The Atari 2600, Stella 3.9.3 & What was wrong with us in the 80’s?

The 80's.  Great times, great haircuts. And great computing? Read on!
The 80’s. Great times, great haircuts. And great computing? Who didn’t want a Hoff haircut? Read on!

I was born in the mid 70’s and consider myself lucky to have enjoyed the 80’s with the introduction to our home of the Atari 2600.  Like many people reading this article, those will be fond memories of hours spent in-front of a TV playing Space Invader type clones.  It’s funny, just like when you watch old television footage peoples hairstyles and clothes give away the age, so do computer game titles.  Anyone fancy a game of “Room of Doom”? Now, what do you think? Is that a PS3 release or an Atari 2600 one?

For those people who want to relive those memories, help is at hand with Stella – not the drinking sort that keeps me awake all night I hasten to add, but the software which gives you Atari 2600 emulation on your Linux, Apple or Windows PC.

This article is split into two parts, the first being a look at the latest release of Stella (3.9.3) and then I’m going to look a little into what games we were playing in the 80’s and asking the question, what was wrong with us in the 80’s? How were we able to spend so much time with these “games”.  First though lets look at Stella (and if you are not so much into technology talk, skip to the second section)

The Stella package is tiny (around 3mb to install) with a simple but functional UI which allows you to select which directories you wish to load your Atari roms from.  This comes as something of a relief for me as a Linux user, as all too often, upon installing an emulator project, you find there’s no generic UI and have to go to the bother of choosing and configuring a 3rd party one, or worse, mess around in the CLI trying to find the directory in which the roms are supposed to be placed then running the emulator with a plethora of options & flags or if you are very lucky, having a .cfg file to modify.

Using the CLI is not for the expert user, its simple, its just a major pain for the majority of people who see one click fixes for things on other operating systems and have no need for the “power” of the CLI.  I say that not as someone who doesn’t use the CLI, but as someone who has introduced many new users and non-tech interested folk to Linux over the years, who upon seeing a requirement to delve in the CLI go running for the hills.

So rant aside, in very little time you have Stella set up.  It seems to default on standard settings to get you up and running and to be fair you are not going to need to be playing around with them much.  You can of course use your joypad, you can configure all manner of graphical options (and run the emulator full screen) and you can also tweak the system so that it performs at its best.  At this point I’ll say, if you need to tweak the options to get a decent framerate out of this emulator then its time you got rid of your machine, even the oldest of PC’s should have no problems emulating an Atari 2600 and if you find you need to frame-skip to get the emulation running at 100% then take your machine to the natural history museum, where it can sit in with pride next to a skeleton of a Velociraptor.

The recent release has fixed some bugs, from the site:

  • Added bankswitch schemes BF, BFSC, DF, DFSC and 4KSC, thanks to RevEng and CPUWIZ of AtariAge.
  • Updated ROM properties for several ROMs, thanks to Omegamatrix of AtariAge.
  • Fixed program crash when specifying a bankswitch type that Stella didn’t recognize; an error message is now displayed.

And if you are scratching your head after that, just nod and pretend you understand.  Suffice to say fixed bugs = good and take it on good faith that these enhance your experience, even if you’ve not the first clue what they are.

Stella is a very accurate emulator of the old Atari system, easy to use and there’s no reason why you should need any other emulator when Stella accommodates most requirements.  Its a mature package too and even when I reviewed Puppy Arcade (which was a few years ago) Atari emulation was pretty much complete.  It is unlikely you will have any problems with its game library.

What was wrong with us in the 80’s?

Running Stella for more than 10 minutes, may like me have you asking the same question.  In those days computers/consoles and gaming in the home was a new thing and that was great, but how on earth were we able to sit through hour long sessions playing these games when, to be fair they are crap.

It's the Room of Doom running on Stella in Peppermint 4 - What other gaming treats await you within the Atari 2600 library?
It’s the Room of Doom running on Stella in Peppermint 4 – What other gaming treats await you within the Atari 2600 library?

Before you say “don’t use the crap word” or “thats computer history”, I use that word intentionally for effect.  Lets look at this for a moment, regardless of this computing experience in the home being new at the time, the games hardly offered any substance.  Were our brains less developed in those days and even though we were blissfully unaware of what 30 years later would be computing in the home, did our simple minds find frogger et al enough to keep us occupied?

My trip down memory lane playing some of these games lasted all of about 2 minutes.  Dodgy graphics, even dodgier AI and code so predictable (in the case of the bowling game) you could get a strike on every go just by knowing where to place your man.  Why didn’t we see this at the time? Why, at the very least didn’t we say “this is all very predictable and shallow” even though we had never conceived of the idea of GTA or COD?

Apparently there are Atari 2600 enthusiasts, which is something else I cannot fathom.  I can understand collectors, thats different and I know many people who collect retro computers, but are there really people out there deriving fun from ET or the 2600 version of Commando where our “tough” hero loses a life if he touches a building? I don’t remember Arnie having such issues in the film.  Are there people playing “Room of Doom” clapping their hands with excitement as they “progress” further in the game? – I hope not, I really hope not.

For quirky value Stella is excellent, but can I suggest if you start spending hours playing these titles, you calmly get up from your PC and do something else, because if you are having “fun”, there’s something very wrong.  If I have spare time (and thats a rarity) I would not be spending it reliving my Atari days and if I was going to spend it playing games, I’d go to my Playstation.

I do have one observation.  Whilst our 80’s selves may have been happy with mind-numbing shallow games, we were a more patient person.  Try getting far in any of the Atari games – and if you can prevent your brain from melting as its drawn into a quatum singularity of shallowness. they are damn hard.  We now demand more indepth and complex gaming, but it seems the difficulty level has been dropped over the years. All the way through to 16bit computing, I cannot remember completing a game.  Fast forward to today and completing a game is almost a given when you buy that new title.

There’s a little irony in an open source emulator such as Stella, since it is the antithesis of open source in a way – it’s designed to run proprietary software.  Whilst there may be a few hobbyist coders who will be playing about with the system, it doesn’t change the fact that the majority of people will be using this to play proprietary, the big “evil” of the open source world.

I hope you have enjoyed my trip down memory lane courtesy of Stella 3.9.3 and hope you will take it as a slightly tongue in cheek poke at retro computing on the Atari 2600.

The worrying thing is, will we look back in another 30 years and scoff the gaming of today in the same way?

I hope so, I’m still waiting for Holodeck technology to be developed – but that’s another story.


3 thoughts on “The Atari 2600, Stella 3.9.3 & What was wrong with us in the 80’s?

Add yours

  1. Oh, c’mon Tim, don’t be so hard on old Atari 2600 VCS. Sure, there were awful games (as NES also had them), but there were wonderful titles (of course, many of them look dated, by today’s standards, but, were fun, anyway).
    Titles like: Krull, H.E.R.O. , PitFall, Enduro, River Raid, and, one that I spent a night playing: Frostbite…
    And, the not so good (which did not achieve CULT status): Demon Attack, Megamania, Star Wars – Empire Strikes Back, and its sequel, Return of Jedi, were reasonable good, if not great.
    But then, with 4Kb games, not much one could expect for. My advice: enjoy them for what they are, not for what they should (could) be…

    Best regards,

    1. Hi!….Too hard? Yeah maybe.

      The point I make is that regardless of the fact we knew no better in those days, the hardware was limited etc, it still made no sense how those games were fun and how we could have spent so long playing them. A pig is still a pig even if it has lipstick on and its more to do with how shallow the games were rather than the lack of graphical/cpu prowess the machine had,.


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