In 1981, Centuri had undergone one of the most remarkable transformations in coin-op history, going from perennial also-ran to major player in a single year. As 1982 dawned, they seemed ready to enter the upper echelons of the industry, but only time would tell if they would be able to do so.
1982 Games (Part 1)Round-Up
Licensed from Hiraoka (probably the same company that created Phoenix), Round-Up was released in December of 1981. The game was a combination maze/puzzle game with emphasis on “puzzle”. The player controlled a character called “Cowboy” who, despite his name, was more of a ghostly-white version of Pac-Man with eyes, legs, and a pink hat. The action took place in a concentric maze at the center of which was a grid of 9 (later 16) white circles. The goal was replace all the white circles with red ones. To do this, “cowboy” had to “round up” red “knights” then “push” a new red circle into a row or column of the grid. Opposing Cowboy were five “gly boys”: Ugly, Beastly, Ghastly, Homely, and Deadly. Aiding his efforts was King Rompus, whom the player could touch to temporarily freeze all enemies and knights. The game also featured a bonus round in which the player had complete one side of a Rubik’s Cube (which they called an “electronics cube”) so that it matched a target pattern. While the game was certainly innovative, it wasn’t much of a hit and Centuri probably sold around 700-1,200 copies. The game was later released by Taito as Fitter.
One of Centuri’s sorriest releases was April’s D-Day, licensed from Italy’s Olympia, a company that had been founded by Livio Leante. While Olympia was headquartered in Milan, their games were developed and manufactured at their factory in Bari (supposedly home to the second university in Italy to offer a degree in information science). Olympia produced its first game, Master’s Game (a Breakout-like game) in 1979, possibly under the Leante Games brand. From 1979 to 1983, the company produced at least a dozen and a half titles, many of them knockoffs of existing hits. D-Day was their most successful game and the only one to be released in the U.S. Looking at the game’s crude graphics, it’s hard to see why. The game was a shooter in which the player used a single cannon to defend a beachhead from enemies including tanks, ships, planes, and trucks. It was a perhaps Centuri’s biggest flop of the decade and probably less than 100 units were sold.
A bit more successful, but not much, was Loco-Motion (known as Guttang Gottong in Japan), licensed from Japan’s Konami (formerly known for their very profitable relationship with Stern). . The game was based on the ubiquitous 15-piece sliding block puzzle invented by Noyce Chapman in 1880 in which the player slid blocks horizontally or vertically within a frame to complete a picture or rearrange the blocks in numerical sequence. In Loco-Motion, the video “frame” contained 15 blocks, each with a section of a railroad track on it. As a train chugged around the track, the player had to slide the blocks to create a path for it and prevent it from crashing. The player also had to guide the train to pick up trackside passengers. If a passenger wasn’t picked up within a reasonable amount of time, they were replaced by a countdown timer and if the player didn’t reach the timer before the time reached zero, A “Crazy Train” appeared that the player had to avoid. While the game was not a hit, it was one of the earliest examples of an arcade puzzle game.
Centuri sold only $576,000 worth of Loco-Motion games in 1982, probably translating to about 300-500 units. In the long run, however, the game may have Centuri’s most important release of the year since Centuri’s relationship with Konami would prove perhaps even more lucrative than Stern’s had been.
1982 was an international year for Centuri. Loco-Motion had been licensed from a Japanese company, D-Day from an Italian one, and April’s The Pit came from jolly old England. The game was developed by the British company AW Electronics (aka Andy Walker Electronics, for its founder). In his youth, Andy Walker had served as a shipboard radio operator before spending ten years in the British Foreign Office. In 1977, while working at a government electronics center, he had his first brush with computers when he encountered a Honeywell 316 mini-computer. Instantly captivated, he purchased a kit computer consisting of single board with an 8080 microprocessor, a small amount of RAM, and a set of 8 red LEDs for output (as with the Altair and other early computers, it didn’t support a monitor). The only documentation consisted of a single photocopied page of instructions and a copy the 8080 instruction set. Programs had to be entered a byte at a time via 8 toggle switches. If the user made a mistake, they had to start over again from the beginning. In addition, the computer had no way to permanently store data, so even if a user did enter the data correctly, the program only lasted until they turned the computer off. This led to an amusing (at least in hindsight) incident. Walker entered program after program, only to find that they didn’t work. After spending days trying to sort things out, he finally discovered that to enter a 1 the user had to flip the toggle switch up and to enter a 0 he had to switch it down. This was obvious to American users but not to Walker, since in the U.K. (and most other countries), switches worked exactly the opposite way (to turn a light on, for instance, you pushed the switch down rather than up). Nonetheless, Walker eventually tamed the electronic beast and taught himself how to program in hex code. In 1981, fascinated by the new microcomputers that were appearing on the scene, Walker asked his bosses to send him to a small systems course to learn more about the machines. Convinced that the future was in mainframes and minicomputers rather than micros, they refused. Not long afterwards, Walker’s job changed and rather than relocate he quit and formed a company called Andy Walker Electronics (AWE - aka Slogan Court Ltd.) in the seaside town of Birdlington.
Deciding to build a computer of his own, Walker acquired a Tangerine Microtan 65 computer (a 6502-based kit computer). After putting it together, he ordered another and began writing programs in assembly language, displaying simple, interactive shapes on a black-and-white monitor. Realizing the system had potential, he hired another programmer named Tony “Gibbo” Gibson from Barnstable in Devon. Meanwhile, he purchased three graphics board (one each for red, green, and blue) and set about designing new hardware that expanded the MicroTan’s meager RAM, sound and graphics capabilities. After persuading a local company to turn his design into actual circuit boards, Walker programmed a crude Defender clone called Andromeda on his new system. Realizing that it was a bit too crude, he trashed the game and started again, eventually bringing in Gibson. Working together in a spare room in their house, Walker and Gibson would write code in assembly language then print it out and pin it to the wall so they could remember the memory addresses the next day. When they added joystick control to the game, they realized they could make a coin-op game. Young and full of confidence, they decided they could create their own from scratch and Walker began designing a cabinet. He ended up creating a multi-game system that allowed operators to swap ROM boards on the fly without turning the machine off (Walker described it as a “video jukebox”). Around this time, a third member joined the team - a graphic designer named Andy Rixon. Before long, the trio had created two additional games for the system: Hunter and The Pit. Oddly enough, it was a bug in Andromeda that led directly to the creation of The Pit.
[Andy Walker] The spaceship had a fin on the back and it didn’t always rub itself out. It would paint the screen in pixels but then when it went through a second time it would tunnel through them. Ah, there’s a game there.<”The Making of The Pit”, Retro Gamer #85>
With three games completed, Walker and Gibson packed their system into a rented Nissan van and headed to the Cunard Hotel in Hammersmith for the London Previews (a prominent British trade show). They set up a small both next to a major manufacturer (where the near constant music from a Frogger machine nearly drove them mad) and got their system up-and-running, which required loading the operating system from cassette tape - a process that took fifteen minutes or more. Then, five minutes before the show started, an electrician told everyone they were going to turn off the power for a few minutes. Panic set in as Walker and Gibson had to hurriedly reboot their system and wait several painstaking minutes as the first visitors wandered into their booth only to be greeted by a screen with a “loading…” message.
In the end, however, things worked out just fine. They made the acquaintance of Norman Parker, who headed Zilec Electronics in Burton-on-Trent, one of the U.K.’s leading arcade game manufacturers. Parker took a look at their system and was duly impressed. After the show, Walker paid a visit to the Zilec factory and Parker suggested he show his system to Centuri sales exec Joel Hochberg, who was Zilec’s agent (it appears that he had also set up his own company called Coin-It by this time). Hochberg was interested in their system and had them ship it to him in Florida (Zilec actually handled the shipping). During testing in Miami, The Pit proved to be the most popular of the system’s three games and Hochberg quickly licensed it to Centuri, netting AW Electronics a royalty of $136 per machine at a time when the going rate was around $40. Hochberg took a large part of the royalty for himself, but Walker didn’t mind since Hochberg had given him the foot in the door he needed to establish himself in arcade industry. While Hochberg liked the game, the multi-game system proved impractical
[Andy Walker] Our (treasured) rack-mounted Tangerine custom hardware worked fine but was really unsuitable for mass-production and Joel suggested that we completely abandon it in favour of Centuri (capable, successful) boards - and he was right. The software guys at Centuri knew their board inside-out and got The Pit rewritten in fantastic time. It was quickly agreed that it should be released as a single game - and that was shown to be right decision too.
Meanwhile, Zilec/Zenitone produced a version of The Pit for English arcades based on the Galaxian board and assigned the task of porting the game to a pair of new Zi lec engineers – brothers Chris and Tim Stamper (who went on to form their own company called Ashby Computers & Graphics, designed the game Blue Print for Bally/Midway, and later founded the software company Rare).
The Pit was a digging game – a kind of crude predecessor to Dig Dug, Mr. Do, and Boulder Dash (whose creator, Peter Liepa, named The Pit as a major influence). The player guided a "space prospector" through an underground landscape strewn with boulders in an effort to collect a series of seven gems while avoiding enemy astronauts and falling rocks. Three of the gems were located in a large rectangular "pit" at the bottom of the screen whose ceiling was lined with falling enemies. Other obstacles included a pool of green acid(?) with a disappearing floor above it. While the player collected gems, the "zonker" (a name had chosen for the American version) slowly chipped its way through a mountain protecting the mother ship. If the player made their way back to the mother ship before the zonker "zonked" it, they received a bonus depending on how many gems they collected. As with most games, there were a few features that didn’t make it into the final version. The game was originally to feature additional levels, culminating with a fight against the "Grand Dragon". Despite the fact that the Grand Dragon never made it into the game, it may have influenced a much more popular digging game.
[Andy Walker]…when we were at the preview show, we all knew it was a work in progress. We described it as such to some Japanese people who were extremely interested. I think they were from Namco or Atari. We described how you would find the Dragon and blow it up. Not ‘you kill it’ but specifically ‘you blow it up’. The Japanese gave us an old-fashioned look then made expanding gestures, then “boom”. The point being that when we said “blow it up” they thought “inflate.”<”The Making of The Pit”, Retro Gamer #85>
The idea of a dragon that you “blew up” later turned up in Namco/Atari's Dig Dug. Walker claims that when he mentioned the uncanny similarity to Atari, they informed him that THEY were suing HIM for stealing their (or rather Namco’s) idea. Luckily, at Joel Hochberg's suggestion, AW had registered a U.S. copyright on their game in November of 1982, two months before Atari and Namco copyrighted Dig Dug and nothing came of the threat. While The Pit wasn’t a major hit for Centuri, they did sell $2.9 million worth, probably about 1,200-2,000 units.
The Pit ended up being AW Electronics sole arcade video game. They did develop a few games that never made it to production, including Stamper (a game in which the player tried to deliver items by foot, plane, or car while avoiding being stomped flat by wandering beasts) and Hunky DoorKey (a maze game in which the player collected keys to open doors). Meanwhile, with their royalties from The Pit, Andy Walker and Tony Gibson purchased some Intertec Superbrain computers and began working on another game called Pipeline. Eventually they formed a company called Tasket and released Pipeline for the Commodore 64, along with a number of other innovative titles such as Super Pipeline (probably their most popular game), Seaside Special (which involved throwing seaweed at leading U.K. politicians) and Bozo’s Night Out (in which the player guided a character named Bozo on a pub crawl, trying to get as drunk as possible before returning home safely)
 While the game’s flyer says it was licensed from Hiraoka & Co, the attract screen says it was copyrighted by Centuri and Amenip.
 According to Centuri’s annual report, their biggest production run of the year was 2,000 units. If there was only one game per run and The Pit only had one run, that would mean The Pit sold 2,000 units. If there was more than one game per run (the report said that Centuri never had more than two games in production at one time) then the figure would be lower.
This has nothing to do with Centuri but I was recently discussing Taito America's games and thought I'd post the following. It's a marquee for the ultrarare Taito America game Black Widow that was sent to me by the game's designer, Mark Blazczyk. Some report that the game was unreleased, but Mark recalls that a few copies made it out the door.