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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 24th year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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22 January 2013

Pong. It can mean two things...

It can refer to an awful smell but it was also the name of one of the earliest computer games using a CRT display and interacting with players in real-time.

The very first computer game I ever played was a variant of Pong. I recall at the time that the simple games console (with eight variations of the game) cost about $150, way back in the mid 1970s.

The slim plastic box had two knobs (no namby-pamby joysticks back then) and when you turned a knob, the corresponding bat (just a white line) moved up and down along the side of the screen in concert. The ball was just a square block that bounced around the screen.

By today's standards, it was pretty lame -- every bit as addictive some 40 years ago as WOW or any contemporary computer games are today.

The inventor of Pong was Atari, a US company whose innovations in the computer and gaming field have left an indelible impression on generations of young people.

I still fondly recall my Atari 400, a small plastic computer with a hideous membrane-based keyboard, ROM-pack and limited RAM. However, as a platform for games it was brilliant.

Not only did the Atari have full-colour graphics (not very common back then) and a reasonable version of BASIC but it also had hardware sprites.

For someone who'd been programming systems with far more basic display systems where creating smooth animation was a significant task, the 400 was a breath of fresh air.

Complex timing and double-buffering routines could be thrown out the window. You simply created a bitmap for the character you wanted to animate and then "poked" the position values into an index area stored in RAM. This power and sophistication meant that quite playable games could be written in BASIC, rather than the complex assembly code required for other systems such as the Apple.

I shudder to think of how many hours I spent playing Asteroids, Missile Command and Pacman on this thing.

Even years later, after the Atari 400 and its bigger brother the Atari 800 had been relegated to the history books, Atari was still around. Their ST series of computers was a bold (and ultimately unsuccessful) attempt to take on the likes of the wildly popular Commodore Amiga.

Back in mid 1980s, while the "standard" for computers was the wimpy 8088-powered IBM PC, the Atari ST was sporting a grunty Motorola 68000 and an advanced bitmapped video display which could run the GEM GUI from Digital Research.

I remember playing with the Atari ST and marveling at how much "nicer" it was than the IBM PC. Unfortunately, the ST suffered from its lack of PC-compatibility, a weakness that was to ultimately spell its demise.

And now (yes, finally -- the guts of today's column), it seems that Atari themselves are going the way of the 400 and the ST as they have just filed for bankruptcy protection.

Hopefully the company will survive this threat to its future. Given how much they contributed to the early evolution of personal computers and realtime computer games, they deserve to.

How many readers have had encounters with Atari systems over the years and what were your impressions?

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