[ 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.

[ Retro Scan ] Computers in Kids’ Bedrooms

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2018

Apple IIc Apple //c Computer Kids Bedroom After School advertisement scan - 1985Simple beginnings

Since I first saw this in a magazine about 12 years ago, this Apple IIc (//c if you prefer) ad has probably been my favorite Apple ad of all time.

The reason is nostalgia — it portrays a kid’s bedroom in the 1980s, and it reminds me of being a kid back then.

I also like the details tucked in there, such as the Motley Crue poster, the Bazooka bubble gum, the ATV helmet (next to a tiny photo of a three-wheeled ATV), the hamster, and an Apple Modem 300/1200 sitting under the telephone. I also wonder what those circuit boards up on the shelf are supposed to be (and what they were actually from).

The Apple IIc was indeed a great machine for young students in the 1980s.

* * *

At 37, my circa-1985 bedroom was outfitted mostly with He-Man figures and stuffed animals, but my older brother’s bedroom looked more like the room in the ad.

Come to think of it, I actually have a photo of my older brother’s bedroom from December 1985, and part of it looked exactly like this:

Benj's Brother's Bedroom in December 1985 - Atari 800 Atari 400

You’ll notice the nice Atari 800 setup, which I have no doubt talked about many times before.

At that time, we did have an Apple IIc as well, but my dad kept it in his home office. It was the first computer I ever used a mouse with.

And what do you know, I have a photo of my dad’s office too — labeled July 1985:

Benj's Dad's Office in July 1985 - Apple IIc and Star Printer

You’ll notice the Star brand dot matrix printer on the floor beneath the desk. I still have many vivid memories of crawling around the floor and watching Print Shop banners and calendars emerge with an intense and persistent screech.

Good times.

In 2016, I did a whole slideshow about my family’s computers through the years for PCMag. If you enjoyed these family computer snapshots of mine, you’ll enjoy that as well.

[ From Popular Computing, February 1985 ]

Discussion Topic: Did you have a computer in your bedroom as a kid? Tell us about it.

[ Retro Scan ] The Original OSI Challenger

Monday, February 19th, 2018

Ohio Scientific Instruments OSI Challenger 6502 Vintage PC personal computer Byte Magazine advertisement scan - 1977Simple beginnings

This ancient personal computer ad comes to us from February 1977 in Byte Magazine — before the launch of the Apple II.

Like the Apple II, Ohio Scientific Industries’ Challenger PC used a MOS 6502 CPU.

I don’t know too much about OSI, since I have never owned a machine they made, but I know that they were very important in the early PC industry. I found a really neat website about OSI boards if you want to learn more. You can also learn more about their complete systems, including those with Apple II-like built-in keyboards at this website.

[ From Byte Magazine, February 1977, p.65 ]

Discussion Topic: What’s the oldest computer you’ve ever used?

[ Retro Scan ] Gateway to the Savage Frontier

Wednesday, February 7th, 2018

SSI AD&D Forgotten Realms Gold Box Gateway to the Savage Frontier RPG sexy sorceress legs advertisement scan - 1991BEGIN A FANTASTIC NEW QUEST! !!!

For some reason, my brother and I never owned any SSI Gold Box AD&D games when I was growing up. I have played many of them briefly since then — and there definitely are a lot of them.

So I’m particularly interested to know what you guys think about the Gold Box games — which ones you’ve played, which are the best, etc.

[ From Video Games and Computer Entertainment, August 1991, p.13 ]

Discussion Topic: What’s your favorite SSI Gold Box game?

[ Retro Scan ] Castlevania: Symphony of the Night

Monday, October 2nd, 2017

First Castlevania Symphony of the Night Magazine Advertisement - EGM 1997Fear has an address: 677 Bluebonnet Ln., Wichita, Kansas 67218

20 years ago today (Oct 2, 1997), Konami released Castlevania: Symphony of the Night in the US. My life has been demonstrably better ever since.

After reading a review of it in EGM, I knew I had to get the game. So I did, and it was awesome. This is probably still my favorite video game — or at least in the top three. This is the game that inspired our beloved Metroidvania term and genre, and it’s still one of my favorite game genres to this day.

[ From Electronic Gaming Monthly, November 1997, p.8-9 ]

Discussion Topic: What’s your favorite Castlevania game?

[ 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?

[ Retro Scan ] Chuck E. Cheese Tokens and Tickets

Tuesday, June 6th, 2017

Front of Chuck E. Cheese Pizza Time Theatre Tokens Scan 1980 1982 1983Five early 1980s Pizza Time Tokens from Benj’s Collection

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.

While researching the article, I recalled my childhood token collection (pseudo numismatic, as they say) that likely had a few vintage Chuck E. Cheese specimens. After checking, sure enough, I found five authentic Pizza Time game tokens dated from the years 1980, 1982, and 1983.

[ Continue reading [ Retro Scan ] Chuck E. Cheese Tokens and Tickets » ]

[ Retro Scan ] The Promise and Peril of Computer-Cars

Monday, April 24th, 2017

Oldsmobile Cutlass Cierra Computer Control fuel efficiency advertisement scan - 1984Our 1984 model: Only 3,000 superfluous wheel spokes to clean

Microprocessor technology hit the automotive world in a big way in the 1970s and 80s — car manufacturers began integrating microcontrollers into their products, and that move paid off with features like increased fuel efficiency, better cruise control, and more accurate climate control.

Some computer-related advantages in the automotive industry predated the invention of the microprocessor, however. In 1964, GM began using CAD software on IBM mainframes to help design the cars themselves. These computer design systems were some of the earliest to allow the manipulation of 3D models and the use of light pens for designer input. Their invention pushed forward the state of the art and practically invented the concept of CAD itself.

By the 1980s, manufacturers were touting products replete with computer-related perks, as this 1984 Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera ad shows very well. Olds even provided an option for an integrated push-button digital calculator that could “help balance your checkbook.”

I’ve transcribed the ad copy below so you can read it more easily.

[ Continue reading [ Retro Scan ] The Promise and Peril of Computer-Cars » ]

[ Retro Scan ] WorldsAway Mousepad

Thursday, March 9th, 2017

CompuServe Fujitsu Cultural Technologies WorldsAway mousepad scan - 1995Echoes of Ancient Technicolor Greece

Back in 1995, CompuServe and Fujitsu launched a graphical online chat world called WorldsAway. I used it from the very start (at least within a month of the launch, I think), and quickly became enveloped in the beautifully illustrated world and the sense of community it fostered.

I’ve written in-depth about WorldsAway before — both on VC&G in a previous Retro Scan (for its first print ad) and in a “This Old Tech” column on PCWorld back in 2015.

Not long after the WA launch in 1995, Fujitsu held a contest on CompuServe that was simple to enter — you had to send an email or answer a short survey (forgot what it was exactly). Lucky for me, I won the contest, and I received a really cool package of WorldsAway-branded swag. I’ll try to remember everything: a sweatshirt, a pen, a clear acrylic coffee mug, a keychain flashlight, and the mousepad you see here.

The coolest thing about this mousepad is that it shows an illustrated overhead map of the Dreamscape/Kymer/whatever it was called as Fujitsu staff originally designed it. It stayed within its Greco-Roman-inspired theme. When WorldAway launched, only a handful of these locales were accessible — I think it wasn’t until 2000 or so that all of them were actually completed and opened to WA users (although I don’t really remember the Theatre opening up, but I quit in 2001).

Speaking of mousepads, while they were essential in the days of rolling-ball mice (some nice mouse history I wrote here), they are technically optional with today’s optical mice. But I still use one on my desk to provide a uniform surface for my Microsoft optical mouse.

[ From Fujitsu Cultural Technologies WorldsAway Mousepad, 1995 ]

Discussion Topic: Let’s talk about mousepads. When was the last time you used one?

“Retro Scan” Enshrined at the Computer History Museum

Wednesday, March 8th, 2017

Retro Scan of the Week at the Computer History MuseumLast week I was in San Francisco for the Game Developers Conference, and I had a blast. I need to write more about that soon.

On Friday, I took a day trip down to Mountain View to visit the Computer History Museum, which I had not been to since 2006.

Aside from not having visited since they opened their first major exhibit, I am friends with the senior curator, Dag Spicer, and it was great to finally meet him face to face. I also met up with Allan Alcorn (creator of Pong) there, and we wandered around enjoying the exhibits together. That too is a story for another day.

Benj Edwards and Dag Spicer at the Computer History MuseumThe CHM is a wonderful place, and the exhibits are top-notch. Just brilliant. No where else can you see the first mouse, the Pong prototype, the Atari 2600 prototype, the Community Memory machine, and so many more legendary artifacts.

I also love it because there are bits and pieces of my work scattered throughout the place.

[ Continue reading “Retro Scan” Enshrined at the Computer History Museum » ]