Archive for February, 2017

VC&G Anthology Interview: Ed Smith, Black Video Game and Computer Pioneer

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2017

Ed Smith, Black Video Game Pioneer of APF ElectronicsIn 1978, APF Electronics introduced the MP1000, an early cartridge-based video game system. It wasn't a smash hit like offerings from Atari, but it carried within its faux woodgrain housing a hidden kernel of cultural brilliance: The console would not have existed without the work of an African-American electronics engineer named Edward Lee Smith (b. Nov 4 1954).

I first learned about Ed Smith while researching Jerry Lawson, one of the first known African-Americans in the video game industry. Not long after Lawson did his pioneering design work on the Fairchild Channel F in Silicon Valley, Smith began a similar task on the opposite side of the country, crafting his on his own contributions to the industry while at APF in New York City.

VC&G Anthology BadgeAs part of a small engineering team, Smith helped design the MP1000 and its plug-in computer expansion module, the Imagination Machine. That work got him noticed by Black Enterprise magazine, and in 1982, Smith and Lawson were both interviewed for a feature written by S. Lee Hilliard about the roles African-Americans had played in the video game revolution, which was a hot business topic at the time.

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The Untold Story of Atari Founder Nolan Bushnell's Visionary 1980s Tech Incubator

Friday, February 17th, 2017

The Story of Nolan Bushnell

Up now on FastCompany.com is my latest piece in a series of deep-dives into little-known tech history. (I wrote this last year - it's been simmering on the backburner for quite some time.)

My article is about Nolan Bushnell's Catalyst Technologies, a pioneering high-tech incubator in the 1980s:

In the annals of Silicon Valley history, Nolan Bushnell's name conjures up both brilliant success and spectacular failure. His two landmark achievements were founding Atari in 1972—laying the groundwork for the entire video game industry—and starting Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza Time Theatre in 1977. But there’s another highlight of Bushnell's bio that has long gone undocumented: pioneer of the high-tech incubator.

In 1981, Bushnell created Catalyst Technologies, a venture-capital partnership designed to bring the future to life by turning his ideas into companies. In the era of the TRS-80, Betamax, and CB radio, startups funded by Catalyst pursued an array of visionary concepts—from interactive TV to online shopping to door-to-door navigation—that created entire industries decades later. "I read science fiction, and I wanted to live there," Bushnell explains.

In researching the history of Catalyst, I found that it was far more successful than most people think, and that Bushnell's post-Atari track record, despite several high-profile failures, is not as bad as one might assume from the negative media coverage he once garnered. It's time to reconsider his post-Atari legacy, in my opinion, and this article is the first stop in doing so. Hope you enjoy it.

[ Retro Scan ] My Sega Master System Adventure

Wednesday, February 8th, 2017

Sega Master System The Sega Adventure Poster scan Side 1 - 1987Hudson's Adventure Afro (Side 1)

As a kid that grew up with Atari and Nintendo consoles in the household, I was always curious about Sega.

I remember seeing the Master System in a glass case at Toys 'R' Us, and it seemed exotic and wonderful with its 3D glasses and futuristic angular design. It felt like the cooler, anti-Nintendo.

But I didn't get a Master System until around 1995, when my dad bought one for me used at a local used game store called Buy-Rite Video Games. At that time, Buy-Rite was located inside an indoor flea market mall off Capital Blvd. in Raleigh. It was a seedy, run-down place, but my dad enjoyed hunting for good deals at flea markets, and we regularly did that together on the weekends.

Buy-Rite Video Games Business Card Scan 1990sA short time after I got my first used Master System at Buy-Rite, we bought another one. As I browsed Buy-Rite with my dad on another occasion, I just happened to be there when I overheard someone trying to sell a Sega Master System to the store. I looked over and saw a young black kid, maybe 8 or 9 years old, by himself with a green backpack. The owner, a mid-40s white guy, was being rude and giving the kid a hard time about it, and he refused to buy it.

After that, my dad approached the kid in the store and said we'd buy it from him. As the kid was excitedly showing me what was in his backpack, the owner of Buy-Rite stepped out from behind the counter and began openly yelling at all of us — about "trying to steal his business" out of his own store, or some such nonsense. My dad exchanged a few mildly harsh words with him, and the owner demanded that we leave. We did.

On the curb outside of the Flea Market Mall, we cut a deal with the kid. I remember we gave him $40 cash, and I got a great set of Sega Master System, controllers, a light gun, and a handful of games in much better condition than the one we bought from Buy-Rite — and for much cheaper, too. The kid was very happy, and I never shopped at Buy-Rite again.

It turns out the owner of Buy-Rite was a serial asshole — he kept gipping people for years, and finally shut down the store in 2005. Good riddance. (Watch him show up in the comments.)

Sega Master System The Sega Adventure Poster scan Side 2- 1987"Now, there are no limits." (Side 2)

I've played a lot of Master System games since then, but my favorite is still Enduro Racer played with a Sega Control Stick, which I got from that kid back in 1995. (I wrote a big post about Enduro Racer back in 2006.)

What you're looking at here is a promotional Sega poster that came with a Sega Master System game — maybe one of those I received that day at the Flea Market Mall. I think the poster was originally folded up and placed inside a plastic SMS game case next to an instruction manual, although it is possible it originally came in the Sega Master System console box itself.

[ From Sega Master System Poster / Flyer, 1987 ]

Discussion Topic: What's your favorite Sega Master System game?


See Also:

Lessons from the Master: The Zen of Enduro Racer (2006)
Nintendo vs. Sega: Christmas 1987 Shootout (Retro Scan, 2010)
Benj's 1989 Christmas List (Retro Scan, 2013)

Ms. Pac-Man Turns 35

Friday, February 3rd, 2017

Ms. Pac-Man Arcade Flier Flyer

35 years ago today, Ms. Pac-Man made its worldwide public debut during a press conference held by Namco at Castle Park Entertainment Center in Sherman Oaks, a neighborhood of Los Angeles. Ms. Pac-Man launched on February 3, 1982.

In 2011, I interviewed three of Ms. Pac-Man's creators in depth for a planned feature I was going to write about the game's 30th anniversary. That project fell through, and although many journalists have written about Ms. Pac-Man since then (and its creators began giving public talks years ago), I found that my old interviews still contained fascinating nuggets of information on the game that had not yet come to light.

So I turned all of my source material on Ms. Pac-Man into an oral history, which FastCompany.com just published. It's likely that just about everything you'd ever want to know about Ms. Pac-Man's creation is covered there.

On VC&G, I would like to talk specifically about how I discovered the release date for Ms. Pac-Man, since I'd like people to correct the information that's out there. (Prior to the publication of my article, sites stated the launch date of Ms. Pac-Man anywhere between late 1981 and January 1982. Wikipedia still says "January 13, 1982″ as the launch date — I've asked Ms. Pac-Man's creators, and none of us can figure out where it came from.)

While I found evidence in a single newspaper arcade advertisement that Ms. Pac-Man was anticipated as early as January 31, 1982 (possibly from a test location), Bally Midway formally announced Ms. Pac-Man to the world during a press conference on Wednesday, February 3rd, 1982. A key newspaper report confirms this:

Newspaper Article Describing Ms Pac-Man Launch Date

That's an article from the Los Angeles Times dated Thursday, February 4th, 1982. It mentions the press conference happening on Wednesday of that week — hence, Feb 3, 1982.

Here's another article Ms. Pac-Man announcement article newspapers reprinted verbatim widely across the US. It is based on the article above and sent out as a wire report for syndication:

Newspaper Article Describing Ms Pac-Man Launch Date

Anyway — what a game, what a story. I hope you enjoy reading about how a band of plucky New England upstarts created the most popular arcade game in U.S. history.