Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Ultimate (So Far) History of Exidy - Part 8


By this time, the crash was in full effect and Exidy tried anything it could to turn a profit. In April, the company released their new interchangeable "Max-A-Flex" system. The system consisted of an Atari 600XL computer in a cabinet. Four games were initially available: Astro Chase, Boulder Dash, Bristles, and Flip & Flop. All four had previously been released by First Star Software for Atari computers. First Star had been founded in 1982 by New York film producers Richard Spitalny and Billy Blake to feature the work of a brilliant programmer named Fernando Herrera. Born in Bogota, Columbia in the 1940s, Herrera developed an early love for art. By age 8 he was making his own 8mm movies. After graduating from the National University of Columbia with a degree in architecture, Herrera spent three years working in his native country before moving to the U.S. in 1970. In the late 1970s, Herrera discovered personal computers and began learning everything he could about them. Herrera's son Steve had been born with multiple cataracts and pronounced blind by a number of doctors. Refusing to accept their diagnosis, Herrera set about creating a program that would help his son learn. The program would draw a capital letter "E" on the screen in various sizes and rotate it different directions.

[Richard Spitalny] The good news was that even though his son, Stevie, couldn’t speak very much, he could hold up and rotate his hand to indicate how the letter “E” looked to him as he viewed it on the TV screen and he WAS seeing it! Fernando then went on to embellish the program to include all the letters of the alphabet, in both lower and uppercase and displaying a picture for each letter, such an apple for “a”, a bumble bee for “b”, etc. He named his program My First Alphabet™ and submitted it to Atari as part of their first amateur contest for programmers. It won Best Educational Program and was then put in the finals, against the best of each category (Games, Productivity, Education, etc.) and he won! Fernando was awarded $25,000 and he was featured in numerous two-page magazine advertisements in main stream, family oriented magazine, placed by Atari discussing how a father's love and a computer changed the life of a two year old boy!

After winning Atari's first annual Star Award for My First Alphabet, Herrera pushed Atari BASIC to its limits with Space Chase, a well-regarded sci-fi game released by Swifty Software (a Long Island software company run by school teacher Lee Jackson). The game got a rave review in Electronic Games magazine. In 1982, Herrera was managing a retail computer store owned by Bill Blake, who was then working as a film producer with Richard Spitalny. The two had coproduced The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia (they later coproduced the 1984 Sylvester Stallone/Dolly Parton film Rhinestone and Blake went on to produce Pumpkinhead).

[Richard Spitalny Billy and I were feature film producers at that time, based out of New York, dealing with the frustrations of trying to raise millions of dollars to fund our movie projects; so, we decided that we would build a company around Fernando to develop and publish computer games! We knew that we could self-fund development and publish games ourselves with much less money and thus have much less risk than was involved with movie projects. We figured we would be able to produce a game in much less time than it would take for us to continue to try to get our feature films funded, shot, edited and distributed. So that's what we did!

Astro Chase, Bristles, and Flip & Flop
First Star's first release was another Fernando Herrera creation, Astro Chase - an outer space shoot-em-up in which the player fought through 36 levels trying to save the earth from destruction. On each level, the player had to destroy 16 megamines while avoiding or fighting off enemy UFOS. The action was broken up by periodic animated intermissions in which the player returned to earth amidst the cheers of an adoring crowd. Astro Chase proved to be a hit, reaching #4 on Electronic Games magazine's computer game charts and winning their Arkie award for Best Sci Fi-Fantasy Computer Game. First Star eventually sold the rights to the game to Parker Brothers. 

            Bristles was another Fernando Herrera creation that involved a painter painting the walls of a house before time ran out. Jim Nagano's Flip & Flop was a Q*Bert-like game (though it may have been created before Q*Bert). The player controlled a kangaroo named Flip and an ape named Mitch as they tried to turn a grid of squared the same color while avoiding a pursuing zoo keeper. Like Astro Chase, Flip & Flop had animated intermissions. Like Herrera, Nagano was a newcomer to the computer game field.  

[Richard Spitalny] We had an open policy for game submissions at that time. We even requested them in an insert packed in with our titles…Interestingly, Jim was in the Air Force at the time, working in a top secret, underground bunker where they kept track of every known nuclear submarine. Meanwhile, as we exchanged floppy disks in the mail, we stamped 'CONFIDENTIAL' in red on the labels. Eventually, Jim told us that for reasons he could not share, we had to stop stamping CONFIDENTIAL on the disks because he was searched every day going in and out of the facility and it was causing 'issues' as one might imagine. :-)

 Boulder Dash
First Star's most successful game was unquestionably Boulder Dash, designed and programmed by Peter Liepa and Chris Gray. Liepa got the idea while playing computer games on a friend's Atari 400 computer. Deciding that he could write a game himself, he contacted a local software publisher to see what kind of games were in demand.  The publisher put him in contact with another programmer named Chris Gray who had written a digging game in BASIC called Pitfall and needed help converting it into machine language. The game involved digging through dirt and rocks to unearth gems, a concept similar to the Centuri/Zilec game The Pit. Liepa felt the game didn't have legs and that the levels were all the same. He quickly built a physics engine that allowed him to create random levels by varying the position and density of the rocks and gems. Liepa then set to work adding graphics, sound, and other features, such as scrolling, to the game, which had the working title Cavern Raider. To add an element of risk, Liepa changed the game so that the falling rocks would kill you. At the suggestion of Gray, Liepa changed the player's avatar from a simple cross-like cursor to a human-like figure named Rockford, who would blink his eyes and tap his feet impatiently if the player didn't keep moving. In about six months, Liepa completed the game, which he had renamed Boulder Dash - a play on "balderdash". Liepa then spent six months shopping the game around to various software companies. One of them was First Star.

[Richard Spitalny] Peter mailed an early work-in-progress version of “Boulder Dash®” and it just so happened that I was the person who opened it. I was thus the first person at First Star Software who played it and I thought it was amazing within two minutes of playing it. It was different. It was fun. You ‘got it’ right away; but, it was also very challenging…Shortly after we received “Boulder Dash”, Arnie Katz and Bill Kunkel, the editors of Electronic Games Magazine, were visiting us at First Star and I showed them “Boulder Dash” and told them that we were negotiating to acquire the rights; so, I asked them what they thought of the game. As you can imagine, they too were very impressed with the game play… the graphics being somewhat ‘under whelming’…. but the game play was just so intuitive, so exciting, so addictive … it was such a great combination of ‘mental gymnastics’ and hand/eye coordination. It was like nothing any of us had ever seen before.

First Star released the game for the Atari 400/800 and IBM PC and PC Jr. and licensed it to MicroFun, who released it for the Commodore 64, Apple II, and ColecoVision.
            In November of 1983, Warner Communications acquired a 50% ownership in First Star. In early 1984 they signed a deal with Exidy, who needed games on Atari 400/800 cartridges for their new arcade system. First Star had four games available and Exidy took all of them. It may have been the first time a computer game made the transition to arcade format rather than vice versa. Exidy likely saw this as a way to provide arcade operators with a cheap interchangeable game system with a ready supply of new software titles (not to mention that Exidy itself would not have to invest in research and development). Unfortunately, the idea didn't work. Under the terms of the agreement, Exidy paid First Star an advance against future royalties and agreed to buy all the cartridges for their system from First Star. Exidy was required to sell 1,500 kits by October 1st. When they didn't, First Star terminated the agreement and the Max-A-Flex system was quickly forgotten (in 1985 First Star entered into an agreement with a Japanese company called Computique giving them rights to distribute Boulder Dash in Japan. Computique sublicensed the game to Data East, who produced a version of the game for their own DECO cassette system). 

Perhaps the most interesting, if not successful, game "released" in 1985 was Vertigo – a game designed by Howell Ivy with the same name as Owen Rubin’s effort from two years earlier, but different gameplay. Vertigo was a vector graphics game mounted in a huge cockpit cabinet that actually swiveled and spun about. Rather than hydraulic pistons, two jackscrews inside the moved it up/down and left/right. The system was called the “XCD-1 environmental system”. Once again, Ken Nicholson handled the game's sound effects

[Ken Nicholson] The engine sound in Vertigo/Vortex/Top Gunner was a really cool "wub-wub" sound that was made by placing the bare wires from a microphone cable inside a coke can while moving my hands up and down next to it. Kind of like the principle behind the Theremin.

The game itself was a first-person outer space shooter with the ability to buy more fuel by inserting another quarter. Exidy planned to release more games for the cabinet in the future. According to Ivy, Exidy (or is that XCD?) built about 150 units. Due to the high price and the collapsing video game industry, they only sold a fraction of those. While a few may have been leased, most were given away to operators as part of a revenue sharing program. Exidy set up a division called Fifty-50 Inc. with plans to put Vertigo machines into selected arcades with Exidy splitting the coin box 50/50 with the location owner. The idea, which seems innovative, was actually yet another desperate (and unsuccessful) attempt by Exidy to generate revenue any way it could




  1. Very interesting blog! I am particulat interested in the Max-A-Flex history. Your information is just overwhelming! Just a short question: from what magazine/book is that photo with Paul Jacobs in front of the arcade machines taken?

    1. Replay, April 1984 page 18. There are a few similar photos in Vending Times and Play Meter around the same time.