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Racing the beam

📅 2019-Feb-17 ⬩ ✍️ Ashwin Nanjappa ⬩ 🏷️ atari, book ⬩ 📚 Archive


Classic Atari games are a popular choice these days in the field of reinforcement learning. A delightful lunch conversation on the constraints in the Atari VCS (Video Computer System) and the resulting creativity in its games introduced me to the book Racing the beam. Written by Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost, it is a detailed look at the creation of Atari VCS, its games, its popularity and its final crash.

Atari VCS, now popularly referred to as the Atari 2600, was introduced in 1977. Atari, who was making coin-operated arcade machines, created in the 2600 one of the first home videogame systems where games could be changed by switching cartridges. Sold for $200, it was quite cheap compared to the home computers of this era which, like Apple ][, sold for a thousand dollars more. This cost was possible by the use of the cheap MOS 6507 chip, a variant of the MOS 6502 which was popular in home computers at this time. The system had a mere 128 bytes of RAM and supported 4K of ROM in the game cartridge. The hardware of the system was specifically designed for two-player games like Pong, which featured one sprite per player, some playfield graphics and a ball or missile. The system had a Television Interface Adapter (TIA) chip that was specifically designed to interface with NTSC CRT displays. The TIA had specific registers to draw sprites, playfield graphics, moving balls, collision detection between ball and sprite. The system had no OS, it executed the 6507 instructions of the cartridge directly. VCS programmers essentially had to tell the system what to draw as the electron beam moved across the screen, scanline by scanline.

The book focuses on 6 games made for the VCS, using each one to also highlight a different aspect of the video game industry of that era. Combat is the game cartridge that shipped with the VCS. It had several 2-player games, all minor variants of Pong, but featuring tanks and planes instead. The VCS was one of the first home gaming systems to popularize the use of joystick. It also shipped with paddles, which fell out of favor quickly as a controller. With the game Adventure we see how Warren Robinett brought the world of text adventure to graphics and allowed the user to move out of the screen to new rooms and locations. In porting Pac-Man from its Japanese arcade to VCS, we discover how Tod Frye had to hack past the system's limitation on the number of sprites and the requirement of playfield graphics to be mirrored. The result was still quite disappointing and the game flopped. Yars' Revenge was a port of the vector-graphics Star Castle to the raster-graphics hardware of the VCS and was a hit.

In just a few years, Atari was king of the home videogame market and was raking in a billion dollars annually selling both the console and the cartridges for it. Each videogame of this era was made by an individual programmer and at Atari they were paid a fixed low salary. Noticing how they were paid a 100 times less than the revenue their individual games generated, four star Atari programmers broke away and created Activision, the first 3rd-party game cartridge company. Pitfall was a pioneering game from Activision for the VCS that created the side-scrolling adventure. Like most great games on the VCS, this too was an epic hack, fitting 255 jungle screens in just 50 bytes of ROM! Another 3rd-party success was Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back using which the authors describe how toys and games were licensed from movies in this era. The popularity of the VCS led to a flooding of the market with lots of bad-quality games and led to the video game crash of 1983.

The authors are digital media academics and so the book not only focuses on the technical details, but the cultural, social and historical aspects of the VCS and videogame consoles of that era. Readers who are specifically looking for intricate details of the VCS and how important games pushed the system to its limits might need to refer to other more technical books. Since my first experience with computers were systems that were way more powerful and complex, I found this discovery of the Atari 2600 to be enlightening and fascinating.

Rating: 4/4 (★★★★)