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Atari ST

Posted by Big Boo on December 12th, 2007

Atari STAs already mentioned in an earlier post on this site, the late 1980’s home computer war was thought between the Commodore Amiga and the subject of this post, the Atari ST, or more completely the Atari 520ST. At a base level the two machines were incredibly similar, both having 512K of RAM and containing a Motorola 68000 CPU, but it was the extra graphical grunt that gave the Amiga a slight edge in the technology stakes.

The Atari ST was limited to just 16 colours, whilst the Amiga was able to display twice that number. However, given that many games were developed initially on the Atari ST and then ported to the Amiga, this was not really much of a restriction, at least until later in the machines life.

It’s audio facilities were also not quite on a par with the Amiga, but it made up for this by having a built in MIDI interface, allowing the machine to be connected to MIDI capable instruments such as keyboards out of the box. For this reason the Atari ST made a niche for itself in the role of music sequencing and production, and indeed many Atari ST’s were (and probably still are) used for this purpose long after the machine had been relegated to the back of a cupboard in favour of a shiny new Pentium PC.

The operating system, called AtariTOS (catchy name eh?) used a mouse and consisting of the usual windows and icons, but it’s default colour scheme left something to be desired, with a bright green background chosen for some reason – most likely because it was based on a PC windowing system called GEM, and at the time the PC was well known for it’s bizarre choices of colour schemes. Who remembers the default four colour CGA graphics standard palette of white, black, cyan and magenta?

The Atari ST gave birth to some great games, including one of my all time favourites, Dungeon Master, which was a forced 3D perspective role playing game about a band of four adventurers entering a dungeon. It still has what I feel is one of the best systems for casting magic spells ever devised, involving selecting a series of runes to select the spell you wanted to cast. Games such as Starglider and Carrier Command also started life on the ST.

The ST could be upgraded in memory to 1MB, and indeed the 1040ST model was released that had this amount of memory as standard. As with the Amiga though, the machine was kept in its original specification for too long, and the PC eventually crushed both of these great 16-bit home computers. The too little too late approach adopted by Atari (and Commodore for that matter) meant that by the time the upgraded Atari Falcon, with more RAM, a faster processor and improved graphics facilities was released, too many people had already defected to the PC, and those fun days of home computing were gone forever. Whilst todays PC’s may be supremely powerful in comparison, they are also too complex and all the joy of squeezing the last drop of power out of a limited machine has sadly been lost for the home hobby programmer.