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A History of Gaming Platforms: Atari 8-Bit Computers

July 31, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 6 Next

[Gamasutra's A History of Gaming Platforms series continues with a look at Atari's 8-bit computer series. Need to catch up? Check out the first five articles in the series, covering the Commodore 64, Vectrex, Apple II, Atari 2600, and Mattel Intellivision.]

When many thirty-something gamers in the U.S. hear the words "8-bit computer," they likely picture a Commodore 64 (C64) or an Apple II. The word "Atari" is forever associated with the arcade and the Atari VCS (aka 2600), the latter of which was covered in an earlier entry in this series.

However, Atari also released a smorgasbord of 8-bit personal computers, collectively known as the Atari 8-bit computer series. The series evolved in dramatic ways, but never quite reached the same levels of popularity as Apple and Commodore systems. Nevertheless, today, the Atari 8-bit platform is as well supported as any other classic computer series.

Release Year:
Resolution: 80 x 192
On-Screen Colors: 16
Sound: 4 Channels, Mono
Media Format(s): Cartridge, Cassette, 5.25" Floppy Disk
Main Memory: 48KB

An original Atari 800 with the cartridge door open and BASIC inserted into the left cartridge slot.

History and Hardware

Since Atari Inc.'s founding in 1972 by Nolan Bushnell, the company focused first on arcade video games and then added home Pong-style consoles into the mix by 1975. In 1976, Bushnell sold Atari to Warner Communications to help fund development of the "Stella" home video game project, which was released as the Atari Video Computer System (VCS) in 1977.

The VCS would come to be a breakthrough success, both for Atari and the neophyte home video game industry, but Bushnell left the company in 1978 after a disagreement with Ray Kassar, who Warner had appointed president of Atari's Consumer Division. After Bushnell's exit, Warner named Kassar the CEO of the entire Atari Corporation. Unlike Bushnell, Kassar and Warner management wanted Atari's energies to also turn to the nascent home computer market.

Under Kassar's direction, the creative and relaxed hacker culture of the company was reduced to a Dilbert-like atmosphere of disgruntled nerds and humorless suits. Atari's home computer division was launched and segregated from the home video game and arcade divisions. The VCS's successor, which was already on the drawing board, was re-envisioned as a home computer.

As opposed to competitive computer systems at the time, the "Candy" and "Colleen" 8-bit computer projects (legend has it that Atari engineers would code-name projects after attractive female employees) were designed around Atari's proven strengths in gaming.

The idea was to combine great game-playing abilities with plug-and-play ease of use. Members of the team that worked on the VCS worked on the design of the Atari computers. This team included industry legend Jay Miner, who years later designed another innovative computer, the Commodore Amiga.

The Atari 400, shown to the left with its original membrane keyboard and to the right in a modified form with custom aftermarket full stroke keyboard and open cartridge door, was intended as the entry level model of the system line.

In late 1979, riding the huge success of its VCS, Atari released the Atari 400 ("Candy") and the Atari 800 ("Colleen"). The 400 was intended as a starter computer, while the 800 was a higher-end alternative for more sophisticated users. By 1980, Atari formed a large portion of Warner Communications' total revenue and became the fastest growing company in U.S. history, mirroring Apple's own meteoric success and preceding Commodore's ascension by several years.

"The Atari 400 is a microcomputer that was designed with game-players firmly in mind. Using a 6502 microprocessor combined with 128-color capability and four, independent sound synthesizers, gaming comes quite naturally to this budget-priced home computer." - Electronic Games magazine, 1983 Buyer's Guide

The Atari 400, which used the MOS 6502B microprocessor, came with 8KB RAM (later 16KB), a cartridge port, four controller ports, television output, and a membrane keyboard. This keyboard, which featured slightly indented keys on its plastic sheet-like surface, was intended to be "childproof."

It was easy to keep clean and was resistant to the occasional splash of Kool-Aid, but was notoriously difficult to type on. With some technical effort, the memory could eventually be expanded to 48KB and the keyboard replaced, but even with those improvements the 400 still could not match the overall feature set of the 800.

The popular Atari 410 cassette recorder and 1050 5.25" floppy disk drive, the former with styling that matches the original 400/800 and the latter an aesthetic match for the 600XL/800XL/1200XL.

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Squee Splat
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This brings back memories. I remember my ol' Atari 400 with fond memories. My first programming environment actually, and man, that keyboard was horrible. I also remember some of those classic games on it...Star raiders, centipede, and asteroids were the ones I remember. I had that Atari computer for...a very long time. I pulled it out 6 or 7 years ago though, and unfortunately, it had gotten badly damaged beyond repair inside. It saddened me to no end that I had to throw it out. Great little article that brings back some nostalgia...

Joel Ford
profile image mention of the halcyon laser disk system?

Bill Loguidice
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Unfortunately, Joel, we will not be covering RDI's Halcyon console in this series or the future book, other than in a passing mention, as it only saw a very limited release with two games and, more importantly, cannot be considered a programmable videogame (or computer) system that generates its own graphics, which is the main criteria for a full write-up along with being released in the US. It doesn't mean many of us collectors wouldn't love one, though!

Paul Shirley
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Over here in Britain the original 400&800 were eye wateringly expensive and remained so until long after the cheaper C64 and Sinclair machines owned the market. The later models remained the expensive choice right up to the entire line hitting the remaindered bins.

You have to wonder how much damage Atari did by failing to compete outside the US.

Gregg Tavares
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Wow, I love being nostalgic for 8bit Atari.

I was a little disappointed to see errors in the very first part of the article though. The Atari 8-bit computers had a resolution of 320x200 and in fact could be programmed to display 384x262, the OS just defaulted to 320x200. They could display 128 colors AND get all of them on the screen unlike the Apple 2 which had 16 colors in low-res and 6 in hi-res and the Commodore 64 which had 16 colors period. (In fact the first screenshot on page 5 shows more than 16 colors on the screen)

Neither the 400 or the 800 had "monitor output". Both had RF (TV) output and that was it.

"Most users outfitted the four slots with a 10KB ROM". There was no such thing as a 10k rom. They were all 8k. There were 3 expansion slots for ram and 2 cartridge slots. One cartridge slot was usually used for BASIC. An 8k cartridge.

Atari was not secretive at all about their hardware or software. I still have the detailed publically available manuals. Far more details than anything Apple, Commodore or Tandy Radio Shack ever made available.

While I'm at it, other random tidbits:

The Atari system was the only 8bit consumer system with a *real* OS. For example Apple's was a complete hack, so bad to issue disk commands you had to use the print statement in basic and embed Ctrl-D in a string follow by the command since the Apple 2's OS/Basic was never designed for IO. Commodore's was not much better. Atari's actually had "device drivers" so your programs didn't need to know what device they were loading from.

Atari had generic graphics commands that worked in all it's 15 graphic modes unlike for example Apple which had special incompatible commands for each of its 5 modes.

Atari's engineers went out of their way to reserve half of the first 256 bytes of ram (a special part of ram on 6502 based machines) where as both Apple and Commodore's engineers used the entire area and left nothing for user programs leaving programmers on those systems to rely on hacks.

The Atari systems (along with the Amiga) are the only consumer systems to have ever supported "overscan" allowing you to generate an image that uses the entire TV display. Apple, Commodore, IBM etc all have a border around what they display. It's only in recent years that PCs and Macs have caught up without special hardware.

Iain Laskey
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You're wrong on some of what you've posted. Max res was 320x192. You could coax a little more X/Y by encrouching in the overscan areas but nowhere near as much as you cite.

The 400 lacked a monitor out but the 800 had one (composite only)

The 10K ROM was the OS 'personality' module. All 800's has that plus 1 to 3 16K RAM carts which is what the article says. You also had 2 x ROM carts (LEFT/RIGHT) under the front flap.

The stuff about the OS is largely correct although the first 256 bytes was used by the OS (with the odd byte here and there not used) and held the OS vectors etc. - perhaps you're thinking of page 6 which was left free for programmers.

Gregg Tavares
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Sorry Iain but as a long time Atari 800 programmer I know my stuff.

1) bytes 128-255 were reserved for user programs. The OS used none of those bytes. Basic used a few but left most of them unused unlike C64 and Apple 2 (both of which I also programmed).

As for resolution, The standard display when you booted the computer was mode 3 which was 40x24 8x8 characters or 320x192. Putting the system in overscan made it 48 across or 384 pixels. Boot up your Atari or an emu and basic and type

POKE 54286,0 (turn of interrups so the OS doesn't reset the next line)

POKE 54272,35 (make the display 384 pixels wide)

Now start editing the default display list.

POKE 39968,2 (turn on the top 8 lines)

POKE 39969,2 (turn on the next 8 lines)

POKE 39970,2 (turn on the next 8 lines)

You now have 384x216. Of course nothing will appear in those lines unless you write code to use them or create a display list that sets the vram address.

A few more pokes will add at least another 24 lines to the bottom to get 384x240. Maybe not 262 but a far cry form the 80x192 listed at the start of the article. Change the numbers from 2 to something else for different graph modes on those lines.

If you are using an EMU you'll need to configure it to display all of overscan mode. Most emu's default to clipping those areas.

As for the OS, there is no "personality module". The Atari 800 had an 8k OS rom 1k of which was the standard font. The rest simple services like device io and booting, the driver system and a few other small things. If there was such a thing it was added to far later modules. I programmed Atari software from the 400/800 era up though the 130XE.

Chris Ainsworth
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The 800 truly is a tank. I recently got mine up and running again, and after breaking it down and cleaning up the keyboard, everything works good as new. There are monitor to s-video output cables on the market now (check ebay), and the resulting image on a large modern tv is very acceptable.

Regarding the above, here's a snippet from A Guide to Atari 400/800 Computers (1982):

"ANTIC can control each scan line on the television receiver; however, not all 262 lines are visible. Because of a broadcast compensation factor called overscan, the actual number of visible scan lines on a television receiver is closer to 200 than 260. In the interest of compatibility with hundreds of different brands of televisions, Atari set a conservative standard of 192 scan lines for its graphics displays under BASIC."