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 1981, 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 George 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.
The End of the Astrocade
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. The astrocade console makes a lackluster appearance at the January CES in 1983, relegated to a few self-serve arcade cabinet-like demonstration kiosks littered around the otherwise barren Astrocade show booth. The company 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.
Sources (Click to view; inert links are kept for historical purposes)
Page 1 – Dealing in Games
Bally Makes the Professional Arcade
Associate-manuel-dennis, comp. “Bally Signs $7.3 Million Agreement with Montgomery Ward Retail Chain.” Cash Box 4 June 1977: 46. Internet Archive. 26 Sept. 2016. Web. 26 Sept. 2019. <https://archive.org/details/cashbox39unse_1/page/46>.
Arcadians, Sept, 1978. Retrieved from Bally Alley, Arcadians newsletter archive
Bally Manufacturing Corporation. 1978. Images of Scribbler, Checkmate, Bally BASIC cassette system for Bally Professional Arcade
Scott, Jason, comp. “Bally Home Library Computer Owners Manual.” 20 May 2013. Internet Archive, archive.org/details/Bally_Home_Library_Computer_Owners_Manual_1977_Bally. Image of cover of the Bally Home Library Computer Owners Manual
Page 1 – Promises, Promises
Release of Bally Professional Arcade
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
Arcadian, “Keyboard/Memory Unit” by Bob Fabris, Vol. I No. 10, pg. 77, Sept 1979. Retrieved from Bally Alley, Arcadian newsletter archive
Bally BASIC User Manual. Astrocade, 1981. Image of Bally BASIC keypad template, logo
JS&A ad for the Bally Library Computer from Popular Science, pgs. 78-79, Oct 1977
Image of the Bally Professional Arcade and Bally Computer System together taken by William Hunter at the Videogame History Museum exhibit, CGE 2014 in Las Vegas
EmuMovies. “Astrocade 3D Boxes.” EmuMovies, Invision Community, 12 June 2016, https://emumovies.com/files/file/1867-astrocade-3d-boxes/ Images of Galactic Invasion, Brickyard/Clowns, Football, Red Baron/Panzer Attack and Sea Wolf/Missile game boxes.
Page 1 – Bally Bails
Reasons Bally Leaves the Home Video Game Market
Associate-manuel-dennis, comp. “Bally To Begin Renovation Of Atlantic City Hotel, Casino.” Cash Box 25 June 1977: 50+. Internet Archive. Web. 24 Sept. 2019. It is estimated that the cost of the project will exceed $50 million.
Page 1 – Astronomical
Astrovision Buys Bally’s Consumer Division and the Professional Arcade
Arcadian, “Review of Products by Astrovision” by Bob Fabris, Vol. 3 No. 6, pg. 61, April 15 1981
Brownstein, Mark. “The Astrocade Question: Sink or Swim?” Comp. Jason Scott. Video Games Apr. 1983: 10+. Internet Archive. 31 May 2013. Web. 11 Oct. 2019.
Video Games, “The Astrocade Question: Sink Or Swim?”, by Mark Brownstein, pgs. 10, 12-13, Vol. 1 Num. 7, April 1983
Arcadian, “Consumer Electronics Show” by Bob Fabris, Vol. 1 pg. 17, Jan 1979. Retrieved from Bally Alley, Arcadian newsletter archive
Cursor, “Astrovision Acquires Bally Consumer Products Division”, pgs. 57-58, Sep 1980. Retrieved from Bally Alley, Newsletter archive
Arcadian, “Michigan User Group Report” by George Moses, pg. 2, Nov 6 1980. Retrieved from Bally Alley, Arcadian newsletter archive
Image of Cybervision 2001 from Montgomery Ward Spring & Summer 1978 catalog, pgs. 2-3
Cursor, “Winter Consumer Electronics Show”, pgs. 1-2, Feb 1980. Retrieved from Bally Alley, Newsletter archive
Jamie Fenton Website – Bio – www.fentonia.com
Cursor, “Dreams Come True” by Fred Cornett, pgs. 73-74, Nov/Dec 1980. Retrieved from Bally Alley, Newsletter archive
Page 2 – Smoking Zgrass
The Long-Promised Keyboard Add-on
Colour images of the ZGrass keyboards excerpted from Bally Arcade catalogs retrieved from Bally Alley, Ads and Catalogs 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.
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
Image of the Bally Computer System in 1979 and other information from Arcadian, Feb 1979. Retrieved from Bally Alley, Arcadian newsletter archive
Cursor, “Winter CES” by Fred Cornett, pgs. 81-82, Jan/Feb 1981. Retrieved from Bally Alley, Cursor newsletter archive
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
“Home Video Game Invasion Has Begun” by Dan Doorfman, wire service, Oct. 29 1981
Starlog, “Toys and Games for ’82”, by Susan Adamo and Bob Greenberger, pg. 29 – 32, July 1982
Compute!, “The Winter of Our Discontent: A Report On The January Consumer Electronics Show” by David D. Thornburg, pgs. 26, 28, Mar 1982
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
Page 2 – Astro-nominal
The Quick Slide Downward for Astrocade
Arcadian, “Bally/Fidelity” by Bob Fabris, Vol. 2 No. 5, page 37, March 1980. Retrieved from Bally Alley, Arcadian newsletter archive
Radio Electronics, “Buyer’s Guide to Home Computers: Bally Arcade”, by Marc Stern, pgs. 53 – 54, Apr 1982
Video Games, “Hard Sell – The $300 Question: Astrocade or Intellivision”, by Roger Dionne, pg. 64, Vol. 1 Num. 2, Oct 1982
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
Electronic Games, “Astrocade Owners!”, pg. 122, Jan 1983
JoyStik, “Astrocade’s Underground”, by Danny Goodman, pgs. 18 – 21, Vol. 2 Num. 1, Sept 1983
astrocade Underground, “Astrocade is Alive and Well” by Guy W. McLimore, Jr., pg.1, Oct 1983. Retrieved from Bally Alley, astrocade Underground newsletter archive
Page 2 – The End of the Astrocade
Astrocade Bankruptcy, Legacy of Console Creators
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
MacWorld. Images of Jay Fenton and Macromind Co-Founders. Nov. 1985. Photos by Ed Kashi.
<https://archive.org/details/Video_Games_Volume_1_Number_07_1983-04_Pumpkin_Press_US/page/n10>. Image of astrocade demo cabinets, Jan 1983 CES. Photo by Perry Greenberg.
Unannotated, Uncategorized or I Just Don’t Damn Remember!
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