Using computers since the late 80’s until today, and never ever used or touched an Atari ST before to some might sound like a joke, but it is true in my case and I am also wondering how comes it happened to me to play my very first computer games on a less popular micro like the Sinclair QL, but I never saw an ST up close all my life, also since I never had any interaction with the platform at all, I never felt the need to fire up an emulator and explore things. If you have never ever used an Atari ST like myself most likely you will find something interesting here.
Maybe it is that where I grew up there were almost none of Atari’s presence or maybe I wasn’t aware of it, fact is that I never saw one anywhere but in magazines. Speaking of magazines I was always fond of the appearance of this machine and those slightly tilted function keys were very attractive in my eyes.
Owning mostly commodore machines, including a breadbin commodore 64 alongside my Amiga 600 and Amiga CD32 before moving to the PC era, I decided that it was time to get my hands on an Atari ST. When I used to read reviews of games back in the day I almost always had the feeling that the Amiga’s and the ST’s titles were one and the same, just different platforms (that’s because I couldn’t hear the games through the magazines but more on that later).
After some thought I decided that I wanted to virtually go back in time and instead of buying an Amiga 600, I was going to get hold of a similar 16 bit computer from Atari, a 520STFM. I know many will say that the Amiga 600 had 1024kb of ram and the 520STFM half of it and a comparison with a 1040STE 1024kb ram would have been more fair. The reason that I decided to go for a 520STFM is because prior on getting my own Amiga I was using my friend’s Amiga 500 with 512kb ram and to be honest I wasn’t aware of the more ram thing back then, let alone what a blitter was. All the games we liked were playing fine with 512kb, my only requirement as a kid was the computer to have a TV Modulator because I couldn’t afford a monitor, therefore I am pretty sure that I was going to get a 520STFM if I had to choose back then.
After browsing eBay for some time I came across a good deal for a UK version STFM, it was sold for spares or repair as there were some faults with it but it was powering on, the factory seal made it sound an even better deal as I don’t want to get hold of a machine that someone butchered it and experiment on it before. I went ahead and bought it, I will be honest with you, I had the feeling and still have it that I got a new computer like it is early 90’s because I never saw one up close, this is all very new to me in the Atari world.
While waiting for its arrival I started reading the history behind it, read and watched some reviews and looked around in Atari forums. I found out some interesting stuff like that the ST name derives from “Sixteen” for the 16 bit internal bus and “Thirty two” for the 32 bit external bus of the computer, the 520 stands for the 512kb ram model and the 1040 for the 1024kb ram model (otherwise identical), also that the FM stands for “Floppy” as the very first models didn’t have any floppy internally and “Modulator for the built in TV modulator. The “E” on the STE stands for ST “Enhanced” version which had better graphics and sound. Interestingly enough I found out about TOS “The Operating System” and GEM “Graphics Environment Manager” which I thought that it had to be loaded from disks like the Amiga Workbench, though it is installed on a rom chip, ready and waiting.
I will not cover here any history of the ST as others have done it before me and all I was going to do was to write the same stuff and quote them. The most intriguing part though I would like to point out of ST’s history is the fact that it could have been the Atari “Amiga” if Atari’s bosses believed from the beginning in Jay Miners (then an Atari employee, considered the father of Amiga) vision for a 68000 Motorola cpu powered computer with custom chips, and gave him the means to work on the Amiga (Lorraine) project instead of pushing him away. In what degree the history of home computers would have been different we will never find out.
About 10 days later my precious box arrived with a sticker on the box “Super Pack” 450 UK Pounds worth of software included, the seller didn’t mention anything about it, could it be part of the deal ? Of course it wasn’t there wasn’t even polys inside the box to my disappointment, just the main unit wrapped decently I might say with bubble wrap but the rest of the stuff flying around inside the box during transportation, other than that I was aware that the serial number on the box did not match the one of the computer.
Main unit check, power cable check, TV modulator cable check, users manual check, 2 mice check. I was told that the first mouse had an issue with the buttons and the second one that was very dead, since the dead one was in better cosmetic condition I thought I could just switch the external cases and check the issue with the buttons on the other one. To my surprise they were very different inside, the first one looked like it was built by a reputable company like Atari and the second one, I don’t know, like it came from an unknown OEM with Atari’s logo on it. I’ve read about Jack Tramiels (Atari’s CEO at the time) corner cutting, low cost methods and this second mouse proves it 100%. Some of the wires were detached from the mouse pcb and after re-soldering them back to their positions the dead mouse felt alive again and started breathing, still very fragile though.
I’ve tried to load some software but the floppy drive refused to run anything although it could read the contents of the disk. Thorough floppy drive cleanup to follow.
Time to get inside and yet another surprise, the warranty seal had another warranty seal below and it was re-sealed with what seems to be an official Atari seal sticker, most likely this computer was repaired officially by Atari under warranty. Before proceeding further I wanted to take a look at the floppy first, so I unscrewed the three screws below the case and the two screws inside the unit that was holding the floppy in place. I took off the metal cap and the floppy heads appeared and knelt before me. I used a pressurised air dust remover firstly to clean it very well and then used some pure alcohol on an earbud to gently clean the heads and applied some new grease on the motor parts of the drive. I’ve connected it back and some programs worked while other gave errors again, I repeated the process with the head cleaning and the second time everything worked perfectly.
The rest of the computer works perfectly and because I second it when they say if it ain’t broken don’t try to fix it, I decided to just clean the computer all around and make it look great again. I’ve taken out the power supply and the metal part that covers the mainboard, the mainboard’s revision is C070789-001 REV.D, which I don’t know if it is a good version for the STFM or not but since I like my vintage computers without any structural mods it doesn’t really matter to me. The 6 TOS chips are the UK version since the computer came from the UK and seems to be TOS 1.02, 1987 version.
Shortly after the upper cover and keyboard keys took a bath and been drying, I went ahead and cleaned the rest parts especially the keyboard plastic plate thoroughly, where needed I used alcohol on a microfiber, I’m very happy with the result.
After putting the keyboard back together, I’ve tried my Gotek virtual floppy to check the compatibility with an ST, the physical disks that I have ordered are still on their way so no much stuff to play around. The Gotek has the Flash Floppy latest version which I was using it with my Amiga, the jumper positions seems to be the same for both Amiga and the ST. The system recognised it right away and everything worked perfectly on native mode but when I tried the HxC compatible mode, although it was loading the HxC menu and I was able to choose the image files into positions, after saving and rebooting the USB flash drive was not recognised any more by the system and when putting it back on the PC, the PC couldn’t recognise the drive as well and had to reformat it. Maybe I am doing something wrong or there is some known issue I am not aware of.
Let’s get to business, if what I wanted to do was going back in time and exchange my Amiga for an ST then I had to relive my very first gaming experience. When I bought my Amiga I was given 4 games with it. The first was Sensible Soccer, the second was Lotus Turbo Challenge II, the third was Alien Breed 1992 Special Edition and the fourth was Toki. Since I had the heads up from gathering information of the poor results of the Yamaha’s sound chip, I was looking forward to compare the music tunes and sound effects firstly and then anything else.
I loaded up Sensible Soccer first, everything seemed familiar, insert disk two etc. The welcoming tune was not that bad actually, thinking that maybe people over do it with the ST bad sound thing or maybe it’s just a sampled track? I reached to the main menu and even if I wanted to avoid the sound comparison I couldn’t, familiar tune but sounded more like my gameboy instead of a 16 bit computer. Going into gameplay the game runs smoothly and is very responsive to the joystick commands, the graphics are detailed with rich colours but the sound effects are another let down. After having a few good football rounds, I thought maybe it is the programming and another game will be better music wise and I moved on.
My second try was Lotus Turbo Challenge II. Since the very first thing you come across in this game is the opening music tune, I’ve tried to wipe the Amiga’s version off my mind which I am very familiar with, and give it a fair hearing. The very beginning is very disappointing but as it is progressing is getting better and it remains a catchy tune. The graphics here are detailed with rich colours as well and the gameplay very responsive, the sound effects unfortunately again doesn’t feel like they are up to the whole game experience.
Then I decided to move on to the third game. Guess what, surprise again, huge surprise actually, there were no Alien Breed for the Atari ST… I was like I must be doing something wrong or I am looking at the wrong places, I had it for granted that there is somewhere and I can’t find it. Wikipedia told me otherwise, sorry buddy, team 17 didn’t have any love for the ST. All right then nothing more that I can do.
And finally to the fourth game. Toki greeted me with a music tune as well, technically Amiga’s version is more advanced but I liked the ST’s version more, it is more catchy to my ears. Graphic wise the game is not very detailed but otherwise very pleasing and enjoyable. The music alongside the sound effects during the gameplay were really good in this one. The game is very responsive but at some sprite intense scenes it is slowing down lowering the fps if I could say. Overall a great port.
Wanted or not I got into the Amiga vs ST, or ST vs Amiga comparison if you prefer. The only reason I did that is only because it happened to have bought an Amiga back in the day, and as much as I wanted to avoid it, my comparison measure was the platform and games that I was familiar with. The reason I’ve decided to compare only the selected four games was because they gave me that wow factor back in the day and I really tried to empty my head and play these games like it was my very first time.
My overall experience with the Atari STFM is very positive. For starters GEM was a really pleasant experience, being able to see the contents of a floppy disk and run individual programs from it without having to load another graphic environment. 520STFM is very easy to use and capable computer, it is shame and a big let down for the rest of the hardware the choice of the sound chip, it makes great games like Lotus Turbo Challenge II to feel very unfinished and cheap knock offs although they are not. Toki is an exception and proves that ST could produce better music and sound effects with some care from the programmers. Also the low fps during Toki’s gameplay could be a programming issue instead of hardware capabilities. Someone with more experience could shed some light regarding this. Last but not least as it is not a secret, for god sake who decided to put the 9 pin joystick and mouse ports beneath the computer?
Conclusion about my very first days as an Atari ST owner. I am really glad that I have decided to jump the ST wagon, I feel it is unavoidable but very unfair to compare the ST with the Amiga all the time as it is a very capable and charming computer on its own.
Do I regret getting an Amiga instead of an Atari ST as my first 16 bit computer? No I can’t say that I do. Would have I been happy with an ST instead of an Amiga? Of course I would have been and I am pretty sure that I wouldn’t have regret it buying that either, I would have just missed the opportunity to enjoy the amazing intro music of Alien Breed SE from Allister Brimble though.
Definitely my sample is limited and there are a whole lot more to explore on the ST line of computers, I just hope that my experience will give a glimpse to people wanting to get involved with the platform. My advice is that if you never had the chance to come across a real piece of hardware back in the day of any platform, this is the closest you can get in reliving that period by researching and learning new stuff about it.
P.s. Since I am very new to the Atari ST platform, this article might contain some inaccuracies regarding technical specifications or history, please feel free to contact me with your input to make any amendments needed (I can guarantee though that my personal opinion is accurate 100%).