Mega STE Love

by Shiuming Lai


1 September 1992
Ten years ago, on the birthday of the Bee Gees' Barry Gibb, a milestone computing acquisition would join my trusty 800XL of seven years' service. Yes, I was late, but better late than never: I was finally going to get my own ST, having wanted one when I first found out about it in 1987 (how I managed to miss its first two years remains a mystery), the powerful imagery of its graphics and imposing physical stature firmly embedded in my mind right from those early days.

Perhaps the wait was worthwhile, for the choices by the time consisted of the ageing and limited 520/1040 STE series and the awesome TT which, even if I could afford, and though not my main reason for a new machine (I was well aware of the ST's impending retirement from the mainstream of entertainment platforms), wasn't a good choice for games. The Falcon was sure to become a reality but not in my time-scale or price range, besides, new machines are always full of bugs. That left the machine representing the pinnacle of ST development, a Mega version of the STE, aptly called the Mega STE. What a way to join the clan!

If it were merely a two-piece version of the STE I would have stuck with the 520 or 1040 and spent the extra cash on peripherals, but I'd read the magazines (in particular, Atari ST User's December 1991 issue full review) and collected countless brochures at exhibitions in the many months preceding. I'd even tried to look like a serious enquirer at London's Tottenham Court Road branch of the now-defunct Silica Systems (formerly Silica Shop, the major force in British Atari retail during the very early '80s), where on the top floor in the "business" area, there was a Mega STE with SM144 on display, running next to an Amiga 4000/040 (evoking mild resentment that Atari was yet to even show a prototype 68040 machine). The Mega STE's 16 MHz CPU, FPU socket, VME bus, faster serial controller, internal hard disk expansion bay and that fabulous TT-style casing and build quality, were all definitely worth the additional outlay.

I decided on the 1 MB base model with DD floppy drive as advertised by my local dealer, only to be told upon placing my order at the shop that no such models were stocked. The only machines available had been opened for engineering work because apparently they'd been wrongly fitted with Dutch RF modulators (Atari ST User reported this in its January 1992 issue news, "Mega snag"). They also happened to have 4 MB RAM, which I cynically reckoned was added during the modulator swap. Considering a 520STE Discovery Xtra pack could be had for £199, I was already pushing it with the Mega but in the end coughed up the necessary £550, never to regret going for 4 MB in the years to follow.

I rushed home and eagerly fitted the mains plug I had bought during a visit to Shepherd's Bush Market the week before. Even in 1992 it was not uncommon for electrical goods sold in the UK to come without a mains plug, a point of ridicule by visiting friends and relatives from abroad for as long as I remember. Then I continued to build up the machine, I unwrapped the keyboard and found to my horror the extruded Fuji symbol on the top-right side was damaged. Of course it's cosmetic and doesn't change how the machine works but all things considered you can imagine all the reasons for disappointment and fear that the dealer wouldn't give this a second look. School-boy kudos was at stake here, my first sixth-form term was due to start in a matter of days and here I was with my new pride and joy, already blemished. Fortunately the numeric keypad also had a very sticky [Enter] key, enough to warrant a no-quibble exchange, to my relief.

[Photo: Mega STE running Stereo Master software]

Ahh, the distinct beautiful aroma of new electronics - I can still catch a whiff of it from the keyboard after all these years... Here is the Stereo Master sampling software given away on ST Format cover-disk 31, I would later purchase the complete package with sampler.

[Photo: Mega STE running fractal generator]

At this point I hadn't learnt to reduce the shutter speed on my Minolta 7000AF SLR, hence the screen is captured half-scanned. The plastic wrapper on the keyboard cable stayed on for years, keeping it factory-fresh. For a short while I used the groove on the main unit's front lip as a pencil holder but decided this looked cheap and thereafter used it for its intended purpose of clipping the keyboard flush against the main unit (even if only to give myself some wrist-rest space at the front of the desk).

[Photo: Mega STE box]

My Mega STE's shipping carton features this special flyer promoting the very last of the legendary exhibitions put on by Atari Computer GmbH, the Düsseldorf Atari Messe. Was my machine intended for exhibition or was this merely an advertisement? I may never know.

News spread quickly. On the first day back at school people were already asking, "How's your new ST?" unbeknown to them this was no ordinary ST gaming rig as they were accustomed to. This was a professional specification power machine intended to carry me through A-Level studies as well as provide quality entertainment. Initial sightings by classmates in my early demonstration sessions drew looks of astonishment, they thought I'd flipped and gone all-out on a TT! Still, 4 MB RAM was peerless in anything with a modicum more style than the rich kids' dowdy 386 and 486 boxes, "4 MB? That's... 4,096 KB?! I remember when having a 128 KB Spectrum +2 was respect!" said my mate Steve (everybody has a mate called Steve, right?).

I was like a duck to water with the ST (I've only ever had to look at the manual once, and that was within the first week of ownership, to find out how to re-name a file) and the next few months were spent intensively trying out all the PD games, demos and cover-disks I'd accumulated from buying ST Format and Atari ST User magazines a whole year in advance. Once, I had a copy ST Format confiscated at school because I was reading it during a lesson (Religious Education, for those interested).

There was no getting enough of this wonder machine. Favourites from this era include Teserae (a decent Tetris clone from an STF cover-disk with "drunk" moving wallpaper background from the unforgettably named Albanian Sausage Corporation. Note to other would-be Tetris clone makers: you only make the blocks fall for as long as the down key is depressed, not all the way at one press), Sonic Projects' ST Tracker Music Demonstration (fuzzy replay quality but top toe-tapping tracker tunes, also possibly better known by the title, "A Little Music Demo" from a magazine review) and countless fractal generators.

Colours of spring and summer
[Photo: ST Format cover-disks]
Care-free sunny days and a raft of top-notch graphics programs from ST Format cover disks built up the excitement in the final months of GCSE studies leading to Mega STE owner status. STF 33 in April gave us QRT, the Quick Ray Tracer, both magazine and disk were graced with tantalizing screen-shots of particular 3D scenes that were commonly shown on screens of high-end PCs in advertisements of the day. Hot on its heels was GFA Raytrace in STF 35, June, part of a GFA bonanza give-away. Two more months and we got Douglas Little's sizzling PhotoChrome "graphics card emulator". Seemingly made to complement QRT, PhotoChrome was a revolutionary picture convertor and displayer delivering the most advanced rule-breaking graphics modes ever to hit the ST and STE, on the latter allowing up to a staggering 19,200 colours on-screen from a palette of 32,768! Perfect for displaying those smoothly shaded ray-traced and photographic images. Then STF 38 in September added the impressive Spectrum 512 to my graphics armoury. Without a doubt, my first foray into the world of ST graphics would be immersive and prepared with some of the best tools and cutting-edge technology.

Spectrum 512's anti-alias function became one of my favourite features of any paint program, I imported Neochrome pictures and added colour and smoothed off edges like there was no tomorrow. When not doing that I spent hours and hours processing all the QRT example files, here the Mega STE's 16 MHz processor slashed render times by almost 50% though some complex scenes still required overnight number-crunching. Never before had I owned a computer with a built-in cooling fan, I was used to golden silence. I also used to worry when sometimes in the morning, before going to school, I found that I'd left my 800XL on all night and it had become quite warm. Before long I was using my Mega STE for extended periods of time as a matter of course, my current record power-on time standing at one month (this being achieved two years later at university, where my £52 per week rent included electricity so I made sure to get my money's worth and installed a 500 W halogen floodlight, too).

Wobbly graphics problem discovered
QRT generated files with 24-bit colour depth, so they needed to be converted down to something more manageable for display on the ST. The colour reduction could not be done in real-time, so PhotoChrome had to filter the data into its own format, requiring a two-pass conversion for the outrageously good PCS-STE mode. Both PhotoChrome and Spectrum used palette-switching to achieve more than 16 colours on-screen at once. That entailed re-jigging the colour assignments during a frame scan, every frame. Easy enough between scan-lines (look at any game that has a linear gradient fill for the sky - only one colour in the palette needs to be reserved for the sky and only this colour need be changed "on-the-fly" to get a very colourful effect) but these two even changed palette during scan-lines making it possible to have more than 16 colours per line! Furthermore, PhotoChrome achieved its "impossible" colours (the STE really only has 4,096 colours in hardware) by an interlacing technique, causing a visible flicker, meaning between alternate frames there could be different palettes for the same parts of the screen!

No doubt the mind-bending precision required to pull this off was causing some upsets in my Mega STE's video hardware, manifesting in seemingly unpredictable levels of instability. Randomly flickering pixels and 16-pixel wide streaks (in patches of varying size, sometimes covering nearly all of the screen), the entire screen occasionally "twitching" by an offset of one or two pixels, indicated this was originating in the digital domain. Of course, all these programs worked perfectly on those £199 520STE machines...

Eventually these display errors would stabilize and I'd get a beautiful picture, normally straight after a long ray-tracing session. Otherwise it was plain embarrassing when trying to show off (echoing Doug's own words in the documentation regarding the Spectrum 512 format's susceptibility to a video synchronization flaw which he solved during the development of PhotoChrome, not related to my problem). Dealers didn't understand or appreciate esoteric software like this, to them these were GEM boxes that did what the specifications said and that was that. The Atari factory diagnostic equipment wouldn't detect such an obscure phenomenon because any software that didn't hit the hardware direct and do clever things did work all right. So I just learnt to live with it (but that wasn't the end of it, oh, no!).

Games, games, games...
Unlike the 520 and 1040 models, the Megas were never bundled with any (heaven forbid) games, so I started by borrowing. I used to love playing Psygnosis' Blood Money at my mate Mark's house and I had to borrow it. I completed it in eight days and before giving it back I made sure to plaster my name all over the high score table. Hehe.

Needless to say, a lot of pirate games were around and some of these made it into my hands. I'd play them, and any I liked, I would go out and buy. The others, I would return to the "owners" formatted. People very quickly learnt not to give me their dodgy cracked games disks! My philosophy was two-fold: first, new ST games were already becoming scarce so obtaining them illegitimately wasn't going to help (to be precise not so much the form of distribution itself but consequent lost sales of the truly good games from people who then continue to play but not pay), and second, why bother wasting space with all the trash? Some people just seemed to gloat over having every single game, rather like today's mindless undiscriminating MP3 music hoarders, just because they could get them free. How many can you possibly play or listen to in the hours sent to us?

One of the cracked games which really caught my attention at a friend's house was Wings of Death, the famous vertical scrolling shoot 'em up. Already two years old at this time, I vaguely remembered a short, favourable review of it in Page 6 Publishing's New Atari User, of which I was a subscriber.

[Image: Wings of Death review in Page 6 New Atari User 48]

Its graphics were arcade quality and the action so frenetic (I ignored the cracked version's trainer mode, no point kidding oneself), I vividly remember the sweaty palms, stiff fingers and acute muscle ache in my arms as I pounded the famously tough ABS-plastic Zip Stik to its limits. I made a mental note to seek out and purchase this game at any cost.

For my entire two years as a sixth-former, every single one of my lessons happened to be scheduled at the local convent school with which our boys' school sixth-form was federated. Besides the obvious perks, both years I had very relaxed form tutors back at my rather stricter school, they didn't require me to register with them first thing in the morning, or catch the inter-school bus back over to register at lunch-time. Unless somebody told them I'd been run over by an elephant or something, they'd just assume I was at the convent school (which I was) and mark me present in the register. Funnily enough I was made a prefect by my school in the upper-sixth, not bad considering I was never there to all intents and purposes! Being in such a situation also allowed me to take full advantage of the fact that for both years, I also had a one-hour free study period either side of the lunch hour every Friday, equating to three hours to do whatever I liked, on or (more often) off the premises.

So it was on the first of these outings that I ventured off into Kingston upon Thames town centre, not too far (to get a scale of time - I soon worked out I could get into central London, grab a bite, down a pint, visit Carnaby Street, then get back in time for Art at the end of the day, not so much a problem for me but if my mate Steve was late for Business Studies he'd be dead meat). Checked into the local established independent game retailer run by Amiga-heads and before my eyes in the centre of the shop, among the pile of 16-bit games, were two copies of Thalion's Wings of Death! They were not shrink-wrapped but for a paltry £7.99 I wasn't about to fuss over that. I picked the one in better condition and quickly paid. Somehow I accidentally only handed over £7 but got away with it.

On the 131 bus back to school, through rain, I drooled over the packaging and read every small detail and specification. This was fantastic, these guys were clearly ST nuts! Full use of STE hardware and available memory up to 4 MB, up to 95 objects on-screen at once, all graphics drawn with Neochrome (gob-smacking) and the title picture with Spectrum 512, even the manual was designed using Calamus! Effectively, this was the Atari equivalent of Psygnosis, comprising mainly talented enthusiasts, not marketing men, passionately striving for technical excellence and artistry on our platform, the antidote to the second-rate fodder offered to ST users by many other publishers. In future I would look for games bearing the Thalion logo.

[Photo: Wings of Death box front and rear artwork]

Crackling DMA sound problem discovered
"Wings of Death... Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!", those immortal words from demo group The Lost Boys' Tim "Manikin" Moss greeted players in the title music, on STE machines in stereo! David Moss (Spaz), Tim's graphic artist younger brother, told us, "
We had quite a laugh doing the voices for that game. We were both working there [Thalion] at the time and they already had some voices in the game, but as everybody who worked there was German their accents were terrible. In the end we both recorded versions but it was decided that Tim's was the best."

Hang on a minute, though, something wasn't quite right... Little random clicks, like electrostatic discharge, appeared in the music. I re-tested the game on a 1040STE, indeed my Mega STE had a minor irritation. Over the coming months I would discover more specific conditions about the symptom and related issues but a solution was nowhere to be seen.

Every spare minute available I played Wings of Death solidly, spurred on by the catchy Mad Max music and in awe of each progressively more graphically intense level design ("Neochrome?!" constantly swimming around inside my head). Like Blood Money before, I completed it in eight days, a feat I would have thought impossible from my tough encounter with the cracked version. The final boss was a hard nut, my eyes nearly popped out of their sockets at the amount of stuff flying around the screen as I tried to focus on breaking the castle's defences. Rejoice! Another great tracker tune from Mad Max accompanied the end animation sequence. I was hungry for more quality games like this.

[Image: Jimy White's Whirlwind Snooker]One of a few other cracked games I found worthy of note was Jimmy White's Whirlwind Snooker. At the 5th International 16-bit Computer Show in February I'd purchased a full copy from Miles Better Software (a long-standing and popular retailer of XL/XE games) for a classmate. Come the time I wanted to buy it for myself I couldn't find it anywhere (certainly not locally) so I had to borrow my mate's copy for a while. The cracked version was interesting because it ran as an executable from the desktop, not an auto-booting, protected disk, meaning I could first switch my Mega STE from default 8 MHz into zippy 16 MHz mode, a task only possible with the control panel from desktop at the time. Cue (ahem) the zippiest, smoothest 3D green baize yet seen on the 16-bit machines. My Amiga chums insisted it was "not that much smoother..." but anyone could see the frame-rate was superior to even a standard ST. Jimmy White's was added to my Mega STE technical demonstration repertoire.

My 17th birthday fell on a Friday this year so naturally I spent my three-hour break shopping for a treat. I had pored over the ST Format reviews of Ocean's Robocop 3 and Epic, rated 94% and 91% respectively. At this time there was a nice shop in Kingston's Eden Walk Shopping Centre called Play Game, nothing fancy, just stacks of games for all popular formats at very attractive prices (after its closure the shop space enjoyed a brief stint as a sweet shop and is now an optician store). Robocop 3 was very easy to find - includes holographic sticker, nice - I didn't waste any more time and went straight back to school. I brought a bunch of mates home after school and we played some games on my Mega STE in between scoffing birthday cake, Robocop 3 was an instant hit with everyone except myself! They raved about it but I simply couldn't see the point, it was woefully lethargic, over-ambitious for the ST, lacked atmosphere, the code protection was a pointless obstacle (easily defeated by use of a photocopier), plus the endless disk-swapping was annoying (to be fair it would take advantage of a second floppy drive) compounded by the stale graphic interludes... It just didn't grab me in the same way as Wings of Death. I only played it to shoot the little girl hostage between the eyes, I was highly disappointed by this game and banned it forever after! I would force people to play the much more exciting and responsive Wings of Death, except this made everyone feel bitter at not being able to play Robocop 3 and not only that, they would make silly jokes about Wings of Death at school during Physics, the only lesson where we could escape from the girls and behave like idiots. Fact is those guys were rubbish at Wings of Death! My retort would be another joke along the lines of Wings of Death II, unaware it would later make an appearance for real...

[Image: Atari ST Review issue 11 front cover]The March issue of Atari ST Review, the ST magazine which rose from the ashes of Emap Images' popular multi-format gaming magazine, ACE (Advanced Computer Entertainment), screamed, "Look at me!" by featuring my favourite computer on its cover with an unfeasibly large professional quality monitor. Such high-end glassware and a VME graphics card were the stuff of fantasy, I imagined my own Mega STE decked out with all that gear and the infinite possibilities it would bring. The cover story, about a Spanish Atari-based DTP house in Barcelona, made for highly interesting reading. Why was there never anything like that in the UK?

Closer to my financial reach, the PD reviews page waxed lyrical about a new music demo disk, by the name of High Fidelity Dreams. Quite rightly, a music demo is about music, well reflected in the review and score of 4/5. Noting that it was STE-enhanced, I got hold of a copy. What fantastic tunes and sound quality! It even switched up to 16 MHz on Mega STEs when de-crunching the songs. In spite of my crackling sound problem I played the tracks on this disk endlessly (Jester's Elysium became my standard soundtrack when doing Art homework, probably much to the dismay of my neighbours). ST Format's review in issue 39, October 1992, had so blatantly missed the point, moaning about lack of things to look at on the screen, failing to mention the STE-enhanced replay at 50 KHz in stereo and giving it a measly 67%. Contrary to this review, the simple and relaxing bouncing-bar VU meters suited the demo perfectly, anything more would have been a distracting gimmick.

[Image: High Fidelity Dreams review from ST Review 11]During one of the rare occasions I was at my own school, I got to know an STE enthusiast in the upper-sixth called Piers. Outside the sixth-form common room one day, one of us saw the other reading ST Format and it went on from there. Like myself, Piers was not happy about the STE support situation and was carefully selecting his software. He gave me some of his disks to try out, one was the Fingerbobs STE tracker module player with a selection of tunes - 12.5 KHz replay and a nice interface, not bad (it didn't support some important effects commands though). More interesting was BackTrack, a bare-bones desk accessory for playing tracker modules in the background. I discovered from later versions sporting a proper user interface that BackTrack was programmed by a certain Karl Anders Ųygard. Remember that name if you don't already know it. BackTrack was supplied to me with an infectious little number called SHORT, appropriately. Its replay quality was very low, presumably to avoid eating too much processor power on standard 8 MHz STEs, but I still used it a lot, I would load First Word Plus (freebie from ST Review, took ages to load from floppy) into a RAM disk (M-Disk 4.3) and have music while I worked all day long. Very cool.

Experimentation with BackTrack, the Stereo Master sampling software and CPU speeds (since this was a desk accessory, I could access the Control Panel to switch speeds and observe the effect on system responsiveness under additional load) led to a revelation: my DMA sound crackling problem (I didn't get this from the Yamaha PSG chip) only seemed to happen with tracker replay with the CPU at 8 MHz, and not in straight sample replay. The D/A convertors can't differentiate between the two, they just convert binary data into analogue signals, but in the latter case the sample data source is static and finite while in the former case, it is synthesized in real-time (and thus, incidentally, also potentially infinite) with many possible variations in respect to timing reference. Something was going awry during this stage. At least I had a partial solution!

In return for the Fingerbobs player and BackTrack, I had given Piers a copy of High Fidelity Dreams. The next time we met, he was the first to speak, before even exchanging greetings, expressing his sheer amazement at the sound quality and musicality of the tunes. Just what did ST Format mean by, " have to be pretty desperate to listen to this instead of putting on the radio or a tape if you want to listen to some sounds."?

Mainstream STE support at last?
One February afternoon in the school canteen, reading my ST Format as usual, a new game advertised on the back cover caught my attention. Never mind the blurb, or the fact that £4.32 from each sale would be given to charity, it was the magical words, "STE only" - had the game publishers finally woken up and realized the need to exercise the STE's new features and banish half-baked productions aimed at the lowest common denominator?

[Image: Sleepwalker box advertisement]

Nevertheless, this game had come out of the blue so I didn't buy it immediately, I waited for someone else to buy it first and if it was no good I'd sooner give my money direct to the charity.

Sleepwalker turned out to have very nice, colourful cartoony graphics and a nice twist on the platform game concept, you controlled a dog to navigate and guide its sleep-walking master to the end of the level, working out puzzles and taking all the flak in the line of duty (sometimes with hilarious consequences) so he doesn't get woken. As I remember I wasn't impressed by the controls and technically it seemed like it was only STE-only to get it to market quickly, it had the most basic use of STE hardware, sound being limited to effects punctuating eerie silence - and the scrolling, while fast, was still not perfectly smooth. Nice try but not good enough for my collection.

Early in the year one of my uncles gave me a box of computer games that mistakenly made it into his possession. Very nice except they were for PC, Life & Death II and Ocean's Epic. I sold these and on the first day of March went to spend the cash at the Virgin Games Centre in Kingston (now Electronics Boutique while Virgin relocated to the opposite side of the road and expanded into a Megastore). Weeks before I had gazed at the rolling demo of Thalion's No Second Prize, the motorcycle racing simulator, on the screen behind the counter. It was superbly executed, the colours, the smooth motion and sweeping camera tracking flowed with real panache. "The ST version should be slightly faster", said the lad at the till, quite aware of the ST's clock speed advantage in 3D. Right on, brother! I like to shop where the staff know of what they speak.

I snapped up the only copy on the shelf and looked at the box, more Thalion loveliness, all screen-shots from the ST version, in Thalion's refreshing change of bias from the norm. No Second Prize showed a departure in packaging style for Thalion, gone was the distinctive paper-tear along the bottom of the box. Instead, it had the same glossy box type (two separate pieces) completely in black with a classy embossed Thalion logo, around which an edge-to-edge artwork sleeve would slide in place to hold it together.

[Photo: No Second Prize box front and rear artwork]

Very switched-on, Thalion. In the small print it is stated that the program is not copy-protected so the lawful possessor may create personal back-ups. Nothing I tried could make a copy, maybe I missed something.

[Image: No Second Prize pencil study]

I loved the artwork on Thalion's boxes, here's a pencil study of the complete rider from the magazine advertisement. I was quite ignorant (or just lazy) about aspects of art and design like pencil lead grades and did everything with a HB.

No Second Prize had me hooked. Its perfect blend of technical prowess (where it mattered, in this case, chucking polygons around the screen) and game-play created a greatly rewarding player experience. One of my friends had bought it a couple of weeks earlier and returned it, saying it was impossible to control. Nonsense! Nothing could be better than the finely tuned mouse control, it gave a real feeling of balance at speed and required patience to master. Motorcycle racing games had come and gone, some were endorsed by big names from the sport, yet none could match the exhilarating sense of racing found in No Second Prize.

Learning to track
Dr Satan's Empire Noisetracker 1.5 was my grounding with ST trackers, before I'd only seen them on Amigas, from a distance. To me, tracker songs sounded good because the instruments were "real", but the hexadecimal notation just looked an absolute impossibility. Did people actually understand (and more to the point, interpret music in terms of) that gobbledegook? Evidently so, judging by some of the swinging tunes that emanated from these programs.

Noisetracker 1.5 was given away on a PD and shareware magazine cover-disk and I got a copy of the program for research purposes. Crude as it was, it worked. The replay quality was fuzzy and strictly monophonic, not the stuff of STE software (though to be fair neither did it claim to be).

[Screen-shot: Empire Noisetracker 1.5]

However, taking inspiration from the musical possibilities demonstrated by High Fidelity Dreams, I made a big effort to learn how to write tracker songs (modules) and it suddenly clicked, it was so easy, finally, the perfect tool for me to play with sound in the way I imagined. By the start of June I could lay down nearly any musical idea with proficiency. Noisetracker was pressed into heavy use for friends Martin and Steve's band, Paragon Bollocks, which was all guitars and no drummer, and due to play a summer concert at Steve's local church. Proper tickets were printed and we programmed numerous drum tracks to be recorded for a backing tape.

The Chaos Engine
STE owners demanded special software. The Chaos Engine from The Bitmap Brothers of Xenon and Speedball fame, promised to be just that. Always discerning in choice and so far happy with my game collection, I looked forward to the Bitmaps' new creation with great anticipation, hoping that their STE enhancements would lift it above the quality of their previous ST versions of games. Impeccable style was order of the day in this game, surpassing even the Bitmaps' own high standards. Several advertisements appeared in the ST press and I quote, "Atari ST (STE Enhanced)", and ST Format 48 in July (actually June, remember print magazines come out at least a month ahead of their cover date) gave it a glowing review, 94%, ST Format Gold. "If you play on an STE, the Chaos Engine automatically detects its advanced features and runs an enhanced version of the game with faster, smoother scrolling and an increased colour palette." said the very last paragraph, supporting what I'd read elsewhere that the STE would feature the full 32-colour palette. That's it, I had to have it. Visited Virgin Games Centre on a Friday again then proceeded to examine the package during my afternoon Art lesson. Inside, there was a beautiful set of postcards depicting the game's six main characters. The manual explicitly stated Mega STE compatibility, excellent. Then... I found a scrap of paper with a message explaining that the Atari version lacked in-game speech due to the ST's hardware limitations. What?! Everyone knew the easiest way to STE-enhance a game was to slap in some straight sampled effects to be replayed by the DMA sound system, hence the glut of primitive PD games written in various dialects of BASIC and all sharing this attribute. Surely some mistake?

Worse was to come when I got home to play - it refused to load! Thinking maybe I'd got faulty disks, I tried it on a friend's 1040STE anyway, where it loaded and ran without a glitch. Up came the title screen with soundtrack by Joi, featuring very badly looped drums and distinctly YM-quality replay, no STE stereo! Already I was mentally deducting points but the biggest shock was saved for last... Onto the game and what dreadful scrolling! The playfield moved in steps of what looked like eight pixels, made worse by the low frame-rate. If this was as good as they could do on the STE I didn't want to see what it was like on the STFM, and the increased colour palette? Where? It certainly didn't look any more colourful than Thalion's finest 16-colour graphics.

ST Format's reviewer must have been looking at something completely different to be able to say, "Your characters move slickly and swiftly over the 2D backdrop and there's never a hint of jerkiness in the gameplay." and "The sound effects are sparse, but well thought-out with realistic gun-fire and explosion effects." Pardon?! I've just checked the game again and there is no gun-fire sound whatsoever (made a hundred times more annoying by the characters stopping dead in their tracks every time they fire, major design faux pas there, how can one really play this?), merely feeble swishing noises of exploding baddies that sound nothing like explosions.

To set the record straight on the graphics I recently did some objective tests and hereby present an A/B comparison between the STFM and STE. The STE has smoother shading even on the 16-colour screens but most surprisingly, screen-shots of the game itself prove to have 32 colours (actually my software counted 31) on the STE, I never would have guessed from the liberal use of dithering and dull tone.

[Screen-shot: The Chaos Engine on STFM]

[Screen-shot: The Chaos Engine on STE]

[Screen-shot: Navvie]

[Screen-shot: Thug]

Russell Hayward, co-author of the excellent Steem (STE emulator) confirms the frame update as every three vertical blanks, meaning a real-world 17 FPS, and scroll increments of six pixels, from Steem's register log file (strangely, when I measured on my real STE and colour monitor with pieces of masking tape and also direct screen-shots from Steem, I counted seven, though either value at 17 FPS produces diabolical scrolling by STE standards).

More ray-tracing
[Photo: ST Format cover-disk 49]Shortly after this saga, ST Format 49 came out. On the cover-disk was a demo version of The Chaos Engine, which worked perfectly on my Mega STE! The sales assistant I spoke to at Virgin Games Centre couldn't appreciate this conundrum, especially as I pointed out the statement of Mega STE compatibility. He only suggested my machine was faulty, a refund was not granted and I didn't want an exchange because by that point I had a very low opinion of the game. Deeply disappointed (nay, positively incensed) I went home and briefly contemplated making mince out of this complete waste of £25.99! Not wishing to be lumbered with it any more I swapped it with a friend for Epic, another game everybody liked and I hated for the same reasons as Robocop 3, so I soon sold that and tried to forget the whole experience. I thought all these pretenders should have sub-contracted their development to Thalion!

Persistence Of Vision (POV) ray-tracer was the other main feature of this cover-disk and magazine. QRT eat your heart out! No more stray pixels from "quick" algorithms either. The sample images inside the magazine were nothing short of stunning and there was a picture of an expert POV user, he had a "Been up all night figuring out hard maths" look on his face! I spent more hours rendering all the sample files and admiring the end results' subtle visual qualities compared to QRT's images. Although I had a 16 MHz processor, rendering with anti-aliasing still didn't make sense, that would have to wait for the installation of another useful upgrade...

Near the end of the academic year there was an art exhibition back at my school, something I always attended and a good opportunity to catch up with the lads. Among the many fine paintings and drawings was some work by an STE-owning friend of a friend.

[Photo: 1040STE at art exhibition]

The 1040STE in these washed-out photos was later sold to another boy at the school, called Matthew Bacon. Yes, my co-editor and I went to the same secondary school, though we didn't know it until I'd finished university in 1997 and noticed his suspiciously familiar name in an advertisement in Atari Computing!

[Photo: Atari ST business card machine in Hong Kong]
This year also marked a number of important serious developments. I was getting very productive with my Mega STE and made plans to hold a local user meeting in the summer, inspired by the energy and excitement I found at computer shows. Too bad for me I got dragged off on a six-week family holiday in Hong Kong. Not having been there since the age of three, after the shock of the heat subsided, thoughts turned to what high-tech gadgets I could bring back for my Mega STE. Like a subtle reminder, I was most pleased and surprised to find dozens upon dozens of these Atari ST based business card vending machines from British company Photo-Me International, dotted around public areas and transport facilities like the MTR network and Kowloon Harbour ferry terminals. "Wahey!" was the catch-phrase. Hong Kong, heavily influenced by the technology trends from nearby Japan, simply isn't a place where one expects to find Atari gear (the other unlikely sighting I've made is the 800XL and 1050 used by the evil drug baron in Jackie Chan's Police Story from 1985).

Two options were on my short-list before going to a huge "computer dealer city" shopping centre in Kowloon. I could try to find a maths co-processor from an Apple dealer (little did I know of the Atari-specific PAL chip that was also needed, just as well I didn't go for this), or a bare hard disk (and buy the fitting kit back in the UK). From reading the ST magazines at home I decided on the Quantum LP52S, a 52 MB unit. Wow, 52 MB! I spent at least a day making detailed plans on paper as to how this space would be divided, listing every program I would install. In reality, asking around for this capacity in SCSI produced answers of, "The smallest we do is 170 MB..." and "SCSI? No, we only have AT-Bus..." which I took to mean IDE.

[Image: Canon BJ-20 icon]After a long fruitless day, I settled for a printer. I envisaged doing a lot of writing for my studies and a printer was a necessity, making my other choices mere luxuries. I found a Canon BJ-20, a model not available in the UK. Essentially it was a BJ-10ex, that culmination of enhancements to the ground-breaking and sleekly designed BJ-10e which fired many imaginations, with a squared-off rather than tapered lid and bundled with the clip-on sheet feeder. All for less than the cost of a BJ-10ex alone back at home. Got myself a parallel cable (for the sum equivalent to £2.50) plus a spare ink cartridge. I was very happy, so much so that when I returned and used the printer for several months, I designed a desktop icon for it incorporating the Canon Bubblejet logo.

All of my early work was purely text-based so I was content to use the printer's built-in fonts. How sharp and clear they were, too.

[Photo: Mega STE with 800XL on top]

Mega STE with 800XL on top and Canon BJ-20 on the right, hiding the transversely placed 1050 disk drive. Note the essential blue cloth Atari ST branded mouse mat, costing a premium £8.99 from the local teenage ST/Amiga gamers' emporium. Any person daring to rub the mouse on the delicate screened logos would receive a serious punch in the arm! You can also see very faintly a strip of paper in front of the Mega STE keyboard. This carried a death penalty warning (nicely printed on my BJ-20) against use of the keyboard without first thoroughly washing hands with soap.

[Photo: Wings of Death]

This Mitsubishi CT-1503BM television set was bought on 1 September 1987 (from CF Lake at 37 Stoke Road in Slough, just a few minutes' walk from the former Atari UK building), exactly five years before the Mega STE! It was my dedicated "computer" screen to free up the family television.

[Photo: Mega STE open]

My confidence had matured, I didn't wait for things to break, I opened them for a peek as soon as the warranty expired. Absolutely fascinating.


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MyAtari magazine - Feature #2, September 2002

Copyright 2002 MyAtari magazine