Mega STE Love



June: Time for a new joystick
On the Jaguar scene, the developers of Battleshpere (whose music was composed on a Falcon running ProTracker, by the way) were involved in a war of words on Usenet with the editor of a German Jaguar magazine, revolving around Battleshpere vs Iron Soldier 2. As we know, both games were eventually released to high acclaim from Jaguar players.

Stefan Kimmlingen (Tyrem of old ST demo group The Respectables) was writing for the German Jaguar magazine and I got in touch with some questions. We talked about the great Thalion games and I mentioned that I was a Wings of Death fanatic, I'd seen a review of Lethal Xcess, its sequel, as far back as spring 1993 in Atari ST User (in one of its infamous incidents of verbatim review sharing with sister magazine Amiga Computing, with a fleeting reference to the ST tacked on the beginning to make it look like the reviewer was actually reviewing that version) but couldn't find the game anywhere locally. Stefan replied, "I've got a copy right beside me!" and very generously posted it to me.

[Photo: Lethal Xcess box front and rear artwork]

Another great title picture painted by Turkish artist Celal Kandemiroglu. Tanis (Niclas Malmqvist) of The Carebears turned it into pixels using Neochrome on Stefan's kitchen floor!

A new, reliable joystick was required to play this game. Ideally I wanted a Dynamics Competition Pro 5000, but had difficulty locating one, I went to Silica Systems in Debenhams again and got a Zip Stik. These were very popular in the ST's heyday, looking like Competition Pros with yellow square buttons (smaller and not as good as the Competition Pro's round ones in my opinion) and auto-fire. Durability and responsiveness were of great importance, the feature list on the box assured me of microswitches, those loud clickety-click ones favoured by serious gamers and a Zip Stik hallmark. How disappointed I was when I got back to my flat and found the Zip Stik to be a shadow of its former self: no longer did it have microswitches, I could tell from just moving the stick and pressing the buttons. It had all the tactile feedback of a domestic video recorder's controls and none of the clickety-click. I went straight back to Silica Systems and complained, the sales assistant didn't ask questions - sell a customer the wrong type of switch and you'd better be prepared to give an immediate refund.

Nothing else similar was available at Silica so I trawled around Manchester's famously grim (from the outside, anyway) Arndale Shopping Centre. Tucked away on one of the upper floors I found a dingy little computer game shop, where I got a Logic 3 badged Competition Pro, for a few quid less than the Zip Stik! Sure, it lacked auto-fire but so what...

[Photo: Logic 3 joystick]

Logic 3's "Quatro" JT 154 eschewed the Competition Pro's classic red trim for blue, nicely keeping with the theme of the Mega STE's blue key-top markings.

[Photo: Inside Logic3 joystick, V3 microswitches]

Industry-favourite V3 microswitches. Click, click.

Lethal Xcess was without doubt more technically advanced than Wings of Death, featuring a huge, overscanned display and even more(!) objects on-screen to accommodate simultaneous two-player destruction. My flatmate Mike, a former STE owner, took a look at the box and said it was a cool game and that he'd completed it. I was too embarrassed to say anything, for to this day I still haven't managed to complete it even with two players dishing out the punishment. The energy bars seem much more sensitive and deplete faster, not just because there is more happening on the screen than in Wings of Death! An alternative explanation could be that I'm simply getting rusty.

For the summer of 1996 I enrolled at a local temping agency, I didn't want anything mentally taxing during my holiday and was started off packing sunglasses, then moved on to a regional distribution warehouse for a major electrical retail chain. Here I was able to work very long extra hours and accumulate vast quantities of money, nice for the agency because it took a percentage cut.

At the end of July I loaded up with cash for another trip to East Dulwich. I needed a good document processor for my final year dissertation. Write On from ST Format 33 had served me quite well but when I started looking for options with more control and features, more WYSIWYG, the other magazine cover-disk freebies like Calligrapher Professional and Wordflair seemed irksome in some way or other. After installing a high resolution monochrome monitor emulator and trying the ST Review demo of Papyrus, I made up my mind without hesitation. So elegant and simple to use, it walked all over the others. To think it started life as a label printing utility. I bought Papyrus Gold 3, NVDI 3 Font Pack 1 (100 modern style fonts) a monochrome monitor and monitor switch box. This, with Kandinsky 2.5, proved a formidable combination, always allowing my ideas to come first above operating the programs. Both took advantage of the high quality vector font scaling system offered by NVDI 3, Kandinksy was used for drawing complex diagrams which were imported to Papyrus.

[Photo: Papyrus box front and rear artwork]

Easy as 123
GCSE Mathematics at school was a walk in the park. I sat right at the back of the room not listening to a word of the lessons, because I did all of my work and a lot more at home - a few of us were competing with each other as a joke and we were always at least one textbook ahead of the class (this had a nice side-effect: we scored the only three "A" grades of our year). Our teacher knew this and never picked on us to answer questions, except for demonstrations, so we sat at the back talking about computers or catching up with work in other, more arduous subjects.

A cool teacher like that deserved an honour, and for actually being a good teacher as well, so when I bought a 68882 floating point maths co-processor upgrade at the Birmingham Motorcycle Museum Atari show in September 1996, I named it the Mr Brennan Chip. Atari Computing magazine was also launched at this show, I would later write for it still using First Word Plus.

I got the FPU version of POV-Ray and re-rendered all the old sample files to see how much faster it was then again with anti-aliasing. The results were highly impressive in quality and in speed, a violent jolt of acceleration compared to a simple doubling of CPU clock frequency from 8 to 16 MHz.

[Photo: MC68882-FN16 from Best Electronics]

[Photo: Mega STE FPU interface IC from Best Eletronics]

Chroma Studio ST!
In November Douglas Little sent me a working prototype of Chroma Studio ST, it looked promising, with the few functions that were implemented (very limited canvas tools and no PhotoChrome yet), and a 21-line overscan to fit the colour palette and status information at the bottom of the screen. Countless other brilliant Atari projects have started and ended this way, never to see the light.

[Screen-shot: Chroma Studio ST beta, drawing primitives]

Look familiar? Brush size and shape, freehand, lines and primitives, that's your lot for drawing in the prototype Chroma Studio ST.

[Screen-shot: Chroma Studio ST, load file]

File import options are restricted to .NEO, .PC1 and .PI1.

[Screen-shot: Chroma Studio ST, logo designs]

I thought programs incorporating PhotoChrome display technology should display some kind of logo, I'd drawn these a few years back.

[Screen-shot: Chroma Studio ST, SubStation title picture]

Here's one I made earlier... Not really, this is the title picture from UDS' SubStation.

TOS 2.05 and 1.4
University course-mate Phil had a 4 MB Mega STE just like mine, except with the older TOS 2.05 and a newer, 1.44 MB high density floppy drive, from the factory. I was very suspicious now about the real factory specification of my own machine. Anyway, one afternoon I popped over to his flat to borrow his TOS 2.05 chips (and lent him my 2.06 to get by). When I installed them in my machine, one of the programs I tried was Magic Boy. Lo and behold it worked, as would The Chaos Engine if I still had it, I was sure. My thoughts immediately turned to the feasibility of hacking a TOS switcher board (designed for 520/1040-class machines) into my Mega STE to allow both TOS 2.06 and 1.62, the latter of which I knew worked with Magic Boy. That turned out to be unnecessary because when I returned Phil's TOS 2.05 chips and mentioned my successful test, he gave me a developer copy of TOS 1.4 on disk to try, which also worked. It made my machine appear like an STFM on the desktop but when Magic Boy loaded I still got all the STE enhanced features (because games usually hit the hardware directly), so there must have been something different in TOS 2.06's disk handling, causing a few games to not load. Mystery solved. Phil shot himself in the foot by offering that TOS 1.4 disk, I was quite prepared at the time to swap TOS chips permanently. Below is a picture of the time he brought his machine to my flat for an attempt at serial port networking. Two Mega STEs in one room!

[Photo: Two Mega STEs]

Tony Manero still isn't going to strut his stuff on DVD until October this year. What has taken so long?

[Image: Detail of Mega STE picture]

Detail from the side of my book-shelf: the logo was traced from the shipping carton, coloured with Pentel R50 ball pen. Background gradient fill using WHSmith 20-pack artists' blendable colouring pencils. Did this in my school days where I had it on the wall in my corner of the Art room reserved for A-Level students.

[Image: Detail of detail]

Detail from the detail: now you can see a pencil-rendered 3D scene from a QRT example file and (just about) the Atari logo on a separate sheet underneath it!

Temperature testing

Observations over the years led me to suspect that my wobbly graphics problem was thermally related. I was able to verify this beyond doubt by leaving my machine running with its lid open, next to my perpetually open window letting in the cold Manchester air (I could leave a beer on the window sill overnight and enjoy an ice-cold brew in the morning). Sure enough any special display modes looked worse than ever and heating up the room cured it. Running a hot machine is one way to reduce its life span, not an option.

[Photo: Mega STE open by the window]

Fact: Mega STEs don't have heavy and awkward internal metal shielding covering the motherboard. Instead, a radiation blocking material is sprayed on the inside of the case, giving it the brown colour.

[Photo: Stereo Master Mk2 - SE]

In my final months of university I got fed up with the label peeling off my Stereo Master sampling cartridge and its unreliable 3.5 mm input socket. I fitted a pair of sturdy gold-plated RCA sockets and made a new, Special Edition label in Papyrus, laminated and glued on with some good strong stuff.

Getting connected back at home
Party's over, straight into the grind. For a short while I continued my internet access at work, then in November I took the plunge and bought a modem of my own, a Motorola ModemSURFR 56K (faster version of the 28.8 model I used at work and with less LEDs) based on K56Flex, a standard soon to be swept away with US Robotics' competing and incompatible X2 to make way for the ITU-ratified V.90. Zetnet Internet Service was advertising regularly in Atari Computing, offering an Atari connection pack and support. Many other Atari users were on Zetnet so it was the easy choice for me.

In the week of waiting for the Zetnet Atari pack I experimented with my modem, successfully making my first connection to the All at Sea BBS. What a magical feeling to watch and hear this happen! I got as far as the welcome screen and failed dismally at downloading files, being a "Comms" ignoramus (Chris Holland once wrote a side-splitting disk magazine article about this mysterious blackart). Not to worry, at least I knew my modem was working and soon I'd have the wonders of the WWW at my fingertips.

Setting up the 1996-dated STiK TCP/IP stack was not as painful as many people had made out, once I sorted out a modem bug (it needed its region flag set to USA to work properly in the UK so I had to take it to work and connect it to the PC to run the configuration software) it continued to serve me even after moving together with my on-line activities to my Falcon some time later. 

[Photo: Modem with Mega STE]

Modem and Mega STE.

[Photo: Modem with 520STFM]

Modem and 520STFM.

E-mail was my most urgent priority, to maintain contacts and continue submitting articles for Atari Computing. My first test message was to Denesh Bhabuta, knowing I'd get the fastest reply from him because he has a permanent internet connection going to his brain. He telephoned me the same evening and I already knew why: I'd forgotten to set my return address and he couldn't reply.

1998: Hello Falcon030
New-toy-itis hit me at Easter, I wanted to explore the high-end of TOS computing, the choice was between a self-build Hades kit or Falcon. I went with the more affordable Falcon and spent the change on software and accessories, like an Afterburner 040 accelerator which I would never fit and various audio interfaces. My Mega STE continued to handle internet duties, especially because the old version of NEWSie, the e-mail client supplied by Zetnet (so old that binaries had to be separately encoded then manually pasted into the message), and even its immediate successors, had a freaky habit of causing lost clusters on whatever hard disk partition was used for the mail spool. No way was I risking having that happen on my Falcon.

Come March 1999 I fitted a CT2 accelerator and even then took some months before trying to get on-line with my Falcon. For page rendering speed comparison I began to browse web sites but still swapped the modem back to my Mega STE for e-mail. This became unbearably cumbersome and eventually I just shoved the whole lot over to the Falcon, by which time NEWSie appeared to be behaving a lot better anyway.

2000: Goodbye Snap, Crackle and Pop
[Photo: Mega STE video shifter C301712]
This naughty chip on the right was mercilessly extracted from its cosy PLCC socket in February. While at university I'd gathered from some obscure Usenet postings that it could be the culprit behind my wobbly graphics and crackling sound. The solution was allegedly the older video shifter, part C300588. I tracked one down, popped it in and instantly cured the seven-and-a-half year bane of my STE enjoyment. No more envying 520 and 1040STE owners, I could have my cake and eat it. Of all the Mega STEs I've ever looked inside there was the C300588, it was just like me to get the lemon, no wonder nobody seemed to have a clue what I was talking about when I described the problems it caused.

The last modification I made was cutting short and re-crimping the Atari SCSI ribbon cable, using a dedicated crimping tool I bought for working on PCs. It was excessively long and had to be folded up to fit inside, putting pressure on the host adapter card and then still having to be partially tucked in the space above the drive mechanism, just think of those machines with full-height mechanisms installed (such as Atari's OEM Seagate 48 MB drives) where there is no overhead clearance in the drive cage!

So far I've not had temptation or reason to DIY-modify (in the sense of hack-sawing and drilling) my Mega STE, it's a nice machine the way it is and has a good base specification. There's still room for non-surgical expansion in the VME bay. I have my mind set on a Riebl VME Ethernet card, and maybe something else (involving a little soldering) that will have to wait until the next service interval. Watch this space.

[Photo: Mega STE gallery 1]

[Photo: Mega STE gallery 2]

[Photo: Mega STE gallery 3]

[Photo: Mega STE gallery 4]

[Photo: Mega STE gallery 5]

[Photo: Mega STE gallery 6]

[Photo: Mega STE gallery 7]

Appendix A: Atari UK leaflet and brochures about and featuring the Mega STE, published in early 1992. The brochures were born of a professional systems initiative, partnering select dealers to promote the Mega STE and TT models as business market solutions.

[Image: Mega STE - High Tech at a Glance leaflet]

[Image: Atari DesTop Publishing brochure]

[Image: Atari Word Processing System brochure]

[Image: Atari Music System brochure]

Appendix B: Atari SC1435 gallery, courtesy of Alex Pustan.

[Photo: SC1435 gallery 1]

[Photo: SC1435 gallery 2]

[Photo: SC1435 gallery 3]

[Photo: SC1435 gallery 4]

[Photo: SC1435 gallery 5]

[Photo: SC1435 gallery 6]

Useful links


Top of page ]

[ Page 1 2 3 ]

MyAtari magazine - Feature #2, September 2002

Copyright 2002 MyAtari magazine