by Matthew Preston
Emulation, we hear the
phrase every day, it gets bad press with big headlines
about big software companies taking each other to court.
This is not a new phenomenon, emulation has been with
us for some time now and many people put it in the same
frame as "to steal". A few years ago
I would not have thought twice about emulating an Atari
but with the big "A" making a come-back we
must be aware that the games people play and the software
that runs them belongs to somebody.
The new generation of
mobile phones re-opened the market for handheld games
and we may see a few old favourites re-live their former
glory. But this also means the lost and forgotten
software many thought Atari would never worry about
could cause a few problems for a lot of Atari die-hards.
If you want to know more, a good place to start would
I am a relatively new
PC owner and own many original and working 8-bit machines,
not all of them are Ataris. From the age of ten I have
had my 800XL, it has a few friends now for spares and
such, thatís another eleven 800XLs, well I never could
pass a good boot sale or trip to the Alternative Micro
Show at Bingley Hall. Being a few years older now and
cursed by my lust for ever increasing power of my PC
I wondered if with all this super technology it could
emulate a real computer? A quick search on the internet
for suitable emulators came up with several suggestions,
ranging from simple projects to full-blown emulations
of the complete hardware. I cannot hope to cover this
subject in one article so will start by introducing
a few then take you through setting them up and comparing
them using my own experience as a guide.
How do you go about
emulating an Atari?
There are two camps on this one, simulate the operating
system, or emulate the hardware. There is no right or
wrong answer; you have to decide what you want to use
the software to do. As a rule of thumb, early games
work fine on a simpler OS simulation, while demos and
later games require a more complete solution. You are
not restricted to the Windows platform either, as there
are emulators for DOS, Windows 3.1, Unix, Linux, BeOS,
Palm OS, Pocket PC (Windows CE), EPOC (Psion) and OS2.
To set about emulating
an Atari takes great skill and patience, the hardware
is quite simple compared to todayís technology, but
I would imagine it is quite a complicated process to
go through. Can you remember what is inside an Atari
8-bit? You have a custom chip the 6502C CPU made for
Atari, and then there are POKEY, FREDDIE, CTIA, GTIA,
ANTIC as well as the BASIC ROM. Field service manuals
are available but they only tell you how they are connected,
not what they contain.
Where to begin?
Early emulators did not
bother and with early PCs' feeble processing power a
simple OS simulation was the only option. Many authors
began by emulating each chip in software. This way you
can build a virtual machine in software piece by piece
until you get a working prototype.
I find it interesting
that the programmers encountered the same timing problems
that the hardware designers did at Atari. This
is more of a problem when emulating the hardware because
the 6502 CPU does not process everything. You see, for
its day the little 8-bit was quite advanced, using dedicated
chips to take control of tasks such as the graphics
display, keyboard input, sound generation, I/O, memory
management and using the CPU to house-keep the lot making
sure everything came together. If you get the timing
wrong then everything begins to fall apart quite rapidly
with the CPU doing its best to keep it together, the
result is a slow emulation that is unstable.
I have been following
the progress of several pieces of software and have
been impressed with the terrific progress made. I would
like to introduce what I consider to be the best software
available to emulate the Atari 8-bit, the unfortunate
thing is that not everyone will be able to use it because
it is not cross-platform and only works in Windows 9x
(however, the code it is based on is, and I will review
a few of these next time).
The software is called,
"Atari800win Plus" and has not been created
by a single author but developed over time by too many
people to list. The two main names to remember are Richard
Lawrence, who developed the Win32 code for Windows and
Tomasz Szymankowski, who continued Richard's work to
improve an already good emulator. The software
is completely open source and falls under the GNU license
covering public domain software for the internet. However,
I must stress that the software which runs on the virtual
machine is not for GNU, and as such cannot be packaged
with the free download. It is quite possible to
take the software from your old Atari machine and put
it in the virtual machine, whether this is legally any
better than using a copy that someone else has done
I donít know and is not for discussion in this column. Letís
concentrate on what we can do!
An emulator running on my desktop
in a window.
The software includes quite
comprehensive instructions and a help menu
including the re-mapped Atari keyboard.
The set-up wizard is most useful.
Finally, I must
confess that emulation is quite an addictive thing,
I have emulators on my old PC notebook, main PC and
network it to my old PC to both run the emulator and
play games while I am the other side of my computer
room. The final screen-shot (below) shows what can be
done if you have the patience and are mad enough!
My PC desktop running, "Atari800win"
running Star Raiders, "XLit" running
good old BASIC, "STEEM Engine"
with ST desktop, "WinSTon" running
a demo and my favourite, top-right it's
an Apple Mac Emulator running "Rainbow
8-bit" emulator running the old Atari
Robot demo. "Why?" you ask, because
That's all for now, next
time I will take a look at the other platforms on which
you can run an Atari, including some of the above.