Thursday, January 23, 2014

Video Game Mythbusters - Was Rally-X the Hit of the 1980 AMOA?

            There are number of well-known legends associated with various arcade video games of the 1980s. Perhaps the two games with the most are Pac-Man and Donkey Kong. With the latter there are legends about the origin of the game’s name, the main character’s name, the involvement of Ikegami Tsushinki, the game’s Popeye origins etc. With the former there's the pizza legend (discussed earlier), the release date, the question of when and if the enemies were referred to as ghosts and so on. One story about Pac-Man that has oft been repeated is that when it debuted at the 1980 AMOA show in October, the industry pundits liked Namco’s other game Rally-X better. In fact, the story goes, Rally-X was the hit of the show. Here’s a typical version from Steven Kent’s Ultimate History of Video Games:

“Buyer and analyst response at the October AMOA show further confirmed that Rally-X was the best game in the group. Of all the video games at that show Rally-X received the most favorable comments.”

Note that the “group” mentioned here refers to the four games introduced by Namco: Pac-Man/Puck-Man, Rally X, Tank Battalion, and King & Balloon. There are actually two (or three)  separate claims here: 1) that Midway liked Rally-X best of the four Namco games and 2) that Rally-X was the hit of the 1980 AMOA. Both stories are often used to illustrate either the myopia of industry executives or the revolutionary nature of Pac-Man (a third claim is that the industry in general preferred Rally-X to Pac-Man)

Let’s look at claim 2) first. This one should be pretty easy to check. I have the relevant issues of RePlay and Play Meter, the two premier industry journals of the time, so if we want to know what the industry thought, those are the key sources of information.

First, however, a word about the 1980 AMOA show, and the show in general. For those who don’t know, the AMOA (Amusement and Music Operators of America) expo was the premier industry show in the U.S. in the 1980s (and probably from the 1960s to at least the 1990s). The 1980 show was a pretty interesting one in terms of coin-op history. Other than Pac-Man and Rally-X, games making their debut at the show included Battle Zone, Berzerk, Defender, Crazy Climber, Spectar, Star Castle, Space Panic, and Moon Cresta.

So, which games were considered the hits?

Play Meter covered the show in its 1/15/81 issue, which actually had three separate articles, reviewing the show.
First was an article by Dick Pearson titled "Play Meter plays the games"
Unfortunately, Pearson didn't name a standout game, noting "But since Space Invaders, we have seen something new added to the games, which makes it all the more difficult to pick a 'Game of the Show." He then goes on to further discuss how difficult picking standout games is and doesn't name a game of the show.

Nonetheless, he does discuss the following games as among the standouts: Battlezone, Berzerk, Star Castle, Defender, Spectar, and Space Tactics, and also mentions Radar Scope, Zero Hours, Uni War S, Space Panic, and Crazy Climber.
Here's his take on Pac-Man and Rally-X

Hmm. He doesn't seem to favor one over the other. Plus he also mentioned a lot of games, so this article may not be of much help.

Later in the same issue we have Dick Welu's show diary. Welu is much more forthcoming with what games he liked and disliked.
He calls Star Castle a "honey", was lukewarm on Space Panic, and liked Battlezone.
His pick for game of the show?

OTOH, he did pick a Bally/Midway game as "sleeper" of the show. Which one?

Yep, he picked Space Zap (!!???) as sleeper of the show. Now don't get me wrong, I loved me some Space Zap back in the day, but sleeper? Really?

Finally, we have the article "An Independent Review: Standout games at Chicago Show" by Tony Licata. Ahh. This is just what we're looking for. He actually picks four standout games of the show.
And they are....




Star Castle




wait for it


Deep Death.


Deep Death?


DEEP DEATH!!??!!?!

That's what he picked. Pacific Novelty's Deep Death (which was subsequently renamed Shark Attack).

OK, so it looks like Play Meter didn't consider Rally-X the standout game of the show, or even significantly better than Pac-Man.
What about RePlay?

Here's a review of the show from the 12/80 issue

No Rally-X there, but he does mention Pac-Man and (once again) good old Space Zap.
Here's another review from the same issue.

I don't know about you, but I'm not seeing any evidence that Rally-X was considered the hit of the show or that it was more well regarded than Pac-Man. OTOH, neither was Pac-Man considered the hit of the show, so the perhaps the larger point still stands.

What about the other claim, that Midway initially liked Rally-X more than Pac-Man? That claim actually does hold water. Midway president Dave Marofske said as much to Kent. When I talked to him circa 1999, he told me pretty much the same thing: 

[Dave Marofske] When we went to Japan there were four games, I believe, that were shown. Atari, ourself, and many others had looked at the games and talked to Namco about licensing them. The one that Mr. Nakamura and company felt had tremendous potential was Rally X, which was a maze driving game. They also had Pac-Man, which they called Puck Man. They also had a tank game, which I think was called Red Tank or maybe just Tank and they had a game that they called Red Balloons or something similar. They said they were not going to licensing all four to any one company and, in fact, they were leaning towards releasing them to four different companies. Rally X seemed to be the one that kept getting touted but we sort of thought there were two strong games and the other one was Pac-Man. I don’t think anyone on our side, and obviously nobody on their side at that time knew which was going to be the stronger game but we felt they both had strong potential.

Far more interesting was a story that Game Plan exec Ken Anderson told me. First, a little background. In the end, Namco chose to license the four games to two different companies. Midway got Rally-X and Pac-Man, while Game Plan got Tank Battalion and King & Balloon. Ken Anderson was an executive at Game Plan at the time and over the years it seems he worked for half the manufacturers in the industry. How did Midway end up with Pac-Man? Here's what Anderson told me

[Ken Anderson] You want to hear a real story. Dave Marofske was the president of Midway in 1980. Namco had four games and they were going to give Game Plan two and Bally/Midway two. [It came down to] Tank Battalion and Pac-Man. We flipped a coin. I won and I turned down Pac-Man because I thought Tank Battalion was the better game.  So I turned down Pac-Man for Tank Battalion.

Now I don't know if that's true or not and I haven't confirmed it but if it is, it has to be one of the all-time great whiffs (though, of course, it's easy to say that in hindsight).
Oh, and did you notice the raves about Space Tactics in the above articles? What's the deal with that one? For those who don't know, it was a huge cockpit game from Sega that used an elaborate system of gears, motors and pulleys to rotate - not the cabinet, or the player's seat, but the monitor (which was actually mounted in the bottom of the cabinet and reflected via a mirror, so they may have rotated the mirror). It also had LED lights to display various player stats as well as a steering wheel with a thumb button, plus six other buttons. One person called it the most over-engineered video game in history.
Finally, here's some more pictures form the 1980 AMOA show.
Hmm. Is that Namco founder Masaya Nakamura playing Rally-X? I thought so at first, but can't tell for sure. It looks like the game starts with a "T" but it doesn't look like a Tank Battalion cab.



Bonus. Another famous myth.

Earlier, I mentioned Donkey Kong myths. One of the most famous is that it was originally called Monkey Kong and the name was only changed to Donkey Kong due to a translation error (in some versions, due to either a blurred fax or a misheard phone call depending on who's telling the story).
That story is considered "busted". There's even a longish article on it at Snopes.
Recently, however, I came across the following from the October 1, 1981 Play Meter

What? Monkey Kong? So is the "busted" myth not a myth after all? Have I found holy grail of video game mythbuster-busting? Alas, I think not. I'm pretty sure this is just a good old fashioned typo. RePlay referred to the game as Donkey Kong the month before this issue came out and may have done so earlier. But it did give me a brief rush of adrenaline.


  1. Good stuff; it definitely appears the AMOA story was a myth. My guess is that whoever started that particular story heard about Namco favoring Rally-X over Pac Man and exaggerated the story by saying it was the whole industry that preferred the game.

    Incidentally, I interviewed Dave Marofske in 2009 and he gave basically the same story, stating that Rally-X was the game Namco was promoting most heavily, but that he felt they were equally wonderful games and was not sure which would end up being better. He also discussed Atari being in the hunt as he did with you, but when I asked Frank Ballouz, who was VP of sales and marketing for Atari Coin-op at the time, about Atari being in the hunt for Pac Man, he said he did not believe that was the case. Of course, when Marfsoke talked to you it seems he did not put as much emphasis on Atari seeing the games as he did with me (he really made it sound like if Midway had not won Namco over those games were going to Atari when he talked to me) so maybe Atari was shown the games, but just was not interested in pursuing them further.

  2. A couple of years ago at the California Extreme there was some of the old Atari engineers there and if memory serves me Steve Bristol said they looked at Pac-Man and turned it down. Have you tried contacting Al Alcorn or Steve Bristol for any additional information?

  3. In an interview included with Williams Arcade Classics/Arcade's Greatest Hits, Eugene Jarvis said Rally-X was "the big game of the show" and "Pac-Man and Defender were like bombs."

  4. That's definitely a Tank Battalion cabinet as originally designed by Namco (Japan):

    It bears some passing similarities to Puck Man.