When the 520 Atari ST was released in the summer of 1985, it wowed computer journalists with its high-resolution Mac-alike monochrome display, and its 16-color (from a palette of 512) 320 x 200 graphics mode aimed squarely at the games market while
“The 520 ST has color. The screen resolution dips to 320×200 when you switch to 16-color mode, but it’s astounding when you realize you are staring at a ‘color Macintosh’ for 1/2 the price of Apple’s black and white only screen”
-Dan Gutman “Should You Buy A Jackintosh”, Red Deer Advocate, Oct. 30, 1985
Dubbed “The Jackintosh” (a clever but crude portmanteau of ‘Jack Tramiel’ and ‘Macintosh’), very few, if any games were available when it was first released. Atari instead focused on home and business applications. However, by 1986, game developers caught on and harnessed machines’ raw 16-bit power to create dozens of games. By 1987 the number grew into the 100’s.
Here are five of our favorite games that were released in 1986.
Joust on the ST is quite possibly the most accurate port of the Arcade game released before emulation. It captures everything about the arcade machine almost perfectly and shows how well the ST could be used for single-screen action games in the right hands. Joust did not get many reviews when it was released early in the ST lifespan in the USA, but when the UK got a hold of it, it was praised for its two-player mode and detailed graphics with The Games Machine UK (September 1988) saying:
“Although Joust is a very dated game, the finely detailed character graphics in this conversion are impressive. Playing alone could become a little repetitive, but the two-player mode is very good indeed and the arcade playability remains intact.”
The game was developed by Ruby Circle whose only other ST credit is a version of Klondike solitaire released by Antic Magazine.
Jeff’s Take: Steve and I got this on the first “pirate” disk we ever had for the ST in January 1987. We’d later buy another real copy at Federated Group with our 1040 STF in the summer of 1988. It was THAT good of a conversion.
Steve’s Take: Oh, my lord, I loved this game! It’s almost a near-perfect conversion. Yes, we did get it “free” at first, but I also loved owning the 3.5-inch floppy with Atari’s official logo and the game packed on. It made me feel like Atari was still a relevant game company. The game sounds are crisp, but the title-screen music is pretty awful.
Plutos showed ST owners what they could expect with top-down vertical scrolling games on their machines. Its unique blend of smooth scrolling graphics and a multitude of fun and weird things to blast (i.e. eyeballs) made it the go-to joystick breaker at many ST computer desks in the USA before discovering European imported games. Unlike Joust, Plutos received reviews in most of the Atari-specific magazines in the USA and UK, as well as a few multiformat reviews when it was released mass market in the UK.
What CVG (June 1987) called “Thoughtful game design” in early 1987 became “the game offers nothing staggeringly new” when ST Action (May 1988) got their hands on the budget release a year later. American magazines were kinder. The STart (Issue 8 ) review read “The scrolling is very smooth and the graphics sharp” while Compute’s Atari ST remarked “One of Plutos’ nicest points is its two-player option”
Jeff’s Take: The US reviews had us running to the thread-bare shelves of the local B Dalton Software to get this ST action contest. It’s a fun blaster with some just OK ST chip sounds for shooting and explosions. It’s very “American” in every way, including no power-ups and its high difficulty.
Steve’s Take: What a great little shooter! The 16-color graphics were such a joy to look at when we first got our 520 ST. The text was crisp, and the little alien ships were enjoyable to shoot at. It reminded me a lot of The Dreadnaught Factor as you flew over giant spaceships blasting them apart. The only downside was the sound, which was relegated to little pops and snaps; a let-down after having such rich sounds on Atari 800 games.
Rogue is a colorful and fun version of the classic “Nethack” style procedural dungeon games from the early mainframes. The ST version’s 16-color detailed sprites made this one an early hit at our house. With 26 different monsters and over 100 objects, spells, and weapons to collect and use, this game is long-lasting fun. Joyce Worley, in ST-Log (issue 12) ended her glowing review this way,
“Rogue is a slam-bang adventure in the trash-the-trolls-and-take-the-treasure tradition, enhanced by excellent graphics and optimum playability.”
Jeff’s Take: The 16-bit computer’s ability to easily do what we wished our 8-bit machines could – look like the next generation of role-playing games, made this a constant on the TV hooked up to the ST in the early years. Early ST games like that made nice use of the GEM interface that would be dropped in later by most game developers. Note that this switch no not using the GEM APIs made the blitter chip added to the STE useless unless games specifically targeted it.
Steve’s Take: One of two games on this list that used the TOS/GEM OS to create a fantasy game. I liked that the entire game was mouse controlled, which set it apart from the 8-bit games I was used to playing. It was a fancy introduction to all the “Rogue” fuss I’d heard about in magazines and user group meetings. However, this is the 3rd game in a row on this list with sound issues. The issue here is that there is almost none. Early ST developers harnessed the graphics much easier than the output from the generic Yamaha YM2149F sound chip.
Time Bandit (Microdeal)
Time Bandit was the game we hoped all future ST games would be – a technically brilliant, action-packed adventure/arcade game. It can be called a Gauntlet clone, but that would leave it sounding less engaging than it is, with puzzles to solve very unique worlds to crawl through and awesome blasting in Gauntlet-style mazes. The game features 16 different level types filled with a vast array of beautifully designed baddies.
As early as Compute’s Atari ST Volume 1, Andy Eddy said “If Major Motion (an ST clone of Spyhunter by the same developer -ed) makes you lose track of time, Time Bandit might make you lose your sanity. The attention to detail in this game is phenomenal – over 350K of program code attests to that – and the artwork resembles fine drawings…”
Jeff’s Take: Blew away everything we’d played 8-bit before it. The speed, graphics, scrolling, explosions, cheeky Pac-Man level, and everything else in this masterpiece made owning an ST essential for us in 1986.
Steve’s Take: What a scorcher! Programmed by Bill Dunleavy and Henry Lanfear who ported it from their one TRS- 80 game. The sounds are better than Plutos, but there is no music.
Phantasie (or as we call it now, Phantasie I) is one of the first hard-core, party-based CRPG games from SSI for the Atari ST. It is also one of the finest. Designed by Winston Douglas Wood and part of a trilogy (on the ST), this first installment was developed by Logical Design Works. Some individual components of the game (i.e. town, maps, loot, overhead map, dungeons) were done better in other games, but the sum of all the parts plus the fantastic strategic ranked battle system set this game apart from many followers.
Bob Chappell in ST User (Vol 1, Issue 6) put it very nicely, “…there’s a richness of detail in Phantasie, and the beauty of the game is that it’s simple to get into and play. It’s the most accessible D&D game around. Very enjoyable and escapist fun and one that should keep you coming back time and again”.
Jeff’s Take: Quite possibly my favorite all-time computer role-playing game. It was the first time I lost actual time after getting this in the summer of 1987. Leading a 6 player party and grinding out enough experience and weapons to not die from a single battle, time seemed to stop and fly by at the same time while playing this rich, fun, CRPG with nice-looking sprites, sounds, and incredibly simple but effective combat system. I will never forget the first time my party was good enough to try and fight the “Black Knights” that patrolled Pelennor. This was the best time in ST gaming – when it blew away the games released on the NES, and the IBM PC at the same time. NOTHING compared to Phantasie on the ST when it was released – at least to us.
Steve’s Take: One of my favorite games ever. The TOS/GEM interface is well executed, and the sound is superb. The series was popular in Japan and the 4th installment was only released on MSX, X68000, and PC-88 in that country. The random encounters ranked strategic battles, and level-grinding is reminiscent of JRPGs like Dragon Quest, Phantasy Star, and Final Fantasy. I have no solid proof, but it seems like this game might have been an influence.
Note – Some of the reviews mentioned are not available easily online or at all. We have culled many of the review comments from our archives of Atari magazines.
Below are good resources to search for more information about these games
Atari ST Joust: scans, dump, download, screenshots, ads, videos, catalog, instructions, ROMs (atarimania.com)