My Atari Confession

I Like the Atari 8 bit Characters Better!

Growing up in the eighties, I had my Vic-20 and eventually my Commodore 64.  My friend, Rob, had his Atari 400, and later, his Atari 800XL. We both loved our 8 bit computers and would frequently be hanging out at each other’s home, writing some kind of game or typing in pages of seemingly random numbers and letters from our respective computer magazines, Compute’s Gazette for me, Atari Antic for him, that made some cool machine language game or utility.

We had great fun with both computers, but of course, there was that little bit of rivalry.  I would give him guff on the membrane keyboard of the Atari 400 and he would give me guff on the lack of graphic commands on the C64.  One thing I always liked on his Atari, but never mentioned, was its character set. Not the entire set, just the upper case letters and numbers.  They had a cleaner, more readable look, in my opinion.  The lower case letters turned out to be identical.

We both eventually moved on to newer computers and other pursuits and I never really thought about the characters on the Atari again, until recently.

The other day, I started a project after looking through the book, Art of Atari by Tim Lapetino. Towards the back of the book was a project that never saw the light of day, called Tank II.  This was the game that created the original Atari joystick design and explains the boxy shape of the controller as they were designed to nest into the Tank II console which had a battleship grey, military look.

That got me thinking about Tank, which was part of the Combat cartridge that was included with my original Atari 2600 game console when I was a kid.  I loved that game. The problem was, nobody wanted to play against me, and there was no A.I. in the game to make it single player.  As a young kid, I would entertain myself driving around and shooting the idle other tank, or biplane, or jet, to see how high of a score I could get in the limited game time.

Now, I would like to recreate Tank and learn how to make an A.I. tank to play against. When I created Lunar Lander, I tried to make it representative if the original look and feel of the game.  I’d like to do the same thing with Tank and give the original game that same look the best I can. Also like Lunar Lander, I want to do some research on Tank and add a little blurb in the game that talks about the history of it.  To do that, I felt it would be really cool to use the authentic 8 bit Atari character set when displaying the text.

Once I started building the characters, I remembered how I liked the cleaner look of the Atari letters.  There was more breathing room between lines and made the screen easier to read.  The reason for this is, Atari decided to go with a 6×6 pixel standard for their upper case characters on their 8×8 character matrix. Commodore went with 6×7 pixel letters. The extra pixel allowed Commodore to create letters with more symmetry vertically, but only left 1 pixel of space between lines.  Atari letters leave room for 2 pixels of “white” space between lines.  It’s only one more pixel, but it makes for a much more readable screen.  Check out the two pictures of the same listing.  One with Commodore letters, the other with Atari letters.  For me, the Atari letters and numbers simply look less crowded and easier to read.

Commodore Letters

Commodore Letters

Atari Letters

Atari Letters

I didn’t take everything from the Atari character set though.  I kept the parentheses and brackets from the C64.  I tried the Atari characters, but the 6 pixel high characters got lost in the lines of text.  The seven pixel tall characters stand out much better and easier to see.  I kept all the graphic characters from the C64. I think they are the most complete and useful set used for building character based pictures.  So now, I’m left with this hibrid of characters from both machines and to be honest, I would love to have this set for my daily use.  I can continue to load the characters in when I start the computer every time, but I was thinking something a little more permanent, and doesn’t eat up 4K of ram to do it.

I’ve been looking into swapping out my character rom chip with an eprom that I can install bother the default C64 set and this hibrid Atari/C64 set that I like.  I would add a switch on the back of the computer to select one or the other, much like I would have if I had a Jiffy dos chip installed.  I’m currently investigating what it would take. I already have the eprom programmer and software.  I would need to either build or buy an interfacing socket to allow me to use a modern eprom in the older socket.  The eprom would need to have extra address pins so I can select one set or the other.

Most of the things mentioned are still fairly easy to find, if not locally, than internationally.  The more I look at the Atari letters on my C64, the more I want to do it!  Check it out for yourself.  Once you run the program, POKE 53272,21 will get you back to Commodore characters, POKE 53272,29 will get you Atari characters.





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