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Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System

(Platform Studies)

4.06  ·  Rating details ·  735 ratings  ·  84 reviews
A study of the relationship between platform and creative expression in the Atari VCS.

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 significan
Hardcover, 180 pages
Published March 1st 2009 by MIT Press
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Rose Smith
Oct 23, 2019 rated it it was amazing
It's a good book, a good read. Time well spent, I'm sure i will be using many of the things I laerned here in my upcoming projects. ...more
James Williams
Jan 14, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Apr 15, 2015 rated it it was amazing
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
Apr 19, 2009 rated it really liked it
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. ...more
Feb 28, 2019 rated it really liked it
More technical than I was expecting. At times, that made it a little dry, but it was definitely enriching, and seeing how the technical limitations in the system translated into design, gameplay and graphical choices was quite interesting. That explanation also means you get a deeper appreciation for the latter games explored in the book as they pushed beyond the obstacles earlier games halted at.

The book's authors themselves are not above sliding in passing references to classics in computing f
Ren the Unclean
Aug 20, 2010 rated it liked it
Shelves: reference
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
Jun 28, 2010 rated it really liked it
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
Paul Cowan
Jun 09, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Wonderful one for the computer geeks: the story of how the Atari VCS programmers managed to make their games perform well under INSANE hardware constraints. Incredible tales of trying to fit all your calculations inside the horizontal and vertical blanking intervals, including faking super-large or super-detailed sprites by toggling the sprite buffer before the next line starts scanning; even more incredible tales of saving critical cartridge bytes by not storing a map for your battlefield, but ...more
Feb 18, 2016 rated it really liked it
I never realized just how many limitations the programmers for the Atari VCS/2600 had to deal with until I read this book, which describes the hardware, game design, and history of the system. It's fascinating to read about the severe memory restrictions that early game creators worked with, and how they managed to create fun, challenging games -- and early elements of modern video games, like imperfect AI -- despite them.

The book does get a little too technical at times, but those parts can be
David Dinaburg
Jul 23, 2018 rated it really liked it
There is a moment when someone from America calls soccer “football” because they’re really into Premiere League and it is technically correct but sounds extremely jarring; an analogue experience for video game dorks is the Atari VCS. Most people—even the ones who know enough about Atari Corporation to not simply call any of their systems “Atari”—likely still call the “VCS” the “2600.” I know I did before I read Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System. The 2600 is a rad retronym built to ...more
Jul 29, 2009 rated it it was ok
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. ...more
Jared Castiglione
Apr 24, 2022 rated it it was amazing
When I was a kid, the Nintendo Entertainment System, or simply “the Nintendo” was the gold standard of video games. It was perfection. And while it was my first, I’ve come to learn that the NES was part of the “Third Generation” of home consoles. And it’s been given the distinction of recovering the opinion of video games here in the US after the “video game crash of 1983.”

So what happened before? How does Atari fit into all of this?

Racing the Beam opened my eyes to the Atari VCS (what we call
Kevin Furr
Jun 04, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: business-tech
With a name like "Platform Studies" I was concerned it would be a book full of circuit diagrams. But not at all. There's a dose of programming snippets and technical jargon here and there but mostly this is a plain-English narrative centered around certain iconic games as a frame for describing the Atari VCS's hardware, its limitations, and how programmers overcame them to make games with play value. And you really do get an appreciation of the amazingly severe limitations of RAM and ROM and ima ...more
Tim Dimo
Dec 06, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This book gave a good overview of just how much work went into building these early video games. With just 128 bytes of RAM and a typical 2K ROM cartridge, the developers for the Atari system created some of the greatest early console games. This book is not solely for the technical-minded, as discussion of the broader landscape of gaming is also discussed. Historical items such as the business reason for releasing the awful Pac-Man conversion and how licensing changed the business and contribut ...more
May 18, 2019 rated it liked it
I like the idea of "platform studies" and no console is more deserving of this kind of attention than the 2600, which is a very strange beast. This is the second of these books I've read, and they both have uneasily balanced their technical content with the surrounding cultural context. Although I would love something like this but deeper (keep the cultural context, but expand greatly on the technical: include disassemblies with commentary, for example), this is still worth reading for anyone in ...more
Hayden Scott-Baron
Feb 09, 2019 rated it it was ok
This book really struggles with its own medium, tripping over the lack of diagrams to rely on clumsy descriptions of technical methods. In the worst cases it repeats these technical descriptions on successive pages, like someone realising they’re failing to get their point across. It adds little of flavour about the world in which these titles were created and the interesting design revelations as few and far between. It’s an interesting book at times but ultimately a disappointment.
Mihai Parparita
Jun 02, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Interesting historical perspective, wish it had more technical details.

Knowing very little about the Atari VCS, I found the book quite interesting. I especially liked the progression from earlier to later games, as technical know-how increased. I just wish that there was end more technical detail (on the level of the Wolfenstein 3D book).
Nov 20, 2019 rated it liked it
Fascinating for those that are fascinated by this kind of thing. Slightly erratic in technical depth, which seems odd for a book in a series devoted to the architectural side of things. Occasionally peculiar in grammar and syntax, but I guess it's not meant to be a novel. ...more
Wayne Cheetham
Jan 26, 2020 rated it it was ok
Some interesting bits but I was left very confused as to the target audience.
Sep 04, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Loved the history and knowledge about the Atari VCS
Matthew Clifton
Jan 30, 2022 rated it really liked it
An enjoyable account of the history of the 2600; mainly from a technical/development pov. A worthwhile read, especially, if you're from a technical or games development background. ...more
Aug 31, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: scholarly, video-game
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
Michał Taszycki
Feb 23, 2017 rated it really liked it
Fascinating read about the legendary console.

The idea of analyzing how the platform and its constrains shaped games produced for Atari 2600 is interesting.

It helps to notice how those early developments shaped future genres of computer games.

Even though the approach requires a thorough explanation of technical details of the console, it doesn't turn the book into a hardware manual.
Josh Knowles
Dec 27, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: blogged
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
Dec 01, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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
Jan 24, 2015 rated it liked it
Having grown up during the birth of the video game industry, I would have a predisposition to liking this book no matter the quality. Montfort clearly has a deep knowledge of the system and its software, and draws appropriate connections between past and future games in the VCS's library. Sometimes the stories of those connections overshadows the subject matter of the chapter. I'm also a little unclear about why Empire Strikes Back was chosen as a focus for a chapter. There are small hints as to ...more
Margaret Heller
Nov 22, 2010 rated it liked it
Shelves: history, technology
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
Perry Reed
Aug 10, 2010 rated it it was amazing
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
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
Jon Stewart
Aug 05, 2015 rated it really liked it
This may be a niche book, but it definitely hits at the convergence of several of my interests. First, and in some ways most superficially, it's about the Atari 2600 (aka VCS). I grew up playing and owned most of the 2600 games covered in depth: Adventure, Combat, Pitfall, Empire Strikes Back and the arcade ports Asteroids and Space Invaders. However, this isn't really a book about the games, it's about how these games were shaped by the limitations of the 2600 hardware, the games that came befo ...more
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Nick Montfort is Professor of Digital Media at MIT. He is the author of Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction and Exploratory Programming for the Arts and Humanities; the coauthor of Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System and 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10; and the coeditor of The New Media Reader (all published by the MIT Press).

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18 likes · 3 comments
“Perhaps because of the special nature of the TIA, or perhaps because of the limitless human capacity for technical fascination, programmers have continued to hack at and develop original VCS games. There is a thriving hobbyist community that has picked up the Atari VCS, using and refining emulators, writing disassemblers and development tools, and even manufacturing cartridges and selling them, complete with boxes and manuals. This “homebrew” scene could be seen, strictly speaking, as continuing the commercial life of the Atari VCS, but the community is not very corporate. It operates on the scale of zines and unsigned bands, with most recent ROMs offered for free online—even if they are also sold in limited releases of a few hundred copies in cartridge form.” 0 likes
“good examples of platform-aware work in Alexander Galloway’s Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralization, Steven E. Jones’s The Meaning of Video Games, and Matthew G. Kirschenbaum’s Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination.” 0 likes
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