Saturday, 28 November 2020

Atari Battlezone (1980)

Introduced November 1980

Displays on early computer systems – and arcade games – tended to be divided into two categories. Most used a series of dots created line-by-line, like a domestic TV set – these were raster scan devices. But you don’t have to create a picture like that with an old-style cathode ray tube (CRT), you can draw lines from point-to-point too – these are vector devices.

Atari’s Lunar Lander and Asteroids games used vector displays to create cool space-age graphics, modelled in part on the look and feel of Spacewar! on the PDP-1 decades earlier. The next stage for Atari was an impressive evolution of vector graphics, with Battlezone.

Modern rendering of the periscope view of Battlezone
Modern rendering of the periscope view of Battlezone

Launched in November 1980, Atari’s Battlezone was set firmly on the ground. Instead of a spaceship, the player controlled a tank with two controllers that pushed backwards and forwards. Push both forwards, and the tank moved forwards, you would go backwards if both were pushed backwards, and to turn you would push one back and one forwards. A button on one of the controllers fired a shell towards enemy tanks prowling around the landscape, or faster super tanks, UFOs or missiles.

The gameplay was fairly straightforward, but the graphics set it apart. In the standard versions, the player would look through a periscope with a lens in it and some painted on artwork, to simulate a real tank. What they saw was a flat plane with an occasional enemy, distant mountains and a live volcano, a crescent moon and random geometric shapes scattered around which could act either as cover or as obstacles. The wire-frame vector graphics, given a primitive but compelling 3D experience.

The enemy often wasn’t visible at all, except for being on radar. A frantic swing around to find the opposing tank would often be too late to avoid an incoming round. Unseen objects could block escape routes, or alternatively save your bacon and block an attack. All the time, the mountains beckoned in the distance. Could you ever reach them? All sorts of rumours and myths abounded, sadly untrue.

Battlezone machine with periscope
Battlezone machine with periscope

The game was a huge hit, but the periscope remained one of the most divisive parts. Although it added to the feel of the game, you had to be able to reach it and it wasn’t always the most hygienic thing to press your face into. Some later versions removed the periscope which made the game more accessible.

Battlezone also had official ports to most of the popular systems of the early 1980s, include the Apple II, Commodore 64, Sinclair ZX Spectrum, Atari 8-bit machines and the Atari ST. Unofficial versions and games inspired by Battlezone proliferated across every  platform you can think of and are still popular today. Vintage machines seem rare, with prices in the US being around $5000, but if you want a more modern (and compact) VR experience you could try something like the PlayStation 4 version.

Image credits:
Gamerscore Blog via Flickr – CC BY-SA 2.0
Russell Bernice via Flickr – CC BY 2.0

Sunday, 22 November 2020

Berzerk (1980)

 Launched November 1980

The golden age of arcade games features many classic games that are still fondly remembered and played today, but one that has been somewhat forgotten is Berzerk, launched by Stern Electronics in November 1980.

The basic gameplay of Berzerk was that the player was trapped in a series of mazes and had to shoot robots who were themselves shooting back. An indestructible enemy called Otto would turn up. Getting shot by a robot, walking into a robot, being too close to a robot that was shot, bumping into the electrified walls or being caught by Otto would all result in death. The player does have the option of escaping to another one of the thousands of possible rooms to fight again.


Although the gameplay was novel, what really made Berzerk stand out was speech synthesis. Although the game itself was powered by the popular Zilog Z80 processor (clocked at 2.5MHz), the speech was provided by a TSI S14001A chip that had originally been designed for a talking calculator. The games used speech to attract players with “coin detected in pocket” and then chattered and taunted the player throughout the game.

Berzerk was a hit – gaining some notoriety along the way – and was successfully ported to Atari and Vectrex gaming consoles. Stern followed up with a successful partnership with bringing Konami games to US markets, but by the mid-1980s the bottom dropped out of the market in a huge crash that took Stern with it.

Ports and conversions of Berzerk exist to this day and aren’t hard to find, but collecting arcade machines themselves is a bit of a niche hobby. We found an original cabinet in the US for $1200, which is not much compared to some better known games.

Perhaps the lasting legacy of Berzerk was that it helped to kick start voice synthesis, although it took decades for this to became good enough to use all the time. Stern themselves were resurrected as a brand in 1999 when the assets of Sega’s pinball operations were spin off, and Stern Pinball make machines to this day.

Image credit:
The Pop Culture Geek Network via Flickr - CC BY-NC 2.0

Sunday, 15 November 2020

Super Nintendo Entertainment System (1990)

 Introduced November 1990 (Japan)

The best-selling 16-bit gaming console, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (or just “SNES”) ruled the roost in the early 1990s, despite an epic battle with the Sega Mega Drive. Relatively late to the market, one of the key reasons for the success of the SNES was better games and good marketing.

Nintendo SNES (PAL Version)

Models varied throughout the world with different cases between North America, Japan and Europe with imcompatible cartridge slots and region locking in both hardware and software. In Japan the console was called the “Super Famicom”. At its heart was an unusual 16-bit development of the venerable 6502 processor called the Ricoh 5A22 – the previous generation Nintendo Entertainment System used another 6502 derivative, this time the Ricoh 2A03.

A wide range of colour graphics modes, an impressive audio subsystem called S-SMP (made by Sony) and ergonomically designed controllers made the SNES a capable hardware platform. But with games consoles, that’s just one of the ingredients you need for success.

What the SNES did have was games... lots of games. Super Mario, Mario Kart, Donkey Kong, Final Fantasy, Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, SimCity and many more games were available. Many games were only available on Nintendo platforms, some (such as Mortal Kombat) were available of several. Nintendo did insist of elements of graphic violence being removed from games, which made them more family-friendly but ultimately probably lost them sales.

Depending on market, the SNES was around for about a decade and sold an astonishing 49 million units compared to the Mega Drive’s 32 million or so. A few revisions were made to the hardware, along with quite a lot of hardware expansions that had a limited audience, but ultimately the success of the SNES continued well into the 32-bit console era.

There’s a healthy retro gaming community around the SNES – used units are inexpensive, although game cartridges – especially rare ones – can be worth much more that the systems themselves. In 2017, Nintendo released the Super NES Classic Edition – a modern take on the classic console. There are also emulators and other reimagined versions out there – even after 30 years, the SNES still has the power to captivate gamers.

Image credit: JCD1981NL via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY 3.0

Saturday, 7 November 2020

DEC PDP-1 (1960)

First unit shipped November 1960

In 1960, the Massachusetts firm Digital Equipment Corporation (typically known as “DEC” or just “Digital”) was just three years old. Founded by two ex-MIT engineers, DEC’s earliest products were small computing modules on cards that could be used in labs, the design of which was based on work originally done at MIT.

The company advanced quickly, and in 1959 it announced a minicomputer based on these modules, which they called the PDP-1. “PDP” stood for “Programmable Data Processor” – according to legend this was because DEC was afraid that IBM might sue if they called it a “computer”, but in reality it seems that this approach was because computer companies were regarded as high-risk for investors, where lab equipment companies were less so.


Although clever and flexible in approach, the modules still consisted of individual transistors and other components soldered to a board. This meant that the overall system was quite large (weighing hundreds of kilograms). It was 36-bit computer with the equivalent of just 9.2Kb of memory, mass storage was provided by paper tape and output could be to a printer or weird circular CRT that had basically been transplanted from a radar system.

Prices started at $130,000 for a basic system (around a million dollars today) which made it a feasible purchase for well-funded labs, universities and tech-oriented companies. It was essentially a single-user system until the development of timesharing OSes such as the one from BBN. As a comparison, an IBM 7090 mainframe computer of the same era cost around $2.9 million ($20 million today), and although the PDP-1 was much less powerful it was much more flexible and it could be programmed to do things that were impossible on a tightly buttoned-down mainframe.

Things that you couldn’t do on a mainframe but could do on a PDP-1 included playing synthesised music and a key early video game – Spacewar!. A precursor of much later video games such as Asteroids, the game used the Type 30 vector display of the PDP-1 to show two opposing spacecraft fighting each other around the gravitational field of a sun. The Type 30’s long persistent phosphor added to the space-age gameplay and of course it became a major reason for people to book time on their department’s PDP-1 for (ahem) “research”.


DEC were still a fledgling company, and although the PDP-1 was a success it only shipped 53 units. However, just five years later DEC was growing quickly and the 12-bit PDP-8 launched in 1965 shipped an astonishing 50,000 units over its lifetime, and five years after that the 16-bit PDP-11 eventually shipped 600,000 units. As an aside, DEC also made 36-bit and 32-bit computers in the 60s and 70s, to add to the confusion.

The architecture used in the PDP-1 turned out to be a dead end, ending in 1970 with the PDP-15. However, it helped start a revolution in small-scale computing which – after nearly two decades – allowed everybody who wanted one to have a computer on their desk. Unfortunately for DEC, they never could successfully transition from minis to micros, but that is another story.

Image credits:
M.Hawksey via Flickr – CC BY 2.0
Kenneth Lu via Flickr – CC BY 2.0

Thursday, 5 November 2020

Apple III (1980)

Introduced November 1980

The legendary Apple II series was one of the most successful computers ever, selling millions of units in a 16 year run from 1977 to 1993. But despite that success, Apple repeatedly tried to kill off the Apple II and replace it with something better. The Apple III was the first attempt… and one of the most disastrous.

Apple III with Profile Hard Disk
Apple III with Profile Hard Disk

It was released to the market in November 1980, and on paper it looked like it should succeed – based on the 6502 processor like its predecessor, it had 128Kb of RAM included, supported lowercase characters (unlike the Apple II), built-in colour graphics and 80 column text and a new operating system called Apple SOS. A floppy disk was included as standard, and the Apple III also had sound.

Despite the similarity in hardware, the Apple III wasn’t compatible with the Apple II in normal operations, but it did have a special emulation mode it could be booted into. But this was one of the Apple III’s many poor design decisions – the Apple III could only emulate an Apple II with 48Kb of memory when a lot of software demanded the full 64Kb. There wasn’t any good technical reason for this either, it was purely a marketing decision. Similar access to other advanced parts of the Apple III hardware (such as the 80 column display and lowercase letters) were deliberately blocked too, but the memory limitations meant that the Apple III did not make a very good Apple II.

Unfortunately the problems ran much deeper. The physical design of the Apple III had been determined by the marketing team, not the engineering team. So when it came to squeezing all the bits in, the engineers couldn’t make it all fit. To get round this, the Apple III motherboard was designed with very narrow tracks and a large number of soldered-on components to save space. However, the quality of the manufacturing process was not up to such precise work and a large proportion of Apple IIIs were faulty out of the box.

Overheating was a major problem too – in order to keep noise and size to a minimum, the III had no fans but instead was meant to dissipate heat into the aluminium casing. Heating would lead to system crashes and according to legend, chips would pop out of their sockets and disks could melt. Other hardware problems included a faulty real-time clock which would eventually fail and be difficult to replace.

A chronic lack of software was combined with a lack of documentation, making it had for independent developers to create new software and hardware. Compared to this, the Apple II had a huge software library and the system was well-documents and easy to work with.

The launch was a complete disaster, and it soon became clear that Apple hadn’t done any real testing on this unit and the product was unfit for purpose. Sales were quickly suspended and all the sold units recalled for re-engineering. A redesigned circuit board (and the removal of the troublesome clock) fixed most of the issues and the Apple III was re-introduced to market a year later, in November 1981.

Apple III Plus

Consumers were not keen on the revised model at all, because the reputation of the early ones was so bad that it tainted the newer and more reliable models.  A lightly revised Apple III Plus launched in December 1983 did not turn around sales either and in April 1984 the entire product line was permanently cancelled.

In three and a half years of on-off sales, the Apple III had only shipped about 120,000 units – and many of these were to replace faulty ones. The entire project lost tens of millions of dollars, but fortunately for Apple it survived because of buoyant sales of the Apple II. Apple’s next main product launch following the Apple III was the Apple Lisa, which was also a high-profile commercial failure.

It took more than a decade to kill of the Apple II – the Mac LC from 1990 helped – by which time the Apple III had been long forgotten. Today, Apple III systems are rare but usually only cost a few hundred dollars for one in working order.

Image credits:
Adam Jenkins via Flickr - CC BY 2.0
Tellegee via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 4.0