Imagine your 8 year old cousin, who is learning to use computers, asking you about the Save icon on Microsoft Word. The image of a floppy disk is almost universally used to denote ‘saving a file’. But with floppy disks gone, would the coming generation understand the symbolism?
I had the same problem with the joystick icon commonly used to denote Games. Typically it is drawn as a stick pointing up, protruding from a box. Most of the consoles that I was familiar with had much more elaborate game controllers or gamepads. However this simple black-coloured gaming device remained a mystery to me.
Until I read the book ‘Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System’ that is. I started reading this book out of curiosity and due to a certain interest in gaming history. But soon realised that it is a must-read for anyone interested in Game design or even the roots of Gaming culture. It covers not just the historical context of the Atari VCS and its popular games but some of its nearly impossible technical constraints.
One of the most amazing thing about Atari games were that they could use only 128 bytes of RAM. Yes you read that right. It is not Megabytes or even Kilobytes, I mean Bytes. To give you a better idea, I have italicised the first 128 characters at the beginning of this blog post. Yes, it is that small.
To program an entire game with graphics, sounds and gameplay with several levels would seem impossible given such constrains. But remember that RAM refers to the working memory or the read-write area. Atari would store most of the game content in removable cartridges containing about 4 kB of ROM or Read Only Memory. Now, 4 kB is not much either. Today, even the smallest images, say an icon, would be bigger than that. Imagining packing an entire game in that space. Incredibly cool!
Constraints bring out some of the most creative solutions. There could be no better example of this than Atari games. Not only were Atari games enjoyed by millions of gamers, they also boast of many pioneering achievements. The 1979 game Adventure is considered to be the first action-adventure game. One of the great grandfathers of games like Warcraft, the game allowed the player to explore multiple rooms with the ability to pick up, carry or drop items, a first at that point in time. It was also the first game to have a widely known ‘Easter Egg.’
Yar’s Revenge, released in 1981, takes place in space and uses game code as game data. Taking place in space, the game screen is dominated by a striped randomly coloured neutral zone. Rather than use a random number generator, the game’s creator brilliantly converted the game’s own binary code into a psuedo-random pattern, saving precious ROM space. In other words, you are looking into the game’s own code while playing the game. How many games have you played that can claim that?
Not all firsts mentioned in the book are technical innovations. It narrates how Atari employees broke off to start Activision, the first third party video game company. Of course, Atari’s first game Pong was a cultural phenomenon. Atari is also considered as the longest living game console spanning a duration of 14 years and 2 months in US gaming history.
As a side note, if you have read Steve Job’s autobiography then you must be aware that Steve Jobs was Atari’s fortieth employee. He was a technician paid at $5/hour. They sent him to India to help him do ‘spiritual research’. Later it was their $100 bounty for each chip removed from the design of Breakout that triggered Jobs to reach out to Steve Wozniak. Interestingly, they eventually offered Apple II to Atari and they were not interested. Imagine that, Atari could have actually bought Apple!
Today, one can still buy Atari Flashback, a successor of the original Atarai 2600. It contains two of the iconic joysticks bearing a close resemblance to the original joysticks. There are many recent accounts of parents rediscovering such legacy arcades. Small children don’t seem to mind the simple graphics thanks to their active imagination. Adults also love the competitiveness of two-player games.
Sometimes to better understand the present, one needs to dive into the past. Knowing Atari’s past was not only instructive but also inspiring.