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.