The past few years have seen many notable 30th anniversary celebrations in the retro computing/gaming community–from the birthdays of the humble but seminal Sinclair ZX81 and the ever-popular ZX Spectrum via the versatile BBC Micro to those mighty 16/32 bit beasts, the Atari ST, and Commodore Amiga. This month it’s the turn of the once-popular, but now largely forgotten (at least on the internet) dedicated British Atari ST magazine, ST Update.
March 1987 saw the birth of the Sunshine Publications magazine, which was dedicated to all aspects of Atari’s finest range of computers, which at the time were popular and affordable competitors to the somewhat similar Apple Macintosh and Commodore Amiga. ST Update was an excellent magazine that, unfairly, has gone mostly unrepresented online. It’s also significant because the glossy title, which was published from London, England, was also the first computer magazine to publish the work of yours truly, Stuart Williams–aka ‘STu’ on BT’s much-missed pre-internet online service Micronet 800–later that year. So it’s my birthday as well, in a way!
Having now been invited to take up my pen for Retro Gaming Mag (thanks, guys!) I thought that it would be a fun and timely opportunity to look back to the launch issue of ST Update for inspiration for this first article. I’ve recently been in touch with the former advertising manager and co-founder of the magazine, Jon Beales, who tells me that the magazine was his idea, and also that he reckons the market for gaming on the Atari ST in the UK was pretty small in early 1987, even though the computer had been released nearly two years ago. A figure of 25,000 STs in the UK was suggested at the time. This is why, he says, ST Update wasn’t initially framed as a dedicated gaming mag, though I remember plenty of ST activity at my local computer clubs. So, what was being reviewed, game-wise, in the otherwise practically-oriented magazine for ‘Spring 1987’, thirty years ago?
There was a big feature on flight simulators for one–which seems appropriate for what was billed as, literally, the ‘pilot’ issue. Certainly, the ST was well-suited to such games, with a relatively powerful Motorola 68000 16/32-bit CPU running at 8MHz and a useful amount of memory (typically 512k-1mb), plenty of ports built-in, decent colour graphics for the time, a dedicated colour monitor available, and a sound chip more than capable of producing the necessary sound effects.
The big noise (chugga-chugga-whoosh!) in flight sims of the day was Flight Simulator II, produced by subLOGIC, a firm of US graphics specialists and flying enthusiasts. FSII, on sale for the ST in March 1987 at £49.95, had its origins on the venerable Apple II, and had gone on to become a massive success on the much more expensive IBM PC.
According to ST Update’s launch editor, and in this case reviewer, Peter Worlock, and my own memory of using the game back in the day agrees, the ST version was better still, with realistic cockpit displays and out-of-window views in nine directions. You could also fly your choice of a private Learjet, a Cessna 182 single-prop high wing monoplane (a popular workhorse of the sky) and, for added fun, there was also the option to fly in a World War I combat game–which seems even more timely now than then, since the world is marking the 100th anniversary years of the Great War. Various areas of the USA were made available for flying around (though presumably not for WWI dogfights).
Worlock, who praised the realism of Flight Simulator II, was also waxing lyrical over Strike Force Harrier, a £29.95 game for ‘airborne killers’ more than would-be pilots! Published by Mirrorsoft, the game was still a pretty fair simulation for the time, albeit some liberties were taken with the realism of the devices available to the pilot in order to simplify things for gamers, such as the 3D colour map which wasn’t even available on real Hawker Siddeley Harriers! The controls were also simplified to make the ‘aeroplane’ easier to ‘fly’–for example there was no reverse thrust, unlike the real V/STOL craft, which was the pride of the Royal Air Force in its day, and is still used by the United States Marine Corps as the ‘McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing) AV-8B Harrier II’. The game offered a ground-based assault scenario, with, typical of the Harrier’s real-life role, a mission to lend support to ground forces.
The game universe was around 30 x 15 sectors in scope, with hundreds of tanks and missile sites ready for the targeting. It would take about a half-hour to cross in real time. With four ground sites to support you in refuelling and re-arming, your mission was to move toward the enemy HQ, clearing territory and establishing landing sites. You were flying blind when moving into new sectors and needed to fly over a beacon at 16,000 feet to receive the 3D map data for that sector, meanwhile dodging enemy Surface-to-Air (SAM) missiles. Exciting stuff! I wonder how many were inspired to join the RAF and become pilots by Strike Force Harrier?
The other simulation covered in some detail by Worlock was Gunship from simulator specialists MicroProse. This was a preview rather than a review, as the combat helicopter simulation was ‘on its way’ rather than ready for action at the time of publication. Combining, it was anticipated, realism with superb gameplay and full-on combat, Gunship had already been a major success on the Commodore 64, and the game was being completely re-done for the capabilities of the Atari ST rather than being simply ported over from the 8-bit format. Reflecting the complexity and depth of the game, the package was complemented in its big box by an 80-page manual, something you don’t often see these days.
Gunship was more involved than the typical simulator; instead of just wandering around the skies, the gamer had to take on a series of missions in an Apache military helicopter, a swift and deadly craft very familiar these days to fans of action movies. Tasked to knock out the enemy’s HQ, depots, bunkers and missile batteries, the ‘pilot’ could also support ground troops by attacking enemy infantry. Preparing for missions involved checking intelligence reports and customising equipment on your chopper. Completing missions, after which you would be debriefed by the computer, meant you could not only win promotion but also potentially be awarded medals–quite the hero! A price was expected to be announced in June/July.
Honourable mentions to other sims in the Spring ’87 ST Update also included Mirrorsoft’s nostalgic Battle of Britain game Spitfire 40 (£29.95), and Electronic Arts’ straightforward aerial shoot ’em up Skyfox, which at £49.95 was short on realism but long on fun. A hint at the future was also given, with F-15 Strike Eagle being worked on by MicroProse (though Worlock seemed unimpressed at the prospect, compared with Gunship).
Flight sims of all these kinds were very popular games during the days of the home computer revolution. In fact there were even specific peripherals dedicated to them by manufacturers such as joystick manufacturing legends QuickShot, who produced the Aviator 1 control unit, aka the QS-155 (released 1991). I even have one of these still myself, it’s a massive beast branded as being dedicated to Atari, Commodore, MSX, Amstrad, Sears, and Sega. I can see I’m going to have to get it out of the cupboard and give it a review in a future piece for Retro Gaming Mag.
Of course, there was much more to gaming on the Atari ST, even in the early years, than flight and combat simulators, but it was a fine niche for the powerful yet affordable machine, and still is. Brief reviews elsewhere in ST Update indicate that there was also plenty going on in the way of arcade conversions, adventure games, sports simulations and RPG’s, amongst others, and a comprehensive software list several pages in length was published in that first issue, so there is clearly plenty of meat for reviews.
I’ll definitely be taking a close look at many other classic games on the ST published throughout its lifetime–as well as the 8-bit Amstrad CPC range, which I also had a lot to do with back in the day–plus more recent software and hardware released for both computer brands, in future articles for Retro Gaming Mag.
I might even–in this, the 50th anniversary year of Star Trek–boldly go where quite a few gamers have gone before, so watch this space!
Note on new stuff for review–if you have published or made available new games or hardware for the Atari ST or Amstrad CPC ranges in recent times, please do get in touch so I can review your work for Retro Gaming Mag! Contact me by email on sixteen32STu@icloud.com