Through 1981 things actually do look pretty good for Astrovision. The year starts with a bang with the re-emergence of the much-delayed computer add-on for the Bally, announced as the ZGRASS-32 Computer Keyboard with 32K RAM and 16K ROM expansion memory, at the January 1981 CES. Apropos of the vaporous nature of the add-on, the memory specs given for it will continuously fluctuate: they are later swapped, with 16K of RAM and 32K of ROM, and eventually rise up to 64K of RAM and 32K of ROM. Inclusion of a Votrax SC-01 voice-synthesis chip inside the unit is also announced later. A keyboard “add-under” long promised by Bally and Dave Nutting and Associates, GRASS (GRAphics Symbiosis System) is also the name of the device’s internal programming language, a graphics-oriented language created by computer animation pioneer Tom DeFanti at Chicago’s University of Illinois. It was with this language that Larry Cuba designed the CGI Death Star effect in Star Wars in 1977, shown when the rebels are being briefed of the battle station’s weakness. Implemented via the ZGRASS keyboard, it would allow users of the Bally console to create real-time computer animations that can be saved as procedures, and moved around, squashed, zoomed in or out and rotated at will. All accessible to users, even those with little to no programming experience. Additional peripherals are announced along with the keyboard, including printer, light pen, digitizer pad and 35mm slide copier. Dave Nutting and Associates bring three keyboards to the 1981 Summer CES in Chicago. As opposed to true prototypes, these turn out to be the innards of Datamax UV-1 graphic workstations, running the ZGRASS OS and shoved into the add-under cases provided by Astrovision. The company also signs contracts with developers to produce new games for the console, such as Galactic Invasion, Space Fortress and Adventure. A “Plus” version of the Bally Professional Arcade is also released in May of this year, the new label denoting a revision to the motherboard that alleviates the nagging heat dissipation issue, along with the fact that Astrovision BASIC is now included free with the console. Sales for the system are posted at about $9 million for the year, although problems with the supply chain for parts keeps console shipments sluggish. Claiming a backlog of orders of about $55 million, Ray Gorge reckons Astrovision will post sales of $100 million for the coming year.
At the beginning of 1982 the term Astro is officially placed in front of the names of hardware and games, replacing the Bally label. Eventually the company name is changed to Astrocade, with the console renamed the Astrocade Professional Arcade. George promises that the name Astrocade will soon be as ubiquitous as Xerox, supported by a $10 million TV ad campaign in 37 markets. The console changes little across its various incarnations, save for Astrocade’s improved BASIC cartridge, containing a faster interface connection between cartridge and tape recorder, as well as an editing feature allowing users to correct lines of code; an imperative feature to assist those struggling with coding BASIC using the system’s calculator-style key layout.
Over 45 cartridges are officially released for the device throughout its run, including The Incredible Wizard. This is a pitch-perfect translation of Midway coin-op Wizard of Wor, done for the Astrocade in conjunction with developer Action Graphics, headed by Bob Ogdon. Ogdon had also designed the original arcade game. Astrocade themselves makes a remarkable Pac-Man clone it creatively titles Pac Man, but understandably draws the ire of Atari, owners of the home rights to Namco’s arcade powerhouse. Unreleasable with that title, it is quietly sold through hobby newsletters as TEST PROGRAMME. Under the title Muncher, it is later sold exclusively to subscribers of the Arcadian newsletter in 1983. An outfit out of Ohio producing programs for the Astrocade called Esoterica, run by Dan Drescher and J.P. Curran, eventually releases the game officially. There are other Pac-Man knock-offs that sneak onto the Astrocade, including David Carson’s Mazeman in 1984.
In 1982, however, new programs for the Astrocade are getting few and far between. High production costs also hobble profitability of the console; the company makes $20 million in sales but can only squeak out $250,000 in profits. An injection of $3 million in cash comes from Quaker Oats in May for a 13% share in Astrocade, but the cereal giant has a change of heart and exercises an option to back out of the deal. Mid-way through the year Astrocade sells its inventory of parts and completed hardware and cartridges to a Cupertino, CA-based semiconductor manufacturer called Nitron, a company spun off from McDonnell Douglas. They had previously entered into a $108 million deal to sell board-level product to Astrocade. Nitron will now be the manufacturers of the Astrocade console, sold through retail by Astrocade the company.
The endlessly delayed ZGRASS-32 keyboard add-under loses its Votrax synthesizer spec and becomes the ZGRASS 100, and again fails to make it out the door. This is the least of worries for Arcade users, however. In the hole about a million dollars, with an additional $2 million owed to Nitron, Astrocade gives a controlling interest in the company to its creditor in a stock swap. Failed attempts to secure a stable measure of capital, however, causes Astrocade to slide into Chapter 11 bankruptcy on December 30, 1982. A hardbitten and tenacious lot, the slack is picked up by enthusiasts of the console, who create hundreds of programs that are loaded via standard audio cassette player into the BASIC cartridge. Amazingly, after the bankruptcy more talk surfaces about the add-under keyboard and memory expansion unit. This time the manufacturer is promised to be third-party hardware maker Alternative Engineering, producers of the Viper memory expansion system for the Astrocade. Software vender Esoterica is pegged as the marketer and distributer of the new computer module. Now titled the Z-GRASS 1200, this gives the fabled computer add-on for the Astrocade a vapourware existence from 1977 to 1984. Now thoroughly immune to disappointment, Arcade owners probably don’t even bat an eye when Alternative Engineering close their doors in 1985.
Needless to say, none of the myriad versions of the Bally Professional Arcade pose a serious threat to the stranglehold Atari has on the industry. Astrocade submits a reorganization plan on October 7, 1983 and eventually emerges from bankruptcy protection, selling the Astrocade Arcade direct to users for $59.95, plus any cartridge of their choice. A deal is also reached with Bally/Midway development house Action Graphics to produce some of the company’s hit arcade games for the Astrocade, including Gorf, Omega Race, The Adventures of Robby Roto and Solar Fox. It’s a valiant effort, but Astrocade dies a silent death after the video game market evaporates in 1983-1984, shuttering for good in 1985. Among other projects after leaving Bally, Jay becomes Jamie Fenton, and along with Marc Canter and Mark Pierce found MacroMind. There they develop MusicWorks and VideoWorks, the first of such programs to appear on Apple’s original Macintosh computers, a platform that becomes known for such creative workspaces. The company eventually folds into Macromedia, which is acquired by Adobe Systems in 2005 in a stock swap worth $3.4 billion.
Sources (Click to view; inert links are kept for historical purposes)
Cursor, “Winter CES” by Fred Cornett, pgs. 81-82, Jan/Feb 1981. Retrieved from Bally Alley, Cursor newsletter archive
Electronic Games, “Astrocade Owners!”, pg. 122, Jan 1983
Arcadians, Sept, 1978. Retrieved from Bally Alley, Arcadians newsletter archive
Video Games, “Hard Sell – The $300 Question: Astrocade or Intellivision”, by Roger Dionne, pg. 64, Vol. 1 Num. 2, Oct 1982
Radio Electronics, “Buyer’s Guide to Home Computers: Bally Arcade”, by Marc Stern, pgs. 53 – 54, Apr 1982
Arcadian, “Bally/Fidelity” by Bob Fabris, Vol. 2 No. 5, page 37, March 1980. Retrieved from Bally Alley, Arcadian newsletter archive
Starlog, “Toys and Games for ’82″, by Susan Adamo and Bob Greenberger, pg. 29 – 32, July 1982
Image of the Bally Professional Arcade and Bally Computer System together taken at the Videogame History Museum exhibit, CGE 2014 in Las Vegas
Video Games, “The Astrocade Question: Sink Or Swim?”, by Mark Brownstein, pgs. 10, 12-13, Vol. 1 Num. 7, April 1983
Arcadian, “Review of Products by Astrovision” by Bob Fabris, Vol. 3 No. 6, pg. 61, April 15 1981
JS&A letter to Bally console owners and orderers, sent Oct 16 1979, as reprinted in Arcadians newsletter, Nov 1978. Retrieved from Bally Alley, Arcadians newsletter archive
Cursor, “Winter Consumer Electronics Show”, pgs. 1-2, Feb 1980. Retrieved from Bally Alley, Newsletter archive
Electronic Games, “Test Lab – Astro Professional Arcade: Has Its Time Come?” by Henry B. Cohen, pgs. 14-15, June 1982. Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Electronic Games magazine collection
“Home Video Game Invasion Has Begun” by Dan Doorfman, wire service, Oct. 29 1981
Image of the Bally Computer System in 1979 and other information from Arcadian, Feb 1979. Retrieved from Bally Alley, Arcadian newsletter archive
JoyStik, “Astrocade’s Underground”, by Danny Goodman, pgs. 18 – 21, Vol. 2 Num. 1, Sept 1983
BASIC Express, “What’s Happening?” by Fred Cornett, Vol. III pgs. 13-14, May-Jun 1981. Retrieved from Bally Alley, Cursor/BASIC Express newsletter archive
Compute!, “The Winter of Our Discontent: A Report On The January Consumer Electronics Show” by David D. Thornburg, pgs. 26, 28, Mar 1982
Datamax Zgrass UV-1 ad from Byte, pg. 62, Mar 1981. Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Byte magazine collection
Image from 1978 Montgomery Ward catalog of the Chess Challenger from Wishbook Flickr stream
Gamasutra, “The History of a Forgotten Computer – PART 1″ by Matt Powers, posted April 25, 2014. Also PART 2, posted May 4, 2014. Both retrieved May 3, 2015
Arcadian, “Consumer Electronics Show” by Bob Fabris, Vol. 1 pg. 17, Jan 1979. Retrieved from Bally Alley, Arcadian newsletter archive
Creative Computing (first appearing in Starlog magazine, Nov 12, March 1978), “The Digital Brush”, pgs. 96-99, May/June 1978. “GRASS (GRAphics Symbiosis System) was written by Tom [DeFanti]…”. Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Creative Computing collection, Sep 26 2015.
Image of Cybervision 2001 from Montgomery Ward Spring & Summer 1978 catalog, pgs. 2-3
Jamie Fenton Website – Bio – www.fentonia.com
Colour images of the ZGrass keyboards excerpted from Bally Arcade catalogs retrieved from Bally Alley, Ads and Catalogs archive
astrocade Underground, “Astrocade is Alive and Well” by Guy W. McLimore, Jr., pg.1, Oct 1983. Retrieved from Bally Alley, astrocade Underground newsletter archive
Cursor, “Astrovision Acquires Bally Consumer Products Division”, pgs. 57-58, Sep 1980. Retrieved from Bally Alley, Newsletter archive
Chicago Tribune,”Video game death could put supplier on ice” by Dan Doorman,Oct 14, 1982. Reprinted in Arcadian, retrieved from Bally Alley Arcadian newsletter archiveCreative Computing, “Where are they now? Bally, Interact and VideoBrain” by David H. Ahl
Arcadian, “Michigan User Group Report” by George Moses, pg. 2, Nov 6 1980. Retrieved from Bally Alley, Arcadian newsletter archive
Electronic Games, “Astrocade: A System That Couldn’t”, pg. 72, Nov 1983Wikipedia, “Thomas A. DeFanti”, referenced Mar 27, 2015 – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_A._DeFanti
Image of Bob Ogdon from Electronic Games, “Inside Gaming – Meet Bob Ogdon, the Man Behind the Wizard”, pgs. 44 – 45, Vol. 1 Num. 3, May 1983
Cursor, “Dreams Come True” by Fred Cornett, pgs. 73-74, Nov/Dec 1980. Retrieved from Bally Alley, Newsletter archive
JS&A ad for the Bally Library Computer from Popular Science, pgs. 78-79, Oct 1977
Arcadian, “Keyboard/Memory Unit” by Bob Fabris, Vol. I No. 10, pg. 77, Sept 1979. Retrieved from Bally Alley, Arcadian newsletter archive