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.

Update: At Vintage Computer Festival East 2017, Jamie Lendino was gracious enough to sign my copy of his new book.


--Bill
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Monday, March 20, 2017

Dinkety-Dink-Dink


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. An earlier version of this ad appeared on page 158 in the December 1983 issue of Creative Computing.

The December 26, 1983 issue of Infoworld states on page 55 that "Best music generator: Music Construction Set from Electronics Arts. You have to see it (and hear it) to believe it. This program sets a new standard for entertainment software. It was inspired by Pinball Construction Set's use of icons and a video 'hand' to move objects on the screen..."

Associate Editor Fred D'gnazio mentions Music Construction Set in an article titled Computer Popcorn starting on page 106 in the January 1984 issue of Compute! magazine. In the article, when asked why he created the program, Harvey states that "It was something that needed to be done. I wanted someone who didn't know anything about music to be able to learn it simply and have a lot of fun doing it..."

Electronic Arts
Compute!
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 also a review by Jerry White starting on page 80 in the December 1984 issue of Antic as well. Mr. White starts the review by stating "If you want to create music on your ATARI computer, Music Construction Set is probably the best tool available today".  That is some praise!

In a more recent 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 age 15 when he wrote Lancaster and started working on Music Construction Set. He has stated that he taught himself Apple 6502 assembly language by reading Roger Wagner's Assembly Lines column in Softalk magazine. You can find the complete run of Softalk magazine including the outstanding Assembly Lines series of articles by Roger Wagner on archive.org. In addition, all thirty-three Assembly Lines articles are available in book form from Amazon or Lulu.

Lancaster
by Will Harvey


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!

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
Compute!
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.

Archive

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 archive.org with the documentation and an additional disk image of music.

The following music is contained in the archive:

Disk 1 Music (MCS Boot Disk)
  • CANON
  • INVENT
  • BUMBLE
  • TURKEY
  • NEW
  • DIXIE
  • YANKEE
  • RHYTHM
  • MYSTERY
  • BUGGY

Disk 2 Music
  • SPYHUNTR
  • CHEERS
  • ENTTNGHT
  • BENNYHIL
  • RIPLEYS
  • TJHOOKER
  • 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!

--Bill

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

A Welcome Addition

A Welcome Addition
US News And World Report
1982

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".  

ATARI's
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 ...

ATARI's
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 mentioned as a new product in the ATARI News section on page 9 of issue #3 of ANALOG Computing, stating that "A Personal Financial Management System designed to help an individual plan and figure their personal budget ... the program requires 32K, an 810 Disk Drive, and will retail for $74.95. Release date to be announced." 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.

Also in September 1981, the Fall 1981 issue of Atari Connection magazine,Vol. 1, No. 3, highlighted Personal Financial Management System in the New Product section beginning on page 4. The article stated "Two program diskettes and one diskette for your data. Requires an ATARI 800 Computer with a minimum of 32K RAM and an ATARI 810 Disk Drive.  Suggested Retail Price: $74.95. Estimated date of availability: November 1, 1981."

Personal Financial Management System 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!

ATARI's
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 AGAIN 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."

ATARI's Personal Financial Management System was again mentioned in an article titled Whither Atari? beginning on page 4 of issue #9 of ANALOG Computing:
ATARI released their Personal Financial Management package and then recalled it after about six months. It contained undocumented bugs and was very slow in operation. However, it did allow the user to maintain up over 100 budget categories, which made the program very flexible. I have been told by ATARI representatives that there are no plans to revise the program, however, the latest ATARI product catalog gives the first quarter of 1983 as the new release date. ATARI currently recommends that the APX home finance programs be used. This is less than ideal solution due to the limited scope of the user written APX programs.
In an article title ATARI In 1983 starting on page 117 of the same issue of ANALOG Computing mentioned above, Lee Pappas states that "FAMILY FINANCES replaces the Financial Management System which was pulled from the market in mid-1982 ..." 

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. There is a review of Family Cash Flow on page 45 of issue #13 of A.N.A.L.O.G. Computing magazine. These two programs were repackaged and added to ATARI's mainline catalog.
ATARI's Unreleased
The Home Manager Kit
Containing
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.

-- @BillLange1968