by Terri Rose
In the late 1980s in Europe, if you wanted to be playing the best new released video games, you probably owned one of two machines: a Commodore Amiga, or an Atari ST. Before Nintendo’s SNES and Sega’s Mega Drive arrived in Europe in 1991 and 1990, respectively, it was the home computer market that provided the largest selection of quality, next-generation games in the home.
The Commodore Amiga, with its high-resolution colour palette and smooth scrolling, eventually became the preferred computer for games developers in Europe, but that wasn’t always the case. While both machines had a bit of a slow start coming off their 1985 launches, the Atari ST spent some of the mid and late 80s cornering more of the games’ market than the Amiga did in Europe, even in the UK. And some countries, like West Germany, would always prefer Atari’s machine.
The ST was born following Atari’s protracted and nasty fight with Commodore to acquire the Amiga, which ended in a series of lawsuits. Though Atari won several of these lawsuits and was rewarded monetarily, the rights to the computer did stay with Commodore. This is a very complex battle between the two companies, and I’d recommend watching this video if you’re interested in learning more.
With the Amiga in its competitors’ clutches, Atari’s new President (and former Commodore CEO) Jack Tramiel ordered Atari engineers to design a new computer from scratch in under a year. This is the same stunt Tramiel pulled when designing the Commodore 64, and that ended pretty well, as it turned out.
Tramiel’s slogan “power without the price” would be repeated with the ST, boasting more memory in base models than was available in IBM or Apple machines at the time, but for under $1000. An impossible task? Maybe it would have been, but Atari’s saviour came in the form of Motorola.
Motorola’s 6800 microprocessor was a low-cost, powerful 16-bit processor that had been already been used in the prototypes for the Amiga, and there was no way a low-cost machine could compete with the power of IBM’s pricey Intel chip without it. But Motorola also provided the basis for the machine’s sound and graphics chips, with Atari repurposing failed Motorola chipsets from previous products, to the benefit of both companies.
The Atari ST also swung for the fences with its operating system, Digital Research’s GEM (Graphics Environment Manager) running through Atari’s own TOS (The Operating System or Tramiel Operating System, depending on who you asked). GEM was a full-colour graphical user interface, not unlike Microsoft’s upcoming Windows 3.1 (a similarity not lost on the frustrated engineers over at Digital Research). As such, the Atari ST was the first commercially available computer to launch with a full-colour GUI.
The ST’s launch in 1985 was slow, as previously mentioned, but once European developers got their head around the 6800 chip, game development helped the machine into being a success (West Germany was the only country where the machine was a huge hit in the business market, as was Tramiel’s original intention for the machine).
Let’s talk games! The landmark dungeon crawler Dungeon Master was originally released for the Atari ST, as well as the excellent chess simulator ChessBase. As the decade wore on, we saw the likes of Xenon and Xenon 2, Cruise for a Corpse, Populous, Powermonger, Sidewinder and Siderwinder 2, Warhead, and Utopia developed either solely for the ST or concurrently with the Amiga.
As both the Commodore Amiga and the Atari ST used the Motorola 6800, porting games between the two was fairly easy for developers. However, processing power is not the only determining factor in how games look and run. The Amiga’s bright, dynamic colour-set absolutely outstripped the ST’s, and the ST’s graphical processing ability was considerably weaker at reproducing smooth horizontal scrolling.
What the ST provided, early on, was a familiar coding environment for developers. The machine was more similar to the 8-bits like the Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, and Amstrad CPC in how it compiled code, so it was a better bridge machine than the Amiga; the Amiga’s true power was really hidden until the end of the decade where games like Shadow of the Beast showed just how much better its scrolling and sprite rendering was. Compare these two videos, for example:
As you can see, there is quite a difference there!
The Atari ST continued selling into the 90s, with new versions like the Atari STE adding support for hardware sprites, and general upgrades to memory and scrolling. By this time, though, ports from the Amiga or MS DOS were becoming more and more the norm on the machine, and many of these ports were of poor quality and did not reflect the system’s strengths.
Atari, unlike Commodore at the time, seemed to know that the longevity of the machine relied on gaming almost entirely (though the ST’s enduring success is probably also owed to its use as a music computer, having a built-in MIDI port —something I’ve never seen a computer have since! Programs like Cubase and Finale were originally released as Atari ST software). Atari also knew that the ST was not the gaming behemoth it was in the 1980s, and so they began work on the Atari Falcon, a machine that combined elements of the Atari ST with elements of their upcoming Atari Jaguar console.
The Falcon, though, was beset by technical issues and its launch was delayed and delayed. Finally, the 32-bit computer was quietly rolled out in 1992, and cancelled along with the ST in 1993. This was, ostensibly, so the company could focus their efforts on the Jaguar (which did not go well, forcing the end of Atari Computers in 1997). However, it is likely that though the Falcon was very good, its development was handled poorly and the gaming market was already shifting heavily to consoles, as well as MS-DOS PCs as they came down in price.
In the end, what killed off the Atari ST was the fact that it was, for most of its life, a niche product enjoyed by specific consumer sets (like electronic musicians and producers), and basically a games machine in the UK and western Europe. This was not sustainable in the long run, as it turns out, but a life of eight years and a slew of successful software titles developed for the machine showed it wasn’t all bad.
Next week, we’ll be taking a look at another Atari product, one that was also successful but cut down in its life early — the Atari Lynx.