Atari Jaguar – Pinball Fantasies – Review

If Pinball be the food of love, play on. Iain Laskey plays with his silver balls.

Pinball Fantasies is another of the increasing flow of 3rd party games for the Jaguar. A familiar game to owners of other systems, how does the Jaguar version shape up?

Pinball Fantasies on the Jaguar has been uprated with 32,000 colours and user customisation producing what is claimed to be the best version yet.

There are four different tables each with a very distinct flavour and style of play. Up to 8 players can compete at once which can make for great fun when you have a bunch of friends playing together.

The gameplay is generally good. Most of the tables are great fun and very addictive. The action does seem a little slow to begin with but Pinball Fantasies is more about precision play than speed. However, some of the more obscure combinations of events needed to achieve bonuses are so convoluted as to be impossible to achieve through anything other than pure luck. Stones and Bones is by far the easiest in this department and is probably the best one to start with.

The graphics are very colourful with nice detailing. Some tables look realistically ‘used’ with dented tracks and rust marks.

The main tunes are fine to start with but soon start to get repetitive. Luckily they can be switched off leaving just the sound effects which are excellently varied and clear.

The whole game is bright and breezy and should provide hours of fun for all but the most jaded gamers. If you like pinball type games, Pinball Fantasies will not disappoint you.

Product Name:    Pinball Fantasies
Publisher:            21st Century Entertainment
Telephone:           01235 xxxxxx
RRP:                    £44.99

Pros:     Four very different tables. Good audio effects. Addictive.
Cons:    Music rather grating after a while, Some bonuses are more luck than skill
Score     8

Atari Jaguar – Rayman Review

(More ST Review Jag stuff from history)

Possibly the most eagerly awaited title for the Jaguar has finally beamed onto the streets. Iain Laskey finds out if it was worth the wait.

Rayman is one of those classic ‘cute’ platform games. The object of the game is free the Electoons and ultimately free the Great Protoon in order to return Rayman’s world to harmony and vanquish Mr Dark who has caused all the chaos to start with. Initially you have very little in the way of abilities and skills. As you finish certain sections, you are rewarded with new skills and powers to help you. Some of these are permanent and some only last for that level. Unusually, you can return to previously finished screens to try them with your new abilities. A nice touch.

The gameplay is the usual platform affair with lots of jumping, climbing, crouching and walking as you explore the world. The levels are well designed and help you to get into the game gently.

The holiday doesn’t last too long though and soon you have to start to work quite a bit harder. Some enemies take quite a bit of dodging and shooting to finish them off. You can punch down berries and use them to float about on the otherwise fatal water, enabling you to reach power ups and some of the Electoons. Much use is needed of swings, moving clouds and more to complete the levels. There are hidden bonus levels which can be accessed by collecting Tings and finding the hidden Wizard. There is also a hidden breakout type game but I won’t spoil it by saying how you find it. There’s a lot of skills to be mastered in order to finish each level.

What really separates Rayman from its peers is the excellent animation. The movement of both Rayman and the various other characters is superbly done. It really is just like watching a cartoon. Tiny details abound. When you die, Rayman appears on a stage and if you continue he bows and cartwheels off stage. Deciding to stop playing results in him despondently slouching off the other side of the stage. Wonderful! There are one or two oddities though. Periodically Rayman looks at you and seems to be talking but no sound comes out. Maybe an unfinished feature?

The graphics are generally very good. With 65,000 colours, smooth scrolling and over 50 animated characters, everything just looks and feels very polished.

The controls are well chosen and perfectly balanced. The numeric pad isn’t used, only the top half of the controller is utilised. Some games are awkward to play due to the control method but everything in Rayman just feels right.

The only real criticism I can raise is regarding the music which is rather too tinkly and twee and soon starts to grate. Luckily you can turn it down. Ubisoft claim there are 45 tracks so what it lacks in quality, it makes up for in quantity. The sound effects too are adequate and plentiful but nothing fancy. The PSX version has superior sound but being a CD it should have. For a cartridge based title though Rayman doesn’t do too bad.

You can save 3 different games with your initials and a percentage counter shows you how far you have got as well as a map showing each location visited.

Rayman was first demoed almost a year ago and even then looked impressive. Since then it looks like Ubisoft have been busy fine tuning every element. It looks great and plays like a dream. Whilst it would have been almost impossible to live up to the hype, Rayman comes very close indeed. This is one of the more expensive Jaguar games but it won’t disappoint. Rush out and buy it today!

Product Name:    Rayman
Publisher:            Ubisoft
Telephone:           0181 xxx xxxx
RRP:                   £54.99

Pros: Animation, well thought out levels, addictive
Cons: Lacklustre audio.
Score 8

Super Burnout – Review

Motorbike racing comes to the Jaguar with Super Burnout. Iain Laskey gets on his bike.

Having been a fan of Super Hangon on the ST, I was keen to see how Super Burnout compared to its illustrious predecessor. With a variety of tracks and race conditions, there is much here to keep you occupied.

The game allows you to race against a friend or against a field of computer opponents. The computer racers play a pretty mean game and also improve as you do making it very hard to win on all but the easiest settings.

Initial impressions were less than favourable. The graphics whilst very fast, looked basic. They could have put much more detail into both the static screens and the main game. There are some nice touches though such as a trail of rubber as each bike accelerates away. Also, drone bikes are perfectly capable of crashing into each other. However, after the first race I was initially unimpressed.

Each track has the current best time and best average time recorded for it. This is where the trouble began. After the next race I was awarded a best time. That was the beginning of the slippery slope. Addictive? This game is the embodiment of the ‘Just one more go’ concept. Every time you raise the stakes, you just know you could shave an extra tenth of a second off the record next time.

Super Burnout is fast, fun and addictive. When you introduce the two player options, you have a recipe for success. It may not look as pretty as the state of the art race games but it has gameplay by the bucketful. The only real letdown is that the two player option is just between two humans, no computer drones race against you.

Product Name:    Super Burnout
Publisher:            Atari.
Telephone:           01753 xxxxxx
RRP:                   £49.99

Pros:  Fast smooth graphics. 2 player option. Addictive.
Cons: Graphics could be more detailed.
Score 8

Syndicate – Review

(and another blast from the past)

In the future, wars will be between huge corporations, not countries. Syndicate throws you into the battle for global supremacy.

Syndicate is set in a future where the world is run by huge corporations. Your job as an executive in a syndicate is to gain control of world territories. This involves sending your cyborg agents out on missions which if successful, enable you to ultimately conquer the world.

You start each mission by equipping your team with weapons and equipment. At this point you can also invest money in research to upgrade your cyborgs later on. It’s best to keep an eye on the corporations balance and each mission should be carefully budgeted. When you are happy with your team, you can start the mission.

The missions involve such tasks as killing other agents or coercing enemy scientists over to your syndicate with your Persuadertron. To achieve this you can use individual agents or group them together. You then try to find your targets. A scanner is pretty much an essential piece of equipment for your cyborgs as it helps  to identify who’s who. Guards can be easily killed but enemy agents can be a bit tougher. A good way to handle them is to travel in a vehicle and use it to run them over. Your agents can have their perception, intelligence or speed temporarily boosted by drugs. Beware of overuse though as they become used to the drugs and start to need larger doses to achieve the same effect. The various missions can take considerable time to finish although some such as assassinations can be quickly completed. As you progress you gain access to better weapons and equipment such as gauss guns and pass cards which can get you into secure areas as well as identifying you as an enemy policeman.

After a successful take-over, you can adjust the taxes in your new territory to help fill your corporations coffers. Don’t be too greedy though as higher taxes can unsettle the population making it easier for competing corporations to retake your land.

You can save your current position after each mission has been completed. There is only one save slot though so you can’t have different saves at the same time.

Every button on the Jaguars controller is used to manipulate you team. There are even several key combinations resulting in a bewildering array of options. It’s probably best to have the manual handy and open on the controls page. Syndicate doesn’t come with a controller overlay which is a major omission in such a complex game.

The graphics don’t really do the Jaguar justice unfortunately. They have been slightly improved over other versions but are still fairly basic. There is a new zoom feature which can be very useful. The scrolling is done in jumps although the animation of the agents is nicely done. The various still images look rather chunky and have few colours. The sound is better with a suitably moody soundtrack and lots of spot sound effects and samples.

It’s good to see 3rd party games beginning to appear for the Jaguar but it’s a shame to see straight ports of existing games with little attempt to make use of the Jaguars powerful sound and graphics. There is a lot to do though and there are enough options to keep you busy. Syndicate is a competent game but  whether it’s worth nearly fifty pounds is questionable.

Product Name:    Syndicate
Publisher:            Ocean.
Telephone:           0161 xxx xxxx
RRP:                   £49.99

Pros:  50 plus missions. Plenty to do.
Cons: Graphics could be much better. Fiddly to control.
Score 6

Theme Park – Review

If you thought theme parks were fun to visit, you just try running one. Theme Park from Ocean let’s you try your hand at building the best park in the world.

It was about 6PM. I put the kettle on, booted up Theme Park and started to play. After what seemed like half an hour, I realised I hadn’t made the tea. I glanced at my watch. 1AM. OK, so where did the evening go? The answer is Theme Park.

Before you build your park, you need to buy land. Initially only the UK is open to you  as it’s free. Later on when you’ve made some cash, you can move to different countries where the big money can be made. Next you choose which rides and food stalls you wish to add. Connect them up with some paths, add a few trees and a toilet or two and then open the doors to your public.

As the park starts to fill up, you need to keep an eye on everything. Litter can easily build up unless you hire a few cleaners. Rides can break down too requiring a crew of engineers to fix them. If you aren’t quick enough with the repairs, the ride will explode, killing the occupants and doing your park’s reputation equal damage.

As the months pass, the takings build up enabling you to purchase further facilities. You can invest in research for new items to help give your park an edge over the competition. If funds get low, borrow from the bank but be sure you can handle the interest payments.

You also need to keep an eye on your customers. You can check how happy they are and if they have any wants such as more food. If they get too unhappy, the word will get out and attendencies will fall. At the end of the year you can decide to continue building or to sell.

As your park grows, you need to install enough signposts to help your customers find the best rides. As time goes by you also gain access to more sophisticated attractions. Any which aren’t doing too well can be closed down and better ones built in their place. If any employees are under performing, you can sack them and hire better ones.

Along the way you have to deal with pay disputes, rising inflation and even other parks buying your shares. It’s a constant battle to keep your park at the top or even just profitable.

The graphics are amusing with some great animation on the various rides. Considering the original was designed for a PC with a high resolution monitor, the programmers have done a sterling job of keeping so much detail whilst making it playable on a TV although the screen seemed to be slightly too wide for mine and I couldn’t see the left hand side. You may have better luck. The audio is good enough with plenty of spot sound effects and tunes. Given the constraints of a cartridge, there is a lot of game packed in.

The game save is limited in that you can only save when you sell a park and all that is recorded is your cash and which countries you have built in.

The control system has been completely revamped for the Jaguar. I found it excellent, especially given the fact that the original used a mouse and menus. Top marks for this.

As is often the case, Theme Park is no 64bit super game. It is however very good fun. It’s lost very little in its transition from the PC and gained an extremely nice control system into the bargain. Well worth checking out.

Product Name:   Theme Park
Publisher:            Ocean.
Telephone:           0161 xxx xxxx
RRP:                    £49.99

Pros:           Superb gameplay. Very addictive. Good animation.
Cons:          Room for improvement in the graphics department. Poor game save.
Score         8

Zool 2 – Review

(More old ST Review stuff)

If you like platform games, they don’t come much bigger and brighter than Zool 2. Iain Laskey looks at the Jaguar version of this award winning game.

Zool 2 has been released on just about every machine around and has now arrived on the  Atari Jaguar. This version has been enhanced and claims to be the fastest, most colourful version of all.

Body: When the game first starts there is a nice ray-traced intro sequence of Zool before the main screen appears. You can play as either Zool or his female sidekick Zooz. The options screen lets you choose the difficulty level, whether inertia is active and the number of players. When in two player mode, you can use one or two controllers.

The gameplay is certainly fast. Unfortunately it’s also very repetitive. Each of the seven levels involves avoiding or shooting the enemies and collecting the various items that are liberally littered around the game. There are the obligatory power-ups to be collected including bombs, a second ninja and shields. If you can collect 3 Zoon tokens, you get to play a special bonus level.

Each level has its own flavour with different sprites and backgrounds although the basic game is identical in each case. The first level is fairly straightforward and the graphics, especially the backgrounds are rather lacklustre. The later levels are generally nicer looking though and provide more of a challange. It’s not always obvious how to go about completing them and often some split second timing is required to navigate your ninja around. The Bulberry Hill level has tubes that accelerate your ninja upwards with a wild spinning rather reminicscent of Sonic games. There are also fried eggs and trampolines to jump on to get the height needed to reach some parts of each level.

The controls are easy to get to grips with. Only the A, B and C buttons are used along with the joypad. It makes a nice change from having to remember a set of commands resembling War and Peace although there are a few special moves including ‘power-jumps’

Graphically Zool is easily as good as any 16bit console but not much better. There is no slowdown even when the action gets furious and the parallax scrolling works well enough. There is the odd pleasing detail such as the eyes on the huge Egyptian death masks following you around. The colours are bright and breezy but overall, the game looks like it’s aimed at the younger audience rather than the more discerning gamer.

The sound is certainly never far from your thoughts when you play. The tunes are worryingly catchy and all kinds of weird and wonderful sounds play as your ninja dashes about shooting and collecting. It sounds like the sort of game Jeff Minter would have written.

A real let down is that you cannot save your current position. High scores are saved along with SFX and music levels though.

At best Zool 2 is competent. It’s well programmed but the game itself is unexceptional. The Jaguar sorely needs a killer platform game to rival the Sonics and Marios of the world. Unfortunately, this isn’t it. Hopefully, Ubisoft’s new game, Rayman will be the Jaguar platformer that others will be looking up to.

If you have a burning need for a platform game, then Zool 2 is worth a look but play it first before you buy.

Product Name:    Zool 2
Publisher:    Atari.
Telephone:    01753 xxxxxx
RRP:        £39.99

Pros:        Fast and frantic action. Big bright levels. Cheaper than most.
Cons:          Can get repetitious. No game save.
Score         5

Missile Command 3D – Review

(More old ST Review stuff from the 90’s)

Missile Command 3D

The Cold War over? Not on the Jaguar. It’s still very much alive. Save your cities from thermonuclear destruction!

Atari continue their fascination with the past and unveil Missile Command 3D, their latest reworking of an arcade classic.

For those who aren’t old and crusty, Missile Command was a huge hit in the early eighties during the time Atari reigned supreme as top dog in the arcades and home. You have six cities to defend and three missile bases to do this from. Waves of nuclear missiles, smart missiles, aircraft and satellites all take turns at trying to demolish your cities. You have to shoot these down. The tricky bit is that your missiles take a little while to reach their targets so you need to predict their trajectory and aim ahead of the incoming targets. Every 10,000 points you get a new city to replace any that have been destroyed. When all six cities are gone, it’s game over.

Missile Command 3D comprises of 3 very different games, Original, 3D and Virtual. First out is Original which unfortunately bears little resemblance to the arcade game. It looks rather like someone did this from memory. It plays OK but really isn’t worth getting excited about.

Next comes the 3D version. Now, this is more like it. The game is played from the perspective of the ground looking up. Once again, you have 3 missile bases to fire from but now you see the warheads with their plumes coming down at you. Very eerie. The sky is much wider than your field of view so you need to make good use of the radar to know where to look next. A neat twist is that surviving cities can have their tech levels increased allowing you to ultimately build extra weapons.  The smart bomb is especially useful when things get frantic on later levels.

The final version is Virtual mode. This adds all kinds of extra bells and whistles such as weapon powerups, underwater, sky and space stages as well as end of level bosses. Virtual mode is similar to 3D but requires a more tactical method of play as different weapons suit different targets and if you use them up too early you’ll be in big trouble. Be careful not to get too tempted by powerups though as time wasted collecting these can result on incoming missiles reaching their targets. Enemy craft also swarm about dropping bombs which can easily be missed so extreme vigilance is the name of the  game.

Original mode apart, the graphics and fine enough. The intro screen is excellent with the camera view zooming about what appears to be corridors until it pulls back to reveal the words ‘Missile Command 3D’. The 3D modes have nice glint and lens flare effects as you pass the sun making it look like your playing through a camera. There is some simple but effective use of texture mapping in the 3D objects. Rather oddly, the spinning VR logo that appears when the game is first started is the most appalling effort at 3D I’ve ever seen and wouldn’t look out of place on a Commodore 64.

The music is in typical Jaguar style and adds a suitable techno ambience to the proceedings. Sound effects are generally good although I’d have liked the right noises on the original version.

Missile Command 3D was originally designed for use with the aborted VR headset project. Given the last minute change, it holds up pretty well. Playing the 3D versions does make me wish Atari had persevered with VR though. Playing this game with a VR helmet on would have been quite an experience. As it stands, it’s still a fine blast. It may not impress your friends but it certainly has the proverbial ‘Just one more try’ feel about it.

Product:        Missile Command 3D
Price:        £49.99
Contact:        JTS Atari
Telephone:    01753 xxxxxx
Min System:    Jaguar

Highs:        Addictive, excellent point of view graphics.
Lows:        Original version poor, expensive, Virtual version needs more levels.

In Short…
Hardly state of the art but seriously addictive blasting. 75%

NBA Jam Tournament Edition – Review

(More old ST Review stuff from the 90’s)

Roll up sports fans and prepare for some serious basketball.

There’s no doubting that sports games sell by the bucket these days. The Jag has always been a bit of a poor relation in this respect though. Hopefully NBA Jam will change all this.

NBA Jam allows you to play against the Atari Jaguar or your friends. Whilst the Jaguar plays a mean game, it’s when you’re up against real people that games like this start to shine. With the ability to use both the Pro Controller and the Team Tap add-on, NBA is designed with just this in mind. NBA Jam allows up to four players to compete together.

Each game consists of four quarters. At the start of the first quarter, you choose your two players. You should aim for a mix of strong shooting along with good passing and blocking. If your combination of players doesn’t work out, you can always substitute either or both at the end of each quarter. Badly injured players can also be swapped out this way.

Assuming you win, you then get to play against another team. As the matches progress, you slowly work your way up the league.

The computer players start out very easy to beat but soon toughen up as you start to improve your play. Don’t expect to finish this cart in a hurry. With over 120 different NBA stars available for you to compete with (and against) you’ll be well occupied for some time.

During play, the A, B and C buttons act as shoot/block, pass/steal and turbo. These are used in various combinations to play the ball in a variety of ways. Exactly which manoeuvres can be performed is also controlled by the players individual abilities. You get different points depending on the distance you managed to make a successful shot from. In some game modes, powerup icons appear on the court to add extra abilities and increase skills.

The graphics are generally pretty good, especially for a cartridge. Each of the players have been individually digitised with representations both at selection time and during play. Unfortunately, the heads on the players are oversized to an alarming degree making them look deformed. The animation is adequate although a little more effort on the backgrounds would have improved things a lot. It is also quite hard to follow which player you are controlling during fast play. Lots of static screens add to a generally polished overall appearance.

The soundtrack pounds along with suitably frantic tunes and all sorts of audio effects add to the atmosphere. The sound is a cut above the average for a Jaguar game with individual calls for the various players.

The Options screen has plenty of adjustments to gameplay including tag mode, computer assistance and various timer parameters.

Overall, NBA Jam TE is a difficult game to quantify. In multiplayer mode it really comes into its own but for solo players the charm may wear off all too quickly. Some people really rate this game highly though. This is probably a game you should try to have a go of in the shop before splashing out your sixty quid ; after all, this is in the upper tier of Jaguar prices.

Product: NBA Jam Tournament Edition

Price: £59.99

Contact: JTS Atari

Telephone: 01753 xxxxxx

Min System: Jaguar

Highs: Multiplayer, Great Sound FX

Lows: Vastly overpriced, Odd Looking Players, A Little Repetitive

In Short…

With a few friends, NBA provides tons of entertainment. You may get bored if playing on your own though.. 70%


Attack of the Mutant Penguins Review

Back in the day I used to review Atari Jaguar games. In this instance I was also a beta tester. The Jaguar version of this one was really good, the PC version, not so much. As one of the better Jaguar titles, it’s nice to note this one was produced by Atari UK. At the time I used to work quite closely with Darryl Still and Alistair Bodin, two excellent chaps at Atari. Penguins was one of the games they were responsible for bringing to the Jag.

Here’s what got written for ST Review back in 1995…

From the land of Monty Python and The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy comes the latest example of zany British Humour. Iain Laskey comes face to face with the Mutant Penguins.

Every now and then a game comes along that can’t really be described in anyway that does it justice. Attack of the Mutant Penguins, or AMP, is one such game.

Aliens have decided to invade the Earth and prior to arrival they’ve tuned into our TV broadcasts to see what we look like. Unfortunately for them they picked a nature program and mutated into the first thing they saw – penguins. At the last minute they realised their error and tried to make the best of it by dressing up as different types of humans, hoping they’d be able to blend in. The only thing that stands in their way is Earth’s last hope, Rodney and Bernard.

Each level has a theme such as cowboys and indians, clerics or Elvis. The object is to stop the Mutant Penguins from reaching the Doom Scales. You can play as either Rodney or Bernard. Each has a different set of weapons. To help you in your quest you have various machines and tricks you can use. In addition, the real penguins who are upset at the bad press these upstart mutants are giving them, have decided to help you beat the aliens. If more mutant penguins get to the scales than good penguins then the Doomsday Weapon is triggered and life as we know it comes to an end.

Like the classic game, Lemmings, each level of AMP requires you to work out the correct combination of actions that will allow the good penguins to get to the scales whilst stopping the mutants. Various chests are placed around each level. These can contain parts of extra weapons, good penguins and other bonus items. To open them you need to collect the blue gremlins and drop them on the chests. The more gremlins, the quicker the chests open.

The machines are delightful devices. Some have rotating knives which slice up the mutants as they try to walk past. Others grab the bad guys and skewer them on big metal spikes resulting in a flurry of feathers and bits of gory body debris as the victim explodes. Wonderful!

The different themes are also important. On the Elvis level there are jukeboxes. If you can find a coin and deposit it in the jukebox , music starts to play and any Elvis penguins that pass by just have to stop for a boogie, buying you valuable time. The cowboy levels have campfires and if you manage to light them, the cowboys all sit by the fire, start eating beans and, well, have you ever seen the film Blazing Saddles?

At the end of each level you get one of 3 random mini-games to help you vent those anti-alien feelings some more.

The game can be a little confusing to start with and helpfully Atari have put in an automatic tutorial that explains what everything does the first time you use it. After that, gameplay continues uninterrupted.

The graphics are very amusing with brilliant sprites, all well animated. Some elements are so good it’s often tempting to do things just because the results are funny, not because they actually help you complete the game. The noises are generally good although the intro music sample is terrible. Very rough sounding.

AMP requires a bit of effort to work out what to do. It’s well worth persevering though. The only real problem is that there are only 60 levels which isn’t really enough compared to other games of this genre. Maybe an opportunity here for AMP 2?

AMP is the first of a series of games that have been produced by Atari’s European Development Centre and as a benchmark of quality sets a fine standard.

Product Name:    Attack of the Mutant Penguins
Publisher:    Atari
Telephone:    01753 xxxxxxxx
RRP:        £49.99

Pros:    Amusing graphics, good puzzles.
Cons:    Not enough levels.
Score:     8

In the Beginning – Atari Memories

(I found this old article I wrote some years ago and had a bit of a nostalgia buzz so here it is)

For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by technology. At school I was the first to get a programmable calculator in the form of a Texas TI with a whopping 50 odd steps. This was quickly followed one that had a clock and alarm built in. Amazing stuff. But then it happened. Wandering home from school one day, I glanced in the window of a shop that sold office supplies. There, in the window, sat the future. An 8K PET.

The next day I told my friend and in our lunch hour we ran down to the shop and gawped at it. My friend then pulled out a battered looking ETI magazine and announced that 8K meant it could store 8 thousand characters of information. Eight thousand! This was to me a staggering amount of information. Alas, it cost about £600 and I earned £1 a week pocket money so the future for me wasn’t quite there yet.

Fast forward a few years, I had left school, started working for a bank and begun earning big money. Well, sort of, compared to pocket money. It also provided me with the chance to get a cheap bank loan. The next few weeks consisted of trip after trip to WH Smith, scanning the few computer magazines that existed until I had narrowed down the choice.

The Sinclair ZX80 was just being replaced by the ZX81 but whilst cheap, it wasn’t good enough for me as I had already been spoiled. In the previous few months, I had been hanging out at a CB club and made friends with one Apple Pie (don’t you just love those CB handles?). Apple Pie, naturally, had an Apple II (and, surprisingly, a girlfriend). The Apple II became my specification benchmark. Whatever I bought had to have colour and sound.


Thus, the shortlist shrank down to an Apple II, a DAI (an oddball Belgian micro as I remember) and an Atari 400 (the 800 was right out the question, price wise). The decision was helped by the local proximity of Maplin Electronics. I arrived and was met by a number of Atari 400 and 800 machines, 810 disk drives, cassette decks, piles of software and one Atari obsessed young Saturday boy. He showed me a few games that after being raised on the Atari VCS and its somewhat limited graphics, totally blew me away. A great many Atari computers at that time were sold on the back of the game Star Raiders much as BBCs would be sold as a way to play Elite some years later. For me though, the moment of truth was Jawbreaker. This classy Pacman clone had transparent ghosts. Graphics didn’t get any better than that. Decision made. Bank loan arranged, purchase completed.

It’s difficult to appreciate in hindsight just how expensive computers were back then compared to an average wage. I bought an upgraded 32K Atari 400, a 410 cassette deck, one game (Voodoo Castle, a Scott Adams text adventure) and thus spent almost 4 months wages in one exhilarating hit.

Back home, the Atari was reverentially plugged in, powered up and gawped up as a white text on blue screen came up with the word ‘READY’. And I was, ready for the future. This was a computer. It could do anything.

I started to load the game. After almost 20 minutes of burbling and screeching, the message ‘BOOT ERROR’ appeared. A second go worked though and I was launched in to gaming heaven. Not only was I immersed in my first text adventure, it even had a modified character set to look like ye olde writing. As the game unfolded I found my self starting to get nervous after typing each command in fear of something horrible happening. Such was the power of the text adventure and a fired up teenagers mind.

The next day I decided to see if I could write my own games so I booted to Basic and started tapping away. An hour or so later I had come to the conclusion one needed to know a bit about computers as everything I typed just got echoed back to me preceded by the friendly message ‘ERROR’. One quick phone call and my ETI magazine owning friend turned up. He now had experience of computers from collage. With an almost Roger Moore like knowing expression he cryptically advised ‘you program them using peek and poke’. He then started to type in various poke commands. Most did nothing although a couple crashed the Atari. The fact that they even crashed it struck me as ultimate wisdom. This man was a God. I had to learn the things he knew.

The following week I picked up the very first issue of Computer and Video Games magazine and a book on Atari Basic. Over the next few weeks I read the book and typed in the Atari game called Trench from C&VG. Needless to say, my typing was less than perfect and it took several days before I could get the game working but it had taught me a lot. Every time I ran it and something went wrong, I scoured the printout in the magazine to see where my typing differed. When a new typo was found, I realised that line of code must be related to what was happening on screen. The fact that I was even able to make a game appear on the screen by typing in commands myself and then have colours, sounds and a game was an awesome thing to behold. As each new issue of C&VG came out, another listing was duly typed in, debugged and as a result, my skills improved.

In the meanwhile, I had been making regular trips to Maplins. The Saturday boy was still there along with an increasingly tempting array of goodies. The boy himself was usually engrossed in writing his own software using the Macro Assembler. To see a mortal produce colours and movement on the screen using such low level and arcane methods whetted my appetite. It was one thing for the gurus at Atari to write games this way but for a kid in a shop in Essex? I bought the Assembler/Editor cartridge and a 6502 programming book and rushed home.

I always had a soft spot for the Assembler/Editor manual. On page one it proudly proclaimed that it had been extensively proof read and that if any example programs didn’t work, it was the reader’s fault, not Atari’s. The fact that two listings actually had the word ‘ERROR’ on some lines, indicating a syntax error was to me quite amusing.

After a few false starts I was soon using a mixture of Basic and assembler to put together games and utilities. I also started picking up the American magazines Analog and Antic which specialised in Atari computers. Apart from the copious and useful listings, they had reviews of stuff not yet available in the UK. Speech synthesizers, databases, digitising tablets, new programming languages and more left me envious as did the prices Stateside.

It was around this time I joined the big boys and bought a floppy disk drive. The Atari 810 held a massive 88k and cost a mere £350. Just two months salary by then. It revolutionised things. Suddenly games loaded in fifteen seconds, not twenty minutes. My programs could save data to random access files. I could also start to buy the more sophisticated software that only came on floppy disk. As most of these needed 48K, I had the Atari 400 upgraded. For ‘just’ £100, Maplins took the old 32K card and replaced it with a 48K one. Now I could play the state of the art games such as Choplifter.

The 810 also allowed me to start working on my dream project of writing a set of software tools for my then favourite RPG game, Traveller. The character generator I wrote in Atari Basic only just fitted in the available memory and used every RAM saving trick in the Atari book. One of my favourite tweaks was using variables for common numbers. Atari Basic used less memory to store a reference to a variable than a number so if any number was used more than a handful of times, it made sense, to replace it with a variable. The result was less room needed and line after line of code like:

speed = speed + a10

By then, the first stage of my computing life was starting to come to a close. Within the year my Atari 400 was replaced first by an Atari 800 from well known dodgy local emporium Scientific & Technical as they were being phased out and could be picked up cheaply, and then shortly after by an Atari 130XE (128k of RAM) and a 1050 disk drive. The 1050 was quickly enhanced by an internal board that sped up disk reading and writing, increased capacity and copied protected games.

Since then I have owned an Atari 520STM (The Traveller program got ported to STOS), an Atari Ste (4 megabytes!), a Mega Ste (a hard drive!) and finally an Atari Falcon before succumbing to the PC and the world of Windows. My first PC was a 486SX multimedia unit with 4 megabytes of RAM, a 120Mb hard drive and all the trimmings. The Traveller program got ported to Visual Basic 4.

I’m currently typing this on something somewhat quicker with enough peripherals hanging off it to do pretty much anything. The Traveller program is midway through being ported to C#.

I still miss my 32K Atari 400 and that READY prompt though.