David P. Encill




David P. Encill







My involvement with Atari computers began way back in 1982 when I purchased a brand-new 400 from Currys in Birmingham for the massive sum of £365. In fact, I was looking at several computers the year before, trying to decide on which camp to jump into. I remember the BBC Model B was a very strong candidate with a powerful Basic language, but Commodore’s VIC 20 had poor graphics and I had also disregarded the Sinclair ZX81 as being too fragile and “toy-like”.

This actually coincided with two events in my life: I had changed jobs meaning my wage went up massively by 25% and I’d just stopped racing as a sidecar passenger (needing something to replace the thrills!). Racing was atrociously expensive even back in 1982 when a new slick tyre cost £110 and a gallon of Castrol ‘R’ £11.95, and this newly discovered wealth (or lack of expense, depending on which way you looked at it) meant a slack handful of cash was waiting to be spent.

Eventually there was just one thing that decided my choice of platform: Star Raiders! Wow, what a game: the moment I saw it I knew this was the computer for me (oh yeah, the computer had good graphics as well…) My very first attempts at Basic were on the 400 and I soon learnt to type very quickly with the membrane keyboard and spent many happy hours creating all manner of programs – however I soon learnt my skills were simply not up to scratch in a commercial sense and with the advent of the ST I gave up programming.

But from this early start I eventually upgraded some time after to a 600XL (replaced soon after with an 800XL) and then various peripherals started growing from the available ports: floppy drive, printers (Epson LX86 and Atari’s 4-colour plotter), joysticks and touch tablet. Throughout all this, the magazine I always looked out for was Page 6 – I seem to remember ‘Atari User’ was the only published glossy at this time, apart from US publications Antic and Analog; although the latter was not Atari specific anyway.

Eventually I summoned enough courage to send in my attempts at art using the Touch Tablet – the first time the artist had a direct link to the Atari computer using an intuitive means to draw. Although one disk was forwarded to Antic I never received any acknowledgement or response but I was hugely pleased when Page 6 editor, Les Ellingham, felt my digital daubs were good enough to appear in his magazine. So in issue 14, my very first attempt at digital art appeared, called ‘Highland’. Encouraged by this I forwarded two more images, one of which appeared in issue 20 of my nephew Steven. Hard to believe we were then limited to a resolution of 160x192 with just four colours!

Soon after this the rumours of a new 16-bit Atari computer emerged and it was only natural that my interest started to shift towards this all-powerful technological breakthrough. I must admit that during this time I did look at the Apple Macintosh that had been recently released at, I believe, about £1,200. But the specification of the new Atari ST proved far too alluring and eventually in November 1985 (?) I finally picked up my new 520ST (preceding the new-fangled ‘STm’ models with RF modulator!) with 128KB ROM and SF354 disk drive (just 360KB) and SM124 monochrome monitor. I believe these were the very first shipment into the UK. What isn’t widely reported was that the main portion of the OS was loaded from disk, due to these first models only having 128KB (later models had the OS on 512KB) ROM, but if you ever forgot to insert the disk you were presented with a reminder screen with an incredible diagonally scrolling rainbow effect, like the DLI (Display List Interrupt) of the previous 8-bit machines. I never actually saw this effect ever again after upgrading the ROM.

The new STs proved to be very powerful with the “high” resolutions of 640x400 monochrome and 16-colours at 320x240 and a massive 512KB of memory, but somehow the magic had gone. Everything now become more technological – even the games – and the sheer simplicity and beauty of the earlier 8-bit machines was lost. Remember stunning games like Lode Runner, Boulder Dash, Shamus and the fabulously humorous ‘Mule’? These never transferred properly to the higher-spec machines, if at all, except for Star Raiders as the new ST version did seem to capture some of the original’s playability, while still taking advantage of the higher specs. Strangely, many of those games that did get ported over seemed to run slower and more jerkily! Obviously the authors weren’t bothered about optimising the code properly to take advantage of the new processor and graphic chips…

But what really distinguished these early games from current “interactive entertainment experiences”, was they were “GAMES” and immensely playable. Somehow, I think modern trends towards games of aural and visual excellence has lost the point when overload and boredom can quickly set in. Strange to note that Lode Runner has now been resurrected by Sierra on PCs and Playstations, while Boulder Dash has spawned numerous versions…

After a very short time I upgraded the ST disk drive to the later SF314 model (the more standard 720KB formatted) and when the Philips CM8833 monitors finally appeared, took advantage of that as well.

From there, the ST was replaced with a Mega ST (and I still actually have both machines!) and around this time I co-owned a shop selling Atari games, programs and computers, which led to hardware development for the ST and Falcon.

I now concentrate much of my efforts in supporting three different charities, but still work as a freelance writer, artist, book publisher, Web designer and dabble in antiques where glass collecting has become a consuming passion.

David P.Encill, March 2005