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 archive.org, 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 Man, 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, Allan Bushman 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.

-- @BillLange1968

11 comments:

  1. I am still (now that I am retired) working on a book for MIT Press, on these machines. It would be a sequel to Racing the Beam, and a prequel to The Future was Here. I ordered this book myself. My book will likely recommend it. it also means that my book can focus on the earlier part: 1) requirements to design, 2) how to program it, and 3) product history.

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    1. Joe, I am so looking forward to your book. All of us in the Atari community are. I'm interested in more details about the idea-engine that Atari became during its prime. I'm sure it will be a masterwork. --Bill

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    2. I have written about 15K words so far. I confess distraction with two encore career plans: teach university engineering and play bass in a rock band. Doing both. I have set up a lab to write two game ports: Combat and Adventure. The design will be in the book. The playable code should be on the web.

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    3. This is amazing news! The Atari 800 series will actually get a book written by one of the main designers and engineers of it! That's infinitely better than the case with the books about the other two machines you co-designed/co-engineered that you referenced.

      And that you're porting your Combat and Robinett's Adventure is more than icing on the cake. I assume that you will be providing source code to these games, as well, and likely describing their development in part 2 of your book? Have you seen Phaeron's AtariAge threads on the several VCS games he ported to 800 (source included)?

      Many thanks for your key role in creating the most important hardware technologies in my life! You are the engineer I admire the most (along with Jay Miner).

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  2. Hey Bill, love this site. Brings back great memories. I saw you were going to be at VCF EAST. I was wondering will you be bringing any disk drives? I wasn't sure what your AA username was so I figured I would ask you here.

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    1. I can bring an 1050. I have all the software I need on a pc using SIO2PC. --Bill

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  3. I don't know if I will be able to make it. I have a few floppies I'd like to see if they are readable. Would you mind popping them in and see if there is anything on them?

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    1. I'll bring the drive, so if you show up, come find me.

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  4. Bill, it was so great meeting you yesterday! Thanks again so much for popping my 30 year old disks in your drive. It was surreal seeing those old disks beep and show a directory again!! Thanks again keep up the good work!
    Craig

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  5. It'd be so great to read a book about the history of the Atari 8-bit demo scene and the most famous demos / creators along with interviews in it. That would be a fascinating read!

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  6. This is an excellent , but difficult book ❤ 😍 http://aazae.com/

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