Review – Breakin’ The Borders: Volume 1

I just finished reading a book that I am thrilled exists. It would seem unlikely there would be enough interest in a book about what often appears to be a forgotten computer line from the mid-80s to early-90s, the Atari ST. Even more surprising, the book focuses on a niche area of Atari’s 16 and 32-bit computers, the demo scene around them. Yet, the 400-page, full-color, hardcover book before me proves otherwise.

It might be less surprising that that book was published in Germany – one of the Atari computer line’s strongholds in the 80s. The Atari ST never caught on in the United States like it did in Europe which is why, like I did in the 90s purchasing issues of ST Format Magazine from the UK, I am reading imported publications to get my Atari ST fix.

Photo spread in Breakin' the Borders
Photo spread in Breakin’ the Borders.

Breakin’ the Borders, Volume 1, is the first of three books discussing the history of Tramiels‘ Atari – the company arising from Atari, Inc.’s implosion in the earlier 80s caused by the glut and slowdown in home video games. There is a bit of history and a discussion of the computer products released by Atari Corporation, but the real focus is on the individual coders, artists, and musicians who pushed the machines to their limits far beyond what was believed possible. This led to a number of careers in the video game industry.

We read about the many competing and cooperating demo groups and how they tackled technical limitations of the Atari ST in an evolving line of newer, more impressive demos. Indeed, the title of the book refers to the coding exploits involved in removing the large, black borders of the Atari ST’s monitor to utilize the entire screen’s real estate, creating fullscreen graphics. Some of the discussion was a bit over my head, admittedly, and when talk turned to Motorola 68000 assembly tricks, I was lost. Thankfully, not much of the book is this technical.

One of focal points of Breakin’ the Borders is the video game publisher, Thalion, who grew from and drew upon the talent of the Atari demo scene. Hearing about the lifestyle of these young, passionate Atarians was interesting and seeing their passion lead to careers was inspiring. I only remember playing one Thalion game when I had an ST, No Second Prize, which came as a demo on an ST Format cover disk.

Pages with Copy
An example of pages with copy.

Breakin’ the Borders is 400 pages. Many pages are mostly, or even completely, taken up by gorgeous, full-color graphics. The copy tells a little bit about the ST and Atari’s history, the evolution of demos and the coding groups, the commercial endeavors that sprung from the demo scene and ends with a section of interviews with coders, artists, and musicians. There is also some discussion of different Atari trade shows that took place during that time which, honestly, seems a little out-of-place.

The prose for Breakin’ the Borders was originally written in German and translated into English. It is very noticeable that English wasn’t the original language – it seems a little stilted and unnatural. That said, I never felt like I had trouble understanding what the author was trying to convey. Except for the 68000 assembly portions as mentioned previously!

So what do I think about this book? Well, I would imagine that you have to be fairly passionate about the Atari ST to enjoy this book. If you are, it is probably worth the price of admission for a full-color hardcover about this little-discussed computer that inspired you for your coffee table. It was for me. But if you are looking for a clear, well-organized narrative this might not be the book for you.

The cost of the book from the publisher, Microzeit, is 35 Euros, plus shipping.

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