Thursday, December 24, 2009

My Atari Christmas (SCRAM!)

One Christmas in the very early 1980s (maybe 1980), my parents gave me an Atari home computer: the Atari 400. Not the more famous Atari 2600 from the 1970s (the one that only played games). This was a genuine home computer, designed to compete with the increasingly popular Apple II home computer of the time. Embedded below is a 30 second TV advertisement for it from 1981. "Atari computers: we've brought the Computer Age home," the narrator concludes. Atari dared to envision a brave New World, it seems, where even the ditziest mothers could eventually be trained by modern computing to learn all the state capitals. ("With Atari home computers anything's possible.")

This commercial also captures the graphics of its games very well. I also loved the fact that, among the stack of games and other programs shown, there's one for "Touch Typing." Ah, the irony of that. For the Atari 400 had a "membrane keyboard" (i.e. no keys, just a plastic overlay on which a simulated keyboard had been printed), which made typing excruciatingly slow (you had to press each letter very firmly to make it register on screen) and "touch typing" essentially impossible.
My favorite ever game for it was a Donkey Kong rip-off called "Miner 2049er." I've also embedded below a 45 second clip of the start of the game.
Despite the clunky membrane keyboard, it really was a great machine that I continued to play for several years afterward. (It apparently sold millions of units through 1985, and was a great success for Atari.) Among other games, I later got a nuclear power plant simulator for it called "SCRAM," which was released in the wake of the Three Mile Island "disaster." It simulated (in a serious way) the Three Mile Island Unit 2 reactor, and allowed the player to simulate what had happened there in 1979. (That's a screen shot above.) The game was accompanied by a detailed 55 page manual, which included a primer on the basic principles of thermodynamics. (Fun for any 11 year old boy!) The program was apparently designed by a "gaming luminary" named Chris Crawford who characterized it years later as, "a stupid game devoid of entertainment value." If he could do SCRAM all over again, he's quoted as having said, he'd start by asking himself "What is fun and interesting about nuclear power plants?" to which he'd answer "not much," and then he'd scrap SCRAM outright.

1 comment:

  1. The Atari classic game console was created in 1972, I've read that in other blog.. I am not a geek or something like that. Its first game, "Pong," defined the video game industry for many years, and it'd be nice if you can write something about it because it was the earliest video game console, and is still widely collected by players.