Watch on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jmr30K2w1ZM
The Panther’s Roar - Checking Out An Atari Panther Prototype OTIS Sound Module
The Atari Panther was a 16-bit console that was due to be released in 1991 - but was cancelled right at the last minute, even after prototype dev consoles had been sent out to developers.
In this video I check out an OTIS sound module, based on the Ensoniq sound chip of the same name, ponder what could’ve been, and reach out for help on tracking down some more information for a full documentary style video.
Got any info that might be of interest? Email me on firstname.lastname@example.org!
Thanks to Rosie of RoseTintedSpectrum for his excellent voice acting skills! Go check out his excellent game reviews as well as his hilarious “Breaking Bad Influence” series here: https://www.youtube.com/RoseTintedSpectrum
So, as you probably know I’m a fan of prototype hardware, particularly anything made by Atari - and due to the way that company spectacularly imploded in the early 90s, there’s actually quite a lot of it out there as it was all pretty much up for grabs at that point.
So I thought we’d take a little look today at this - and also I’d like to ask the Atari community for some help.
I’m Rees, and welcome to ctrl-alt-rees.
After the “success” of Atari’s 7800, and sustained by reasonable performances in the home computer market with the ST and the handheld market with the surprisingly excellent Lynx, the ageing US entertainment giant was looking to take on the new boys from Japan - the likes of Sega, Nintendo, and the slightly less widely known in the West but no less awesome SNK.
Their answer? A 16-bit 2D powerhouse of a console called the Panther, built around the same CPU that the Megadrive and Neo Geo were using - not to mention the ST of course - but clocked even faster at an eye-watering 16Mhz.
They’d couple this with an entirely custom 32Mhz, 32-bit object oriented GPU capable of hardware scrolling and scaling, over a quarter of a million colours, and a claimed 2000 simultaneous on-screen sprites.
Here’s what legendary game developer and celebrated hairy beast botherer Jeff Minter had to say about it:
“I got involved fairly early on at the time when beta hardware was first available to developers. Panther was quite a nice machine, definitely superior to the Mega Drive that was current at the time, and better in some respects than the SNES, too. It was a pretty nice sprite-based system - you could manipulate the sprites on the fly for some interesting effects, and it had a nice Ensoniq sound chip, better than anything else out there on a console at the time.” - Jeff Minter
…and it’s that Ensoniq sound chip I have here. And indeed it is a bit of beast - it’s actually a proper high end pro audio chip and was used in Ensoniq’s EPS16+ sampler and their VFX line of synthesizers. A sample or wavetable based offering with 25 voices - each with independent volume, envelope, 4 pole digital filter, frequency control and pan, and 16 bit stereo PCM sound from a 29 bit DSP. Or so Atari claimed at the time, anyway.
And a variant of this chip went on to be the basis of Gravis’s infamous GF1 UltraSound chip - so we do have some great real world examples of what it would’ve been capable of.
Not bad for a console that was on track for release in 1991, had it not been cancelled due to a supposed serious technical flaw, a general lack of funding at Atari, and the fact that the Jaguar was coming together well ahead of schedule.
So, as far as I can see there are 7 of those Panther dev consoles out in the wild and from what I gather from the person I obtained this sound module from, there were 12 of these - whether that means 12 of this particular revision or 12 in total, I’m not sure.
Looking at the board itself, in addition to that Ensoniq OTISR2 chip we can see some glue logic which I imagine would’ve been condensed somewhat in the final console, a rather stingy 8K of SRAM, a stereo potentiometer and stereo 3.5mm output socket. Oh, and a couple of bodge wires which seem to hook up to the motherboard for IRQs, as is often the way with prototype hardware.
Now, I don’t have the skills to get this up and running on its own and to be honest that’s not what this video is really all about - you see, I see this as the beginning of a journey, and what I’d really like to do is put right some old wrongs - much like I did with the S3 Virge graphics card when I pulled together the info on every single game released for that and put that up on my website as well as a video showing them all in action.
You see, there’s so much misinformation out there about the Panther - videos and articles regurgitating old and outdated information - and I’d really like to put together a definitive history of it - not just to satisfy my own curiosity but to set the record straight and get that information out there for anyone in future like me who just wants to know what it was all about.
To that end I’ve already started trawling the internet and pulling together everything I can find on my website - with links to sources of course as always - and I’ll put a link to this page down in the description if you’re interested.
Ultimately it would be really cool to get my hands on one of those consoles for a video but I appreciate that’s probably not realistic, but maybe one of those owners could come forward and work with me to get some high resolution photos out there at least - I’ll put my email address down in the description if you’re able to help out in any way.
I know that when I put out the video about my Sparrow prototype motherboard I got a good response from that and I still get emails about it over a year later, so you never know.
And there we have it. An interesting piece of hardware with an interesting story to tell - leaving us to ponder what could’ve been, and hopefully sowing the seed for a very interesting project.
So thanks as always to my patrons and channel members, thanks so much for watching, and I’ll hopefully see you again next time.
Original Video Links
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The Panther - Atari’s Cancelled Console: https://ctrl-alt-rees.com/atari-panther-cancelled-prototype-console-everything-you-ever-wanted-to-know
S3 Virge Video: https://youtu.be/f6fk_iarL-8
Sparrow Video: https://youtu.be/aoF98_XLL3U
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