Carol Shaw Donates Collection to The Strong

Wednesday, July 19th, 2017

Carol Shaw with River Raid Box

Good News!

You may recall that I interviewed Carol Shaw for VC&G back in 2011. Shaw is best known for developing River Raid and for being Atari’s first female video game designer.

(At that time, I called Shaw “the world’s first female video game developer.” Since then, I have made a new discovery, so stay tuned.)

Through connections made between myself, Shaw, and my good friends at The National Museum of Play at The Strong in Rochester, NY, Shaw recently donated a cache of amazing historical materials, including printed source code for River Raid and an EPROM of her first game, Polo.

Carol Shaw's River Raid Atari 2600 Source Code Photo

When I first learned that Shaw still had large format printouts of the River Raid source code (back in 2011), I panicked, trying to figure out the best way to preserve it. I was thinking I might even have to fly over and photograph it myself — just to make sure it would not be lost.

But luckily, ICHEG at The Strong is a wonderful institution, and I have been doing my best to direct prototypes and other artifacts their way over the past few years. I am happy to do my own small part in preserving the history of video games, and it is wonderful that an important pioneer such as Shaw is getting the recognition she deserves.

[ Retro Scan ] Bentley Bear’s Spelling Bee

Monday, July 17th, 2017

Atari Scholastic Series Spelling Bee a Bentley Bear At-Home Tutor Crystal Castles Educational Software Atari ST Atari Mega and ST box packaging scan - 1988“Follow me, KIDS! Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!”

I recently visited fellow NC computer collector Tom Copper (hopefully the subject of a future post), and Tom gave me this neat and rare piece of educational software for the Atari ST series. It’s called Spelling Bee, and it features Bentley Bear of Crystal Castles fame.

Apparently, Atari made a series of educational games starring Bentley Bear. Sadly, this particular game is not that great. It’s just a simple version of Hangman that, in my opinion, does not aid spelling skills at all. I have two kids — ages 7 and 4, and my eldest gets to play all the older educational software I can find. She gave this product a thumbs down. So do I. But it sure is a neat piece of computing history.

(P.S. If you’re interested in an overview of great educational games of the past, check out this slideshow I did for PCWorld back in 2015).

[ From Scholastic Series Spelling Bee by Atari, 1988, cover/back ]

Discussion Topic: What’s your favorite educational PC game of all time?

[ Retro Scan ] Milton-Bradley MBX for TI-99/4A

Thursday, June 15th, 2017

Milton Bradley MBX Flyer TI-99 Voice activated games 1983 side 2Milton-Bradley MBX Flyer: Side 2

The Milton-Bradley MBX, launched around 1983 for the TI-99/4A home computer, is a strange product: it combines a pistol-grip joystick with a rotating knob and analog control, a 64-position touch pad with overlays, and voice-recognition headset into one package that is supposed to enhance gameplay on specially-designed TI-99/4A games.

This neat TI-99/4A site has a history page about it, so I think I’ll just snatch a portion that explains the MBX’s origins:

Now that you have an idea as to what the MBX System is, below is a little history provided by Mike Langieri (the creator of the device). According to Mike, the MBX actually started out as a stand-alone game console in 1982 and was to be Milton Bradley’s answer to the Atari 2600 and Intellivision. MB’s plan was to provide the game player with voice recognition, speech synthesis, and an action-input keypad which in turn would give them an advantage over the systems already on the market.

Now how come MB did not go ahead with their own system in 1982? Once the Colecovision came out, Jim Shea (then president of Milton Bradley) thought that the market was not big enough to support 4 game systems from Atari, Mattel, Coleco, and Milton Bradley and therefore killed the project. However, so much development went into creating MB’s own video game unit that Mike was then assigned to finding a use for all the technology they developed.

Eventually it was decided to transform Milton Bradley’s gaming system to an add-on for the TI-99/4A, most likely due to the fact that MB had earlier developed the Gamevision line of video games for the 99/4A and also created the graphics chip used inside of the TI system. Thus, “the MBX was the phoenix that rose from the ashes” as Mike wonderfully put it.

It’s amazing to think “What if” and wonder what a Milton-Bradley game console might have been like. I believe that Milton Bradley also originally tried to sell this idea to Atari, but they declined, and it ended up as a TI-99/4A peripheral. A non-rotating, non-analog variation on this joystick did end up as Atari’s Space Age joystick, though.

Milton Bradley MBX Flyer TI-99 Voice activated games 1983 side 1Milton-Bradley MBX Flyer: Side 1

I have a complete MBX system in the box (which may be where I got this flyer), but for some reason I have never used it. I think that’s because I don’t have any of the games that support it — or I didn’t 17 years ago when I first bought my MBX on eBay. Right now I don’t even know what box my MBX is stored in, so it would be hard to rectify that.

[ From Milton Bradley MBX Promotional Flyer, ca. 1983 ]

Discussion Topic: When was the first time you ever used voice commands with a computer?

Atari’s Forgotten Arcade Classics (1972-1975)

Thursday, June 8th, 2017

Atari's Forgotten Arcade Games

Rolling Stone recently launched a dedicated gaming site called Glixel, and just recently, EGM alum and Glixel’s General Manager, John Davison (of whom I am a big fan), asked me to write something for the site.

So I did. Atari turns 45 this month, and I thought it would be fun to look back at some of Atari’s early coin-op titles that very few people have heard of. The result is called “Atari’s Forgotten Arcade Classics,” and you can read it now over at Glixel.

If I weren’t so busy with other projects, I’d dive more in-depth into the origins of Atari — I certainly have a lot to say about it. But that will have to wait until another time. Until then, I hope you enjoy this piece.

The Origins of Chuck E. Cheese

Thursday, June 8th, 2017

Nolan Bushnell and Chuck E. Cheese

I mentioned this in my most recent Retro Scan, but I figured this was worth repeating in its own post.

Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre launched 40 years ago last month — on May 16, 1977. To celebrate the anniversary, I wrote a long feature about the origins of the pizza chain for FastCompany that they published last week.

In the piece, you can learn about how Chuck E. Cheese was originally supposed to be a coyote, read about rat-related intrigue, and glean some of the visionary genius of Nolan Bushnell, who saw the chain as a way to bring arcade video games to the mainstream — as well as scratching a fundamental itch of human nature. It worked.

Hope you enjoy it.

Hear Benj on the Retronauts Podcast

Tuesday, May 16th, 2017

Retronauts Episode 98 Mac Games

Since February, I’ve been appearing on episodes of Retronauts, a long-running retro gaming podcast traditionally hosted by Jeremy Parish and Bob Mackey. Retronauts traces its origins to the now defunct 1UP.com, but it has moved along with Jeremy wherever he goes.

And that includes a move across the country: About five years ago, Jeremy relocated to sunny Raleigh, NC from San Francisco. After resigning from his editor-in-chief position at USGamer.net late last year, Jeremy decided to rely on Patreon to fund Retronauts as a full-time project.

Retronauts East Apple II Games ArtworkThere’s only one problem: Bob Mackey is still located on the west coast, and Jeremy can’t afford to fly out there every time he wants to record a show. So while Bob still creates episodes on the west coast, Jeremy started up a “Retronauts East” wing of the show featuring a local crew of regulars.

Fortunately, I am a Raleigh native, and I still live here. So the Retronauts East roster includes both myself and Ben Elgin, a Hillsborough, NC software engineer and a veteran of Jeremy’s Gamespite forums.

Since then I’ve been on five episodes (with another micro episode on the way), and it’s been a blast. Jeremy is a gin aficionado, and we typically drink a gin and tonic before or during the show, which is why you may hear high-resolution ice clinking in the background.

Here’s a run-down of the episodes I’ve appeared on so far:

Episode 87: Apple II Games
Episode 91: Early Sega Arcade Games
Episode 95: Early Batman Games
Micro 59: Atari Swordquest
Episode 98: Mac Gaming in the 1980s

There’s more to come. So stay tuned and enjoy.

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.

A Jedi Builds His Own Weapon

Tuesday, December 6th, 2016

Benj

I’ve been playing around with making my own custom joysticks recently. Just yesterday, I built this Atari VCS-compatible unit you see above using a Sanwa arcade joystick assembly and two Sanwa arcade buttons, both of which are available on Amazon.

I also used an old Bud project box from my late father’s things for the housing, some screw-in rubber feet on the base, a cord from a non-working Atari CX40 joystick, and some scrap steel inside to give the stick more weight and heft.

I built it mostly so I could have a 4-way only joystick for maze games on the Atari 800. (The Sanwa joystick is switchable between 4-way and 8-way upon installation.) The result is absolutely incredible either handheld or set on a table, and my high score in Nibbler has gone through the roof.

On this joystick, both buttons do the same thing, although my next Atari model will probably have three buttons — one for fire, one for up, and one for down so I can play Asteroids on the 800 like a pro.

[ Retro Scan ] Pitfall in LIFE

Monday, October 10th, 2016

Activision Pitfall! for Atari 2600 LIFE Magazine scan - 1982Watch out for that jungle crude oil pit

As a kid, we had an Atari 2600, and before the NES era, Pitfall! was very popular in our household. Unlike most Atari VCS games, it felt like a real adventure, and it was thrilling to directly control a tiny jumping human on the screen while avoiding crazy jungle hazards like alligators and, well, huge pits that led to nowhere.

By the way, this is the largest single-page Retro Scan I’ve ever scanned — it comes from a large format LIFE magazine ad. I found the magazine in my grandparents’ washhouse in Texas back in the 1990s and saved it because of this ad.

If you’re curious, here is the full scan jumbo size at 600 dpi (it’s a 5919 x 7761 pixel 38 MB JPEG, so watch out).

[ From LIFE magazine, November 1982, p.113 ]

Discussion Topic: Which is better: Pitfall! or Pitfall II: Lost Caverns?

[ Newsbits ] June 29, 2016

Wednesday, June 29th, 2016

VC&G Newsbits Newspaper Logo

VC&G Newsbits Logo

Vintage computing and retrogaming news small enough to eat.

I’ve recently received a big influx of news, announcements, and press releases, so I thought I’d bring Newsbits out of cold storage and use it to share everything all at once.

Recent News

  • Producer of The Oregon Trail Donates Collection to The Strong

    It’s wonderful to see this stuff preserved, as always

    A group of former employees from the Minnesota Educational Computing Corporation (MECC) recently donated an extensive collection of materials to The Strong museum documenting the history of the pioneering company from 1973 to 1996. The collection includes hundreds of pieces of software, internal documents, and press clippings.

  • EveryMac.com Turning 20 Years Old

    Brock Kyle recently let me know that his essential Apple info site is turning 20 this Saturday. Quite an accomplistment!

    Established in 1996, EveryMac.com is the complete guide to every Mac, iPod, iPhone, iPad and Mac clone in the world, with technical specs, configuration details, system identifiers, performance benchmarks, and global pricing info.

  • Atari Video Documentary Project Needs Support

    They’ve assembled some incredible footage so far; would be a shame to see this disappear

    This 100 minutes long documentary about the Atari story will feature a list of unreleased interviews with the key people of these events, including a very rare one with Warner VP Manny Gerard and a unique one with Atari CEO Ray Kassar, the man held responsible for Atari success and the video game industry crash at the same time, who never appeared in a documentary before.

  • YouTube Gamer on a Quest to Play 1001 Games Hits 100th Episode

    Quite a project

    My name is Gaming Jay. I’m a retro gamer who started a challenge this past year to play through a book called ‘1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die.’ Each week I’ve been playing 2 games and recording my gaming sessions and uploading them to YouTube. I have also recently developed a new website to document my journey with written summaries to supplement my YouTube videos.

  • iOS Camera App with Retro Filters Released

    Neat iOS camera app that simulates vintage graphics

    I created Famicam64, an 8bit RetroGaming style Camera app. Famicam64 lets you take photos with 40+ real-time filters that emulate the nostalgic look of retro computers (and games) of the 80s and 90s. CGA, EGA, VGA, Hercules and old PC graphic modes are all there, as well as style emulating home computers and handheld consoles (C64, Spectrum or Gameboy etc. etc.).

  • Secret History of Mac Gaming Book Seeks Funding

    It’s a niche subject, but a story worth telling

    The Secret History of Mac Gaming is the story of those communities and the game developers who survived and thrived in an ecosystem that was serially ignored by the outside world. The work draws on archive materials as well as 60+ new interviews with key figures from Mac gaming’s past.

  • Cool Links

  • Circuit Classics Boards Re-Create Classic Forrest Mims Designs

    Very, very creative electronics project from Star Simpson

    Forrest M. Mims III is a trusted name in the electronics world for good reason: his charming and engaging texts have drawn millions of people into the world of electronics for the first time. I am bringing some of those hand-drawn circuits projects to life by creating an exquisitely designed series of finely crafted and highly detailed boards. These are the Circuit Classics.

  • NES Coffee Table on Etsy

    VC&G reader Ben Winchester built a NES-shaped coffee table; it’s up for sale on Etsy.com

    I wanted to show this to you because I feel this piece is truly unique and original to me. I got my start by replicating your NES DVD player and then moving on to putting my own twist on the NES coffee table, and now I think I have created an original design.

  • Artist Re-Creates Classic Byte Cover in Photo

    Bob Alexander turns Tinney’s train illustration into a photo composition

    I’ve just completed an art project that was inspired by Robert Tinney’s painting “Computer Engineering” for Byte magazine. That’s the one with a train chugging around a printed circuit board. I made a printed circuit board that resembled the one in the painting, photographed it, and Photoshopped a picture of an HO scale model train onto it.