Dealing In Games
Pinball and slot machine giant Bally has been a player in the arcade video game sweepstakes ever since the beginning. Through its ownership of Midway Manufacturing, it had put out a couple of clones of Atari’s PONG in the early 70’s: Winner and its four-player variant Winner IV. Of all the companies that started riding on Nolan Bushnell’s coat-tails during the PONG bonanza, Bally and Midway perhaps posed the greatest threat. Particularly so when Midway and its development team Dave Nutting Associates broke new technical ground in 1975 with Gun Fight, the first arcade game utilizing a CPU. So when the brass at Bally get wind that competitor Atari is developing a programmable home game machine in the mid-70’s, they decide they need to jump in too. Their bid is the Bally Professional Arcade, hitting the market in 1978, following the release of the Atari VCS the previous year. Charged with developing the console, Nutting Associates accepts two recruits fresh out of the University of Wisconson-Milwaukee, Tom McHugh and Jay Fenton. Fenton works on some Pinball projects, and eventually heads the team to design the Bally Arcade. Fenton would later be the designer of the revolutionary coin-op GORF for Bally/Midway, the hardware of which is adapted from the home machine. Jeff Fredricksen is also on board for the new game project.
The Arcade runs a Z80 processor at 1.8 MHz with 4K of RAM and 8K of ROM available, along with a 7 MHz video processor capable of 256 colours, although only four of those can be produced on the screen at a time. Its screen resolution is about on par with Magnavox’s Odyssey². For future expansion, there is a 50-pin connector hidden behind a punch-out panel on the rear of the console, allowing data access to the Z80. There are a number of unique properties of the design, including a 24 button keypad on which overlays could be placed for certain games. The game cartridges, called Videocades, are almost exactly the same dimensions of an audio cassette tape. They insert flat into a spring-loader on the face of the machine. Four games are built into the system: Gunfight is a well-done port of the Boot Hill arcade game, Checkmate is a surround game that foreshadows the light-cycles in Walt Disney’s landmark 1982 videogame-culture movie TRON, a five-function calculator predictably called Calculator, and a doodling art program called Scribble. The system’s celebrated joysticks are somewhat similar to the Channel F‘s, with a knob on the top which rotates, as well as moving through eight compass directions. However, the Bally controllers are shaped like a pistol grip, with a trigger instead of a fire button. With the purchase of two extra joysticks, up to four people can play at the console. At the rear of the machine is a smoked plastic cover that lifts to reveal a storage space for the games and their overlays. The device also sports a pretty hefty 3-octave music synthesizer.
Manufactured for Bally by the E.F. Johnson Co, the Professional Arcade debuts for $399.95, a steep price tag in comparison to Atari’s console, although on the cheap end for a computer and is generally marked down considerably by retailers. It is initially available only via mail-order, from a Chicago-based mail-order marketer by the name of JS&A. This company starts advertising the system in 1977, but production problems delay the release of the Arcade until spring of the next year. Even then, many systems are returned to the company as defective, due to issues such as RF shielding that retains too much heat inside the unit, causing overheating failures on the PC board. While revisions are made to correct this problem, FCC delays, production issues, parts and chip shortages and other snafus create voluminous backorder delays that will continue to plague the Bally through its lifetime. As is the want of early programmable video game console makers, the JS&A ads also make mention of an expansion module, adding dual magnetic tape decks and an alpha-numeric keyboard that adds 16K to the system and would, yes, turn it into a full-fledged personal computer. A high-speed printer for the unit is also touted in the ad. Constantly slipping release dates for the keyboard add-on will be the continued bane of Bally users anxious to release the full power of their purchase. Due to the promised keyboard, JS&A refers to the console as the Bally Library Computer. A $50 Audio Cassette Interface is eventually made available, to be plugged into game controller slot #4 and used for loading and saving programs on a standard tape recorder via the later introduced $50 Bally BASIC cartridge, containing a version of Palo Alto Tiny BASIC programmed by Jay Fenton. Using this cartridge, BASIC programs can be entered with the Bally’s keypad, facilitated by the four function keys that allow for entire BASIC commands to be entered with a two key press. A fervent following around the astrocade console is given voice by the long-running monthly Arcadian newsletter, put out by Bob Fabris from 1978 to 1986. Also supporting the Astrocade is newsletter Cursor, later renamed the BASIC Express, edited by Fred Cornett until unceremoniously going belly up after their July/Aug.1981 edition.
At the 1979 Winter CES, the add-on computer keyboard makes its debut, the total system of console and keyboard called the Bally Computer System, with the video game unit called the Video Console, and the computer add-on underneath referred to as the Programming Keyboard. For just the latter, the price is pegged at $650 or less, and shipments of the finished product are stated to begin by June or July. It promises advanced graphics capabilities, available control via a light pen, and even “Concurrent Processing”, a form of multitasking allowing multiple programs to be run at once. Bally’s continued inability to begin production of the keyboard creates such frustration in the Arcade user base that by mid 1979 some fans start sourcing their own memory boards to possibly create one themselves.
Bally is not prepared for the intense demands of consumer electronics, and is much more interested in the new market for gambling machines opening up due to the legalization of gambling in Atlantic City, which occurs the same year as the Professional Arcade’s release. Bally’s construction of a luxury hotel and casino resort in the city on a 9-acre tract of land at the corner of Boardwalk and Park Place (wouldn’t you like to get those two properties in Monopoly), further distracts the company. Along with a 10 million dollar loss on the system over 1978 – 1979, these factors prompt Bally to make moves to exit the home video game market.
At the 1980 Winter CES in Las Vegas, Bally announces to stunned attendees that they have a letter of intent, signed on January 4, to sell the company’s Consumer Products Division, including the Bally Professional Arcade, to Fidelity Electronics, Ltd.. They are makers of electronic chess games, including the highly popular Chess Challenger line. This plan strikes fear in the hearts of developers and dealers of the console, as Fidelity has a reputation of forgoing distribution networks and selling direct. Hence a group of them make a counteroffer, with Bally then sitting on the fence about actually shedding its consumer division. By the beginning of March, talks have broken down. An electronics outfit out of Columbus, Ohio called Astrovision ultimately purchases Bally’s Consumer Productions Division, with rights and remaining hardware for the home game, for $2.3 million in August of 1980. By this point the Professional Arcade has built up a library of 14 cartridges, such as 280 Zzzap/Dodgem, Bally Pin, Astro Battle, Panzer Attack/Red Baron and Sea WolfMissile. Soon after the sale, Astrovision is on tours to Bally Users’ Groups around the country, making promises of a “state of the art” redesign of the console in the planning stages to allow the Arcade to compete in the new video game market.
Astrovision had gotten its start a few years previous during the genesis year of the mass-produced personal computer; in 1977, as a company called Authorship Resource Inc. (ARI), they had created one of the first colour computers, called the Cybervision 2001. Loading programs through tape cartridge “Cybersettes”, users interacted with the computer via two 40-button alpha-numeric membrane keypads. Sold in 1978 by department store chain Montgomery Ward for a paltry $399, a second computer called the Cybervision 3001 was also added to the line the next year, as well as a prototyped 4001 version in 1979 that never saw release. Cybervision was ultimately felled by weak promotion by Montgomery Ward and stiff competition building in the market. The core development team of ARI then drifted away, with others such as salesman Ray George forming Astrovision from the ashes.
In 1981 the company, led by president Martin Albert, relaunches the console as the Bally Computer System. Part of the deal includes technical support from Bally and Nutting, as well as rights to use the Bally logo. Rights to some of Midway’s most popular arcade titles, such as Wizard of Wor and Galaxian, round out the package. The launch is accompanied by some pretty dramatic bluster from Astrovision, such as the promise from Vice-President of sales Ray George of “explosive 1,000 percent growth”. As with their previous CyberVision, there is the promise of distribution via department stores such as Montgomery Ward.
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 Fenton, along with Marc Canter and Mark Pierce founds MacroMind, out of Chicago. 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. After founding Macromind, Jay Fenton would transition to female as Jamie Fenton in 1989.
Sources (Click to view; inert links are kept for historical purposes)
MacWorld. Images of Jay Fenton and Macromind Co-Founders. Nov. 1985. Photos by Ed Kashi.
Cursor, “Winter CES” by Fred Cornett, pgs. 81-82, Jan/Feb 1981. Retrieved from Bally Alley, Cursor newsletter archive
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Arcadians, Sept, 1978. Retrieved from Bally Alley, Arcadians newsletter archive
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Image of the Bally Professional Arcade and Bally Computer System together taken at the Videogame History Museum exhibit, CGE 2014 in Las Vegas
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Image of Cybervision 2001 from Montgomery Ward Spring & Summer 1978 catalog, pgs. 2-3
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Colour images of the ZGrass keyboards excerpted from Bally Arcade catalogs retrieved from Bally Alley, Ads and Catalogs archive
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