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Breakout: How Atari 8-Bit Computers Defined a Generation

Breakout: How Atari 8-Bit Computers Defined a Generation

Breakout: How Atari 8-Bit Computers Defined a Generation

Atari 8-bit computers truly bridged the divide between video game players and home computer enthusiasts in the 80s, signaling the start of a new era in computing. Breakout: How Atari 8-Bit Computers Defined a Generation covers what made Atari's computers great: excellent graphics and sound, flexible programming environment, and wide support.

Country:
United States
Language:
English
Publisher:
Ziff Davis
Frequency:
One-off
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in this issue

8 min.
introduction

My childhood circled around video games in general, but specifically, around one computer: the Atari 800. It’s impossible to overstate Atari’s impact on personal computers and especially gaming. While Apple and a few other companies delivered personal computing for the first time, Atari was the first to bring arcade-like graphics and sound into the home. This book serves as a celebration of Atari 8-bit computers and what made them special, with a heavy emphasis on gaming. It’s a look back at how the computers, peripherals, and software worked, and why the games were so good. In a world of always-on social media and ad-filled websites, where the idea of “just develop your own game” seems hopelessly complex, the simplicity and sophistication of a tightly coded “to the metal” Atari program is…

40 min.
1 | atari 400/800

The history of Atari the company has been told and retold. Most of the time, it’s with a focus on either of two things: its coin-operated arcade machines like Breakout, Asteroids, and Missile Command; or its game console lineup, starting with home versions of Pong in 1975, but most notably with the Atari Video Computer System (VCS, later known as the 2600) in 1977. I won’t rehash every last thing about Atari and its various levels of corporate dysfunction and pot smoking in this book, as others have already done the same. But we could do with a brief refresher of how we got the computer in the first place. In a nutshell, it was originally about succeeding the VCS with something better. But then it got complicated. Nolan Bushnell and Ted…

31 min.
2 | using your atari computer

When you use a computer, phone, or tablet today, chances are you’re familiar with what it’s capable of. You may want to read news, watch a TV show on Hulu or Netflix, listen to music, check your email, see what your friends are doing on Facebook or Twitter, or Instagram some new photos. But it wasn’t always this way. Consider how much has changed just in the past generation alone. A popular graphic currently going around social media contrasts a 1993 electronics store flyer advertising all the individual pieces of equipment you needed for various tasks, versus a smartphone of today that’s capable of doing all that and more. Gadgets like a CD player, a VCR, a camcorder, a point-and-shoot camera, and an answering machine are all obsolete (with the obvious…

30 min.
3 | atari learns to let go

Once you bought your Atari computer and made it past the company’s own product line, there was gold to be found in third-party peripherals and upgrades. Unfortunately, it took a few years before the third-party market began to flourish—and the blame lies entirely with Atari Inc. After the 400 and 800 launched, the company remained secretive about its computer in a misguided attempt to give its own in-house developers an advantage. This was an unnecessarily deep wound to the platform at a critical time, when the company needed lots of third-party developers on board. It frustrated Crawford, who was arguably the biggest early evangelist for the platform: “The attitude of the executives was, ‘We want to make all the money on the software. We don’t want any competitors.’ They were having…

35 min.
4 | tramiel trauma

This is where things began to fall apart for Atari. By that, I don’t mean the platform—fans like me enjoyed using 8-bit Atari computers well into the mid and late 1980s, and the third-party market thrived. But Atari itself began to slide, for several key reasons. First and foremost: It never quite figured out how to follow up the 400 and 800 with something better, although it tried many times. While later machines had plenty of virtues to recommend them and are worth discussing for our purposes, none of them were enough to save the company. The level of incompetence was breathtaking, as we’ll see shortly. The overall climate for video games itself also began to go seriously downhill in 1982, leading to the famed Great Video Game Crash of 1983.…

7 min.
5 | sunset in sunnyvale

By the start of 1986, developers had begun moving away from the Atari 8-bit platform in droves. The January 28, 1985 issue of InfoWorld quoted Jack Tramiel as saying that by the second half of the year, Atari would be producing 200,000 16-bit 520 and 1040STs per month and 80 percent of the computers produced at Atari by then would be the ST series. The ST never took off to this extent, but the statement also told Atari 8-bit fans everything they needed to know about where the future was, even as production of the XE lineup was getting underway in earnest. Around this time, Atari began issuing the new Atari Explorer magazine in earnest, and published it at whatever frequency the company felt like. Example issues: February 1985, April/May 1985,…