ball through a 3D tunnel that’s moving toward you while avoiding gaps in the tunnel sides that you would otherwise fall through.  Yoomp! really shows how the Atari can move large areas of the screen, is spectacular and really has to be seen moving to appreciate it.

Fort Apocolypse

Another Synapse quality release and kind of a slower-paced Scramble that lets you move in any direction.  Fly your helicopter underground into a huge scrolling fortress cave system filled with enemies, traps and (luckily) fuel to rescue prisoners, destroy the reactor and get out fast.

Author: Trevor Briscoe

Started learning to program computers with the Sinclair ZX81, TI-99/4a and Atari 800XL which led to a career as a software developer he continues to this day. His techie heart belongs to video games though which has led to him becoming a compulsive hoarder of as many computers and games consoles as possible.

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8 Comments

  1. Fantastic article. I’ve been looking recently at Atari 800 and XL games for the first time recently. What has impressed me is how fast these games are. Since most games are American I’m running in NTSC mode so that might explain it. Some very imaginative games too. I’ve particularly enjoyed the Atari version of Panther which I find much more impressive than the C64 version.

  2. There was an Atari 800 game that was a bit like Defender but underground.

    Anyone recall the name of it?

  3. The game could be The Tail of Beta Lyrae. Bit of a classic that one.

  4. That doesn’t ring a bell. I want to say that it started with an “S,” “R,” or “T,” but I’m not sure. One or two words.

    Thanks for replying.

  5. Shamus and Jumpman Junior were two other classics that were much better on the Atari computers and I still play both to this day. Shame that neither made your list as I feel they’re easily Top 5 games on the system that are still fun to play. H.E.R.O. as well.

  6. hello. I want to correct something. It says: “All of the peripherals, whichever styling they had, worked on all of the 400/800/XL/XE ranges using Atari’s SIO bus designed by Joe Decuir who went on to use it as the basis for today’s USB.” I am one of 4 dozen people who architected USB. The SIO was probably the first mass market serial bus, but the C64 did the same thing for the same reason: for RFI reasons, we could not have slots (like Apple II) for peripheral expansion. Later, the FCC changed the rules, an we had PCs with slots and metal chassis (like the IBM PC, XT, AT, etc). Both the Atari PCS and the C64 popularized the idea of serial busses, which made them attractive in the mid-1990s, when you look at the back of a PC and see a dozen incompatible connectors.

  7. Hello Joe and thank you for reading my ramblings and correcting me. Sorry for the inaccuracy – a bit of fan-boy exuberance and I have altered the wording appropriately. I have to say that I’m eagerly awaiting your Atari 8-bit book after reading ‘Racing The Beam’ and ‘The Future Was Here’ and after hearing about it in your Antic podcast interview.
    Regards,
    Trevor

  8. Defender-like game underground might be Protector, Protector 2, or Repton.

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