When the Atari ST Was the Future of Computing

Gaming

The Atari 520ST was Atari’s first 16-bit salvo in the personal computer wars of the 1980s. A new book by ExtremeTech Editor-in-Chief Jamie Lendino shows the tremendous influence the ST had on both gaming and music production.

The Atari ST, largely forgotten today, was an incredible computer. Hot on the heels of Apple’s 1984 Macintosh, the ST, released by the then-new Atari Corporation under Jack Tramiel, was the first personal computer to offer a bitmapped color graphical user interface. Less than a year later, the 1040ST model became the first computer to offer 1 megabyte of memory for less than $1,000. The ST was powered by a then-cutting-edge 8MHz Motorola 68000 CPU and came with a mouse, 3.5-inch floppy drive, and your choice of color or high-resolution monochrome monitors. Later ST models included an additional DSP chip for digital audio, built-in hardware scrolling, faster processors, and a variety of hard disk drives.

My favorite computer of all time remains the Atari 800, which debuted in 1979. But a special place in my heart is reserved for the 1985 16-bit model, the one that delivered both sophisticated gaming and kicked off my lifelong affinity for recording music. So I had to write a book about it. My new book, Faster Than Light: The Atari ST and the 16-Bit Revolution, traces the history, the highs, and the lows of this fantastic personal computer, from the very first 520ST to the stellar, rare Falcon 030 model that arrived in 1992.

To this day, I regularly review digital audio workstation software for our sister site PCMag.com in addition to running ExtremeTech, and I can credit my love of music recording to my original Atari 520ST system. Like no other computer before or since, it came with built-in MIDI ports that made it a snap for the machine to talk to synthesizers, samplers, and drum machines, and the ST’s GUI made it easy to work with printed musical notation. STs even booted extremely quickly, thanks to their containing the entire operating system and GUI on fast ROM chips, rather than having to be loaded off of a disk.h

One year in the making, Faster Than Light: The Atari ST and the 16-Bit Revolution is now shipping on Amazon. Here’s a free book excerpt; I hope you enjoy it.

Faster Than Light: The Atari ST and the 16-Bit Revolution
by Jamie Lendino
p. 85-91

Computer Role-Playing Games (CRPGs)

Aside from pure twitch games found in the golden age of arcades, my other favorite genre of game will always be CRPGs. And as I mentioned in my first book about the Atari 8-bit computer lineup, I was sad certain key titles such as the Wizardry series never made it to the platform. Others, such as Origin Systems’ Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar, showed up a bit late and were missing key elements thanks to memory constraints (in this case, the in-game music). The ST gave CRPG fans like me much more to sink their teeth into.

Phantasie (SSI, 1986)

SSI made its name on bringing classic tabletop wargaming to the computer screen. But arguably more effective were its attempts at simulating Dungeons & Dragons-like role-playing games. The first SSI game we’ll discuss for the ST was one of its best CRPGs. It set the tone both for what we should expect from both SSI and 16-bit platforms going forward.

Phantasie ended up being the first of three installments. Programmer Winston Douglas Wood developed the game on an Apple II; SSI then ported it to a number of other platforms, including as a graphically enhanced and more colorful version for the ST. I still love hearing the theme song with its trills in the melody. In Phantasie, you started the game on the medieval isle of Gelnor with a party of six adventurers, selected from a whopping 15 races and six character classes. You had to find the Nine Rings and use them to destroy the Dark Lord Nikademus and his Black Knights. The game featured a passive skill system Wood said was derived from RuneQuest and D&D.[i]

The towns in the game let you form parties, save games, buy and sell equipment, and store your money in a bank. The land spanned wilderness, mountainous regions, and of course, dungeons, populated with all kinds of treasure and 80 different monster types. In combat, the game showed detailed drawings of each player and monster. You queued up your commands and executed them all at once, and then the combat system played out that turn of the battle so you could see what happened before you made your next set of moves. Watching enemies get destroyed one by one was quite satisfying.

One of Phantasie’s best features was it mapped itself. The “fog of war” was cleared as you explored and then stayed persistent. That meant you didn’t need a pen and graph paper to map it by hand. The game even saved the state of a dungeon after you left it, which was unusual. And when you arrived back at a town, you chose how many shares of experience points you’d earned to allot to each character, another innovative difference from other CRPGs.

Phantasie first came out for several 8-bit systems in 1985. The ST port that arrived a year later was considerably sharper and more colorful, and supported the ST’s mouse-based GUI. In an April 1987 review of Phantasie in Dragon #120, Hartley and Patrick Lesser wrote the ST port “incorporates far more sophisticated graphics and sound, and has almost become a new game because of the ST’s environment. Windows now accomplish a great many of the keyboard commands, such as combat, spell-casting, and earning levels…In the ST version, you simply click on the Guild’s doors with the mouse, and a pull-down menu at the top of the screen displays your choices.”

Figure 4.3: One of the best original CRPGs of its day, SSI’s Phantasie delivered a massive world to explore and plenty of challenges for your party of six adventurers.

There was no in-game music, but that was one of the game’s few faults. To this day I hear the game’s distinct “bleep” alert sound in my head. Phantasie delivered hours of in-depth RPG goodness, and it was the start of a superb trilogy as well. Remember it would be at least a year before The Bard’s Tale and an Ultima IV conversion showed up, much less Ultima V and VI. For a time, Phantasie was the most hard-core CRPG available for the ST.

The second installment, Phantasie II, came shortly after. It had a new town screen and, of course, all new maps to explore and monsters to fight, including new terrain features such as molten lava, mist, and Dark Voids. Otherwise, the game stuck to the original’s mechanics, which, as the blog World 1-1 points out today, was commonplace with Ultima, Wizardry, and other popular RPG series.[ii] This time around, Nikademus has created an orb he used to curse the people of the island of Ferronrah. Your goal was to find and destroy the orb. There was one new skill called Toss Rock, which any of the six characters could perform in combat at any time. You could import your party from the first game to play the second one, though you lost most of their accumulated gold and experience in the process. Together, the two games could well add up to more than 100 hours of play.

Rogue (Epyx, 1986)

The dungeon crawler Rogue was originally written for UNIX-powered mainframes in 1980 as a kind of graphical iteration of earlier text adventures (even though “graphics” in this case meant simple ASCII text characters). But Rogue came into its own on the Atari ST thanks to a colorful port from Epyx. Your goal was to retrieve the Amulet of Yendor from the Dungeon Lord. After entering your name at the trademark title screen with the red serpent, you began each game with a mace, a suit of armor, a bow, and some arrows. Along the way, you encountered hobgoblins, bats, winged kestrals, and a host of other monsters, 26 in all. Traverse each level of the underground maze and you’d find pots of gold, suits of armor, new weapons, food, wands, and scrolls that let you cast magic spells—some of it potentially cursed.

As you fought monsters, you gained experience points and levels. If you lost all your hit points, you were greeted with a death screen, complete with a three-dimensional tombstone and custom inscription containing your name. If you started another game, you had to begin at the top of the dungeon once more, and the layout was randomized each time, so you never played the same game twice.

Figure 4.4: The dungeon dive Rogue benefited considerably on the ST with a huge graphics upgrade, including a zoomed-in view and liberal use of color.

The main view consisted of three windows. The largest displayed the dungeon, while the right side showed your current inventory. You could control your character with the mouse, but it was clumsy; I always found it much easier to just use the keyboard cursor keys, or the ST’s numeric keypad to move in eight directions instead of four. You attacked by moving “into” a monster, and picked up items simply by moving over them. The bottom of the screen provided a rolling text update of in-game action, such as “You have defeated the orc,” or “The kestral has scored an excellent hit on you.” As you played, you had to keep an eye on the bar graphs, which showed you how many hit points you had left, your current strength level, and how strong your armor was. After combat, it was important to rest to restore hit points.

The Atari ST port of the seminal CRPG contained a beautiful zoomed-in view, which featured colorful graphics and attractively drawn character and monster icons. You could also play the game zoomed out—it was still more attractive this way than old-school ASCII characters—or switch between the two views during the game by pressing the Enter key. Other keys let you equip or remove weapons or armor; at some point your pack would fill up, so you’d have to let go of some items if you wanted to pick up new ones.

Every interaction with monsters was also randomized to some extent, just like in Dungeons & Dragons, and weighted in some way based on the power of the monster you were attacking and your character’s current strength and armor. Sometimes secret passages let you get to rooms ordinarily not visible. The lack of a multiple save-game feature made it extremely tough to get to the deepest of the 26 levels in order to claim the Amulet of Yendor. You could save your progress and go eat dinner, but once you were dead, you were dead and the save would be gone.

If I had to pick just one Atari ST game to play today, despite its lack of overall depth (no pun intended), it would be Rogue. It’s tough to overstate the significance of this game, as it gave birth to an entire genre of solo-adventure turn-based and “action” RPGs such as Diablo and Torchlight, not to mention the proliferation of “roguelikes” that dot the gaming landscape today across consoles, Steam, and phones. I like to think a good portion of that influence came specifically from the Atari ST port of Rogue.

Temple of Apshai Trilogy (Epyx, 1986)

A refreshingly different interpretation of the common CRPG, the original Temple of Apshai appeared in 1979 and spawned many variants, sometimes collectively known as Dunjonquest. Temple of Apshai Trilogy was notable for its improved graphical elements, mouse-driven interface, and memorable title soundtrack on the ST. This package included upgraded versions of the original game and its two direct add-ons, Upper Reaches of Apshai and Curse of Ra.

In this game you controlled a single adventurer who explored a dungeon, fought monsters, and collected treasure and magic items. The GEM interface, although appreciated, still felt a little bit like a prototype here—sometimes moving your character in a room took multiple tries, and you still needed the keyboard if you had any hope of beating monsters quickly.

Temple of Apshai originally stood out for being one of the earliest CRPGs with graphics. It may also well be the first game that included paragraph-length room descriptions, as columnist Scorpia pointed out in an expansive survey of all the CRPGs released by the middle of 1991.[iii] The descriptions were printed in the manual, and you matched them by number to the room you were currently in. These gave the game a similar feel to playing Dungeons & Dragons around a table with a real dungeon master. The ST contained enough power to contain and display these descriptions as part of the game, though.

My favorite Apshai game to this day remains Gateway to Apshai on the Atari 8-bit. But Temple of Apshai Trilogy occupied me for many hours on the ST, and I did appreciate the graphics upgrade. Reviewers were somewhat less kind. Gregg Pearlman noted several interface-related deficiencies in the May 1987 issue of Antic and said although many of the game’s elements were interesting and imaginative, “Apshai probably should have actually been souped up a bit more for the ST, though, instead of just looking that way.”

Alternate Reality: The City (Datasoft, 1986)

Next, let’s talk about a port of an existing 8-bit title that serves as a good window into what the ST brought and didn’t bring to the table. Philip Price’s Alternate Reality series, sadly left unfinished after just two of the planned seven installments, quickly made its way from the Atari 8-bit line to the ST. Price didn’t program the ST port; that task was handled by Rick Mirsky and Jim Ratcliff, with Steve Hofmann doing the graphics.

As before, you were kidnapped from a quiet life by an alien spaceship and transported to a room with one exit. You first created a character by walking through a colorful portal, which would randomly freeze a group of spinning counters to score your various attributes (Strength, Dexterity, and so on). You emerged at the other side of the portal in the City of Xebec’s Demise. Once in the city proper, your goal was to build up your character by exploring the various passageways, fighting enemies, buying equipment, eating at taverns, and otherwise gathering clues to try to figure out how to return to Earth.

The ST port came with a Quick Reference card that explained the need for a blank Character disk, which you had to create before getting started, as well as the following instructions that encapsulated early life on the ST platform:

  1. If you have a machine with ROM-based GEM(the operating system is always in the computer), just insert Side 1 of The City into Drive A and turn on the computer. The game loads automatically.
  2. If your machine has RAM-based GEM(you use a system disk to boot the machine), insert the GEM disk into Drive A and turn on the computer. Once GEM is loaded, remove the disk and insert Side 1 of The City into Drive A. Double-click on the Drive A icon, then open the Auto folder. Double-click the AR file and the game loads.

The game itself contained numerous innovations, such as changing weather, night and day cycles, hidden character attributes that affected your well-being in various ways, a complete alignment system that responded to your in-game actions, a sophisticated combat system featuring the ability to charm or trick your enemies, and even an in-game economy where you could earn money at various jobs and invest it in banks.

The ST version added support for joining guilds of various disciplines, which brought another nice dimension to character development. Dedicated fans may have noticed significant changes to the arrangement of Gary Gilbertson’s memorable music. It acquired more of a rhythmic staccato quality on the ST, likely as compensation for the Yamaha chip’s three-voice configuration instead of POKEY’s four-voice polyphony on the 8-bit platform.

Six more games were planned in the series. The City was meant to be a kind of home base for the other games once you’ve built up your character. Only one other game (The Dungeon) was released, itself just a split of what was supposed to be part of The City in the first place, so unfortunately there wasn’t a whole lot to do beyond exploring and building up your character. Plus, the game was unbelievably difficult, with copper, shops, and experience points hard to come by. And whenever you died, you were gone forever and had to start from the beginning unless you had made an extra copy of your character disk. Even the song it played at your death was worthy of distinction, with on-screen lyrics and a bouncing ball just like the title sequence: “Now that you’re gone…some will grieve on, on, and on…” It was this plodding, minor key imperial march thing that sounded like when Mozart was making fun of Salieri in the movie Amadeus. (What? You expected me to make current pop culture references?)

Time hasn’t been kind to Alternate Reality’s impressive technical achievements, either. The view of the game world through the interface was small and the 3D animation somewhat sluggish. And as with most games of this era, you needed to map it out on paper (though Datasoft thoughtfully provided you with graph paper and a head start in the manual). Ultimately, Alternate Reality proved too ambitious for its time, but it set the stage for modern, open-world, persistent CRPGs such as those in The Elder Scrolls series and World of Warcraft. (Note: This is a tricky one to emulate, as it seems particularly sensitive to the TOS version and needs an early hardware configuration. To get it working in Hatari, use TOS 1.00, uncheck Fast Floppy Access, check MMU emulation, and uncheck the Patch Timer-D box.)

Ultima III: Exodus (Origin Systems, 1986)

Ultima creator Richard Garriott founded Origin Systems in Houston in 1983 along with his brother, father, and Chuck Bueche (Chuckles, of Ultima fame). The group had grown sick of trying to collect payments from other companies that had published Garriott’s games. Origin released numerous key games on the ST throughout the platform’s life. One of my favorite RPGs on the Atari 8-bit platform was Ultima III: Exodus. Its arrival on the ST, refreshed with a new graphical user interface, gave me reason to play and solve it again.

As before, the game was the first in the series to let you play a party of characters (in this case, four) in an effort to save Sosaria from the evil Exodus. You had to build up your adventurers by fighting monsters, getting treasure, and gaining experience points and levels. The goal was to discover the secrets of the mysterious moongates and find the four marks that let you enter Exodus’s lair.

The graphics were much improved on the ST—not necessarily sharper, but with 16 colors instead of four, and without requiring artifacting to display them. This meant you could easily see real differences in each character’s appearance and outfits, and you didn’t have to rely on, say, one character holding a cross and the other holding a staff to tell the cleric from the wizard. The game also ran quite a bit faster, which made it easier to move across Sosaria and explore the towns. Another key difference between the Atari 8-bit and ST versions, and not necessarily for the better, was the music. All of the tracks in-game were the same, but on the ST, they were pitched an octave higher. I never figured out why this was the case and I had always found it annoying. (Your tastes may vary.)

A May 1987 review in Antic complained there was still plenty of disk access, which was a problem then but not so much now if you’re playing off an SD card or in an emulator. It also had the by-then standard issue combination mouse-and-keyboard interface; the mouse control helped, but you still needed the keyboard for a lot of tasks and the two together didn’t necessarily make the game easier to control. Nonetheless, the game was enjoyable and is arguably the best period-correct iteration to play now (notwithstanding later MS-DOS upgrade patches and LairWare’s 1995 640-by-480-pixel remake on the Mac).

Notes: 

[i] https://rpgcodex.net/content.php?id=8786

[ii] https://extralives.wordpress.com/2013/05/27/from-the-pages-of-the-past-games-of-yesteryear-phantasie-ii/

[iii] Scorpia, “Computer Role-Playing Game Survey,” Computer Gaming World, October 1991, 109.

Jamie Lendino is the Editor-in-Chief of ExtremeTech. He is also the author of Breakout: How Atari 8-Bit Computers Defined a Generation and Adventure: The Atari 2600 at the Dawn of Console Gaming.

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