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Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System

(Platform Studies)

4.09  ·  Rating details ·  629 ratings  ·  80 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
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Hardcover, 180 pages
Published March 1st 2009 by Mit Press
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4.09  · 
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 ·  629 ratings  ·  80 reviews


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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
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Angus
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
Jim
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.
Ninja
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
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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
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Chris
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
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
Bill
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
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Themistocles
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.
Julian
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
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
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).
David
Mar 22, 2019 rated it really liked it
A great history of the Atari VCS game console, including the time, culture, people and technology that all came together to create this unique piece of hardware.
Mjhancock
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
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David
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
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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
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Anna Anthropy
Sep 09, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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
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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
Joe
May 07, 2009 rated it it was amazing
IF YOU READ ONE BOOK ABOUT THE DESIGN AND HISTORY OF THE ATARI 2600, MAKE IT THIS ONE.

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
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Philip Hollenback
Nov 03, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: computer, history
This book brought back many fond memories of my childhood. I suspect it would do the same for any of you computer types out there.

I was somewhat familiar with how the Atari worked, but this book did an excellent job of combining a technical overview with historical and cultural perspectives. I particularly liked the fact that the authors focused on six games that really illustrated the growth of this platform over the years.

To me, the most amazing part of this story is how programmers were able
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Peter
Sep 17, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: games, programming
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
Lucius
Sep 28, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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
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Des Small
Jan 04, 2014 rated it it was amazing
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
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Alex
Apr 20, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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 '
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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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“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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