May 4, 2011


The Atari Video Computer System
by Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost
192 pages, The MIT Press

Review by Hereward L. M. Proops

There's an interesting movement going on in the world of video games. The Xbox 360 and the Playstation 3 are the most technologically advanced game-systems available and with the Nintendo's groundbreaking Wii and the recent innovations of the 3DS, modern gamers are spoilt for choice. However, despite all the high-definition 3-D graphics, motion controls and online functionality available to the modern gamer, the new generation of consoles are increasingly looking to the past for inspiration. Just as Hollywood is looting the archives and remaking classic films, game designers are falling over themselves to release “re-imagined” hi-def versions of old games. All modern consoles utilise emulation software that makes it possible to download and play games from the past 30 years. Microsoft has the “Game Room” and Nintendo has the “Virtual Console”. “Retro Gamer” magazine recently won the award for best magazine at the Game Media Awards and a quick search on ebay reveals that the market for old consoles and games has never been healthier.

Although the Atari VCS (later known as the Atari 2600) was not the first video game console for homes, it was a huge success and dominated the video-game scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Countless classic arcade games were converted to the system (with varying degrees of success) and the era of the VCS saw a number of video-game “firsts”. “Racing the Beam” charts the history of the hugely successful console and provides a detailed insight into a handful of its more famous (and infamous) games.

Unlike modern consoles, the VCS was not powered by cutting edge technology. Instead, Atari chose to use cheaper and more readily available chips, believing that the system did not require substantial processing power. This was both a blessing and a curse. Costs were kept low but the game designers who programmed for the machine found themselves faced with the challenge of fitting their games onto cartridges with a measly 4k of ROM. Montfort and Bogost go into some depth when explaining how the programmers got around these obstacles. Although the book's authors may occasionally indulge in a little too much technobabble that only the hardest-core Atari fanboy will understand, even the layman will be able to appreciate the tricks employed by the programmers to get the games to fit on such a limited space. The book goes into a staggering amount of detail on the humble machine. Moving from the fathomless geekery of Atari's choice of chips and the unusual screen refresh rate to the numerous different controllers that were available, the humble machine is subjected to the kind of rigorous analysis that can only be seen as a labour of love.

Most chapters of the book based around individual games for the system. Montfort and Bogost scrutinise not just the technical achievements of each game but also the cultural impact that they had. Although the games look positively primitive by modern standards, one should never underestimate how much new ground the Atari VCS was able to break. For example, the game “Adventure” pretty much invented the graphical action-adventure genre (without it there would be no “Legend of Zelda” games) and was the first game to introduce the concept of multiple screens on through which the player could traverse. The Parker Brothers produced “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back” was the first time a popular film was adapted for a home video console and so paved the way for a deluge of cinematic tie-ins. David Crane's “Pitfall!” was a runaway success on the console and was considered one of the VCS' killer-apps. Crane's game introduced the character of Pitfall Harry who went on to be one of the first video-game icons.

Whilst “Racing the Beam” may well occasionally get bogged down in technical details, what shines through more than anything else the enthusiasm and energy with which its programmers tackled it. The system's constraints forced those working with it to think outside the box and as such, the VCS fostered a spirit of innovation and creativity which gave rise to a huge number of classic games. It pretty much goes without saying that if you aren't interested in the history of video-games, then this book will be about as appealing as a trip to the dentist. However, if you grew up with one of Atari's heavy wooden boxes in your living room, then you'll find this book utterly charming.

Hereward L.M. Proops

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