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Year Released: 1985
Original Price: £749 (with monochrome monitor)
Buy It Now For: £20+
Associated magazines: ST Format, ST Action, Atari ST User, ST World
Why The Vectrex Was Great: Atari would still be remembered solely as the company that flushed the entire videogame industry down the toilet in the early-Eighties were it not for the saviour that was the ST. It may have lost the war to the Commodore Amiga, but this legendary machine was the first true 16-bit home computer and played host to such seminal games as Dungeon Master and Starglider. It was also brilliant for bedroom tunesmiths thanks to its built-in MIDI support.
Following the videogame crash of the early Eighties, Atari was in horrifying shape. The company’s failure to successfully build on the triumph of its popular 2600 console (a machine languishing in obsolescence by this point), coupled with a generally poor quality of software available had triggered a catastrophic meltdown that very nearly destroyed the entire videogame industry. After the dust had settled, Atari’s parent corporation Time Warner had incurred a cataclysmic $500 million loss and was predictably keen to offload its flagging games division. What occurred next has gone down in videogame folklore as one of the most startling turnarounds in the history of the medium.
Ironically, the man behind the product that would resurrect the ailing Atari brand had previously been instrumental in sullying the fortunes of the company. Shiraz Shivji worked at rival Commodore during the early-Eighties and helped build the C64 – the home computer that stole away vital market share from Atari’s 400 and 800 range, as well as its 2600 console. “I became interested in electronics from my early childhood in Tanzania and my education in the UK,” says Shiraz, when asked about how he became entangled in the fabric of Atari’s history. “I attended the University of Southampton and obtained a First-Class Honours degree and then moved to Stanford University in the US to pursue a PhD in electronics. I was granted a master’s and passed the qualifying exam but left before obtaining my degree as I was running out of funds. I started working in Silicon Valley and obtained experience in hardware and software.” By 1984 Shiraz had risen to the role of director of engineering at Commodore and it was at this point that fate intervened.
Although Commodore was undoubtedly causing Atari some serious headaches, things weren’t exactly harmonious in the boardroom. “Jack Tramiel was president and CEO of Commodore and Irving Gould was the chairman,” explains Shiraz. “Irving was the largest shareholder and Jack was the second largest. In January 1984 there was a showdown between the two of them over the role of Jack’s sons at Commodore.” Polish-born Tramiel had founded the company in the Fifties after enduring a particularly difficult early life (he was interned in Auschwitz concentration camp for five years during World War II), so his insistence on ‘keeping it in the family’ is understandable. However, Irving refused to budge and this forced Tramiel’s hand. He called a board meeting and tendered his resignation. “I was tremendously disappointed and shocked at this decision,” remembers Shiraz.
However, it wasn’t long before the two men were reunited. “I soon met with Jack and discussed the possibility of joining him if he was to start a personal computer company,” recalls Shiraz. “There were a number of senior execs at Commodore with experience in finance, manufacturing, design, engineering, marketing and sales that felt the same way, so I told Jack he could count on a core team to start a company. At this time Warner Communications was thinking of selling or disposing of Atari as it was losing a lot of money. Jack made an offer for the company by injecting $30 million – $25m from himself and $5m from associates, such as myself. Eventually the deal was struck and that is how I came to be the vice president of advanced development at Atari.”
Having switched sides in dramatic fashion, Tramiel had a new company to command in the shape of Atari Incorporated. He now needed a product that would get the firm back on its feet. Thankfully Shiraz and his team already had ideas forming. “The core team of engineers and developers were thinking of the next personal computer,” Shiraz says. “The work on the ST didn’t really start until Atari was actually purchased, but the main ideas of using a 32-bit processor as well as support for music and graphics were already important for us.”
Shiraz duly started work on the new project codenamed ‘Rock Bottom Price’, or ‘RBP’ for short – an indication of Tramiel’s desire to produce a cheap yet powerful home computer. “We moved everyone into the Atari facilities on Borregas Avenue in Sunnyvale in July 1984,” says Shiraz, who had to dig into his own pockets to ensure development went smoothly. “I paid for airline tickets and hotel bills for my hardware team using my own personal credit cards and was not paid until much later. I think the real development began in August; we didn’t usually get home until 11pm some nights, and sometimes it was well after midnight.”
This punishing schedule was made even more demanding because Shiraz knew exactly what would happen if he failed to deliver the goods on time. “If we did not come through we would have had to close shop,” he states, matter-of-factly. “You can imagine I really felt the very heavy burden of responsibility. We had no choice but to deliver a product that was superior in terms of performance and price.” Amazingly, this intense pressure seemed to bring out the best in the team. “I felt very confident and comfortable that I and the team were up to the task,” states Shiraz. “After all, I had a core hardware team of four engineers from Commodore that had worked for me in the past so I knew what they could do. We integrated with people from Atari and had a very small but efficient team that worked very hard to get the hardware done in record time. Somehow, although there was much pressure on us, I did not have any sleepless nights. This is because of the trust I had in the team.”
The engineers at Atari originally envisaged the machine as a ‘true’ 32-bit computer, but eventually compromised and settled for a 32-bit processor that communicated through a 16-bit external bus (the abbreviation ‘ST’ actually stands for ‘16/32’). “We had a meeting with the CEO of National Semiconductor, who was anxious for us to use their 32-bit NS3200 processor,” remembers Shiraz. “It turned out that even though the Motorola 68000 was a quasi-32-bit chip, the performance turned out to be as good, if not better than the National Semiconductor’s true 32-bit chip. Motorola had a number of parts that they could not sell as one of the parameters did not fully meet their specification, but we found that this particular parameter could be relaxed in our design and so we could use these parts that would have to be thrown away, saving both us and Motorola several million dollars.” Amazingly, despite these cost-cutting measures, the ST was still able to outperform more expensive rivals. “Our design was so optimised for performance and cost that you could emulate the Apple Macintosh – if you had the Apple ROMs – and an application would run faster on the Atari ST,” reveals a justifiably proud Shiraz.
As the project neared completion, Shiraz and his team started to realise just how amazing their achievement was. They had taken the ST from rough concept to final product in less than half a year, and when 85 per cent complete ST machines were shown at the CES show in 1985, it amazed the industry. “I was very proud that the team had accomplished so much in a short period of time,” says Shiraz. When the machine officially launched in May, it marked the dawn of a resurgence for the previously ailing company and it speaks volumes for the popularity of the ST range that when Tramiel took Atari public in November, stock was selling for nearly triple its original price just a few months later. The ST had saved Atari from the scrapheap, and all in less than half a year.
Notable Atari ST Games
Read the full feature in Retro Gamer issue 58, on sale digitally from GreatDigitalMags.com
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