Racing The Beam: The Atari Video Computer System

Book titleOrder this bookStory: In this college-level text, the authors discuss the nuts and bolts of writing programs on the Atari Video Computer System (more commonly referred to as the 2600), including the unique challenges necessitated by trade-offs that were made for many reasons – including cost – at the hardware design stage. To examine different approaches to the inherent limitations of the VCS, the authors examine the design and programming of several of its major games in depth: Combat, Adventure, Pac-Man, Yars’ Revenge, Pitfall! and The Empire Strikes Back. Other prominent games are discussed, usually as sidebars to the in-depth dissection of the above games, along with commentary on trends in the video game industry at the time and eventual downfall of the industry which brought Atari’s dominance to a close.

Review: “Racing The Beam” is not for the faint of heart; this is no sweeping overview of video game history, but rather a collegiate media studies text with a healthy dose of computer science mixed in for good measure. I opened the book with the expectation that I’d hopefully find some new insights into some of the most iconic Atari 2600 games; I closed the book with an understanding of the machine’s hardware (and its legendary limitations) that I almost felt like I was closer to having the know-how to program for it.

Of course, that’d mean trying to squeeze myself into the same rarified class as the programmers whose work is discussed here. Of the six games examined in depth (in some cases including snippets of the actual code), the authors are particularly favorable toward Adventure and Pitfall! – two games which have left huge footprints on the landscape of video game design – but they’re positively ecstatic over Howard Scott Warshaw’s cult classic, Yars’ Revenge. However, none of the six games are panned (and it’s not really a review book anyway); Tod Frye’s 2600 version of Pac-Man is acknowledged to be not as good as it could have been – but the authors take great pains to explain why many of the decisions leading to that outcome were made before Frye was even attached to the project, in essence dooming it to failure regardless of who ended up programming the game.

I thought I had a fairly good understanding of the Atari 2600’s workings; “Racing The Beam” proved to me that I still had much to learn. The title of the book refers to the fact that much of the computational and game logic in any given cartridge’s program has to be undertaken as the cathode ray beam is returning to the top of the screen from the bottom – an interval smaller than the human eye can see, but a formidable and daunting limitation to even think about (since the 2600 had no capacity for bitmapping, the rest of its computational and display cycle was spent drawing the on-screen display line-by-line). I certainly walked away with a healthier respect for the programmers whose works were examined here.

“Racing The Beam” is not a programming manual for the 2600. It’s an appreciation of the machine and its software, pointing out how flexible Atari’s seminal console was despite its obvious limits, and pointing out the genius of its more innovative game makers. But make no mistake, this is not entry-level stuff; anyone not seriously invested in the subject matter is likely to hit the reset button before getting to the last round. Casual gamers wanting a broad overview of the 2600’s software library would do better reading Leonard Herman’s “ABC To The VCS”; serious students of the medium of the video game – especially those with an appreciation for the classics – will definitely dig this.

Year: 2009
Authors: Nick Montfort & Ian Bogost
Publisher: MIT Press
Pages: 184