Where I Read – Analog Computing Issue 2


We move on with the issues of Analog Computing with its sophomore issue, for March and April of 1981. As you can see from the cover, we’ve got coverage of some printers for the Atari 8-bit systems.

Editorial

Last issue’s Editorial column was a statement of principles, while this issue’s column is a request for feedback from readers asking what they’d like the magazine to become. They also stated that at the behest of Atari dealers they’ve decided to stop running ads for their own Atari software. That’s kind of disappointing. Yeah, it could be construed as being biased in that you’re not reviewing your own apps, but on the other hand, that they’re publishing their own software provides a bit more clout to their reviews – they’ve developed for the system, so they know what software development for it entails.

They’ve also announced that they’re not going to run ads for mail-order houses or specific retailers. I can kind of get why they’re doing that, but it still feels like a boneheaded move to me. Part of having editorial integrity is, in my opinion, you run ads for the people you want to run ads for, in accordance with your ad policy – and once you’ve set your ad policy, you don’t change it because retailers who carry your magazine get pissy because you’re running ads for competing firms. Considering that last issue they strongly came out in favor of Atari fanboyism, their yielding compromise here feels a little depressing.

Additionally, they’re accepting program submissions, for review, and possibly for listing. They’re also announcing that since they stopped running ads for their own products, they’re depending more on advertisers for revenue instead of subscriptions. Since they’ve also cut mail-order firms and other retailers from their list of approved types of advertisers (which is something that EGM didn’t even do), then this could be a little tricky.

Letters

That was fast. Usually it takes an issue or two to get letters, at least that show up in time for deadline. I guess that being bi-monthly makes that less of a problem.

Our first letter has a possible solution for the program lock-up problem from last issue. Apparently the “BYE” command can clear up lockups like this. I can’t find the details, but presumably BYE is the kill process command. The letter also had a little news tip of interest. Apparently Ham Radio operators who are also Atari enthusiasts were trying to start some sort of Atari Ham Radio program on Monday nights at 8 PM eastern, at 14.329 Mhz. It’s kind of interesting, the ways computer enthusiasts found to exchange information, before Usenet started finding its way outside of academia.

Letter number two starts off with asking about what readers have permission to copy. Remember when you had to have written permission to photocopy stuff? I’m glad those days are over. The writer also runs down a few computer issues that the customer doesn’t have to be in warranty to have Atari fix, even if the computer is out of warranty. Most of these problems involve adding or removing capacitors from the motherboard. Also, apparently crossing your power cable with your printer cable could cause RF interference. God, the loads of cables coming out of the back of my tower would have tremendous problems with RF interference back in the day. We also have an alternate method for making hyperspace jumps in Star Raiders.

There’s a bit more stuff related to contacts on Atari computers, and that Atari might want to switch from their current contact design to gold-plated ones for improved conductivity. There’s also a letter from the head of marketing at Axlon Inc, hyping their new memory module for the Atari 800, that can expand the system’s memory up to a stunning 256KB of RAM. No one could possibly need more than that!

Another writer brings up the TRS-80 and the Apple, and how Atari is the last hope for the industry since those systems are crap and won’t be anywhere in the future. Well, he’s half-right. Finally, we get a very impressive letter from an 8th grader with what is basically an article submission, explaining what the PEEK and POKE commands do. It’s not perfect, but this probably the first time this kid has done technical writing, so I’ll cut him some slack. Wonder what he’s doing now.

Atari News

Atari is working on an accounting suite for businesses. It has an Accounts Receivable system capable of handling up to 300 customers at a time, with a max of 1200 monthly customers. The General Accounting application can handle 2700 transactions a month for up to 750 accounts and finally, Inventory control will handle covering stocks of up to 1000 different items. All in all, this sounds like a decent application for a small business.

Atari’s also working on a word processing application, which I’ve used and I’d say it was okay when I was in grade school, but now I prefer WYSIWYG applications like OpenOffice or even premier.

New Products

First up is a brand spanking new modem for the Atari from from the Micro-peripheral corporation. The modem includes a printer interface, so it can print off everything you see on your screen for later reference, as well as a tape recorder so you can record the information you viewed for playback later. Or, to put it another way, the tape recorder lets you save files. Frankly, that’s kind of awesome. It’s horrifically dated now, and even if I had one of these, I wouldn’t be able to use it as the BBS services would no longer be up and running. Still, were this the 80s and were I a hacker or just a general geek who hung out on BBS services, I’d want this so freaking bad. That said, this would cost $249 in 1981 dollars (approximately $546 now).

Activision has home ports of Kaboom and Freeway for the 2600, both of which have been released for Game Room, and have been covered on GiantBomb.com’s Game Room features. Meanwhile, Automated Simulations has a few games for the Atari 8-bit systems under their Epyx brand. They have The Datestones of Ryn, Invasion: Orion, and Rescue at Rygel. None of these I’d heard of before. Manhatten Software (that’s not a typo – at least not my typo) has a casino blackjack game designed to teach you how to get thrown out of casinos by counting cards. For the record, fuck casinos who treat card counting like cheating.

Disk Files – Note and Paint

We have our first program listing of the issue, with a 100-item inventory management app. While the application isn’t very useful in modern systems, the listing might offer a little useful information on the theory of designing database systems.

You’re Wasting Arrays

A column from Charles Bachand about being a better programmer – particularly with regards to using system resources more wisely. Bachand boasts that the programming techniques he recommends will cut down on memory space used by 80%. First, they recommend using single byte numbers (255 or less) through a chunk of memory (about 256 bytes large) starting at the memory location 1536, or $600 if you’re using machine language. These sections would have to be accessed with PEEK and POKE.

Next, you can hack basic to handle the limitations for array storage. Basically, (no pun intended), in ATARI BASIC, Arrays – places you store variables are designed to only be able to be two-dimensional, and there are some limits to their size in two-dimensions. Thus, if you’re making a lot of variables, you might end up needing multiple arrays. Well, not anymore, as Charles has a hack for you that lets you create 3-dimensional arrays instead. Finally, if you need arrays that are bigger than the 256 byte space at 1536, they recommend using DIM to define the arrays… as strings.

Now, all this programming advice is very useful if you’re doing, say, Atari 8-bit home-brew programming. However, if you’re using anything else then this advice won’t nearly be as useful, as modern versions of C, for example, handle memory usage differently then ATARI basic would.

Rumors

This is sort of like the Quartermann column, but not presented in anything near as interesting a style. Of note in the rumors are:

  • a multi-player Star Raiders (fat chance)
  • a new OS (maybe)
  • a screen dump cartridge (maybe, though I don’t know how useful that would be)
  • a voice synthesizer and voice recognition system (I can see the first but not the second)
  • an EPROM burner (which sounds fun, lets you author your own cartridges – which could be useful for the modern home-brew community, as well as independent software publishers from the time who want to publish for something other than floppy or cassette – as both of those need external devices.)
  • a home port of Galaxian which would in theory step upon the ground covered by the home port of Space Invaders.
  • a dummy terminal version of the Atari 400.
  • the Atari Program Exchange – a service that will help 3rd party developers get their software published through Atari.

We get an ad for Letter Perfect from LJK Enterprises, a word processing program that boasts the ability to adjust your header and footer, and even delete whole lines of text, all for the low, low price of $149.95.

Balance Your Checkbook

For our next program listing, we’re continuing with the practical programs with one to help you balance your checkbook. This code is a little better documented than the last app. Still, there are already existing open source apps you can check out if you’re looking to write your own checkbook app, like HomeBank.

Player/Missile Graphics

Like the title says, this article covers Player/Missile graphics when you’re writing games. What are Player/Missile Graphics you ask? Well, with Atari systems, the “player” is whatever sprite on-screen that’s being controlled by the character. The missiles are autonomous sprites which move on their own accord, based on rules set by program. They don’t give the details for what this program listing does, but my suspicion is that it’s a Space Invaders clone.

Unleash the Power of Atari’s CPU

I suspect that if you were a programmer in the 80s, and Spam E-Mail existed, instead of herbal Viagra, you’d get messages telling you how you could unleash your CPU’s inner power. Anyway, this article does have some useful information, like how the system has a dedicated GPU, called ANTIC. To my knowledge this makes for the earliest computer system to have a GPU. Anyway, Basically, their way of boosting your processor speed is having your system stop using the GPU if it has to some heavy thinking, whether it’s math calculations or plotting out a chess move. That would explain some of the blinking in the 2600 version of Reversi that’s on Game Room (as commented on by Jeff and Ryan) in past Game Room Rundowns. For those who are wondering about that, Reversi is one of the games commonly used when designing AI systems. Chess is used as well, as is Go – though people working on more advanced game algorithms have yet to design one that will work for Go, due to the game’s complexity.

Cannon Duel

This is a listing for an artillery duel game, one which doesn’t have the player account for wind speed, which is disappointing, as that’s what separates the children from the adults, when it comes to artillery games.

Reviews

First up is Decision Maker. Basically, this application lets you enter all the information you have for a decision – where you must choose between one of 10 options, weight the information based on how important it is to you, and then tells you which one to pick. Frankly, this is one of those things that would probably be easier to do with a pad of paper.

Listen

For our Music Composer program, we get a listing for an application that will let you more easily and perfectly translate your compositions in Music Composer to a text hard copy that you can then re-enter, and have translated into music again. To show you how the program works, we also get an output/input listing for “Yellow Submarine” by The Beatles. When do we get AC/DC?

Atari VCS

The 2600 has gotten its first big 3rd-party publisher, and perhaps the first major 3rd party publisher in general – Activision. Activision is putting out their first five titles: Fishing Derby, Dragster, Checkers, Bridge, Boxing & Skiing.

A Clipping Routine

This little listing is another useful piece of code for writing games. The last one taught you how to draw Player & Missile characters. This one handles drawing off-screen without getting error messages. Now, I’m not going to enter the listing, so I’m not going to get the details about what it looks like, but I do wonder if this just has drawing off-screen, or if it will have the image wrap. Similarly, I wonder if this would allow for scrolling images – and thus scrolling levels, and thus, theoretically, I dunno, Mario for the Atari 8-bit? Commander Keen? Anyway, I’m putting the listing up as an image if you want to read it and maybe play with it.

The Game Room

This is meant to be a new ongoing column that will serve as a combination game design/game review column. It’s an interesting idea. I haven’t heard of any columns anywhere that connect directly connect game design theory discussion and game reviews in this fashion. Now, I just hope that they’ll try to keep the design concepts connected to the game reviews – illustrating a concept and then focusing on games that carry out that concept with varying degrees of success.

This issue they’re talking about building playfields, and in particularly randomly generating them. This is different from modern procedurally generated content. This is more of a less sophisticated Nethack – like randomly populating a Snake/Light Cycle level with some obstacles. They’re implementing this with a sort of ship battle game – we have two moving ships on-screen, a Player (the player’s ship – natch) and a Missile (the enemy ship), plus additional missiles for any shots fired by the ships. However, we want to populate the field with some islands, and to make things interesting and varied between plays, we want to randomly place them, but we don’t want them to be put on top of each other, and we don’t want to accidentally spawn a ship on top of the island. So, we get another useful subroutine for handling the generation of the playfield. This makes the third useful subroutine for designing games we’ve gotten this issue. Now, all we need next is one for collision detection, one for shooting, and one for the actual AI, and we’ll have all the pieces for a game. From that it would be just a patter of putting the pieces together.

Reviews (Cont)

Our next review is for another “edutainment” simulation game on par with last issue’s SCRAM. Specifically, we have Energy Czar. Your job is to regulate energy policy to meet certain environmental goals without pissing off the public so much that you get fired. This feels like the kind of game that the Atari 8-bit systems would have problem handling, but might work a little better now, in the hands of the right developer. Their reviewer like the game’s challenge, though he came in suspecting it would be terribly dull.

We also have a review of the Mosaic Memory Expansion Kit. Basically, this is a kit you can install into your system that lets you increase the amount of memory you can work with, thus making it easier to do software development. The device was actually made by a company that would have been not too far from me – Mosaic Electronics in Oregon City. Mind you, installing the memory isn’t as easy as it is with modern systems, as you have to solder the memory onto the board. Naturally, this process will void your warranty, though apparently since the system only shipped with a 90 day warranty, this might not be a problem.

As an aside, a 90 day warranty! Really? Most computers now ship with a one-year warranty! My God, and my customers when I did tech support complained when we wouldn’t do support longer than a year, saying that warranties were longer back in the day.

Next up is a review of War at Sea, a serial-numbers-filed-off port of Battleship. It’s apparently a one-player only version, though it has some interesting sound presentation, particularly with Morse code effects and some engine rumble, as well as a ticker-tape message for the winner. The reviewer things a two-player version could work, but I’m not so sure of it working for hot-seat play.

Download Terminal!

The exclamation mark was their idea.

Anyway, this listing is another useful, practical application – an app that lets you save the output from your modem to a floppy drive or, presumably, a cassette tape drive. Practical for the time, but not really useful now.

Reviews (cont.)

We have a review of a calculator application. Not something I’m particularly interested in. There’s also Mind Bogglers, a collection of simple puzzle games, like variants of Simon, Hunt the Wumpus (called Mystery Box), and an Othello clone.

There’s also a round-up of various first party Atari printers – an 80 column and 40 column dot matrix printer and a thermal printer. All the reviews are favorable, which is unsurprising, considering their fanboyism at this time. We do get a sample printout for each printer, which is a nice touch though.

Machine Language to Basic Conversion

This is another program listing of the practical sort. Apparently Atari’s own Assembler/Editor cartridge doesn’t translate Machine Language back to Basic very well, after you’ve done the original translation from Basic to Machine Language. This is something that’s kind of important, if you’re planning on selling a program to someone and you want them to be able to edit the code – something that was somewhat important at the time.

Assembler/Editor – A Non Tutorial

As it says, this isn’t a tutorial on how to use Atari’s Assembler/Editor. By which I mean it’s not a complete tutorial, instead covering some of the basic features of the Editor side of the app, like auto-numbering, exporting your program to a floppy disk, and so on.

Bugs and Bytes

I get the impression that Assembler/Editor just came out, as that’s the big running theme for this issue. They could have, in theory titled this issue “The Assembler/Editor Issue” on the cover. Anyway, the manual for Assembler/Editor said you could CLOAD code from tape (CLOAD, I presume, meaning “Code Load”). However, it doesn’t work that way – so instead they have a little subroutine they’d written to help you do that. We also have advice on what to do when you have two files with the same name (apparently this version of DOS doesn’t catch that automatically).

In The Spotlight

We get a look at some of the programs being developed by Adventure International. They published Star Trek 3.5 that was being reviewed last issue, as well as a bunch of upcoming text adventure games. Adventure International would later develop a text adventure game based on the Buckaroo Banzai film.

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