Skip navigation

The Atari ST

Landon Dyer discusses his early involvement in the creation of the Atari ST, the Tramiels' response to the Commodore Amiga:

The Tramiels had bought Atari with a plan to make a little money immediately by quickly selling off assets, and more intermediate-term money by making minor updates to the existing Atari product lines (the 400/800/1200 series of 8-bit computers), but the biggest effort was going to be a completely new line of cheap computers. There were some other products in various stages of development (the Atari 7800, whose major engineering work had actually been done outside Atari, at a small company named General Computer, a new sound chip code-named Amy, and some others) that the Tramiels kept lightly staffed.

The new computer was going to be based on a 16-bit or 32-bit processor. The Tramiels were initially pretty closed-mouthed about things; they had brought some folks from Commodore with them, and I got the impression that they didn’t trust us that much, and in addition there was a legal fight going on with Commodore over trade secrets. During the next month or two the design of the new system solidified. It was going to be based on a 32-bit processor, have a 16-bit bus (thus ST, for “Sixteen, Thirty-two”), have 256K of RAM and 128K of ROM. It was going to have a mouse and a graphical interface of some kind.

An absolutely fascinating read. I'm eager for part 2.

My own experiences with the Atari ST were quite a bit more pedestrian. In 1985-86, I was working at Toys R US in Dedham, Massachusetts. (Don't laugh, that's where I met my wife.) I was in charge of the computer section, which back then included 8-bit Atari and Commodore machines, 8-bit Atari video game machines (though the video game market had temporarily died at that point in the mid-1980's), various handheld video games, and other electronics. One of my more auspicious moves during this time was to actually connect the computers and devices to screens in the display cabinets so that customers could see how they actually worked. This went over so well with management that other stores in the area were instructed to do so as well. OK, whatever.

So one day, suddenly, a very small shipment of Atari 520ST machines, peripherals (monitors, mostly), and a handful of ST games arrived. There wasn't much to it, but I was instantly excited by the thing. It had kind of a cheap keyboard, in my opinion (with those weird slanted keys, and a look and feel that was later replicated by Atari's re-done 8-bit computers and, more horribly, the XE Game System, a misguided attempt to milk ever further profits from the dated Atari 8-bit micros). But it had a mouse, a graphical user interface (GEM), a 3.5-inch floppy drive, and, most important, a number of Sierra graphical adventure games, including a Kings Quest title or two. (I can no longer recall which ones.)

These games were a big deal for me, for some reason, though to be fair, having later purchased a number of them for future Apple II GS and Amiga systems, in retrospect, they were usually pretty horrible. But at the time, they were revelatory. This was the future, I was convinced. I devoured the ST documentation, such as it was.

As suddenly and unexpectedly as the STs had arrived, a few days later I was unceremoniously told that I had to pack them back up. I never found out exactly what happened, but I believe there was some kind of falling out between Atari and TRU, and TRU wasn't going to stock the ST. Within days, they were gone and they never returned.

Reading up on the ST at the time, it became clear that Atari's machine was a sad and cheap knockoff of the Amiga, with one exception, the ST's MIDI interface, which was apparently pretty impressive. But technically speaking, the ST just didn't hold up, and of course it never sold particularly well either. (You know you're in trouble when even the Amiga is outselling you.) Oddly, I ended up a II GS user for a few years before moving to the Amiga, though the II GS was even more underpowered than the ST. (Whereas the ST was a 32/16-bit machine, the II GS was 16/8-bit.) The reasons for that are also somewhat pedestrian: The local Commodore dealer didn't offer financing whereas the local Apple dealer did. After spending two years decking out the II GS and, essentially, trying to turn it into an Amiga, I sold it and bought an Amiga 500.

Anyway, one final note about Toys R Us. After the ST incident, I recall getting a phone call one day from a customer who had just been to New York City. He had seen a new video game system there that featured a light gun and "a robot that could play games against you." This sounded impressive, if implausible, but I had never heard of such a thing. It was made by Nintendo, he said. I knew the name from coin-op video games, but wasn't aware they made home equipment. Curious. A few days later, a truckload of Nintendo boxes arrived, containing three different versions of the NES, one of which contained a light gun, and one of which had a silly little plastic robot that could play a very small number of games with you. The games seemed unimpressive to me, and I described the system as a Colecovision ripoff, given the graphical quality of the system. It of course went on to completely jumpstart the US video game market and become one of the best-selling video game systems of all time. I've never been any good at the prognostication stuff, I guess.

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.