[ Retro Scan ] The Atari Trak-Ball

Thursday, August 16th, 2018

Atari 5200 and Atari 2600 Trak-Ball advertisement scan - 1983A controller bigger than your head

The reports of Retro Scan’s death are greatly exaggerated.

I just emerged from the other side of a huge house move that taxed my body and soul. Moving my huge collection was very difficult, and now dealing with where to put it all keeps that stress going. I feel behind on lots of things, but it’s time to catch up. One of the best ways to do that is with a new Retro Scan. So here we go — let’s talk trackballs.

As far as I know, the first arcade video games to use a trackball were Midway’s Shuffleboard and Atari Football, both from 1978. As to which came first, I have no idea at the moment.

Atari really ran with the trackball (they called it a “Trak-Ball”) and produced several mega arcade hits that used the interface, including Missile Command and Centipede. It only makes sense that they would bring the tech home to their Atari 8-bit computer line — and the Atari 5200, as seen here — in the form of the Pro-Line Trak-Ball controller.

(An aside: Despite the ad saying the Trak-Ball controller works for the Atari 2600, I know of no vintage 2600 games that support trackball mode natively. There is a joystick mode switch on the bottom of the controller, however, that lets you use it with any game.)

Of course, the 5200 version of the Trak-Ball controller is legendarily huge. It’s almost as big as the (already big) console itself. But I’ve heard good things about it, despite never having used one. I do have the smaller CX22 Trak-Ball controller and I enjoy games of Missile Command on my Atari 800XL with it from time to time, although it is criminally under-supported (in Trak-Ball mode) by games on that platform.

So how about you guys: Have you ever used the Atari 5200 Trak-Ball? What did you think about it?

[ From Video Games Player, October-November 1983 ]

Discussion Topic: Have you ever used a trackball with any game console? Tell us about it.

Ted Dabney (1937-2018)

Tuesday, May 29th, 2018

Ted DabneyIn Memoriam: Samuel Frederick Dabney, Jr. (1937-2018),
co-founder of Syzygy and Atari

Samuel Frederick (“Ted”) Dabney, Jr., who co-founded Atari with Nolan Bushnell in 1972, died of esophageal cancer just three days ago. He was 81 years old.

I was not close with Ted, but I did interview him at length for articles about Computer Space and Pong back in 2011 and 2012. During our conversations, he was candid, detailed, kind, and very helpful. During my conversations with him, a lot of the details of early Atari history you can now read online were coming out of him for the first time, so he was a vital source of fresh information on that subject.

Ted did critical work as a partner of Nolan Bushnell in the early 1970s. He served as a creative sounding board for Nolan’s ambitious ideas and also as a key implementer of some of them.

Ted met Nolan around 1969 while working at Ampex, where they were office mates. They shared big dreams and secret sessions of the board game go while in the office, and in off-hours, they hung out and scouted locations for a new restaurant idea Bushnell had that involved talking barrels.

With Nolan at Syzygy Engineering, Dabney created the video control circuitry used in Computer Space, built the prototype cabinet for that game, designed its sound circuit, and more. On Pong, Dabney built the prototype cabinet and gave feedback to game designer Allan Alcorn. He also provided ideas for Atari’s third game, Space Race, before he left Atari in 1973.

There is some confusion about the reason Dabney left Atari. Dabney told me that Nolan forced him out. Bushnell commonly cites poor work performance as the reason Dabney left. Absent some documentary evidence, the real answer will always be one of those fuzzy historical points left to interpretation. What we do know for sure is that the two founders were no longer getting along.

(By the way, I have recently read some reports about Dabney that say he left Atari because he was angry that Nolan patented his motion control circuitry without including him on the patent. This is plainly false. Dabney did not even know that Nolan’s motion control patent existed until I informed him about it in a 2011 interview.)

A lot of the key info I gleaned from Dabney can be found in my 2011 piece on Computer Space, which is a primary source for some of the secondhand knowledge you’ll read about Dabney and Atari’s early days on the web. Some day I need to publish my full interview with Dabney on Pong, because it is very insightful.

It’s also worth noting that Dabney remained friends with Nolan throughout the 1970s despite the Atari business acrimony. They were never truly close like they were circa 1969-1972, but they still kept in touch, shared a hot tub or two, and Dabney created a trivia game for Nolan’s Pizza Time chain in the early 1980s.

I will miss talking to Ted. He was laid-back, easy going, and straightforward. He had so much skill and experience from his days before Atari, and I need to write about that some time. I had hoped to interview him again at some point, but life delayed those plans. May he rest in peace.

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.