Friday, November 06, 2009

Our First Computer - The Amazing Atari 400

Way back in 1980, Mom and Dad presented the family with a very special Christmas gift: an Atari 400 computer! Sean and I hooked it up to the television immediately and played Galaxian and Pac-Man for hours. For the era, these were excellent recreations of the actual arcade games, with graphics and sound far superior to the home video game systems that were popular at the time. We picked up games at a pretty steady clip: Donkey Kong, Shamus, the infamous Claim Jumper, Jungle Hunt, and one of my favourites, Caverns of Kafka, a sort of Indiana Jones-style maze game with fiendish puzzles, lakes of lava, traps and so on. This game had to be loaded into the computer's memory via the Atari 410 tape drive; the software came on a cassette tape, and it took about a half hour or more before you could actually play the game. During the loading process, the computer would make horrific gasping and screeching noises as the data was read into the machine. The real fun was guessing whether or not the software would load successfully at all; it failed about half the time, usually right before completion.

A little later on we delved into the kit that came with the computer: "The Programmer," which included an Atari BASIC cartridge and a couple of reference books. I wrote a couple of simple Infocom-style adventure games and some graphics software to generate moire patterns.

The Atari 400 (and the other Atari 8-bit computers) used the familiar joysticks and paddles from the Atari 2600 video game system. The joysticks were nigh indestructible, but we did eventually wear them out thanks to hundreds of hours blasting asteroids, exploring labyrinths, shooting cowboys and so on. The replacement controllers we purchased were never quite as satisfying.

Later on I upgraded to an Atari 130XE, the last of the 8-bit Ataris, and by the time I was halfway through university I picked up a used 1040 ST, the latest and greatest Atari at the time, and the last truly successful Atari computer.

I wrote a lot of papers on those two machines, printing them on the Atari's letter-quality printer, which created a terrific cacophany whenever you needed to use it. BANG-BANG-BANG-BANG, BANG-BANG-BANG-BANG, BANG-BANG-BANG-BANG said the printer, vibrating my desk with the violence of its efforts. The end results looked very professional, though!

I also picked up my first modem when I started university - an Atari-branded 300 baud model that download plain text so slowly that it couldn't keep up with my reading speed. I used it to connect to local electronic bulletin board systems, such as the one run by the Edmonton Star Trek Club (USS Bonaventure) and Freedom BBS, operated by Ron Briscoe out of the Ron Room in the Bleak House of Blahs. Divided into virtual rooms, the bulletin boards gave geeks of the 80s and 90s places to write collaborative stories, argue over politics, share jokes, and even communicate via "private message," a primitive form of email. Most BBSes supported only one user connection at a time; I remember dialing BBSes and sometimes waiting hours for my chance to connect.

All of our Ataris still exist in Mom and Dad's basement, and they worked the last time Sean and I dug them out - probably ten years ago or so. The 400, at least, was insanely durable, working even after we ripped off the cartridge door.

I'm very grateful to Mom and Dad for introducing me to the world of computers, and I'm sure Sean feels the same way. The Ataris weren't as powerful as the Windows machines we use today, but they had charm in spades.


Dusty said...

Looking to write an iPhone app that duplicates an old BBS games called something like Galaxy Wars. Anyone remember that? Is that the right name?

Plan on making the graphics look old school BBS.

Earl J. Woods said...

Was that the one that had the galaxy divided into sectors on a grid map, with enemies in certain squares?

Sean T. said...

A friend had the 400, and the arcade-style games were indeed the stuff of legend. But I had the 130XE, with its mind-blowing 131,072 bytes of RAM! God, how I loved that machine. There was the AtariWriter markup code, which primed me for learning HTML many years later. More important, there was a game series (aptly titled "Alternate Reality") that combined an alien-abduction premise with incredibly immersive fantasy role-playing elements: sun and rain, day and night, hunger and thirst, the whole works. In terms of the ambition and imagination that went into it, that game still holds up all these years later.

Totty said...

Earl, you sound like you're describing the old Star Trek game. Of course, with that vague description, it's probably a common mechanic.

Sean Woods said...

Sean T,

Earl and I played Alternate Reality (both "The City" and "The Dungeon" all the time.


O Brother, Where Art Jeff? said...

That was back when I could program a computer. Now there's greeting cards with more computing power than my first Vic-20.

I wrote a simple graphics program that plotted lines and colours. Then, all I had to do was plot co-ordinates and the thing would automatically draw lines and curves. I saved the co-ordinates to a tape drive. I remember working on a drawing of a girl's face (I remember it was fairly lifelike) when the computer announced that it had run out of memory. That was a total shock, as I did not know I could fill the memory completely with data.

Earl remembers a picture I drew of his USS Encounter ship. What he may not remember was that I hand painted every pixel, as the paint program could only do outlined and filled basic shapes, but nothing like blended colours, anti-aliasing, post-effects, filters, or anthing of use other than making boxes and circles. You could strobe the palette, though, which emulated some of the computer displays you saw on early Star Trek. I must have spent a month or six weeks on that image.

Earl J. Woods said...

I remember your USS Encounter displays very well, Jeff, although you're right - I didn't remember that it was such a painstaking effort! Perhaps other people should have the opportunity to take a look...

Sean Woods said...

Dig it:

AllanX said...

Player-missile graphics.

That was then. This is now.

Not to say that I'm not a little homesick for the old days. There was a lot more wonder back then. Today