Racing The Beam: The Atari Video Computer System
by Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost
Platform Studies, edited by Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2009
184 pp., illus. 22 b/w. Trade, $22.95
Reviewed by Robert Jackson
University of Plymouth
Racing the Beam is the first of a new publication series entitled 'Platform Studies'. The authors Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost, (who are also the editors of the series) are highly established videogame researchers and theorists themselves, so it only seems fitting that they wish to start the proceedings with a detailed analysis of the Atari Video Computer System 2600 (or VCS for short).
Although digital media researchers are beginning to investigate how software and code provide useful insights into the cultural use of computers and digital objects, Montfort and Bogost argue that few media theorists actually analyse the platform systems themselves where the code is programmed and executed.
"Studies in computer science and engineering have addressed the question of how platforms are best developed and what is best encapsulated in the platform. Studies in digital media have addressed the cultural relevance of particular software of platforms. But little work has been done on how the hardware and software of platforms influences, facilitates, or constrains particular forms of computational expression." (Montfort & Bogost, p.3)
Racing The Beam is an attempt to do this, and credit to the authors, for what makes this book such an appealing read is the unwavering focus on a remarkable piece of limited technology. If one were to compare a platform study of the VCS with its contemporary, namely, the early microcomputers (Commodore 64, BBC Micro, TRS 80) fitted with BASIC, a microcomputer platform study would require a greater level of complexity (for example the interaction between its hardware components and operating system). For the purposes of a short and engaging read, a platform study into a narrow, restrictive piece of technology such as the VCS (which never even had an operating system) is an accommodating move on the reader's part.
The book is split into eight chapters, six of which cover seminal games and arcade conversions for the platform, Combat, Adventure, Pac-Man, Yars' Revenge, Pitfall! and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back . Detailed analyses into these retro-emblematic pieces of game culture are actually prisms, which shed light onto the creativity of the respective game developers. The two remaining chapters offer a brief introduction and an extensive conclusion of the VCS's influence on contemporary videogame culture.
The title of book, Racing The Beam , is in reference to the centrepiece of the Atari VCS; "The processor is always called the "brain" of a computer, and, indeed, the MOS Technology 6507 is the Atari VCS's brain. But the custom Television Adapter (TIA) is its heart." (Montfort & Bogost, p.27) The authors do a commendable job of elucidating the components of the VCS in an engaging style without compromising on technicality. This also serves to clarify the historical and economic conditions in which the VCS technology had been developed, and it is this rigorous but through contextualisation, which stops the reader from over-scanning through the VCS's technical details. The authors elaborate on specific relationships between all the platform's components in a relatively lucid manner. For instance, the authors dedicate a large portion of the book to the VCS's low memory constraints as a result of the huge manufacturing costs of memory in the late 1970s. The VCS shipped with 128 bytes of RAM, no disk storage, and the VCS's interchangeable ROM game cartridges shipped with a typical 4K of memory (or in some cases like the included game Combat, only 2K). Such monumental technological constraints forced developers to wring every last drop of processing space out of the VCS, in order to develop games that had some chance of industry success. In this sense, Racing The Beam recounts the ingenuity of designers in coming to terms with the weakness of the platform.
The previously mentioned TIA chip is an early highlight in this regard. Code-named 'Stella', Atari developed the TIA to power the VCS's sound and graphics, but in reality it actually had to do so much more. The VCS had to output universal and representable graphics on all cathode ray tube televisions (CRT) at that time. CRT televisions work by firing patterns of electrons at glass layered with phosphors from one corner of the screen to the other and then refreshing the process. Current computer systems and arcade cabinets could manipulate the electron gun in accordance with the computers hardware but the Atari VCS was extremely limited in comparison.
"The machine is not equipped with enough memory to store an entire screen's worth of data in a frame buffer. The 128 bytes of RAM in the system are not even enough to store one eight-bit color value for every line of the 192-line visible display." (Montfort & Bogost, p.27)
Subsequent chapters reveal the creative lengths VCS programmers needed in order to create just a simple working videogame. Each cartridge had to be written manually, line by line, so that it worked in harmony with the television's electron gun. Through such examples, the authors reveal again and again how severe limitations can force new artistic processes. A particular highlight is how designers of Pitfall! managed to procedurally generate 255 explorative 'screens' using hardly any ROM space.
For those who have an interest in the culture and history of retro gaming, Racing The Beam is an obvious choice. But this book may also be a less obvious choice for those interested in how artistic expression can be affected by material limitations. Furthermore, there is a hint in Racing The Beam that the very objects we create seemingly have their own agenda, even when we ourselves produced them. Perhaps this book can be seen as an attempt to re-establish digital media as equally participating objects (or actors) in their own right, rather than privileging the digital realm as a means to facilitate human communication and exchange. It can be said, (and the authors insinuate this in an intriguing manner) that Racing The Beam transforms a historical piece of videogame culture, into an object with curious agency.