Today I will take a look at another emulation package which can be run under AmigaOS 4, which on this occasion thrusts the Atari 8-bit range of computers into the spotlight. Now growing up in the UK in the 80’s and early 90’s it was fair to say that as far as 8-bit home microcomputers were concerned, it was pretty much a three-horse race between the ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64 and Amstrad CPC range of computers. Yet for some reason in the UK, the Atari 8-bit range of machines didn’t really take off in popularity in the way the other 8-bit machines did. Maybe it was down to poor marketing by Atari, or a focus on their other systems like the Atari 2600 and 7800 or their 16-bit Atari ST range, but as a result for many UK gamers machines like the Atari 800, 800XL, 1200, 65XE and 130XE were largely ignored by the general public.
As I was given a Commodore 64 for my eleventh birthday all the way back in 1989, my knowledge of the Atari 8-bit range only ever occurred when I used to see the odd Atari 8-bit tape game for sale down at my local newsagent. (Remember those days when they used to have a big selection of games all at £1.99?) I guess what didn’t help its cause was that I never used to see any Atari 8-bit specific magazines like Zzap 64 and Commodore Format for the Commodore 64, Crash and Sinclair User for the Spectrum, or Amstrad Action for the Amstrad. In fact aside from the odd game in my local newsagent, I only really saw the Atari 8-bit mentioned when it came to adverts from companies like Virgin Mastertronic or Zeppelin Games who supported the format with their budget releases.
However for those who are curious, the Atari 8-bit range actually dates back to 1979 with the release of the Atari 400 and 800 machines which were based on a 6502 processor running at 1.79 Mhz and featured custom graphics chips called ANTIC and CTIA which offered sprite handling, advance hardware scrolling and collision detection. Both machines were pretty similar in terms of specs although the 400 was released with 16K of RAM and featured a plastic membrane touch keyboard whilst the 800 machine featured 48K of RAM and a proper keyboard. Games could be loaded off tape or cartridge format. An interesting link to the Amiga’s history can also be found here as it was Jay Miner who many regard as the “Godfather of the Amiga” who headed up the design of the graphics chips.
The range of machines were most popular in the US and Germany and the most successful and well-known version of the 8-bit family was the Atari 800XL, which is considered as the third generation model and followed the release of the 1200XL which flopped due to its high price. Both the 1200XL and 800XL machines are backward compatible with the original 400 and 800 machines and feature upgrades to the ANTIC and CTIA chips along with an improved palette of 256 colours. Later revisions of the machine were named the Atari 65XE and 130XE and were re-styled in grey to complement the recently launched Atari ST range. Atari also released a console version of the system called the XEGS which featured a separate keyboard, four very weird coloured buttons and a light gun. In all across all model types, about 4 million units were sold Worldwide. Atari finally pulled the plug on their 8-bit range in 1992, by at which point the machine had started to gain a following in Eastern Europe, in particular Poland where it still has a bit of a cult following today.
As my own retro game collecting hobby began in the mid to late 90’s, I got the opportunity to pick up this Atari 800 XL from a car boot sale which came with a tape deck and a number of games for the bargain sum of £10.00. Following this acquisition, it was only really then that I began to discover the Atari 8-bit range. Sadly the tape deck that came with it was rather worse for wear and many of the games I had picked up with the machine refused to load properly, so after a few weeks of trying things out I kind of lost interest especially as games took an absolute eternity to load up only to be met with a load error at the end.
However my interest in the Atari 8-bit range was rekindled when I stumbled across Atari ++ for AmigaOS 4 which is a full emulation package designed to emulate the Atari 8-bit family of machines and also the Atari 5200 console. For those who are in Europe reading this, you will be aware that we never really got the chance to play as this machine was only ever released in NTSC format. It should be noted that there are not one but two different emulation packages for AmigaOS4 which do the same thing, with the other being Atari 800 which is a port from Sebastien Bauer of the Atari 800 emulator which is found on Windows and Linux platforms. In truth both emulators are quite similar in set up and execution, however given that I like to play with a joystick and joystick support appears not available in the AmigaOS4 version of Atari 800, I have decided to go through a run of Atari++
Configuration of Atari++
Atari++ can be downloaded either from the OS4 Depot repository or from our buddy Dr.Hirudov as he is responsible for this port which is at version 1.73 and dates from 2015. The emulator itself isn’t that big in size coming in at all of 1MB, however there are few other bits and pieces that you will need to download in order to complement the emulation package. I would recommend that you source yourself the following ROMS as they will be required for maximum compatibility:
- Atari OS revision B (Atari 800), named AtariOSB.ROM
- Atari XL, named AtariXL.ROM
- Atari 5200. named ATARI5200.ROM, respectively.
- Atari DOS Disk ROM: It is recommended that for maximum game compatibility you use Atari DOS version 2.0S; this file is typically named DOS_20S.ATR.
- Atari BASIC Cartridge ROM: This file is typically named ATARIBAS.ROM.
When sourcing game ROMS, you will need to be aware that the Atari 8-bit supports ROMS of the following types so if you are downloading a complete pack online, there is some preparation work here unzip these and then place them into separate folders. Now there are files in .cas(tape) and .exe format but I would tend to ignore these and concentrate on the following
- Game Cartridge ROMs: These files typically have the extension .ROM .BIN (XE Games System) or A.52 (Atari 5200)
- Game Disk ROMs: These files typically have the extensions .ATR. or .XEX
I then create two folders one for the emulation package and one which will contain all of my system and game ROMS.
I then break down the ROMS folder as follows
Then it is time to start-up the emulation package Atari ++.
We are greeted with the above screen with a number of different options running down the left hand side of the screen that we will need to configure. Now I’ll be honest here, but it took me a long while to work out what each of the various preferences referred to so I think it may be best here to go through each of the options and tell you what may or may not need configuring here starting first with the preferences tab. The preferences tab is important in that you will be able to save any settings for any future use and it is also the place where you can restart the emulation process.
Under the machine tab you have the option to select the machine that you would like to run. In all honesty you would probably be best to stick to the Atari XL option as this will run the most amount of software. For those interested in trying out Atari 5200 emulation, I do have a bit of bad news here. The emulation works, but I was really struggling to get this to configure with the keyboard or the joy-pad I was using for the purposes of this test. As the Atari 5200 is effectively a console version of the Atari 400 and the XL runs cartridge software which was also released for the Atari 400, the reality is that you are not going to be missing out too much by not being able to run Atari 5200 specific ROMS.
Under the ANTIC and POKEY settings, there is nothing really to update unless you would like to swap the output from a PAL display to NTSC. I personally found the NTSC display delivered a rather washed out looked compared to PAL where the colours were far more vivid. Please also accept my apologies for the next set of screenshots as it was not possible to a screen dump using Screen Grab in between scrolling through the various options. Under the GTIA option, I think it’s a good idea to go for the updated version of the GTIA chip which comes with the XL set of machines.
Under the cartridge setting you will need to enter in the folder where your cartridge .bin/.rom files are located so in my case it is my games partition and then the rest of the folder location. Once you have saved your settings, every time that you are then required to load a new cartridge your list of titles will then appear.
Under the OsROM settings you will need select the path to the folder where each of the individual ROMS are located.
It will be a similar process here for your disk drives and your .atr and .xex disk files. One thing to remember however which is really important. If you have a cartridge already in the slot you will not be able to load from disk, so remember to disable the cartridge slot and enable the disk drive when you want to use a disk and of course vice versa when you wish to use a cartridge.
One final bunch of settings which I would recommend to configure are under the Joystick tab where you can then select the option SDL Analog from the list above and then calibrate the joystick if required or change any keys under the SDLAnalog,0 tab.
Once we have all the configuration side of things all set up and ready, it will be a case of saving these configurations under the preferences tab so that when you next open up the emulator there is no further need to amend anything aside from the swapping of a cartridge or disk drive.
So what of the Atari 8-bit software library. Well for UK users who more or less ignored this machine in favour of their ZX Spectrum’s, Amstrad CPC’s and Commodore 64, it may come as a big surprise to know that there are about 2,000 different pieces of software to play around with and the machine was quite popular for a time in the US, Germany and Eastern Europe with many later releases for the platform originating in Poland. As the Atari 8-bit uses the 6502 processor, for me the games and graphics of many of its titles have a very chunky and distinctive Atari look about them. Those who have ever played with the Atari 2600 VCS will know exactly what I mean, although as this machine pre-dates the later Atari 7800 series, the graphics resolution is not as good. Personally I find the graphics very similar to those found on other 6502 based machines like the Commodore 64 and Nintendo NES. Sound wise the machine performs a lot better than you would expect as the POKEY chip is capable of churning out quite a few impressive ditties, although it is nowhere near the level of the SID chip found in the Commodore 64. The Atari 8 Bit machine is also much quicker than the Commodore 64 resulting in games which can look similar to their Commodore 64 counterparts running much quicker and at a faster frame rate.
As you would expect with an Atari machine, the Atari catalogue of arcade classics feature strongly. On this platform there are really good conversions of:
Pole Position which builds on the miracle that was the Atari 2600 version
As Pole Position and Joust were also released on the Atari 5200, you can start to see how much of an improvement the graphics were and how much more developed they were compared to the 2600 VCS.
Mrs Pac-Man looks amazing and really colourful.
Centipede is a really good conversion and is a great blast.
Food Fight is really fun to play and is a vastly underrated game that deserves to be checked out by the wider public.
Later on in the Atari 8-bit’s life cycle we had Dark Chambers make an appearance which also came out on the Atari 2600 and 7800 machines.
As you can see it is a bit of a Gauntlet clone and a pretty good game too.
3rd party support for this machine was pretty strong too with publishers like Activision who had strong links with Atari anyway supporting this with their Pitfall series.
The graphics do look a tad 2600-esque if I am honest.
Imagine obliged with a conversion of Arkanoid which looks and plays really well. My only gripe with this version is the lack of sound effects and music found in the other 8-bit conversions.
Green Beret was another conversion, although I don’t think it stands up to the excellent C64 version if am honest.
Some versions do look very similar to their C64 counterparts like the excellent International Karate. The Title tune is well done here and a good re-creation of the C64 SID classic although sadly no tune during the game.
Codemasters were a UK publishing house who supported the Atari 8-bits with the occasional release.
This version looks a lot cleaner than the C64 version and again there isn’t a bad title tune which plays during the title screen showing off the sonic capabilities of the machine.
Virgin Mastertronic also supported the platform with their budget range and above we have the shoot-em-up Sidewinder 2
Later towards the end of its life, the machine found a welcome home in Eastern Europe and this home-brew effort Test Drive comes from Hungary.
In fact there are still games being released for it today in 2018 like this conversion of the classic Amiga and C64 game Stunt Car Racer from 1989.
I can’t rave enough about how good this version is. For a start its much quicker than the Commodore 64 version and it features a really good rendition of Yello’s The Race as a title track tune. You really should download the game file and play this.
The emulation of Atari++ isn’t 100% perfect, for example when playing Desert Falcon, I did find some issues with the scrolling and the way the objects were displayed on-screen which didn’t appear authentic. I do experienced corruption issues when playing International Karate when playing with a joystick which is a shame because IK is one of my favourites. Initial setup of the emulator is also confusing and the menu system is a bit of a mess with many things to configure at first, but once over the first configuration, it is then pretty easy to load new pieces of software.
From the list of games which I have covered in this post, you will have noticed that I have missed out a whole host of titles for the Atari 8-bit like Ballblazer, Robotron 2084, The Ultima series, Rescue on Fractulus, Dropzone, Boulderdash, Star Raiders, The Eidolon and the Zork series. Well personally I have left them out for a reason, because I think you should go and discover these great titles yourself.
I think it’s a real shame that here in the UK we were perhaps a little too obsessed over our Spectrum, Amstrad and Commodore 64 machines to give the Atari 8-bit range any attention, yet thanks to Atari++ I’ve re-discovered what a great little platform the 8-bit Atari really is. Delving into its world a little more has also inspired me to check out some SIO2SD hard drives which I will no doubt add to that Atari 800XL machine I have in my collection. In the meantime though I think I may treat myself to another go of Food Fight!
Until next time, have fun with your Amigas!