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|Title:||Racing The Beam- The Atari Video Computer System|
|Author:||Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost|
|Rating:||3.5 out of 5|
Racing the Beam, by Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost, goes from being a fun read to being a fairly technical look at the history of programming for the Atari 2600 VCS. If you lack programming experience or interest, the more technical aspects may be of little interest. The tone is fairly dry, but the tales of Atari 2600 game development are quite interesting. The book is broken down into chapters, each based on a particular game and it's challenges and enlightenments in the world of squeezing amazing games from very little memory.
The image on the title screen of any modern game is exponentially larger than the entire space programmers had for all their 2600 code! Most Atari 2600 ROMs are about 4K in size. Saving a single word in Microsoft Office's Word application generates a file of about 20K.
This book is part of the Platform Studies series that delve into early computers and game consoles. The game-centric chapters begin with Combat and march through Adventure, Pac-Man, Yars Revenge, Pitfall! and end with Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. There are also introductory and closing chapters. At 192 pages, Racing The Beam collates a lot of info into what I wish was a longer book. Between the cultural and technical aspects they discuss, I feel as though more space would have allowed better segues between technical code discussions and the fantastic tales and insights.
Parts of the book are quite technical, yet you won't learn to program from this tome. You will learn a lot of fascinating anecdotes and facts. You may even become inspired to delve into creating your own 2600 homebrew game. Some have complained that the tales & tech seem to randomly clash on a single page, without much of a segue. It's a style but I think Atari fans and those curious about the beginnings of Nolan Bushnell's company will be engaged by the book regardless of the writing style.
The author's try to relate some of the Atari lessons to more recent fare. For example the "open world" feeling of Pitfall! was likened to later games like Grand Theft Auto.
Obviously, these are very different games, but when you consider that Pitfall! actually had 255 screens that flowed in an pseudo-random, yet orderly, manner even if you changed direction and went back to a previous screen. Pitfall Harry never got into any jungle car-jacking, but this kind of comparison makes one think about how an 8-bit game may actually be a predecessor to more elaborate modern games.
In the Yars Revenge chapter, Howard Scott Warshaw was charged with porting Star Castle to the 2600. Unable to properly replicate the game, he took it's main elements and made a game better suited to the strengths of the 2600. In essence, his boss let him blow-off a license in order to create Yars Revenge. As stated in the book - that would never happen in today's gaming industry. In the beginning, rules are both created... and broken.
The Star Wars chapter opens with Bushnell trying to get retailers to sell his home version of Pong. Long before there was an established game industry or genre, retailers didn't know what video games were or how to classify them. Toys? Electronics? Bushnell was able to get Sears (who would later sell the 2600 under the TeleGames brand) to resell his Pong unit. We can debate whether Pong is more akin to Tennis or Ping Pong, but would you believe the home Pong unit was sold in the Sporting Goods section of Sears?!?
Anecdotes like this are frequent and really make Racing the Beam a lot of fun to read. I thought it had a good blend of Atari tales and technology to be of interest to both casual and hardcore fans of Atari's rise to today's stellar status of the 2600 console.