So far my explorations of the Atari XL/XE seem to be among the more popular posts for this little blog project here so let’s continue on with that. I also have a friend looking into getting an Atari XEGS after some recent glowing reviews by Mark from Classic Game Room. It is a good system but with that let me break down some of the hardware options you have.
Part 3, click below 😉
Exploring Atari Hardware: Popularly known as the “Atari 8-bit computers”, the hardware to power these was designed right after the Atari 2600 had been finished. Released in 1979, the hardware would receive support through games, peripherals and various hardware designs. It failed to become the de facto standard for PCs as we all know, otherwise we would be doing much of our internet browsing on Atari PCs instead of IBM-compatible PCs. Good history on the Atari home computer projects can be found here. Here are some quick run-downs on the options out there:
Atari 400 – The very first Atari home computer. Featured an odd keyboard that when I used it as a kid just felt too different from others as it didn’t have depressable keys – it was all flat with a “tactile membrane” keyboard. They were trying to be futuristic I guess but most people didn’t like that at the time. It had one cart port and either 8k or 16k of RAM.
Atari 800 – Released at the same time as the 400 but with more RAM (expandable modules that were huge in physical size), a typewriter like keyboard, 4 controller ports and two cart ports. A lot of old carts you will notice it says “Left Cartridge” on top, this is because of the 800. I only remember once coming across one that said “Right Cartridge”.
Atari 800XL – This was the one I was most familiar with growing up as my friend had one we would play games on all of the time. Released in 1983, these had a better appearance than the typewriter-esque 400/800s, 64k of RAM (to compete with the Commodore 64), one cart port and other peripheral connection ports. There were also other XL designs like the 600XL and 1200XL but the 800XL is the best of those. It should also be noted that this used the GTIA chip, which offered improved graphics over the initial CTIA chips that came with the first 400/800 units (I believe some later 800s had GTIA’s too)
Atari 65XE – Released in 1985, this was the Tramiel-owned Atari take on the 8-bit line. Essentially this was a repackage of the 800XL, featuring all of the same items but with a different keyboard layout. It did feature a memory management chip and was inexpensive at the time but wasn’t on the market for very long due to the Atari ST 16-bit line taking precedence.
Atari 130XE – I would say this is the most advanced of the released 8-bit line as it included 128KB of RAM. It also had an Enhanced Cartridge Interface, which some 3rd parties used for connecting SCSI drives and other peripherals.
Atari XEGS – This was the “Game System” version of the 800XL or 65XE released in 1987. It was a slightly odd choice to have this on the market at the same time as the Atari 7800 but often this is considered to be the real 5200 since the software is pretty much the same given the compatibility with everything down to the 400. Atari released some cartridges with a new grey shell under the Atari XE name, most of which were simply reskins of older games. But the existence of this unit did spawn further software developments at the time. This also has a memorable asymmetrical design for the shell and those glaring pastel buttons. I think it would have been better for Atari to have put resources into releasing the 7800XM instead but we got what we got so no use in complaining now.
Personally I have the Atari 800, 800XL and XEGS but I tend to switch between the 800XL and XEGS. The XEGS is really nice thanks to the composite video output, which works well for newer TVs.
Peripherals – There are a lot of peripherals for the 8-bit line out there, floppy drives (both 5.25″ and 3.5″), hard drives, cassette players, printers, modems, etc. For gaming purposes I’ve owned some of the disk drives but as mechanical devices go, they don’t last forever. So currently I would recommend the MyIDE][ cartridge which lets you use your cart port as a HDD or a SIO2PC/SIO2USB cable, where your Windows PC can act as the hard drive but you can still enjoy using real hardware as opposed to emulation. There are also RAM expansions out there that can push the machine above 64/128k but I do not know much about them. There is this 320XE project but I have heard of upgrades between 256k to 1088k. Only a few games I have heard of “need” above 64k, since most users have a 64k machine, that is a target for game development it seems, Crownland being an exception among a few others.
Ok, getting back to our software exploration, I will look at less than before due to the hardware look here.
Laser Gates – Shooter games are bountiful on Atari systems and while quality can vary there are a lot of gems. Imagic’s Laser Gates is one of those. Also released on the Atari 2600, the computer version takes advantage of the increased graphics capabilities from the systems with a bigger field of view, more enemies and objects and detailed scrolling caverns. I enjoy the 2600 version but I do have to give this one the edge since it plays similarly but has improvements to make it a slightly better experience. Closest game I can compare it to is Scramble but it’s not quite a Scramble clone.
Capture the Flag – Released in 1983, this showed off some of that graphical power the Atari’s could do. I’m not sure if this is technically raycasting, if not it is pretty darn close. The game itself has an AI player you can go up against but it is best played with two people. It is a simple game but fun. This is actually one of my son’s favorite Atari games.
Jungle Hunt – Taito’s popular arcade platformer game that at one point ran into legal trouble over the character being Tarzan. That did change in time for the home ports. I remember playing this as a kid and finding it weird that it went from the right to the left as opposed to what 99% of platformers do in going left to right. I find it easier to stab the crocodiles than Mark does here in this review but overall it is a fun game.
Bruce Lee – Before Street Fighter and before Super Mario Bros. there was Bruce Lee. There have been a number of BL games made but most of them stink – this one which is the first I know of to feature the man and the legend is the best. Collect the torches/lamps to progress through treacherous caverns, being chased by a ninja and weird green blob guy. I loved this as a kid and it still holds up today.