by Dan Gutman
Despite the fact that the Atari 2600 VCS video game system resides in at least ten million American homes, it is truly a pathetic machine. Boasting just 128 bytes of RAM memory, it is one-third as powerful as Intellivision, a seventh as powerful as ColecoVision, and one 37th as powerful as the ATARI 800 computer. The graphics are chunky and the game play severely limited. With so many more advanced systems on the market, Atari is now practically giving the VCS away at $90, one-half its original price.
However, the players who have invested over $200 in game cartridges (that's just eight games) aren't so quick to store the VCS in the basement yet. Video game designers, with an eye on those millions of units out there, have been forced to use their ingenuity to squeeze every last ounce of memory and graphic capability out of the Atari VCS.
The most important result of this effort has been the Supercharger, a product from Starpath (formerly Arcadia) of Santa Clara, California. It was quite natural for a memory enhancer like the Supercharger to sprout from the Atari--its inventors were Bob Brown, ex-Atari Director of Research, and Craig Nelson, ex-Atari development engineer.
This is the logic they were working with: Video games are usually on ROM cartridges. So every time you want to play a different game you have to plug in a new cartridge. The only difference between each of these cartridges is the program--the plastic case, the circuit board and ROM chips are the same. These redundancies add to the cost of the cartridge, which can only hold small amounts of data anyway. How do you bring down the price of individual games and fit more memory on them?
The ROM memory of a cartridge cannot be changed. The RAM memory of the Supercharger can. The Supercharger acts as a memory buffer, accepting data from inexpensive magnetic tape. So we can have games that cost $15, compared to about $30 for cartridges. And since the Supercharger has 6,272 bytes of RAM, compared to just 128 on the VCS, vivid high-resolution graphics and lengthened playing time are possible. Both problems are solved.
The Supercharger looks like an elongated cartridge and it plugs into the cartridge slot on the VCS. A cable runs from the Supercharger to any standard audio cassette player. You simply pop a Starpath game into your cassette, hit the play button and 30 seconds later your game has "moved into" the Supercharger, which shoots it through the Atari wiring onto your television screen. The Supercharger sells for $44.95, including Phaser Patrol, a Star Raiders-like space game.
Amazingly, the software manufacturers that rushed to make games for the VCS two years ago have not issued a single game for the Supercharger yet--they are waiting for it to enter a significant number of homes. Video game designers may be chomping at the bit to work with those 6,000 bytes, but they must wait until it's economically feasible.
Starpath, in addition to Phaser Patrol, has six other games for the Supercharger. Though none of them have been blockbusters, most of the Starpath games are quite good. Most observers in the games field feel that, as with the VCS, it will take a few years for designers to use the Supercharger to its fullest potential. Right now we have . . .
Communist Mutants From Space--Starpath's biggest hit, at least partially because of that great title. Programmed by 19-year-old Steve Landrum, this Galaxian-like contest features shields, slow motion, penetrating missiles and guided missiles.
Fireball--Similar to Breakout, but you can juggle up to six balls at once.
Suicide Mission--Asteroids, under the guise of fighting "deadly killer viruses."
Killer Satellites--Horizontally-scrolling shoot 'em up. Monitor your temperature and fuel gauges, watch your radar and by all means avoid those meteor showers.
Dragonstomper and Escape From the Mindmaster--The first "Multi Load" games. Since Starpath games are on tape, they can be loaded sequentially--two or more related games on one cassette, similar to chapters in a book. Multi Load is to video games what the LP record was to 45's. Mindmaster and Dragonstomper (also by Landrum) are complex role-playing adventure games that contain more data than 16K computer games.
Starpath will issue three more games this summer: a sports game, a party game and "one that has rabbits in it," according to a company spokesperson. Games for the ATARI 400 /800/1200 and other home computers are in the cards also. Some of these will be translations of games for the Supercharger.
Starpath isn't the only company in the VCS-enhancement business. In June, Amiga unveils its The Power Module, which will cost $45 (along with 3-D Ghost Attack and Depth Charge). Amiga's device, like the Supercharger, has six Kbytes of RAM (most cartridges have two or four of ROM). Amiga's games are also on tape and will sell for just $10. The first batch will be S. A. C. Alert, Strafe, 3-D Havoc and Scavenger Hunt. According to Amiga, in addition to 3-D games (red-green glasses come with the unit), players will be able to interface two Power Modules with a modem and play the same game thousands of miles away from each other.
There is some evidence that players may be starting to give up their "first generation" Atari VCS's to buy the "third generation" ColecoVision, or Atari 5200. Of course, if the Atari VCS dies, so do the Supercharger and The Power Module. Starpath and Amiga could very well introduce products that will juice up the third generation game systems, but they'd better hurry--Coleco itself is about to release their "Super Game" unit, a $125 ColecoVision attachment that will accept game "wafers" containing one million bits of information!