Part 1: Rediscovering The Atari ST
In 2018, after our mom passed away and we spent months cleaning out her house, we decided, as twin brothers who quite literally “grew up Atari”, that we would start a podcast about retro gaming for Atari platforms. That podcast became “Into The Vertical Blank: Generation Atari” which has now run for almost 5 years with just about 75 episodes”, and still going strong.
What started as a very casual and light-hearted nostalgia trip, took a sudden turn into deep conversation about the meaning of Atari in our lives, memoir, interviews, and soon after, a growing need to not only talk about the past, but relive it as well. We were not even thinking much about the ST when we started the podcast, at least Steve wasn’t, instead we concentrated on the Atari 8-bit, 7800 and 2600 as well as the coin-ops we loved like Asteroids and Star Wars. But little by little, as the episodes rolled out, The Atari ST came more and more into focus. As we talked about the ST, it became clear that while we had fun with the other Atari machines and platforms, it was the Atari ST that was, quite literally, the most important machine we ever owned.
Part 2: Our Short Atari ST History
In life, is there anything good that you buy from the trunk of a car?
We purchased a 520ST in January of 1987 from that trunk. The trunk of a car, owned by a guy named Art, the eventual proprietor of the Computer Games Plus store front in Orange, CA. We paid him in cash, and drove away with our future.
We’d been following Atari for years, playing arcade coin-ops, our trusty Atari VCS 2600, and the Atari 800 computer your dad bought us in 1983, 2nd hand from his friend who had grown out of it. By 1987 we knew Jack Tramiel from Commodore had taken over the Atari consumer division in July 1984. We also knew the Atari 800 on your desk is getting old. It was still fun, but there is so little software coming out for it that it was obvious its days were numbered. When we read in Antic and Analog Magazine that the new Atari 520 ST computers, the ones that were scarce in the USA since they were released in late 1985, would soon be widely available in the USA, we knew the time had come. We made the purchase for our 17th birthday, with money we collected for Christmas, our birthday, and from selling the trusty Atari 8-bit computer equipment.
The money we invested in the Atari was probably the best money we ever spent as twin brothers. The 520 ST was our game console and our writing and studying tool for school. We made animations with Cyberpaint for school projects, took notes on it for college, we wrote our first finished game on the Atari ST, and Steve even wrote his first published magazine article on it.
In that time, we never noticed that the ST was not the same computer as the Amiga. If we had known in 1987 that J. Miner, one of the principales who designed the Atari 8-bit, was also a significant figure in the Amiga, we might have been swayed in that direction instead of Atari.
But then, there was POWER WITHOUT THE PRICE.
The slogan from Atari Corp. that was worth its weight in gold,When we bought our 520 ST , monochrome monitor and disc drive for $599 in January 1987, the cheapest Amiga was more than twice the price.Jack Tramiel, whatever his faults, was the man who made 16-bit computers available to lower-middle-class kids like us who couldn’t afford them any other way. We will always be thankful that he made it possible.
The ST was certainly much better than the CGA and EGA PCs of the time, and it rocked over the Apple II ,COCo and C64. It wasn’t competing with the Amiga in our minds and experience, it was competing with everything else. We were having too much fun playing games and creating our own future to really care about the competition anyway.
And how about those games?
The Atari ST was our 16-bit gaming powerhouse. In an age when our friends in high school were playing Zelda on their NESs, we were playing Dungeon Master on the Atari ST, and there was simply no comparison between the two.
For at least 2 years in the 80’s, the Atari ST was the premiere gaming platform in Europe, and here in the USA we were the beneficiaries of that success. Because Atari’s audience had “become more selective”, we had to drive our crappy green Toyota Corolla on the 2-hour turn-around trip to Computer Games Plus (now open as a store-front instead of just the trunk of Art’s car) to buy ST games. It was a glorious trek every couple months, as we returned with a stack of new imported games from companies like Psygnosis, Ocean, Infogrames, Domark, The Bitmap Brothers, and U.S. Gold, plus a couple glossy British magazines named ST Action and ST Format. It was gaming nirvana, but something we shared mostly alone together as few other people had STs in the USA. It was like our own secret world of 16-bit amazement ½ decade before our friends played 16-bit games on the IBM 286, Sega Genesis, or Super Nintendo.
In the summer of 1988 we upgraded to the 1040STF, this time on credit from the local Federated Group store, then owned by Atari Corp. From then until 1992, the ST was everything – Game machine, word processor, study aid, Cobol development machine, video titler, animation machine, game development machine, and eventually an IBM AT Emulator.
In 1992, with pressures from school and work, we invested in an 386 DX-40, and entered the realm of the PC. It was bittersweet, because as we lavished ourselves in 265-color /VGA graphics and SoundBlaster Pro sounds, we said goodbye to our beloved Atari computers, the ones that got us through Jr. High, High School, and nearly through college. As the computer age raced through the 90’s and 2000’s, we never imagined there would be a time when we would return to our Atari machines.
The day we purchased the 1040 STf from Federated Group
-1040 STf with built-in double density floppy drive
–SM124: Monochrome monitor (from original ST)
-SC1224: Color monitor
-Atari 2600 Trac-ball
Part 3: Jeff’s Journey To ST Rediscovery
You’ll notice that two guys write this column, myself (Jeff) and my twin brother Steve. We have shared this ST journey together since 1987, but I was the one who first sent us on the path of rediscovery. For 25 years The Atari ST lay dormant. After getting our first 386DX-40 in 1992, it was PC DOS/Windows with no turning back. In 2017, Getting the ST setup to run old games was not for the faint of heart. The machine was dusty and old in a box full of game disks and manuals. Some of the keys had fallen off and the power cord was nowhere to be found.
I scavenged a power cord from an old PC Tower, which worked because from the 1988 1040STF on, Atari went to an internal power supply architecture which allowed for the use of standard 3 prong PC power cables, while also limiting the life of each machine due to internal capacitor problems. This machine’s internal power worked and I was able to get the flickery old ST SM1224 Color monitor to function too. I plugged in a standard Atari joystick, the ST standard 9 pin mouse, put Anco Kick Off 2 in the drive and fired her up!
The game disk ran and the joystick worked, and I had a lovely time playing the unlicensed names of old Division 1 English Footballers through the paces of a super fast action contest. It was a joy to relive one of my favorite all time computer games.
What followed next was an obsession…
I saw on Twitter that Randy from the Antic Atari 8bit Podcast had a Boxed 1040STFM for sale. The SFTM added TV Modulation to the machine so it could output, although poorly, to a standard color TV. When that arrived I hooked it all up and it worked perfectly. Even the SM1224 monitor looked better so possibly the flickering was a product of the old 1040STF’s video connection. I played a few more games on this machine – 1943 and Commando come to mind. Both are good ports with Commando being one of the better all time ports of that arcade machine.
I wanted to play Blitter chip, enhanced Stereo Audio and Hard Drive games though and that would mean another purchase. The blitter chip was in the Mega and STE models, and the STE also added enhanced sound and more. The 1040 STE with 4 MB ram became my dream. They seemed to only be available for about $500 + shipping from the UK.
This was a little too much for my blood at the time, but I found someone on Craigslist selling a Mega 2 and Mega 4 ST along with 2 hard drives and a bunch of IBM and Mac Atari software and jumped at the $400 price tag for all of it. The Mega 2 functioned properly, but needed a Mega external keyboard to work. I was able to find one for $100 on Ebay, hooked it all up with the Seagate 30MB hard drive that came with the Mega’ and proceeded to play the ST game Crash Time Plumber and a few other games that required the Mega 2 blitter but didn’t need the STE sound capabilities.
The SM1224 monitor was clunky and small, so I purchased a “DIN to VGA” cable from Atari Sales and hooked up the machine to VGA through an expensive VGA15hz (what the STs output for color) to VGA 72hz converter box. This worked great and I could use my HD TV or a Standard VGA monitor with the Mega 2..
But I still wanted a 1040STE. About 6 months later I plunged, purchasing a 4MB upgraded 1040STE from the UK. Because of the internal power supply, I also need a 120v to 240v step up converter box. To get the best video, I needed an RGB DIN to SCART cable and then a SCART to HDMI converter box. I replaced the Seagate 30MB with an Ultra Satan SD card solution as a hard drive replacement and also swapped the floppy drive with a Gotex USB floppy replacement. After a few hours of formatting disks and creating floppy disk images, I came out on the other side with a 4 MB Atari STE full color display on any monitor and the ability to use any software or play any game that was ever released for the platform. If a game was / is not STE compatible (some don’t work) and there is no fix available, I could always use the 1040 STFM I purchased from Randy (Antic Podcast). This was just about the time we got serious about our podcast, and soon after, I got Steve hooked back on the Atari ST as well.
Modern ST Nirvana Achieved.
As it turned out, we might have left the Atari ST for a while, but the Atari ST never left us.
Jeff’s Current “Ultimate STe Setup”
- Atari “4160STE” 4MB STE with new Badge
- ArcadeR Micro Switch New Retro Joystick
- Step up 120 to 240 power converter (This is a UK machine being used in the uSA)
- Ultra Satan Hard Drive Replacement (hidden behind machine)
- Atari Sales ST DIN to VGA Cable
- Dell Multisync Monitor Capable of 15hz (STE Low), 60hz (VGA) and 72hz (ST High)
- Mini-Sound Bar to play STE Stereo
- ST 9 Pin to Ps2 Mouse connector
- Playing STE Only game Alien Blast