A History of Gaming Platforms: Atari 8-Bit Computers

By Matt Barton,Bill Loguidice

[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.

TYPICAL SYSTEM SPECIFICATIONS
Release Year:
1979
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.


The larger Atari 800 was unquestionably superior to its cheaper sibling. It offered 16KB RAM (later 48KB), full-stroke keyboard, monitor output, expansion slots, and two cartridge ports (marked LEFT CARTRIDGE and RIGHT CARTRIDGE).

This dual-cartridge slot would remain unique to the system. The expansion slots were most often used for memory expansion, but also supported display adapters and other devices. Most expansion modules came in long plastic cases and snapped in like cartridges. Later releases were just boards without an enclosure; this utilitarian design improved internal air flow. Most users outfitted the four slots with a 10KB ROM and three 16KB RAM modules to achieve the maximum standard 48KB system.

With no cartridge inserted, both the 400 and 800 boot into a simple Notepad application. BASIC had to be loaded from cartridge, which was inserted into the LEFT CARTRIDGE slot on the 800, allowing another cartridge to be used in the RIGHT CARTRIDGE slot, if needed. Because the RIGHT CARTRIDGE slot was rarely used, later Atari systems omitted this interesting, but costly, feature.

The Atari computers were pin compatible with VCS controllers, providing an excellent range of single-button digital control options. The four controller ports would not be repeated on another Atari system until 1982's Atari 5200 SuperSystem, which was a video game console based on the Atari 400, though it was not directly compatible.

A small selection of games supported the additional controller ports. The most famous of these are Electronic Arts's classic multiplayer strategy game by Dani Bunten, M.U.L.E. (1983) and Atari's own Super Breakout (1981), which accommodated up to eight players using four sets of paddle controllers. As with later versions of the Atari 5200, new entries in the 8-bit computer line would forego the extra pair of controller ports.


Atari computer software came in all shapes, sizes, types and formats, offering a wide range of cartridge, cassette and disk titles in education, entertainment, productivity and utilities.

The sound of the Atari computers was generated by the versatile POKEY chip, which would also play a role in the development of Atari's later 7800 ProSystem console. The POKEY, which also read input from the keyboard and helped with serial communication, generated an impressive four channels (voices) of sound. Thus, the Atari 8-bit computers offered the best audio performance for years. A simple internal speaker similar to the one in the Apple II emitted clicks when a key on the keyboard was pressed. This speaker was sometimes used as a fifth voice.

The original graphics chip, the CTIA, was an improved version of the VCS's flexible TIA chip and was capable of an impressive range of color and resolution modes. In 1981, Atari upgraded the 400 and 800 with a new graphics chip, the GTIA, which was even more powerful. Both graphics chips worked with the ANTIC microprocessor to help balance the display workload for superior performance. This arrangement allowed for 12 different display mode combinations with the CTIA and 16 with the GTIA. All future Atari 8-bit systems would come standard with the GTIA.

Peripherals such as printers, cassette recorders, and disk drives attached to the SIO port and could be daisy-chained. Although easy for the end user and extremely versatile, this proprietary port required an adapter for use of third-party devices based on more typical industry standards.


The following are some of the highlights of the major Atari 8-bit systems released in the United States after the 400 and 800:

1982: With a consolidated number of chips, the Atari 1200XL, a sleek silver and black machine, was designed as a replacement for both the 400 and 800. When released, however, it was buggy, and the operating system sometimes rendered it incompatible with older software. The number of controller and cartridge ports was cut in half, and the internal speaker was removed, with the "fifth" channel of sound now routed in the same way as the POKEY's audio. These changes would become standard in later models.

However, instead of replacing the aging 400 and 800 line, the Atari 1200XL actually increased sales of those systems. Meanwhile, Commodore was having great success with its low-priced VIC 20 and announced the more powerful Commodore 64 (C64).

1983: The Atari 600XL and 800XL were meant as replacements for the failed 1200XL. They had better backward compatibility and a tiered system approach similar to that of the 400/800. Both new systems had BASIC built in, and the 600XL shipped with 16KB RAM, while the 800XL featured 64KB. Despite the relative inconvenience, translator software addressed most of the remaining compatibility problems with older software. Unfortunately for Atari, by this time, the C64 was already establishing itself as the dominant 8-bit computer.

1985: The Atari 65XE/130XE replaced the black and silver XL line. These units were cheaper and had gray cases and keyboards that matched Atari's new 16-bit ST line of systems. The 65XE came with 64KB RAM, while the 130XE contained an extra memory management unit and came standard with 128KB.

1987: After The Great Video Game Crash and Atari's return to the video game market in 1986 with the 7800 and the 2600 Jr., the company added a third console to the mix the following year. This unit was the XEGS (XE Game System). The XEGS was a complete, back-to-its-roots, re-imagining of the 8-bit computer line based on the 65XE, with detachable keyboard and built-in Missile Command.

It was also bundled with Flight Simulator II and Bug Hunt on separate cartridges. The latter supported the included light gun. Although the release of the XEGS brought an influx of re-released and new software for Atari 8-bit computers on cartridge (some not compatible with the older systems featuring less than 64KB), the three-console approach against the single Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) was ultimately ineffective.


The Atari XEGS with detachable keyboard was as capable as any other Atari computer, but with pastel-colored buttons didn't necessarily look the part.

So, with all the custom chips and comparatively impressive performance, what went wrong for Atari? The most likely answer is that the company couldn't recover from the disappointment it caused with the highly anticipated 1200XL. Its efforts to atone for this mistake with that computer's replacements were too late and expensive to win back consumers.

Furthermore, as a "game" company, Atari never achieved the legitimacy of an Apple on the high end and was unable to sustain momentum or reduce prices in the low-end market, particularly after the C64 became dominant. In 1984, in the face of declining sales, Atari's home computer and video game divisions were bought from Warner Communications by former Commodore founder Jack Tramiel.


Tramiel formed Atari Corporation, and his leadership changed the course of both divisions after The Great Video Game Crash of 1984. He took the company out of the video game market and focused on the development of a new 16-bit line of computers. Atari staked its future on its 16-bit Atari ST systems, which launched in 1985.

However, the company began to focus on video games again in 1986, leaving even fewer resources for properly supporting the 8-bit computers. Still, even as "third choice" systems for a good portion of their initial run, the Atari 8-bit computers were a success, especially considering the early exits of many competitors. The Atari Corporation officially dropped its support for the 8-bit computer line on January 1, 1992.

Software

Despite their many promising and often unmatched technical features, the Atari 8-bit computers took years after they were first launched to gain market momentum. However, these systems eventually received a wealth of software support on cartridge, cassette and 5.25" floppy disk.

Although most often used in educational language software, cassettes could support data and recorded audio at the same time, since the proprietary recorder used a stereo signal similar to how the APF Imagination Machine's and a few select other computer cassette drives functioned.

"The original Atari 800 is unique in the history of home computers. It has four built-in joystick ports, all easily accessible from the front of the unit (early games like mule and survivor took advantage of the four joystick ports). It has two heavy-duty cartridge slots. The top hatch also flips open to easily plug in expandable memory cards. The Atari 800 was built like a tank with a very robust keyboard. Unfortunately, these unique features are missing on all later models where the design was streamlined." - Mike Vox, Armchair Arcade website, August 2004


Games such as Datamost's 1983 platformer, Mr. Robot and His Robot Factory, made excellent use of the Atari 8-bit systems' color options. While the Atari 8-bit's colors are noticeably muted in comparison to other contemporary platforms and can be difficult to manipulate, in the hands of skilled programmers, the results could be impressive.

Unlike Apple, Atari was secretive about the inner workings of their systems. Often, no one would know something was even possible until Atari itself used the technique in a game or grudgingly divulged the information.

This "trade secret" approach sometimes left a quality gap between first-party and third-party games. Nevertheless, clever programmers eventually found ways around Atari's corporate policies to make impressive games of their own.

Some critics point to On-line Systems' maze game, Jawbreaker, as a turning point in 1981 for technically sound third party titles on the platform, but it wouldn't be until the following year that consumers would start to see this reflected en masse. In the end, the best games for Atari's 8-bit series were at least a technical match for what was available on most other 8-bit computer systems.


Rampant piracy almost killed Lucasfilm's entry into the software market before it began, but a name change to LucasArts and dozens of games later, the company is still going strong. Titles such as the 1986 classics Rescue on Fractalus (pictured) and Ballblazer got the company off to a great start.


Even though Atari was not very forthcoming about revealing technical information, the company nevertheless took a positive step towards fostering a strong user community with the creation of a new division, the Atari Program Exchange (APX).

The APX featured a free quarterly mail order catalog of user-written software that went to all Atari computer owners who opted into the program. Users could both submit their own programs and purchase the programs of others, who would receive a small royalty from each sale, as well as occasional prize money.

A great deal of productivity, utility and entertainment software was produced, with some of the best titles later receiving full commercial releases, like Chris Crawford's turn-based strategy game, Eastern Front (1941) (1981), and Greg Christensen's shooting game, Caverns of Mars (1981).

Other APX notables include future First Star Software founder Fernando Herrera's My First Alphabet (1981) educational program, a $25,000 APX Star Award winner, and John Palevich's Dandy (1983), a user-extendable four player action dungeon crawling game believed to be the inspiration for Atari's hit arcade game, Gauntlet (1985).

Dandy would receive its own update in the form of Dark Chambers, released for Atari 8-bit computers, as well as the Atari 2600 and 7800, in 1988.


As a follow-up to his impressive side-scrolling shooter from 1983, The Tail of Beta Lyrae, Philip Price's RPG Alternate Reality: The City (1985) probably took better overall advantage of the performance capabilities of the Atari 8-bits than any game before or since, with as many as 63 colors on-screen at once and synchronized sound.

With a strong arcade catalog and an established development and publishing system, Atari itself released many important titles. Besides a large cache of productivity and educational software, Atari came through with arcade translations and a few original titles. Although not quite as well supported as the Apple II or Commodore 64, the Atari computers were targeted by most of the same software publishers. Many of the industry's top games either originated on Atari's system or were ported later.

Standout titles include Atari's beloved space combat simulation, Star Raiders (1980); Synapse's multiscreen magic-based action game, Necromancer (1982), underground helicopter action game, Fort Apocalypse (1982) and animated cartoon platformer, Alley Cat (1983); First Star Software's attractive arcade shooter, Astro Chase (1982); Datasoft's licensed action platformers, including Bruce Lee (1984), Conan (1984), Zorro (1985) and The Goonies (1986), as well as Philip Price's technical masterpiece, role-playing game Alternate Reality: The City (1985); and Lucasfilm's adventure shooter featuring fractal geometry-based landscapes, Rescue on Fractalus (1984).

Modern Activity

Generally speaking, most Atari 8-bit systems with at least 48KB are compatible with the majority of software. However, incompatibilities arose as Atari revised the operating system of the later XL and XE systems. Atari provided a translator disk that helped to temporarily revert the newer operating environments to what was on the original 400 and 800 systems, solving most compatibility issues. However, certain cartridges released during the XEGS era will not run on anything but a true 64KB system, though others require just 48KB or less.

"The overnight switch from the 400 and 800 to the XL series may confuse some potential buyers. It isn't always easy to figure out which machines have which features - and Atari's dismal naming system doesn't exactly endow each model with a distinctive personality." - Electronic Games magazine, December 1983

Optimally, a hardcore collector would have both a 48KB 800 with GTIA and a minimum 64KB XL or XE system, for the full spectrum of native compatibility. However, more casual collectors are fine with just the latter. Today, most of the various Atari 8-bit computer variations are available for about $50, give or take, with the final choice often coming down to a buyer's preference for a particular system style and class.


The XEGS came with both a light gun and a classic Atari-style joystick with gray styling instead of the usual all black. The joystick functioned as expected, but the light gun was generally inaccurate.


The classic 48KB 800 has four controller ports and a second cartridge slot, features no other Atari 8-bit can match. The 64MB XEGS is the only Atari 8-bit with a detachable keyboard and functions like a video game console without one. The 130XE is the only Atari 8-bit with 128MB of standard memory.

Peripherals are nearly as plentiful as the systems themselves, with a good range of compatible cassette recorders, disk drives, and printers still available at reasonable prices.

It is possible, however, to access software without anything other than the base system, either through some type of flash memory-based device or custom cable connection to a modern computer through the standard Atari 8-bit SIO port.

Software on cartridges, cassettes, and disks are also easy to locate, with a range of online stores and auction websites still catering to the platform. Robust emulation is a given for a system line this popular, with excellent choices such as the Multiple Emulator Super System (MESS) and Atari800Win Plus.

Since Atari 8-bit computers used the same controller connection standard as the VCS, any compatible joystick, paddle, or other controller will work fine. Many Sega Master System (SMS) and Sega Genesis gamepads are also compatible.

The light gun that came with the XEGS and available separately is unique to the Atari 8-bit line. Although readily available, it's the only light gun Atari ever released and is used by games on both the VCS and Atari 7800. Collectors of those systems are often on the lookout for one as well.

The huge number of online resources for Atari's 8-bit computers total as much as (or more than) any other classic system. As with all Atari products, the passion many users still have for the 8-bit computers is hard to top. With ongoing developments by the hobbyist community in both hardware and software, there is always something new and exciting to purchase or try out, be it a feature-packed game or development tool.


Though not without its quirks, Atari's 1200XL is generally considered to have the best keyboard and styling of any model in the line.

Looking back on the history of the Atari 8-bit series, one might wonder why the famous company wasn't able to compete with the likes of Apple and Commodore. After all, their arcade games and home video game consoles practically defined the early years of the gaming industry.

However, a few questionable design decisions, management shakeups and the popular, but unfair, notion that Atari was "only" a game-maker no doubt contributed to its less-than-stellar, though long-lived, performance on the market.

Thankfully, decades later, retrogaming enthusiasts can still experience the unique offerings of the Atari 8-bit family and see for themselves why it has become one of the best classic computing platforms for the active collector and hobbyist, with new hardware accessories and software titles released on a regular basis.

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