Monday 25 November 2019

Galaxian (1979)

Introduced November 1979

Galaxian was launched at a time when arcade games were becoming really popular – and profitable. Following the trail laid by 1978’s Space Invaders was Namco’s Galaxian. Despite there only being about a year and a half between these two products, Galaxian was a huge improvement.

Fundamentally the concept of the game was pretty similar to Space Invaders – the player controlled a spaceship at the bottom of the screen which could move left or right and fire. Arranged in neat rows at the top were hostile aliens that the player had to wipe out. But Galaxian was a much richer gaming experience.

The most obvious improvement that this game was in colour, unlike the monochrome Space Invaders that used plastic strips to give the *illusion* of colour. And instead of the aliens slowly shuffling their way across and down the screen, the enemies in Galaxian swooped down shooting, either singly or in a group. Combine that with simple but well-polished sound effects and it all added up to a game that made Space Invaders look primitive.

Inside was a Zilog Z80 processor which really was next-generation stuff compared to the old Intel 8080 in Space Invaders, plus of course electronics components were improving all the time which helped enormously. It wasn’t just hardware though, Galaxian was also efficiently coded to squeeze as much out of the hardware as it could.

Namco found that it had a huge hit on its hands, first in Japan and then in North America after partnering with Midway (who had previously partnered with Taito on Space Invaders). Galaxian went on to be one of the definitive arcade games of the early 1980s and it was eventually ported to many other platforms. The official follow-on – Galaga – was an even bigger hit, and Namco themselves continue on to this day having merged with Bandai in 2006 to create Bandai Namco.

Wednesday 13 November 2019

Asteroids (1979)

Introduced November 1979

1979 was a landmark year for Atari – the launch of the popular 400 and 800 computers, the Lunar Lander arcade game and the continued success of the VCS games console meant that Atari was very much becoming a cornerstone technology company of the late 70s and early 80s.

Asteroids Gameplay (click to enlarge)
Asteroids Cabinet
The next step in the story was the Atari Asteroids arcade game. Based on the same basic hardware as Lunar Lander, Asteroids was a much more playable game. In case you’ve never seen any of the many versions of Asteroids that followed the 1979 classic, the basic idea is to blast large chunks of rocks into smaller chunks and then destroy them completely using a small spaceship that can move about the screen. Flying saucers will also appear and attempt to shoot the player to give it an extra degree of complexity. Although not strictly following the laws of physics, the game has a fair approximation which gives it an atypical gameplay for an arcade machine.

Like Lunar Lander, this was a vector graphics games powered by a 6502 with some rudimentary sounds hard-wired in. Although the controls were different (with five buttons to rotate left and right, fire, thrust and hyperspace).

The game was an enormous success, raking in tens of millions of dollars for both Atari and the arcade operators. Demand for the games was so great that Atari cannibalised some of their Lunar Lander boxes to meet it, and it became the most popular arcade machine in the world… for a while.

Sequels, spin-offs and clones followed on just about every console and computer system known to mankind. Forty years later it is still a popular game, although the days of CRT machines with vector graphics are long gone. If you want the original thing, they are pretty hard to come by and most of those available seem to be in the US with a price of $1500 or so for the classic cabinet version and around $500 for the cocktail table variant.

Image credits:
Michael F. via Flickr
killbox via Flickr

Sunday 3 November 2019

Atari 400 / 800 (1979)

Atari 800 (1979)
Introduced November 1979

In the late 1970s the microcomputer revolution had been kicked off by the holy trinity of the PET, Apple II and TRS-80 which all launched in 1977. Then – as now – two years is a long time in technology and even those these computers well selling well in in 1979 there were better machines coming along.

Atari was an established player in the consumer electronics market since the early 1970s, but although they were eager to capitalise on the new microprocessors launching in the later part of that decade they had taken a different path with the Atari VCS (later called the 2600) launched at the same time as rivals were launching home computers instead.

The Atari VCS was a significant hit, however Atari’s own engineers though that it would have a very limited lifespan (although in fact it was in production in one form or another for 15 years). Development of an improved version based on the VCS architecture started immediately after the product was launched.

When the Atari 400 and 800 were launched two years later it turned out that the VCS had evolved into something very much more advanced. Based on the popular 6502 processor, both the 400 and 800 were fully-featured microcomputers much like the competition, but they also came with a convenient cartridge slot like a games console… which most of the competition did not.

During the design phase it was envisaged that the 400 and 800 would be quite different computers, but in the end they were fundamentally the same. The main differences were that the 400 had 16KB of RAM, a single cartridge slot and a membrane keyboard compared to the 800’s 48KB of RAM, two cartridge slots and a traditional mechanical keyboard.
Atari 400 showing cartridge slot (1979)

At launch the 800 was priced at $1000 with the 400 coming in at $550. Because you had to add a monitor plus some sort of storage (i.e. a cassette or disk drive) then it could add up to being quite an expensive system. However, the hardware was much more sophisticated than earlier rivals.

Featuring two graphics support chips (ANTIC and CTIA) plus another I/O chip that handled sound and everything else (POKEY) plus four joystick ports and a serial expansion bus, these 8-bit Ataris were easily more capable than the first-generation of microcomputers they were up against. They made excellent games machines, but they were also capable of doing everything that any other contemporary microcomputer would do.

FCC regulations of the time basically mandated that the whole computer be hidden inside a cast aluminium block, making the Atari 400 and 800 especially sturdy. These regulations also led to the development of a novel serial bus (called SIO) that allowed components to be daisy-chained to a single interface port on the computer itself. This solution was ahead of its time and is conceptually similar to the way USB peripherals work, but it had the disadvantage of making plug-in devices much more expensive.
Atari 130XE (1985)

Still, the advanced features of the device made the Atari 400 and 800 very popular, but high production costs meant that Atari made little – if any – profit from them at the beginning. A brutal price war in the early 1980s hit hard, but Atari fought on with the cheaper but more sleek "XL" line (notably the 600XL and 800XL). The 8-bit Atari range had an unexpected boost with the fall of the Iron Curtain in the late 1980s which led to huge sales success in these emerging markets due to the low-cost nature of these computers with even cheaper “XE” machines (the 65XE, 130XE and 800XE) plus a games console based directly on the same architecture (XEGS).

In all there were three generations of the Atari 800 and its siblings, with production lasting until 1992 – the same year that Atari finally pulled the VCS games console. The popular Atari ST – based on the Motorola 68000 – was launched in 1985, giving the company a new lease of life into the 1990s.

Today the Atari 800 is more readily available than the 400 for collectors, with prices varying between tens and hundreds of pounds depending on condition and peripherals. The later 800XL is much more common and tends to be cheaper. Alternatively various emulators are available if you want to try it that way instead.

Image credits:
Bilby via Wikimedia Commons
Rama & Musée Bolo via Wikimedia Commons
Multicherry via Wikimedia Commons