Why I Still Love Atari Computers
These days the Atari name is almost nowhere to be seen: the company is not the company it was when it was great. It’s not much more than simply the owner of some IP that enjoyed a golden age thirty years ago. But what a golden age it was.
Where It Started For Me
I was lucky as a kid because my dad was a computer guy. He was a programmer in the punch card era, and quickly became an Atari fan with the launch of their formidable 8-bit machines at the end of the seventies. I had an 800 in my bedroom when I was young, after my dad upgraded to an ST. That same machine is still alive and kicking to this day. Aside from a few LOGO procedures, I didn’t do anything with that computer except play games. One of those games was Star Raiders which I consider to be an incredible technical achievement for the time, and is still tremendously enjoyable 35 years after its release. It’s also still brutally difficult, and if you’ve never played it, I implore you to do so. If you ever liked Wing Commander, TIE Fighter or games of their ilk, then you’ll be right at home with Star Raiders.
During the 16-bit Atari vs. Amiga wars of the 80s, circumstances dictated that I was firmly in the Atari camp. Although technically the ST could never really match the A500 for power, it does get credit for being available considerably earlier, and the MIDI ports were great for musicians. I’ll never forget jumping out of my chair when I fired up a game called Chopper-X and my still-connected keyboard suddenly started blasting the music at full volume right behind me.
It was on the ST that I first played Monkey Island and Loom (games that I still play regularly) which kicked off a lifelong love affair with LucasArts’ graphic adventures. It was also the first machine I ever wrote code on, some primitive BASIC it may have been, but that pretty much set the direction for my life.
Perhaps it’s nostalgia talking, but computers today simply have no charm. There’s little fun to be found using them, they’re merely tools for a job, and tools that annoy more often than they delight. Macs and a few high-end PC laptops aside, they’re generally made of nasty, cheap plastic, and none of them seem like they’re built to last. As computers have become commodity items they have also fallen prey to the talons of planned obsolescence in a big way.
For me, all old computers are a joy to use (yes I’d even like to own a few Amigas these days); they have their own quirks and oddities, but they don’t feel sterile and they’ll certainly never chastise you for disconnecting a device unsafely. Granted, disconnecting a device in use is likely to trash your data, but I’d rather learn once and be treated as an intelligent being than deal with dialog boxes displaying mundane lines such as ‘You shut down your computer because of a problem’. No, you think? (for the record, this was my Mac, last week, after I had to forcefully shut it down because it wouldn’t wake up from sleep mode).
Last year I purchased my dream computer: An Atari Falcon 030. This ill-fated and little-known machine was the successor to the ST, released in 1992. Unfortunately the plug was pulled in 1993 so that the company could focus on the Jaguar. On the outside it looks pretty much the same as an ST but with a different logo and darker keycaps, but on the inside it’s a solid performer, supporting a true colour display and capable of recording audio direct to hard disk thanks to a Digital Signal Processor running alongside the CPU. Today people still covet these machines and you can even get new hardware for them. Lotharek produces a few items including the NetUSBee which makes transferring files on and off of the machine far easier than in the past, and there’s some cheap IDE DOMs available which make for easy, silent replacements for aging IDE hard drives.
Yes – it feels a little clunky and awkward compared to modern machines, but it’s fun to use and explore. There’s a few people developing games specifically for the Falcon still, and I’m looking to join their ranks; I have some sprites and things moving around but free time is hard to come by. Either way, I’ll keep at it when I can because it’s enjoyable and a good way to sharpen the programming skills.
Go Buy One!
There’s still a strong and very active community surrounding Atari computers and consoles with several great forums and #atariscne on IRCNET is a great way to get help with code, so there’s never been a better time to get involved. The machines are relatively cheap (Falcons and TTs aside), though slightly tricky to get hold of in Australia compared to Europe and the US. There seems to be more and more hardware extensions appearing all the time which makes using them better than it’s ever been. And don’t forget to buy that Star Raiders cart while you’re at it if you spring for an 8-bit.
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