Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Ultimate (So Far) History of Exidy - Part 6

As the 1970s wound to a close, Exidy continued to expand. In early 1979 they moved to a 50,000 square foot facility in Moffet Park in Sunnyvale. Meanwhile, they were hard at work turning out Star Fire and Rip Cord units. Their next coin-op release wouldn’t come until mid-year when they released a very successful version of Gremlin’s Head On called Crash. In the meantime, the company was busy promoting their Sorcerer home computer. As promised, they had released a Word Processor Pac (for the cartridge slot) and a disk drive. In 1980 the company released an updated version of the computer, the Sorcerer II that could be expanded to 48k of RAM. Also available were a number of peripherals, including a Compuprint printer, MECA digital tape drive, and Pennywhistle acoustic modem. Despite the peripherals and excellent reviews, Exidy had sold only 15,000 Sorcerers by February 1981. Part of the problem may have been that the Sorcerer relied on an old technology, the S-100 expansion bus that was made obsolete by new methods used by other popular computers like the Apple II (some report that the Sorcerer was actually a clone of the Sol-20, a very early pc made by Processor Technology). In other non-videogame areas, 1979 saw Exidy release a line of coin-operated player pianos.

Video games were not forgotten, however. At the 1979 AMOA, the company planned to bow five titles: Bandido, Kreepy Krawlers, Side Trak, Fire One, and an upright version of Star Fire. Perhaps Exidy's own design team was too busy with the Sorcerer since most (if not all) of these games came from outside designers. Bandido was a western-themed shooter licensed from Nintendo (who released it as Sheriff), who had yet to establish a presence in the United States.
Fire One and Kreepy Krawlers

Fire One and Kreepy Krawlers were designed at Technical Magic by the same team that had produced Star Fire. After the deal with Midway had fallen through, programmer David Rolfe left Technical Magic to become one of the first programmers for the Mattel Intellivision. When Star Fire became a hit for Exidy, Ted Michon lured Rolfe back to begin work on a follow up that was inspired by one of Michon’s favorite games – Midway’s Sea Wolf.
As with Star Fire, however, Fire One would add a number of innovative gameplay elements that took the Sea Wolf concept to the new levels. Two players competed against one another simultaneously in a submarine battle, attempting to either destroy their enemy’s sub or destroy the fleet of ships they were trying to protect. The game used only a single monitor that was divided down the middle by a partition, allowing each player to see only one half of the screen. Among the many features in the game was a radar that allowed players to track the enemy fleet, a targeting computer, the ability to submerge, and the ability to sustain damage. Unfortunately, despite its innovations, Fire One failed to match the success of Star Fire. Perhaps the many features made it too complicated for the average arcade denizen to figure out.

[David Rolfe] It was a pretty good game for its time, but had a little bit of a learning curve perhaps. It’s very difficult being in the middle of game design - it’s hard to maintain your perspective of what it’s like to walk up and see something fresh. For what it’s worth, from my point of view I like Fire One better than Star Fire but commercially Star Fire was relatively successful and Fire One was not.

            According to a source at Exidy, there may have been another reason for Fire One's failure. Initially, the lower front edge of the cabinet was rounded. After the game was release, a child was hanging from the controls when the entire cabinet tipped over and crushed him or her to death. The cabinet was redesigned but a number had already shipped by that point.
            Technical Magic’s final effort for Exidy, Kreepy Krawlers, was an attempt to dash off a game quickly to meet Exidy’s demand for a new title. It was a black-and-white game in which the player stayed in the center of the screen using a variety of weapons to fend off a host of insect enemies. While David Rolfe doesn’t remember finishing the game, Exidy’s Howell Ivy recalls that about 200 units actually made it out the door. 

In November, the trend toward relying on outside developers continued when Exidy purchased elements of Vectorbeam and renamed it Exidy II. Perhaps the main reason for the purchase was that Exidy wanted to make a cockpit version of Vectorbeam’s Tailgunner. The game was released a Tailgunner II early in 1980 (and reportedly featured the industry's first slide-out electronics service drawer). 1980s sole in-house releases were a pair of driving/maze games – Targ and its follow-up Spectar (the names were reportedly short for "target" and "special target") – both of which put the player in control of a vehicle called the wummel facing off against enemy rammers in the crystal city. The games resulted in a pair of minor hits for the company.
While Exidy had seen a handful of modest hits in the years 1978-80, none had come close to the success of such smashes as Asteroids and Space Invaders. Despite the fact that Exidy had at one time been the third largest U.S. video game company, they had yet to produce a hit that would measure up to the success of 1977’s Circus. In 1981, Exidy decided that it wanted to challenge Atari’s dominant position at the top of the coin-op heap. A new color development system was created, new design teams were organized (an effort to secure the services of Atari’s Ed Rotberg and Howard Delman didn’t pan out), and Noah Anglin (former VP of Engineering and Manufacturing at Atari) was brought in to remake and rebuild the company. The results of these efforts were two 1981 releases that would rival Circus as the company’s bestselling game ever.

 Venture was perhaps the first video game with a true fantasy theme (Midway’s Wizard of Wor was more of a maze game with fantasy trappings). The player took control of an adventuring archer named Winky who made his way through a series of rooms in search of treasure. As he reached a new level, it contained a floor plan of rooms with different treasures (a damsel in distress, a pot of gold, a diamond) and hazardous challenges (goblins, spiders, moving walls etc.). While its sales didn’t match those of mega-hits like Asteroids and Pac-Man, Venture provided Exidy with a solid hit in coin-op as well as a number of home formats.
            One new feature was Venture's soundtrack. Whether true or not, the game was billed as the first to feature a soundtrack written specifically for the game. The idea had come from plant manager Ed Anderson, a child prodigy, who had started playing classical music before he was five. While his video game career had started in the Pong era (building cabinets for the original Pong), Anderson had never really put his musical talents to use before.

Pete Kauffman and Ed Anderson


[Ed Anderson] I’d go into an arcade and there was a space game and they had Sweet Georgia Brown playing in the background. I’d think “What is this?” “. . .So when I went to Exidy I told Pete [Kauffman] “Let me do all the music for video games” We were making player pianos at the time and he asked “Do you play?” We went in the lobby and I started playing the player piano we had in there. From then on me and Arlen Grainger did all the music (Arlen was an engineer) I started programming the music and I won an award for the music track on Venture. Those are all my songs in there.

            While Exidy may have wanted to dethrone Atari from its position on the coin-op throne, their rivalry was in many ways a friendly one. In early days, the companies would sometimes borrow parts from one another when one ran low. After Venture, Exidy created a promotional T-shirt for the game that included a dead centipede named Skippy, after Atari’s General Counsel Skip Paul. Exidy delivered several of the shirts to Atari and even gave Paul (who loved popcorn) a popcorn machine in the shape of a video game.
Exidy's sales chief Lila Zinter, in her Winky hat.
Zinter, a mainstay at Exidy, had formerly worked for Meadows Games.
            While Venture sold well, it might have sold better had Exidy not tuned the game to make it so hard. Larry Hutcherson recalls that the game was initially much easier (and more fun). In an effort to increase the coin take, however, the difficulty level was ratcheted up to the point where many found it too difficult.

Mouse Trap

Exidy's next effort marked the first appearance of probably the company's most prolific programmer. In the early 1970s, he was attending night school earning a psychology degree while working at various electronics companies during the day. In 1974 he took a job at Exidy and was soon spending so much time there that the forgot about his degree At Exidy, Hutcherson held a number of titles, including Operations Manager. He left the company in 1978 and went to work for North Star Computers, one of the early personal computer companies that sprang up in the wake of the Altair 8800. Founded by Chuck Grant and Mark Greenberg, North Star had originally made add-on products for other early PCs, including a version of BASIC for Processor Technology's Sol and a controller board that allowed microcomputers to connect to the newly introduced 5 1/4" floppy disk drive. Grant and Greenberg also sold PCs through another company called Kentucky Fried Computers[1]. In 1977, they merged KFC into North Star and began making plans for a computer of their own, the Z-80 based Horizon. Hutcherson's stint with North Star didn't last long. A year after leaving Exidy, he returned as national sales manager. In 1980, he switched to programming and game design.

[Larry Hutcherson] I had some training in high school with FORTRAN, but was not very interested in that at the time, as the technology was still very frustrating as programs had to be sent to the university to be run. At Exidy I worked for many years in the production of games, I had taken it upon myself to automate several departments using the Exidy Sorcerer computer written in Basic, when that became noticed, I was able to transfer into the game development full time in 1980.
Hutcherson's first effort was an unreleased Space Invaders-like game with hardware based on an obscure early computer called the TT9918. He then pitched an idea for a game called Gates in which the player navigated a maze that included gates he could open and close. Released in November 1981 as Mouse Trap, it proved to be one of Exidy's biggest hits of the 1980s.
Mouse Trap was Exidy’s answer to Pac-Man and was one of the better of the maze games that followed in its wake. In the game, the player took the role of a mouse, prowling the corridors of a maze collecting cheese while avoiding being eaten by a horde of pursuing cats. The maze included a series of blue, yellow, and red gates that could be opened by pressing the appropriate button. Strewn throughout the maze were bones that would transform the mouse into a dog, allowing him to turn the tables on his feline pursuers. Occasionally, one of 32 prizes would appear, netting the player anywhere from 1,000 points (for the big cheese) to 7,200 points (for the gun). Because of the colored gates, Mouse Trap players couldn’t employ patterns and had to rely on their instincts.

Opinion on the game was divided. While some found it to be one of the better Pac-Man variants, others disliked the game intensely with its complicated controls being but one complaint. The game nonetheless provided Exidy with a hit, reaching #18 on the Replay charts. It may be even better known from its port to the ColecoVision.

            Spurred by the success of Venture and Mouse Trap, Exidy went on to release a slew of new games in 1982 (the profits from the game also enabled them to establish Exidy Ireland and begin distributing games in Europe). One of the most interesting of the new games, Vertigo, never went into production. Designed at Atari by Owen Rubin, the game had started out as Tube Chase before being licensed to Exidy who placed it in a sit down cabinet. Exidy play-tested Vertigo but eventually decided they didn’t want the game (though they didn’t forget the name).

[1] They also had a third company alled Applied Computer.


  1. Regarding the "TT9918", maybe that's a garbled description of hardware using TI's 9918/9928 video chip family? The ColecoVision used it along with several home computers (including TI's own) and it was probably most famously used in arcades in Baby Pac-Man.

  2. Speaking of Crash, looking at the US copyright records, there's a record ("Head-on & 1 other title.") for a document pertaining to a complaint filed by Gremlin against Exidy. I haven't been able to find anything else on it.

  3. I miss those classic arcade games, and games like Mousetrap, Bandido, and especially Venture stood in my mind for years., I have to admit that to this day, those little green hallmonsters have given me the creeps, as they made their surprise entrance into the room Winky was in and just went after him. Even more deadly, it was indestructible. What a horrible price for poor Winky to pay for stealing the treasures for his own, instant, and immediate and a seriously painful death from a large hallmonster."CRUNCH!" I want to play them again with more rooms, challenges, and fun.

  4. another memory I have was a video game song record album by Buckaneer and Garcia? It was called Pac-man Fever, and among the songs sung on the album, they had a song about Mousetrap, one of Exidy's game hits.

  5. Does anyone know if Larry Hutcherson and Kazutoshi Ueda came up with the concepts of Mouse Trap and Lady Bug independently of each other? I am not even sure which game was released first.

  6. A radar screen wasn't an innovation with Fire One but rather Star Fire.