Orphaned Computers & Game Systems

Vol. II, Issue 7    December 1998

Three New Atari 8-bit Cartridges

by Adam Trionfo

Cartridges are my favorite way to access 8-bit programs, because there is no load-time. Stick the cartridge in the computer, throw the switch and like magic, the program is loaded. No fuss at all. Unlike NES cartridges, which seem to grow dirt on the contacts, I have never had to clean off an Atari 8-bit cartridge's contacts. Unfortunately, with the price of disks so far below the cost of cartridges, it has been a very long time since carts have been made for the 8-bit (excluding certain re-releases). This is a shame, because cartridges are the ideal way to distribute software to those that value the increased speed that they offer, and don't mind paying a bit more for the added production cost.

Now things have changed. Included in this issue are reviews of three new cartridges: MYDOS 4.5, Ultra Translator and Solitaire. I have used these three programs extensively, and am therefore able to review them based on my joyful experiences with them. A fourth new cartridge, SpartaDOS 3.3, requires further use before a proper review can be made (look for it in the February issue).

It is so strange to see an Atari 8-Bit cartridge with a copyright notice of this year. But it is wonderful, and I hope it's a sign of further distribution of software in this form. All of these carts are available for twenty dollars each, plus shipping, from Video 61 (Video 61 & Atari Sales, 22735 Congo St. N.E., Stacey, MN 55079; Phone - (651)462-2500).

MYDOS 4.5 -- The Atari disk drive is fast and versatile. It still holds up well, even after all these years. But speed is a factor that everyone considers, so giving the old 5 1/4" drive a little nudge isn't going to make anyone cringe. Loading DOS every time the computer is turned on, even before using a cartridge BASIC, doesn't take too long; but it does add an extra thirty seconds or so to the start-up time. I never thought there was an alternative, other than buying a hard drive. But now there is a far less expensive item: an Atari-compatible DOS on cartridge named MYDOS.

I have discussed MYDOS in these pages before. It is compatible with AtariDOS, but adds features and benefits. It was released as shareware in 1988, and is probably the easiest yet most powerful DOS one can use. The disk version, available at any Atari FTP site on the Internet, is a must-have utility. But like all disk-based programs, it takes time to load from the disk drive. Wouldn't it be nice to be able to have access to MYDOS without needing to load it? That is the idea behind this cartridge. The only difference between the cartridge and disk versions is that the cart requires an XL/XE system. This is probably because the original 800 can't have the cartridge-slot cover removed while in operation.

The cartridge works in a manner that I have never seen before (except on two of the other new cartridges). Normally, on any cartridge-based system, the user inserts a cart, turns the machine on and uses the software that is on the cartridge ROM. The MYDOS cartridge works in the same way, but has one added step: After the computer is turned on, the cartridge must be removed -- with the computer left on. Only then does MYDOS load.

BASIC looks like a cartridge to the Atari, even on the XL/XE systems where it's built-in. If the MYDOS cartridge weren't removed, then BASIC couldn't even be used. The cartridge has to work this way so that DOS is resident in the proper area of memory. It is a rather strange feeling to be prompted to remove the cartridge while the computer is on, but it does work. Most importantly of all, I have not found one program that fails to work because of this cartridge DOS. Never, in all the time I have used my Atari 8-bit, have I found an application or utility that has saved me so much time. Highly recommended!

Solitaire -- There was a time, before the release of Windows '95, when many people said that the only reason to run Windows was to play Solitaire. Admittedly, Microsoft's version of Solitaire that is included with Windows is highly playable. It appeals to the masses because just about everyone knows how to play. You might not know how to use Windows, but you can at least play games with it.

The Atari 8-bit has seen more than its fair share of Solitaire games. Many of them were available for the first time as type-in programs from such awesome magazines as Antic, Analog and Compute!. But I've never played even one game that was remotely comparable with Windows Solitaire -- until now.

All of the type-in and PD Solitaire games had some drawbacks that, to me, made the games far less fun to play than actually taking out a deck of cards and dealing them myself. There were quite a few versions that used the Graphics 8 screen to deal and display the cards. This slowed the game down badly, as the player was forced to wait for screen-fills of the diamonds, hearts, clubs and spades. It was intolerable. Many programmers must have felt the same, because other versions used character graphics. This relieved the slowness, but the cards ended up with no detail. Given a choice, I would rather play that faster, less detailed version of Solitaire.

Now there is another option. Child'sPlay Software has written an alternative to each of the above situations. This fast and detailed version of Solitaire has been written using the Atari-specific language Action. Besides warranting the praise of being the best version of Solitaire on the Atari 8-bit, it goes to show what a good programmer can do with a whopping 13K of memory. The cartridge can be used on both the older 800 with 48K and the XL/XE systems.

There is a few options that make this game more enjoyable for those who know how to play Solitaire well. The player can choose to draw three cards or just one at a time. Drawing only one card makes the game too easy; I can beat it every time in this mode. Scoring is also available. I don't use it myself, but normal and "Vegas-style" scoring can be used if desired (the default is "no scoring").

The cursor that selects the cards is controlled with a joystick. It works well; I have no complaints about play-control. I do have one suggestion, though: Since so much effort has gone into this fine creation, I would love to see an option for mouse control (ST or Amiga) or true Atari Trak-Ball control. This would set the game apart from all other 8-bit versions. If you have played Missile Command using the standard joystick, and then tried the Atari ST mouse instead (it is a hidden feature; press Control-T), you understand the significant improvement that this could make to Solitaire.

If you enjoy Solitaire, then I suggest you have a look at this game. There is no better version available for the Atari. But what really places it over the top is that it is available for play immediately -- no loading time. I applaud the release of this game on cartridge!

Ultra-Translator -- The Atari XL/XE series of computers introduced enough differences into the OS that some of the older 400/800 programs no longer ran. Atari made available a disk-based program that translated the new OS to the old one, so that most games and applications would run. A similar program, called Ultra-Translator, was available on disk as well, and has now been placed on cartridge. Either you need this program, and it becomes an invaluable piece of software for you, or it is never used.

I have used Ultra-Translator to run two games that did not work on my 800XL otherwise: Drelbs and Space Eggs. But this cartridge isn't for everyone. If you use a disk translator extensively, then this will save you the trouble of loading it and then swapping disks. But if you only use a translator on occasion, then you probably don't need this cartridge.

In general, if you don't already own a translator program, but would like to get older software running on your XL/XE, then this is your best bet. -- AT