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When the Atari ST Was the Future of Computing

The Atari 520ST was Atari’s first 16-bit salvo in the private pc wars of the 1980s. A new ebook by ExtremeTech Editor-in-Chief Jamie Lendino exhibits the large affect the ST had on each gaming and music production.

The Atari ST, largely forgotten as we speak, was an unimaginable pc. Scorching on the heels of Apple’s 1984 Macintosh, the ST, released by the then-new Atari Company beneath Jack Tramiel, was the first personal pc to supply a bitmapped shade graphical consumer interface. Lower than a yr later, the 1040ST model turned the first pc to offer 1 megabyte of memory for lower than $1,00zero. The ST was powered by a then-cutting-edge 8MHz Motorola 68000 CPU and came with a mouse, 3.5-inch floppy drive, and your selection of colour or high-resolution monochrome screens. Later ST models included a further DSP chip for digital audio, built-in hardware scrolling, quicker processors, and a spread of onerous disk drives.

My favorite pc of all time remains the Atari 800, which debuted in 1979. But a special place in my heart is reserved for the 1985 16-bit model, the one that delivered each refined gaming and kicked off my lifelong affinity for recording music. So I needed to write a e-book about it. My new e-book, Quicker Than Mild: The Atari ST and the 16-Bit Revolution, traces the history, the highs, and the lows of this incredible personal pc, from the very first 520ST to the stellar, rare Falcon 030 mannequin that arrived in 1992.

To today, I often assessment digital audio workstation software program for our sister website in addition to operating ExtremeTech, and I can credit score my love of music recordingSEEAMAZON_ET_135 See Amazon ET commerce to my unique Atari 520ST system. Like no other pc before or since, it came with built-in MIDI ports that made it a snap for the machine to speak to synthesizers, samplers, and drum machines, and the ST’s GUI made it straightforward to work with printed musical notation. STs even booted extremely shortly, because of their containing the whole working system and GUI on fast ROM chips, relatively than having to be loaded off of a disk.h

One yr in the making, Quicker Than Mild: The Atari ST and the 16-Bit Revolution is now delivery on Amazon. Right here’s a free ebook excerpt; I hope you take pleasure in it.

Quicker Than Mild: The Atari ST and the 16-Bit Revolution
by Jamie Lendino
p. 85-91

Pc Position-Enjoying Games (CRPGs)

Except for pure twitch video games found in the golden age of arcades, my different favorite style of recreation will all the time be CRPGs. And as I discussed in my first guide about the Atari Eight-bit pc lineup, I used to be sad certain key titles corresponding to the Wizardry collection never made it to the platform. Others, resembling Origin Techniques’ Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar, confirmed up a bit late and have been lacking key parts because of memory constraints (in this case, the in-game music). The ST gave CRPG followers like me far more to sink their tooth into.

Phantasie (SSI, 1986)

SSI made its identify on bringing basic tabletop wargaming to the pc display. However arguably simpler have been its makes an attempt at simulating Dungeons & Dragons-like role-playing games. The first SSI recreation we’ll talk about for the ST was one of its greatest CRPGs. It set the tone both for what we should always anticipate from both SSI and 16-bit platforms going forward.

Phantasie ended up being the first of three installments. Programmer Winston Douglas Wood developed the recreation on an Apple II; SSI then ported it to a quantity of different platforms, including as a graphically enhanced and more colorful model for the ST. I still love listening to the theme track with its trills in the melody. In Phantasie, you started the recreation on the medieval isle of Gelnor with a celebration of six adventurers, selected from a whopping 15 races and six character courses. You had to discover the Nine Rings and use them to destroy the Darkish Lord Nikademus and his Black Knights. The game featured a passive talent system Wood stated was derived from RuneQuest and D&D.[i]

The cities in the recreation allow you to type parties, save games, purchase and sell gear, and retailer your cash in a bank. The land spanned wilderness, mountainous regions, and of course, dungeons, populated with all types of treasure and 80 totally different monster varieties. In combat, the recreation showed detailed drawings of every player and monster. You queued up your instructions and executed them abruptly, after which the combat system performed out that turn of the battle so you can see what happened before you made your subsequent set of moves. Watching enemies get destroyed one after the other was fairly satisfying.

One of Phantasie’s greatest features was it mapped itself. The “fog of war” was cleared as you explored and then stayed persistent. That meant you didn’t need a pen and graph paper to map it by hand. The game even saved the state of a dungeon after you left it, which was unusual. And once you arrived back at a town, you selected what number of shares of expertise factors you’d earned to allot to every character, one other revolutionary difference from different CRPGs.

Phantasie first came out for several Eight-bit methods in 1985. The ST port that arrived a yr later was significantly sharper and extra colourful, and supported the ST’s mouse-based GUI. In an April 1987 assessment of Phantasie in Dragon #120, Hartley and Patrick Lesser wrote the ST port “incorporates far more sophisticated graphics and sound, and has almost become a new game because of the ST’s environment. Windows now accomplish a great many of the keyboard commands, such as combat, spell-casting, and earning levels…In the ST version, you simply click on the Guild’s doors with the mouse, and a pull-down menu at the top of the screen displays your choices.”

Figure four.3: One of the greatest unique CRPGs of its day, SSI’s Phantasie delivered an enormous world to explore and many of challenges on your get together of six adventurers.

There was no in-game music, but that was one of the recreation’s few faults. To this present day I hear the recreation’s distinct “bleep” alert sound in my head. Phantasie delivered hours of in-depth RPG goodness, and it was the start of an outstanding trilogy as nicely. Keep in mind it might be no less than a yr earlier than The Bard’s Tale and an Ultima IV conversion showed up, a lot much less Ultima V and VI. For a time, Phantasie was the most hard-core CRPG obtainable for the ST.

The second installment, Phantasie II, got here shortly after. It had a brand new town display and, of course, all new maps to explore and monsters to struggle, together with new terrain features resembling molten lava, mist, and Dark Voids. Otherwise, the recreation caught to the unique’s mechanics, which, as the blog World 1-1 factors out in the present day, was commonplace with Ultima, Wizardry, and other widespread RPG collection.[ii] This time around, Nikademus has created an orb he used to curse the individuals of the island of Ferronrah. Your aim was to seek out and destroy the orb. There was one new talent referred to as Toss Rock, which any of the six characters might perform in fight at any time. You may import your get together from the first recreation to play the second one, although you lost most of their collected gold and expertise in the course of. Collectively, the two games might nicely add up to more than 100 hours of play.

Rogue (Epyx, 1986)

The dungeon crawler Rogue was initially written for UNIX-powered mainframes in 1980 as a sort of graphical iteration of earlier text adventures (despite the fact that “graphics” in this case meant simple ASCII textual content characters). However Rogue came into its personal on the Atari ST because of a colorful port from Epyx. Your objective was to retrieve the Amulet of Yendor from the Dungeon Lord. After getting into your identify at the trademark title display with the pink serpent, you started each recreation with a mace, a go well with of armor, a bow, and a few arrows. Along the approach, you encountered hobgoblins, bats, winged kestrals, and a number of other monsters, 26 in all. Traverse each degree of the underground maze and also you’d find pots of gold, fits of armor, new weapons, food, wands, and scrolls that let you forged magic spells—some of it probably cursed.

As you fought monsters, you gained experience factors and ranges. When you lost all of your hit factors, you have been greeted with a dying display, complete with a three-dimensional tombstone and custom inscription containing your identify. Should you began another recreation, you needed to start at the prime of the dungeon as soon as more, and the format was randomized each time, so you by no means performed the similar recreation twice.

Figure four.4: The dungeon dive Rogue benefited considerably on the ST with an enormous graphics improve, including a zoomed-in view and liberal use of colour.

The primary view consisted of three windows. The most important displayed the dungeon, while the proper aspect confirmed your present stock. You may management your character with the mouse, nevertheless it was clumsy; I all the time found it much simpler to only use the keyboard cursor keys, or the ST’s numeric keypad to maneuver in eight directions as an alternative of four. You attacked by shifting “into” a monster, and picked up gadgets simply by shifting over them. The bottom of the display offered a rolling textual content replace of in-game motion, similar to “You have defeated the orc,” or “The kestral has scored an excellent hit on you.” As you played, you had to control the bar graphs, which confirmed you how many hit factors you had left, your current power degree, and the way robust your armor was. After combat, it was essential to rest to restore hit factors.

The Atari ST port of the seminal CRPG contained a wonderful zoomed-in view, which featured colourful graphics and attractively drawn character and monster icons. You possibly can also play the recreation zoomed out—it was still extra engaging this manner than old-school ASCII characters—or change between the two views throughout the recreation by pressing the Enter key. Other keys let you equip or remove weapons or armor; sooner or later your pack would refill, so you’d need to let go of some gadgets in case you needed to select up new ones.

Each interaction with monsters was also randomized to some extent, identical to in Dungeons & Dragons, and weighted ultimately based mostly on the energy of the monster you have been attacking and your character’s current power and armor. Typically secret passages let you get to rooms ordinarily not seen. The shortage of a multiple save-game function made it extraordinarily robust to get to the deepest of the 26 levels as a way to claim the Amulet of Yendor. You might save your progress and go eat dinner, but when you have been lifeless, you have been lifeless and the save can be gone.

If I needed to decide only one Atari ST recreation to play in the present day, regardless of its lack of general depth (no pun meant), it might be Rogue. It’s robust to overstate the significance of this recreation, as it gave start to a whole style of solo-adventure turn-based and “action” RPGs resembling Diablo and Torchlight, to not mention the proliferation of “roguelikes” that dot the gaming landscape right now across consoles, Steam, and telephones. I wish to assume an excellent portion of that influence came specifically from the Atari ST port of Rogue.

Temple of Apshai Trilogy (Epyx, 1986)

A refreshingly totally different interpretation of the widespread CRPG, the unique Temple of Apshai appeared in 1979 and spawned many variants, typically collectively generally known as Dunjonquest. Temple of Apshai Trilogy was notable for its improved graphical parts, mouse-driven interface, and memorable title soundtrack on the ST. This package deal included upgraded variations of the unique recreation and its two direct add-ons, Higher Reaches of Apshai and Curse of Ra.

On this recreation you managed a single adventurer who explored a dungeon, fought monsters, and picked up treasure and magic gadgets. The GEM interface, although appreciated, still felt a bit of bit like a prototype here—typically shifting your character in a room took a number of tries, and you continue to wanted the keyboard in the event you had any hope of beating monsters shortly.

Temple of Apshai originally stood out for being one of the earliest CRPGs with graphics. It might additionally properly be the first recreation that included paragraph-length room descriptions, as columnist Scorpia pointed out in an expansive survey of all the CRPGs launched by the center of 1991.[iii] The descriptions have been printed in the guide, and also you matched them by quantity to the room you have been presently in. These gave the recreation an identical really feel to enjoying Dungeons & Dragons around a desk with a real dungeon grasp. The ST contained enough power to include and show these descriptions as half of the recreation, although.

My favorite Apshai recreation to this present day stays Gateway to Apshai on the Atari 8-bit. However Temple of Apshai Trilogy occupied me for a lot of hours on the ST, and I did recognize the graphics improve. Reviewers have been somewhat much less type. Gregg Pearlman noted several interface-related deficiencies in the Might 1987 challenge of Antic and stated though many of the recreation’s parts have been fascinating and imaginative, “Apshai probably should have actually been souped up a bit more for the ST, though, instead of just looking that way.”

Alternate Actuality: The Metropolis (Datasoft, 1986)

Next, let’s speak about a port of an present Eight-bit title that serves as a very good window into what the ST brought and didn’t deliver to the table. Philip Worth’s Alternate Actuality collection, sadly left unfinished after simply two of the planned seven installments, shortly made its method from the Atari 8-bit line to the ST. Worth didn’t program the ST port; that activity was handled by Rick Mirsky and Jim Ratcliff, with Steve Hofmann doing the graphics.

As earlier than, you have been kidnapped from a quiet life by an alien spaceship and transported to a room with one exit. You first created a character by walking by way of a colorful portal, which might randomly freeze a gaggle of spinning counters to score your numerous attributes (Power, Dexterity, and so forth). You emerged at the different aspect of the portal in the City of Xebec’s Demise. As soon as in the city correct, your aim was to build up your character by exploring the numerous passageways, preventing enemies, shopping for gear, eating at taverns, and otherwise gathering clues to attempt to figure out easy methods to return to Earth.

The ST port got here with a Fast Reference card that defined the need for a clean Character disk, which you had to create earlier than getting began, in addition to the following directions that encapsulated youth on the ST platform:

  1. If in case you have a machine with ROM-based GEM(the working system is all the time in the pc), simply insert Aspect 1 of The Metropolis into Drive A and activate the pc. The game masses routinely.
  2. If your machine has RAM-based GEM(you employ a system disk in addition the machine), insert the GEM disk into Drive A and turn on the pc. Once GEM is loaded, take away the disk and insert Aspect 1 of The Metropolis into Drive A. Double-click on the Drive A icon, then open the Auto folder. Double-click the AR file and the recreation masses.

The sport itself contained quite a few improvements, akin to altering weather, night time and day cycles, hidden character attributes that affected your well-being in numerous methods, an entire alignment system that responded to your in-game actions, a classy fight system featuring the capacity to allure or trick your enemies, and even an in-game financial system where you possibly can earn money at numerous jobs and invest it in banks.

The ST model added help for joining guilds of numerous disciplines, which introduced another nice dimension to character improvement. Dedicated fans might have observed vital modifications to the association of Gary Gilbertson’s memorable music. It acquired more of a rhythmic staccato quality on the ST, possible as compensation for the Yamaha chip’s three-voice configuration as an alternative of POKEY’s four-voice polyphony on the 8-bit platform.

Six more video games have been deliberate in the collection. The City was meant to be a sort of house base for the other video games when you’ve built up your character. Only one other recreation (The Dungeon) was released, itself just a cut up of what was purported to be part of The Metropolis in the first place, so unfortunately there wasn’t an entire lot to do past exploring and build up your character. Plus, the recreation was unbelievably troublesome, with copper, outlets, and expertise factors arduous to return by. And whenever you died, you have been gone ceaselessly and needed to start from the beginning until you had made an additional copy of your character disk. Even the music it performed at your dying was worthy of distinction, with on-screen lyrics and a bouncing ball identical to the title sequence: “Now that you’re gone…some will grieve on, on, and on…” It was this plodding, minor key imperial march factor that seemed like when Mozart was making enjoyable of Salieri in the movie Amadeus. (What? You anticipated me to make current popular culture references?)

Time hasn’t been variety to Alternate Actuality’s spectacular technical achievements, both. The view of the recreation world by way of the interface was small and the 3D animation considerably sluggish. And as with most games of this period, you wanted to map it out on paper (though Datasoft thoughtfully offered you with graph paper and a head start in the guide). Finally, Alternate Reality proved too formidable for its time, nevertheless it set the stage for modern, open-world, persistent CRPGs resembling those in The Elder Scrolls collection and World of Warcraft. (Notice: This can be a tough one to emulate, as it seems notably sensitive to the TOS version and wishes an early hardware configuration. To get it working in Hatari, use TOS 1.00, uncheck Fast Floppy Access, verify MMU emulation, and uncheck the Patch Timer-D field.)

Ultima III: Exodus (Origin Techniques, 1986)

Ultima creator Richard Garriott based Origin Techniques in Houston in 1983 along together with his brother, father, and Chuck Bueche (Chuckles, of Ultima fame). The group had grown sick of making an attempt to collect funds from different corporations that had revealed Garriott’s video games. Origin launched numerous key games on the ST throughout the platform’s life. One of my favourite RPGs on the Atari 8-bit platform was Ultima III: Exodus. Its arrival on the ST, refreshed with a new graphical consumer interface, gave me purpose to play and remedy it once more.

As before, the recreation was the first in the collection to allow you to play a celebration of characters (in this case, four) in an effort to save lots of Sosaria from the evil Exodus. You had to construct up your adventurers by preventing monsters, getting treasure, and gaining experience points and ranges. The objective was to discover the secrets and techniques of the mysterious moongates and find the 4 marks that let you enter Exodus’s lair.

The graphics have been much improved on the ST—not necessarily sharper, but with 16 colors as an alternative of four, and with out requiring artifacting to display them. This meant you can easily see real variations in every character’s appearance and outfits, and also you didn’t should rely on, say, one character holding a cross and the other holding a employees to tell the cleric from the wizard. The game also ran quite a bit quicker, which made it simpler to move throughout Sosaria and explore the cities. One other key difference between the Atari 8-bit and ST versions, and never essentially for the better, was the music. All of the tracks in-game have been the similar, however on the ST, they have been pitched an octave larger. I never found out why this was the case and I had all the time found it annoying. (Your tastes might range.)

A Might 1987 evaluation in Antic complained there was nonetheless a lot of disk access, which was an issue then but not so much now in case you’re enjoying off an SD card or in an emulator. It additionally had the by-then normal problem mixture mouse-and-keyboard interface; the mouse control helped, but you continue to wanted the keyboard for a lot of tasks and the two together didn’t necessarily make the recreation easier to regulate. Nonetheless, the recreation was gratifying and is arguably the greatest period-correct iteration to play now (notwithstanding later MS-DOS improve patches and LairWare’s 1995 640-by-480-pixel remake on the Mac).




[iii] Scorpia, “Computer Role-Playing Game Survey,” Pc Gaming World, October 1991, 109.

Jamie Lendino is the Editor-in-Chief of ExtremeTech. He is also the writer of Breakout: How Atari Eight-Bit Computer systems Defined a Era and Journey: The Atari 2600 at the Dawn of Console Gaming.

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