In our last segment, we took a very brief look at the early years of Dave Nutting Associates and their work on some of the first microprocessor games. Developing games on microprocessors, however, requires programmers, something DNA initially didn’t have. To remedy the situation, they quickly hired two programmers from the University of Wisconsin computer science department – Tom McHugh and Jay Fenton.
NOTE – Around 1998, Jay Fenton transitioned from male to female and is now Jamie Fenton. To avoid anachronism, I will refer to “Jay Fenton” in the body of this article while referring to her as Jamie in the quotes.
|Jamie Fenton in 1982 and today
Born in Brunswick, New Jersey in 1954, Jay Fenton started programming at age 13 after teaching himself FORTRAN. His father, a chemist for Proctor and Gamble, would take his programs to work to show to his impressed coworkers. By 1970, Fenton’s family had moved to Wyoming, Ohio where Fenton taught himself BASIC programing. Programming wasn’t Fenton’s only interest. In 1972, he enrolled in the University of Wisconsin as a film major but maintained his interest in computers. During his freshman year, he snuck into a FORTRAN programming class despite not meeting the prerequisites and was chastised for writing unauthorized programs. The incident eventually led to a job as research assistant in Professor Richard Allen Norhouse’s AI lab, where Fenton created a robot (Northouse wrote a book in 1972 titled A Computer Controlled Vehicular Robot) and created an animation program on a PDP-8 that used a light pen for input. At one point Fenton wheeled the PDP-8 across campus to show off his animation program for his theater class (Fenton also switched majors from film to engineering). Fenton also enjoyed gaming, playing mainframe classics like Lunar Lander and Space War (which he encountered at the Stanford AI lab around 1973). When DNA called Northouse looking for programmers, Northouse suggested McHugh and Fenton. Upon arriving at DNA, Fenton was, much to his chagrin, assigned to pinball, not video games (like many people, he thought that pinball games were controlled by the mob). Fenton's first project was a home version of Bally's classic Fireball pin, which had sold almost 4,000 copies in 1972. Released in October of 1976, the home version did even better with sales of around 10,000. After completing Fireball, Fenton finally got a chance to work on a video game, though it likely did little to counter his associations of the coin-op industry with gambling and organized crime. Over the Christmas break, Fenton and Ave Nutting designed one of the first video blackjack games.
[Jamie Fenton] My first videogame project at DNA was a blackjack machine, which was very similar to the ones that are now all over Las Vegas except that it was black and white and it had better odds. I actually did the odds out of the book which are a little too favorable to the player to actually do coin op. It was a smashing success as a prototype but it never went into production.
In 1976 Fenton began working on video games full time. His first game to make it into production was Amazing Maze, a more sophisticated version of Atari’s Gotcha (interestingly, Midway had earlier turned down an offer to license the Atari game). The game was the first to make use of a new hardware system designed by Dave Nutting and Jeff Frederiksen.
[Dave Nutting] With the introduction of the 8-bit microprocessor we immediately created the first 8-bit videogame system. My partner Jeff created [Amazing Maze] in order to test out his new hardware design. We took full advantage of the power of our new logic, adding the element of infinity into our game designs, with no predictable pattern, as in the rules of nature of quantum physics. In [Amazing Maze], the mazes were computer-generated and adapted to the player's skill.<Maze Games, Retro Gamer #129, May, 2014>
While they weren’t much fun to work on, such copycat games were common in the industry at the time
[Jamie Fenton] In 76 they moved DNA to Arlington Heights, near Chicago and then they started putting me on doing coin-ops. The first mission I had was more-or-less doing what was called "coin-op cloning". Back then there wasn't really copyright protection on video games. Everybody just ripped off everybody else's ideas. So they had me whip out a clone called Checkmate [note – a version of Gremlin’s Blockade] in a couple of weeks. The next game I did, which was another clone, was called 280 Zzzap and on that one we did get a license for so I got the source code for one guy's implementation of it and at least used the routines that calculated how high the poles were etc. That was another sort of six-week wonder. It was about then that the copyright laws started evolving and I think that was the last one I did that was a knock-off.
The "one guy" whose code Fenton used was probably Ted Michon (who'd designed Micronetics' version of the game, Night Racer).
[Ted Michon] Midway called with a problem. They had licensed the game, but planned simply to program it from scratch on their reprogrammable system from Dave Nutting Associates…It became clear that their system just didn't have the horsepower to perform the Night Racer perspective transformations in the conventional manner (i.e. multiplications and divisions). I explained how I had done it with logs and antilogs and later sent them the optimized tables I had computed.
After Micronetics released their game, company president Bill Prast liked it so much he showed it to Midway co-founder Hank Ross and the two companies reportedly struck a licensing deal whereby both would release their games at the same time. According to Nurburgring designer Reiner Foerst, Iggy Wolverton (Midway's other co-founder) paid him a visit and led him to believe that Midway was interested in licensing the game from his as well, though he had no intention of doing so.
Whatever its origins, Midnite Racer hewed closely to the original. It did, however, include a few novel features, including a flag-waving referee (perhaps borrowed from the Midway California version??). The game also featured Midway's trademark mirrored-in graphics with 3D, fluorescent background images of a night sky and the front end of a 280Z. Another interesting feature was an onscreen instrument panel that displayed a speedometer, the player's score and time and the previous game's score (the game used an odd scoring system that awarded .01 points for each mile driven). The instrument panel was surrounded by a wood-grain bezel located behind the projected image of the car's front end, making it look like it was a separate, dedicated dashboard.
For video game historians one of the game’s most intriguing features may have been one of the most mundane. When a player crashed, interjections like “WAM” and “BANG” appeared on the screen (ala Sea Wolf). One of the phrases that appeared was “ZORK”. One might assume that this was a reference to the popular computer text adventure of the same name, but this is not so. The original MIT PDP-10 version of the game was not created (or even started) until 1977. So was Fenton receiving divine inspiration from the game design gods? Did the Zork designers borrow their title from Fenton’s coin-op speed burner? Or was it all a massive coincidence and they both just happened to pick the same word? None of the above. The term “zork” was already in use among the MIT hacker community (accounts differ as to what it meant – Wikipedia claims it was a term for an unfinished program while co-designers Tim Anderson and Stu Galley claim it was a nonsense word usually used as a verb) and had likely made its way to the University of Wisconsin where Fenton (or somebody at DNA) appropriated it for use in Midnite Racer.
In any event, Midnite Racer was introduced at the 1976 AMOA show in November. Confusion likely reigned on the show floor as two other versions of the same game - Micronetics’ Night Racer and Atari’s Night Driver – appeared at the very same show. The name Midnite Racer, however, didn’t last long. After the show, Bally cooked up a promotion that included a grand prize of a 1977 Datsun 280Z. Realizing that their new video driving game would be a perfect tie-in, they renamed it 280 Zzzap (the onscreen title was actually "Datsun 280 ZZZap") and began featuring the contest on flyers for the game. In early 1978, the prize auto was finally awarded to a Rhode Island operator (by then, it had been “upgraded” to a 1978 model – Bally also gave away a 280Z as grand prize in their National Pinball Tournament a few months later). Midnite Racer/280 Zzzap wasn’t the only Fenton game to undergo a name change. 1977’s Road Runner – a video rifle game with a desert theme, was renamed Desert Gun. This time, however, the change wasn’t for promotional reasons.
[Jamie Fenton] We did a shooting game that we called Desert Gun. It was originally called Road Runner. That was probably when the copyright problems started [in the industry] because we wanted to call it Road Runner and the Warner Brothers people didn’t particularly want us to.
Fenton went on to work a number of other games, the most notable coin-ops being Gorf and The Adventures of Robby Roto, and later went on to form (along with fellow DNA alums Mark Canter and Mark Pierce) MacroMind, one of the pioneering producers of multimedia authoring software with titles like MusicWorks and VideoWorks (later renamed MacroMedia Director). And 280 Zzzap? While it is little remembered today, it was actually a fairly popular game. RePlay listed it as the #10 game of 1977 while Play Meter had it at #9. The game was also ported to the Bally Professional Arcade. One reason that it (not to mention Night Racer and Nurburgring) are all but unknown today, however, is that they were overshadowed by a much more popular version of the game – Atari’ s Night Driver. We will take up the story of that game in our next segment.
|A very poor quality picture of Midnite Racer (misspelled) at the 1976 AMOA show
|A much better picture of the game (now renamed 280 Zzzap and again misspelled) at the ATE in January, 1977