Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Ultimate (So Far) History of Allied Leisure/Centuri - Part 10

 Today's post is the final part of my history of Allied Leisure/Centuri

            In 1983, Centuri’s licensing arrangement with Konami began to bear fruit in a major way. In prior years, Konami’s games were primarily known to U.S. gamers via the licensed versions produced by Stern, including Astro Invaders, Scramble, Super Coba, Tutankham, Amidar, and others. Centuri’s first Konami-licensed game, Loco-Motion, had not been a major success. That would change in 1983 when the two companies teamed up to produce a string of hits that are among the most well-remembered games of the mid-80s. As part of the deal, Centuri usually produced the dedicated version of the games while Konami released the conversion kit.

Time Pilot


Centuri’s second Konami license would feature much more traditional gameplay, and prove to be one of its biggest hits - the free-form air combat game Time Pilot. The concept was fairly straightforward. The player piloted a plane through give different eras, each with its own distinctive enemies: 1910 (biplanes), 1940 (fighters and bombers), 1970 (helicopters), 1982[1] (jets), and 2001 (UFOs). Each era also featured a boss “mother ship” that appeared after a specific number of enemies were destroyed (a blimp, a B-25, a CH-47 helicopter, a B-52). The player could also fly over parachutists for bonus points.

Time Pilot was designed by Yoshiki Okamoto, who would go on to become one of the most prolific game designers in Japanese gaming history, working on games like Street Fighter II. Like Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto, Okamoto started out as a graphic artist. When he took the job, in fact, Okamoto didn’t even know that Konami made video games, and certainly had no desire to work on them. Instead, he chose to work there for a much more practical reason.

[Yoshiki Okamoto] The truth is my wife at the time had something to do with it. I got a job after graduating from school, and the place where I had to work was far away from where…she lived. She told me that it was too far away and that we should break it all off. I didn’t want to do this, so I looked for another job close to where she was living, and it just happened to be a game company.

If Okamoto took the job to save his marriage, it didn’t work. He and his wife were divorced shortly after he arrived. In addition to his design skills, Okamoto was known for his zany sense of humor. He always loved a good prank and wasn’t above pulling a fellow employee’s pants down in the street. When he later moved to Capcom, he pulled a more original prank. When a coworker fell asleep during a meeting, Okamoto pulled down the shades, turned off the lights, ushered everyone out of the room, and set the clock to 3 A.M. At Konami, Okamoto started off doing art for posters and flyers used to advertise Konami’s game. He then moved on to designing characters before he was finally asked to design a game of his own (he suspects that this was why Konami had hired him in the first place). Konami wanted him to design a driving game in which a player had to earn their driver’s license by navigating through roads and traffic. Okamoto didn’t want to design a game at all, but if he did, he wanted to create a game that someone like him, a non-video game fan, would want to play. He asked to be allowed to design a flying game based on Namco’s Bosconian. When his boss refused, Okamoto created the game anyway, surreptitiously slipping his code to a data-entry person while showing his boss the “progress” he was making on the driving game he was supposed to be working on. Perhaps Okamoto’s boss should have listened to him. Okamoto’s flying game, Time Pilot, went to be one of the company’s biggest hits, reaching #1 on Play Meter’s charts. Konami also released a sequel to the game, Time Pilot ’84, as a conversion kit for the original (though a few hundred dedicated cabinets were made) and scored another #1 Play Meter hit.



While Time Pilot was a hit, Yoshiki Okamoto didn’t get a chance to bask in its success. After refusing to let him work on the game, Okamoto’s pass pulled a “Larry Tate” (Darren’s boss on Bewitched), claiming he’d like the idea all along and taking credit for the game himself. Despite Time Pilot’s success, Okamoto still didn’t want to make video games. 
[Yoshiki Okamoto] "I don't want to make games," I told them, "but fine, I will make another one. But after that I want to make a poster." I mean, I was hired as an illustrator, and that's what I was hoping I could do there. So they said I could work on a poster when the game [Gyruss] was finished.

In addition to promising to allow Okamoto to return to poste work, Konami also gave him carte blanche to create whatever kind of game he wanted (though at least two sources claim the game was developed by Ultimate Play the Game/Rare[1a]). Despite his reluctance, Okamoto came up with another winner - the classic shoot-em-up Gyruss, a game that has often been described as a combination of Galaga and Tempest. The description is accurate (though it’s more of the former than the latter). The player controlled a ship that moved in a circle around the edge of the screen, firing at a host of enemies that moved outward from the center. The goal was to fight your way through a series of planets: Neptune, Uranus, Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, and finally Earth. Each planet featured a number of “warps” (levels) that had to be completed before reaching the planet. There were “2 warps to Neptune” and 3 to the remaining planets. After reaching each planet, the player faced a “chance stage” that was essentially the same as the “challenge stage” in Galaga. Other similarities to the Namco/Midway classic included enemies that flew into formation from off-screen and bonus enemies that appeared in groups of three. Similarities aside, the game was a classic. The pulse-pounding gameplay was supplemented by a driving, rock version of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue. Gyruss provided Centuri with another hit, but due to the decline in the video game industry, it didn't sell as well as Time Pilot. Despite this, Osaka left the company shortly after the game was released. There are varying accounts as to why. In an interview with VideoGameSpot, Okamoto claimed that he asked the company for a raise, vowing to quit if they didn’t meet his demands. The next day, he said, they fired him. In his 1Up interview, however, he tells a different story, claiming that he left because Konami broke their promise to let him go back to designing posters.

[Yoshiki Okamoto] But after it [Gyruss] was done, they didn't keep their promise. They wanted me to continue to make more games. That's when I quit working at Konami.

 After leaving Konami, Okamoto moved to Capcom where he designed the classic shooter 1942  

Track and Field/Hyper Olympic


            Meanwhile, the industry downturn had begun in earnest and many were pinning their hopes on laserdisc games to pull the industry out of its doldrums. The 1983 AMOA show was jam-packed with laserdisc games, including Konami’s own Badlands (more on that one later). To the surprise of the industry, however, the hit game of the show turned out not to be a laserdisc game, but another Konami offering – the sports-themed Track & Field. The game was known as Hyper Olympic in Japan (Centuri supposedly changed the name because Atari owned exclusive rights to use the word "Olympics" in a video game in the U.S.)  According to RePlay magazine[2], the idea for the game had come from Centuri president Arnold Kaminkow during a January dinner meeting. With the Olympics approaching, Kaminkow suggested that Konami create a sports-themed a game that put the player in the role of an Olympic athlete.

            That’s just what Konami did. The game featured six Olympic events: 100-meter dash, long jump, javelin, 110-meter hurdles, hammer throw, and high jump. Controls consisted of a pair of “run” buttons and a “jump/throw” button that controlled the timing and angle of jumps and throws. The player had to qualify in each event to move on to the next. While the game featured a score, it also tracked the top three “world record” times or distances for each event.  Each event had an Easter egg that could earn a 1,000-point bonus (throw a javelin at maximum angle, for example, and you spear a bird). What most people remember about the game is its adrenaline-pumping action. Track & Field was a real button-pounder. To build up speed (as most events required), the player had to alternately pound (and pound, and pound…) the run buttons as fast as was humanly possible. Top players had a variety of techniques to accomplish this exhausting task. Some used the "double tap", hitting the buttons alternately with their index and middle fingers. Others placed a pencil across the two buttons, over one finger and under another creating a kind of see-saw that they could hammer rapidly on one end. In the documentary Chasing Ghosts, two players reveal an ingenious method that involved the use of disassembled electric knife. While Centuri had a major hit in the U.S. with the game, Konami did even better. By January of 1984 they had sold 38,000 Hyper Olympic boards in Japan[3].
Hyper Sports/Hyper Olympic ’84, Circus Charlie, and Mikie

            Konami followed up Track & Field/Hyper Olympic with Hyper Sports (Hyper Olympic ’84 in Japan). While it used the same basic concept as Track & Field, Hyper Sports featured a much more eclectic lineup of events, some of which relied on timing rather than button-mashing: 100m freestyle swimming, skeet shooting, long horse (vaulting), archery, triple jump, weight lifting, and pole vault. A less successful (though still fun) variant on the Track & Field theme was 1984’s Circus Charlie, which replaced the track and field events with circus-themed competitions: fire rings (jump through flaming hoops riding a lion), tightrope (jump over monkeys while walking a tightrope), ball walk (hop from one rolling ball to the next), horseback (leap from a moving horse to a springboard and back to the horse), trampoline (bounce across a series of trampolines while avoiding jugglers and fire-breathers), and flying trapeze. 

            The final Centuri/Konami game was Mikie (aka Mikie: High School Graffiti). The player took the role of an “average high school boy” named Mike who moved through a school collecting messages (hearts) from his girlfriend. Action started in home room class, where Mikie had to bump his classmates out of their chairs with his butt while avoiding, or head-butting, the teacher, all to a bouncy version of “A Hard Day’s Night”. The action then moved to a locker room, where Mikie had to head-butt open lockers to collect more hearts. In the cafeteria, Mikie had to avoid pies tossed by angry cooks. Mikie finally found his true love in the girls’ gym class where the gym teacher was none too pleased by his intrusion. Finally, hand-in-hand, the two lovers made their way through the courtyard to Mikie’s car while avoiding football players. While Mikie was a (very) minor hit, by the time of its release, Centuri was on its last legs and much of their inventory of boards ended up being sold off to other companies.
Centuri 1983 and 1984

             Thanks in part to their profitable relationship with Konami, Centuri rebounded in 1983. Revenues for the year were $141.8 million and the company turned a profit of $2.6 million. While over 2/3 of revenues came from Outdoor Sports, video games accounted for 40% of net income and 93% of operating income. Of the $32.5 million in revenue generated by video games, 72.3% came from just two games: Gyruss and Track & Field (and the latter was still going strong at the end of the year). The company even won in the courts. In October, the company won a $5.25 million settlement from Atari in a case involving the 1982 licensing deal they had struck with the company.
                 Once again it seemed that Centuri had turned a corner. And once again, it didn’t last. 1984 revenues were $124.8 million, but the company lost $2.2 million. While Track & Field and Hypersports did well (accounting for 87% of video game revenues), the video games division lost $3 million – more than the company overall (the other divisions were profitable). By fall, with their long and lucrative relationship with Konami coming to an end, things looked bleak. At the 1984 AMOA convention Centuri dropped a bombshell when they announced their new "Direct Connections" marketing program – an attempt to sell directly to operators, bypassing the distributor. The announcement was the talk of the show and drew heated commentary pro and con. Some distributors were outraged. Others didn't like the move but understood why Centuri felt they had do it. Still others felt it was a desperation move by a company on its last legs trying to unload its inventory before they went under. In an interview in the December 31, 1984 issue of Play Meter, Centuri president Arnold Kaminkow denied this, claiming that the idea had come up in February and the decision to go ahead with it had been made in July. In Kaminkow's view, the distributor just didn't fit into the video game picture anymore – especially with the rise of conversion kits and system games. Operators and location owners didn't need a middle man. Service could be handled via UPS or over the phone (unlike pinball games and jukeboxes). Kaminkow also pointed out that direct sales were more the norm in Europe and Japan.

In any event, distributors didn’t have long to stew on their outrage. In December (just as Kaminkow's interview war appearing in operator mailboxes) Centuri’s board of directors voted to discontinue the video games division entirely. The company's video game assets were snapped up by other companies. Wico, the joystick and control manufacturer, got the customer service stock and some complete games. Jon Daugherty of United Artists Theater Amusements got the 50 remaining Badlands (with plans to put them in theater lobbies). The rest of the stock - 540 Mikie boards plus around 700 older kits - went to Video Ware, Inc., a company founded by John Hibbs that billed itself as "America's largest PC board dealer".

By the time of the decision, Centuri was already on its way out of the coin-op biz. Outdoor Sports Headquarters was the company’s leading revenue generator and they had begun expanding into other areas as well. In 1981 they had invested in a contract electronics firm called IEC. In 1984, they purchased the Virginia Capes Seafood Company and in 1985 they acquired Poloron Homes of Pennsylvania Inc. – a manufacturer of modular housing[4].These new investments would take Centuri into the 1990s, by which time video games were a distant memory.

[1] 1983 in the Centuri version, as it was released in 1983 in the U.S.
[1a] The two sources are the book The Complete History of Video and Computer Games, published in the U.K. by Video & Computer Games magazine in 1996 and The Digital Antiquarian website.
[2] RePlay, December, 1983
[3] RePlay, January, 1984.
[4] They also owned a boat repair company, but that was sold off in 1984.


Here are two pictures of Allied's facilities in 1974 (sorry for the poor quality)

A photo of the wives of Atari executives, ca November, 1976

Speaking of Konami, here's a picture of the Mega Zone kit, produced by Konami and Interlogic.

Finally, some more undocumented games




  1. Actually in Mikie, you don't meet your girl in the gym (called a 'dance studio" though, similarly the cafeteria is called a "restaurant") doing aerobics, but meet up with her after you get past the football players in the "garden" (should read "campus grounds" really but I guess we take what we can get from these Japanese programmers).

  2. There's several photos of the 1983 AOE coin-op show in the July 1983 issue of Video Games magazine ( including several of Centuri's area - Gyruss (featuring a model), Munch Mobile Guzzler, and Time Pilot