The Atari ST and the Creative People

For those of you who know me, or who have seen other posts of mine on this or other sites, you may recollect that I spent 12 of my formative years active (to some degree) on the Commodore 64, Atari ST and Atari Falcon. It was a period full of energy and creativity, during which I was fortunate enough to be able to hob-nob with many key people in the Commodore and Atari scenes. This afforded me countless personal and professional opportunities big and small, the most impactful of which was being able to work at Thalion from autumn 1989 to spring 1991, a period when I was surrounded by astonishingly talented people among which I always felt at least a little out of my gourd.

The growth of the ST scene, from its tender beginnings in early 1986 to what (in my world) would be the crisis in Thalion in late 1990, is the subject matter of Marco Breddin’s first 400-page tome in the intended-to-be-three-volumes series “The Atari ST and the Creative People”, appropriately entitled “Breakin’ the Borders”.

Product of a very ambitious idea, it came to fruition with the release of the first volume in May 2017, a tribute to the optimism and friendship that became the hallmarks of “the early Atari ST scene”. I do feel that the dictionary definition of the word “lavish” ought to, from now on, be required by law to include “in the way such as Marco Breddin’s books about the Atari scene”. Although some may know my love of hyberbole, I am not in the least exaggerating now. Beautifully designed and capably edited, the book chronicles the rise of the demo scene through the technical stepping stones it met and conquered. All of this, needless to say, explained in sufficient detail to keep sceners interested, yet simple enough for a layman to come to grips with. And, obviously, illustrated lavishly with a multitude of screenshots and scene member profiles.
Reading through it was like travelling back to a time when entirely different things mattered in life (no family life, no ‘real’ job, not even school, at least not much). I became immersed in the zeitgeist where border busting, games, demo acquisition, disk magazine writing and just having hedonistic Atari-related fun were the things around which my life revolved. I dare say there is no better way for a former Atari scener (or even an out-gourded satellite such as myself) to re-live those days again.
I was honoured to have been quite closely involved in the creation of this first volume, which I suppose made seeing and reading the end result even more enjoyable. I played a part in the story, and it was awesome to realise that.

Today I received the second Volume of the series (finished last week or so), another impressive tome now titled “Beyond the Borders”. As with the first book, it has been thoroughly researched and – but of course – lavishly illustrated. Practically all the key players in this second era of the story, from 1991 up to and including 1993, have played their part in the creation of this second depiction of Atari scene history.
In my personal life I had quite seriously picked up uni again (studying English) and was less involved in the scene side of things after also having left Thalion. On the Atari ST side, my activities were rather limited to doing the now more and more multi-media ST NEWS and regularly making updated versions of my virus killer. Reading this second book makes all the feelings flood back – including the sense of loss of no longer being a meaningful part of the scene (granted, due to my own choices), growing apart from my best friend, no longer being part of legendary Thalion, and the debacle of the should-have-been-a-much-souped-up-and-barely-recognisable-to-be-based-on-“Dino-Eggs”-but-in-the-end-barely-an-equal “A Prehistoric Tale” game.
Volume 2 also describes the things the Atari company were up to. The feelings of optimism from Volume 1 are replaced by anecdotes of half-cocked marketing/development decisions and scene members reckoning the Atari hardware has no challenges left: After all, the borders had already been broken. So the sensation of reading part 2 is very different from part 1. Less positive, for certain, at least to me. However, I want to be quick to add that this is no shortcoming of the book. If anything, it is a shortcoming of my involvement in the scene, the behaviour of the Atari Corporation, and of my personal circumstances at the time into which the book so capably immerses me. The fact that the book conjures up those feelings is, if anything, a testimony to Marco’s engaging writing style and depth of research.
Volume 2 finally allows me to catch up on everything I had missed back then – crews I had sadly missed hearing about, as well as their wonderful demo achievements. Thalion had continued after my departure too (at the time I had been as pessismistic as to assume everything would fall to pieces because prospects in general had been pretty bleak), and now I can read everything about “Ambermoon”, “Lionheart”, “Trex Warrior”, even “Airbus 320”.
And Volume 2 goes much further in scope even than the 1992-1993 Atari scene and Thalion, for it also extensively covers contributions by people other than “the classic scene crews” that were no less meaningful.

Volume 1 described the challenge of breaking the borders on the ST, but Volume 2 broke open the borders of my own preconceptions into showing me that there was so much more than the ST/Falcon scene that I had been familiar with. And I, for one, am certainly looking forward to Volume 3 (“Return of the Borders”) which is announced for 2019.

These books can be purchased at www.microzeit.com. You are also able to find information about the IndieGogo campaign for Volume 3 there, which among other packages also include a way to get all three volumes (the “Connoisseur Trilogy”).

The Awesome Thing that is DemoBase ST

I remember fairly well the days of old. In this case I mean the days near the end of July  2015, well not that old then perhaps, when within the space of two days I discovered GameBase 64, GameBase ST, Atari ST TOSEC and DemoBase ST. I could barely contain the intense feelings of nostalgic joy that coarsed through my veins, making my retro heart pulse and throb. In the days that followed I relived the even more ancient – and more authentically true – days of old, from the mid 80s to the mid 90s, playing all the games I used to like so much. “Jumpman Junior”, “Dino Eggs” and “Fort Apocalypse” were among the first, also the earliest games I had procured in my virtually virgin C64 days. And from there it went to many other fondly remembered C64 games, too many to list. I spent hours configuring stuff and trying to get a STelladapter to work. Next were equally endearingly memorized games and demos from the Atari ST era. Glorious days when the world I was in, and I myself, seemed both more innocent and more alive.

The GameBase efforts had been underway for years. I had been very slow to discover these gargantuan undertakings – a GUI offering a variety of good emulators that allowed for just about any title (whether game or demo or whatever) to be selected and smoothly run, all from within one convenient package. Similarly, various TOSEC endeavours had been created for just about every retro computer or console platform worth its salt (and, frankly, some so obscure they were perhaps not worth all that much salt). A bit of research revealed ready-made databases, whereas a bit of torrenting yielded vast collections of titles, ready to be merged with the GameBase files. The equivalent of years of collecting, all at one’s fingertips, running pretty smoothly and accurately on one’s own PC. GameBase 64 took up a little over 11 Gb, GameBase ST less than 5 Gb. Peanuts!

And DemoBase ST, although based on the same idea as GameBase, took things one step further: A step most convenient for the demo-loving Atari ST scener, whether former or current. As it happened, DemoBase ST strove to offer an as-complete-as-possible collection of individual (!) demo screens. The aim was to allow anyone to browse any screen by any demo crew, even individual ones from larger mega demos. You could then launch them, where DemoBase ST took care of the appropriate emulator launch parameters.
Version 2 of the DemoBase ST project, created and maintained by nigh-professional wild-mud-runner Dave Haylett, had been firmly underway since at least the beginning of 2007 with its release on http://dbst.atomas.com. That year saw a flurry of additions and improvements, until things started slowing down a bit in 2008 and grinding to an unfortunate halt during 2009. At a later date he also lost his source code (or at least thought he had).
I am immodestly pleased to say I may have had a bit of a hand in Dave’s finding the motivation and energy to pick up again where he had left off. In fact, he re-built version 3 from the ground up, bypassing the limits of the original version’s design decisions and adding a host of new bells and whistles.

The main features of DemoBase ST are:

  • One double-click launches you straight into a demoscreen – no disc images required, and no searching through main menus. Intros, Loading Screens, Main Menus, Hidden Screens and Reset Screens are also included;
  • Emulator settings, command-line switches (like -STFMBORDER) and correct TOS version are all pre-applied;
  • Over 3,200 demoscreens in the library so far;
  • Over 10,000 screenshots to help you find your favourite screens, or that one screen that you’ve been wanting to see for years;
  • Play custom slideshows of each screen in any megademo of your choice, or all screens by a particular coder, or any screens at random;
  • Mark your favourite demoscreens and play them from their own area, or even in a slideshow;
  • Play the music from any demo while you are browsing the archive, or add them to a jukebox feature;
  • Find demo screens based on title, crew name, megademo name or even which elements they contain (scroller, balls, 3D, STOS, interactivity, or 25 others)!

The whole thing is packaged in a very flexible and quite intuitive user interface that is utterly configurable. It even has many (dozens?) of little hidden demo effects that pop up left, right and centre (though, worry not, they can also be switched off). It is evident that Dave has delivered a labour of love, a respectful tribute to the world of ST demo screen creation. The new version of DemoBase ST, which started life somewhere in 2017, is now finally ready for a public release via its new online home at http://www.demobase.st. If you loved the world of ST demos, you owe it to yourself to check it out!

Ready Player One

 “Ready Player One” just has to be the best movie of the year (though I predict it might be second-best after “Jurassic World – Fallen Kingdom” as of June, despite that movie’s alleged narrative shortcomings). A cool story, convincing special effects, one of the most awesome car chases every imagined, a none-too-obtrusive love angle, and oodles of pop culture references. Even a good and positive message for today’s gamer generation. It’s a bit like “Pixels” for a more mature audience. And the 3D aspect of the film was quite convincing and engaging.
Steven Spielberg hasn’t lost his touch!

 Up next, I hope someone is going to do a film adaptation of Tad Williams’ “Otherworld” books!

ST NEWS Atari ST/TT/Falcon Multimedia Disk Magazine

It is a challenge, from a modern frame of mind, to imagine the late 1980s world of disk magazines. Huge quantities of information can now be exchanged at the drop of a hat, anywhere, virtually instantly. Back then, however, you had paper magazines and relatively sparsely used Bulletin Board Systems. That was pretty much it.

In the summer of 1986, the first issue of “ST NEWS” was released. It was a 35 Kb document to be loaded into the most popular Atari ST word processor of the time, “1st Word”.  It was put on a disk and the disk was copied at user meetings. A disk magazine was born.

The Canadian disk magazine “F.A.S.T.E.R.” drastically changed everything. Having started in autumn of 1986, this commercial disk magazine featured a very smooth GEM-based user interface from which articles could be selected and viewed. It looked very professional, and it was clear that “ST NEWS” needed to get with the program. As I had just translated the manual for a new Basic interpreter from German to Dutch, I had at my disposal “GfA Basic”, a brand spanking new replacement for the simply horrible “ST Basic”. The threshold was low enough for me to try out my meagre coding talents and try to somehow provide “ST NEWS” with a user interface like “F.A.S.T.E.R.” Mine was slower, but it worked.

As the years progressed, the “ST NEWS” user interface gradually became better. The odd issue even got sent abroad. I got enthusiastic reactions from ever more distant locations. Former C64 programmer Stefan “Digital Insanity” Posthuma joined the team and replaced slow program parts by faster ones. A network of contacts within the Atari demo scene improved editorial content (other authors wrote about really cool stuff) and got each issue to have a cool piece of music (Jochen “Mad Max” Hippel provided cutting-edge conversions of C64 tunes). Stefan built in ever more elaborate scrolling message screens. The synergy between him and me – fueled by a shared love of metal and synthesizer music, action movies and certain alcoholic beverages – led to a barrage of extended review introduction stories, real-time articles covering more or less interesting events, and basically anything and everything we deemed fit to include. We were particularly proud of the issue released late summer 1989 when Stefan and me had spent two weeks in the United Kingdom to visit key people and personal heroes in the world of ST gaming during the “LateST NEWS Quest”. From 1988 to about 1992, “ST NEWS” went from strength to strength. After that, issues occurred rather less frequently until it ended summer 1996.

To some readers, “ST NEWS” was probably an idiosyncratically idiotic hodge-podge. To (hopefully) many it was just weird but nonetheless interesting. “ST NEWS” got me my first job, and nudged a certain Lost Boy of London on the fast track to international gaming stardom. It was a most interesting and dynamic window of time to be active in.

Over the past half year, the ST NEWS site has been overhauled. Check it out to discover:

– All articles!
– All demos!
– All music!
– All scrollers
– All on-disk source/bonus materials
– All issues downloadable in optimised .ST images for your favourite emulator
– Vastly extended and improved 100+ picture & video gallery, newly scanned where possible
– Fully searchable
– Mobile device compatible
– Random article option
– All pages commentable
– Bonus complete Ultimate Virus Killer book

Thanks to Frederic “Dyno” Poeydomenge for endless work, help and patience, with additional awesomeness by Mellowman!

WWW.ST-NEWS.COM