ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

Racing the Beam —

Think of all the time I’m going to save you.


Instead of writing a massive amount of flowery language about Racing the Beam, the new book co-authored by Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost, I am going to nail it right down to whether you will want or not want this book based on one section. In fact, on one set of discussions/writings in that one section.

The one section is about Pitfall, in fact, and it covers the ways the hardware design of the Atari 2600/VCS facilitated and limited the advantages of the game (and, indeed, all games written for the VCS). Through one particularly enlightening sequence, the authors demonstrate in basically clear language how the entire level design for the 255 rooms in Pitfall was compressed into 50 bytes. Woah, hey there cowboy, I didn’t write that wrong. They clearly and contextually explain to you how David Crane, the designer of Pitfall, encompassed the entire design for all 255 rooms of Pitfall in 50 individual characters.


That one section goes on to describe all other aspects of Pitfall, from how the running man character (Pitfall Harry) was a months-previous character existing long before the game, and how critical it was to ensure the black lines along the left side of available television screen space were consistent from top to bottom because the designers thought it ugly otherwise.

And that section is one of multiple sections, addressing Pitfall, Combat, Adventure, Yar’s Revenge, and a boatload of related aspects of the VCS.

You are either ordering the book now or you are waiting for me to go on another profane rant.

Look how much time I saved you.

Categorised as: computer history

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  1. Drew Wallner says:

    Did I order the book already? No. However, did I add it to my wish list before even finishing reading this blog entry? Absolutely.

    By the way, in case you’ve never heard of it, check out “ZAP, The Rise and Fall of Atari” sometime.

  2. Jason Scott says:

    Got it. I have most books of that nature, hence my delight at another one being added to the pile, and especially from two people I interviewed for my documentary. I interviewed Ian the weekend he and Nick were collaborating on this book, in fact.

  3. Rubes says:

    Very cool. I was, in fact, waffling about buying this book, but that did a pretty good job of convincing me.

  4. sushi-k says:


    Love you.

  5. Ben Combee says:

    Already read the book — I devoured it in a weekend. It’s quite a nice read, and while not quite as technical as the Stella mailing list where 2600 programming is regularly discussed, I think it gets the spirit of the machine and it’s inventors across well.

  6. Mark Sachs says:

    Jason Scott, you magnificent bastard. I was mashing “Buy” the moment I reached the link at the end of your blog entry.