How the 2600 forged the home video game future.

Culture and technology.
March 9 2009 5:54 PM

Speak, Atari

How the 2600 forged the home video game future.

The Atari 2600
The Atari 2600

Born in the early 1970s, I've experienced only a few world-changing events along the lines of the automobile, the telephone, and the television. Sure, I was around the campus computer cluster when NCSA Mosaic was installed in 1994, but the Internet didn't make a grand entrance. (The UC Museum of Paleontology, a prominent early Web site, was only so interesting.) The World Wide Web doesn't compare with 1981, when my brother and I got an Atari 2600 for Christmas. Before Atari, no video games at home. After Atari, video games all the time. Males of a certain age will regale you with tales of long mornings roping cattle in Stampede and the distinctive thumb cramp that the joystick delivered. But enough nostalgia for now. Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost, two professors of media studies, have written a book, Racing the Beam, that approaches the beloved machine from a new angle: What was it like to program for the Atari 2600?

Examining the Atari 2600 as a device built of microprocessors, ROM, and I/O ports lets us glean a new lesson from its rise and fall: Simple, flexible machines make great gaming platforms because they inspire unexpected uses of the hardware. The potential downside of flexibility is the loss of quality control. The "North American video game crash of 1983" is partly attributed to the glut of cartridges for the 2600—consumers at the mall couldn't tell what was good or bad. Yet, as Montfort and Bogost write, the quirks and rudimentary nature of the 2600's hardware offered unanticipated ways to innovate on the platform and allowed for games as enjoyable as River Raid, as mockable as E.T., and as execrable as the "adult" Custer's Revenge.

Atari founder Nolan Bushnell had an ideal background to start a video game company. He was an electrical engineer who had worked as a barker for carnival games like the one in which you throw the ball in the basket to win an enormous stuffed animal, except you never do, unless you are a little girl whom the operator lets win in order to attract new marks. In the early '70s, Bushnell struggled to make a "tavern-grade" adaptation of Spacewar!, a game that ran on a minicomputer at his university and displayed graphics on an oscilloscope. In the early '70s, the tavern (otherwise known as the bar) was the place for video games, which were seen as offshoots of darts and pool and served the same purpose of keeping people around to eat and drink. Bushnell's game, named Computer Space, never took off, but it did have a brush with history: When the first Pongunit was installed in a Sunnyvale, Calif., tavern, Computer Spacewas in the place already.

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Pongwent on to worldwide fame and success, and Bushnell saw an opening by targeting kids and families. Atari developed a device called Home Pong that was sold exclusively through Sears. It did well, but how many Home Pongsdid a home need? The next idea was to develop a machine that could play many games. Atari could sell the device almost at cost and make money on the cartridges. With these goals, Atari began work on the Atari Video Computer System. (The VCS would be renamed the 2600 when the Atari 5200 debuted in 1982.) The machine had a cheap processor and a shockingly small amount of RAM—128 bytes—even for the time. But the result was low price. In 1977, an Apple II cost $1,298, while Atari sold the VCS for $199.

Bushnell left Atari in 1978 and went on to realize his vision of combining the carnival and the arcade by founding Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza Time Theatres. (A must-read for the curious: Anna Prior's Wall Street Journal article on what might account for the weird amount of violence at the chain.) Meanwhile, Atari changed living-room history. The VCS hardware was tailored to bring two popular coin-op games into the home: Tankand Pong. On the Atari, Tankwas rejiggered as Combat, the cartridge that came with Atari units. Even back in the day, Combatwas a letdown, only slightly less boring than Basic Math.

Montfort and Bogost, though, explain why Combat doesn't deserve my scorn. It was the testing ground for many fundamental Atari programming techniques, and the VCS's hardware led to the peculiarities of the game. The horizontal symmetry of the mazes or "playfields" were encouraged by the processor, for example, and once you had programmed the basic "tank vs. tank" scenario, the Atari's configuration made it easy to add variations such as "tank Pong," in which you could bounce shots off the walls, and the surreal "invisible tank," in which the tanks appeared only when firing or when hit. It's these kinds of insights that form the basis of what the authors call platform studies, analyzing how a computing platforms "constrain, shape, and support the creative work that is done on them."

The bigger, more headache-inducing Atari programming challenge was dealing with the TV. The cathode ray tube screens of the late '70s and early '80s used an electron gun that drew individual scan lines on the screen. To create something as simple as a tank or a pong paddle, Atari programmers had to choreograph an intricate timing dance between their code and the electron beam. The most basic accomplishments on the 2600 could take months of solo work. The famous programmer of Adventure, Warren Robinett, describes the process of developing a cartridge as essentially a form of folk art:

In those old far-off days, each game for the 2600 was done entirely by one person, the programmer, who conceived the game concept, wrote the program, did the graphics—drawn first on graph paper and converted by hand to hexadecimal—and did the sounds.

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