Last month, we saw how an Apple computer, a working knowledge of 6502 microprocessor
assembly language, and a special development system can help you design your own games
for the Atari 2600 and 5200 systems. But for those who like to program
their own games, there is another game system - and a darn good one at that - that
has been open to user programming for years. And you don't need assembly language
or a computer to get anyhwere. I'm talking about the unit that started out as the
Bally Professional Arcade, more recently known as the Astrocade.
The system has had a long and checkered career in the volatile videogame industry.
As we go to press, the future of Astrocade is unsure as they attempt to extricate
themselves from Chapter XI. But that's not what this story is about.
As a good many of the estimated 120,000 Astrocade owners know, the
Astrocade, in addition to playing some of the graphically and sonically
best videogame cartridges ever, is programmable in BASIC with the help of the
BASIC language/cassette-interface adapter. In recent times, this accessory and
well-prepared BASIC tutorial/reference manual has been included as standard equipment
with the unit.
The open access to the Astrocade has caused a closely knit and loyal following
of Astrocade enthusiasts to band together in users groups and in an open exchange
of information via the major news pipeline for Astrocaders called The Arcadian,
a monthly newsletter published by Bob Fabris (3626 Morrie Dr., San Jose, CA 95127).
Each issue contains program listings and more advanced programming tips from
experienced users like Andy Guevera.
Andy has taken his interest in the Astrocade up to the assembly-language
level (Z80 microprocessor). But in so doing, he left tracks for others to follow.
He now produces a plug-in cartridge called the Machine Language Manager
(The Bit Fiddlers, P.O. Box 11023, San Diego, CA 92111-0010), which guides the way
for novice programmers. You'll still need to know Z80 machine language, but in the
manual that comes with the cartridge. Andy recommends some introductory books.
Machine language allows you to program faster action within the limited built-in RAM
of the Astrocade. Bu there is still plenty going on in BASIC.
The 114-page Astrocade Sourcebook (635 Los Alamos Ave., Livermore, CA 94450),
produced semi-annually by Richard Houser, lists practically every one of the hundreds
of third-party program available - a large percentage of them in BASIC on cassette.
Most of these tapes have been designed by dedicated hobbyists with a love for the
capabilities of the Astrocade system. Everyy once in a while, one of these
hobbyists finds a programming specialty.
George Moses, for example, has unlocked the secrets to the three-voice music
synthesizer of the Astrocade. His company (George Moses Co., P.O. Box 686,
Brighton, MI 48116) offers several casettes of straight music (Scott Joplin rags,
Christmas carols, Bach, and more) playable through the console's synthesizer.
For the musically creative, he also has a music-assembler program to let you try
your hand at it.
George, by the way, produced the continuously running musical score for one of the first
third-party game cartridges for the Astrocade, a family-oriented game called
Treasure Cove by Spectre Systems (Box 1741, Dearborn, MI 48121). Bret Bilbrey,
one of the principals at Spectre was attracted to the Bally system back in 1977
(in the days of the Fairchild Channel F and dedicated Atari videogames) because
he could do things with the BASIC cartridge that no other videogame could let him do.
Since then, Bart and a few others have turned what was a hobby interest into a career,
designing games for the Astrocade.
With the right system, imagination, and a strong desire to master the technical side
of programming in BASIC or (preferably) machine language, rolling your own videogames
is certainly within almost everyone's reach.