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Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System


Albert
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racingthebeam.jpgA new book about the Atari 2600, Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System, written by Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost, has just been published. Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System is a detailed and accessible study of this influential videogame console from both computational and cultural perspectives.

 

The book examines the relationship between the unusual hardware design of the Atari VCS, the games that were created for it, and how those games influenced later titles and genres. The authors discuss the Atari VCS itself and six telling cartridges for the system: Combat, Adventure, Pac-Man, Yars' Revenge, Pitfall!, and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. They delve into the technical specifics of the system, tracking developments in programming, gameplay, interface, and aesthetics.

 

You can read more about the book and purchase it over at Amazon.com.

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"Racing the Beam presents not just the technical challenges but the financial, bureaucratic, and scheduling considerations that harried the Atari 2600 VCS programmers. Modern game designers should read this book for the same reason that modern generals study the military campaigns of Alexander and Caesar: the technology is completely different but the principles are the same."

Chris Crawford, former head of Atari's Games Research Group, and co-founder of Storytron

 

On the basis of this review, I'm going to pick up this book the next time I order from Amazon. Of course I need to finish reading the books I bought over Christmas. I'm currently reading Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling.

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Am not into the tech of the Atari 2600 i just like to play it would one such as myself enjoy this book?

Same here. Is this book for us?

 

The book is not a how-to about programming the Atari, although we do talk about some of the technical aspects of the machine that offer important insights into the games you know and love. It is indeed our hope that people who just like to play the games will enjoy the book!

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The sample chapter reads like a high school text book; very dry and academic. Any conclusions seem obvious, sort of like listening to Mr Rogers talk about his sweater.

 

There are a couple ways to look at this book. One is as a paean to a videogame console both Nick and I know and love. Another is as an introduction to an influential machine to those that don't know it as well as many of us do, indeed a machine that many people see as just a retro fetish object. I hope the book can serve both purposes.

 

As for dry and academic, I suppose it's a matter of taste. We wanted to write a professional book with accessible appeal directed at a broad audience. I think those of you who give it a chance will find a large number of observations that go far beyond mere name and number. Indeed, I wonder how anyone could draw conclusions based on the introductory chapter, given that its main purpose is to set up the rest of the book :)

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The sample chapter reads like a high school text book; very dry and academic. Any conclusions seem obvious, sort of like listening to Mr Rogers talk about his sweater.

 

I had the same feeling initially, but as the chapter progresses it becomes much more interesting. It seems pretty thorough and I must admit I skimmed over some of the more "video game concept" bits, but I wouldn't say that it's boring in the least if you're interested in the history of video games (especially the 2600).

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The sample chapter reads like a high school text book; very dry and academic. Any conclusions seem obvious, sort of like listening to Mr Rogers talk about his sweater.

 

I had the same feeling initially, but as the chapter progresses it becomes much more interesting. It seems pretty thorough and I must admit I skimmed over some of the more "video game concept" bits, but I wouldn't say that it's boring in the least if you're interested in the history of video games (especially the 2600).

 

One thing to remember is this: while all of us in this community have a very thorough knowledge of the Atari VCS and the company's history, many readers will not come to the book with any such knowledge. I'm confident we're not just repeating known facts here as well. This was a balance we tried to strike throughout. This same thing can be said for the whole idea of a "computer platform," which is where the book starts out.

 

Anyway, I hope many of you will read the whole book, as it only gets more interesting as the pages go by! Then again, I guess I would think so :)

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No chapter on E.T. darn.

 

Hee, you know, I really lobbied for an E.T. chapter. I might be the only person around who actually likes the game. Maybe we'll do it for the sequel ;)

I don't think it's as bad as everyone makes it out to be either. I sure as heck played it considerably more than Pac-Man when I was a kid..

 

..Al

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I don't think it's as bad as everyone makes it out to be either. I sure as heck played it considerably more than Pac-Man when I was a kid..

 

..Al

 

Same here. My sisters and I played E.T. just about as much as we played our other games (Frogger, Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, Pole Position, etc) We had many of the games that most people would commonly put in the "good" category, so it wasn't that E.T. was the only game we had, either...

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One thing to remember is this: while all of us in this community have a very thorough knowledge of the Atari VCS and the company's history, many readers will not come to the book with any such knowledge. I'm confident we're not just repeating known facts here as well. This was a balance we tried to strike throughout. This same thing can be said for the whole idea of a "computer platform," which is where the book starts out.

 

Anyway, I hope many of you will read the whole book, as it only gets more interesting as the pages go by! Then again, I guess I would think so :)

 

I hope I didn't come across as actually complaining about the book - on the contrary, I was attempting to back it up. :) I was merely pointing out that the beginning of the chapter threw me a bit, but ultimately grabbed my attention and was a good read. I enjoy "thorough"!

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I hope I didn't come across as actually complaining about the book - on the contrary, I was attempting to back it up. :) I was merely pointing out that the beginning of the chapter threw me a bit, but ultimately grabbed my attention and was a good read. I enjoy "thorough"!

 

Nope, not at all! Thanks for your comments.

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psst, Thomas, Thrust and Jammed are mentioned on page 142, according to the index. Congratulations! I'm glad to see a reference to homebrewing in the book. :thumbsup:

 

Indeed, I think you'll find a number of familiar homebrew titles make their appearance throughout the book :). As Nick and I mentioned in the acknowledgements (which I posted to another thread a while back), we are very thankful for the AtarAge site and forums.

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