Programming Atari 8-Bit Computers

This blog summarizes my experiences around programming Atari 8-bit computers.  In particular, I share my thoughts about what Atari programming books you may want to read. I have found the following books, all of which are available publicly (click on the covers) in PDF, to be great references. I hope it helps.

Learning to Program the 8-Bit Atari

These are great books to learning how to program the Atari. The one that I used the most when I first started programming on Ataris, probably around 1982 or 1983, was BASIC. It was well-written and straightforward. Although I lost my original copy I’ve managed to pick up one that is in pretty good condition, likely better than my original.

De Re Atari was also a key book to read and The Atari Assembler if you were doing machine language.  I was fiddling around with the Assembler cartridge about a year ago and went straight back to this book.

Atari Basic De Re Atari The Atari Assembler

Compute!’s series of books were incredible resources back in the day, and I still have my original copies of them.  These books were must haves back then. A useful feature of these books is that they’re spiral bound, so you could lay them flat on your desk as you copied code snippets from them. The main downside of course that they’re hard to find on a shelf due to lack of a readable spine. And sometimes they would get stuck together.

Compute's First Book of Atari Compute's Second Book of Atari Compute's Third Book of Atari

Programming Graphics

The primary reason to code for this platform is gaming, and to write games you need to understand how sound and graphics work on the Atari. Atari had specialized graphics chips (ANTIC and GTIA) and sound chips (POKEY) which made game programming a heck of a lot easier. I first learned graphics programming from the First Book of Graphics only later picking up the Atari Sound and Graphics book.  My recommended reading order is shown left to right below.

Atari Sound and Graphics Self-Teaching Guide
First Book of Atari Graphics Second book of Atari Graphics

Reference Books

The most useful reference book hands down, at least so I’ve found, is Mapping the Atari. As the title implies, it’s a map of the Atari’s memory locations and how to use them. A close second is the Programmer’s Reference guide followed closely by the Atari Basic Source book. When it comes to understanding disk access, Inside Atari DOS is my goto (some Basic humor there).

Mapping the Atari Programmer Reference Guide to Atari 400/800 Atari Basic Source Book Inside Atari DOS

Good Things to Know: The Atari 8-Bit Computing Platform

The 8-bit Atari computers were based on the following chipset:

  • 6502 (MOS Technology) was an inexpensive 8-bit CPU used in several Atari machines, the Commodore 64, the Apple II, and the Nintendo NES.
  • ANTIC (Alpha Numeric Television Interface Chip) graphics chip The ANTIC chip Graphics
  • GTIA (Graphic Television Interface Adaptor) graphics chip that provided player/missile (sprite) graphics
  • POKEY (Pot Keyboard integrated chip) for sound and serial input/output, which interestingly was also used in many commercial arcade games

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