ramblings of an electronic engineer.

Book Review: Racing the Beam

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In 1977 Atari released the Atari 2600 (aka Atari VCS) and in doing so radically changed and shaped to the course of gaming to what we have today. It’s not controversial to say that games developed for the Atari spawned multiple of original genres and game mechanics. Racing the Beam published by The MIT Press takes a fascinating and insightful look into the history behind the Atari VCS as well as delving into the technical aspects of the system which influenced the game design for titles on that platform.


In the book authors Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost have picked 6 games (Combat, Adventure, Pac-man, Yar’s Revenge, Pitfall, and Starwars: The Empire Strikes Back) that show the effect the VCS platform had on the creative production of each game. While the book is reasonable technically laden it is still very interesting to learn about the challenges faced by VCS programmers when designing games, probably most notable the limitations of  systems RAM (only 2K!) and limited computational time between drawing frames. VCS games back in the day were displayed on a CRT displays which draw individual frames using an electron beam. The beam ignites phosphors in the display moving horizontally to create one scan line. The beam then moves down one to thee next vertical line and repeats the process until it reaches the bottom of the screen.It then needs to move the beam back to the top of the screen and start the process again. The problem been for VCS programmers that they have the get all the games maths and calculations done before the electron beam reaches the top again so it is ready to draw the next frame of the game, In essence they were constantly racing the beam trying to get all the games calculations finished in time ready for the next frame to be drawn by the display. This problem led to some ingenious solutions like drawing several back lines at the top of the screen to allow for extra computational time i.e. trading screen resolution for computing time.


Racing the beam is also very rich with interesting history of the Atari VCS and gaming in general around that time. For example it takes a look into the origins of game developer Activision which was started by several Atari programmers whom were unhappy with the the recognition and fiscal compensation they received for the titles they had programmed for Atari (collectively worth $60 million). Overall this book was a great read (possible the best so far this year) and I really enjoyed the way it demonstrated how technical challenges of the Atari system influenced the development of games all while mixing in interesting trivia and history. While I think this book would be enjoyable for a reader while little to no technical background (due to the history in the book) I’m inclined to recommend it more towards a reader who is familiar with with some electronics, programming or retro gaming systems.



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