Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System

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.

racing the beam

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 (anticipating the boundless virtual spaces of such later games as World of Warcraft and Grand Theft Auto), by allowing the player to walk off one side into another space; and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back was an early instance of interaction between media properties and video games.

Montfort and Bogost show that the Atari VCS—often considered merely a retro fetish object—is an essential part of the history of video games.

Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System (Platform Studies) [@] Amazon

Follow

Garry Vander Voort

Editor/Podcaster at Retroist
The Retroist is like a BBQ on a bun without the bones. You're only human daddy. Chomp!
Follow

Latest posts by Garry Vander Voort (see all)

Subscribe to the Retroist Newsletter

* indicates required

4 thoughts on “Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System

  1. It’s quite amazing how they stretched the VCS to do things that it was never meant to do. Things like bankswitching ROM so they could make bigger games (up to 32k, on a machine that was designed to run 2k and 4k games), and writing screen kernels that allowed for more than the two players the machine had built in, to almost remove the flickering that early games suffered from. Even these days, hobbyists are stretching the VCS to do things that it was never meant to do. Putting control of the screen drawing in the hands of the programmer made the machine more flexible and powerful than the designers of the VCS ever imagined. It also made the machine a royal pain to program as well. Imagine having to count CPU cycles to determine where the current scanline position is, so that you can draw your players and enemies! There was no frame buffer in the VCS; something we take for granted these days…

  2. I’ve read a section of this and it looked too technical for my taste. Was I wrong in that? Are there good stories about the games?

  3. Lots of good stuff about the games and a great technical overview. I can see that being a little overwhelming at times, but it is worth the journey.

Leave a Reply