Friday, March 24, 2017

Breakout - How Atari 8-bit Computers Defined A Generation: A Review

I just finished reading Jamie Lendino's excellent new book, Breakout - How Atari 8-bit Computers Defined A Generation. Right off, I can say that this book is written with a lot of love, respect and passion for the Atari 8-bit line of home computers. At just under 300 pages, it is an easy read that can be finished in a day or so. It is well researched and extensively footnoted. Whomever edited this book also did an amazing job.

The book is basically broken down into three sections, with one or more chapters in each section:
  • Section One: The Past 1979-1992 (more or less)
  • Section Two: The Games (from the author's perspective)
  • Section Three: The Now (Emulation, Collecting, Mods, Community) 

Section One

This section covers the pre-1992 years. There isn't much new content here. As you are reading this particular blog, you are likely to know many of the details in this section: the timeline, the players, the products, the problems, etc. What this book does brilliantly, is it walks through Michael Current's Atari 8-bit FAQ and pulls in additional details from various sources, including books, magazines, interview and online such as atarimania, atariage and, among others. The author also adds in some personal anecdotes and a bit of humor and creates a very readable history. Works by Chris Crawford are heavily referenced and footnoted.

One factoid on page 61, "...The Home Manager: Included the Personal Financial Management System (PFMS) and The Home Filing Manager... may need to be double checked. From my recent research, it seems that while the early marketing for the Home Manager Kit stated that the PFMS would be included, it actually shipped with Family Finances after PFMS was cancelled.

Section Two

This section covers a selection of games that Lendino found notable. This section is probably longer than it needed to be. If you are the type of person who might read this book, you probably don't need much detail on the game play of any of the Atari 8-bit ports that are in the list of the top 100 video games from the Golden Age of Arcades.

Lendino also give some short, insightful, personal anecdotes as he discusses his various game choices. I particularly liked his Activision/David Crane/Pitfall story on pages 193 and 194. He also injects some additional humor such as on page 131, his "... in what is clearly a nod to political correctness ..." comment to a statement that clearly is not.

It was nice to see Tom Hudson of A.N.A.L.O.G. Computing fame get a shout-out for Livewire, a magazine type-in game, that was included along with the other commercially released software titles.

The author also laments about some of the iconic games that have never been available on the Atari 8-bit platform, such as Wizardry, The Bard's Tale and Ultima V. Man after my own heart, as these are some of my personal favorites, which I ended up playing on the Apple II.

Section Three

In this section, the author covers the current state of Ataridom including emulation, collecting, mods, the Atari 8-bit community, resources and more. This is the section that might have been longer, but he does cover a lot of the hardware and mods that are available today. Lendino discusses one particular piece of discontinued hardware, Joe Grand's Stelladapter from Atariage/Pixels Past, which allows you to plug an Atari controller into a USB port to be used with emulation. There is a similar, but unmentioned product available called the 2600-daptor.  

In this section, Lendino almost seems to be passing the torch from the first generation of Atarians, such as Joe Decuir, Chris Crawford, Glenn The 5200, etc., to a new generation of Atarians, those collectors, historians and archivists that keep the history alive, such as Michael Currant, Kevin Savetz, Curt Vendel and others. He also gives credit to the Eastern European designers, programmers and hackers that continue to breathe new life into forty year old technology.

Final Thoughts

Any book that mentions Atari 8-bit computers, the Ultima series of computer role playing games and BBSing before even getting to the first chapter is going to keep me reading. This book has something for everyone in the Atari 8-bit community: history, games (all the games you know and love and maybe a few you never heard of), emulation, mods and more. I may have learned a few things (Atari/IBM, page 23), or to be more precise, relearned some things that I forgot I knew.

While this book is not an autobiography or memoir like Kevin Savetz's Terrible Nerd or Rob O'Hara's slightly more nefarious Commodork: Sordid Tales From A BBS Junkie, Lendino does include some of his childhood experiences. This book is about the Atari 8-bit technology and the games that run on it. And for those of us who have never really left our Atari 8-bit days behind, it helps reaffirm our admiration for a platform that was both underappreciated and ahead of its time.

At $17.99 on Amazon, this well written, well edited, enjoyable book is well worth the asking price.

Twitter: @BillLange1968

Monday, March 20, 2017


Dinkety-Dink-Dink Ad
Music Construction Set
Compute! Magazine #50
July 1984

This Dinkety-Dink-Dink ad for Will Harvey's Music Construction Set software package appeared on page 23 in the July 1984 issue of Compute! magazine. Will Harvey's Music Construction Set was designed and programming by, da-dada-DAAA, Will Harvey, of course, and published by Electronic Arts in 1984. It was originally written on an Apple II, then ported to or rewritten for the various popular home computers of the day including the ATARI 8-bit machines.

Electronic Arts
October 1984

There is an additional ad featuring Music Construction Set and other Electronic Arts software on page 7 of the October 1984 issue of Compute! magazine, offering a Buy 2 software titles, Get 1 Free deal. Electronic Arts advertised heavily in Compute!, a magazine that covered all the major small computing platforms at the time. They didn't advertise as much in ATARI specific magazines such as Antic or ANALOG Computing.

Music Construction Set
Title Screen

There is a review of Music Construction Set by Braden Griffin, M.D., beginning on page 18 of the December 1984 issue of ANALOG Computing magazine. The review starts out asking the question "...What would MTV be without music...", ah, worthless shows like Jersey Shore Braden, that's what. Anywho, the review goes on to state:
The excellent manual --- which progresses through the basics necessary for music composition in an entertaining and straightforward manner --- is complemented by a handy reference card, containing all of the control features. Anyone the least bit interested in talking full advantage of the ATARI's music capabilities should look seriously at this program. It is great... This superb program, from its unique design to its masterful approach to imparting musical knowledge ...   
There is a detailed interview titled A Conversation with Will Harvey with Will Harvey in the February 2004, Vol. 1, No. 10 isssue ACM Queue magazine, a publication of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM). In the interview, Harvey is discussing a game he wrote and states ...
... It was a space invaders type game called Lancaster, and it was for the Apple II. Meanwhile, I needed to have music in the game. I didn't know too much about it, so I wrote a music editor, kind of like a word processor, that would allow you to copy sheet music onto the screen, then convert it to MIDI [musical instrument digital interface], which was just beginning at the time, and play it back for you. It would also save it as a MIDI file so I could then have the game play it in the background. As it turned out, the music editor, called Music Construction Set, became an enormous hit. Electronic Arts picked it up in about 1983 or '84. It was educational, it was creative, it was fun. It was a new category of software that was perfect for the time. I was able to take the proceeds from it and build a little video-game company. I've been doing it ever since ...

Will Harvey was aged 15 when he wrote Lancaster and started working on Music Construction Set. He taught himself Apple 6502 assembly language by reading Roger Wagner's Assembly Lines column in Softalk magazine. According the aforementioned review, Will Harvey was also an Eagle Scout, 4.0 student, president of the student body and high school football player ... and Batman apparently. Good for you Mr. Harvey, good for you!

by Will Harvey

You can find the complete run of Softalk magazine including the outstanding Assembly Lines series of articles by Roger Wagner on

Music Construction Set was originally published in 1984 and, two years later, was still a best selling Educational software title in 1986 as shown in the following Software Best Sellers list compiled by the Billboard Research Department of Billboard Publications, Inc., and published on page 18 in the September 1986 issue of Compute! magazine:

Software Best Sellers
Compute! Magazine
September 1986

There is an Apple ad featuring Music Construction Set running on an Apple IIc inside the front cover of the October 1985 issue of Compute! magazine. I enjoyed this ad as well, as around September 1985, after three and a half years, I had switched from using my beloved ATARI as my main computer to using an Apple IIc. I purchase the Apple at the beginning of my senior year in high school, as that was the platform that we were using in my Computer Science II/Pascal class.

Music Construction Set / Apple IIc
October 1985

One final note, Music Construction Set followed in the line of Electronic Arts' other Construction Set software including Pinball Construction Set, Adventure Construction Set and Racing Destruction Set. These programs attempted to use similar interfaces and icons.


While you can find an archive of Music Construction Set on atarimania.  The archive there currently doesn't have any documentation and only one disk of music. I'm sure that will be updated soon. I've put an additional archive up on with the documentation and an additional disk image of music.

The following music is contained in the archive:

Disk 1 Music (MCS Boot Disk)
  • NEW

Disk 2 Music
  • SPAC2001
  • NTR

If you have any additional music for the ATARI 8-bit version of Will Harvey's Music Construction Set, please send it along and I'll see that it gets archived for the community to enjoy.

Thanks to Allan Bushman for help with this blog post!

Twitter: @BillLange1968

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

A Welcome Addition

A Welcome Addition
US News And World Report

This A Welcome Addition ad appeared in the pages of U.S. News & World Report magazine in 1982.

The ad shows a young, expecting couple, thoughtfully analyzing their household budget, which was prepared with their ATARI 800 home computer. The concerned look on their faces show that their actual budget may not have matched their anticipated budget.

Displayed on the shelf above and behind the couple are the ATARI software packages for Mortgage & Loan Analysis, Graph It, Conversational Spanish and Caverns Of Mars. Yes, this is another ad where I needed to get out the magnifying glass.

The ad copy mentions both ATARI's Personal Financial Management System and ATARI's Home Filing Manager. The small print at the bottom of the ad states that the "estimated product availability of Personal Financial Management System, My First Alphabet and Home Filing Manager" to be "mid-1982".  

Personal Financial Management System

At the bottom of the ad is a stock ATARI HOME COMPUTERS photograph showing a television, the ATARI 400, the ATARI 800 and the following software packages: Graph It, Missile Command, Mortgage & Loan Analysis, Energy Czar, Stock Charting, Conversational Spanish, ATARI Word Processor, Mailing List, Star Raiders, Statistics I and Music Composer. The television displays what appears to be My First Alphabet. This photograph has been used in multiple ads, with only the image that is displayed on the television changing from ad to ad. You can find the same photograph in other ads with the television shown to display Star Raiders, States & Capitals or other ATARI software.

If you are interested, you can find more detailed information about Mortgage & Loan Analysis, Graph It, Home Filing Manager, Stock Charting, ATARI Word Processor, Mailing List, Statistics I and States & Capitals on Wade Ripkowski's InverseATASCII Atari 8 Bit Productivity Podcast.

So whatever happened to ATARI's Personal Financial Management System software? I'm so glad you asked. Read on ...

Personal Financial Management System
1981 Software Catalog Announcement

ATARI's Personal Financial Management System was announced in an ATARI 1981 SOFTWARE CATALOG with an estimated availability date of Second Quarter 1981. It was also announced as "... a database-oriented system designed to help the user plan and analyze a home budget ..." in the pages of Compute! magazine on page 158 of the June 1981 issue. An ad for it appears on page 6 of the September 1981 issue of SoftSide magazine. It was eventually released by ATARI in the first half of 1982.

There is a detailed review of the product by Ed and Sharon Middlebrook beginning on page 23 in the February 1982 issue of the M.A.C.E. Newsletter, a monthly publication by and for the members of the Michigan Atari Computer Enthusiasts Users Group.

Ed and Sharon Middlebrook state that "It was with great delight that we agreed to test the Atari Personal Financial Management System." They cover the features and documentation of the product. They also mention a few "irritations" and a "major fault" in that "IT DOESN'T WORK PROPERLY". They go on to state "At this point, we simply cannot recommend the ATARI Personal Financial Management System under any circumstances. If and when ATARI fixes the programs, it will be a worthwhile addition to almost anyone's library. As it stands, it rates a straight 'F' for failure..." Wow, that is a no holds barred review!

Personal Financial Management System
Instruction Manual Cover

Months later, in the August 1982 issue of the M.A.C.E. Newsletter, there is a product recall announcement on page 3 stating:
ATARI Personal Finance Recall - The Personal Financial Management System has been dropped by ATARI. You may remember that MACE member[s] Ed [and Sharon] Middlebrook was [were] the first to report the serious bugs in the system earlier this year. A new release was quietly shipped and pulled again when the new version was found to be not much better than the old. Anyone who purchased the package and doesn't have an overwhelming personal attachment to it may receive a full refund of the purchase price by returning it to ATARI along with the original sales slip. They'll also throw in a certificate worth $10 toward the purchases of the APX's (Atari Program Exchange) home budget system.
ATARI's Personal Financial Management System is offhandedly mentioned as a new product in an editorial by Lee Pappas on page 4 of issue #7 of ANALOG Computing (September 1982).

Family Budget Is Right!

In the following issue of ANALOG Computing, issue #8 in November 1982, ATARI's Personal Financial Management System is reviewed beginning on page 28 in an article titled Budget Programs Review. This review starts off well enough, "... people might be tempted to buy because of the superb packaging job. This program consists of 3 diskettes and a 3-ring binder instruction manual written with ATARI's typical step-by-step thoroughness ...", but that, unfortunately, is the high point. The review ends with an endnote that states "NOTE: Some little bugs have been discovered in the ATARI Personal Financial Management System, and we have learned that this program will be taken off the market temporarily for corrections."

So, there you have it. ATARI's Personal Financial Management System was announced with a late 1981 release date, then re-announced in the A Welcome Addition ad with a mid-1982 release date, released, updated and re-announced with a First Quarter 1983 release on page 17 in ATARI's 1982 Discover the World of ATARI HOME COMPUTERS catalog, then quickly discontinued, never to be seen again. Users were then pointed to the Family Budget software package by Jerry Falkenhan published by APX. Yes, that's right, an expensive, professionally written, well documented and exhaustively marketed software package, years in the making (and marketing), was replaced by what was basically a homebrew. Good for you, Mr. Jerry Falkenhan! You can read about Family Budget on page 10 of the Summer 1982 APX catalog.

Family Budget
By Jerry Falkenhan
Atari Program Exchange

Note that ATARI's Personal Financial Management System was also announced as part of ATARI's The Home Manager Kit (CX418), one of many quick start kits that ATARI marketed, with an estimated availability date of First Quarter 1983, on page 5 of the 1982 Discover the World of ATARI HOME COMPUTERS catalog. As released, this kit contained The Home Filing Manager and Family Finances, but not the Personal Financial Management System. The Family Finances software was originally two separate APX programs, Family Cash Flow and the aforementioned Family Budget. These two programs were repackaged and added to ATARI's mainline catalog.
ATARI's Unreleased
The Home Manager Kit
Personal Financial Management System

The AtariWiki has more detailed information on ATARI's Personal Financial Management System, including disk images, screenshots, photographs, documentation and other ephemera.

If you have some spare time and are interested in fixing the bugs in the Personal Financial Management System software, it consists of multiple ATARI BASIC-based programs and the source code is available on the AtariWiki.

Twitter: @BillLange1968

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Omnitrend's Universe

This Omnitrend's Universe ad appeared on page 92 of issue 13 of ANALOG Computing magazine in November 1983. 

Universe, designed and programmed by Thomas R. Carbone and William G.M. Leslie III with ATARI 3D Graphics routines by William Volk, is an immersive and complex spaceship simulator and science fiction role playing game. The original version was created on an ATARI 800 in valForth. In addition to the ATARI 8-bit release, there were also versions for the Apple II and the IBM PC. It was Omnitrend's first published game.  

While ads for Universe began appearing in the fall of 1983, reviews didn't start to emerge until the summer of 1984. There are two reviews of Universe starting on page 14 of the June 1984 issue of Computer Gaming World magazine. ANALOG Computing magazine had a review beginning on page 33 of Issue 20 in July 1984. Antic magazine had a review beginning on page 81, in Vol. 3, No. 5 in September 1984. Even BYTE magazine had a review in Vol. 10, No. 5 on page 311 in May, 1985.   

For more details on the ATARI version, Chris Edgar maintains a Universe FAQ which contains a wealth of information on the game including versions, bug reports and possible workarounds.

Isaac Asimov

What is Universe? Great question. Have you ever read the phenomenal Foundation series of books starting with 1951's Foundation by Russian-American author Isaac Asimov? Did you ever play (and hack) Mike Mayfield's text-based BASIC computer game Star Trek or Dave Kaufman's text-based BASIC computer game Star Trader. Have you ever played the 1977 Traveller table-top role playing game by Game Developer's Workshop? Did you ever wonder what Han Solo was doing BEFORE he met Luke? Have you ever watched the amazing, but short lived (with possible reboot in the works) TV series Firefly? Imagine combining all of these and you begin to get the idea. Universe is a highly detailed spaceship simulator were you get to design your ship and then take it out for adventure and profit (legal or otherwise).

Role Playing Game
by Game Developer's Workshop

Universe is a very involving game. It requires the player to calculate hyper jump coordinates for intermediate jumps between known stellar systems for the navigation computer, calculate minimum orbits for planets in order to launch shuttles and analyze nearby contacts to determine if it is time for flight or fight! It is so immersive and complex, with a detailed manual approaching 100 pages, you could spend an inordinate amount of time outside of the game just planning the design and layout of the equipment aboard your spaceship for optimal energy usage and defense or planning your next Axia to Zeath trade run for maximum profit.

Omnitrend's Universe
High Definition Scan Of Near By Contact
"Too Close For Missiles, Switching To Laser Projectors"

At $89.95, Universe was by far the most that I ever paid for a computer game, then or since. I also purchased the optional Complete Product Guide for another $15 or so. Add in a box of 5 1/4 floppy disks for the player disk and player disk backups, a package of loose leaf paper for notes and some loose leaf hole reinforcements for the well-used manual pages, and I was in for well over $100.00 on one game. This may have been the most expensive (and most complex) game released for the ATARI 8-bit line. It was for me anyway.

If you know of a more expensive or more complex game for the ATARI 8-bit, please leave a comment below and let me know.

Calculating Planetary Orbits!

The Complete Product Guide was helpful when playing Universe as a trader. It helped to avoid bringing contraband items to planets where they were banned, saving you violations, fines or worse! To be honest, for the price of this game, these few extra pages should have been included as part of the manual.

Omnitrend's Universe
Successfully Clearing Customs

Universe was one of my top three favorite games/series for the ATARI 8-bit computers. The others are Richard Garriott's Ultima series (Ultima IUltima IIUltima III and Ultima IV) and the Infocom's Enchanter interactive fiction series (EnchanterSorcerer and Spellbreaker).

To learn more about Interactive Fiction, check out Jason Scott's amazing documentary Get Lamp, Nick Montfort's Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction and/or Creating Interactive Fiction with Inform 7 by Aaron Reed. These are three great sources on the subject.

Other than Universe, to date, I have not played any of Omnitrend's other computer games such as Universe II, Universe III, Breach, Breach 2, Breach 3, Paladin, Paladin II, Rules of Engagement or Rules of Engagement 2, none of which were released for the ATARI 8-bit.

Other Contemporary Science Fiction Role Playing Games

It was a great time to be an armchair star ship captain, within a few months of each other, Omnitrend's Universe (September 1983) came out for the ATARI 8-bit computers, SunDog: Frozen Legacy (March 1984) by FTL Games came out for the Apple II series of computers and Elite (September 1984) came out for the BBC Micro and Acorn Electron computers. At the same time, Trade Wars by Chris Sherrick, a cross between the board game Risk created by Albert Lamorisse, Gregory Yob's Hunt the Wumpus and Dave Kaufman's Star Trader, began to appear on computer bulletin board systems (BBS). Trade Wars and its offspring would go on to be one of the premier BBS door games of BBS era, 1978-ish to 1995-ish. What is a BBS? Check out Jason Scott's BBS The Documentary

SunDog: Frozen Legacy

Maury Markowitz had an amazing website that he eventually moved to a Wordpress site were he detailed the history of Mike Mayfield's Star Trek, Omnitrend's Universe and SunDog: Frozen Legacy as well as other space-themed games that shouldn't be forgotten. Additional Elite history and information can be found on co-developer Ian Bell's website and in the The Making of Elite documentary.

Playing Omnitrend's Universe Today

Playing Universe when it was first released on the ATARI 8-bit was very frustrating. The game required five diskettes: Construction, Flight I, Flight II, Starport and the player disk. The original release, version 1.1, only supported one disk drive during game play. This version required so much disk swapping, it would grind your ATARI 810 disk drive into a pile of melted plastic and metal shavings! One minor mistake, like pressing the START key instead of the SELECT key at the wrong time, could cause you a quick death in the dark and lonely void of space and the game would format your player disk just to keep you honest! If you didn't have a good back up with detailed notes on where you were and what you were doing at the time, you would have to start all over again, a very lengthy process.

Also, on native ATARI hardware, the speed of the game tended to creep along in areas were graphics, 3D or otherwise, were drawn or when the game performed highly complex calculations such as orbital mechanics or planet generation.

Playing Universe is even better today. Using an ATARI 8-bit emulator such as Altirra (I've had success with Altirra 2.4, but had issues with newer releases of the emulator when playing this game), you can use one of the versions of Universe that supports multiple drive (versions 1.2 or 1.3). This significantly cuts down on disk swapping. Upgrading to a better in-game computer and mass storage device cuts down on even more disk swapping. You can also use the emulator's warp or turbo mode to speed up the slow parts of the games such a planetary scans, hyperjumps, shuttle launches and the like. Finally, if you have multiple monitors, you can have Google docs open on one screen to keep notes and view trading spreadsheets.

Need a good notebook for your Universe adventures? Check out the Galactic Gaming Journal by Urban Realms. Seems kind of expensive at $19.95 for a 300 page notebook, but it looks like it might fit with the genre.

Galactic Gaming Journal
by Urban Realms

If you are interested in playing Universe, I suggest that you:
  • Read Chris Edgar's Omnitrend's Universe ATARI 8-bit FAQ
  • Download and peruse the Universe manual (or here)
  • Download and skim the optional Complete Product Guide
  • Download Altirra 2.4
  • Download the Universe 1.3 disk images
  • Along with the Getting Started/Sample Game in the manual, David Milsop created a Quick Start Guide
  • Start playing
Keep judicious notes and back up your player disk often. Using an emulator makes it easy to keep a running back up of player diskettes so your can recover from a player mistake or a game bug (read the FAQ).

Start out as a trader and passenger ferryer. Create profitable trade routes and acquire some wealth. Explore the galaxy. Upgrade your ship's equipment. Try your hand at mining. When your ship is fully equipped with the best hardware, you've explored the galaxy from one end to the other and you understand how all the systems on your ship work, try your hand at piracy and ship to ship fighting.

If you really want to go all out, hack your spare ATARI 400 into a Mission Control Desk and Spacecraft! OK, maybe that is a little much.

Want to try a more modern computer-based space simulator?  Check out EVE OnlineElite Dangerous from David Braben co-developer of the original Elite (and co-founder of the Raspberry Pi Foundation) or Star Citizen by Wing Commander developer Chris Roberts. Watch this video to find out more about Star Citizen. Or for the pen and paper crowd, check out the upcoming release of the Starfinder role playing game by Paizo, the publisher of the Pathfinder fantasy role playing game. There is also (possibly) a pen and paper Elite:Dangerous Role Playing Game in the works.

One additional note, Omnitrend is still around today. While they are no longer in the computer game business, they still have a small and dwindling supply of New Old Stock computer games, if you are interested.

Alright, my shuttles are full of Ore IV, exotic trade goods and impatient passengers. Time is money and I got a hyperspace booster to find. 
"Axia Launch Control, this is Seeker Shuttle Two, ready to clear the surface and rendezvous with Spacecraft Seeker in orbit."  
"Seeker Shuttle Two, this is Axia Launch Control, you are clear for takeoff." 
"Roger that Launch Control, commencing boost sequence. Have a nice day. Seeker Shuttle Two out!"
Twitter: @BillLange1968


1.  Be on the lookout for an upcoming interview with Omnitrend's Universe co-developer William Leslie on the Antic The Atari 8-bit Podcast. I'll create a direct link when it is available.

2. I created an Omnitrend's Universe themed 24 inch by 36 inch poster. Enjoy.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Talk Is Cheap

Talk Is Cheap Ad
ANTIC Magazine
October 1982

This Talk Is Cheap ad for S.A.M. (The Software Automatic Mouth) appeared on page 55 in the Vol. 1, No. 4 issue of Antic magazine in October 1982. There is also another, less colorful S.A.M. ad on page 56 in the Vol. 1, No. 3 issue of Antic magazine in August 1982.

S.A.M., written by Mark Barton and published by Don't Ask Computer Software was a software-only, diskette-based speech synthesizer for the ATARI 8-bit home computers. It was also available for the Apple II, the Commodore 64 and other home computers of the era. As mentioned, S.A.M. was software based and it output speech directly to the TV or monitor speaker. For the ATARI 8-bit version, no additional hardware, speaker, amplifier, power supply, special interfaces or cables were needed.

S.A.M.'s best selling point was its Talk Is Cheap $59.95 (1982 dollars) price tag compared to hardware-based speech synthesizers which could cost in the hundreds of dollars.

The major drawback of the ATARI 8-bit version of S.A.M. was, however, that by default, it turned off the ATARI's ANTIC chip during speech output blanking the screen in the process. It can be configured to leave the ATARI's ANTIC chip on during speech output, but this severely degraded the already marginal speech quality.

There is a review of the S.A.M. speech synthesizer starting on page 50 of Vol. 1, No 4 of Antic magazine in October 1982.

While the output of S.A.M. (and other ATARI 8-bit speech synthesizers) would never have been mistaken for a human voice and the verbal quality is understandable at best, it was a fun and interesting addition to anyone’s home computer setup as shown in the 1983 movie Wargames (though Wargames is not using speech synthesizer technology but rather actor John Wood's recorded voice as the voice of Joshua/WOPR).

Jerry White's PokerSAM

A few other programs that made use of Don't Ask Computer Software's S.A.M. speech technology are PokerSAM and Chatterbee by prolific ATARI software developer Jerry White. Kevin Savetz, ATARI Archivist Extraordinaire, and co-host of the outstanding ANTIC The ATARI 8-bit Podcast interviewed Jerry White in January 2016.

From Moby Games: "Chatterbee is an educational game that teaches spelling. It uses the speech synthesizer Software Automatic Mouth (SAM) to read out word and sentences. The program will read a word, then define it in a sentence before reading it out again. The player's task is simply to type the word and as the letters appear on the screen the synthesizer will repeat them. Spelling a word correctly leads to points being awarded and if wrong the player gets two more chances. The game consists of ten rounds each with either five or ten words. There are 25 levels and the player can start on any of them. If the player does well the level will automatically change to a higher one."

Chatterbee is interesting in that while S.A.M. blanks the screen as usual, the bee character is still visible during the screen blank. Nice trick Jerry! He explains it in this article.

Jerry White and Randy Simon

There is a type-in BASIC program title Spelling.SAM by Ed Rybczyk starting on page 13 of issue #22 of the September 1984 issue of ANALOG COMPUTING magazine that used the S.A.M. speech technology.

The February 1985 issue of Antic magazine has a BASIC/Assembly Language article beginning on page 63 title S.A.M. Handler - Less typing for your ATARI's voice, which shows you how to set up S.A.M. to work using the BASIC OPEN command. Note that the assembly language listing has an error which is addressed in the Help! section of the June 1985 issue of Antic.

Another type-in BASIC program title Speech Editor - Menu-driven S.A.M. talk! by Mark Giambruno appears in the April 1985 issue of Antic magazine beginning on page 45. This program allows you to edit S.A.M. speech using a menus.

I still have my original ATARI S.A.M. floppy diskette, which I purchased back in the day at The Program Store, a platform agnostic software retailer at the Monmouth Mall in nearby Eatontown, NJ, but unfortunately, the instruction manual and the box are nowhere to be found.

S.A.M. Atari Diskette

What to try experimenting with S.A.M.? Some interesting projects with S.A.M. could be to add a computerized voice to Mike Mayfield's text-based BASIC computer game Star Trek or Dave Kaufman's text-based BASIC computer game Star Trader. Star Trader appeared in the book What To Do After You Hit Return. It was one of the original space-trader themed computer games. This classic book really should be archived online somewhere. [2017-03-01 And now it is, here.]

For more information on the various hardware-based speech synthesizers available for the ATARI 8-bit home computers, see section 6.7 (and 6.8) of the ATARI 8-bit FAQ maintained by Michael Current. S.A.M. is not included in the ATARI 8-bit FAQ as it is a software-based, not hardware-based speech synthesizer.

I also recently wrote a blog post on the hardware-based Voice Box speech synthesizer by The Alien Group.

The June 1982 issue of ANTIC, Vol. 1, No. 2, has a review of two additional hardware-based voice synthesizers for the ATARI 8-bit home computers beginning on page 18.

If your planning on attending the Vintage Computer Festival East XII in Wall, New Jersey during the weekend of March 31st though April 2nd, 2017, come and see my ATARI Says Its First Words exhibit where I'll be displaying a sample of the various speech synthesizers that were available for the ATARI 8-bit home computers.

Twitter: @BillLange1968

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Merry Christmas From Your Atari Computer

Merry Christmas From Your Atari Computer
The Atari Connection
Winter 1981-1982

This Merry Christmas From Your Atari Computer ad is actually the cover of the Winter 1981-1982 issue of The Atari Connection magazine, volume 1 number 4, published in September 1981. The ad shows a family enjoying their Atari 400 (also known early on as The Basic Computer), Atari's The Entertainer starter kit and the TeleLink I cartridge, with some trimmings of the Christmas season in the background. This ad also states that there is a free Atari Pilot Calendar gift inside the magazine.

TeleLink I is a program cartridge for that Atari family of 8-bit computers that enables the user to communicate with another computer over standard telephone lines at a blazing speed of up to 300 baud when used with the Atari 830 Acoustic Modem.

The Entertainer

Atari's The Entertainer starter kit came in various configurations over the life of the product. It came with a pair of iconic Atari CX40 joysticks, the first widely used cross-platform game controller, as well as two game cartridges.

My The Entertainer box has a big round yellow sticker firmly placed over the original content text that states "... New Contents: THE ENTERTAINER KIT now includes PAC-MAN, STAR RAIDERS and a pair of joysticks...". I can't make out the original content text on my box without destroying the sticker and probably the underlying box, but other sources show it to be Star Raiders and Missile Command. It also included a manual, advertising and other ephemera.

Atari Starter Kits
Circa 1982

I can image how the children in this Merry Christmas From Your Atari Computer ad might have felt on Christmas morning. I envisage that the girl could be a young Marissa Mayer, touching a computer for the first time, dreaming about the possibilities and the boy could be a young Marc Benioff, already thinking about designing the first of his games released for the Atari family of 8-bit home computers. While I never received an Atari home computer as a Christmas gift, I did receive some amazing peripherals as presents over the years, such as my first Hayes 300 Smart-modem and an SWP ATR8000 expansion interface.

Ah, Christmas ...

As a punk kid growing up in New Jersey, I can remember that the Christmas season didn't wait until December to start. Retailer Crazy Eddie had their Christmas in July and their Christmas in August radio and television commercials that would start blitzing the airwaves around mid summer. The Atari 400 even showed up in one of their Computer Crazy commercials. For those of you outside of the greater NYC area, Crazy Eddie was a New York based electronics retail chain with more than three dozen stores on the east coast at its height. It was best known for its prices and crazy television commercials. Crazy Eddie's prices were insane, and as it turns out, Crazy Eddie (Eddie Antar the businessman, not actor Jerry Carroll from the commercials) was a con man, and later, a convicted felon and now, dead.

Educational System Master Cartridge Running on an Atari 800
JC Penney 1980 Christmas Catalog
Front Cover and Page 354 

Around the middle of September, soon after the new school year started, the hot and humid summer weather at the Jersey Shore would quickly turn to the cooler days of autumn. It was around this time that the latest incarnations of the Sears Wish Book and the JC Penney Christmas Catalog would find their way into our home. Once I got my hands on one of these behemoths (this could take a while being the youngest in a family of seven), I'd start my personal Christmas Wish List, in pencil of course, as the list changed almost by the minute, and those first generation Papermate Erasermate pens just made a big mess!

Sears 1982 Wish Book
Front Cover, Pages 478, 479

From the Fisher-Price Little People Castle, to the Marx Navarone Playset, to Mattel Electronics series (Auto Race, Baseball and Football) of handheld games, to the Atari VCS, to the Milton Bradley Big Trak, to the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set (1981 revision), to the Atari home computers, I most likely first laid eyes on each of these cherished childhood treasures in one of these amazing catalogs.

Marx Navarone Playset

Sadly, neither Sears, nor JC Penney, publishes their ginormously-spectacular Christmas catalogs any longer. Like the Colossus of Rhodes, these Monuments of Capitalism are no more. Another fondly-remembered childhood tradition lost to the annals of history. Cracking open and browsing through these catalogs for the first time each year was almost as exciting as seeing what was under the Christmas tree on Christmas morning ... almost. 

Brunswick Aspen Home Pinball Machine Ad
Circa 1979

Our typical 1970's wood-paneling clad, ranch-style basement was a fun place to be during the deep-freeze of the cold north-east winter months, particularly around Christmas. While I never received everything on my Christmas Wish List, with five children in our house, there were plenty of new toys and games and stuff to tinker with. Our basement had an amazing Lionel train set-up ... a little nostalgia carried over from my father's own childhood growning up in Staten Island ... but fun all the same, a pool table and an Atari VCS with a short-stack of cartridges (Combat, Indy 500 and Breakout were early ones). Later, a Brunswick Aspen pinball machine was added to the mix when my oldest brother gifted it to the family for Christmas in 1979. 

Similar Home Pinball Machine Kit
Heathkit Christmas Catalog 1978

The Aspen pinball machine was ordered in kit form from Heathkit's 1979 Christmas Catalog. My dad and my oldest brother assembled it secretly in the garage over the few weeks before Christmas and moved it to the basement for Christmas morning.

Heathkit had some amazing products and kits, including computers and robots, and for my dad and oldest brother: ham radios. From time to time, some of the old Heathkit products turn up at the Vintage Computer Festival East, such as the HERO robot. Heathkit, the current incarnation of the company, has a website, but there doesn't seem to be anything there and they currently do not publish their once-famous catalogs.

It wouldn't be until late winter, in March of 1982, when I would purchase my Atari 400. For the next three or four years, I would usually ask for and receive some sort of Atari home computer related item for Christmas. Then, unfortunately, I moved on to an Apple IIc, then to the PC. It would be many, many years before I received another Atari related item under the tree. 

This year, I found some cool new Christmas ornaments for our Christmas tree, though the CX40 ornament is a little oddly oriented.

New Christmas Ornaments
Christmas 2016  

In keeping with the tradition of The Atari Connection magazine's idea of a free gift, here are a few Atari related items I created while learning how to use Microsoft Publisher:

Atari 8-bit Poster  24 by 36 inch (Very large .PNG file)
Atari 5200 Poster with trak-ball controller 24 by 36 inch (Very large .PNG file)
Atari 5200 Poster without trak-ball controller 24 by 36 inch (Very large .PNG file)
Atari 8-bit 2017 Calendar (.PDF file)

Thanks to Kevin Savetz for supplying photos of the original Atari 400 and Atari 800 posters and Giann Velasquez M for brainstorming the Atari 8-bit calendar with me. 

Best wishes during this holiday season to you and your family.

Twitter: @BillLange1968

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Atari 800 Home Computer Poster

ATARI 800 Home Computer Poster

This Atari 800 Home Computer Poster is a marketing poster copyrighted and presumably printed by Atari in 1981 according to the information at the bottom of the page. The poster's part number is C060066. There also exists a very similar Atari 400 Home Computer Poster with part number C060065.    

Atari 400/800 Poster Part Numbers

The software packages shown on the Atari 800 Home Computer Poster include the following: Energy Czar, Atari Word Processor, Conversational Spanish, Conversational French, Personal Financial Management System, Computer Chess, Video Easel, Music Composer, Missile Command, Telelink I, Space Invaders, Graph It, State & Capitals, Caverns of Mars, Biorhythm, An Invitation to Programming 1, Touch Typing, The Dow Jones Investment Evaluator, Basketball, SCRAM, Mailing List, Bond Analysis, Star Raiders, Calculator, European Countries & Capitals, Asteroids, 3-D Tic-Tac-Toe, Pilot "With Turtle Graphics", Blackjack, Statistics I, KingdomStock Analysis, Conversational Italian, Stock Charting, An Invitation to Programming 2, Mortgage & Loan Analysis, Super Breakout, An Invitation to Programming 3, Hangman and Conversational German.

Some of the software listed is ROM cartridge-based, some is audio cassette tape-based and some is 5 1/4 inch diskette-based, showing some of the various media types available to load software in to the versatile the Atari 400 and Atari 800 home computers.    

As you can see from the list, the software is heavy on small business/home finance and education packages. There are also a few BASIC cassette-based games that seem to have been directly ported from David Ahl's  BASIC books including Blackjack, Hammurabi and Hangman. Maybe Atari's early home computer division needed software and had a David Ahl Book Porting Party, quickly converting Microsoft BASIC games to Atari BASIC, updating and enhancing, using the some of the graphics features of the Atari computer as they went.

Stock Charting Splash Screens
Atari / Control Data Corporation Co-branding

As noted at the bottom of the poster, many of Atari's early small business/home finance packages were created by Control Data Corporation and manufactured under license by Atari and co-branded as Atari and Control Data CYBERWARE Personal Computer Product software.

Controller Ports On The Atari 400/800
And Games That Can Use Them All

The list includes a few of the rare games that allowed four players to play at the same time: Asteroids and Basketball. And for even more frantic game play, an even rarer (only?) game that allows up to eight players to play at the same time: Super Breakout. Both the Atari 400 and Atari 800 home computers had four controller ports, allowing four joysticks or eight paddle controllers to be connected concurrently. The later 8-bit Atari computer models, sadly, only had two lonely controller ports.

In an effort to learn how to create large format posters, I spent some time attempting to re-create the look of this Atari 800 Home Computer Poster. I created a full 24 inch by 36 inch poster in Microsoft Publisher, trying to give it an updated, more modern look. I may have also included a few Easter Eggs! Here is how my version of the poster turned out:  

A Modern Remake of the Atari 800 Poster

If you would like to print a copy of my poster, the .png file is available here. I hope that you like it.

Twitter: @BillLange1968