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The History of Atari: 1971-1977

November 6, 2007 Article Start Previous Page 18 of 20 Next

All the new programmers soon learned how difficult Stella was to program. Programmers had to learn the quirks of the VCS to get as much power out of it as possible. There were few objects to work with, and and very little memory, so everything had to be done on the fly. A typical game would use the “Vertical Blank” (the time between refreshes of the TV screen display) to do collision detection, take input, compute game conditions and new graphics locations, and then use the “Horizontal Blank” to write everything to It was a complicated process that forced programmers to count the computation cycles of every instruction to make sure they could fit their code into these small intervals.

"Writing the kernels that make up the game programs, is like solving acrostic puzzles with lots and lots of possibilities. There's a certain class of programmer that can deal in the microcode like that. If it were easier to program, we wouldn't have these programmers, because they'd be bored. The VCS is an absolute challenge." cxi - Steve Mayer

“In the early days, the extreme hardware constraints eliminated most obvious game designs. So, game concepts had to be developed with those constraints expressly in mind. After I came up with a concept that I thought would be fun and could be implemented, I wrote it up and discussed it with others in the group, like David Crane, Bob Whitehead, and Larry Kaplan.”cxii
- Alan Miller

The 2600 as designed was a hacker's machine. It was deceptively simple, but with enough “open” and explorable parts that more and more power would be squeezed out of it for almost 20 years.

"Most early VCS ROM carts were only 2Kbytes. Programmers had to put tremendous effort into implementing a decent game in that small space." cxiii - Alan Miller

To program the VCS developers had to “unlearn” good programming practices to get their code to fit within the bizarre hardware. Tricks were passed around by programmers, and new programmers would have to pick them up quickly if they were going to be successful. Joe Decuir developed the color-cycling routine of the VCS to help stop “burn-in” that was a complaint of the Pong systems, which also doubled as a feature in games. “Flicker” (objects flashing on the screen) was caused by a trick that let programmers get more objects on the screen than were allowed.

Atari showed the VCS at the Summer CES in 1977, and prepared it for release in October. They knew that had the best product on the market, but they did not know how to inform the public of that fact.

During the manufacturing process, they ran into some problems that delayed the release of the unit. The VCS was very difficult to produce and test. The design required two types of screws that were difficult for assembly line workers to distinguish. Also, the cases were created as two plastic parts that would warp if not used quickly after being manufactured. The multiple integrated circuits and reliance on both cartridges and a television made testing the 2600 units extremely difficult. Some supplier chips were not fast enough for production 2600’s, but passed inspection because they worked fine in individual unit tests -- but not when the machine was put together. All of these things led to shipping delays and disappointed retailers.

Sears catalog By late November 1977, the Atari VCS shipped to retailers, including Sears who marketed their own version named the Sears Tele-Games Video Arcade. The system cost $199 and included the console, TV switchbox, two joysticks, a set of paddle controllers, and the pack-in game Combat. Eight other games were released with the console, most of which were conversions of Atari’s most popular coin-op games from years past.

Combat was programmed by Joe Decuir, Larry Wagner. Larry Kaplan. It was based on the Tank! and Jet fighter coin-ops. It was the perfect pack-in game for the VCS. It displayed incredibly addictive two player action, and contained one of the best two player games ever designed, Tank Pong.

“The first time I saw Combat on display in the local Fedmart TV section, I was blown away. There were actual arcade games up on that screen.” - Anonymous Atari Fan

Air-Sea Battle
was programmed by Larry Kaplan. It was based on the Destroyer and Anti-Aircraft coin-ops.

Air-Sea Battle was based on an Atari coin-op called Anti-Aircraft. In those days, we just ripped off anything we could make work.”cxiv - Larry Kaplan

Article Start Previous Page 18 of 20 Next

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