Tuesday, November 25, 2014

I'm Hooked, I'm Hooked, My Brain Is Cooked - Two Pieces of Video Game Radio Ephemera

Today, I cover a couple of little discussed radio relics of the golden age of video games – one a pop song and the other a radio drama.

 Space Invaders by Uncle Vic
The pop song is the 1980 novelty hit "Space Invaders" by Uncle Vic, one of a number of songs related to the game Others include “Disco Space Invaders” by Funny Stuff, released in 1979 on Elbon records; “Space Invaders”, another 1979 song by the Australian band Player 1/Playback and The Pretenders 1979 instrumental “Space Invaders”. Those songs will have to wait for another day. Today, we’re talking about Uncle Vic. Before we get started, here's a link to a YouTube video of the song
     Uncle Vic was Victor Earl Blecman, a 27-year-old musician, nightclub owner, and DJ for WGCL in Cleveland. Blecman's music career has started in Elyria, Ohio in1965 when he formed a band called The Cavemen with three junior high school classmates. The band continued through Blecman's high school and  community college years under various names, including Flight, Pennsylvania Crude Oil, Revolver, and Izz, playing at various local clubs like Pickle Bill's and Big Dick's (in 1971, Izz shared a bill with Black Sabbath). Vic would often inject his oddball sense of humor into the band's sets and before long he was doing more joking than playing. He eventually landed a job as a disk jockey in Elyria, while performing disco-themed comedy as "The Fantastic and Intergalactic Uncle Vic" at Elyria's Rathskellar Club (where, in 1976, he tried to set a Guinness World Record for continuous joke-telling). In January, 1977 he opened an adults-only disco club in Elyria called Uncle Vic's Night Club along with two partners. Meanwhile, Blecman had patented a keyboard instrument called the "talking machine" that made use of recorded sounds. In June of 1978, he attended a Chicago trade show trying to find a manufacturer for his device when he ran into the Bradley Brothers, an English trio who had invented another keyboard instrument called the Novatron and signed up to distribute the machines in North America. He also recorded a record called "Baby, Now That I've Found You", scoring a minor local hit.

Uncle Vic in his high school days (from Elyria Chronicle, 1970)

From Elyria Chronicle, 1969

Izz - From Elyria Chronicle, 1971

The idea to create a novelty record based on a video game came around May of 1980 when Vic was playing a show at his night club and noticed that his audience was distracted by the blooping and bleeping of a Space Invaders machine in the back room. Annoyed, Vic's band began playing along with the game, imitating its sounds. The audience loved it and Blecman soon decided to record a song based on the game. 

[Vic Blecman] That's where I saw people line up for the machine. Cheering and yelling and completely lost in playing. So were the watchers. Then I read about the space machines in magazines and heard about tournaments in Europe, South America, America, and Japan. It's international. I decided something that popular deserved to have a song written about it. <Jane Scott, "'Space Invaders' 45 could blow your mind', Cleveland Plain Dealer, July 4, 1980>

Uncle Vic's Night Club - birthplace of "Space Invaders"

Then Blecman found out that the Pretenders had included a song called “Space Invaders” on their debut album and almost dropped the idea, until he found out that the song had nothing to do with the game. Blecman then assembled a group to record his song (which he claims he wrote in his bathroom in about half an hour) and recorded it at 3 A.M. at Kirk Yano's After Dark recording studio in five hours at a cost of $4,000. Backing up Blecman (who played bass and sang vocals) were Kirk Yano on guitar, Jose Ortiz on drums, and Pete Tokar (who duplicated the machine's sounds on a synthesizer[1]). 
       "Space Invaders" opened with the lines "Well, there it is in the corner of the bar / I tried to run, but I didn't get far / Those weird little men; I blow 'em away / Id' sell my mom for a chance to play", followed by the song's hook, sung in an alien voice: "He's hooked, he's hooked, his brain is cooked". The chorus featured the words "Space Invaders" sung over and over as the synthesized sounds of the game played in the background. As the song ended, it got faster and faster (like its coin-op inspiration) before ending with a loud explosion.

Blecman pressed 2,000 copies of the record on his own Partay Label and negotiated with Progress Records to distribute them, mailing copies to a number of radio stations. The song quickly became the most requested song on Cleveland area stations (though Blecman, who was also a disk jockey at Cleveland’s WGCL, wasn't allowed to play it on his own show due to FCC regulations) and also became a hit in St. Petersburg and Tampa, Florida. Blecman then struck a deal with Prelude Records, who'd also released the novelty classics "Ahab the Arab" by Ray Stevens and "My Ding-A-Ling" (shamefully, Chuck Berry's biggest hit) to release "Space Invaders" nationally as a single (b/w "Ode to Slim", an homage to Slim Whitman). While "Space Invaders" failed to crack the national charts, it became a Dr. Demento staple and, for those who heard it, a fondly-remembered relic of the golden age of video games. Two years later, Uncle Vic tried again with another video game song based on Pac-Man titled "It Won't Beat Me". The song went nowhere.


Space Invaders
©1980 by Uncle Vic

Well, there it is in the corner of the bar
I tried to run, but I didn't get far
Those weird little men; I blow 'em away
I'd sell my mom for a chance to play

(He's hooked, he's hooked. His brain is cooked.
He's hooked, he's hooked. His brain is cooked.)

They start off slow, but they don't play clean
It's tricky and low; it's a mean machine
There's lots of them and one of you
When the walls are gone, they'll get to you

(He's hooked, he's hooked. His brain is cooked.
He's hooked, he's hooked. His brain is cooked.)

Space invaders (game sounds)
Space invaders
Space invaders
Space invaders

Faster and faster all the time
An hour of this will blow your mind
Gotta get them before they get you
and you'll be broke before you're through

(He's hooked, he's hooked. His brain is cooked.
He's hooked, he's hooked. His brain is cooked.)

As the gang looks over your shoulder in awe
They don't believe what they just saw
You slid to the left and slid to the right
You're the Space Invaders king tonight

(He's hooked, he's hooked. His brain is cooked.
He's hooked, he's hooked. His brain is cooked.)

Space invaders (game sounds)
Space invaders
Space invaders
Space invaders

A feeling of power comes over your hand
Row by row, you're in command
There's one last devil movin' real fast
One single shot (shot noise); got him at last

Space invaders (game sounds)
(Hey, wow, man!)
Space invaders
(I'm gonna get me one of these)
Space invaders
Space invaders
(Got it going now!)
Space invaders
(I'm on my fourth row!)
Space invaders
(Gee, they almost got me.)
Space invaders
(We're in trouble now!)
Space invaders
(Oh, wow, really cosmic, man!)
Space invaders (pace quickens)
Space invaders
Space invaders
(Too fast for me, man!)
Space invaders
(high incomprehensible squawking)
Space invaders
Space invaders
Space invaders
Space invaders....

Uncle Vic in 2008

Nightfall – No Quarter
While Uncle Vic’s hit is far from well-known, I’m sure a number of readers will remember it. I can’t say the same for my next bit of radio ephemera. Actually, I’ve already written about this one, but it was way back in the second post I ever did, so some of you may have missed it (for those who didn’t, this part will largely be a repeat of my earlier post).


This one isn’t a song, but a bit of radio drama, an art form that has become increasingly rare, but was a bit more common back in the 1970s and 1980s (remember the NPR production of Star Wars?). This one, however, wasn’t an NPR program. In fact, it wasn’t even American. It was an episode of Nightfall, a Canadian horror anthology series broadcast on CBC from July, 1980 to May, 1983. I am actually a longtime fan of “OTR” (old time radio), particularly radio horror. Nightfall isn’t OTR, but it is one of the finest radio horror anthologies ever produced, IMO.
Unfortunately, the subject of this post wasn’t one of the program’s finest efforts (though I enjoyed it thoroughly anyway). . It was, however, a rare (if not unique) example of a video-game-themed radio drama. The episode I’m talking about is “No Quarter”, which aired on March 4, 1983. You can download it from many places on the web. Here is a link to an internet archive page with “No Quarter” along with most of the other episodes of the series (if you have any interest in horror or radio drama, check out some of the other episodes)
"No Quarter” tells the story of Paul Weaver, a poor shlub who becomes obsessed with video games after playing Donkey Kong while waiting for a delayed flight at the Vancouver Airport.  On a drive home from dinner, he and his wife get into an argument over the time he's spending on the games. She is concerned that the games promote anti-social behavior in violence. He replies that the games are educational ("The Defense Department uses Armor Attack as a simulator for tank training." he argues). After he loses his job when he misses an important meeting because he's busy playing Defender ("It you want to beat Defender, don't use the smart bomb in hyperspace”, the arcade owner dubiously tells him), his wife launches a public crusade against video games. One day, Paul gets a mysterious package containing an ultra-advanced arcade game called Death Ship in which an intergalactic slave laborer tries to escape his "Robotron masters". Paul begins playing the game, drawn in by its incredible graphics, voice synthesis, and hyper realistic action. As his score mounts, the game becomes even more lifelike, until it eventually becomes a little too realistic (you’ll have to listen yourself to find out how it ends). Almost unknown today, the episode contains a host of video game references. Death Ship’s digitized voice intones "coin detected in pocket" ala Berzerk. At one point, the arcade owner tells Paul "Some computer science student in Buffalo blew the brains out of a Pac-Man. You know it only stores six figures. Well, he turned it over three times and the screen split the maze on one side and this electronic gibberish on the other."

[1] Jane Scott, “’Space Invaders’ 45 could blow your mind”, Cleveland Plain Dealer, July 4, 1980.  Other sources report that Blecman played all of the instruments except keyboard.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Softape History - Part I (plus a review of Atari: Game Over)

A few weeks back, I posted an all-too-brief history of Programma International – one of the earliest and largest Apple II software publishers. Today I cover an even earlier company that is in some ways even more interesting – Softape. Once again, this post will be more of a very brief sketch rather than a proper history and will surely not come close to doing the company justice and I hope that others will take up the mantle and flesh out more of the details of this sadly unappreciated company.

The above image, and many others, were taken from http://www.artscipub.com/history/, which also includes more information on Softape

Setting the Stage

      Softape was founded in late 1977, a key year in personal computer history. According to a number of histories, the personal computer industry was still in its infancy at the beginning of 1977. While this is arguably true, I would actually argue that it would be more accurate to say that it was in its teenage years. Contrary to popular belief, personal computers did not start with the Apple II, at least not if we define "personal computer" as a computer marketed for personal (rather than corporate or institutional) use. While they are largely forgotten today, there were many personal computers (or microcomputers as many called them at the time) that appeared prior to mid-1977. The June, 1977 issue of Byte for instance, featured ads for the Apple II, the IMSAI 8080, the Sol 20 (Processor Technology of Berkeley), the Poly 88 (Polymorphic Systems, Santa Barbara), the Altair 8800b and 680b (MITS, Albuquerque), the Z-2 (Cromemco, Mountain View), the SWTPC 6800 (Southwest Technical Products, San Antonio), the OSI Challenge (Ohio Scientific Instruments, Hiram OH), the Equinox 100 (Parasitic Engineering, Albany),  the Compucolor 8001 (Compucolor Corp, Norcross GA), the FD-8 (Midwest Scientific Instruments, Olathe KS), the Xitan Alpha-1 (Technical Design Labs, Princeton), and machines by Denver's digital group, as well as reviews of the KIM 1 and the Noval 760 (the latter produced by a division of Gremlin Industries – yes THAT Gremlin - and co-designed by one of the designers of Blockade and other arcade games). And personal computers didn't start with the Apple I either, or even the Altair 8800 (though the Altari could be credited with launching the revolution). A handful of other kits, projects, and machines appeared earlier, such as the Mark-8 and the Scelbi 8H. Some trace personal computers all the way back to the ECHO IV in 1967, or even earlier).

Sadly, these machines have been largely ignored in most computer histories. Two exceptions are Paul Frieberger and Michael Swaine’s Fire in the Valley: The Making of the Personal Computer and Stan Veit’s History of the Personal Computer. While both are outstanding, I found that the former left me wanting, really only serving to whet my appetite for more information on these early machines. By far, the best source of info I’ve found about these seminal companies and machines is Stan Veit’s wonderful book. It certainly isn’t the best-written book on personal computer history (though neither is it poorly written), but it may well be my favorite. Aside from the fact that these machines were mostly hobbyist kits, one reason they have been forgotten is that they didn’t last. In 1977, however, three PCs appeared that did: the Apple II (introduced in April and first sold in June), the TRS-80 (released in August), and the Commodore PET (released in October). Unlike most (though not all) early PCs, these machines were (relatively at least) user friendly and sold well. It was in this milieu that Softape appeared on the scene.

The History of Softape

Softape was the brainchild of three people: William V. Smith, Bill DePew, and Gary Koffler, all of whom had attended John Burroughs High School in Burbank (though none of them realized this fact when they first met). Smith graduated from high school in 1974 and earned an AA degree from Los Angeles Valley College in 1977 (an interesting aside that has nothing to do with computers or computer games - Smith’s grandmother was Beatrice Roberts, a model, dancer, Miss America finalist, actress [she played Queen Azura in a 1938 Flash Gordon serial], wife of Robert Ripley [of Believe It or Not fame], and mistress to producer Louis B. Mayer [the second M in MGM]). More relevant to our purposes was Smith’s first encounter with computers, which came in 1976 or 1977 when he saw an article in Popular Science detailing how to build an S-100 bus computer (the hardware bus used in the Altair 8800 and other early PCs). After taking a computer class at Los Angeles Valley College in 1977, Smith and his best friend, Dave Mosher, built the computer, with the help of the owner of The Byte Shop in Pasadena[1] and parts cobbled together from various computer manufacturers. Realizing that other people had invested similar time and effort (not to mention money) in computers of their own and needed a way to protect them, Smith and Mosher formed a company called International Computer Accessories that sold clear Plexiglas computer covers nationwide for machines like the Imsai and Byt-8 (a personal computer created and sold by Byte Shop founder Paul Terrell). Meanwhile, Mosher had taken another job selling fish and fish supplies to aquariums and pet stores. While selling his products, Mosher met another aquarium-supply salesman named Gary Koffler, who also collected and traded Apple II software on cassette. After Dave told Smith about Koffler, the two met and formed an instant connection inspired by their shared love of computers. They quickly wrote a program called Rollin’ On the River that Koffler began trading with his many computer contacts, one of whom another Apple II enthusiast named Bill DePew. DePew had graduated from John Burroughs High in 1972 before briefly attending UCLA. He also had an uncanny ability to learn new things quickly. The three met at DePew’s house in Burbank and decided to start a company to make products for the Apple II, something few companies were doing for the still relatively new computer. The three initially planned to offer both software (programs Koffler had collected plus others written by DePew) and hardware (like a thermostat they found that connected to the Apple II’s game port). Calling their company Softech, and funded by profits from Smith’s Plexiglas cover business as well as a vending route he owned, they rented a 900-square-foot building on Vanowen Street in North Hollywood for $195 a month and went into business, with Smith handling the marketing, accounting, and office management, Koffler heading up sales, and DePew developing the software (Debbie Jorman was the office assistant).

Softech’s first product was something called the Software Exchange (later the Softape Software Exchange), which Softape’s winter 1978 catalog described as follows:

The largest problem in personal computing today is the lack of organization and distribution of software. Much software exists, but it is not readily obtainable, Softape is committed to filling this void. Since you had the insight to join the microcomputer revolution, we have no doubt that you will recognize the value of this opportunity. The Softape Software Exchange was created to interface the microcomputer owner and the microcomputer programmer. Through the exchange every kind of program will be available quickly and inexpensively. Programmers, both novice and professional, can have their software distributed nationally. If the software is "top notch" and of sufficient interest, Softape will contact you about royalties. No program will be distributed until the author has given his permission, and a mutually beneficial agreement has been agreed upon.

 After paying a $20 membership fee, customers could order software “modules” on cassette for $2 each. The first title, Module 1, included three games: Advanced Dragon Maze (a lo-res maze game by Gary Shannon), Digital Derby (a lo-res horse racing game), and Saucer War (a two-player space combat game). William Smith describes Module 1 as "the first program available nationwide for the Apple II". While I am not sure this is true, it was likely among the first. The group mailed a copy of the program to every Apple II retail store they knew of, a task that was made easier by Apple, who had kindly provided them with pre-printed labels, along with its dealer and warranty lists (they bought one of the first 5 MB hard drives from Corvus Systems to store them). At one point, Softech even paid to fly Steve Wozniak down to Burbank to attend a club meeting, after which he retired to Smith’s house to watch Battlestar Gallactica.

Just as they got started, however, a company from San Diego contacted them and told them that they were already using the name Softech so the group changed the name to Softape, which had nothing to do with a downy gorilla, but rather referred to the fact that they made software on cassette tape (the standard method of distributing software at the time). In an effort to save money, the fledgling company cut corners whenever it could. Rather than buying an expensive tape duplicator, Bill DePew created an audio bridge that allowed them to make multiple copies of a tape at once. (in later years, Softape partnered with GRT Corporation, a large music tape and record manufacturer with more extensive duplication facilities). Instead of advertising in national magazines like Byte, Creative Computing, or the Apple II magazines that were just beginning to appear on the scene, Softape marketed its product directly via a newsletter they created called Softalk.

The Softape Software Exchange grew to include at least eight modules with utility and productivity software in addition to games. Eventually, however, Softape found that some programs like DePew’s blackjack game Apple 21 and Bob Bishop’s Music Kaleidoscope merited release as stand-alone products, which they sold for $9.95. While these may seem like “bargain basement” prices compared to those of Apple programs of the early ‘80s, it was actually fairly standard pricing for the cassette-based programs of the time, which rarely sold for more than $15-20 (with the exception of business software). In its relatively brief life, Softape released at least 75 programs for the Apple II (and possibly many more). Among them were graphics programs (Etch a Sketch), music programs (Appleodion), utilities (Dump/Restore), educational programs (Typing Tutor) a Forth interpreter (Forth ][) and over 50 games. It also produced a handful of titles for other systems like the TRS 80. Among the more interesting (or at least interesting sounding) games were Baseball Fever (a full color baseball simulation), Coney Island (featuring 22 different ball-and-paddle games), Journey (a little-known text adventure that may not have been released), and Microgammon. I’m not sure what their most popular games were, since they mostly came out before Softalk’s bestseller lists and other lists, but my guesses would be Microgammon, Photar, Planetoids, Star Mines, Apple 21, and Best of Bishop (which combined Rocket Pilot, Space Maze, Star Wars, Saucer Invasion, Apple-Vision, and Dynamic Bouncer).

Its most groundbreaking program may have been Apple-Talker/Apple Listener, perhaps the earliest speech synthesis/voice recognition program for the Apple II. Softape used the technology in programs like Tic-Tac-Talker (a talking version of tic-tac-toe with voice control). The company’s most ambitious effort was probably Magic Window, a full-function word processor created by Gary Shannon and Bill DePew and released in 1982 under the Artsci/Softape label. Its most unusual feature was that the onscreen cursor actually stayed still while the virtual “paper” moved (like an old school typewriter). The program was voted #1 Word Processor of 1981 (according to Softalk) and came with an optional spell checker (Magic Words) and a mail merge program (Magic Mailer).

In addition to the software, the company also made hardware, like the Bright Pen (a light pen input device that they also used in games like Bright Pen Craps), Reset Guard (which prevented Apple II users from inadvertently hitting the machine’s  reset key), and the Axiom-820 printer. One of the company’s greatest legacies was not a program, but a magazine. After three issues, the Softalk newsletter was converted into a full-scale color magazine (and, IMO, one of the best Apple II magazines on the market) in July, 1980 under the direction of William Smith, Bill DePew, and Margo Tommervic. In 1979, Tommervic, then a freelance textbook editor, won $15,000 on the gameshow Password. She and her husband Al, an editor at Variety, decided to use the money to purchase a TRS-80 microcomputer. After a rude Radio Shack salesperson chided Al for smoking his pipe in the store, however, the two left and bought an Apple instead. Margot became an instant computer addict and gamer. While visiting Rainbow Computing (an early computer retailer) she saw an ad for a new adventure game called Mystery House from On-Line Systems, offering a prize for the first person to finish it. When the game went on sale that Friday, Margot was there to purchase a copy and by noon the next day she had solved it. Around this time, Tommervic visited Softape (whose offices were a short distance from where she lived) to buy a copy of Magic Window. Within a few days, she and Smith agreed to start a new company to publish Softalk as a full-scale glossy magazine with Tommervic (who had used the rest of her Password winnings to help finance the venture) as Editor, Smith as Advertising Manager, and Bill DePew as Technical Editor. Published from September, 1980 until August, 1984, Softalk grew to over 400 pages at its peak and included how-to articles, industry news, product reviews, fiction, and monthly games and contests (one asked readers to count the number of turkeys hidden throughout the issue, another asked readers to guess the identity of Lord British, based on clues provided in each issue). For the video game historian (or at least this video game historian), two features stand out. One was the monthly bestseller lists for software in various categories, based on actual retailer sales figures. The other was the monthly “Exec” column, which featured an in-depth history/profile of a single company.

Overall, Softape/Artsci sold over 100,000 cassettes and 200,000 disks and had annual sales of over $3 million. Unfortunately it never made the transition to the IBM PC (it did try its hand at a few programs for the Macintosh, but it never really panned out), and disappeared along with the Apple II itself (in addition, many of its programmers were hired away by Apple). Eventually, the three partners had a falling out (involving, in part, a woman). DePew and Smith renamed the company Artsci while Koffler went to work for DataMost (whose founder Dave Gordon was an early friend and customer). Bill Depew died on August 2, 2011 in Burbank. In our

The Artsci crew in 1983

Bonus - Automated Dress Pattern, 1978

This is only tangentially related to Softape. The image below is from the September, 1978 issue of Interface Age. It is for an Apple II dress pattern program written by William V. Smith and Paul Essick. The pattern was available from McCall's Dress Pattern Company and could be printed on a 132 column printer.
The interesting thing to me, however, is the medium. The program was distributed on "floppy ROM". I can't imagine that anybody reading this wouldn't know what a record is (even people born after they were supplanted by CDs and mp3s generally know what they are). But if you weren't around during the record era, you may not remember these things. They were "records" printed on flexible plastic that were often distributed as promotional items in magazines or other media (there were even cardboard records that could be cut out of the back of cereal boxes). Even less known is that they were used to distribute computer software, though only rarely. In a way, this isn't surprising. The data from the record was read in through the cassette input port, but the port could be used with any audio source (the data is the same no matter what source it comes from).
Anyway, I thought it was an interesting sidelight of computer history.

[1] According to Smith, this was none other than yoga master, Guru Prem Singh Khalsa

Review - Atari: Game Over

Many of you probably know this, but today marked the release of Atari: Game Over, a documentary about the infamous E.T. cartridge burial in Alamogordo, New Mexico. This thing has been the subject of much discussion in the last several months. I just finished watching it and thought I'd post a few comments.  (NOTE there are some "spoilers" below, though if you've paid any attention to this story, they really don't spoil anything as there isn't really anything to spoil)

I have to admit, that I was actually dreading seeing this thing. From what I had seen I knew what I was expecting and it wasn't good. What I was expecting was that they would dig up the site and find a number of different cartridges and other items, including some E.T. cartridges. Actually, I basically already knew that was what they'd find, since I'd read as much elsewhere and was already convinced that that was what was buried there.

What I feared is that they would then say that the "myth" had been proven true after all and that all those people who said it wasn't true would now have to eat crow (followed by online attacks on the E.T. deniers as a bunch of buffoons or accusations that they "refused to believe" the obvious evidence and continued to cling to their unfalsifiable myth claims).
I was even worried that they would only show photos of the ET cartridges they unearthed, rather than the other material they found - giving the false impression that they had found nothing but ET carts, and millions of them.

The first 90% or so of the movie did nothing to allay my fears.
I am happy to report, however, that my fears were largely unfounded. In the end, they freely admit that they did non find millions of ET cartridges, that only about 10% of the carts they found were ET, and that the dump was a general dump of overstock merchandise that had nothing to do specifically with ET.

In short, while they perhaps didn't say so explicitly, they basically confirmed that the story is a myth.

Let me clarify. The "myth" I'm talking about is not that there were ET cartridges buried in a New Mexico landfill (that much has been known for some time - though some continue to inaccurately report that this is the "myth" that the deniers are denying). Rather, the myth was that there were millions of ET cartridges (and only ET cartridges) buried in New Mexico in an effort to hide (or at least dispose of) all evidence of the ET fiasco - a fact that was seen as having deeper significance as a symbol of the fall of Atari and the video game industry in general).

I suspect that there will still be those who claim the film proves that the "myth" was actually true, which truly bugs me as an amateur historian (as does the seeming fact that the true story has actually been available for over 30 years to anyone who actually bothered to read contemporary press accounts in the Alamogordo and El Paso papers [in other words, anyone who bothered to do basic research])

The landfill story actually forms a relatively small part of the documentary, and the actual revelation at the dig comes across as something of an anticlimax. The documentary is really more about the story of ET itself, and especially Howard Scott Warshaw (the best part of the documentary IMO) with a lesser focus on the history of Atari and the video game industry itself. I personally would have like to have seen them go a bit more into the burial and how it came about (they mention next to nothing about the El Paso plant, for instance), but that would have been a boring story for most people so I understand why they didn't dwell on it. My favorites parts of the movie were those with Warshaw, particularly his emotional reaction at the big reveal. They also interview a number of other people, including Manny Gerard, Nolan Bushnell, and Ernest Cline (author of Ready Player One).

While there is nothing new in the documentary for anyone with even a passing familiarity with Atari history, I did find it quite well made and enjoyed it - though that may be more out of relief than anything else (I should also mention that I have very low expectations for video game history documentaries). Zach Penn clearly seems to have a passion for the 2600 (if not its history).

I certainly think it's worth watching (it is available for free for XBox users, or on xbox video of PC users).

Finally, here are a couple of random photos of Big Paw's Cave, the fifth (or sixth?) game in the Moppet series (the second photo is from the AMOA show). 

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Company Profile - Mirco Games

One of my favorite parts of writing my book and this blog is discovering the stories of the smaller, lesser-known companies that usually go completely unmentioned in standard video game histories. Inevitably, I find that even the most obscure of them has an interesting story to tell (and for the few that don't, it's only because I haven't found it yet). Today's post is about just such a company - Phoenix, Arizona's Mirco Games.
Located in Phoenix, Arizona, Mirco Games was primarily known for its foosball tables and for producing the first pinball game with a microprocessor. What is far less known is that between 1973 and 1979, it also released over a dozen video games and what is almost completely unknown is that one of them was one of the earliest video games to use a microprocessor – perhaps even THE earliest.


In 1967 Dick Raymond and John Walsh were working for GE in Germany when they noticed the growing popularity of table soccer (aka foosball) in the bars and taverns of Germany, France and Italy. Seeing that the games were also popular with American servicemen, the pair discussed the idea of starting a business exporting them to the US (RePlay¸2./28/76). In 1969 or 1970[1], Raymond returned home to Phoenix, AZ and formed a company called Arizona Automation to sell European soccer tables in America under the Champion Soccer name. With just 600 square feet of office space, Raymond (the sole U.S. employee) handled everything from taking orders to packaging the tables while Walsh shipped them from Germany. Within a year, Raymond bought Walsh out and became the sole owner (Leontiades, 1982). When the value of the German mark began to tumble, Raymond decided to manufacture the games domestically. After contracting with a local company called Western Woodcraft to build the tables, he flew to Taiwan to find a company to manufacturer the men, rods, and other hardware. Arizona Automation’s big break came when it exhibited at the 1970 MOA show. The following year, it released the Regular Coin Model table, followed by the Regular Club Model. Both proved to be hits and in four years, Arizona Automation went from $15,000 in sales to $1 million (RePlay, 2/28/76).

            Meanwhile, John Walsh had returned to the U.S. and (along with Bob Kessler, another former GE employee, and Bruce Kinkler) formed a company called Mirco, Inc. as a successor to a partnership called John L. Walsh & Associates (Leontiades, 1982). Incorporated on November 11, 1971, Mirco initially produced software used in automatic testing systems for electronic equipment (such as FLASH – Fault Logic and Simulation Hybrid). In its first full year, the company had sales of over $1 million[2] and began to expand. Realizing that they were doing all the work while the hardware companies that bought their software were making all the profits, they began manufacturing microprocessor-based circuit board test hardware[3], such as the Micro 500-Series Logic-Circuit Tester and (in 1976) the Model 615 Programming Station, which included a printer, CRT, and keyboard (Datamation, 1976).  In addition, on December 15, 1972 it had formed a new division called Mirco Electronic Distributors to distribute electronic components (resistors, capacitors etc.) to companies in the southwest[4]. On December 26, 1973, looking to finance the expansion of its hardware business, Mirco Inc. acquired the assets of Arizona Automation and merged it into a new subsidiary called Mirco Games (Leontiades, 1982). Mirco Games continued to produce foosball tables, starting with Grand Champion, its signature table with at least half a dozen different versions, including home versions produced for Montgomery Ward. Mirco also promoted its tables via a deal with 1968 Olympic pole-vaulting gold medalist Bob Seagren and through the sponsorship of tournaments, like the 1973 and 1984 Louisiana State Soccer Tournament (Leontiades, 1982). Heading up the marketing for the tables was former champion player Bob Edgell. Bob and his brother Steve had become hooked on foosball as graduate students at the University of Minnesota when they discovered the game at a college bar called Big Ten. Before long, they were ready to test their newly-developed skills and headed to a seedy biker bar in Minneapolis called Moby Dick’s that was known to be a foosball hot spot. After going down in defeat, they returned to the Big Ten and continued to hone their game. Unable to find any books on the subject, they decided to write their own and produced the seminal “Table Soccer Rules and Strategy” (Steve later wrote “Adventure in Foosball” – a table-soccer-themed mystery novel loosely based on his life on the tournament circuit). A few months later, they paid a return visit to Moby Dicks. This time they held the table for the entire night. By late 1973, the book was finished, but the brothers still needed a publisher. By then, they had moved to Phoenix. While trying to persuade a reluctant publisher to take a chance on his book, Bob Edgell recalled an ad he had seen for a local foosball manufacturer called Mirco Games and suggested the two pay the company a visit. When the publisher asked Richard Raymond if he would order 5,000 copies of the book in exchange for having one of his tables on the cover, Raymond jumped at the chance. Meanwhile, Edgell and his brother went on to form the International Table Soccer Association. When the venture failed to take off, Bob joined Mirco Games as marketing manager.

The 1973 Greater New Orleans Football Championship - Bob Kaiser is on the far left and Ralph Lally (future founder and editor of Play Meter on the far right)

             Foosball tables weren’t Mirco’s only product line, however, or even its most successful. After the Arizona Automation/Mirco merger, the company began producing video games as well, starting with the cocktail Pong clones Champion Ping Pong (1973 – initially released by Arizona Automation and later under the Mirco banner). Mirco felt that its experience with test equipment would give it two advantages over the competition: a more reliable product, and the ability to offer a 24-hour turnaround on service (Leontiades, 1982). Outstanding service, however, meant nothing without a solid game, and Mirco didn’t have one – just another tired two-player Pong game. In March, 1974 (Leontiades, 1982) Mirco introduced Challenge, an upright four-player game that offered a free game to players who beat the computer in player-versus-machine mode. While Mirco claimed it was the first video game to offer such a feature (likely a false claim), it wasn’t enough to cover for the fact that Challenge was another uninspired game (not to mention that four-player games had already been on the market for at least eight months). Mirco realized that it needed to develop some more original games if they were to succeed, but they had already invested heavily in R&D for their test equipment, leaving nothing over for video games (Leontiades, 1982). In July (Leontiades, 1982), it introduced a cocktail model of the game and initially tried to sell it to conventional distributors, but none were interested (one suggested that they stick to foosball). Cocktail games had something of a bad reputation in the industry. Many distributors didn’t know how to sell to the more upscale locations that often bought the games and were leery of the sometimes dubious companies that sold them. Frustrated, Mirco went outside the industry and began selling its games to nontraditional “distributors”, often real estate agents, lawyers, doctors, or other professionals looking to cash in on the video game boom.

[Bob Edgell] The table-top pong game came about because they tried to sell a stand up model and the market was already saturated. Bob Kaiser, VP of Sales and Marketing came up with the idea of a table-top pong game. His sales model was to attend 'business opportunity' conferences and sell franchise territories. These franchises didn't compete in the normal (pool tables, pin ball games, etc.) coin op world. Instead, they targeted bar lounges, hotel lounges, airports and other non-traditional locations. At the height of the table top pong business, we were shipping over a hundred games a week at a price of $1,000 per table. In the 1973-4 period, several thousand units were sold and all business was COD. Needless to say Mirco had some strange business partners in this market.

Eventually, Mirco was able to convince C.A. Robinson of Los Angeles, one of the country’s largest distributors, to carry its games. Before long, video games were Mirco’s most lucrative product line. Leontiades reports that of the $9.4 million in revenue the company made in fiscal year 1976 (which ended January 31, 1976), $7.3 million was from games - $1.2 million from foosball (about 10% of the total table soccer market) and $6.1 million from video games (by comparison, game sales in the previous two years were just under $1 million). In addition, in 1975, Mirco had begun manufacturing video games in Australia and Germany[5] as well as introducing two new games in the US: Slam (another ball-and-paddle game with a button that allowed the player to “slam” the ball into the opponent’s backcourt) and Scramble (a non-video game that used a grid of light bulbs under a glass top). By January of 1976, about half of Mirco’s ca 150 employees worked in the games division (Leontiades, 1982).

PT-109 and Spirit of ‘76

Flushed with cash from its cocktail Pong games, Mirco began to expand its game offerings. And this time, they came up with something truly innovative.  Mirco’s first non-ball-and-paddle video game was PT-109, one of the forgotten breakthrough games of the video Bronze Age. The game itself was mildly interesting – a naval combat game in which 2 or 4 players navigated around islands, mines and other hazards while attempting to blast one another with torpedoes and howitzers (in 4-player games, each 2-person team consisted of a PT-boat and a battleship). What truly set it apart, however, was that it used a microprocessor – one of the first video games to do so. The game was on display in Mirco’s booth at the 1975 MOA show in October – the same show where Midway debuted Gun Fight, generally considered to be the very first microprocessor video game[6].

            Despite the innovation, PT-109 sold poorly. By the time it appeared, the cocktail video boom had passed and the same doctors and lawyers who had purchased TV Ping Pong and Challenge were unwilling to buy another video game (PT-109 was only produced in a cocktail cabinet). As a result,  PT-109 is all but unknown today, and even the most ardent video game collector is probably unaware that it had a microprocessor, much less that it was one of the first video games to use one. It’s a bit ironic since the one Mirco game that anyone does remember (if they remember one at all) is the pinball game it introduced at the very same show called Spirit of ’76 – which has long been considered the first to released pinball game with a microprocessor[7]. While Mirco released it, Spirit of ’76 had been designed by one of pioneers of the coin-op industry – Dave Nutting. Nutting had developed the game after Bally chose to pass on the Flicker prototype he and Jeff Frederiksen had developed in 1974.

[Dave Nutting] When I did the first microprocessor pinball game, Bally at first didn’t want to pay the price I wanted for the patent so then I went to Mirco and had a contract with them and we came out in 1975 with a game called Spirit of ‘76.

The microprocessor would absolutely revolutionize the pinball industry, leading to a 3-year resurgence that saw it become the most popular kid on the coin-op block. While Mirco may have led the revolution, they didn’t reap its rewards. Spirit of ’76 sold a reported 140 units[8] and it remained for Allied Leisure and Bally to popularize the concept of the microprocessor pinball machine. The problem (or at least one of them) was that despite its innovations, Spirit of ’76 was one ugly game. The dull-as-dishwater backglass consisted of little more than a stylized American flag and the playfield art was virtually nonexistent.  Not surprisingly, Mirco made just one other pinball game – the 1978 cocktail pin Lucky Draw.

Entering the Consumer Market (or trying to)

In truth, the failure of Spirit of '76 likely wasn't entirely due to lack of demand. At the time, Mirco was having problems of its own. With the disappearance of the cocktail video game market, Mirco’s video games were barely generating any revenue and its pinball games were generating even less. In addition, more advanced circuit board testers had appeared on the market and foosball alone wasn’t enough to keep the company afloat. In 1976, Mirco posted the first loss in its short existence. The loss was largely due to a failed effort to enter yet another market –home video games. On January 14, 1976 Mirco entered into a contract with Fairchild Camera and Instrument. Fairchild was to produce and deliver 50,000 units of a programmable home video game based on Mirco's Challenge chip. The idea had come from Tom Conners, an experienced electronics industry executive who had joined Mirco from Motorola.

[Bob Edgell] Tom Conners had contacts throughout the electronics' industry and began discussions with Fairchild Electronics. He proposed that Fairchild develop a home pong game, using all the outdated TTL parts being stored in the Fairchild warehouses. Mirco would use the automatic tester to insure quality control and ship the units from Phoenix

The game never made it to market. Fairchild encountered problems with one of the game's circuits and failed to deliver the product on time. In response, Montgomery Ward cancelled its $4.3 million order for the game and in November, 1977, Mirco sued Fairchild for breach of contract. They sought $6 million in damages, claiming the Fairchild had made fraudulent statements to lure them into the contract as part of a plan to monopolize the home market with its own Channel F cartridge-based system. In 1978 Fairchild countersued claiming that Mirco refused to accept delivery of the 50,000 units at the agreed-upon $25 purchase price and, further, that Mirco knew the finished game would not meet FCC requirements and had entered into the contract in bad faith "in an effort to create a controversy with Fairchild which could be used to force forgiveness by Fairchild of Mirco's indebtedness to Fairchild arising from other transactions.[9]"  By the time of the lawsuit, however, Mirco already in serious trouble. The Fairchild deal had left Mirco short on cash and forced it to halt production of Spirit of '76. In addition, Mirco was already committed to fund a German subsidiary. As a result, the company cut its staff from 208 to 103 employees and forced the rest to take a 10% pay cut.

Despite the failure of PT-109, however, the video game division was reportedly doing well. Between 1976 and 1978 it released almost a dozen titles. Skywar (1976) was a dual-joystick, World War I, air combat game. Formula M Vrooom (1977) was a rare example of a cocktail driving game. Break In and Block Buster were knockoffs of Breakout. Dawn Patrol (1978), the company’s last known traditional video game, was another World War I dogfighting game with a U-shaped controller and an overhead view[10]. Its most successful video game line, however, may have been card games. Starting with 21 in 1976, Mirco released at least six titles by 1979. By then, however, Mirco was on its way out of the business and in 1980 another Phoenix company – Amstar Electronics – purchased its games division.

NOTES - sources for this article included interviews with Bob Edgell and Dave Nutting, Milton Leontiades Management Policy, Strategy, and Plans (Little, Brown, 1982 - which included an excellent chapter on Mirco), "Fun and Games in Phoenix" from Datamation, February, 1976, the Arizona Secretary of State website, and (as always) the TAFA and Flyer Fever websites and various issues of RePlay, Play Meter, and Vending Times (especially the article "The Table Soccer Phenomenon" mentioned in Note 1 below)

[1] RePlay, February 28, 1976 (“The Table Soccer Phenomenon”) places the founding in 1969 while Leontiades places it in 1970 – though Leontiades clearly seems to have used the RePlay article as a source.
[2] Leontiades, 1982, who reports sales of $1,156,319 for fiscal year 1973, which ended January 31, 1973. Datamation, 1976 reports that the company earned $357,000 in its first year, but it is unclear where they got the figure whereas Leontiades numbers were taken from Micro’s consolidated statement of income.
[3] Leontiades reports that on December 18, 1973, Mirco formed a new division called Mirco Systems to handle the testing hardware and software.
[4] Leontiades, 1982, who reports that Mirco’s territory included Arizona, the Albuquerque/Las Cruces/Roswell area, the Denver/Henderson CO area, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Salt Lake City.
[5] Leontiades, 1982, who reports that Mirco had begun making video games in Australia in April (under the Mirco Games of Australia Pty Ltd division) and in Germany in September (under the Mirco Games of Europe division. Of the $6.1 million in video game sales in FY 1976, $600,000 were from Australia and $200,000 from Germany.
[6] The November 1975 issue of Play Meter reports that Mirco had “entered the pinball market at the Chicago MOA show in October with the first pinball game to use a microprocessor – Spirit of ‘76”. The same article later says “Aside from introducing the microprocessor into pinball, Mirco Games…also put a microprocessor into it’s [sic] new cocktail table game, PT-109”. The January, 1976 issue of Vending Times explicitly states that Mirco showed PT-109 at the MOA show. Cash Box announced the introduction of both Spirit of 76 and PT-109 in November, 1975.
[7] Though Allied Leisure showed Dyn-O-Mite at the same show and may have released Rock On as early as September. A third pin, Komputer Dynamics’ Invasion Stratogy, was also introduced at the 1975 MOA.
[8] As reported in the Clarence Bailey article, but they may have put the game back in production later. Bill Kurtz claims that they produced 500 units.
[9] The lawsuit was covered in the January, 1978 and April 7, 1978 issues of Play Meter and the December, 1977 issue of RePlay
[10] Both the May 15, 1978 issue of Play Meter and the May, 1978 issue of RePlay reported that Mirco showed a game called Zircus “in a wall model, a cocktail table, and an upright version” at the International Coin Machine  Exhibition in Berlin in April, but no description was given. From the title, it may have been a German version of Exidy’s Circus.