Racing The Beam: Inside The Atari 2600
By James Grahame
Most retrospectives focus on the games and personalities, rather than exploring the technology that made it all possible. Racing The Beam: The Atari Video Computer System [MIT Press, 184 pages] takes a different approach by showing how the limitations of the Atari VCS shaped the fledgling gaming industry.
Authors Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost delve deep into the architecture and explore the evolution of game play and aesthetics from early VCS titles such as Combat (the pack-in), through the amazing coding skills necessary to bring advanced scrolling games like Pitfall! to life on an aging platform.
From MIT Press: "The Atari Video Computer System dominated the home videogame market so completely that 'Atari' became the generic term for a videogame 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 offers a detailed and accessible study of this influential videogame console from both computational and cultural perspectives.
Studies of digital media have rarely investigated platforms—the systems underlying computing. This book (the first in a series of Platform Studies) does so, developing a critical approach that examines the relationship between platforms and creative expression. Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost discuss the Atari VCS itself and examine in detail six game cartridges: Combat, Adventure, Pac-Man, Yars' Revenge, Pitfall!, and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. They describe the technical constraints and affordances of the system and track developments in programming, gameplay, interface, and aesthetics. Adventure, for example, was the first game to represent a virtual space larger than the screen."
Even though many modern gamers regard the VCS with bemused disdain, it was an incredible leap forward in the late 1970s. Programmers coded in assembly language and cramming an entire game into as little as 4K was an exercise in arcane creativity. Just like modern developers, they faced extreme time constraints, limited budgets and constant pressure to deliver the next smash hit. The big difference is that projects are orders of magnitude more complex than they were thirty years ago.
Racing The Beam is slated for release on March 31, 2009 as the first title in The MIT Press Platform Studies series.
Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System [MIT Press]