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46 of 49 people found the following review helpful
on August 3, 2009
What a fascinating book. It's a terrific idea to examine the iconic Atari 2600 in this way, and the authors do a good job of exploring it at the lowest levels. They make a good case that the physical hardware design directly influenced the design of some of the device's most famous (and infamous) games, and that those early design tradeoffs themselves led to certain conventions still apparent in modern video game design. The book's organized around several key game cartridges, each of which is a case study to point out some aspect of the technical or cultural impact of the Atari; it's a really good way to organize the narrative.

If you've only ever worked with "modern" graphic computer technology (i.e. anything with pixels), you'll be really amazed at what the Atari programmers were able to do with the unbelievable constraints they had to work with. One of the most incredible things I learned was that the system had only 128 bytes of RAM, not even enough to store this sentence in memory. In contrast, the cheap laptop I'm writing this on has more than 9 million times as much RAM available. That is an almost unimaginable difference in scale.

Unfortunately, the book is really poorly written. The two authors obviously divided the subject into cultural and technical sections, each covering their own turf. The book tends to go back and forth between these topics, so there are weird changes in tone, references to ideas that haven't been introduced clearly, and an annoying use of jargon. Overall, the book suffers from the academic tendency to try to point out even the most mundane and obvious details ("the joysticks were connected to the unit by cables") as well as a total lack of understanding what the reader may know coming to the book. So we end up slogging through technical sections that haven't explained basic concepts, even when it would be simple to do so, and when an understanding of those concepts is absolutely key to the argument. It's very frustrating, because any editor should have been able to catch this kind of mistake. An editor would have also been able to salvage the terrible chapter on Yar's Revenge, which feels like a jumble of first-draft notes and facts.

That said, it's still a highly recommended book. I can't think of anything else like it. I really hope this series on "Platform Studies" improves with future books.
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on March 20, 2010
"Racing The Beam" is a book on a delicious subject that suffers from serving multiple masters. Who is the target demographic here - is it the technogeek enthusiast? Or the Wired cultural sociologist? Maybe it's the Retro Gamer reader who has fond memories of the VCS platform and is looking for a bit of behind-the-scenes action. Authors Nick Monforst and Ian Bogost, whom seem to be hewing to the publisher's adage that every equation cuts your book sales in half, do the reader no favors by leaving out such appendix gold as a memory/register map of the VCS and something along the lines of a brief "Hello World" code example. Sound, which is the other half of the equation, gets even shorter shrift - if the hardware supposedly can't synthesize a chromatic scale in tune, how did later programmers like Synthcart's Paul Slocum get around this?

One of the book's problems is that the authors try to make the book seem timely by trying to force connections between its vintage software biopics and such breathtakingly unrelated modern titles as World Of Warcraft, Grand Theft Auto, and Tony Hawk Pro Skater. It's almost like the publisher was feeling nervous that nobody of college age could relate to such early games, which is a shame given that the stories are all fascinating in their own right. And on the hardware side, while the Apple II and C-64 get brief nods why are no comparisons drawn between the Atari VCS and Jay Miner's later designs incl. the Atari 400, 800 and Amiga? And what were the specs of the Mattel Intellivision anyway, seeing as how it gets mentioned so often as the VCS's main rival?

Any reader old enough to remember this hardware as a wood-grain box is probably going to have a few comments bordering on the personal, but let's keep things short. Am I the only person wondering why the rather staid VCS game "Adventure" got such over-the-top respect while Exidy's more refined (and clearly related) 1981 arcade game "Venture" goes unmentioned? How was Video Chess able to perform move lookahead with nearly no stack? And why was the story behind the most important sidescroller ever to be ported, Defender, ignored almost entirely?

That said, I loved very minute spent reading this and look forward to seeing more from the "Platform Studies" series. And I bet you will too. Only next time around - more pictures!
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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on June 22, 2009
A fact that I still can't entirely wrap my head around, after reading this book, is that the Atari 2600 had only a few hundred bytes of RAM. It had little enough RAM that the programmer had to very carefully time his graphics operations so that characters got drawn to the screen before the monitor's electron gun arrived. Unlike other game systems, the 2600 wasn't "frame-buffered": you couldn't draw an entire screen's worth of data, then push it to the screen all at once when the display refreshed.

This design limitation led to all manner of digital hacking, which somehow, miraculously, allowed the game industry -- and Atari in particular -- to flourish. Montfort and Bogost do a decent job explaining the technology, at a level somewhat above what most computer users can be expected to have; if you don't grok the concept of a CPU register, a good bit of Racing the Beam will be tough going for you.

Their larger project is to view the whole world of gaming -- from the code up to the artwork, to actually playing the game, to the social world around game consoles -- with an understanding of how the technology limits and frees all the layers above it. What significance is it, from the game player's perspective, that the Atari had special registers to render sprites? In what way did this free game designers? In what ways did it constrain them? The authors view videogames the way that many view art generally: as the act of overcoming the limitations of a medium. They believe that the lowest level of a game's design has largely been left out of discussions of the larger game story.

They manage to bring all the layers of gaming together reasonably well, but the book didn't wow me: I'd be unlikely to pursue any future books in the "Platform Series," of which Racing the Beam is the first.
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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on April 23, 2009
I really wanted to like this book. I'm a big fan of video game history and was thrilled at the prospect of learning more about one of the early relics of the industry, the Atari 2600. While the book didn't disappoint in terms of useful information and historical context, it was just poorly written. Sentences would start on one topic and drift onto a completely different one. Entire paragraphs were seemingly dedicated to simply listing modern video games with ridiculous comparisons. For instance (this is not a direct quote) there were comparisons like "'Combat' was similar to 'Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas' because both involved sprites."

If you can set aside the school paper quality writing you'll find a book full of fascinating technical details about the video game industry's early life. You'll quickly learn that just about every Atari 2600 game is a major hack and required multiple clever tricks just to get anything working at all.

I would still recommend reading this book if you are interested in video game history, but be ready for some confusing trains of thought. I am eagerly awaiting the next book in the Platform Series but hope a little more consideration is given to the writing.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on September 18, 2009
I must first admit that I'm a huge fan of the 8-bit computers of the late 70s/early 80s time (although everyone who bought this book probably is as well).

Also, it's nice to see more of these titles covering the "golden days" of personal computing when the hardware and software were much more integrated, and things felt more... ummm... well... personal.

I thought the author did a good job of covering quite a range of technology on the Atari system, without getting bogged down in the details too often. He provided lots of technical detail which I liked, although some folks who are not programmers or technically-oriented would probably lose interest.

If you are a fan of 8-bit personal computers and video games, I recommend reading this book. If you are somewhat interested in the era, but not of a very technical bent, you may be overwhelmed (or just bored) by the technical depth of the book. Regardless, the book is a good reference to provide perspective of the time and various technical challenges at that time.

I am very excited about the Platform Studies series and look forward to other titles in the future. Being an avid Commodore 64 fan, I'll put my plug in for that being the next title... ;-)
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on August 13, 2010
I have to agree with other reviewers here that the writing style has ruined what could have been a great book. Its just plain dry and there is too much repetition of the material covered earlier. The narrative very impersonal as well - the authors does not seems to be enthusiastic about the iconic platform they are describing. Its a small book, less than 150 pages of actual material on subject. If only it was better written, i would not have mind the brevity of it. Being an avid video games/80s fan and a programmer of 8-bit computers of that era, i was very interested in this book. Hoping for something similar to "On the Edge: the Spectacular Rise and Fall of Commodore" (which by the way is excellent and i would highly recommend anyone interested in this book to get that one) but it turned out to be a far cry from that. I had to put it down after every few pages, take a break and then force myself to go back to it convincing myself its worth it for getting all the info. It does convey the limitation, challenges, and the genius of the programmers who developed games on it. It makes one appreciate what has been achieved on this platform regardless. One can better understand and appreciate the Atari VCS/2600 system after reading this book.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on October 19, 2014
An amazing look at programming the world's first widely-sucessful home videogame system, the Atari Video Computer System (VCS), a system with no OS, no BIOS, and only 128 bytes of RAM, yet the platform which provided amazing hours of fun with now-classic games like Space Invaders, Pitfall!, Demon Attack, Adventure, Yars' Revenge, and yes, even Pac-Man and E.T. This book is a close-up look at the challenges faced by game programmers in those early days in the context of the development of several individual games, explaining how the VCS's limitations motivated many creative coders to create workarounds and even incorporate those limitations into the games themselves in innovative ways to general more fun out of a paltry few kilobytes of RAM than you'd ever think possible. This book is simply a must-read for any fan of classic or retro-gaming in general, and for fans of the VCS, it's unparalleled.
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on March 21, 2009
This book is great fun for the Atari Generation, but more generally, a good read for anyone who is delighted by cleverness and ingenuity. The descriptions of how the early videogame writers surmounted the technical limitations of their platforms are fascinating. (I still remember, even as a kid, wondering just *why* those darn Pac-Man ghosts flickered so much -- now, thirty years later, I know the answer.) Well-written and well-researched, I think this book is a worthy history of the early years of what is now one of the world's largest industries. Highly recommended!
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on November 16, 2014
This book is not quite what I expected, but I enjoyed it just the same. I'd been expecting a thorough description of the VCS hardware, hopefully down to the (tiny) memory map, and at least a few code examples showing how the screen is generated, sprite multiplexing, etc. There is much more information at this level online, so you can learn about it; just don't expect much more than a cursory examination from this book.

With that, the book has a few aims. One is to show how the restrictions imposed by the VCS hardware led to extraordinary leaps of creativity to produce playable and, in some instances, graphically impressive games. The authors do a nice job here of balancing the presentation of the dry technical aspects with sheer reverence for the programmers and designers.

Another aim is more long-reaching: showing how some VCS games were the genesis (or an important part) of game genres that still exist today. This might be more of a stretch. There was a lot of arcade video game activity at the same time that the VCS ruled the living room, and many of the VCS titles were ports, i.e. they contributed little to moving the field forward.

The book is part of a series called 'Platform Studies'. I'm not a media type, so I don't really know what this means. There's a fair amount of lip service paid to this concept in the book, but it seems a little contrived, as if the editor insisted that 'Platform Studies' be mentioned a certain number of times. Is the VCS an object lesson in platform studies? I don't know. What I do know is that it is probably the simplest programmable gaming system one could imagine. It's a brilliant design that offloaded all the difficult jobs onto the programmers to keep the hardware cost as low as possible. As such it deserves to be recognized for the milestone that it was, and this book does that, and in an enjoyable way.
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on October 3, 2012
There's a lot of interesting history and technical details to be covered on the Atari 2600. This book skimps a lot on both. I'd like to know more about how well the games discussed in the book were received in the marketplace, or how the 2600 stacked up compared to the other machines released during it's life span. The book makes more of an effort to explain the technical side of the 2600, but here the writing is poor, leaving out so many concrete details that machine's operation can only be guessed in many cases. I suspect this was an attempt to reach a more general audience, but in doing so they have written a book which is confusing to everybody, rather than just the non-technical.

That said, it was an interesting read, esp. since I got it from the library, rather than having to pay for it. My main hope is that the existence of this book doesn't prevent better books on the subject from being published.
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