Task: Backup Cartridges to Floppy Disk Using “The Pill”
Needed: Floppy disks, disk drive, The Pill, The Pill software
Time: 15-30 mins
Software pirating was rampant back in the early 1980s and there were plenty of software and hardware tools that made this easy. This was partly because it was so new and people didn’t understand the full consequences of their actions. Software was also quite expensive at around $30 each for a cartridge or a disk. That is about $90 in today’s dollars. I had a very minor pirating operation and was not involved in distribution to others. We would rent software, make a copy for home use, and return the rental after a few days. So, I guess we paid something!
One of my pirating tools was “The Pill” from Computer Software Services. You would boot their software and then plug in a cartridge that would get copied to disk. You could then boot the disk into an area of RAM that looked like ROM to the computer. The catch was that you needed The Pill cartridge to load and run the software you copied. The Pill cartridge has a switch on top that you had to flip to the ON position as a final step to loading and using the software.
You can access cracked versions of virtually every piece of software for the Atari 8-bits online and make disks using the Atarimax ProSystem software. Thus, The Pill is not needed to make disk version of games. However, it is really fun to do this and as part of this post I made a few new disks directly from cartridge. I am fortunate enough to still have my Pill from back in the day. This post is more for nostalgia that actual utility. There is an informative post on Atari Age about The Pill. See the second post. Also, the instructions for The Pill are online.
Obtain The Pill. This is easier said than done as these are fairly rare. I am not sure I have ever seen on for sale on eBay. I am lucky to still have my working Pill from back in the day. Good luck finding one!
Download The Pill software. The ATR images for the A and B side of the disk can be found here. You can boot these using an SIO2PC connection or you can make new disks with the images using the Atarimax ProSystem software that I posted about previously.
Insert a folded piece of paper or cardboard into the slot that turns the computer on and off inside the cartridge bay. The idea is to keep the Atari on as if the lid is closed when the power is on. This will allow you to keep the cartridge bay door open during the backup process. You can see my orange post-it note rolled up and inserted in my Atari 800 in the figure above.
Boot the B side of the disk. This will prompt you to insert the cartridge you want to copy into the left cartridge slot. Then insert the disk with side A into the drive. This is where the cartridge file will be created. Side A of The Pill software has a nice menu that will allow you to access your copied software for running later.
When the backup is complete take out the cartridge and insert The Pill into the left cartridge slot with the switch in the off position. Boot disk side A with your new software and the flip the switch to ON when prompted and hit return. Your newly copied software should now be running!
I still remember the first few times I did this as a teen back in the early 1980s. It was like magic! I never had a huge software collection but The Pill definitely allowed me to pick up some games through the rental process that I never would have purchased myself. I still have some of my Pill disks with games like Dig Dug and Pole Position listed. You could get about 10 games on a single side of the disk and load them from the menu. Very cool!
The above process works like a charm and I can easily copy cartridges to disk. I copied Qix as part of this post which is one of my favorite games. Note that bankswitching cartridges won’t work with The Pill and I think some later cartridges have mechanisms to prevent this kind of copying. Some may not work if you try this. The older Atari cartridges should work fine. Here is an advertisement for The Pill that was loaded on the Internet Archive. I have included a screenshot of this ad below. It lists $69.95 as the sale price. They later sold it for $24.95 in 1993.
It is quite humorous that The Pill was created to allow people to pirate software. At the end of their instructions is the following warning:
“Any use or reproduction of “THE PILL” or “THE PILL” MENU or “THE PILL” CARTRIDGE BACKUP programs without the written consent of Computer Software Services is punishable by 5 years imprisonment, $50,000 fine or both.” Hah! Oh the irony…