Ed Hall, AC Staff Columnist
Back when I was a beardless undergraduate, one of my essay assignments was "The Novel in the Electric Age." Yes, electric. That was before "Pong" had made an appearance, and the purpose of the essay was to investigate whether or not movies and TV would replace books. In hindsight, the question seems rather naive; it recalls the gaudy covers of magazines like Popular Mechanics back in the 1950s. But the topic can easily be updated: all we have to do is use "electronic" instead of "electric," and suddenly the question is immediately relevant. This is because the personal computer has had a revolutionary impact on writing.
But only for writers, not readers. Paper is still superior to the computer screen for reading text. You can sit down anywhere to read a book or a newspaper. And, in most instances, the printed page is a whole lot easier on your eyes than a screenful of text. This will change, but it'll take awhile. The incredible shrinking computer is a necessary step in that direction. The evolution will only be complete when chip-driven text readers become as portable- and as easy on the eyes- as books. And as cheap.
Sound far-fetched? Maybe not. I can visualize dedicated reading machines the size of, say, a Portfolio, and book stores being replaced by disk stores, which hawk the latest Judith Krantz (ugh!) on a CD-ROM disk. If any of this comes to pass, you can expect to see a major revolution in the form of the novel itself. genuine interactive fiction.
A brave forerunner to this distant future was a disk magazine called The NewAladdin (see Analog #57). A general-interest magazine, it served STs and 8-bits alike. Since then, disk magazines have become popular with computer clubs. Not only are they a logical way to communicate with members, but they're also cheaper to produce than paperbased newsletters, and the programs they contain are ready-to-run.
Their quality has improved steadily over the years, and today there seems to be more Atari 8-bit disk magazines than ever before. They've also moved beyond the province of simple club-based newsletters. One in particular deserves mention: Mega Magazine from Holland. Its name is emblazoned in vibrant, colorful graphics at the top of the screen. The text is displayed in a window which takes up most of the rest of the screen, using a custom font that's legible, attractive, and easy on the eyes. Once a text file is loaded, you can scroll smoothly from start to finish using your joystick. Best of all, the menu remains in memory along with the text file, so there's no tedious disk access every time you're finished reading an article; a simple click of the joystick button calls up the menu instantly. Finally, all the text files are archived; the text-reader automatically "unpacks" them after they're loaded.
Now that I've (hopefully) whetted your interest in the subject of magazines on magnetic media, let's take a closer look at the crop of current offerings.
This monthly disk magazine began in 1991 and is rapidly approaching its second birthday. It's the product of a talented Scots programmer, Robert Stuart. It features reviews and PD software, with the occasional original program, and collections of computer art. As far as North Americans go, Excel's weakest point is the PD software it offers. Though fresh for the U.K., most programs have been well circulated over here.
Excel's strongest points are: a) Software reviews-Stuart is a good writer, and the reviews provide useful information about European software. b) Graphics-Stuart is a graphics nut. Every issue he designs a new title screen using a wonderful program called Graphics Art Dept. The screens are simple but well-done. Frequently Stuart includes collections of pictures from a variety of sources. Some have been ported over from other machines (the Amiga or the Commodore 64); others are his own compositions. In general the artwork is very good. c) Original programs-Occasionally Stuart includes original programs, sometimes written by himself, sometimes by others. Usually these are of a high standard.
If you'd like to sample Excel, you simply must try the premier issue. It's jam-packed with great stuff, including two brilliant programs by Stuart himself, "Amnesia" and "Colorfont". "Amnesia" is a "Concentration"-type game with intricate, pulsating mechanisms and great music. "Colorfont" is a superb multi-color character generator. Issue #1 also has a good demo, a nice collection of pictures, and two PD games. If "Colorfont" sounds interesting, then you should also investigate issue #12, which has two additional modules: a map editor and a screen editor.
Back issues 1-17 cost 3 pounds each, or 5 issues for 10 pounds, or all 17 for 30 pounds. More recent issues are 4 pounds each.
Another diskmag from Scotland! It began midway through 1992 and the first two issues were pretty good. The articles are the usual stuff: a course in BASIC, a visit to a computer show, and general info all reasonably well-written in a chatty, personal style. The software is mostly high-quality games. Few, if any, have been seen on this side of the Atlantic, and some are former commercial releases now in the public domain. There are also demos, including the delightful "How to Meet Cows" on the premier issue.
Futura costs 1.95 pounds if you order directly from its producer (though there may be an additional cost for overseas orders).
Another new production, but not quite as spectacular as Excel or Futura. Issues 1 and 2, dated March and April 1992, both boast original programs by the editor. Issue #2 (in enhanced density) features two menus: one comes up when the disk is booted with BASIC, the other comes up without BASIC. The second issue also features 38 new "BoulderDash" screens. Grim Reaper is in the public domain.
Zong is an interesting success story. It began life as a monthly disk, but after awhile was transformed into a full-fledged printed magazine. Knowledgeable readers won't be surprised to learn that Zong comes from the prolific KE-Soft. I don't know when Zong began, or when its status changed, but I have before me a flyer (in German) which shows the earliest available Zong (actually Zong+ disk) as Sept./89 for 8 Deutschmarks. It seems that in 1992 the price increased to 5 DM each for magazine and disk.
So, strictly speaking, Zong isn't a disk magazine anymore. It's all in German, of course, but the disk has programs which can be enjoyed by any user. I suspect some of KE-Soft's commercial releases were first introduced to the world in Zong.
This is probably a club-produced magazine from Munich, Germany. The monthly disks typically feature articles on one side and programs on the other. All the articles are in German, and the programs are generally excellent. A few issues I've seen are:
7/90-Includes a playable demo of an unusual commercial game called "Rubber Ball". 10/90-Includes three demos, one of which, "Studio Dream", is very good. The demo features sampled speech and music, along with a well-done variation of the Amiga bouncing ball. 12/91- Includes a handy menu program which loads and runs compiled TurboBASIC programs, a well-done game by Paul Lay called "Pogotron" (formerly a commercial release), and other goodies.
This one is edited by Frankenstein of the famous High-Tech Team, which means you can expect some pretty fancy programming. I've already mentioned the text reader, but there's more. Great music is a hallmark of European programming, and each issue of Mega Magazine features a different composition on the text side. This is great, but it may cause a problem for North American users: the music sometimes interferes with the menu operation. Fortunately there's a simple solution. When booting side 1, wait until the disk has started to load, then press START and keep it held down until the menu is displayed. This turns the music off so you can then read all of the articles without any problem. If you want to listen to the music, press START again. If you want to read more articles, you'll have to reboot.
In the first issue, the entire second side is taken up with new "BoulderDash" screens. The second issue contains several demos and utilities. One of the demos is a non-playable version of a Polish game called "Valdgira", which features top-notch graphics and one of the most haunting tunes I've ever heard on my computer.
Mega Magazine is not PD, and it's copy-protected. It costs 3 pounds per issue, or 10 pounds for the first four issues. This includes postage and handling.
I've only seen the first side of the introductory issue. There isn't a lot of text, but most of it is in English. There's also an interesting variety of pro grams: a text adventure, a simple stock market simulation, something called "Omega Basic", and a nice piece of music. The best program, however, is called "Yamaha SX-7", which suggests it's a software emulation of a Yamaha keyboard. It allows you to program a rhythm, which then plays automatically while you tootle away at the keyboard. The only drawback is that the program's menus are not in English, but with some patience you'll be able to figure out how everything works. Side 2 apparently includes a game called Baal (based on the 16-bit game of the same name), and several demos.
The introductory issue is free, but subsequent issues will have to be purchased. The cost is 7.50 Dutch guilders, plus an additional 6.00 guilders for orders from outside Holland. (Sounds like a lot, but of course the actual cost will depend on the current exchange rate.)
Little Poetry Disks?
This isn't meant to be an exhaustive survey of disk magazines; I'm sure there are others out there. But hey, here's always room for more. Why not try creating one yourself? If you're interested in writing, consider it an inexpensive method of selfpublishing. In fact, it has always seemed to me that diskmags are the computer world's counterpart of little poetry magazines. Both tend to be produced by dedicated enthusiasts, and both tend to be rather ephemeral.
Keep in mind that self-publishing has an honorable history in the world of letters. There are many important writers and poets who, unable to find a publisher for their work, paid out of their own pocket to have their writings printed. Computer owners can do the same at a fraction of the cost, if they choose disk instead of paper.
You needn't be a progamming wizard, either. There are many available programs that do a good job of displaying text files. The documentation readers on many of the disks from the old ANTIC Catalog are a good example. Another is "Codesmith's Newsletter Reader", a PD program which facilitates the construction of a diskmag. Among its features are the use of pictures and different fonts.
If producing your own newsletter, or diskmag, or little poetry disk, seems daunting, you could still consider making a submission to an existing one. Most of those noted above welcome programs and articles from users. Get into diskmags and you'll soon discover that the Atari 8-bit scene is still rich with possibilities...
[Editor's Note: Tim Duarte, editor of the 2600 Connection, recently announced a new disk-based gaming magazine called "Classic 8-Bit Atari" intended as an entertainment resource containing all 8-bit games but no reviews or columns. BP]