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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).
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.