One day, a blockbuster movie about the '80s race to deliver the first 16-bit home computer will be made. The story has all the right ingredients; rivalry, betrayal, shady industrial deals and a bevy of plucky underdogs scrapping to ship their compact computer first.
The only problem with the script is that no one can agree who was the period’s true hero. Talk to gamers and they’ll say it was the Amiga 500. Hang out with programmers and they’ll tell you all about the Acorn Archimedes.
But ask a musician and they’ll say there was only one home computer worth having at the end of the 80s. The Atari ST.
Atari Teenage Riot
Atari had massive success with arcade games and home consoles. In the '70s and early '80s the company sold over 30 million Atari 2600 cartridge-based consoles.
But in 1983, the games market was hit by a recession that slashed revenues by two thirds. The Commodore 64 and, in Europe, the Sinclair Spectrum had torn a hole in the space-time continuum. It was now possible to have your own computer at home; a multi-purpose device that could do anything you programmed it to do. The shops were full of video game consoles that no one wanted.
Atari had already attempted a direct Commodore 64 competitor - the Atari 800. Largely forgotten, it flopped in Europe and failed to gain much traction in the States. Rattled and counting their coppers, Atari split in two and sold off its consumer division, continuing the arcade business as Atari Games.
The buyer was the fearsome Jack Tramiel, an astute businessman who had founded and then lead Commodore International to success. He left Commodore behind and was now setting up shop as its biggest rival.
Darryl Still, Head of Marketing for Atari Corp. in Europe during the ST’s launch remembers the time as one driven by energy and purpose.
“The ST was the first major launch by the new management team and everyone was totally behind the product, so there was a huge shift in enthusiasm internally,” says Still, “(It was) the first machine with a keyboard, decent resolution and low entry price that took the computer into the family environment at home.”
The Atari ST came to market in June 1985, a full 18 months before the Amiga 500.
Atari ST GEM
In common with the original Macintosh and the Amiga, the Atari ST boasted a Motorola 68000 CPU. Though a 260ST shipped in small numbers through Europe, the 520ST was the classic entry point - a home computer with half a meg of RAM, a built in keyboard, mouse and colour output to your TV.
The basic hardware was similar to the Amiga 500 that would come along in January 1987, but even Atari evangelists admit that corners were cut.
“Technically the Amiga was maybe 15% better than the ST when it launched, but the end user never initially saw that superiority,” says Darryl Still , “We had done such a great job with the developer sector, they all developed for the ST first and ported directly to Amiga, so never used the extra features that the Commodore machine had.”
And developers saw the ST’s hardware shortcomings as a challenge.
“We really started working on it because the sound on the ST was so limited compared to the Amiga - 3 voice beeps plus noise,” says Kevin Cowtan, co-developer of seminal audio sequencer Quartet, “The Amiga had a real sound synth on board, which meant all the clever stuff was unnecessary. Working on the Amiga would have taken all the fun out of it.”
One huge plus was the operating system. Dubbed TOS (an acronym for The Operating System or Tramiel Operating System). Hard coded into the machine on a ROM chip, it boasted the windowed GEM interface - a graphic UI similar to Mac OS. Developed for PCs, GEM featured many of the intuitive elements we’re familiar with now.
The ST had amazing connectivity. It seemed capable of hooking up to every standard peripheral protocol going at the time - and a few that Atari invented from scratch. It, of course, supported the iconic Atari joystick. Two of ‘em. And Atari’s history in gaming meant that it launched with an enviable roster.
“The turning point for this was when we launched the ST Power Pack with 24 really cool games,” says Darryl Still, “The pack itself was a monstrous success, selling millions, but also managed to really hack off the developer and publisher sector, because the end user had no need to buy any more games for some time after their initially hardware purchase.”
Devs responded by pushing the limits of what the ST could do, with some awesome consequences. Dungeon Master was the ST game everyone had to own - a role playing hack and slash through an underworld of reanimated mummies and sword wielding skeletons, it cleverly offered gameplay in three dimensions while only ever showing two. If you’ve never been cornered by a manic mushroom, modern homage Legend of Grimrock recreates the experience via Steam for PC and Mac.
Llamasoft’s Jeff Minter continues to create outrageous, experimental games for mobile platforms, but back in the ST days his game Llamatron blew our tiny minds. A psychedelic reimagining of Atari’s own Robotron, we delighted in pausing at the moment of death – our reward, a hidden sample that screamed “Oh f@#k!” through tinny TV speakers.
Ray of Light
But ST aficionados know that gaming was only the gateway with this marvellous machine. There was one thing it had that none of its rivals could boast - that was direct MIDI support.
In the late 80s and early 90s, almost every top forty album was recorded with some assistance from Atari. Famously, several were entirely cobbled together with the help of the ST, including Depeche Mode’s “Ultra” and Madonna’s “Ray of Light”. Fatboy Slim was reported to still use his Atari ST as recently as 2012...
Incredibly, it all seemed to take Atari by surprise.
“I do of course, like to take full credit for the massive growth into this sector, but truthfully, I’m not sure I could have stopped it even if I’d tried,” says Darryl Still, “It was a very exciting rollercoaster to be driving at that time and all because someone in engineering had the insight to put a MIDI chip in the machine.”
Most systems that rocket to superstardom can thank key pieces of killer software. For the Mac, it was Photoshop. PCs rose to prominence through blanket adoption of Microsoft Office. For the Atari ST, it was Steinberg’s Cubase.
Still going - though now more often seen on the PC platform, Cubase transformed the Atari ST into a MIDI sequencer and recording studio controller
“The Atari ST was unique,” says Wolfgang Kundrus, who was a Software Architect at Steinberg when Cubase was developed, “For one it had a MIDI interface build right in. But maybe more important for the impact it made when it appeared on the market was the high resolution display and the mouse at an affordable price.”
“It also brought a strong sense of usability. I wanted the software to be so easy to use, that anybody could understand it and get out of the way during the process of making music.”
The fact that Atari STs running Cubase continued as the industry standard, long past the point when Atari stopped making the machines, is testimony to how special the combination was.
Now, Atari is little more than a name. Acquired first by a storage company, then Hasbro toys, then French software developer Infogrames, there’s nothing left of the scrappy hardware company that Jack Tramiel lead.
But Atari STs in good condition continue to be sought after items on eBay, alongside the vintage synth modules and drum machines they used to power. And rightly so.
We have to celebrate you, ST. We have to praise you like we should.