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In Memory
Sean Pettibone

Classic Gaming

Atari STRetrospective: The Atari ST's hidden gaming world 

Collecting older game consoles seems to have become a cottage industry over the past decade, but older computers seem to have been forgotten by many gamers. One of the most-neglected and under-rated of these is the Atari ST, a machine that is consistently overlooked by classic game collectors and players. It’s highly unfortunate, since this innovative machine helped pave the way to the 16-bit era and featured many innovative and interesting titles, some of which had a major impact several years later, after they were released on console. Look inside as we take a look back at this machine and discover its many hidden treasures.

Predating the16-bit consoles such as the Sega Genesis by several years, the legendary Atari ST set a new benchmark in personal computers. This line remains one of my personal favorite Atari products, and one the most under-rated systems of the past 25 years. It was primarily designed as a ‘serious’ computer, but the high-quality of its graphics and the loads of superb titles available, it far exceed its concurrent consoles in terms of its games. You can say what you want about its seeming obscurity, but when it was released, the ST was a pretty big deal. What’s most remarkable about the machine, in retrospect, is how quickly Atari was able to release it. When Jack Tramiel took over Atari in June 1984, virtually no one gave the company a chance to revive itself, but it released a completely new machine to the public less than a year later. It was a huge leap forward from the beloved 800XL line in terms of sheer technical power and despite the lazy revisionist history plied by the mainstream press, the ST was remarkably successful, and Atari turned from losing billions to becoming profitable once again with its new line of computers.

Corporate maneuvering aside, the Atari 520ST,delivered the goods to its users. It was a brilliantly conceived line of advanced 16-bit computers that rivaled the Macintosh with its easy to use windows GUI, color graphics and sleek design. The gray, slanted look of the machine’s cover and keyboard exploded off the glossy covers of Antic and Analog Computing magazine when the “Jackintosh” was unveiled in 1985, Many computer-hobbyists spent a lot of time marveling at how completely new the machines looked, especially compared to the older, then almost antique 400/800 line cluttering shelves. When the Atari 1040ST was released about a year later, it represented another landmark. The machine’s 1 Mb (megabyte) of storage was available for less than $1000, a huge discount compared to other machines that delivered Power without the Price, as was Tramiel’s slogan at the time. The new GUI and mouse controls represented a quantum leap forward from the older 8-bit computers, which topped out at 64K. It was a magnificent machine for its time, well ahead of the curve. Most impressive was the fact that the “new” Atari managed to bring it from concept to reality in less than a year, despite the massive turbulence roiling through itself and the industry at large, remains a remarkable achievement. Compare this approach to the painful, years-long development cycle that afflicts consoles and stifles innovation and you can see how much things have changed over the years.

It was definitely a landmark machine that brought a new standard from a technical standpoint, so its no surprise that the Atari ST had some incredible games released for it. These were groundbreaking titles that definitely brought new ideas to the table. Some of the Atari’s versions of 8-bit games like Star Raiders, Joust, Robotron:2084, and Missile Command were upgraded substantially for the new machine, delivering near-arcade quality ports of these classic games, while later releases such as Arkanoid, Super Hang-On and Escape from the Robot Monsters showed the ST could handle more contemporary arcade games easily. One of the most impressive (for its time) games was the conversion of Dragon’s Lair, which somehow managed to compress the full screen visuals of the Laserdisc game onto floppy discs with a high degree of quality. At the other end of its life, the ST also featured a translation of Street Fighter II, and while it was cool that the game was developed at all for the machine, lacking a 6-button controller and the animation sprites, it felt a little bit dated. Capcom’s Ghosts ‘n Goblins also came out for the system, along with its sequel Ghouls ‘n Ghosts both of which featured nice implementations,

A number of adventure titles also made impressive showings on the ST, with Sierra’s Leisure Suit Larry and Police Quest offering solid adventures, while Shadowgate and Elvira showed how mouse-implementation could change the genre for the better, making things more accessible. Lucasarts also brought out some excellent software, with titles like Maniac Mansion and were beautifully designed titles that brought the 16-bit era to life. Other memorable ST games included Baal, a brilliantly dark plarformer from Psygnosis which set a new standard of sophisticated action play. It had some incredible monsters, complicated layouts and some of the (to that point) best screens I’d ever seen on any computer. Psygnosis also released a number of excellent shooters including Blood Money, Anarchy and, Menace. Anarchy was a particular find since it updated the classic Defender with some amazing visuals, it was matched with Jeff Minter’s official sequel, Defender II, which stayed true to the classic game while including versions of the original game, a foreshadow of things to come. These were followed-up by the seminal Shadow of the Beast, which while it came out on the Amiga first, was still a landmark game that blew me away with its evocative renderings and intense moody music. Its two sequels were also quite impressive, though couldn’t match the impact of the first game. Another memorable title was Broderbund software’s Typhoon Thompson. TT was a 3D sea-based adventure that had some brilliant animation and used mouse-controls to make one of the more enjoyable titles that the ST had. Road Raider from Mindscape was another interesting game. It had an open-world you could explore, multiple indoor-combat zones and a violent streak that seem to have anticipated titles like Grand Theft Auto.

There were also many esoteric, experimental games that were really cool. One of the most memorable of these was Captain Blood, a space adventure where you could explore the galaxy, land on and fly over planets and even converse with the local aliens. It was one of the first games I’d seen that used fractals and 3D graphics so extensively, while it played unlike anything else I’d ever seen. There were also an endless array of excellent shooters like Screaming Wings, Xenon, Sidewinder and the awe-inspiring Xenon II: Megablast that brought out the big guns. Of course, you can’t say anything about the ST without mentioning the its own amazing dungeon crawler Dungeon Master, which not only had fully animated, 3D dungeons in color, but intuitive mouse-based controls that made it an instant hit with players. ST owners were also treated to the initial editions of titles that would later prove to be quite seminal years later, with the first exposure to Lemmings, Tetris, Sim City and, Populous all coming initially the ST. These original versions were released several years before they appeared on mainstream consoles. One of the more interesting games that came out on the computer was Activision’s Little Computer People which allowed gamers to play as small virtual human, and watch them as they lived in their little house. While it wasn’t a direct descendent of The Sims, its interesting to play it now and see how those ideas evolved – and nearly 10 years later, became a massive hit.

The gaming is excellent, though its probably not going to be for every taste. It’s still a rather bulky machine and a little sensitive, too. We found the disk drives can cause problems and usually need to be replaced on older units. There are some other drawbacks to the system. While games are cheap, they aren’t nearly as abundant these days, so you definitely have to put in the effort to find them, As for the online market, there’s tons of systems available for cheap on auction sites these days and abundant deals to be had, If you’re considering it, you should look for a model that has the RF output (usually demarked by a small ‘FM’ at the end of the ST logo), Units with the only STF designation, without the M, since are basically built to connect almost exclusively to Atari’s own monitors. These old monitors aren’t bad, but they’re expensive to ship. While the output with this method isn’t quite as sharp as you’d have with a dedicated monitor, the resolution we had was acceptable for most gaming. The good news is that the controllers such as joysticks use the standard Atari 2600 pin connectors so you should be able to use your old controllers.

Once you’ve gotten beyond these hurdles, you’ll have access to a seemingly endless selection of software. While some of the productivity software is very slow these days, there are still some cool ones such as early 3D modeling using Antic’s CAD-3D software and numerous impressive paint programs such as Cyber-Paint, Spectrum 512 and Degas Elite. There was also an impressive desktop publishing program released called Calamus which was quite sophisticated for its time. So impressive in fact, that it as used to produce the first four issues of the Laser’s fanzine back in the day. Of course, most collectors these days are looking for action, and here’s some more that have held up well: Protector, Hydra, Arkanoid, Space Harrier, Dragon Spirit, Out-Run, Shinobi, Vindicators, Klax and Operation: Wolf and tons more. Sadly, as the 80’s turned into the 90’s, technology caught up with the ST as the release of 16-bit consoles finally brought the home systems to some kind of parity. As the novelty wore off, it seemed that Atari and its ST were beginning to lag behind the cutting edge but, what had once been a state-of-the-art machine slowly faded away, largely forgotten under waves of game consoles. However, the generally high quality and innovation of its releases was quite consistent. While its hasn’t sparked much of a nostalgic wave, for those who had one, or take this lesser path, the ST is definitely worth checking out for the first time, or rediscovering once again. 

Michael Palisano  

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