- Series: Platform Studies
- Hardcover: 192 pages
- Publisher: The MIT Press; 2nd ptg edition (January 9, 2009)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 026201257X
- ISBN-13: 978-0262012577
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 47 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #745,501 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System (Platform Studies) Hardcover – January 9, 2009
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Montfort and Bogost's analysis is both technically detailed and historically contextualized, both informative and methodologically instructive. They write with a rigor and grace that future contributors to the series may be at pains to match.―Seth Perlow, Convergence
Read it, it will do you good.―José P. Zagal, Game Studies
Racing the Beam doesn't spare the technical details, but is always accessible and compelling. Downright thrilling at times, in fact, a sort of The Right Stuff of video game development.―Darren Zenko, thestar.com (Toronto Star)
Montfort & Bogost raise the bar on anyone wishing to talk meaningfully about computer culture. Not only must we interpret these machines, we must first know how they work―and yes, sometimes this means knowing assembly code. From chip to controller, the authors lead us with ease through the Atari '2600' Video Computer System, one of the most emblematic devices in recent mass culture.―Alexander Galloway, Associate Professor of Culture and Communication, New York University, and author of Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization
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After reading this book -- a book I plan to read cover-to-cover again, to refresh my memory -- I gained incredible respect for what 2600 programmers were (and still are) capable of eeking out of the machine. Coming from the relative luxurious comfort of the 8-bit computer, with a real framebuffer, character/tile graphics, etc., it's amazing that games like Pitfall! exist at all, let alone are fast, fun, and highly playable!
If you're interested in retrocomputing or retrogaming, computer & video game history, or just enjoy learning about how technology works, this book is a must.
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.
Of particular interest (to myself) were the hardware design choices made that confound and make you cringe by today's standards. 'Racing the Beam' gives you the insight to understand these choices by providing the financial limits, competitive landscape, design goals, and technological context present at Atari's release. It is still hard to believe that developing back then was more than just heavy hardware and software constraints (128 *bytes of RAM* and this review is well over 1500 bytes)... The developers were often a one-man team juggling programming, art direction, UX/UI, screenwriting, sound design, and project management while devising logic tricks for precious source compression. No physics APIs or game platform builder or asset store to save the day, oops, I meant deadline. This is real insight on the Pioneering spirit.
There is a whole chapter dedicated to Adventure. Very cool! Would be a good primer for those eagerly waiting to read Warren Robinett's Annotated Adventure. Yars Revenge (my favorite) and Pitfall is in there too. This was my first taste of a platform studies book and I look forward to picking up I Am Error: The Nintendo Family Computer / Entertainment System Platform (Platform Studies) despite never owning an NES.