Revisiting old times with the Atari ST

After much time spent going through games and magazines from my time as a rabid Atari ST user I finally got the old hardware (and more) from out of storage. After more than twenty years being packed away, they are still in great condition and within a few minutes were up and running again. More importantly, they were back playing games. ๐Ÿ™‚

The ST is a product of the mid-80’s; a time long before the PC cemented itself as a gaming powerhouse, when the Apple Macintosh was new to the world in all its monochrome glory and the Amiga was still another year away. Much like the console wars of now, there were a number of players active who were all competing for your money.

The Atari 1040STFM - the first 16bit computer my parents owned.

The Atari 1040STFM – the first 16bit computer my family owned.

My parents had made the first step (I was still in high school!) and picked up a 1040STFM which had a massive 1Mb RAM (!), a built in Floppy drive and an RF modulator that allowed it to use a television for a monitor. Our last computer in comparison (an Atari 800XL) had a mere 64Kb of RAM which was only enough to store the data of two full screen images from this new machine.

Like the Mac and Amiga, the ST’s CPU was a Motorola 68000, in this case running at 8Mhz. The operating system was a combination of a custom product (TOS) for running the core system and a licensed windows based interface (GEM) used mostly for productivity applications. It had three graphics modes: 320×200 (16 colours from a palette of 512), 640×200 (4 colours) and 640×400 (monochrome).

In addition to the standard I/O ports for connecting serial and parallel devices like modems and printers, the ST had an unusual inclusion of a set of MIDI ports allowing it to connect directly to musical instruments such as synthesizers and drum machines. That odd feature would eventually give the platform an extension on its life amongst musicians long after it had been passed on by the general public.

At the time the hardware stood up fairly well against PCs sporting Intel’s 80286 processors but would later fall behind against future generations sporting VGA graphics and dedicated audio cards. Especially when Microsoft Windows took off and made it the clear choice for productivity applications and eventually games.

The Atari SC1224 Monitor - being really productive playing Afterburner.

The Atari SC1224 Monitor – being really productive playing Afterburner.

As well as the computer, my parents also picked up Atari’s 12 inch colour monitor (SC1224) which might seem tiny now but was perfect for showing off the graphical capabilities of the machine. As mentioned earlier an STFM could also plug into a television but having that additional clarity that a monitor provided was great for productivity. Even now games come up pretty well on the old screen. To access the monochrome graphics mode though you needed another monitor (SM124) unless you were able to put down the cash for one of the then very expensive multisync monitors.

The computer was also bundled with a collection of twenty games known as the “Power Pack” which was the kind of monumental pack-in that you’d never imagine happening nowadays with new hardware. Would Sony or Microsoft want to give that much good stuff away and risk the buyer not needing another game ever again? Nintendo definitely wouldn’t.

There was quite mix of games in the Power Pack too with arcade conversions like Afterburner, Double Dragon and Gauntlet II plus a few neat home releases like Starglider and Nebulus. The ease of picking up most of these games and diving right in gave them quite a long shelf life even with all of the other titles I owned over the years. I will try to cover all the games that were included in the Power Pack in more detail soon.

Though there was a huge amount of original content for the platform (Ubisoft first made a big name for themselves in this era), many publishers also relied on arcade and film conversions to bolster their catalogues. I certainly wasn’t complaining though – I got to play through the ST version of Double Dragon long before I would do the same with the arcade version.

With so many games available from the beginning there might not have been much incentive to buy more, but eventually I did. One the first new games I owned was Dungeon Master which totally changed what I thought computer games could be. I mean, you can now use a mouse to play “real” games? ๐Ÿ˜‰ Then there were flight sims like F19 Stealth Fighter and F29 Retaliator which really took advantage of the extra horsepower to make for a more immersive experience.

A big bonus were the many magazines which thanks to the inclusion of cover disks provided an incredible amount of new software. It wasn’tโ€‹ just game demos either. It was through those that I received a copy of the language GFA Basic and first began on my programming path.

Of the computers I used growing up, the ST was the first that showed me the way to a possible career in IT. I first learned to write programs for school assignments and used it for much of my early University studies. I may have started being productive on the 8bit machines but it was here that I found a multitude of new ways to use my computer. I even wrote my first and only driver here for an old Logitech dot matrix printer – this was back when manuals fully documented all the control codes to get them running.

My trusty Atari 520STFM - a gift from my parents that was used a lot when I was studying alone.

My trusty Atari 520STFM (safe in its box) – a gift from my parents that was later used a lot when I was studying at University.

Though the wedge case design might be considered chunky now, it still had a full sized PC style keyboard with numeric keypad that went a long way to making it useful beyond hobbyist typing. If only they didn’t hide the mouse/joystick ports in the worst place ever, right under the numeric keypad, I’d have little to complain about the hardware design as a whole.

With floppy disks becoming scarce and the data stored on them being less reliable over time it’s getting harder to find content to use with them. No matter how safely you store them, magnetic disks will degrade over time as before you know it your collection is useless. So finding means to obtain backups is key to the longevity of these machines.

Thankfully there is still an active community producing hardware such as USB floppy disk drive replacements and SD Card based Hard Disk Drives. With a lot of the content now available to download online thanks to enthusiast websites and sources such as the Internet Archive there’s a chance you’ll have even more to play on the machines now than you ever did when they were new. And you might even get a few extra years out of them too.

Needless to say, as I dig through more boxes and go through more discs I’m bound to find something more to write about. I’m enjoying the chance to relive some of the old days and it’s pretty cool to see that so much of this stuff still works too… just imagine if an iPad could still work 30 years later…

A happy machine is a working machine.

6 replies »

  1. Apparently the Atari had a better sound chip than the Amiga 500 but the graphics were a bit better on the Amiga (from memory). I ended up with an Amiga 500, which I expanded to 1mb with a 500kb cartridge. I also daisy chained two additional disk drives so that I had three ๐Ÿ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Actually, the Amiga came out on top in both the graphics and sound departments – ironically it was designed by the same guys who made the previous (8bit) generation Atari computers so good. A later model refresh (STE) brought the two machines closer in capabilities but the Amiga would still hold the upper hand in most cross platform games.

    Three disk drives… How’d you manage that? Maybe Kickstart permanently in one (if possible) then run the games/apps in the others? Or was it for “other” purposes? ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Liked by 1 person

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