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Racing the Beam... A Book Review...

If you’re anything like me, you feel very alone in your earnest love and appreciation of vintage video games. And by “vintage”, your meaning is video gaming before Nintendo reformatted the landscape with the NES like some 8-Bit Genesis Device. The NES, while unarguably the system that single-handedly resurrected the home video game market from it’s ashes in the mid 1980s, is somewhat unfairly positioned in many people’s minds as the definitive beginning of home video gaming. For many, the phrase, “Home Video Gaming” began much earlier than the NES. For most of these people, it all began with the Atari Video Computer System, later known as the Atari 2600.

The hip thing to do these days seems to be to make fun of the seemingly vestigial nature of the graphics and sounds produced on this video gaming platform born of the late 1970s. This stems primarily from a misunderstanding and unfamiliarity with the hardware. Those who tend to poke fun of the Atari VCS tend to be those mainly of the post Nintendo home video gaming generation. The blocky images and shrill sounds emitting from the VCS seem to be a thing of humor to eyes that were first lit with the more detailed vistas emitting from an NES. One only needs to scan YouTube for farces of more modern video games redone in a superficial Atari 2600 style. And while it’s easy to laugh at the dragon that looks like a duck in Atari’s Adventure, or cringe in disbelief to what the VCS did to Donkey Kong, it is important to realize that these simple games where a miracle to pull off at all utilizing the VCS hardware. The book ‘Racing The Beam’ by Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost will enlighten one as to how difficult and amazing programming anything beyond Pong or Combat on this seemingly limited hardware truly was. “Racing The Beam” is an analogy for the way the console’s graphics system composed images on the CRT television screens of the time and how the programmers of the console learned to pace and even out-pace the screen’s electron gun to achieve great things with the limited hardware.

Without going into too much detail and for fear of spoiling the book, I will only divulge a few general facts about the Atari VCS’s development. It was developed in the mid-late 1970s with arcade games of the time such as Pong and Tank in mind. The idea was to being arcade games home in a system whose library could be expanded with home conversions of future arcade hits. In fact, the first pack-in Atari VCS game Combat, based on the arcade game Tank, was developed right along side the VCS hardware itself. With this being said, the system was really only envisioned as handling a static play-field, two sprite graphics, one for each of two players, along with missile graphics or a ball graphic to introduce into play. It was difficult at the launch of the VCS in 1977 to envision the relatively more complex games like Pac-Man, Asteroids, and Missile Command that were virtually just around the corner. The book utilizes Pac-Man for the console as one prime example.

The VCS version of Pac-Man, which was developed in house at Atari and released in 1981, is widely considered to be the first crack in the plaster that eventually led to the near total destruction of the home video game market in 1984. Gone were the multi-colored ghosts, each with their own behavior and perceived personality as granted to them by an attraction screen calling them by name. They had been replaced by aimlessly roaming, green flickering shells of their former arcade selves. Also gone were the multiple mazes, cheerful sounds, and dancing fruit, disfigured into a single static maze, ho-hum bleeps, and a stationary “multivitamin”. And while the wide spread disappointment in Pac-Man for the VCS is completely understandable, the fact that it was able to be accomplished at all on the limited space of the VCS cartridge, and limited architecture of the VCS itself, is an utter miracle. Programmer Todd Frye had somehow taken an arcade game made up of 6 sprites, dynamic mazes, and a then totally new mechanic of play, and made it work, however vaguely, on hardware only supporting two sprites, and constrained to 4k of cartridge space.

This telling of the conversion, or perhaps more accurately, the adaptation of Pac-Man from arcade to the Atari VCS is just one aspect of many that makes ‘Racing The Beam’ a brilliant and fantastic read for vintage gamers and modern gamers alike. Until this book, I held absolutely no respect, no appreciation, and certainly no love for this particular game on the VCS. Even as a 5 year old child, I was both instantly and continuously disappointed with it every time I plugged it in. But now understanding what went into it’s creation, given the immense limitations, has at least given me some fond appreciation for what went into the game, and what paths it blazed for even more rules of the VCS’s limitations to be broken. Such advancements can easily be seen in the VCS adaptation of Ms. Pac-Man released the very next year in 1982. Here the ghosts have reclaimed their colors, the sounds became more arcade-like, and an attraction screen was added, further tying the VCS version to it’s arcade counterpart. In much the same way that the disappointment of Pac-Man on the VCS led the way for the joy of Ms.Pac-Man on the same platform, ‘Racing The Beam’ will take the reader from a tongue-in-cheek outlook of the Atari VCS, to one of enjoyment and understanding for this truly amazing piece of hardware.


Racing The Beam - Amazon

Nick Montfort - CoAuthor of ‘Racing The Beam’

Ian Bogost - CoAuthor of ‘Racing The Beam’



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