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Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System

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A study of the relationship between platform and creative expression in the Atari VCS. The Atari Video Computer System dominated the home video game market so completely that "Atari" became the generic term for a video game console. The Atari VCS was affordable and offered the flexibility of changeable cartridges. Nearly a thousand of these were created, the most signi A study of the relationship between platform and creative expression in the Atari VCS. The Atari Video Computer System dominated the home video game market so completely that "Atari" became the generic term for a video game console. The Atari VCS was affordable and offered the flexibility of changeable cartridges. Nearly a thousand of these were created, the most significant of which established new techniques, mechanics, and even entire genres. This book offers a detailed and accessible study of this influential video game console from both computational and cultural perspectives. Studies of digital media have rarely investigated platforms--the systems underlying computing. This book (the first in a series of Platform Studies) does so, developing a critical approach that examines the relationship between platforms and creative expression. Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost discuss the Atari VCS itself and examine in detail six game cartridges: Combat, Adventure, Pac-Man, Yars' Revenge, Pitfall!, and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. They describe the technical constraints and affordances of the system and track developments in programming, gameplay, interface, and aesthetics. Adventure, for example, was the first game to represent a virtual space larger than the screen (anticipating the boundless virtual spaces of such later games as World of Warcraft and Grand Theft Auto), by allowing the player to walk off one side into another space; and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back was an early instance of interaction between media properties and video games. Montfort and Bogost show that the Atari VCS--often considered merely a retro fetish object--is an essential part of the history of video games.


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A study of the relationship between platform and creative expression in the Atari VCS. The Atari Video Computer System dominated the home video game market so completely that "Atari" became the generic term for a video game console. The Atari VCS was affordable and offered the flexibility of changeable cartridges. Nearly a thousand of these were created, the most signi A study of the relationship between platform and creative expression in the Atari VCS. The Atari Video Computer System dominated the home video game market so completely that "Atari" became the generic term for a video game console. The Atari VCS was affordable and offered the flexibility of changeable cartridges. Nearly a thousand of these were created, the most significant of which established new techniques, mechanics, and even entire genres. This book offers a detailed and accessible study of this influential video game console from both computational and cultural perspectives. Studies of digital media have rarely investigated platforms--the systems underlying computing. This book (the first in a series of Platform Studies) does so, developing a critical approach that examines the relationship between platforms and creative expression. Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost discuss the Atari VCS itself and examine in detail six game cartridges: Combat, Adventure, Pac-Man, Yars' Revenge, Pitfall!, and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. They describe the technical constraints and affordances of the system and track developments in programming, gameplay, interface, and aesthetics. Adventure, for example, was the first game to represent a virtual space larger than the screen (anticipating the boundless virtual spaces of such later games as World of Warcraft and Grand Theft Auto), by allowing the player to walk off one side into another space; and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back was an early instance of interaction between media properties and video games. Montfort and Bogost show that the Atari VCS--often considered merely a retro fetish object--is an essential part of the history of video games.

30 review for Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System

  1. 5 out of 5

    Rose Smith

    It's a good book, a good read. Time well spent, I'm sure i will be using many of the things I laerned here in my upcoming projects.

  2. 5 out of 5

    James Williams

    I was non-existent to being in diapers during the days of this story, so I can't speak to the historical accuracy or the even just the feels of the time. But my parents had an Atari 2600 and this book accurately captures the wonder caused the little colored boxes that would appear on their big wooden console television when it was plugged in. As a professional programmer, I was particularly fascinated by the technical details of this little machine. In my world, displays are driven by I was non-existent to being in diapers during the days of this story, so I can't speak to the historical accuracy or the even just the feels of the time. But my parents had an Atari 2600 and this book accurately captures the wonder caused the little colored boxes that would appear on their big wooden console television when it was plugged in. As a professional programmer, I was particularly fascinated by the technical details of this little machine. In my world, displays are driven by framebuffers and backed by rectangular arrays of RAM. The idea of lighting up a point on the screen is, at its heart, synonymous with writing some bytes to the correct memory location. Turning the bytes in RAM into glowing points on the screen is handled by dedicated hardware that is mostly abstracted away for today's programmer. But the 2600 doesn't have anything like that. It was designed in concert with the display hardware of its day: an electron beam that scans back and forth, back and forth. To draw on the screen, the programmer has to carefully turn the beam on and off timed precisely with each cycle of the CPU. I am an Apple fan. I believe that the best software is written in concert with the hardware it will be running on so that each can take advantage of the other. The 2600 completely embodies that philosophy: its software is completely harmonized with the way that television and video signals worked at the time. So much so, that it's basically impossible to completely emulate the experience on modern displays. Our screens just don't allow for pixels bleeding in to one another or for phosphors to slowly dim once the beam has been turned off. There's more to this story, of course. The way that most games were written by a single developer who owned every aspect of it (from concept to playability to music and art) is an interesting contrast to today's multi-million dollar development teams. The rivalry between Atari and Activision, whose original logo is still recognizable to all gamers today, is of note. And, of course, there's the way that women's struggle to gain respect in the industry is basically mirrored in today's software industry. This book checked several boxes for me: as a modern programmer who enjoys history, I enjoyed reading the accounts of this pivotal project. As a lover of quality products, I enjoyed reading about the development of this seminal consumer offering. And as a gamer, I loved the nostalgic look at the console I first started growing up with. And ultimately, as a reader, I enjoyed a well-written account of days of long ago.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Angus

    Often, when we talk about art, we talk about constraint. Constraint can be self imposed and, sometimes, can be the product of the medium. It's difficult to imagine a piece of hardware that imposes more constraint than the Atari 2600. With 128 bytes of volatile memory and a 4k rom cartridge size (later 8k with a bank-switching ROM that allows you to 'page' from the cart), memory constraints are severe. The Atari had sprite registers for 2 players, 2 missiles, and one ball, all of which fell direc Often, when we talk about art, we talk about constraint. Constraint can be self imposed and, sometimes, can be the product of the medium. It's difficult to imagine a piece of hardware that imposes more constraint than the Atari 2600. With 128 bytes of volatile memory and a 4k rom cartridge size (later 8k with a bank-switching ROM that allows you to 'page' from the cart), memory constraints are severe. The Atari had sprite registers for 2 players, 2 missiles, and one ball, all of which fell directly out of the software designs for Pong and Combat! The machine was tightly coupled to everything that was required for just two games, and from this developers created hundreds. The 2600 didn't have frame buffers, all video was drawn in real time, pixel by pixel, every cycle counting towards time before a CRT beam pulse. All of this, to me, sounds maddening. The constraints are so severe as to limit what could be accomplished in a short period of time. The Atari port of Pacman, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XdT0l..., is a cruel parody but also a piece of technical wizardry, seriously stretching the boundaries of what was possible on the platform. Monfort takes on an ambitious project in attempting critical reading of the hardware and software that comprised the 2600 as a platform. He discusses these limitations and their workarounds to give both a brief history of the platform, the extraordinary hacks that led to some of its best games, and to place them in a cultural context. Atari seems like a company that should never have happened, locking single developers away for anywhere from 6 months to 5 weeks to emerge with something capable of generating millions of dollars in revenue. We see simplicity as a beautiful and costly thing, constraint a real challenge to both creative thinking and pragmatic work. In a time when nearly every computer we interact with is general purpose, where we sit atop a tower of countless abstractions, it's fascinating to take a close look at the foundations. I look forward to reading 10 PRINT CHR(205.5+RND(1)) GOTO 10

  4. 4 out of 5

    Jim

    A close look at what writing programs for the Atari VCS (aka the 2600) was like. The machine was incredibly tiny by current technology's standards, but the authors make the case that its shortcomings actually pushed its authors to try and make innovative games. A bit technical in places, but extremely interesting for those interested in the history of programming.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Ninja

    More technical than I was expecting. At times, that made it a little dry, but it was definitely enriching, and seeing how the technical limitations in the system translated into design, gameplay and graphical choices was quite interesting. That explanation also means you get a deeper appreciation for the latter games explored in the book as they pushed beyond the obstacles earlier games halted at. The book's authors themselves are not above sliding in passing references to classics in More technical than I was expecting. At times, that made it a little dry, but it was definitely enriching, and seeing how the technical limitations in the system translated into design, gameplay and graphical choices was quite interesting. That explanation also means you get a deeper appreciation for the latter games explored in the book as they pushed beyond the obstacles earlier games halted at. The book's authors themselves are not above sliding in passing references to classics in computing fiction, with lines such as "This sometimes allowed dramatic effects to be displayed to viewers who, plugging in a joystick, found the television above the port to be the color of sky" And the heroics - David Crane crammed 255 screens of jungle for Pitfall! in 50 bytes, and went from single-life-single-try to 3 lives with display, "For the 'lives' indicator I added vertical tally marks to the timer display. That probably only cost 24 bytes, and with another 20 hours of 'scrunching' the code I could fit that in"

  6. 5 out of 5

    Ren the Unclean

    This book is super interesting, but doesn't always serve its audience, being stuck somewhere between highly technical and overly simple. It is basically a series of anecdotes about the creation of carefully selected Atari games that give amazing insight into what the creation process was like from a very low level (meaning less abstracted from the hardware, not simple) technical perspective. It was telling how much the hardware and base software design had such a huge impact on what c This book is super interesting, but doesn't always serve its audience, being stuck somewhere between highly technical and overly simple. It is basically a series of anecdotes about the creation of carefully selected Atari games that give amazing insight into what the creation process was like from a very low level (meaning less abstracted from the hardware, not simple) technical perspective. It was telling how much the hardware and base software design had such a huge impact on what could and could not be done with Atari games and how the programmers worked around these issues as the life cycle of the system went on. Some of the anecdotes about how specific designs came about and techniques used to achieve certain effects were especially interesting. There is an amazing amount of technical details on some systems, such as how colors are displayed by the Atari and how programmers dealt with limited sprite memory. Unfortunately, some of the other issues that game makers of this time dealt with are sort of glossed over, or not explained at all, which is a missed opportunity. It is clear that I am not really the target audience of this book, since it seems to be written to at least be mostly understood by non-programmers, although there are many sections that I have no doubt would be beyond the grasp of the layman. I really enjoyed this book, and wish there was a similar examination that delved farther into the technical details.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Chris

    This book is the most in-depth look at the Atari 2600 I've ever read. I kinda think that if that sentence doesn't really generate that much interest for you, you should give this a miss. To me, it was fantastic because the 2600 remained a magical object to me throughout almost all my life. Magical in the sense that I had no idea how it worked. The original games that we had for it had blocky graphics and minimal sound, but a year or two later, the games quickly developed higher resolution graphi This book is the most in-depth look at the Atari 2600 I've ever read. I kinda think that if that sentence doesn't really generate that much interest for you, you should give this a miss. To me, it was fantastic because the 2600 remained a magical object to me throughout almost all my life. Magical in the sense that I had no idea how it worked. The original games that we had for it had blocky graphics and minimal sound, but a year or two later, the games quickly developed higher resolution graphics, even musical soundtracks. It was the same box running it -- I didn't understand how the games seemed to make quantum leaps in sophistication. The answer is that people learned how to pull some truly insane tricks with their code, and this book spells out how it was done. The text honestly isn't that technical, though you need to know some basic computer concepts. Actually, I wished that it nerded out even further in places, but I think that says more about me than the text. This is an academic text, and talks about how the capabilities of the platform shaped the kinds of games that were produced for it -- which seemed kind of a no-brainer to me. But then I suppose nobody makes the argument that ballpoint pens made for different poetry.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Paul Cowan

    Wonderful one for the computer geeks: the story of how the Atari VCS programmers managed to make their games perform well under INSANE hardware constraints. Incredible tales of trying to fit all your calculations inside the horizontal and vertical blanking intervals, including faking super-large or super-detailed sprites by toggling the sprite buffer before the next line starts scanning; even more incredible tales of saving critical cartridge bytes by not storing a map for your battlefield, but Wonderful one for the computer geeks: the story of how the Atari VCS programmers managed to make their games perform well under INSANE hardware constraints. Incredible tales of trying to fit all your calculations inside the horizontal and vertical blanking intervals, including faking super-large or super-detailed sprites by toggling the sprite buffer before the next line starts scanning; even more incredible tales of saving critical cartridge bytes by not storing a map for your battlefield, but rather tweaking your code itself so you can use N bytes of your own machine code as the map, making it serve dual purposes. Crazy stuff; these people were geniuses. Great read.

  9. 4 out of 5

    David Dinaburg

    There is a moment when someone from America calls soccer “football” because they’re really into Premiere League and it is technically correct but sounds extremely jarring; an analogue experience for video game dorks is the Atari VCS. Most people—even the ones who know enough about Atari Corporation to not simply call any of their systems “Atari”—likely still call the “VCS” the “2600.” I know I did before I read Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System. The 2600 is a rad retronym built to distin There is a moment when someone from America calls soccer “football” because they’re really into Premiere League and it is technically correct but sounds extremely jarring; an analogue experience for video game dorks is the Atari VCS. Most people—even the ones who know enough about Atari Corporation to not simply call any of their systems “Atari”—likely still call the “VCS” the “2600.” I know I did before I read Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System. The 2600 is a rad retronym built to distinguish the old Atari when the 5200 was the new hotness, with the added bonus of sounding super futuristic and cool; and by cool I mean totally sweet. If that particular geocities-era internet reference went over (or under) your head, don’t fret: that type of paean to nostalgia is not what this book is about. Just a lot of nuggets of really cool (totally sweet) facts. The learning begins before the cover is even cracked, with the title: A television picture is composed of many horizontal lines, illuminated by an electron beam that traces each one by moving across and down a picture tube. Some programmers worry about having each frame of the picture ready to be displayed on time; VCS programmers must make sure that each individual line of each frame is ready as the electron gun starts to light it up, “racing the beam” as it travels down the screen. Racing the beam is a ridiculously inside term, but if it is the only take-away from the book, it’s still a good one. The system is so tied to cathode ray tubes—artifacts which cannot be long for the planet let alone popular consciousness—that the basic structure of the VCS is functionally impossible if your experience with televisions lacks depth. And I mean that literally: If the only TV you can picture is flat, there is simply no space in which to generate the beam of electrons, no beam to ignite the phosphorus, no beam to race, no beam at all. The Atari VCS is a memory of a memory, and if it fades it is only because no one cared about recording its history. Thankfully, that is not the case. This is the kickoff edition of Platform Studies, which purports to discuss each piece of console hardware as a technological platform, rather than as a personal madeleine or cultural artifact. The series contains the best book I have read about video games, I am Error. It feels unfair to directly compare the two because, as a later entrant in the series, Error has the benefit of templating itself against Racing the Beam as well as being edited by Montfort and Bogost. I know nothing about Bogost, but Montfort wrote Twisty Little Passages which I read prior to my tenure at Goodreads and loved enough to find a job as a chatbot writer for a text-based online game (it didn’t hurt my love of Twisty that I spent my high school years as an avid MUD player). And while I remember the 2600—sorry, the VCS—primarily for Crackpots at my Grandmother’s house and E.T. when our single household TV was in the dining room, this isn't an essay about my experiences with Atari. Though I will say that I liked E.T. and played it a lot. So...disregard my VCS opinions at your discretion. Video games aren’t a given—they didn’t have to happen—but they are so ubiquitous now that I am very surprised that stories about their origins aren’t more popular. Changeable software cartridges connected to a hardware platform that piggybacks off of a pre-existing and console-agnostic television is an insane idea in a world of closed units like arcade machines. Pulling a piece software from dedicated hardware that was designed to do nothing else and shoving to into a generic platform while trying to retain the original shape seems herculean:To draw the four pursuers, programmer Tod Frye relied on a technique called flicker. Each of the four ghosts is moved and drawn in sequence on successive frames. Pac-Man himself is drawn every frame using the other sprite graphic register. The TIA synchronizes with an NTSC television picture sixty times per second, so the resulting display shows a solid Pac-Man, maze, and pellets, but ghosts that flicker on and off, remaining lit only one quarter of the time. The phosphorescent glow of a CRT television takes a little while to fade, and the human retina retains a perceived image for a short time, so the visible effect of the flicker is slightly less pronounced than this fraction of time suggests. The fact that the monsters in Pac-Man were commonly referred to as “ghosts” apologized somewhat for the flicker and suggested the dimness of the apparition. The manual for the VCS rendition of Pac-Man included large illustrations of ghosts to drive the point home. Someone has to learn this stuff; it is quaint that we in America still call football soccer, and it adds diversity to an increasingly globalized world. But at least we know what the rest of the world calls it, even if we don’t care. That’s all I’m shooting for—to know what the Atari Video Computer System was, even if most of us don’t care.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Bill

    I never realized just how many limitations the programmers for the Atari VCS/2600 had to deal with until I read this book, which describes the hardware, game design, and history of the system. It's fascinating to read about the severe memory restrictions that early game creators worked with, and how they managed to create fun, challenging games -- and early elements of modern video games, like imperfect AI -- despite them. The book does get a little too technical at times, but those p I never realized just how many limitations the programmers for the Atari VCS/2600 had to deal with until I read this book, which describes the hardware, game design, and history of the system. It's fascinating to read about the severe memory restrictions that early game creators worked with, and how they managed to create fun, challenging games -- and early elements of modern video games, like imperfect AI -- despite them. The book does get a little too technical at times, but those parts can be skimmed without affecting the overall story of the system.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Themistocles

    A bit of a let-down, this one. I was expecting much, much more. As it is, it's a (small) book with a few interesting stories, but little coherence. There are passages that require programming knowledge and others that refer to the most basic things - quite uneven. And at that price, I don't really recommend it.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Julian

    I like the idea of "platform studies" and no console is more deserving of this kind of attention than the 2600, which is a very strange beast. This is the second of these books I've read, and they both have uneasily balanced their technical content with the surrounding cultural context. Although I would love something like this but deeper (keep the cultural context, but expand greatly on the technical: include disassemblies with commentary, for example), this is still worth reading for anyone in I like the idea of "platform studies" and no console is more deserving of this kind of attention than the 2600, which is a very strange beast. This is the second of these books I've read, and they both have uneasily balanced their technical content with the surrounding cultural context. Although I would love something like this but deeper (keep the cultural context, but expand greatly on the technical: include disassemblies with commentary, for example), this is still worth reading for anyone interested in this era of videogames, and the technical details are sufficient for it to be a good first step towards programming the 2600.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Tim Dimo

    This book gave a good overview of just how much work went into building these early video games. With just 128 bytes of RAM and a typical 2K ROM cartridge, the developers for the Atari system created some of the greatest early console games. This book is not solely for the technical-minded, as discussion of the broader landscape of gaming is also discussed. Historical items such as the business reason for releasing the awful Pac-Man conversion and how licensing changed the business and contribut This book gave a good overview of just how much work went into building these early video games. With just 128 bytes of RAM and a typical 2K ROM cartridge, the developers for the Atari system created some of the greatest early console games. This book is not solely for the technical-minded, as discussion of the broader landscape of gaming is also discussed. Historical items such as the business reason for releasing the awful Pac-Man conversion and how licensing changed the business and contributed to the 1983 crash are explained. Read this book and you'll be amazed that games such as Pitfall! were even possible on this platform.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Hayden Scott-Baron

    This book really struggles with its own medium, tripping over the lack of diagrams to rely on clumsy descriptions of technical methods. In the worst cases it repeats these technical descriptions on successive pages, like someone realising they’re failing to get their point across. It adds little of flavour about the world in which these titles were created and the interesting design revelations as few and far between. It’s an interesting book at times but ultimately a disappointment.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Mihai Parparita

    Interesting historical perspective, wish it had more technical details. Knowing very little about the Atari VCS, I found the book quite interesting. I especially liked the progression from earlier to later games, as technical know-how increased. I just wish that there was end more technical detail (on the level of the Wolfenstein 3D book).

  16. 5 out of 5

    David

    A great history of the Atari VCS game console, including the time, culture, people and technology that all came together to create this unique piece of hardware.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Mjhancock

    In this book, Ian Bogost and Nick Montfort perform a historical dissection of the Atari VCS (video computer system) through the discussion of six VCS games: Combat, Adventure, Pac-Man, Yars' Revenge, Pitfall!, and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. Given that their purpose is to not just discuss the Atari but justify their coined area of investigation, platform studies, one may be forgiven for asking if the book is not so much a focus on the platform but on these six games. While each is descri In this book, Ian Bogost and Nick Montfort perform a historical dissection of the Atari VCS (video computer system) through the discussion of six VCS games: Combat, Adventure, Pac-Man, Yars' Revenge, Pitfall!, and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. Given that their purpose is to not just discuss the Atari but justify their coined area of investigation, platform studies, one may be forgiven for asking if the book is not so much a focus on the platform but on these six games. While each is described in some detail, the games are also used as launchpads for discussing other issues more relevant to the Atari as a whole (and videogame platforms in general). he book is divided into eight chapters, and all but the first and last feature some game. Chapter 1 introduces the subject and outlines the technical specifications of the VCS. Chapter 2, on Combat, is similarly technically focused, with a discussion of how a game like Combat needs to be compressed to be converted from the arcade to a smaller cartridge format. The chapter on Adventure discusses the adaptation of text-based games into graphic games, and its contribution to the concept of virtual game spaces. Pac-Man is on the difficulty of displaying sprites on the Atari, and the technical constraints that raises. Yar's Revenge looks at the development of an original Atari game and how it involved playing to the system's strengths. Pitfall! looks at the rise of third-party developers and Star Wars looks at the history of video games of licensed properties in the context of the 1983 video game crash. And the final chapter deals briefly with the VCS' current status as museum piece, collector's item, and homebrewer's hobby. As you might guess from that outline, a lot of the book is concerned with the pull between creating games that are suitable for the platform at hand but true to the material they're adapting. In related issues, the discussion of licensing and how games are shaped by the technical constraints of the system are repeating topics. The authors address these issues as they arise, but I felt that their discussion always remained below the surface and never came to a satisfying conclusion. The book doesn't shy away from technical descriptions of the Atari's operation, though they rarely go so far as to discuss the actual coding process. I'll admit, some of the fine details went over my head (like the exact details of how the number-size sprite registers work, for example) but I was never so far lost that I couldn't follow the threads of the argument. A lot of the general history was already familiar to me, but the focus on individual Atari games and their technical elements was a welcome addition. For those who want more "nuts and bolts" in their videogame scholarship (while still keeping an eye on cultural contexts), it's a good place to look.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Michał Taszycki

    Fascinating read about the legendary console. The idea of analyzing how the platform and its constrains shaped games produced for Atari 2600 is interesting. It helps to notice how those early developments shaped future genres of computer games. Even though the approach requires a thorough explanation of technical details of the console, it doesn't turn the book into a hardware manual.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Josh Knowles

    I really enjoyed this. It looks at game design from the perspective of the design of the Atari VCS (2600) system itself -- how the limitations and quirks of that game console led to certain design decisions (good and bad) that affected some very seminal games. I'm a programmer, so when I think about game design it's very hard for me to completely distance myself from thinking about what would be easy or difficult (or impossible) to actually implement. Sometimes laziness prevents me fr I really enjoyed this. It looks at game design from the perspective of the design of the Atari VCS (2600) system itself -- how the limitations and quirks of that game console led to certain design decisions (good and bad) that affected some very seminal games. I'm a programmer, so when I think about game design it's very hard for me to completely distance myself from thinking about what would be easy or difficult (or impossible) to actually implement. Sometimes laziness prevents me from making design choices that would be harder to execute. But I like to think that having an intimate understanding of the platform (say, iPhone) gives me a more refined sense of how to make something good particularly for that platform. I can avoid getting mired in things that just won't work. Like how painters study their brushes so they know what the possibilities as as far as texture, stroke weight, etc. So talking about game design from exactly this perspective clicked with me very nicely. Also: I am just a bit young to have experienced the Atari 2600. I've seen them and probably poked at a game or two as a kid, but I'm of the Nintendo generation. Reading this book with the internet handy to watch some of these games in action gave a really great introduction to the Atari 2600 (or, at least, as good as one could get without really playing one). And this book contains a lot of info about the history of Atari (and Activision and other 3rd party devs) as well as the historical context of all of this. Finally, this book seems like a great introduction to the hardware history of computers. The book talks about the chips, the design of the motherboard (if that's what it's called), and how the hardware impacted the platform. And get to learn a bit how TVs work. Electrical engineers won't be impressed, but I learned some stuff. So, yeah -- even though this book can get fairly technical (on an introductory level, at least), it's still a very easy read. Well organized. Fun. Very interesting. Great book!

  20. 5 out of 5

    David

    A solid retro-geek book, and fun reading for anyone who still cares enough to have kept their old 2600 (you know who you are). Ah, the humble Atari game, a mere 4K of ROM and 128 bytes of RAM that drove much of pop culture in the late 70s / early 80s. The book discusses the Atari’s iconic heritage, the underpowered hardware that birthed it, and the creativity that defied those limitations. The authors focus on 6 games (“Combat”, “Adventure”, “Pac-Man”, “Yars’ Revenge”, Pitfall! and “S A solid retro-geek book, and fun reading for anyone who still cares enough to have kept their old 2600 (you know who you are). Ah, the humble Atari game, a mere 4K of ROM and 128 bytes of RAM that drove much of pop culture in the late 70s / early 80s. The book discusses the Atari’s iconic heritage, the underpowered hardware that birthed it, and the creativity that defied those limitations. The authors focus on 6 games (“Combat”, “Adventure”, “Pac-Man”, “Yars’ Revenge”, Pitfall! and “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back”), highlighting technical tricks by which game designers managed to pack so much game into so very few bytes. Examples: - The neutral zone in Yars’ Revenge (that random looking long vertical stripe) was actually displaying game source code as graphics (well, with a bit of whitening). - Bob Whitehead moved one of his subroutines so that it was followed by a sprite layout. The first row of bits in the sprite representation looked like this “-XX-----”, which had the same value as the 6502 RTS (return from subroutine) instruction. Therefore, the top part of the graphic could be executed as code, saving one precious byte. As for sound, the 2600 had two simultaneous 1-bit voices, but the frequencies that could be generated missed many of the notes required for a standard 12 note scale (see: http://www.qotile.net/files/2600_musi... ). It was much like composing music on a piano with a random selection of nonworking keys. But it could be done – for an example, search YouTube for “Pressure Cooker 2600”. The most discussed 2600 constraint is the complete lack of screen buffer, requiring the programming to know where the raster beam is at all times, and making sure it’s drawing what is needed (thus, the book’s title “Racing the Beam”).

  21. 4 out of 5

    Margaret Heller

    I'm probably unusual in that this book read like ancient history to me. It covers the development and various other aspects of the Atari VCS up until 1983, which is before I was born. I've actually never seen an Atari, nor have I ever owned a video game system of any kind. I actually played Ms. Pacman in a bar the other day because I'd never played Pac-man before and wanted to see what the book was talking about. Certainly I am not the intended audience. Nevertheless, I found the concept of this I'm probably unusual in that this book read like ancient history to me. It covers the development and various other aspects of the Atari VCS up until 1983, which is before I was born. I've actually never seen an Atari, nor have I ever owned a video game system of any kind. I actually played Ms. Pacman in a bar the other day because I'd never played Pac-man before and wanted to see what the book was talking about. Certainly I am not the intended audience. Nevertheless, I found the concept of this book fascinating--I heard about it in passing at a conference presentation a few weeks ago and placed the I-Share request immediately. The concept is an amalgam of all the ways one might study a computer system or software. It covers the historical context of the Atari VCS (had no idea that people were playing video games on oscilloscopes back in the 1950s!), the hardware, software, important programmers, and reception both contemporary and current. A lot packed into 150 pages, and while a lot of it is quite dense, it's very readable. There were a few pages I had to read 3 times to understand, which would be the case for anyone who is not completely conversant with hardware. The limitations of the platform made it necessary for the programmers to be extremely creative in how they approached creating a game, particularly as it worked in a completely different way from the arcade games they were emulating. As the arcade game model became less prevalent, other types of games emerged which had a different set of challenges. This is the first volume in a series of "Platform Studies" MIT Press will be publishing, and I look forward to reading more in this genre.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Perry Reed

    Pardon me while I geek-out for a moment. This was one of the most interesting books I've read in quite awhile. As a fan of the old Atari VCS (aka 2600) videogames and a computer nerd I've always been interested in how those games were made, but never knew a whole lot about it. This book goes into the details of the Atari platform, how it was architected, and the limitations it placed on the developers of the games that ran on it. While written in a style that is academic and sometimes Pardon me while I geek-out for a moment. This was one of the most interesting books I've read in quite awhile. As a fan of the old Atari VCS (aka 2600) videogames and a computer nerd I've always been interested in how those games were made, but never knew a whole lot about it. This book goes into the details of the Atari platform, how it was architected, and the limitations it placed on the developers of the games that ran on it. While written in a style that is academic and sometimes dry, it is nonetheless a fascinating look into the development of some of my favorite old games like "Combat", "Adventure", "Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back", and "Pitfall!" The book also discusses the Atari version of "Pac-Man" which most people remember as an awful version of the arcade game and it helps explain exactly why it was the way it was. The real beauty of the Atari was it's incredible simplicity. It offered very few niceties for the developers which made them have to work harder to achieve what they wanted, but left the system wide open to some amazing creativity. There are still a few people writing new games for the Atari, most recently a pretty decent port of the Xbox game "Halo". I'm tempted now to do something I've always wanted to, and try writing my own Atari game.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Anna Anthropy

    this is the only book i've seen to consider its subject: that the unique capabilities and limitations of a particular videogame platform guide all design for that platform. the chapter on warren robinett's adventure - an attempt at translating crowther and woods' all-text game adventure to a simple graphical environment - particularly illuminates the kind of choices a designer has to make to fit a game into a particular format. the book flutters somewhat inconsistantly between using t this is the only book i've seen to consider its subject: that the unique capabilities and limitations of a particular videogame platform guide all design for that platform. the chapter on warren robinett's adventure - an attempt at translating crowther and woods' all-text game adventure to a simple graphical environment - particularly illuminates the kind of choices a designer has to make to fit a game into a particular format. the book flutters somewhat inconsistantly between using technical terminology and using language that actually makes sense to the human reader. reading is sort of like watching star trek - occasionally it descends into technobabble, but that doesn't derail your ability to follow the plot. there is a DOCTOR JEKYL AND MISTER PRICK problem with the book, which i attribute to the dual authorship of ian bogost and nick montfort. i blame montfort, perhaps in error, for lines like "the atari vcs would have to navigate between the scylla of powerful but expensive processors and the charybdis of a cut-rate but inflexible set of hardwired games" and the pitfall chapter's insistence on referring to the tarzan vine harry swings from as a "liana." but this is a valuable book anyway.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Michael Scott

    This book is an unofficial, critical history of the ATARI Video Computer System (VCS) gaming platform, which dominated the video games industry from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s (and much longer in remote countries, such as the native country of this reviewer.) The history follows the evolution of the VCS platform through an utilitarian lens: six of the eight main chapters of the book are dedicated each to one or several games that have pushed the technological boundaries set by the platform. This book is an unofficial, critical history of the ATARI Video Computer System (VCS) gaming platform, which dominated the video games industry from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s (and much longer in remote countries, such as the native country of this reviewer.) The history follows the evolution of the VCS platform through an utilitarian lens: six of the eight main chapters of the book are dedicated each to one or several games that have pushed the technological boundaries set by the platform. Thus, the reader gets to learn not only about the core technical aspects of the VCS platform, but also who and how were the most famous ATARI titles developed, who and how were they played, and what was the licensing (political) play around releasing each title. I also loved (re-)learning about Combat, Adventure, Pac-Man, and Pitfall!, some of the best games that have populated my childhood. On the negative side, the presentation was often tedious to follow: on the one hand, the (too) many details about (too) many things challenged the academic in this reviewer, on the other, the lack of apparent structure for the information and the thin supporting evidence made the academic cringe. Overall, a good read for gaming fans, just not for the ones that are also academics.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Jon Stewart

    This may be a niche book, but it definitely hits at the convergence of several of my interests. First, and in some ways most superficially, it's about the Atari 2600 (aka VCS). I grew up playing and owned most of the 2600 games covered in depth: Adventure, Combat, Pitfall, Empire Strikes Back and the arcade ports Asteroids and Space Invaders. However, this isn't really a book about the games, it's about how these games were shaped by the limitations of the 2600 hardware, the games that came befo This may be a niche book, but it definitely hits at the convergence of several of my interests. First, and in some ways most superficially, it's about the Atari 2600 (aka VCS). I grew up playing and owned most of the 2600 games covered in depth: Adventure, Combat, Pitfall, Empire Strikes Back and the arcade ports Asteroids and Space Invaders. However, this isn't really a book about the games, it's about how these games were shaped by the limitations of the 2600 hardware, the games that came before, and how 2600 games shaped or at least foreshadowed the games that have been conceived in the subsequent decades. These days I have mostly moved on from video games to pinball, but I appreciate the history and learning about the technology and culture in which these relics of my youth were developed. I am deeply interested in both programming and software archeology where old software is deconstructed to reveal its secrets. If I had a major criticism of this book, it's that it was too short, both in overall length and in the brief snippets of code and technical details it provided. What was provided was fascinating, but I wanted more.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Philip Hollenback

    This book brought back many fond memories of my childhood. I suspect it would do the same for any of you computer types out there. I was somewhat familiar with how the Atari worked, but this book did an excellent job of combining a technical overview with historical and cultural perspectives. I particularly liked the fact that the authors focused on six games that really illustrated the growth of this platform over the years. To me, the most amazing part of this story is ho This book brought back many fond memories of my childhood. I suspect it would do the same for any of you computer types out there. I was somewhat familiar with how the Atari worked, but this book did an excellent job of combining a technical overview with historical and cultural perspectives. I particularly liked the fact that the authors focused on six games that really illustrated the growth of this platform over the years. To me, the most amazing part of this story is how programmers were able to take a very limited computer designed in the mid-70s and continually write better and better games for it over the course of it's 10 year lifespan. Seriously - this thing came with 128 BYTES of RAM. It didn't even have the concept of a framebuffer. When you program a 2600, you don't create whole-screen images and then display them. Instead, you "race the beam" by continually building up images line by line as the electron gun traces across the screen. Now I'm wishing I still owned my old Atari 2600.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Joe

    IF YOU READ ONE BOOK ABOUT THE DESIGN AND HISTORY OF THE ATARI 2600, MAKE IT THIS ONE. This book focuses on the technical design of the Atari 2600 (nee VCS) and its impact on future gaming systems, told through a deep investigation into six classic games. It goes into thorough detail, to the point of describing details of assembly programming and circuit design. The largest problem is that it's too short -- I finished the book wanting more. The success of the Atari 2600, gi IF YOU READ ONE BOOK ABOUT THE DESIGN AND HISTORY OF THE ATARI 2600, MAKE IT THIS ONE. This book focuses on the technical design of the Atari 2600 (nee VCS) and its impact on future gaming systems, told through a deep investigation into six classic games. It goes into thorough detail, to the point of describing details of assembly programming and circuit design. The largest problem is that it's too short -- I finished the book wanting more. The success of the Atari 2600, given its incredible technical limitations, is simply amazing. Game designers were able to push the system far beyond what was originally thought possible -- and dedicated hobbyists continue to see what else can be accomplished. Many recognizable, often-copied game designs and patterns were originally developed for the Atari 2600 -- sometimes, almost accidentally, because no other technical solutions was available. I can't imagine most people would be interested in a book like this -- but if you're one of those people, you have to read this book.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Peter

    An interesting book for sure. I very much like their idea of doing "platform studies" instead of focusing just on games or just on hardware or just on the operating system or whatnot. The history of the Atari VCS and how the games produced for it influenced all video games that followed (heck, even the very name "video games" I guess) is priceless for anyone interested in gaming. The stories about how certain games were developed and how they managed to "get around" or even "take advantage" of t An interesting book for sure. I very much like their idea of doing "platform studies" instead of focusing just on games or just on hardware or just on the operating system or whatnot. The history of the Atari VCS and how the games produced for it influenced all video games that followed (heck, even the very name "video games" I guess) is priceless for anyone interested in gaming. The stories about how certain games were developed and how they managed to "get around" or even "take advantage" of the very limited hardware is priceless for anyone trying to get a grip on developing software. And bundling it all with a high-level account of the different chips and how they worked together, well, that's priceless for people who like their hardware explained, at least to some extent. Overall though there wasn't enough technical meat for me. Of course I can read all the things they point to for that, but I would have liked a little bit more of the low-level insanity the VCS is, in more detail. But I guess what they give us is nevertheless a good starting point.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Lucius

    It's really good. This is a well researched and in-depth look at the Atari 2600 and its games, down to the technical details of the silicon and disassembly of the ROMs, and it also analyzes the decisions made by programmers and management and how that affected the games. The basic structure is that it does a case study of an individual game title, but also discusses important events in the history of the 2600 within each case study. My own complaint is that I wish it were longer, and It's really good. This is a well researched and in-depth look at the Atari 2600 and its games, down to the technical details of the silicon and disassembly of the ROMs, and it also analyzes the decisions made by programmers and management and how that affected the games. The basic structure is that it does a case study of an individual game title, but also discusses important events in the history of the 2600 within each case study. My own complaint is that I wish it were longer, and delved into more detail about the games and the industry. I know I'll want to look at the disassembly of some of those games later. I haven't read a book this interesting in a while. I guess it's partly because I grew up with the 2600 but I didn't know the technical details nor what was going on in the industry. My knowledge, like most accounts on the Internet, were based on a consumer or fan's perspective, and the programmers and people in the industry had a very different interpretation of what was going on.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Des Small

    This is a modern masterpiece that blends social science and humanities' perspectives with a deep understanding of computer hardware. The Atari 2600 (née "VCS") is an extraordinary computing platform: 128 bytes (sickety sic) of RAM and ROMs of originally 2 or 4 Kb, with no framebuffer or anything like it. In the six or so years that it set the standard for home gaming, extraordinary things where accomplished with these barely-modest resources, and not the least virtue of this magnifice This is a modern masterpiece that blends social science and humanities' perspectives with a deep understanding of computer hardware. The Atari 2600 (née "VCS") is an extraordinary computing platform: 128 bytes (sickety sic) of RAM and ROMs of originally 2 or 4 Kb, with no framebuffer or anything like it. In the six or so years that it set the standard for home gaming, extraordinary things where accomplished with these barely-modest resources, and not the least virtue of this magnificent book is that it will make it clear just *how* these things were done and how hard it was to do them. But the ease with which it transitions between the hardware details and acute sociological insight into the cultural context is what makes it stand out as work of ground-breaking importance. (Sadly I can't honestly comment on how much computer programming background you need to read it - I read books on 8-bit microprocessors for fun. Not *that* much, though.)

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