A few more things for the Atari 8bit computers

Not long ago I shared some details regarding my collection of computers and games for the Atari 8bit series. This time around I’m bringing a little more to show. Most of my collection now consists of a mix of boxed and loose game cartridges with the majority of the former being those that I had from when I first owned an Atari computer. You can still occasionally find boxed copies online but they are not as prevalent as the loose cartridges.

Of my more recent purchases the one I’m most happy to have in my possession are Rescue on Fractalus!, Archon and Star Raiders II. My first exposure to Rescue on Fractalus! was via a leaked copy of the game that was then known as Behind Jaggi Lines! with the title’s “jaggies” not only referring to the aliens you encounter but the stairstep effect due to the lack of antialiasing during the game. Your job in the game was to fly down onto a hostile planet and rescue crashed pilots whilst keeping the enemy at bay long enough for you to be able to return to the mothership.

Considering I had not been playing a “real” version of the game I always wanted to have the full experience so chasing this down was always a big deal for me. I’d previously seen the ship launch sequence as a demo but had never realised it was actually from this game so it was pretty cool to see it all together and finally make sense.

Archon was an early attempt to realise the concepts hinted at in Star Wars with its holographic chess board. Each player chose either the side of light or dark with each being represented by their own unique fantasy creatures reflecting their allegiance. When pieces on the board faced off the game would go into an arcade mode that played out like Combat with each piece going one-on-one until there was a winner. With the creatures all having unique abilities and strengths combat was always unique and with a board whose colours could change (giving the aligned team a boost) there was enough opportunity for surprise moments to turn the tide of battle. It was such a unique game of the time and it’s surprising that even now it has few direct imitators.

Star Raiders II is an unintended sequel to a pretty neat game and as originally going to be based on the film The Last Starfighter. Once again my original exposure to the game was from the leaked movie version but I was later able to play the final game. Even with the change in licenses there was still a lot that was kept in there including many of the ship designs but there were some sections dropped due to their clear references to the film. Nevertheless I enjoyed the game a lot and the presentation goes a long way making up for its shortcomings.

The system wasn’t short of arcade game conversions – as with many games of the era the accuracy of the experience would often vary. Pac-Man, Qix and Centipede were pretty good at replicating the experience but then Space Invaders went a little far in adding visual extras to the game and making it both less recognisable and attractive at the same time. The 2600 version of Space Invaders may have changed things up too but it’s heritage was still clear. An interesting one to note is Donkey Kong which despite having some noticeable changes to the level designs still does a great job in getting the essence of the game down perfectly.

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It’s funny that now I have more game cartridges than I ever did with my original system. Back then floppy disks were where it was at but nowadays dealing with ancient magnetic media and keeping them running is like digital black magic. Not only do you need to keep the data on the media intact but also maintaining the drives you need to keep using them. The SIO2SD unit I’m now using to replace the disk drive with an SD card reader has definitely convinced me that I’m not missing out on anything.

My 800XL was also where I began to take an interest in computer art. Thanks to an application called Micro Illustrator I was able to make some decent images with a massive palette of four (!) colours. A lot of that time was with a neat little device called the Koala Pad which was the equivalent at the time to a Wacom tablet. It was pretty effective at drawing and having an extra button at a time of one button joysticks added some further flexibility. I’d later get a chance to use the Atari branded touch tablet which while not as sturdy as the Koala Pad had dimensions more in line with the screen which went a long way to making it a more comfortable experience.

My art ambitions didn’t stop there. There was a neat utility called The Print Shop Companion that allowed users of Broderbund’s early DTP masterpiece to create their own fonts, borders and graphics. My time spent there helped me later for school projects when I could combine borders from The Print Shop with content from another early DTP package, Xlent Software’s Typesetter, and hand in some great looking work.

The Koala Pad with its pack-in software an manuals. Much cooler than the cuddly name implies.

Maybe it’s strange that my post has transitioned from talking about games to productivity applications but that was basically how my own experience with the machines played out. Learning that I could do my homework on a computer and print it out in a neat and tidy way was the beginning of me realising what was possible once you started plugging peripherals into them. This was back when DOS based PCs were beginning to find their feet as a business platform and long before Windows 3.11 began Microsoft’s march to a monopoly so it was still unique at my school to see them being used for more than LOGO lessons.

These computers may be old (is that an understatement?) but I’m still having a hell of a lot of fun digging them out for a random game and in my eyes many of the titles still hold their own against comparable versions on modern systems. The first two games I played on the 800XL were Pac-Man and Qix so my bias towards how good the games actually are might lean a little too much towards the Atari side but there’s a lot of great memories here and I’m more than happy to revisit them any time I get a chance. 🙂

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