I recently came across some interesting info on this question so I though I'd go ahead and do a preliminary post.
So, what was the first cocktail-table arcade video game?
The most commonly given answer is Kee Elimination / Atari Quadrapong (see KLOV, WikiPedia etc.)
Well, maybe but there are at least two issues with this claim.
1) In my opinion it's quite debatable that Elimination and Quadrapong were in fact cocktail table games.
If by "cocktail" game you just mean a game with a low cabinet and a horizontally mounted screen then yes, they would qualify.
If, however, you mean a game with a flat top that you could sit around and play and put your drinks on the table and which was marketed to high end cocktail lounges etc. (which seems to be the meaning of the term in the industry at the time) then I don't think they do.
In addition, the term "cocktail table" itself long predates video games (it was used for stereos etc.).
Free dictionary defines it as "a low table where magazines can be placed and coffee or cocktails are served"
Then there's the fact that Atari may not have even considered them cocktail table games (more on this later).
The top was actually arched and I doubt you could put any drinks on it. The flyers for the game all showed players standing around and not sitting - which, IMO, make it more of a "stand around" game in the vein of Atari Football. These may seem to be minor points, but as I will discuss the term "cocktail game" seems to have had a very specific meaning at the time.
Based on a quick and dirty poll, the games were also a tad taller than most cocktail games at the time, though this is a very minor point. Elimination was 37" high while Quadrapong was 32.25" (as per the flyers). I did a quick look at 10 other cocktail games from the time and they were all between 27" and 30"
2) There is some evidence that there were cocktail table games released before either of them (this is the part I need for which I need to gather data).
Before getting on to the major part of the article, a couple of things most people may not know about cocktail table video games.
1) Cocktail table games were ubiquitous in 1974 and 1975.
Cocktail Pong clones were coming out of the woodwork (no pun intended) in these years. I took a quick look at my list and counted over 40. A lot of people probably associate them with the 1980s but 1974 and 75 may have been the peak years. A number of companies made nothing but.
2) Cocktail table games were quite controversial at first.
Within the industry, cocktail table games were very controversial.
Play Meter ran a 10-page cover story on the games in its April, 1975 issue and the author at first had no use for them. Early on he admits "I approached this entire subject with a negative attitude, intending to expose the 'frauds' taking place..."
It should be noted that some saw cocktail games as the savior of an industry that had stagnated as the market flooded with Pong clones.
So what was the big deal with cocktail games?
First of all, the games were often sold by fly-by-night companies either through direct marketing (want ads) or to independent operators - thus bypassing the traditional distributors and operators. The games were also expensive (often far more so than games sold through "legitimate" distributors).
Why was this?
Part of the reason was that the sellers wanted to avoid the expenses associated with distributors and operators and possibly to avoid other barriers to entry in the marketplace.
Of, course, that doesn't explain why cocktail games were sold in this fashion so much more so than uprights or why the controversy was limited to cocktails.
And this brings up what was probably the real reason the fly-by-nighters sold the games the way they did and why they were so controversial.
Cocktail table games were sold and marketed to a completely different type of clientele than traditional video games.
At the time (early-mid 1970s) coin-op games had for years been traditionally sold to neighborhood bars and restaurants (called "street locations" in the industry). Games were also sold to arcades but arcades still weren't very common at the time, at least not outside the large cities (arcades really started to spread in the late 1970s and 80s with the mallification of America).
Cocktail table games were sold to upscale cocktail lounges, hotels, high end restaurants etc. - locations that coin-op operators of the time had no experience selling to. Sadly, many of them also seemed to have had no desire to sell to such locations.
Here is a very typical ad/flyer for a cocktail table game of the time (in this case PMC's Princess from 1974).
The Play Meter article discusses this issue in detail, but I'll stop for now.
So on to the main question.
What was the first cocktail table video game?
First of all, when were Elimination and Quadrapong released?
From the Atari internal document, the former was released in October of 1973 while the latter was released in March of 1974. Wikiepedia notes that they were released simultaneously but that doesnt' seem to be the case. Interestingly enough, one flyer for Quadrapong says it is going to be released on December 7th (1973, one presumes). Of course, it would be nice if these dates could be corroborated.
WERE THESE GAMES CONSIDERED COCKTAIL GAMES AT THE TIME?
I don't mean at the time of their release (since the term likely hadn't been invented yet - see below, however). I mean that once the term came into use in the industry, were these games considered examples.
The flyers don't include the word "cocktail" anywhere and one refers to Quadrapong's "new exciting table cabinet" but that isn't much good since, as I said, the term may not have come into common parlance at the time.
The June-July 1975 issue of Play Meter contained an interview with Nolan Bushnell. The topic of cocktail table games came up. Here are a couple of relevant excerpts (especially relevant text in bold):
PLAY METER: That seems to be what happened with the booming video cocktail table market and the way the blue-suede-shoe men jumped into it. What are your feelings about the tables and about the marketing methods controversy?BUSHNELL: I think it's been good for the industry because it's got a lot of operators off their ass.
PLAY METER: In what way?BUSHNELL: Operators had somehow gotten the idea that their areas are fully saturated. You know, I've talked to guys so many times and their idea of going after a location is going to a place that's already got games and trying to buy it with a checkbook.
A lot of these guys, if you'd have told them to go into a nice cocktail lounge, they'd have told you no chance.
We tried to sell cocktail tables clear back when and we were singularly unsuccessful through our regular distributor organization. It was just a thing that nobody was ready for. We ended up building and selling some in Tokyo as early as mid-1973. The operators over there were a bit more aggressive and did rather well with it. But we could get no interest whatsoever in the states.
So, we were approached by National Entertainment and we said, "Sure, we’ll build you a cocktail table." They went out, beat the bushes and placed the tables on location and suddenly you had operators scrambling around trying to protect their locations, trying to buy cocktail tables. Not because they wanted to, not because they thought it was a good idea, but to sort of protect their downside.
PLAY METER: Does Atari plan to do something in the cocktail table market?
BUSHNELL: Yes. We've got our first table -- I should say our second run of cocktail tables -- coming off the line June 25, called Goal Four. We modeled it after our successful World Cup game that we're marketing in Europe.So, does this interview give us any insight into whether Quadrapong was considered a cocktail table game? Nothing definitive but some intriguing info.
First, note that the game is never mentioned in the article. Also, note that Play Meter asks if Atari is planning to do anything in the cocktail market - as if they never had before (though the interviewer may just not have known about Quadrapong).
Also note that Bushnell starts to say that Atari is coming out with its "first" cocktail table (Goal 4 - unquestionably a cocktail table game) in June then corrects himself and says its their second run.
So if it was the second, what did he consider the first?
Maybe he was talking about Quadrapong but it seems more likely to me that he was talking about the 1973 runs he mentioned earlier. Could that 1973 run have been Elimination? Again, it seems unlikely to me since that game came out late in the year, and came out in America, and was released by Kee (and I think Nolan was still trying to maintain the fiction that Kee was a separate company at the time).
On the other hand, Bushnell does say that Goal 4 was modeled after World Cup and World Cup came in the same stand-around style cabinet at Elimination so maybe he did consider that a cocktail cabinet.
There is also the possibility that Bushnell had just forgotten how many cocktail games Atari had released (the cocktail version of Pong and Coup Franc had both been released by then).
WAS A COCKTAIL TABLE GAME RELEASED BEFORE OCTOBER, 1973?
I need to do a lot more research here but here are some interesting questions/possibilities.
First of all, what was that run of cocktail games that Atari did in Tokyo in mid-1973?
I've seen no other reference to it. It's quite possible, of course, that Nolan's memory is simply off but this wasn't too long after the fact.
There are actually at least two other companies that claim to have released a cocktail table game in 1973.
First is National Entertainment - the company Bushnell mentioned in the interview. The author of the other article (the one on cocktail games) actually talked to National Entertainment president Dick Januzzi, who confirms that they did indeed approach Atari to build them a cocktail game in 1973. Initially, says Januzzi "They laughed at us" but the did build the game. Later, quality issues forced them to drop the Atari unit and go with a cocktail version of Meadows' Flim Flam instead.
But when did this all happen? Januzzi says only that it was in "late 1973".
BTW, National Entertainment later became Innovative Coin Corporation.
The other company that claimed to have marketed a cocktail game in late 1973 (and actually claimed to be the first to do so) was Fascination, Ltd. of Des Plaines IL. Fascination president Robert Runte, in fact, was granted two patents on the game and cabinet in 1974.
The first was filed on July 17th for an "Amusement Device":
The second was filed on July 29th for an "Amusement Game Table":
When were the games released?
The earliest I have record of is the Fascination 500, released around April of 1975.
Given that they also had a Fascination 600 and Fascination 700 it seems reasonable that there would have been a Fascination 100-400 but I've yet to find info on them or when they were released.
Of course, if they started as a fly-by-night operation there probably wouldn't be much info out there.
Which also raises the possibility that some other fly-by-night company released a cocktail game much earlier.
The author of the cocktail article mentions that he scanned the L.A. Times want ads to find ads for such games so that is one place to look for more solid info.
A few other early cocktail games:
Atari's cocktail Pong was supposedly released in May of 1974 (though I don't have a lot of details on it).
KLOV says that Coup Franc was released by Atari Europe in 1974 but also indicates that it predated Quadrapong and was the first cocktail game (though this isn't entirely clear to me)
One of the earliest non-Atari cocktail games that I have been able to date (bear in mind that I have little data for pre-1974 dates and that dating games from this era is difficult in any event) is Electromotions Electromotion IV (released around May of 1974).
NUTTING TABLE TENNIS??
Finally, I mention one (likely) pretender to the throne. TAFA lists Nutting Associates' Table Tennis as a 1973 game. The April 1975 issue of Play Meter had an ad for the game, which almost certainly means it wasn't a 1973 release (they didn't run ads for games two years after they were released - it would have gone out of production LONG before that).
One thing I should mention, however, is that TAFA has two flyers for the game. The cabinet that appears in the ad is the same one that appears in the second (alternate) flyer. The other flyer actually shows three other cabinet styles (one octagonal). While it's possible that they came out with a game by that name in 1973 and another in 1975, it seems highly unlikely to me.
My guess is that Table Tennis is an early 1975 game. BTW - I am also highly doubtful of many of the release years that appear on Nutting games (I.E. I don't think Computer Space Ball came out in 1972).
Cocktail Games in the 1930s???
One final note. You will notice that I asked what was the first cocktail table VIDEO game and not the first cocktail table game period. Were there cocktail table games other than video?
Dick Beuschel's Pinball 1 includes this intriguing comment in the entry for Game Plan's Foxy Lady (A cocktail table pinball game)
"The idea wasn't completely new as sit-down cocktail table games had been made and modestly sold in the mid-1930s up through the World War II years by Rotor Table Games of New York City, Scientific Machine Company of Brooklyn, and the National Novelty Company of Long Island among a few other producers of the unique game format."
I don't have the time to go into this, but here's a photo of one of them - Rotor's Confusciouis [sic] Say manufactured sometime between 1935 and 1937 (photo from the International Arcade Museum):
Another photo of the same game from Sands Mechanical Museum (www.sandsmuseum.com/). Taken from Dick Bueschel's Encyclopedia of Pinball, Vol. 2
More detail on my book.
The Ultimate (So Far) History of Cinematronics/Vectorbeam - this one should be a doozy. Probably 5-10 posts. I've talked to at least a dozen people from Cinematronics/Vectorbeam and found a LOT of infomation that hasn't been published anywhere before.