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Commodore Amiga Turns 25 … what about the Atari ST ???

July 27, 2010 2 comments

Granted, today is my birthday, but that hasn’t made me feel half as old as the realization that the Commodore Amiga and my (formerly) beloved Atari ST are now 25 years old!  How to feel really old in one step.

I just caught an article yesterday about the Amiga turning 25, and wondered how I missed the anniversary of the Atari ST, since it was introduced a couple of months prior to the Amiga launch. Anyone from that era will recall how bitter the wrangling was between Atari and Commodore, with insults, slurs, technology, lawsuits, and many workers going back and forth between the two companies. The relationship between Atari and Commodore back in the mid-80’s makes Adobe vs Apple look like a hippie love-in! There are plenty of blogs, articles, and probably books, on this era, so I’m not going to rehash it here – I was more struck with just how long ago that was, and how nostalgic it made me feel.

Atari OS

Atari OS

Looking back, the 520ST had its faults, but it was an amazing piece of kit for the time. The mouse, for instance, was like a doorstop, and felt like it weighed about 5 lbs. I eventually upgraded to a 1040STE, which featured an internal floppy disk drive … luxury! I remember picking up a copy of Sim City while I was on vacation in the UK. When I returned to Canada, I had to drive 3 hours to find the LAST double-sided external floppy drive in Ontario, just so I could run the game from that ultra-spacious 720k storage – my original ST came with a single-sided, single density drive with 360k of storage, and I recall the sales guy telling me that I would never fill even one disk. I got home with that drive and started playing (the original) Sim City… 16 hours later I looked up and realized it was about 6am. Sim City led to games like Lemmings, and finally to Civilization – my ultimate gaming addiction. To this day, if my wife ever met Sid Meier, there would be blood spilled.

I bought that original ST my first year at University, in 1986, and used it for papers, games, programming, you name it. It was like being in the tech elite! I was never really a fan-boy, though, and don’t recall getting into the debates with the Amiga types. I was just happy to have my ST. My ST, and later the 1040STE (with the COLOUR monitor … OMG!), saw me all the way through University, and into Grad School. I even used it for my thesis. I wrote a data collection program in QBasic, and used the STE to record data while my rats round a radial maze. It was pretty crude programming, but I also wrote a computer simulation of rat behaviour on the maze, to complement the actual data, and support the hypothesis I had.

The biggest WTF moment in my Atari ST/STE history was when I purchased my first HD for the machine. Up to that point, everything was floppy-based, but I saved my pennies and finally had enough money to buy a whopping FIFTY MEG external hard drive … yes, that is 50M, not Gig. I paid the princely sum of $800 for that 50M of storage, and don’t recall thinking that was in any way unreasonable – it wasn’t back then. Looking back just 20 years to that purchase it seems insane, but what was even more amazing was that I then partitioned the drive into SEVEN, with apps, games, data, utilities etc. each having their own partition! The best word processor at the time, for ST/E, was a French program called Redacteur, which easily fit on one of those 7Meg partitions, with plenty of room to spare. I still think that it was better than any version of MS Word since.

Atari 520ST

Atari 520ST

As the 90’s progressed, Atari developed higher end computers, with the TT and the amazing Falcon, neither of which I could afford. In 1993 they stopped production of ST computers to focus on the Jaguar game console, and the rest is history, or at least Atari was. Neither the Amiga or the ST, and its predecessors, could compete with the burgeoning PC market running Windows 3.x, and even I abandoned my old friend for a sterile, boring “PC”. I kept the ST and STE for many years, but they just gathered dust in the basement, and finally got thrown out about 5 years ago.

That original ST ignited my love of tech, computers, gaming, and programming, and probably contributed more to who I am today, and where I am in my career, than anything else. I am a geek today only because of that original 520ST, and to think that it just turned 25 is unbelievable to me. That 25 years, from 1985 to today, has probably seen more technical innovation than any period in history, and I think the ST (and yes, the Amiga), deserve their place alongside the MAC in the history of computing.

I miss my ST.

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‘Noughty’ & Newsworthy – Part 4: Video Gaming

December 30, 2009 1 comment

The past decade has really been a great one for video games.

PC Gaming

Over the decade I have gone from a staunch PC gamer to a totally cross-platform lunatic. I finally got my dream rig this year – an Alienware PC – just in time to finally accept that gaming has moved to the consoles. So I now have a 360, PS3, and a Wii. Most big cross-platform titles are still available on PC as well, but you have to wonder for how long. World of Warcraft (WOW) still keeps over 10M subscribers glued to their PCs every month, but role playing titles, often only found on PC, have been showing up on the consoles too. Even a game like Civilization came to the consoles – with a very solid port, and garnering many positive reviews.

I’m not sure if PCs can compete on the big titles anymore, but as long as games like WOW keep updating and providing new DLC, gaming rigs will still survive. I’m afraid I have turned to the dark side though, I just can’t justify the constant upgrading to keep up with the latest games when I know they will all run flawlessly on my consoles.

The Xbox 360

A console is only as good as the games available for it, and that simply makes the 360 the best around. It still boasts the biggest library of titles available, many top exclusive titles (none bigger than the Halo and Gears of War franchises), and a great library of DLC from Xbox Live Marketplace. Couple all that with fast load times, quick updates, and the addition of social networking, and it’s a tough act to follow. 2 Million users logged into Facebook through Xbox live in the first week of its introduction alone.

Microsoft also had a VERY strong E3 this year, with a couple of Beatles, some great game announcements, and, of course, Project Natal details. Things look good for the console for the foreseeable future. Online is still where the Xbox kicks some serious ass, and the Xbox Live community is staggeringly big. Halo 2 kicked it off in 2004, passing 7M users in 2007, 10M users in 2008, and now standing at somewhere in the region of 20M users! Now, you have to balance those numbers with the recent banning of up to 1M users from Live for using modded consoles – but that still leaves on hell of a lot of people looking to kick your ass online!

One of the most overlooked pluses of the Xbox is gamer points. I’m not one that desperately hunts achievements, usually preferring to get them as they come. but it’s hard to pass up going after that achievement when it comes close. I’ve been playing lots of Left 4 Dead 2 recently (see my Raptr.com profile for proof!) and I found myself seeking out clowns, swampy mudmen, incendiary ammo, and I swore to beat that damn Moustachio! It’s hard not to get caught up in getting those in-game achievements … and that means more gametime, and more attraction for the console. PS3 trophies just don’t have the same appeal yet, and I’m not sure if they ever will.

The PS3

We got a great deal on our PS3 – my wife works for Dell, and it was open box. Without that deal I would not have owned one – and I would have missed out BIG time. I am now officially a Sony fan-boy. What a great piece of hardware the PS3 is… and there’s the problem. It’s a great bit of kit, but until recently it was only being used for Blu-ray movies and as a media server, streaming content from my PC to the TV. The PS3 kicks the 360’s ass in terms of a media server by the way. the TVersity software and the (built in) wireless capability of the PS3 is a great media server combination.

For me, though, I still played most games on my PC, or the 360. Then Uncharted came into my life, and Little Big Planet. I started paying more attention to the PS3 for games. This year alone Killzone 2, InFamous, and my game of the year, Uncharted 2 all made being a PS3 owner a wonderful experience. Add the (rather useless IMO) exclusive content for Batman:Arkham Asylum, and it was a big year for PS3 exclusives.

Sony also had a good E3, and then to finish the year, Sony finally tore down the last barrier to PS3 ownership, dropping the console price with the introduction of the new slimmer (and cheaper looking/feeling) console. There is now no reason not to get a PS3. So go get one!

The Wii

Nintendo really did something amazing in the ‘noughties’, bringing a whole new generation of people to gaming – your grandparents! Okay, so the Wii isn’t just for kids and grandparents, but Nintendo really made a fantastic family-friendly product, and there is nothing funnier than seeing your grandma kick someones butt at Wii bowling! The Wii made gaming accessible to everyone, bringing casual gamers to the console more, and making millions of others into casual gamers. Anything that gets your butt off the couch can’t be all bad.

The Wii also heralded a new direction in the console wars with its innovative control system. This year at E3 it was notable that a lot of time was devoted to showing off the Sony motion control and Microsoft’s Project Natal. The Wii balance board also took things in a new direction, with Wii Fit trying to not just get you active, but coaching you toward fitness goals. I got one, it pretty much just sits there now, mocking me … which is a lot nicer than when it rudely told me I was fat.

Portable Gaming

Games on the go have become big business, with the DSi and PSP Go being the most recent hardware to allow you to play great games virtually anywhere. The evolution of portable hardware is too complicated to go into in detail here, but new hardware now offers great graphics and gameplay, and game publishers are making sure that top titles find their way onto these smaller screens, in one form or another.

Apple’s iPhone also deserves special mention here. The iPhone has now come of age as a true gaming platform, but more than that, the App Store has allowed small developers to get some great games into our hands. The future is bright for the little guy with a big idea if he is willing to go the iPhone route.

Gaming Comes of Age

On the back of the success of consoles, gaming has gone from the realm of nerds and geeks to being seriously mainstream. Video game revenue now surpasses movies (and has since 2007), and gaming was one of the sectors to see the least shrinkage during the recent economic meltdown. The line where gaming and mainstream media meet is becoming seriously blurred. Uncharted 2 plays like a blockbuster move, which was the intention, and Left 4 Dead was conceived along similar lines. Movie stars now routinely voice game characters, and story is seen as just as important as game play. Games are becoming a media experience, not just a diversion.

The only problem I see is that since games have become such big business, it is virtually impossible for a small software house to invest the time and money required to produce a top game. You NEED to be aligned with a big publisher, and small shops have been absorbed into bigger ones, or disappeared altogether. The iPhone may become the last bastion of truly innovative, wacky games – as big software houses can’t take the risk on something that may not go big. It almost sounds like the way movie industry went.

I won’t bore you with my list of ‘games of the decade’, as there are already hundreds of lists out there – suffice to say that as a gamer this has been a wonderful decade, and I eagerly await the next one. Who knows, perhaps Project Natal won’t be lame, and Alan Wake will really get released this time.