Racing the Beam

Racing the Beam is kind of like a biography for the Atari systems and their unique underlying circuit design. Actually, it’s kind of like one of those band documentaries where the band is already established so you just follow them around and see their interactions with common folk. Eventually there’s some scene where a band member blows up or throws a tantrum and probably didn’t mean anything at the time but foreshadows the band’s eventual downfall/breakup and so forth.

In Racing the Beam you don’t see how the Atari was designed. Instead, the book seems to expect a little bit of knowledge about the system design (even from a wires and chips point of view). Instead of holding your hand with regard to the technology involved, the focus is on tricks used to write games, the personalities behind those games, and then the kinds of problems which wound up killing the whole platform off.

I found it interesting that the abundance of low quality software on the platform is generally attributed to killing the Atari. I’ve been party to a lot of discussions involving curation of app stores during my career and I think that this is the first practical example I’ve seen where lack of curation was attributed toward the death of an entire ecosystem.

The book establishes an abstract argument about how the expression of hacking around the limitations of the system was really a form of art in itself. I’m not sure I was convinced of this solely from the basis of the argument in the book. It was weird to cover the internals of the system in depth and then jump into a more philosophical point of view about art and artistry in electrical and software design.

I did like hearing about how influential a single person would be for the development of these games, leading up everything from programming to art to sound and controls. These auteurs were also given free reign to try out original ideas, leading to a lot of original game concepts.

Yet programmers were still seemingly deemed commodities even though they added so much personality to each product. This wound up leading to easter eggs embedded in many games. It also seemed like programming and porting games was much more of a cowboy culture. For example:

Brad Stewart, who had earlier done the port of Breakout to the Atari VCS after winning the right to port the game by besting a fellow programmer in the arcade Breakout

I was really interested to learn how the hardware designed the visual look of the platform. I think I attributed the Atari look to aesthetic choice when I was younger, but this was a result of limited hardware and resources. For example, a scan line could only change colors dynamically every 3 “pixels” across its sweep, leading to very wide looking characters and non-sprite graphics.

There were also a maximum of two sprites which could be drawn on screen at once. To hack around this, some incredibly clever tricks were used. For example, Pac Man drew the player’s sprite each frame, but each of the four ghosts on alternating frames:

The TIA synchronizes with an NTSC television picture sixty times per second, so the resulting display shows a solid Pac-Man, maze, and pellets, but ghosts that flicker on and off, remaining lit only one quarter of the time.

The book is filled with interesting examples like this. As someone non-ironically into Atari, game programming, and computer design, I felt like there was a lot to appreciate. It may not be for everyone though, particularly if you’ve never owned or played an Atari 2600.

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