Atari: The Lost Years of the Coin-Op, 1971 – 1975
Author: Steve Fulton
Editing and Online Layout: Bill Loguidice and Cecil Casey
Special Thanks: Dan Hower, who graciously allowed us to use many of the images from his collection for this story. You can visit Dan’s Websites at http://www.howervision.net/</span> and http://www.coinopvideogames.com/</span>. You can view Dan’s arcade flyers and many others at the fascinating http://www.arcadeflyers.com</span>
Additional Special Thanks: Curt Vendel, for his assistance to the author with this article. You can see his impressive collection of Atari information at http://www.atarimuseum.com</font>
The classic games of the Atari coin-op world have previously been well established. Books like The First Quarter explain the history of games like Pong, Breakout! and Asteroids in lurid detail, but leave out many of the games Atari produced in-between. Of the many recent “Atari Classics” game collections released by Hasbro and Infogrames (now using the Atari name), very little of this early history is covered. Most of these early arcade coin-ops were designed as discreet logic machines built out of individual integrated circuits with no microprocessor. This makes them very hard to emulate with applications like MAME because each game is essentially its own virtual machine that must be programmed and tailored for a single title. Added to that is the belief that many of these lost games are simple evolutions of Pong, so you can see why the games are almost universally dismissed. Why take the time to create a system to emulate a single, uninteresting Pong variant, when you could just as easily emulate a microprocessor that can play hundreds of games? However, a closer look at these very early games reveals some salient points of interest. Each game that Atari released was an evolutionary step towards a revolution: game play was more complex, controls more precise, graphics a bit sharper, the hardware more elegant, the cabinets more functional, the marketing more targeted. Further, while many think the first successful arcade conversion for the Atari 2600 Video Computer System (VCS) was Taito’s Space Invaders, this is simply not the truth. A good percentage of the original 2600 cartridge library was based on classic Atari coin-ops created from these “lost” years. We will explore these arcade coin-op games year-by-year.
Note: Look for the graphic above within the timeline, as this denotes the known or possible roots of famous Atari 2600 games.
1971: Spring: Bushnell Creates Computer Space
Nolan Bushnell created the first coin-op videogame in his daughter’s bedroom in 1971 while working for Ampex. Inspired by Steve Russell’s Space War, a game he played on the DEC PDP-1 at the University of Utah in the 1960’s, Bushnell worked on his own way to bring the computer game experience to the masses. The largest technical hurdle he faced was inventing a way to fit a game designed to run on a mini-computer that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars into a marketable product that was as affordable as a pinball machine. His brilliant breakthrough was deciding to use discreet logic chips to design the game instead of a microprocessor. This process of creating a game in discreet logic involved assembling individual logic chips on printed circuit boards. The game was programmed completely in hardware. In essence, a discreet logic game was a computer designed for one purpose and one purpose only. While this idea might have seemed like a step backwards to computer engineers, a genius like Bushnell knew it was exactly the solution he was seeking.
1971: Autumn: Selling Computer Space
Bushnell sold his idea to Nutting and Associates, and in late 1971 they attempted to sell and market the game as Computer Space. Nutting had been very successful with a Quiz Show coin-operated game earlier that year, and hoped Computer Space would help them become the leaders in a new market. However, that was not to be. Computer Space landed with a resounding thud. Amusement operators at the 1971 AMOA (Amusement & Music Operators Association) show in Chicago were confused by Computer Space. They were used to buying jukeboxes and pinball machines and had no idea what to do with a videogame. The controls were too complicated and the game too confusing for the average bar room (read: drunk) player. However, the initial failure of Bushnell’s invention did not predict the meteoric rise to success that would soon follow. He had devised a way to make videogames available to the common person and was about to create an entire industry in the process.
1972: May 17: Bushnell Visits Magnavox while working for Nutting
While still working for Nutting, Bushnell visited Magnavox to take a look at the TV videogame system that Ralph Baer had developed for the company. Magnavox had invited interested parties in the electronics industry to try to drum-up enthusiasm for their newest technological breakthrough. The Magnavox Odyssey could play several simple games on a TV, but required real world pieces like dice and playing cards. The game system was designed around an analog computer, which was a computer used for applications that required a continuous change of one or more variables, usually based on the then new idea of an IC amplifier circuit (although tube-based systems had been in use for years). Bushnell left unimpressed as the games did not inspire him and the visuals looked fuzzy. However, the inclusion of a ping-pong style game in the demo would come back to haunt him years later.
1972: June 27: Atari Incorporated
Bushnell, desiring more profits from his games, quit Nutting Associates and formed his own company with Ted Dabney. Bushnell founded Atari's forerunner, Syzygy Corp., with $250 from his savings account, some of it earned from Computer Space at Nutting and Associates. Ted Dabney also contributed $250. When the duo found out the name Syzygy was already taken, they chose the name Atari instead (Atari roughly translates to “you are about to be engulfed”, which comes from the traditional game of GO).
The first use of Atari’s signature logo or mark; the Fuji Symbol (), was registered on June 1, 1973. According to Atari’s trademark registration, it was a design “consisting of a stylized representation of Mount Fujiyama” (Mount Fujiyama, which overlooks Tokyo, Japan, is actually the incorrect way to say its name as the word “Yama” in Japanese means “mountain” already, so native Japanese usually call it “"Fuji-san").
It is interesting to note, the name Syzygy was not jettisoned as early as one would believe. Early flyers for Pong described the game as “From Atari Corporation, Syzygy Engineered.”.
Nutting and Associates did not stop making videogames after Bushnell left to start Atari. Billing themselves as the place “Where videogame technology began”, they went on to create the pong variants Computer Space Ball, Table Tennis, Table Tennis 2, Ric-o-chet and Paddle Derby, as well as one of the first shoot-em-up videogames, Missile Radar. Their most interesting contribution to videogame history was Watergate Caper, a safecracker/code breaker game released in 1973.
In case anyone is mistaken in thinking Grand Theft Auto was the first videogame to have players willingly commit a felony, Watergate Caper tempted gamers to “Break Into Watergate Yourself” 30 years prior. Nutting’s own literature bragged that the game “simulates the larceny in all of us to break in and not get caught”. The company’s last entry in the videogame arena was Wimbledon, a full-color version of pong, released in 1974. Dave Nutting went on to work as a contractor for Midway starting in 1975, where he helped produce the first microprocessor-based videogame (Intel 8080), Gun Fight (Strange Fact: This game started at Taito Corp., as a discrete logic game, and was bought and converted to the Intel 8080 by Nutting -ed.). He then went on to design and program two of the best coin-ops from the golden age, Gorf and Wizard of Wor.
1972: Summer: Pong Engineered
While Bushnell kept Atari in the black by servicing and leasing pinball machines, he hired Al Alcorn, a fellow engineer from Ampex, to develop another videogame. Nolan Bushnell lied to Al Alcorn about having a contract with GE for home Pong to lure him into working for Atari. At first, Bushnell wanted to create a driving game as he had a contract with Bally to do just that, but decided to have Alcorn work on something simple first. The primitive ping-pong game he had seen at Magnavox seemed like a good candidate, but had to be improved. Neither Alcorn nor Bushnell were impressed with Odyssey and its analog components. In any event, Pong was only practice and Bushnell was not planning to take it seriously.
Just like Computer Space, Pong was a discreet logic machine. It had no microprocessor, but instead used individual integrated circuits to create the logic for the game. The key to saving money was designing the game so well that it used the fewest number of chips. Alcorn added small details like “English” and simulated physics that went beyond Bushnell’s original concept, but still kept the circuit board design elegant and cheap.
1972: September: Pong Tested at Andy Capp’s Tavern
The first Pong game is placed in Andy Capp’s Tavern in Sunnyvale, California. People started lining up before the bar opened just to play the game. In some cases, patrons wouldn’t order any drinks at all, but just went in to play Pong.
Bushnell’s goal was for Pong to be designed to be as easy as possible to play. Instead of the pages of instructions for Computer Space, Pong instructions were the model of simplicity: "Avoid missing ball for high score." Two weeks after installing the game, Al Alcorn received a late-night phone call from the manager of the bar. T he game had broken down and he wondered if Alcorn could come fix it. When Alcorn arrived to check the machine, he found a most unusual problem—there were so many quarters jammed into the coin drop that the game had stopped working. Under the coin drop was a plastic milk jug with the top cut off, and it was so filled with quarters that the “credit” mechanism could no longer work!
1972: November: Bushnell Tries to Sell Pong, Decides to Manufacture it Himself
The Pong game was offered to Bally first in lieu of a driving game, but they declined to purchase it as they wanted something that didn’t require two players. Amusement manufacturers didn’t “get it” either. In 1972, pinball and other amusement game manufacturers made machines with many electromechanical and moving parts. Pong had only two moving parts and this baffled them. Few manufacturers could understand or envision the industry changing.
Instead of pursuing established manufacturers, Bushnell decided to manufacture Pong himself. It was his boldest move yet and would ultimately prove successful. He leased an old roller rink in Santa Clara and converted it into a production line. The first Pong game shipped from this facility in November 1972. Bushnell filed a patent for the Pong on-screen control mechanism on November 24, 1972 (US Patent 3,793,483), but not for the game itself.
1972: November 29: Pong Officially Released
“The Newest 2 Player Video Skill Game…”
Bushnell distributed Pong along the pre-existing arcade routes he and Ted Dabney had worked to keep Atari afloat while their first game was being created. Each machine took in around $200 a week, which was nearly four times what other (pinball) games and jukeboxes took in on the same routes.
Carl Sagan wrote of Pong, "As a result of Pong, a player can gain a deep intuitive understanding of the simplest Newtonian physics." The day Pong was released is marked by the coin-op industry as the first nail in the coffin of pinball.
Go to Part II of this Article