Saturday, May 17, 2014

What Were the First Ten Coin-Op Video Games?

Way back when I started this blog, one of the first articles I thought about writing was on the first ten coin-op video games to be released. Unfortunately, back then, I didn’t have enough information to write a definitive article, since the sources I had at the time were too late. Play Meter didn’t publish its first issue until December of 1974 and RePlay didn’t start until October, 1975. Cash Box and Vending Times were covering the coin-op industry in 1972 and 1973, but I didn’t have access to those issues. My library has a nice long run of Vending Times but it doesn’t start until February of 1974 and I didn’t have any access to Cash Box at all.

Since then, things have gotten better. I haven’t been able to look at the late 1972 and 1973 issues of Vending Times but I know someone who used to be an editor there and he was kind enough to make a trip to their New York offices and look through the issues for me. Then I found another library that had a run of Cash Box starting in July, 1973. The bad news was that it was 500 miles away in El Paso. On the other hand, El Paso was one of few Texas cities I hadn’t been to yet so I planned one of my annual road trips around El Paso and included a stop at UTEP to peruse their issues. I was also able to purchase a number of the earlier issues from E-Bay. More recently, I’ve been buying early issues of Marketplace, an industry newsletter published by Bill Gersh (who also published Cash Box (NOTE that Billboard had basically stopped covering the coin-op amusement industry – other than jukeboxes – by 1972).

Unfortunately (again), despite all the new info, I still don’t have the info I need to write a definitive article on the first ten coin-op video games. The sources that covered the coin-op industry in 1972 and 1973 just didn’t report video game releases nearly as frequently as they did in subsequent years, so I still don’t have good dates for many of the games.

Nonetheless, here is my stab at listing the first ten coin-op video games, based on the information I currently have.

1.    Computer Space (Nutting Associates, Inc.) – debuted 10/15/1971 at MOA show; released November, 1971; first? field tested in August, 1971

2.    Galaxy Game (Computer Recreations, Inc.) – first? placed on location at Stanford in September, 1971

Which was first, Computer Space or Galaxy Game? This is probably the most controversial point in this article. For many years, almost every history of video games listed Computer Space as the world’s first coin-op video game. Contrary to what some think, Computer Space was not unknown to early video game historians. A number of articles and books touching on video game history were published in the early 1980s and almost all of them mention Computer Space.
Galaxy Game was much less known (one day I may do an article specifically on the historiography of video games and cover this in more detail). Now that Bill Pitts’ game is more widely known, a kind of consensus seems to have formed that it, not Computer Space, was actually the true “first” coin-op video game.
This is likely based on the fact that Computer Space was “released” in November, 1971 while Galaxy Game was “released” the month before and thus was the "first" coin-op video game.
This is not really accurate, however. Computer Space was supposedly "released" in November. But what does “released” mean? For me, “released” means when the manufacturer started shipping the game to distributors (or at least when they were ready to ship it), and I'm assuming that's what it means here.

When comparing Computer Space and Galaxy Game, I think release dates are really a moot point. Galaxy Game was a one-of-a-kind game and wasn’t built by a manufacturer and thus never shipped to any distributors and was never really "released" at all. According to available sources, it was placed on location at the student union in Stanford in September, 1971, so that was when the general public first (at least those at Stanford) got to see it. This was also basically when the game was “field tested”. According to Goldberg and Vendel, Computer Space was first placed on location in August, 1971 at The Dutch Goose so in terms of when the public could actually drop a coin into an arcade video game, Computer Space appears to have been first and since Galaxy Game wasn’t really a released product, I think that this is the best criteria we can use to determine priority. (Of course, we could also ask which one started development first. Normally, this kind of info is rare for coin-op video games, but in this case the info available indicates that Computer Space was started long before Galaxy Game so by this criteria, Computer Space is still #1)

3.    Star Trek (For-Play Manufacturers) – Released September, 1972??

This one is really interesting. It was a clone of Computer Space, thus making it not only possibly the third coin-op video game ever made but the first bootleg game (Galaxy Game wasn’t a bootleg of Computer Space, though both were versions of the mainframe original). It was supposedly released in September of 1972 (or at least that what I have in my notes). I am not sure, however, exactly where I got that date and haven’t been able to track down its source since then. I have a vague memory that it came from one of Bill Kurtz’s books on arcade video games but that is only a vague memory and Kurtz isn’t the most reliable source. The game’s flyer on The Arcade Flyer Archive has a date stamped on it of “Sep 19 1972” but that doesn’t prove that it had been released by then (for one thing, flyers often came out a month or so before a game shipped and for another, someone could have stamped that date on there later).
OTOH, the company was incorporated on July 20, 1972 and according to RePlay/Play Meter it was formed specifically to get into the video game business.

4.    Pong (Atari) – Released November, 1972

Not much to say about this one. The date comes from the well-known internal document that has been circulated about the web. I am not actually sure if the dates on said documents are “release” dates or not, but they seem to be (they could be the date the game went into production, but games generally went into production the same month they started shipping).

5. Computer Space Ball ??? (Nutting Associates) - Released early 1973?

      The date on this one is very uncertain and I have found few solid references. The June 16, 1973 issue of Cash Box mentioned that the game was "still going great guns", indicating that it had probably been out for at least a few months. A more intriguing mention came in an interview with Vic Leslie (chairman of England's Cherry group) in the August, 1976 issue of Play Meter. Discussing how he got into video games, Leslie noted:

"At the ATE in 1973, the London Exhibition, Rui [Lopes - Nutting VP] and I bumped into each other again. Actually, he approached me and said that he had a different type of game: would I be interested in marketing it in England?...I believe he shipped the machine, which was called Nutting Computer Space Ball but was Rui's version of Pong. Pong had just been invented a month or two prior to that and hadn't come to England at all at that time."

The ATE was usually (and, AFAIK, always) held in January - which fits in with Leslie's claim that Pong had been invented "a month or two prior to that". It is unclear if Computer Space Ball had already been released in the US at the time but, if so, it would have surely been the first Pong clone.

6.    Paddle Battle (Allied Leisure Industries) – Released March, 1973

The date here is taken from Allied’s annual report. It is actually the date the game went into production but as I mentioned above, this is generally the same months as the release date. While it appears that at least two other games were released in March, 1973, I’m guessing that Allied Leisure was the first of them. Paddle Battle was probably the best-selling of all the early Pong games (yes, including the original) – though that is not certain. If so, its early release date was likely one big reason (see my Allied Leisure history for more info).

7.    Rally (For-Play Manufacturers) – Released March, 1973?

For-Play strikes again – and with another clone. Not sure exactly when it was released but the release was announced in the March 17, 1973 issue of Cash Box. Note that For-Play also released a one-player version of the game in June. Note too that For-Play’s games were also sold and distributed via a company called ACA.

8.    Volly (Ramtek) – Released late March, 1973?

Like Allied Leisure, Ramtek had a leg up on the competition. In this case it was because one of the company execs had a financial interest in Andy Capp’s Tavern and got an early peak at Pong (supposedly the day after it went on test). Not sure of the exact date it was released but in an interview in the June/July, 1975 issue of Play Meter, Nolan Bushnell claimed it came out in “late March”.

9.    Winner (Bally/Midway) – Released April, 1973?

Unlike most Pong clones, Midway’s version was actually legit. In March, 1973 they actually licensed the game from Atari (according to some, it was one of three companies to do so) and released their version a short time later. There may have been other games released in April, but I haven’t been able to find any firm dates.

10.    ????TV Ping Pong and/or TV Tennis (Chicago Coin) – Released ca April 1973??

Not sure of the release dates on these. TV Ping Pong was shown to distributors on March 30, 1973 but I’m not sure when it was released. My notes say that the release of TV Tennis was announced in the April, 1973 issue of Vending Times, but it wasn’t announced in Cash Box until the October 27, 1973 issue so the earlier date may have been referring to TV Ping Pong.

11. ????Paddle Ball (Williams) – Released May, 1973?

Once again, I’m not sure of the exact date, but the game’s release was announced in the May, 1973 issue of Vending Times. It was also mentioned in the April 14, 1973 issue of Cash Box (though it didn’t say it was released)

The “????” before the #10 and #11 games indicates how sketchy the information I have on games released after March, 1973 is (and really, even the earlier dates aren’t as nailed down as I’d like). It’s quite possible that some other company released a game before some of the games on this list. Here are some candidates (in order by manufacturer)

Allied Leisure – Tennis Tourney (July, 1973). This was Allied’s four-player version of Pong and its second video game.

Amutronics – TV Ping Pong. This one appeared in the July 7, 1973 Cash Box catalog issue, meaning that it had been released sometime in the past year. It may have been released prior to some of the games on the list above.

Arizona Automation – Champion Ping Pong. TAFA lists this as a 1973 game. Arizona Automation planned to show it at the November MOA show that year, but I don’t know if they did. Arizona Automation became Mirco Games shortly thereafter.

Atari – Pong-in-a-Barrel?? Only about 20 units of this one were produced and I’m not sure exactly when (note, this game is not to be confused with Barrel Pong) as the game. Their next “officially” released game after Pong was Space Race in July, 1973.

BAC Electronics – Tele-Soccer. Shown at the 1973 MOA show (November 9-11). According to Ralph Baer they had another game called Tennis but I have found no other reference to it.

Nutting Associates – What was Nutting’s next game after Computer Space? Probably the 2-player version of the game, which was mentioned in the June 6, 1973 issue if Cash Box. If you don’t consider that a separate game, their next game was probably Computer Space Ball, which was mentioned in the same issue. TAFA lists this game as a 1972 release, but that is almost certainly wrong. Note that in Kent’s Ultimate History Steve Bristow is quoted as saying that Nolan Bushnell got a look at Missile Radar “before he started” Atari, but this also seems to be clearly wrong.

PMC Electronics – TV Table Tennis. This one also appeared in the July 7, 1973 Cash Box catalog issue (indicating it was released at some point during the preceding year).

Sega – Pong Tron. Release dates for early Japanese games are even harder to come by than U.S. games (at least for a non-Japanese researcher). lists this one as a July, 1973 release.

Taito – Elepong. This was Taito’s first video game but I have no release date info on it.

U.S. Billiards – TV Tennis. The first reference I found to this one was a flyer in the November, 1973 issue of Vending Times. Normally, I wouldn’t have included it but there is a slim possibility that it came out much earlier.

UBI (United Billiards, Inc.) – TV Table Tennis. Ditto this one. It was mentioned in the October 16, 1973 issue of Cash Box.

Volly Industries – Volly was (supposedly) an offshoot of Ramtek that released Ramtek games in Canada (usually under a different name). TAFA lists Hockey, Scoring, and Tennis as 1973 releases, as does the website on the company’s history (


Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Town that Sent Pac-Man Packing

Since the town of Marshfield, MA recently overturned its famous ban on video games

I thought I’d do a quick post on the original ban.

This may be a bit dry for some of you, with its emphasis on the legal issues, but if there is interest, I could also do a post on Mesquite.


            Any gamer who grew up in the “golden age” of the 1980s likely remembers the furor over video games, and especially video game arcades that flared up mid-decade. The “controversy” (which turned out to be something of a tempest-in-a-teapot) spilled over into the national media with stories appearing on the evening news, the Phil Donahue show and others. A number of localities placed restrictions of the games or (rarely) banned them outright. Of these, the two most infamous were Marshfield, Massachusetts and Mesquite, Texas. The cases were tracked avidly by the video game industry and both were appealed all the way to the Supreme Court.


Marshfield, MA


            In 1981, Marshfield, Massachusetts was a sleepy seaside resort town of about 11,000 people on the state's South Shore southeast of Boston. During the summer, people would flock to the town to lounge on the beach, fish, or grab a meal at the Green Harbor Lobster Pound. Like almost every other town in the 1980s, Marshfield also had video games – about 60 to 70 of them[1]. Construction workers would stop by Sea Side Grocery in the mornings for coffee and a game. Out of town businessmen would spend their lunch hour zapping aliens at the Marshfield Sports Center. Kids would play a round of Pac-Man after an evening of skating or roller hockey at the Marshfield Family Skateland, which had started back in 1952 as the Marshfield Roll-a-Rink. Not everyone in Marshfield found the games so amusing, however. As the permanent population swelled, concern about video games mounted. The city's rise to infamy began in November of 1981 when the town's counsel informed the Board of Selectmen that the commercial use of coin-op amusement devices was a violation of an existing town zoning bylaw that had been enacted in 1972. In response, the city stopped issuing new licenses for the devices until a new ordinance could be written. At a town meeting on June 15, 1982, the Board of Selectmen proposed a new law that would allow the "accessory use" of up to 4 coin-op machines in eating and drinking establishments and established an annual licensing fee of $100 per machine. The law, however, did not sit well with some – including Thomas R. Jackson, a former narcotics officer and head of the town's vandalism committee. Jackson believed that "the proliferation of these games in town has created a honky-tonk atmosphere" and that for some the games were the first step on the road to compulsive gambling[2]. If that weren't enough, Jackson also claimed that people in the video game business "are all hoods", that the leading proponent of easing the restrictions had been arrested in a recent drug raid, that 89% of games were violent and "designed to be addictive", and that there had been 9 documented deaths due to violence in arcades in 1982[3]. Rather than easing restrictions on games, Jackson proposed banning them outright, including pinball and other coin-op games. Jackson's proposal passed 191-19 and became "General Bylaw 48", which banned all "automatic amusement device(s) whether coin-op or not, except for private in-home use, coin-operated jukeboxes, pool, billiards, bowling, and athletic training devices." Violators would be fined $200 per offense. Some were quite happy with the new law. Resident Jim Judge later opined that "…the fewer distractions of that type, the easier it is to transfer my ideas and values to my youngster", while his wife Betsy noted that ''If we have these things in the town, it draws the wrong type of people and we want to protect our town'[4].


            After the meeting, the new Bylaw was submitted to the state Attorney General for approval. Before the AG could rule on the issue, the town Building Inspector sent violation notices to all business owner who had a coin-op game ordering them to stop using them. Nine merchants[5] refused and in August, the Building Inspector initiated court proceedings against them. On September 30th, the Attorney General upheld the new bylaw and the Chief of Police told the merchants they had three months to get rid of their game before he had them seized. Outraged, the nine merchants hired a lawyer and filed a civil suit in the state Superior Court on October 6 claiming that Bylaw 48 violated the state and federal constitutions. They also applied for a restraining order preventing the removal of the games. When the application was denied, they filed for a petition of relief with a single justice of the Appeals Court. Meanwhile, the Superior Court dealt the merchants another blow when ruled in favor of the town.

The single justice, however, said that the trial court was not the proper place to address the constitutional issues that had been raised and ordered the parties to seek a speedy hearing in the Superior Court. To make their case, the merchants had relied on three things. One was the 1982 case Turnpike Amusements Vs. City of Cambridge, which said a licensing board couldn't arbitrarily make a determination. on whether coin-op devices could be operated but had to judge each location individually. Another was the fact that the bylaw would include items clearly protected by first amendment (such as coin-op peep shows). The most important, however, may have been a nine-minute videotape that the merchants’ lawyers showed featuring footage of five different video games (Ms. Pac-Man, Tron, Donkey Kong, Zaxxon, and Kangaroo) and also showing what went into the making of a video game. Like many of those who had supported the bylaw, the justice had never seen a video game before and the videotape convinced him that there was a potential First Amendment issue in the case.

            Whatever hope the justice’s decision may have granted the merchants was dashed on June 13, 1983 when the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court once again ruled in favor of Marshfield. This Superior Court judge wasn’t nearly as impressed by the video tapes as the justice had been, denying that video games had "sufficient communicative expressive elements" to merit protection under the First Amendment and declaring that they were “in essence, only technologically advanced pinball machines.” The court also rejected claims that the bylaw violated equal protection, noting that the right to pursue one’s business had never been considered a protected right meriting “strict scrutiny” and thus had to be judged by the less stringent “rational basis” test. Under this standard, the court found that the city had a legitimate interest in controlling the crowds and noise that video games might cause during the busy summer months. While the court agreed that a less-restrictive law (i.e. one banning games only during the summer) might have been more efficient, they could not declare a statute unconstitutional just because the means to achieve its purpose were “…rough, illogical, or not the best available.”, noting further that “legislative bodies are not required to convince the courts of the correctness of their legislative judgments.” The one novel claim in the case, that the law was overbroad, was also rejected. While Marshfield had lost the battle, however, there were hints that video games would ultimately win the war. The most significant thing to come out of the decision may have been the court’s acknowledgment that in the future, video games might advance to the point where they contained sufficient communicative and expressive elements to warrant First Amendment protection (Ira Zaleznik, lawyer for the plaintiff later opined that laser disc games might represent just such a case).

            That was in the future, however. For the present, Marshfield had lost yet again. The ruling came as a relief to Marshfield attorney Robert Marzelli, who had warned that a victory for the video game industry "would create the right to play trivial arcade games as one of the cornerstone freedoms of our society. Such a decision would not only degrade the First Amendment; it would surely start a torrent of litigation on the question of which kinds of automatic amusement games were protected, which were not, and the nature of the protection accorded to each." The merchants, however, had one last chance. They appealed their case to the Supreme Court. On July 12, 1983 the merchants got another reprieve when Supreme Court justice William Brennan issued a temporary restraining order prohibiting the removal of the games until the court weighed in on the issue. It turned out to be just a tease, however. On November 28, the Supreme Court voted 7-2 (with only Brennan and Byron “Whizzer” White in dissent) not to review the state Supreme Court’s decision. It was the end of the line. The merchants had lost and all the video games in Marshfield were carted off in trucks in December. Marshfield Family Skateland was converted into a restaurant. The Marshfield Sports Center went out of business The Marshfield saga was over.

            But it wasn’t. Over the years, as other communities eliminated restrictions on video games, Marshfield remained steadfast. The town even achieved a kind of notoriety as the only town on earth where video games were illegal. In April, 2011 the town made national headlines again when they once again voted to repeal the ban. The measure was defeated 655-544. Finally, in April, 2014 Marshfield voted 203-175 to overturn the now 32-year-old bylaw. By then, however, coin-op video games were as rare as dodo birds (at least in the eyes of the press) and the story generated little interest.

[1] Various sources have given different figures for the number of games in town. The 60-70 figure appeared in a newspaper article as well as a Play Meter article. A later Play Meter article gave a figure of 70 while other articles in Play Meter and RePlay gave figures of 35, 53, and 200.
[2] Boston Herald, June 17, 1982
[3] Play Meter, August 1, 1983
[4] Clara Germani, "The parents of Marshfield win their battle to ban video games", Christian Science Monitor, May 15, 1983.
[5] Marshfield Family Skateland, Marshfield Sports Center, Sea Side Grocery, two other stores, a restaurant, and three taverns.