Introduced in 1979 with the Atari 400 and Atari 800, the Atari 8-bit line of computers is an interesting and underappreciated area of retro gaming — and computing in general — that is well worth exploring, even if you’re already familiar with the company’s more well-known games consoles.
With a highly active modern development and retro enthusiast community, the Atari 8-bit line offers a distinct range of experiences from its Sinclair, Commodore and Amstrad contemporaries and has something for everyone, whether you’re into frantic arcade-style action or in-depth role-playing games.
The Atari 8-bit systems
There are a number of different Atari 8-bit models available.
Atari 400 – Launched in 1978 as more of a games machine with a keyboard than a computer, the 400 was originally intended to ship with 4K RAM, but falling RAM prices meant that it launched with 8K. Later releases of the 400 featured a maxed-out 16K of RAM.
The 400 was notorious for its spillproof flat membrane keyboard, which is very difficult to type on. A popular modification for 400 owners at the time of its original release was to replace this with a typewriter-style keyboard, so many 400s you find today will likely lack their original keyboards.
Atari 800 – Positioned as the “serious” computer to the 400’s games machine, the 800 was an easily upgradeable computer that originally shipped with 8K of RAM. This could be upgraded to 48K maximum; later releases of the 800 came with this as standard.
The 800 is, in many ways, a considerably better machine than the 400, but its considerably higher price on its original launch meant that the 400 outsold it by a factor of about 2 to 1. This makes 800s a bit harder to find today.
Atari XL series – Consisting of the 64K 1200XL, the 16K 600XL and the 64K 800XL — with the latter being by far the most common — the XL series brought the Atari 8-bit line up to date with built-in BASIC and a distinctive brown and cream case that just screams “1980s”.
While the 1200XL is notorious for introducing a significant number of compatibility issues and having seriously flawed hardware, both the 600XL and 800XL are good choices for an introductory Atari computer. They’re reliable and comfortable to use, and the 800XL in particular is compatible with the vast majority of popular software available for the platform. Do note that all Atari computers from this point on only have two controller ports, however, compared to the four the 400 and 800 had.
Atari XE series – The XE series is mostly distinguished by its completely redesigned grey plastic case, designed to resemble its 16-bit contemporary, the ST. It was available in three models: the 64K 65XE, the 128KB 130XE and the XE Video Game System, typically referred to as the XEGS. The latter is a redesigned 65XE with a detachable keyboard and a games console-style main unit.
The XEGS is noteworthy because it prompted Atari to rerelease a significant number of classic games from the early ’80s on ROM cartridge, making them eminently collectible and much more convenient than loading from cassette or disk.
Media and peripherals
Original Atari software is distributed on cassette, 5.25″ floppy disk or ROM cartridge. Both cassette and disk drives for the platform make use of the Atari’s universal SIO peripheral interface, which is regarded as the spiritual precursor to today’s USB.
For cassettes, look out for the 410, 1010 or XC12 tape drives. For disks, the 1050 disk drive is your best bet for widest compatibility, but the 810 will do in a pinch. The ultimate Atari 8-bit disk drive is the XF551, but those are like gold dust.
Modern alternatives to original media include rewritable flash cartridges such as the Atarimax and SD card solutions such as the SIO2SD. It’s also possible to connect an Atari 8-bit directly to a modern PC using a combination of software and hardware called APE, or Atari Peripheral Emulator.
Atari 8-bit computers use standard 9-pin connectors for controllers — the same as those seen on other home computers of the time, and indeed Atari’s 2600. If it’s a single-button controller with an “Atari” connector on the end, chances are it’ll work on the Atari 8-bit.
Atari software is readily available on original media via eBay — however, as with any sort of retro magnetic media, note that there’s a significant risk that the media will have degraded over time and be unusable.
The database at Atarimania carries downloadable versions of a wide variety of Atari software and games with the full approval of the original authors. And Homesoft maintains a comprehensive archive of both disk images and individual executable files that can be booted in emulators or on real hardware if written to the appropriate media.
Star Raiders – One of the first ever 3D space combat simulations, this all-time classic by Doug Neubauer holds up incredibly well today. Featuring an addictive blend of strategy and action, Star Raiders was regarded as the Atari 8-bit’s killer app back when it originally released, and has not declined in popularity ever since.
M.U.L.E. – While the planetary colonisation sim M.U.L.E. was available on several other platforms, it was specifically designed to take advantage of the four joystick ports that the 400 and 800 offered. Play M.U.L.E. on one of these platforms with three friends and you’ll find yourself enjoying one of the best multiplayer games of all time, blending board-game style strategy with the sort of interactivity only a computer game can offer.
Rescue on Fractalus – Developed specifically for the Atari 8-bit computers and the 5200 games console, which was based on similar hardware, Rescue on Fractalus is one of the platform’s most impressive games. Essentially a 3D take on classic arcade game Defender, Rescue on Fractalus challenges you to rescue downed pilots from an incredibly inhospitable environment while fending off alien nasties.
Atari 8-bit Emulation
If you can’t quite stretch to some real hardware just yet but want to get a taste of the Atari 8-bit experience for yourself, there are a number of different emulators available. By far the best, however, is Altirra, a cycle-perfect emulator of the 400 and 800, 1200XL, 600 and 800XL, 130XE, XE Games System and 5200.
Altirra works straight out of the “box” with its proprietary operating system images, though since these are not original Atari ROMs, there may be some compatibility issues. Original Atari ROMs can be tracked down fairly easily online, but unfortunately we’re not able to link directly to them for you! You’re a resourceful sort of person, though; you’ll be fine.
Best of luck with your new Atari journey!