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Atari 2600 Programming for Newbies

Session 1: Start Here

By Andrew Davie (adapted by Duane Alan Hahn, a.k.a. Random Terrain)

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Page Table of Contents

Original Session

So, you want to program the Atari 2600 and don't know where to start?


Welcome to the first installment of "000001010 00101000 00000000 1100101"which at first glance is a rather odd name for a programming tutorialbut on closer examination is appropriate, as it is closely involved with what it's like to program the Atari 2600. The string of 0's and 1's is actually a binary representation of "2600 101".


I'm Andrew Davie, and I've been developing games for various computers and consoles since the late 1970s. Really! What I plan to do with this tutorial is introduce you to the arcane world of programming the '2600, and slowly build up your skill base so that you can start to develop your own games. We'll take this in slow easy stages.


Developing for the Atari 2600 is much simpler today than it was when the machine was a force in the marketplace (back in the 1980s). We have a helpful online community of dedicated programmers, readily available documentation, tools, and sample codeand online forums where we can pose questions and get almost instant feedback and answers. So don't be scaredwith a bit of effort, anyone can do this!


It is this online community which makes developing for the machine 'fun'though I use that in the broadest sense of the word. My 'fun' may be another man's 'torture'. For programming this machine is tricky at bestand not for the feint of heart. But the rewards are greatmaking this simple hardware do anything at all is quite an achievementand making it do something new and interesting gives one a warm fuzzy feeling inside.


So, let's get right into it . . . here's your first installment of "2600 101". We're going to assume that you know how to program *something*, but not much more than that. We'll walk through binary arithmetic, hexadecimal, machine architecture, assemblers, graphics, and whatever else gets in our way. And we'll probably divert on tangential issues here and there. But hopefully we'll come out of it with a greater understanding of this little machine, and appreciation for the work of those brilliant programmers who have developed the classics for this system.






The Basics

A game on the '2600 comes in the form of a cartridge (or 'tape') which is plugged into the console itself. This cartridge consists of a circuit board containing a ROM (or EPROM) which is basically just a silicon chip containing a program and graphics for displaying the game on your TV set. This program (and graphics) are really just a lot of numbers stored on the ROM which are interpreted by the CPU (the processor) inside your '2600 just like a program on any other computer. What makes the '2600 special is . . . nothing. It's a computer, just like any other!


A computer typically consists of a CPU, memory, and some input/output (I/O) systems. The '2600 has a CPU (a 6507), memory (RAM for the program's calculations, ROM to hold the program and graphics), and I/O systems (joystick and paddles for input, and output to your TV).





So, there's not really much to it so farwe have a microprocessor running a program from ROM, using RAM, as required, for the storage of dataand the output of our program being displayed on a TV set. What could be simpler?






The Development Process

Developing a game for the '2600 is an iterative process involving editing source code, assembling the code, and testing the resulting binary (usually with an emulator). Our first step is to gather together the tools necessary to perform these tasks.




Now that we have an editor, an assembler, and an emulatorthe next important things are documentation and sources for information. There are many places on the 'net where you can find information for programming '2600, but perhaps the most important are:

The Stella List








And finally, documentation. A copy of the technical specifications of the '2600 hardware (the Stella Programmer's Guide) is essential. . .

Stella Programmer's Guide

- HTML Version

- PDF version







OK, that's all we need. Here's a summary of what you should have. . .


That's it for this session. Have a read of the Stella Programmer's Guide (don't worry about understanding it yet), and try installing your emulator (and play a few games for 'research' purposes). Next time we will make sure that our development environment is setup correctly, and start to discuss the principles of programming a '2600 game.


P.S. I can't promise to complete this 'course'but hopefully what I do write will be interesting and helpful.




Other Assembly Language Tutorials

Be sure to check out the other assembly language tutorials and the general programming pages on this web site.


Amazon Stuff





Next Session >






Session Links

Session 1: Start Here

Session 2: Television Display Basics

Sessions 3 & 6: The TIA and the 6502

Session 4: The TIA

Session 5: Memory Architecture

Session 7: The TV and our Kernel

Session 8: Our First Kernel

Session 9: 6502 and DASM - Assembling the Basics

Session 10: Orgasm

Session 11: Colorful Colors

Session 12: Initialization

Session 13: Playfield Basics

Session 14: Playfield Weirdness

Session 15: Playfield Continued

Session 16: Letting the Assembler do the Work

Sessions 17 & 18: Asymmetrical Playfields (Parts 1 & 2)

Session 19: Addressing Modes

Session 20: Asymmetrical Playfields (Part 3)

Session 21: Sprites

Session 22: Sprites, Horizontal Positioning (Part 1)

Session 22: Sprites, Horizontal Positioning (Part 2)

Session 23: Moving Sprites Vertically

Session 24: Some Nice Code

Session 25: Advanced Timeslicing





Useful Links

Easy 6502 by Nick Morgan

How to get started writing 6502 assembly language. Includes a JavaScript 6502 assembler and simulator.



Atari Roots by Mark Andrews (Online Book)

This book was written in English, not computerese. It's written for Atari users, not for professional programmers (though they might find it useful).



Machine Language For Beginners by Richard Mansfield (Online Book)

This book only assumes a working knowledge of BASIC. It was designed to speak directly to the amateur programmer, the part-time computerist. It should help you make the transition from BASIC to machine language with relative ease.



The Second Book Of Machine Language by Richard Mansfield (Online Book)

This book shows how to put together a large machine language program. All of the fundamentals were covered in Machine Language for Beginners. What remains is to put the rules to use by constructing a working program, to take the theory into the field and show how machine language is done.



6502 Instruction Set with Examples

A useful page from Assembly Language Programming for the Atari Computers.

Continually strives to remain the largest and most complete source for 6502-related information in the world.



Guide to 6502 Assembly Language Programming by Andrew Jacobs

Below are direct links to the most important pages.



Stella Programmer's Guide

HTMLified version.



Nick Bensema's Guide to Cycle Counting on the Atari 2600

Cycle counting is an important aspect of Atari 2600 programming. It makes possible the positioning of sprites, the drawing of six-digit scores, non-mirrored playfield graphics and many other cool TIA tricks that keep every game from looking like Combat.



How to Draw A Playfield by Nick Bensema

Atari 2600 programming is different from any other kind of programming in many ways. Just one of these ways is the flow of the program.



Cart Sizes and Bankswitching Methods by Kevin Horton

The "bankswitching bible." Also check out the Atari 2600 Fun Facts and Information Guide and this post about bankswitching by SeaGtGruff at AtariAge.



Atari 2600 Specifications

Atari 2600 programming specs (HTML version).



Atari 2600 Programming Page (AtariAge)

Links to useful information, tools, source code, and documentation.




Atari 2600 programming site based on Garon's "The Dig," which is now dead.



TIA Color Charts and Tools

Includes interactive color charts, an NTSC/PAL color conversion tool, and Atari 2600 color compatibility tools that can help you quickly find colors that go great together.



The Atari 2600 Music and Sound Page

Adapted information and charts related to Atari 2600 music and sound.



Game Standards and Procedures

A guide and a check list for finished carts.




A multi-platform Atari 2600 VCS emulator. It has a built-in debugger to help you with your works in progress or you can use it to study classic games.




A very good emulator that can also be embedded on your own web site so people can play the games you make online. It's much better than JStella.



batari Basic Commands

If assembly language seems a little too hard, don't worry. You can always try to make Atari 2600 games the faster, easier way with batari Basic.



Atari 2600 BASIC

If assembly language is too hard for you, try batari Basic. It's a BASIC-like language for creating Atari 2600 games. It's the faster, easier way to make Atari 2600 games.

Try batari Basic

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View this page and any external web sites at your own risk. I am not responsible for any possible spiritual, emotional, physical, financial or any other damage to you, your friends, family, ancestors, or descendants in the past, present, or future, living or dead, in this dimension or any other.


Use any example programs at your own risk. I am not responsible if they blow up your computer or melt your Atari 2600. Use assembly language at your own risk. I am not responsible if assembly language makes you cry or gives you brain damage.


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