Gaming

Revisiting old times with the Atari 8bit series of computers

I do love my old Atari stuff. Lately I’ve been getting them out of storage and trying to set them up in a way that I can continue to enjoy them in the years to come. Emulators are great but there’s still nothing quite like having the old systems connected up to a CRT and experiencing them the way they were originally designed.

My first exposure to a home computer was way back in 1983 with Atari’s 800XL which was part of their second generation of 6502 based machines (sometimes referred to as the A8 series) following on from the 400 and 800 computers. The 400 and 800 only had 16 and 48 kilobytes of RAM when they launched in 1979 so the 800XL was a luxury with a massive 64 kilobytes. My parents went out of their way to make sure the computer system they had was capable, so the machine soon had an Atari 1050 model disk drive as well as an 850 Interface that allowed it to connect with a variety of devices including a Logitech printer. That same printer I would later write a driver for so I could use it with my word processor on the Atari ST.

A tale of two computers: the Atari 800XL and the Atari 130XE.

Though not as notable in computing history as the iconic Commodore 64, it was an incredibly capable machine whose lineage would eventually lead to the creation of the Commodore Amiga Comparing the Atari 8bits to other systems of the era can be a bit of a mixed bag as the games can often be better or worse which can be frustrating. Lucasfilm’s trio of Rescue on Fractalus!, Koronis Rift and Ballblazer really take advantage of the machine and become standouts. David Crane’s Ghostbusters on the other hand is a much better looking and sounding game on the C64.

Unfortunately my parents weren’t able to keep much of the hardware over the years (you don’t see many in good condition now) but they did retain all of the cartridges from the system which was something that worked out nicely for me in the end. A few years ago I was thinking back to the old days and how much I enjoyed some of the old games and out of curiosity had a look on eBay to see what was out there. Soon enough I had won an auction and scored myself a beaten up old 800XL with tape drive and a few new cartridges bundled in too.

Being able to go back and play some pretty good versions of games like Qix, Pac-Man and Centipede on the system was a buzz and not long after that I made a purchase but this time of a third generation 130XE system (128 Kb of RAM) that was in fantastic condition. Still, even with a decent collection of cartridges I still missed many of the games I had grown fond of and finding a disk drive plus working game disks is becoming an increasingly difficult task as time passes. That’s where the retro computer community comes in with some pretty awesome gear.

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In this case, the awesome gear comes in the form of a SIO2SD unit which I bought from Lotharek via eBay. Based on the HxC replacement disk drives used with multiple computers, the SIO2SD is specially made to connect to the Atari through the same port used for its disk drives and emulate it through disk images from an inserted SD card. As the images are in the name format used by Atari emulators, it’s relatively easy to find the files needed too – TOSEC is a good place to start.

I’m very new to this kind of gear but have been impressed with just how easy it works. In the case of the SIO2SD it’s powered from the same port it connects to the computer so there’s no extra cabling required. It’s almost revelatory with how well it works – changing disks is just a button press away and the computer is totally oblivious to it and works as expected. It’s just a case of navigating through the directories on the SD card, mounting the image to a drive (can be multiple) and then rebooting the computer and away you go. The device is incredibly well built so is likely going to last as long as the computer it was designed for which makes it a VERY handy thing to keep plugged in. Apparently it can even be tweaked to load disks faster but I’m happy for it to run as it does… it just seems right.

These kinds of devices are available for a huge variety of platforms including the C64, Amiga, ST and are seriously worth considering if you have an old computer that you’d like to get back up and running for the games. Time works in your favour in these cases too as you’ll likely be able to find all the software you ever need online and you’ll never again have to worry about degrading floppy disks or tapes.

My 130XE running with the Ballblazer title screen on display.

It’s pretty scary to think now that the entire software history of a computer platform could fit onto a single SD card but it does here and I’ve spent hours just going through titles and seeing how they compare now. People playing Elite Dangerous may not get the same buzz now from Star Raiders as technology has certainly leapt beyond what that game could do at the time but many arcade style games still hold their own. Synapse Software’s Fort Apocalypse plays like a cross between Thrust, Choplifter and a Metroidvania title with and keeps you constantly on edge. Archer MacLean’s DropZone is a fast, challenging Defender clone that could easily find itself a place on consoles in need of shooters… plus, I’d love to see a widescreen version of it just to make it a little easier to see what’s coming. 😉

Though they weren’t compatible with 2600 cartridges, they were compatible with the controllers so if you happen to have both joysticks and paddles (rotary dial type controllers) from the old system you’d find they would happily work off these without issues which was perfect for games like Kaboom! and Super Breakout that offered support for paddles and were much better for it as a result. Never having owned paddles until getting the 800XL I couldn’t believe how much better Kaboom! plays on both the 2600 and the A8 – playability is vastly improved as is my addiction to the game!

Hopefully with age and a better understanding of what games are and can do I might be able to take a look at some of the more complex games of the era that went well over my head at the time such as Alternate Reality: The City and Omnitrend’s Universe, the latter I remember having one of the most intimidating manuals I had ever seen as a child. It was awesome that games like that existed back then but I was definitely in WAY over my head trying to make sense of it all.

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Now I’ve finally got the things I need to get it up and running easily, including a new power supply, it’s great to be able to go back to the old 8bit and play my games again. It’s certainly making me think of getting a couple of other machines to build out my retro collection further. 🙂

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