Time after time in gaming, we’ve seen that the simplest concepts can be some of the most effective and addictive.
Atari’s Canyon Bomber, originally released to arcades in 1977, is a prime example of this. You only need one button to play, and that button drops bombs. The concept is so simple anyone — even someone not at all familiar with video games — can understand and enjoy it. Drop bombs, hit things, score points. Whoever scores most points, wins.
And one of the best things about this game when compared to some of its contemporaries is that the simplistic concept means that it was very straightforward to implement a “computer-controlled” opponent to compete against if you didn’t happen to have a friend handy. So even those of us with no friends can still enjoy this game… and end up playing it a lot longer than you might expect!
If you thought games journalists wringing their hands over “problematic” subject matter in games was a new phenomenon… well, I got news for you, my dear reader.
U.S. Gold’s home computer conversion of Capcom’s arcade title U.N. Squadron (originally known in Japan as Area 88, after the manga it was originally based on) drew criticism from UK computer magazine ST Format in December of 1990 for being “self-righteous”, “crass” and even “propaganda”. Why? Because you shoot enemies in an obviously Middle Eastern-inspired setting — at least in the first level, anyway — and in 1990 the Gulf War had just broken out in full force.
Of course, Area 88 first came out in 1979, but let’s not let facts get in the way of a good bit of outrage, shall we? Sigh. Some things never change. Anyway, this is a reasonably solid shoot ’em up, though unsurprisingly not a patch on the awesome SNES version…
Although the Atari 8-bit range of computers mostly lost what little “mainstream” relevance they had with the onset of the 16-bit era — which, in turn, was killed off by the widespread adoption of standardised MS-DOS and Windows PCs — there are a few dedicated developers out there still plugging away at this old hardware.
The results these modern maestros can get out of ancient computers can be, at times, absolutely astonishing. Some form part of what is known as the “demoscene”, producing audible and graphical showcases that push the hardware to its absolute limits. Others take that extra step and add true interactivity, making actual games with impressive visuals and sounds to show what they’re really capable of.
Yoomp from 2007 is an example of the latter. It makes use of some clever graphical techniques, fully optimised for both PAL and NTSC displays, and some delightfully catchy, toe-tapping music courtesy of the Atari’s trusty POKEY chip. If you’d like to find out more about this game — and download it for free to try for yourself — check out the official website here.
Basketball is another sport I know next to nothing about, but I know more about it than I do baseball, in that I understand how to win and what the players on the court are actually supposed to do. Therefore, I am much better equipped to comment on Atari Basketball than I was for Atari Baseball.
Atari Basketball is a simple one-on-one affair in which you and another player or the computer square off against one another and try to score more baskets than the other. That’s… pretty much it, really, but there’s something about this game that makes it surprisingly addictive.
I think it’s the controls — the original arcade machine made use of a trackball controller, which translates quite well to modern analogue devices. I can imagine a game against another human opponent getting rather frantic when standing up against the original machine — but it’s still fun here when played on the sofa with a wireless controller, or even on the go with the Switch in handheld mode.
Any time you undertake a project like this, you have to accept that some elements of it are just going to be less of a “spectator sport” than others.
Such is the case with today’s Atari ST game, the not-much-to-look-at-but-fun-to-play Shanghai by Activision, an adaptation of Mahjong Solitaire that makes use of the ST’s built-in graphical user interface GEM as the foundation of its aesthetic. This was not at all an unusual approach back in the day, and is akin to more modern PC games running on Windows 95 and beyond making use of a windowed interface and standardised Windows controls. Not the most beautiful look, no, but perfectly functional — and a lot more intuitive to those who perhaps don’t play a lot of games.
Compared to more recent adaptations of Mahjong Solitaire, Shanghai is fairly limited, but it nonetheless remains a pleasingly relaxing, Zen sort of experience. Once you figure out how to read the screen properly, that is…
“Are you devious enough to play Xevious”? Well yes, yes, I am, particularly if it’s an apparently unreleased prototype of indeterminate origin for my favourite 8-bit home computer system.
Namco’s Xevious is a defining influence in the shoot ’em up genre, so of course there were plenty of home ports for a variety of systems. One that never quite made it to market, however, was the Atari 5200 version, which was subsequently ported by some helpful soul to play on standard Atari 8-bit computers. (This was not a huge leap, really, because the 5200 was basically an Atari 8-bit with a horrible controller and no keyboard.)
While questionable as to whether or not it’s “finished”, it’s certainly a competent enough port that I had a good time with, so take a look!
An unusual and very pretty shoot ’em up today, from the mind of the man who gave us Spindizzy.
Quartz is a game that combines free-roaming, vaguely Asteroids-esque sequences with more traditional forced scrolling stages in a variety of different directions. It’s simple but effective… and damned addictive.
It’s also a great example of a popular graphical style at the time — raytracing, or at the very least, a pixel art approximation of raytracing. Today, graphics cards are just starting to get into real-time raytracing for the latest “new thing” in graphical fidelity, but back in the ST era, prerendered raytraced graphical assets were quite commonly used as a means of making sprites look “3D” without going full-on polygonal.
Whether it’s “real” raytracing or not doesn’t really matter at the end of the day… what does matter is that this is a gorgeous game that’s a ton of fun to play!
There have been numerous attempts to improve on Pac-Man over the years by both Namco and third parties.
One such attempt by the former was Pac-Mania, a game which transplanted Pac-Man’s simple single-screen maze-based gameplay into a scrolling, oblique-perspective affair with jumping, power-ups and visually themed worlds.
Opinions vary as to whether it’s actually an improvement on Pac-Man or not, but one thing is certain: Grandslam’s port to Atari ST was very solid indeed, and one of the few Atari ST games I actually remember buying for myself back when I was a kid!
Today’s Atari ST title is a good example of the general standard of arcade conversions during the 16-bit home computer era.
Technos Japan’s Double Dragon II is a classic of the beat ’em up genre with good reason, and the Atari ST port wasn’t awful — compare it to footage of the arcade original and you’ll see that graphically, at least, it’s surprisingly close.
Like many arcade conversions of the era, though, it was missing a few features… like the background music from the original game. There are many possible reasons this might have been the case — most likely it was either the fact that the ST’s sound chip was never really up to the job of doing sound effects and music simultaneously, or that many of these Western-developed home computer ports of the era were put together from scratch rather than being able to make use of the arcade machine’s original code and audio-visual assets.
Either way, it’s far from an amazing game from the Atari ST, but it’s a good time if you’re looking for some brawler action, or just to experience what an arcade conversion of the era was like.
Hello, dear Atari fans! It’s been a while, and for that I apologise!
Fact is, I found myself with a bit less time to work on this site alongside all the other things I was doing than I thought I might have, so I’ve had to rethink things somewhat. However, I’m still keen to develop a useful (or at least hopefully interesting/nostalgic) resource for those interested in the Atari 8-Bit and ST computers and the software available for them!
With that in mind, I kicked off a YouTube series called Atari A to Z, which at the time of writing features short playthroughs of Atari 8-Bit games, some of which I grew up with and some of which are new to me. It has had a good response so far, so I thought I would expand it to this site as a means of promoting it in another way, and of collecting all the videos and related content together.
The thinking behind Atari A to Z is to initially explore the Atari 8-Bit’s library of games, a letter at a time… then go around and do it all again! I’d like to expand this over time to Atari ST games and perhaps some pieces of software too.
I hope you’ll join me on this journey; Atari computers are super-important to me, so I’m keen to share these things I love with those interested in such things!