Saturday, December 10, 2016

Merry Christmas From Your Atari Computer

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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. 

Brunswick Aspen Pinball
Heathkit Christmas Catalog 1979

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 is an Atari 8-bit 2017 Calendar I created in Microsoft Publisher:

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.

-- @BillLange1968

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Atari 800 Home Computer Poster

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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. Here is how my version of the poster turned out:  

A Modern Remake of the Atari 800 Poster

Friday, November 4, 2016

Atari Says Its First Word

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Atari Says Its First Word Ad
Antic Magazine
Volume 1, Number 3
August 1982
Page 37

This Atari Says Its First Word ad appeared in Volume 1, Number 3 issue of Antic magazine in August 1982. The ad tries to persuade readers to purchase the Voice Box speech synthesizer by The Alien Group for the Atari 400/800 home computers. The inverse of this ad appears on the pages of SoftSide magazine in Vol. 5, No. 10.

The Voice Box was a simple to use speech synthesizer for the Atari home computers. It plugged directly into the Atari 400/800 computer's serial port and output speech directly to the TV or Monitor speaker. No additional speaker, amplifier, power supply, special interfaces, or cables were needed.

Voice Box
Speech Synthesizer
The Alien Group

There is a review of the Voice Box starting on page 50 of Volume 1, Number 4 of Antic magazine in October 1982. On the facing page of the Voice Box review, The Alien Group announced a contest for the best game program submitted for use with their Voice Box product.

Voice Box Contest
Antic Magazine
Volume 1, Number 4
October 1982
Page 51

The contest mentions:
"Win $5,000 price -- plus royalties -- for the best Atari 400/800 game using the VOICE BOX.  Deadline: May 30, 1983.  Write for contest details."
What did the the contest details state? Did anyone actually win this contest?  The following year when Voice Box II came out, it included a few sample programs. Maybe one of those was the winner.

There is also a quick blurb about the Voice Box written by Ed Picciuti on the front page of the October 1982 issue of the Jersey Atari Computer Group (JACG) Newsletter stating that "At the September meeting we listened to the voice synthesizers, but human they are not. The Voice Box from Alien Group worked the best in my opinion..."  In the following issue of the JACG Newsletter, in November 1982, there is a more detailed review of the Voice Box by columnist and JACG member Arthur Leyenberger which states in part "...Although the synthesized speech produced by the Voice Box will never be mistaken for a human voice, its quality and understandably are better than most synthesizers that currently exist..."

Beginning on page 56 of the August 1984 issue of Family Computing magazine, there is an article by Louis R. Wallace titled "Buyer's Guide To Speech Synthesizers - Turn Your Computer Into A Talking Machine" that covers the Alien Group Voice Box as well. Family Computing was a computer magazine published by Scholastic, Inc. It covered all of the major U.S. home computer platforms of the day. The first issue of the magazine appeared in September 1983. The final issue was published in April 2001.

In Germany, Atari distributed the Voice Box using its own packaging.

German Alien Group Voice Box
Distributed by Atari

The Technology

The Alien Group Voice Box uses the Votrax SC-01A Speech Synthesizer chip to produce speech. There is an ad for the Votrax SC-01A chip on page 32 of the November/December 1982 issue of Robotics Age magazine. You can find more information on the SC-01A Speech Synthesizer chip and Related ICs on this page.

For more detailed information on the Votrax SC-01A Speech Synthesizer chip and speech synthesizers in general including projects you can build, find a copy of the book Chip Talk: Projects In Speech Synthesis written by Dave Prochnow and published by TAB Books Inc.

Chip Talk: Projects In Speech Synthesis
Written By Dave Prochnow
Published by TAB Books, Inc.

Years Later

For quite sometime, I was searching for The Alien Group Voice Box to add to my collection. They don't show up very often. In April 2014, I spotted a Voice Box that was listed for sale on eBay. The eBay listing described the item...
"Appears clean and intact. Stored in its original box with original papers and software. ... The Alien Group debuted the VOICEBOX Speech Synthesizer for the ATARI computers in 1982. The device plugs into the serial port of the ATARI 400/800 and produces sound through the from the TV/monitor. The Voicebox also features a knob which allows the user to control the speed and pitch of the generated speech. This vintage piece comes with original packaging, papers, and software and appears extremely well-preserved for a 32-year-old piece of classic computer technology."
Along with a photographs of The Alien Group Voice Box hardware in the eBay listing, there were also a few photographs of the accompanying documentation. What really caught my eye was the content and the dates on the documentation. One photograph, in particular, showed some handwritten instructions on a sheet of graph paper with the date of July 16, 1982 clearly visible. After some quick research, the earliest ad that I could find was the August 1982 Atari Says Its First Word ad in Antic magazine, and the earliest review that I could find was the aforementioned review by Benton J. Elkins staring on page 50 in the Volume 1, Number 4 issues of Antic magazine in October 1982.

Based on my research and the evidence at hand, I believed this to be a prototype or early production model that was sent from The Alien Groups offices in Manhattan, NY to a manufacturing/duplication facility in southern California to possibly produce cassette tape media of the Voice Box software.

The eBay auction ended on April 14th, 2014. As the winning bidder, I purchased this Voice Box from a seller located in Ojai, California. The selling price was $220 plus $10 shipping. Note that the original selling price of this item in 1982 dollars was $169.00. The listing had quite a bit of interest as the item had 30 bids. 

eBay Listing

I received the package a week or so later. The Voice Box came in its original packing box. In addition to the hardware, there were four pages of handwritten notes. There were also ten pages of typed documentation. I carefully removed the staples and scanned the sheets of yellowing paper to make them available to others in this thread on the AtariAge website and also archived them on I then placed the individual sheets in sheet protectors. Also included in the package were four 5 1/4 floppy diskettes with The Alien Group Voice Box software.

Some Of The Handwritten Notes
(Contrast Adjusted And Cropped)
A few months later, I contacted the seller to see if he had any further knowledge on the history of this particular item. My email stated, in part:
2014-08-03 08:40 AM PDT 
I purchased the Alien Group Voice Box from you back in April, 2014.  As you may know, this appears to be an early production unit that was sent from the developer (Alien Group) in New York to a cassette software duplication company (Custom Dup?) in July, 1982, based upon the documentation and correspondence included with the hardware.
In the process of archiving this information and filling in any more of the story for the Atari community, can you tell me how you came in possession of the hardware and documentation?  Did you work for the software duplication company? Any bit of information that could help fill in the blank from 1982 to today would be great. Thanks for saving this little piece of Atari history.
The response from the seller, in part:
2014-08-03 09:13 AM PDT 
We mostly concentrate on books, so we visit estates and sales to get them in reasonable volume. This came in with a box that I put together from a sale on Calle Mayor here in the Hollywood Riviera section of Torrance (Redondo Beach mailing) CA. I thought the package looked interesting and inquired about it from the gentleman selling the books, but he could tell me absolutely nothing. Sorry that I can provide you no history other than location of acquisition. I remember the progress of that auction--still a little bit in awe that it commanded such interest!
Oh well, it was worth a try!

The Alien Group

The Voice Box was designed and manufactured in Manhattan, New York by a company calling itself The Alien Group. According to the handwritten notes that I received with the Voice Box, The Alien Group listed its address as the 5th Floor of 27 W. 23rd Street in Manhattan. The contact name listed was Mike Matthews.

The Alien Group Letter Head
Mike Matthews' Signature

The Alien Group and the Voice Box almost didn't happen. In January 1982, Mike Matthews and his company Electro-Harmonix was temporarily forced out of business due to union thuggery in Manhattan. An article, titled "Sign Up --- Or Else!" written by Randy Fitzgerald, about Mike's company and the union's tactics against it was published on page 111 in the August 1982 issue of Reader's Digest magazine.

The same "face" logo used in the Voice Box ad above is still visible all over the Electro-Harmonics website and products today.  

In January, 2006, Mike Matthews, as President and Founder of Electro-Harmonics, sat down for an interesting recorded interview with the National Association of Music Merchants.

Mike Matthews
Electro-Harmonix/The Alien Group

Thanks to Atari Alumni Tim Boehlert for helping to fill in the blanks about Mike Matthews and The Alien Group!

Testing The Voice Box

When I finally got around to testing the Voice Box, I first tried it with an Atari 800XL, an Atari 1050 disk drive and a Commodore 1702 monitor. Following the instructions in the documentation, I was able to load the BASIC program from disk, but once the menu displayed, the computer would lock up.

I then tried using two different versions of Atari Translator, a piece of software that makes an Atari 800XL work more like an Atari 400/800, but it still didn't work.

Finally, to get it working, I switched out the Atari 800XL for an Atari 800 and that seem to do the trick.

If you're interested in experimenting with a product similar in functionality to the Voice Box, try the SpeakJet chip. The SpeakJet chip can be put on a breadboard and hooked up to an Ardunio, Raspberry PI or even, dare I say, an Atari Home Computer.

2018-04-16 Update: Kevin Savetz, one of the hosts of the ANTIC Atari 8-bit Podcast, interviewed Mike Matthews on November 13, 2017. The interview was released as ANTIC Interview 332 - Mike Matthews, Alien Group Voice Box on 2018-04-16.

-- @BillLange1968

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Monkey Talk

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Monkey Talk Ad
Circa 1983

This Monkey Talk ad promotes the television show Discover: The World Of Science. As Atari was the main sponsor of some of the early episodes of the series, there were usually a few Atari television commercials run during the broadcast.

While I could not find the the episode mentioned in this particular ad, I was able to find a partial, Atari sponsored episode about Mount St. Helens containing a few Atari commercials at around  0:05 and around 13:38.

Atari Commercial #1 - 0:05

The first commercial shows a family around an Atari 400 and another family around another computer. The Atari family mentions the Atari Conversational Language Series: Conversational SpanishConversational GermanConversational French, and Conversational Italian. They also mention the three software packages in the Atari An Invitation To Programming Series: An Invitation To Programming 1, An Invitation To Programming 2 and An Invitation To Programming 3. The unseen narrator adds Centipede, Star Raiders and Defender to the list. The Atari family's desk also holds various other Atari software packages such as Music Composer. The final few frames show an Atari 400, an Atari 800, an Atari 830 Acoustic Modem, an Atari 410 Program Recorder, an Atari CX40 Joystick, a contemporary television and a wide selection of early Atari software packages.

Atari -vs- The Other
Television Commercial
Circa 1983

Atari Commercial #2 - 13:38

The second commercial starts with Asteroids playing in the background as the narrator begins his Atari Service sales pitch.  As the camera pulls back, you see an Atari 800 showing a home budget, an Atari Video Computer System and finally a group of Atari Service personnel in their white lab coats. The final few frames here show an Atari 800, an Atari Video Computer System and a contemporary television and the tag line "Service that's as good as Atari".

Atari Service
Television Commercial
Circa 1983

Discover: The World Of Science, was a monthly, one-hour magazine-style television series which provided a human perspective on new developments in robots, science, technology, medicine, the environment, behavior and natural history. The series was typically broadcast on Wednesday evenings at 8 PM on PBS.

Discover: The World Of Science
Main Title Screen

The late actor Peter Graves was the on-camera host and narrator of twenty-four episodes of Discover: The World Of Science, between 1983 and 1990. Peter Graves died on March 14, 2010 at the age of 83, but sadly, he is not buried in Peter's Grave. Strange, unconfirmed rumors claim that old Mr. Graves left behind a magic urn in his mansion up in Spirit Bay ...

The series, with early episodes being underwritten by Atari and later episodes being underwritten by GTE (now Verizon), was produced by Chedd-Angier Productions in association with Discover Magazine.

This television show was also spoofed occasionally on Saturday Night Live, with actor and comedian Phil Hartman playing the Peter Graves role. Here are two clips for your viewing pleasure: Snakes with left wingnut Sean Penn and Bacteria with right wingnut Victoria Jackson.

And for your listening pleasure, here is the Discover: The World Of Science theme song.

-- @BillLange1968

Monday, September 19, 2016

Attention Fleet

Table of Contents ]

Art Of Atari Ad
 Battlestar Galactica Vol. 3, #1
August 2016

This Art Of Atari ad appears in the right-hand side of the the centerfold page of the Battlestar Galactica Vol. 3, #1 comic book, which was published in August 2016. The cover of the Battlestar Galactica Vol. 3, #1 comic book appears below: 

Battlestar Galactica Vol. 3, #1
Front Cover
August 2016

This ad, with a cool aged and worn look to it, features the cover of the book Art Of Atari as well as a sampling of the art work, artist profiles and history covered within. The ad also features an Atari Video Computer System with two Atari CX40 Joysticks, a pair of Atari CX30 Paddle Controllers and Atari TV/Game Switch-box and a Combat cartridge.

While this ad doesn't cover any of the Atari 8-Bit Home Computers, It does cover the early history of Atari, the Atari Video Computer System, and Atari art work. In fact, this book offers the most complete collection of Atari artwork ever published. In a brief email exchange with author Tim Lapetino, he confirmed that the book primarily focuses on Atari Video Computer System art. As I mentioned in a previous post, I am looking forward to the release of this new book.  

Art Of Atari
Standard Edition

Art Of Atari is a 352 page, full color tome published by Dynamite Entertainment. As mentioned, it is written by Tim Lapetino, and features an afterword by Robert V. Conte and a foreword by Ernest Cline, author of Ready Player One, one of my favorite books. A film adaption of Ready Player One, directed by Steven Spielberg, Incorporated, is scheduled to be released in March 2018.

Art Of Atari will be released on October 25, 2016. It will be published in a standard edition and in a deluxe edition, which has an early Atari Video Computer System Game Cartridge cover design.

Art Of Atari
Limited Deluxe Edition

Battlestar Galactica was a late 1970s weekly television series. I can remember sitting in class in the 5th grade drawing pictures of Colonial Vipers with a number 2 pencil! The main protagonists in Battlestar Galactica were the Cylons, a race of robots. Around the same time as the original TV series was being broadcast, Atari released  the iconic game Star Raiders for the Atari 400/800 home computers. The main protagonists in Star Raiders were the Zylons. Cylons and Zylons.  Coincidental?  I think not!

A re-imaged weekly television series of Battlestar Galactica was broadcast in the mid 2000s.  I have not seen the updated series, an oversight that I intend to correct.

Look for the upcoming Art Of Atari book at your favorite brick-and-mortar or online book retailer in October 2016.

And while you are at it, support your local comic shop! When I am in South Florida, my go-to comic shop is Tate's in Lauderhill. When I'm in New Jersey, I frequent Comic Fortress in Somerville, Steve's Comic Relief in Toms River and occasionally Jay And Silent Bob's Secret Stash in Red Bank.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Ultima Comes To The Atari (Finally!)

Table of Contents ]

Ultima Comes To The Atari (Finally!) Ad
Antic Magazine
October/November 1982
Back Cover

This Ultima Comes To The Atari (Finally!) ad appeared on the back cover of the October/November 1982 issue of Antic magazine. It also appeared on the back cover of the December 1982/January 1983 issue as well.

Do you remember your first time in the land of Sosaria? Even the mightiest of kings need new and powerful friends, and, as it turns out, 48K RAM!  And for that, there is the Intec 48K RAM board for the Atari 400. In these troubled times, the dangerous realms of Lord British ain't no place for your mama's 5K VIC-20.

As I mentioned elsewhere in this blog, I purchased my first computer, a GTIA equipped 16K RAM Atari 400 and the Atari 410 Program Recorder in March of 1982. I purchased it at a Consumers store, a catalog store where you walk in, flip through a catalog, write down the catalog number of the items you want on a slip of paper, bring it up to the cashier, where, if and only if the items you want are actually in stock, they process your order and someone deep in the bowels of the secret stockroom begins to animate and retrieve the items and bring your purchase to the front counter. To my wife's dismay, each and every time we drive past the former location, I point out the fact that the Consumers store and the building that it resided in, where I purchased my first computer, an Atari 400, are long gone. It is now a parking lot, no monument, no bronze plaque, just a parking lot, as if nothing important ever happened there.

Sometime between March 1982 and the end of the school year in June 1982, I brought my Atari 400 and a few cartridges over to my classmate Jon's house. His family had an Apple II, with not one, but two 5 1/4 floppy drives. They must have been bazillionaires. I showed him Star Raiders on my Atari 400. He introduced addicted me to the world of Ultima on his Apple II. I was hooked. I  really wanted Ultima for my Atari 400. I really really wanted Ultima for my Atari 400! At the time though, I only had a 16K Atari 400 and an Atari 410 Program Recorder. Oh, and Ultima was ONLY available on the Apple II.

In the first few months of owning my computer, I spent a lot of time teaching myself Atari BASIC. I started with the David Ahl's BASIC Computer Games and the Atari 400/800 BASIC Reference Manual. I can remember typing in and running the Seagull Over Ocean program. If you are reading this blog, you may know of the program of which I am referring to. I also spent some time devouring the pages of Compute!, the first computer magazine that I bought and subscribed to. Two Atari BASIC programs from Compute! instantly come to mind, A Game of Concentration in the March 1982 issue and Gold Rush! in the July 1982 issue. These two Atari BASIC programs taught me the basics of the joystick, the controller ports, redefined character sets and sound. It wasn't long before I started running into the dreaded Atari BASIC Error Code 147 ... Insufficient RAM!

In the summer of 1982, I purchased an Intec 48K RAM Board upgrade kit for my Atari 400. My oldest brother soldered it in for me. One step closer to Ultima! There is a review of the Intec 48K RAM Board for the Atari 400 on page 51 of issue number 6 of ANALOG Computing magazine. There is an ad for the Intec 48K RAM Board in the same magazine on page 33.

Atari 400 With 48K

Later in the fall of 1982, my parents purchased an Atari 810 Disk Drive. Oh my was it fast ... compared to an Atari 410 Program Recorder anyways. The cost of the disk drive was way beyond what my meager paper route and Little League umpiring income could afford. I really appreciated my parents purchasing it. It wasn't long after I had the Atari 810 set up that this Ultima Comes To The Atari (Finally!) ad appeared in the sacred pages of Antic magazine.

My go-to store for third party, store-bought software was The Program Store. Atari published software could be picked up easily enough at the local Toys R Us, which was within walking distance of my house, and other area stores. You may have seen ads for The Program Store in ANALOG Computing, Antic or Compute! magazines. We we lucky enough to have had a brick-and-mortar store about twenty minutes and two tolls drive north, up the Garden State Parkway, at the Monmouth Mall in nearby Eatontown, NJ. This store, about half the size of the typical mall-based Radio Shack (moment of silence) store, had software for all of the popular 8-bit and early 16-bit computers in the early 1980s. When Ultima finally appeared on the shelves in the Atari section of The Program Store, I eagerly purchased it. I practically threw my money at the poor cashier.

Ultima wasn't a hard game. It only took a day or two to complete, a week at the most, if your computer face-time was limited. It was mostly a hack and slash dungeon crawl, but it also had an expensive overland map with oceans and continents, a handful of quests to complete, as well as a few other surprises. But it was a great introduction to the computer fantasy role playing genre. I was captivated with Ultima.  And for a Dungeons & Dragons fan ... I had the D&D Basic Rules in the Red Box, the one with The Keep on the Borderlands module packed in, and had played a few times ... it was fascinating to be able to play anytime you wanted without having to gather up a group of like-minded friends, with the computer acting as the benevolent and impartial Dungeon Master.

There is a short blurb about the Apple II version of Ultima on page 41 of the December 1981 issue of Byte magazine, Vol. 6, No. 12.

Ultima isn't reviewed in the pages of ANALOG Computing magazine until issue 18 in May 1984. The review appears on page 36. This is the same issue in which Ultima III is reviewed. Ultima and Ultima III reviewed, but not Ultima II? Odd. The review appeared a full year and a half after Ultima shipped for the Atari 8-bits. Strange that it took so long for a review to appear in ANALOG Computing magazine for such a popular, best-selling and beloved game.  Ultima II was, however, reviewed on page 88 in Volume 2, Number 4 of Antic magazine in July 1983.

Atari Ultima I
Gelatinous cubes, anyone?

Ultima, later renamed to Ultima I: The First Age Of Darkness (and now here on referred to as Ultima I), was the first in a series of computer fantasy role playing games by Richard Garriott, also known as Lord British, son of Skylab and Space Shuttle astronaut Owen Garriott. Ultima I could be considered the second game in the Ultima series with Akalabeth being the first, although I wouldn't play Akalabeth until much, much later, when Electronic Arts released an Ultima Collection Box Set for Windows 95/98. Akalabeth introduced the Ultima look and feel, at least as far as the dungeons goas well as some of the recurring characters of the series.

Me, having a few beers with Lord British
Shroud of the Avatar Release Meetup
April 3rd, 2018

Richard Garriott may have copyrighted the Ultima look and feel. When Strategic Simulations, Inc. released the game Questron in 1984, the back of the box and the manual prominently stated that "Game structure and style used under license from RICHARD GARRIOTT."   

Note, that on page 11 of the 2016 PC Gamer book, The Ultimate RPG Handbook, it states that "... Questron, a game so close to Ultima in design that Ultima's creator, Richard Garriott, filed a suit against it ...".

The Ultima series helped to define my high school years as I was either playing an Ultima game, or I was no-so-patiently waiting for the next game in the series to be released, from Ultima I in 1982 through Ultima IV in 1985. Ultima IV was the last game in the series to be released for the Atari 8-bit computers.

Bedraggled, Low On Hit Points, But Ready For Adventure
My Original Atari Ultima I Media

Ultima and Wizardry, both released in 1981 for the Apple II computer, set the standard for computer fantasy role playing games. And later, The Bard's Tale, released in 1985, would continue the tradition. Unfortunately, neither the Wizardry series nor The Bard's Tale series would ever find their way to the Atari 8-bit family of computers (yet). I would play both of these great game series either on the computers in my high school or later on my own Apple IIc in majestic shades of green.

My Ultima I Manual Autographed by
Lord British

It is interesting to note that Ultima I on the Atari actually supported using the Atari CX40 Joystick for moving your alter-ego or character, later to be coined as your avatar, around the game world. As Ultima I was primarily a keyboard-input-based game with most of the keys programmed to execute actions, such as "U" to Unlock, etc. Using the joystick to move was actually rather clumsy in my opinion. It was much easier just to use the keyboard for all user input during the game.

My Modified Atari 810
With Bad Sector Switch And LED
1983  -1984

It may also be interesting to note, that while I purchased Ultima I, it is also the first commercially available copy-protected software that I learned how to make successful backup copies of. I really wanted to make sure I had a back up, just in case. The amateur radio/Atari 8-bit enthusiast newsletter Ad Astra had plans for modifying the Atari 810 disk drive by adding a switch, an LED and a few pieces of wire so that it could write bad sectors on-demand. I would copy the Ultima I diskette using a copy program such as Ultra Copy, making careful note of the required bad sectors on the reading phase. Once the copy was complete, I would find another diskette that would have good data in the noted sectors. I would then copy just those few sectors, flip the switch on the Atari 810 and write those sectors out, creating new bad sectors on the copy.

My Ultra Copy Diskette

In the last few years, I have backed the Shroud of the Avatar and the The Bard's Tale IV projects on Kickstarter. I'm not sure I'll ever play this two new games, but I had such fun playing these designer's games as I kid, I wanted to support them in their new projects.

2018-04-04 Update: I've now played Shroud of the Avatar and if you are reading this post, you might want to check it out too. Forbes magazine states that "'Shroud of the Avatar' Is An Ultima Game Without The 'Ultima' Name". For more on Ultima and Richard Garriott in general, read his book, Explore/Create.

Happy Adventuring!

-- @BillLange1968

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Have You Read The Reviews?

Atari's New Word Processor Ad
Antic Magazine
January 1984
Inside Front Cover

This Atari's New Word Processor advertisement appeared inside the front cover of January 1984 issue of Antic magazine. By the time this issue of Antic was published, AtariWriter wasn't particularly new anymore. Print ads for AtariWriter, with and without high profile Atari spokesperson actor Alan Alda, had been appearing since at least September 1983.     

AtariWriter was reviewed on page 83 of the May 1983 issue of Antic magazine. A more extensive review can be found starting on page 107 of ANALOG Computing magazine, issue #11, from May 1983. Wade Ripkowski over at the Inverse ATASCII Podcast covered AtariWriter in Season 2 Episode 1 of his podcast.

AtariWriter In Action

AtariWriter was not the first word processor package published by Atari.  That honor goes to the aptly named Atari Word Processor, a hefty software package shipped in a thick black binder. The Atari Word Processor was announced in Issue #2 of ANALOG Computing magazine in March/April 1981. The Inverse ATASCII Podcast covered the Atari Word Processor in Season 1 Episode 1. More information is available on the AtariWiki as well.

I had the original Atari Word Processor software. My mother bought it cheap when the local J.C. Penney department store where she worked decided to get out of the (in-store) personal computer hardware and software business, deeply discounting and selling off their entire line of Atari 8-bit stock. Add in my mother's Employee Discount and we got it for pennies on the dollar. I found the software to be extremely complicated at the time. I never really used it that much. It seemed to have been developed for professional typists, not some uneducated punk kid from the mean streets of Jersey.  If I remember correctly, we purchased the word processor software before we even had a printer*. Heck, I might of had that software before we even had an Atari 810 Disk Drive. How many times can you listen to the prerecorded audio tutorial on the included cassette tape? I guess it wasn't really as useful at the time as it could have been, but man, it sure looked sexy and impressive on my bookshelf ... "You know, the smart kid down the block, the one with the Atari Word Processor on his bookshelf.  I want that kid on my team, Smalls!"

*Technically, you could say we had a printer. My father and my oldest brother, both amateur radio enthusiasts, decided to wire up an ancient teletype machine to my Atari 400 through the Atari 850 Interface Module. It was more of an experiment in can we do it rather than should we do it. That contraption was louder than a washing machine with a bent agitator and those bells, those damn bells. Yes, it printed ink to paper, but the printing was barely readable and the rolled-up cracking, yellowing-paper seemed to be left over from the Great War. It was like something Caractacus Potts would build for his kids or a rejected (or accepted) machine from the Rube Goldberg School of Industrial Design. It worked great for program listings, BBS session dumps or verbose Zork script-ing, but not something you wanted to hand in for a grade at school, at least not a good grade.

Atari released multiple versions of AtariWriter, all programmed by Danger, DangerWilliam Robinson. Along with the original cartridge-based release of AtariWriter, Atari also released AtariWriter Plus and AtariWriter 80. AtariWriter Plus contained additional features including Proofreader and Mail Merge. AtariWriter 80 was an 80-column version of AtariWriter that required the Atari XEP80 Interface Module and an 80-column compatible monitor. AtariWriter 80 was thoroughly reviewed by the late, great Mat*Rat Matthew Ratcliff in the December 1989 issue of Antic magazine. A review of the Atari XEP80 Interface Module peripheral can be found on page 26 in the July 1987 issue of Antic magazine.  

Thinking about giving AtariWriter a try? Need more memory for your Atari 800XL home computer for those advanced features of AtariWriter Plus?  Check out the improved and upgraded Rev. G Version Wizztronics 800XL 256K RAM Board from Brad Koda over at Best Electronics released in April 2016. It's amazing to me that Mr. Koda keeps churning out new products. I am still waiting for him to come out with a new character wheel for my Atari 1027 Letter Quality Printer to replace the big black glob of stinky inky goo I have now.

Wizztronics 256K 800XL REV G. RAM Board - Released April 2016

According to the Best Electronics' Revision 10 Catalog, "The AtariWriter Plus software drivers were programmed to access the extra 64K RAM bank on the Atari 130XE computers.  The same AtariWriter Plus software drivers will also access the Wizztronics 256K RAM banks on the upgraded Wizztronics 800XL computer."

Best Electronics, based in San Jose, California, has been specializing in hardware, software, replacement parts and accessories for Atari home computers and game consoles for well over 30 years.

My AtariWriter floppy from the early 80s
and the AtariWriter cartridge

AtariWriter was one of the most useful non-game software packages that I had for my Atari 400 and later my Atari 800XL home computer during the early to mid 1980s. It was right up there with The Print Shop and whatever programming language or terminal program I was currently interested in. I suspect it was Atari's best selling and most pirated piece of non-game software for the 8-bit family. I extensively used AtariWriter and my trusty Gemini 10X printer to prepare and produce many assignments for both my high school and college classes.

The Gemini 10X printer by Star Micronics was a relatively inexpensive dot matrix printer that had the added bonus of using an easily found, cheap and common universal typewriter ribbon. Typewriter? The Gemini-10X is reviewed in the March 1985 issue of Antic magazine.

Gemini 10X Printer by Star Micronics

This blog post was not written with AtariWriter or Atari Word Processor as the coin mech on my Atari Time Machine is currently malfunctioning.

-- @BillLange1968