Thursday, October 25, 2007

Atari's Big Day

Raiders of the Lost Art, Part V

So, the Amiga was right out. But released right around that same time, and costing far less, was an Atari computer - the 520ST - that shared the same Motorola processor as the Amiga (and the Mac as well). It originally sold for under $800, and that included an external 3.5" floppy drive and a mouse. 512 colors, 512k, 600x400 resolution. Well, it wasn't the Amiga, but it was a lot cheaper right off the bat and must have been a few hundred less by the time I got mine in '86.

(Warning: dreary and vaguely creepy hardware and OS review, but it gives you the basic feel. No need to watch the whole thing. I didn't.)

[Edited to add 3/28/08: That video is taken from the YouTube page of one Dean Pook(?) who has done a great service by preserving that on line for historical purposes. I thank him and mean no discredit by the above 'dreary' comment - the tone of this blog is generally snarky, and sometimes my stampede for humor can overwhelm my good taste and decency.]

I note with some interest that Microsoft proposed Windows as the operating system for the ST, only to be refused because (Vista fans take note) the Windows development time would have pushed back the ST release by almost two years. Imagine the weird parallel Earth where the biggest video game company morphed into the giant PC monopoly. Instead, we have the giant software monolith that tried to take over the video game market.

I'm not sure exactly when I first became aware of the ST. I guess Atari had been making home computers since the late 70's, but somehow never managed to make a dent in the market. It's only by chance that an acquaintance had the 1040ST, which came with about twice of everything that the 520ST offered. And I liked what I saw. Again, here was someone that used it primarily for gaming, and the game that everyone loved among our group of friends was a really soothing golf sim called Leaderboard.

The graphics may not looks like much, but I recall the animation being really something, and the whole thing had a solidity and smoothness that was very pleasing to the eye. Fun fuckin' game, too, I might add. I don't think that's running at the full 512 colors - with these computers of the Second Wave, memory was at such a premium that you could only either have all your colors for still images, or a few of them in motion. Interesting trade-off.

The big art program for the ST computers was something called Neochrome, and that did use all 512 colors, and it was cheap, and you could get very impressive results. Rather than drag in any of the online screen caps floating around, I direct you to this page, which is a top-to-bottom rundown of this pretty remarkable program.

The interface may not look that impressive, and the black background now looks a little odd - kind of like working on digital black velvet, or something - but me and Neochrome got on like gangbusters. For a brief period - I'm going to guess it was during my Junior year of high school in 1986 - I worked up a really stellar collection of images. I preferred to work in solid color blends rather than the as-yet primitive gradient tool that drawing programs at that time offered. With 512 colors, I could get very subtle changes, but since they were clearly different colors rather than pixelated blends, the work had a really strong and sharp graphic design quality to it, like a vibrant Soviet poster.

I only wish I still had these images to show you. It was my first early work that showed that I had some design and color flair, which had never shown up in my mostly black and white cartooning and architectural sketches at that point.

I wish I could, but I can't. Oh, I still have the computer. It's lurking in a closet or under a bed, somewhere. And I guess it might still run. And even if that one didn't, I'm sure I could find one online for very little money. And I'll bet I even still have the Neochrome disk. It's just the art itself that's gone missing.

Well, not missing. It's actually gone stolen, and with my express consent.

Next: Goth Kid Plagiarism


P.S.: As if to underscore the ST's low profile, there seem to be no commercials for it online. But an earlier Atari computer had an unexpected pitchman, and one that seemed to perfectly complete the trifecta with Shatner and Cosby.


Anonymous said...

Warning: dreary and vaguely creepy hardware and OS review, but it gives you the basic feel. No need to watch the whole thing. I didn't.

-Why link to it then? Give some credit!

Dave Kopperman said...

"Not everything on the Rambler is necessary or even desired, but all is as it should be." - Lao Tzu, Jr.