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Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System
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Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System

4.07 of 5 stars 4.07  ·  rating details  ·  339 ratings  ·  59 reviews
The Atari Video Computer System dominated the home video game market so completely that "Atari" became the generic term for a video game console. The Atari VCS was affordable and offered the flexibility of changeable cartridges. Nearly a thousand of these were created, the most significant of which established new techniques, mechanics, and even entire genres. This book of ...more
Hardcover, 180 pages
Published March 1st 2009 by MIT Press (MA)
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Apr 19, 2009 Jim rated it 4 of 5 stars
Shelves: tech
A close look at what writing programs for the Atari VCS (aka the 2600) was like. The machine was incredibly tiny by current technology's standards, but the authors make the case that its shortcomings actually pushed its authors to try and make innovative games. A bit technical in places, but extremely interesting for those interested in the history of programming.
Angus Fletcher
Often, when we talk about art, we talk about constraint. Constraint can be self imposed and, sometimes, can be the product of the medium. It's difficult to imagine a piece of hardware that imposes more constraint than the Atari 2600. With 128 bytes of volatile memory and a 4k rom cartridge size (later 8k with a bank-switching ROM that allows you to 'page' from the cart), memory constraints are severe. The Atari had sprite registers for 2 players, 2 missiles, and one ball, all of which fell direc ...more
Josh K
I really enjoyed this. It looks at game design from the perspective of the design of the Atari VCS (2600) system itself -- how the limitations and quirks of that game console led to certain design decisions (good and bad) that affected some very seminal games.

I'm a programmer, so when I think about game design it's very hard for me to completely distance myself from thinking about what would be easy or difficult (or impossible) to actually implement. Sometimes laziness prevents me from making de
A bit of a let-down, this one. I was expecting much, much more. As it is, it's a (small) book with a few interesting stories, but little coherence. There are passages that require programming knowledge and others that refer to the most basic things - quite uneven. And at that price, I don't really recommend it.
James Williams
I was non-existent to being in diapers during the days of this story, so I can't speak to the historical accuracy or the even just the feels of the time. But my parents had an Atari 2600 and this book accurately captures the wonder caused the little colored boxes that would appear on their big wooden console television when it was plugged in.

As a professional programmer, I was particularly fascinated by the technical details of this little machine. In my world, displays are driven by framebuffer
Des Small
This is a modern masterpiece that blends social science and humanities' perspectives with a deep understanding of computer hardware.

The Atari 2600 (née "VCS") is an extraordinary computing platform: 128 bytes (sickety sic) of RAM and ROMs of originally 2 or 4 Kb, with no framebuffer or anything like it. In the six or so years that it set the standard for home gaming, extraordinary things where accomplished with these barely-modest resources, and not the least virtue of this magnificent book is t
Michael Scott
This book is an unofficial, critical history of the ATARI Video Computer System (VCS) gaming platform, which dominated the video games industry from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s (and much longer in remote countries, such as the native country of this reviewer.) The history follows the evolution of the VCS platform through an utilitarian lens: six of the eight main chapters of the book are dedicated each to one or several games that have pushed the technological boundaries set by the platform. ...more
It's really good. This is a well researched and in-depth look at the Atari 2600 and its games, down to the technical details of the silicon and disassembly of the ROMs, and it also analyzes the decisions made by programmers and management and how that affected the games. The basic structure is that it does a case study of an individual game title, but also discusses important events in the history of the 2600 within each case study.

My own complaint is that I wish it were longer, and delved into
In this book, Ian Bogost and Nick Montfort perform a historical dissection of the Atari VCS (video computer system) through the discussion of six VCS games: Combat, Adventure, Pac-Man, Yars' Revenge, Pitfall!, and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. Given that their purpose is to not just discuss the Atari but justify their coined area of investigation, platform studies, one may be forgiven for asking if the book is not so much a focus on the platform but on these six games. While each is descri ...more
An interesting book for sure. I very much like their idea of doing "platform studies" instead of focusing just on games or just on hardware or just on the operating system or whatnot. The history of the Atari VCS and how the games produced for it influenced all video games that followed (heck, even the very name "video games" I guess) is priceless for anyone interested in gaming. The stories about how certain games were developed and how they managed to "get around" or even "take advantage" of t ...more
Perry Reed
Pardon me while I geek-out for a moment. This was one of the most interesting books I've read in quite awhile. As a fan of the old Atari VCS (aka 2600) videogames and a computer nerd I've always been interested in how those games were made, but never knew a whole lot about it. This book goes into the details of the Atari platform, how it was architected, and the limitations it placed on the developers of the games that ran on it.

While written in a style that is academic and sometimes dry, it is
This book is the most in-depth look at the Atari 2600 I've ever read. I kinda think that if that sentence doesn't really generate that much interest for you, you should give this a miss. To me, it was fantastic because the 2600 remained a magical object to me throughout almost all my life. Magical in the sense that I had no idea how it worked. The original games that we had for it had blocky graphics and minimal sound, but a year or two later, the games quickly developed higher resolution graphi ...more
A solid retro-geek book, and fun reading for anyone who still cares enough to have kept their old 2600 (you know who you are). Ah, the humble Atari game, a mere 4K of ROM and 128 bytes of RAM that drove much of pop culture in the late 70s / early 80s. The book discusses the Atari’s iconic heritage, the underpowered hardware that birthed it, and the creativity that defied those limitations.

The authors focus on 6 games (“Combat”, “Adventure”, “Pac-Man”, “Yars’ Revenge”, Pitfall! and “Star Wars: Th

This book focuses on the technical design of the Atari 2600 (nee VCS) and its impact on future gaming systems, told through a deep investigation into six classic games. It goes into thorough detail, to the point of describing details of assembly programming and circuit design. The largest problem is that it's too short -- I finished the book wanting more.

The success of the Atari 2600, given its incredible techn
Anna Anthropy
this is the only book i've seen to consider its subject: that the unique capabilities and limitations of a particular videogame platform guide all design for that platform. the chapter on warren robinett's adventure - an attempt at translating crowther and woods' all-text game adventure to a simple graphical environment - particularly illuminates the kind of choices a designer has to make to fit a game into a particular format.

the book flutters somewhat inconsistantly between using technical ter
Margaret Heller
I'm probably unusual in that this book read like ancient history to me. It covers the development and various other aspects of the Atari VCS up until 1983, which is before I was born. I've actually never seen an Atari, nor have I ever owned a video game system of any kind. I actually played Ms. Pacman in a bar the other day because I'd never played Pac-man before and wanted to see what the book was talking about. Certainly I am not the intended audience. Nevertheless, I found the concept of this ...more
Ren the Unclean
This book is super interesting, but doesn't always serve its audience, being stuck somewhere between highly technical and overly simple. It is basically a series of anecdotes about the creation of carefully selected Atari games that give amazing insight into what the creation process was like from a very low level (meaning less abstracted from the hardware, not simple) technical perspective.

It was telling how much the hardware and base software design had such a huge impact on what could and cou
Justin Liew
This was a fantastic look into the crazy world of Atari VCS development. It stands the Atari platform up in the context of the culture of the 70s and 80s, and shows how the platform influenced both the technical and creative decisions that were made to create games on the platform. This in turn has influenced the games industry up to this day, so having historic context is a worthwhile endeavor. Highly recommended for technical or games people.

On a programmer's note, the innovation and creativi
Tim Lapetino
If you're interested in how specific video game technology is influenced by culture, and are at least mildly interested in the Atari 2600, then this book is very worth your time. Full disclosure: I'm a non-technical Atari nerd, so this book hit my sweet spot. While it gets quite technical at times, I had no problem skimming those short snippets while still getting the gist of the issues at hand. The authors do a great job of talking about how the limits of this particular and influential video g ...more
i couldn't put this book down, and after finishing in a week i had to bust out an atari emulator & play 'adventure' (the book has the first overworld map i've seen!!) and check out the isomorphic beauty of 'yars revenge'.

the book is worth it for the re-telling of reflexive oral programming 'river raid' sounds, and the development of 'pitfall' & how it was written with a single life.

also the hardware collision detection on the VCS... and the reason the ghosts in pacman (and enemies in '
Adam Norwood
An interesting read, whether you're into software development, design, or video game history in general – a textbook-like academic take on the Atari VCS (aka the "2600") home game console as a media platform, Racing the Beam delves into the design limitations and resulting considerations made in creating games for the system that defined an entire generation of home entertainment. Each chapter tackles a specific game, highlighting how that game's creator carved out impressive new features and ga ...more
Steve Losh
A great little tale of six Atari games (and many more are mentioned briefly). It's fairly technical, so if you're not a programmer you won't like it much, but if you are it's a really fun read. It doesn't have that ugly social science smell that 10 PRINT has, it digs into the tech quite a bit.
I enjoy reading this book. This book give a perspective of several historical game related algorithm in its AI implementation and such other problems when the compute power were still small. Somehow, it give you some nourishment about how they tackle the problems back there.
When I was a kid, I wanted to make Atari games when I grew up.

Stupid kid. :)

This book goes through some high-level review of the challenges presented by trying to program the Atari 2600, and uses six specific games to tell about how the programmers figured out more of how to make the system into something awesome.

While it doesn't get anywhere near as mind-bending as the Stella Programming Guide, it will show aspiring programmers that there are probably less aggravating ways to make a living.

If y
William Jones
Pretty good Atari history book. Looses a star for getting overly technical in a few areas. I know understanding the limitations of the hardware is important but there are some sections that border on the esoteric.
Matthew Lippart
a book about video games from a cool angle- they analyse the strengths/weaknesses of the atari 2600 platform and explore how programmers, in working around those limitations, created both unbelievable (at the time)games and laid the foundation for modern gaming. This is done the the lens of six iconic atari games (adventure, yar's revenge, pitfall, combat, etc). I enjoyed this because I am a huge gamer and have fond memories of my 2600 (which I still play when I am in the states). The language i ...more
This book was really light on details, relying on an excess of wordiness to fill out the pages. If you can gloss over the crud some of the content is interesting, though.
John Carter McKnight
A "platform study" of the Atari 2600, ranging from the peculiarities of chip design to industry pressures on Atari programmers. Very effective look at a socio-technical system that doesn't slight the technical, while remaining generally readable. Could easily be added to an STS curriculum, as well as games studies.

The book is short, at 150 pages, but just as long as it needed to be: a theoretical case for platform studies, and then case studies on particular games over the console's long history
Levent Pekcan
Atari 2600'ün derinlikleri ve 8-bit sistemlerin ilk dönemleri üzerine muhteşem bir kitap.
If you grew up on the Atari or remember the old 8-bit world, this book is for you! It has a lot of technical information on how the Atari games were made and the constraints the developers faced. Growing up with the Atari and computers, I was aware of the 'single developer syndrome' of early video games, but never realized how restrictive the environment was and the challenges faced in that era technology-wise. If you are a programmer, I encourage you to read this book to see how well off you ar ...more
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Nick Montfort is an associate professor of digital media at MIT in the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies. He is also a poet, computer scientist, and author of interactive fiction.
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“Although continual sound effects were common in VCS games, it is hard to produce anything that sounds like Western music on the machine. The frequencies that the TIA can generate miss most of the chromatic scale. When Garry Kitchen was working as a programmer for Activision, he went through and marked the notes that the Atari VCS could hit. He then asked a professional composer of jingles to put something together using only those notes.” 0 likes
“PF0 is written from the low bit to the high bit of the upper nybble (half-byte), PF1 is written from the high bit to the low bit, and PF2 is written from the low bit to the high bit. This method simplified the chip’s circuit design,” 0 likes
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