The show's two hosts discuss what will be covered in future episodes of the Bally Alley Astrocast.
Arcade Games Based on the Astrocade Chipset
Full Transcription: Bally Alley Astrocast - Episode 0
Adam: Hi, everybody. My name's Adam Trionfo, otherwise known as BallyAlley on the AtariAge forums. And I'm here with...
Chris: Chris, otherwise known as "Chris."
Adam: And you're listening to the zero-ith episode of Bally Alley Astrocast. See, I barely know the name of it yet.
Chris: I think me and Adam believe that we thought up the name Astrocast ourselves, and we came to find out that there had already been one, it just hadn't been started. And I guess it was Rick and Willy (I think it was only those two).
Chris: And, it kinda sat there for a year. Hopefully they will be contributing to Adam's podcast here.
Adam: I don't think of this as "Adam's podcast." (And I just used finger-quotes, sorry about that.) This is our podcast. Chris and I are recording this right now. Also, Paul Thacker, who is a regular of the Bally Alley Yahoo group (which we can talk about at a later time). We're hopefully going to do this together at some point. I wanna sound natural as possible for this podcast. So, I'm trying to not read anything off a piece of paper. I don't like the sound of my voice, and the fact that I'm letting you hear it means that I love you guys.
Chris: It's a great level of trust he's exhibiting, you guys. Plus, I would immediately take his script away from him if he had one because...
Adam: Oh, thanks, Chris!
Chris: Yeah. Extemporaneous is more fun to do, and I think it's more fun to listen to.
Adam: So, in saying that, we do have some notes we wanna talk about. For this episode we wanna basically go over what we want to cover. Which is what people seem to do in these episodes. Saying, "Hey, there's gonna to be an episode of a podcast called 'this'." And, that's what we're doing here. So, here's what we're going in our podcast number zero.
Chris: It was always funny to me, like oxymoron, like: episode number zero.
Adam: Right. Right.
Chris: Let's go negative one. Let's be rebels.
Adam: You may or may not know what a Bally Arcade, or an Astrocade, is. It was a console that was developed in about 1977. It was released in 1977, but the first units were not actually shipped, for various reasons, until January 1978. And very few people got them. They were first released by catalog-only, by a company called JS&A. Those systems had overheating problems. Most of them were returned-- or many of them were returned. JS&A only sold approximately 5,000 units (so it says on the Internet). I don't know where that number is quoted from. I've never been able to find the source. Bally eventually started selling them through Montgomery Ward. Now, Bally also had something called the Zgrass that it wanted to release. This was going to be expanding the unit into a full-fledged computer. This never was released. The Bally system itself did not come with BASIC, but it was available nearly from the start. Many people used it. A newsletter formed around it called the ARCADIAN. The system has 4K of RAM and it does not use sprites, but it could move object just as well as the Atari [VCS] and other systems of its time period. It could show 256 separate colors and through tricks and machine language, it could show all of them on the screen at once, but not normally in a game. Although there are a few screens that did it (but not actively during a game). The system is fun to play... if you can find one that works. If you don't already have one, you're going to discover (if you go searching for one) they're not inexpensive. They're becoming pricey on the Internet because of the overheating problems they had, since the beginning (with the data chip), you will find that if you own [should have said buy] one now, you're getting a unit that "has not been tested," which means, of course, it is broken. If you find one on the Internet that says, "Not tested," please, do not buy it. Just let it stay there and let someone else buy it. And, when they get it and it doesn't work, if they're surprised then they did not read the "Bally/Astrocade FAQ." We'll go into much greater depth about this system in the next episode. I just wanted to let you know that's the system we'll be talking about. It has a 24-key number pad. It has a controller that is-- is it unique? Well, I think it's unique.
Adam: It has a paddle built into the top knob. It's a knob-- it's called. And it has a joystick-- an eight-directional joystick. It's built like a gun controller-style pistol. It's called a "pistol grip." It's sorta shaped like one, if you picture a classic arcade-style gun, and then just cut off the barrel. That's basically what you have. Something that was originally mentioned, and I think Bally might have called it that for two years, are Videocades. Videocades are the cartridges. These were actually also referred to as cassettes. These are not tapes. These are about the size of a tape, but they are ROM cartridges. In the beginning they held 2K and later on they held 4K for Bally. Astrovision, or Astrocade, Inc., later released some 8K games in about 1982. Those were usually considered the best games on the system because they had more ROM to spare and to put more features into the games. Now, BASIC was available from about the third or the fourth month after the system was released to the public. It was originally called BALLY BASIC. It did not come with a tape interface, but one was available for it. BALLY BASIC cost approximately $50. The tape interface, which could allow the user to record at 300-baud... which is pretty slow. To fill the 1.8K of RAM, which is available to BASIC, would take about four minutes to load a complete program. Better than retyping it every time, isn't it? But, it's not a great speed. Later on, the system (when it was rereleased), it actually came with BASIC. It was still called BALLY BASIC, but today to differentiate it from the original BASIC cartridge, most people call it ASTROCADE BASIC or AstroBASIC. The reason for this is the later BASIC has a tape interface built into the cartridge itself. This can record and playback information at 2000-baud, which is an odd number because it's not a multiple of 300. Because when 300-baud tapes were speeded up by a newer format later, they were 1800-baud. Tapes were available, which meant the user community was able to grow because they could share programs. It was sometimes a problem for them because I could record a program on my tape drive and I could send it to you in the mail. And you'd say, "It's not loading. It's not loading!" Well, you'd sometimes have to adjust your read and write heads to match it. Imagine having to do that today? To having to... uh, I wouldn't want to think about doing it. So, even if you can believe it, with that kind of an issue, with users having to adjust their tape systems in order to load programs sometimes, there were commercially released tapes. These have been archived and are available and you can download them from BallyAlley.com.
Chris: So, the play and record head on anybody's tape recorder... there was the possibility that it had to be adjusted to play a tape his buddy had sent him because he had a tape recorder with differently aligned play and record heads in it-- I mean, that's something else!
Adam: Now, the recorders that were normally used were called shoebox recorders. These were recommended. If you tried to record to a home stereo, maybe Chris can understand this better and tell me more about it in a later episode, but you really couldn't record to one and then get that information back. I'm not sure why. But, the lower quality that was available from the low-end tapes that were less expensive were actually better. Just like there were better audio tapes available, which you should not have used for data because... because, I don't know why! So, ideal podcast length. In my mind I see about an hour, or an hour and a half. While I listen to many podcasts, among them Intellivisionaries (and others) that are not short. And, as has been discussed on the Intellivisionaries, there's a pause button. So, if somehow we do end up at five hours, please understand that there is a pause button. If we end up less, you don't need to use the pause button. Isn't that great? Technology... right?
Chris: Well, a very good idea that you had was obviously to conduct interviews with some, I guess, what, Bally game writers, people who are really knowledgeable about it.
Adam: Well, there's quite a few people I'd like to interview. If we can find people from the 70s and the 80s, and even now, there's some people who have written some modern games-- at least written some programs for the system.
Chris: It would help if they're still around. Yeah.
Adam: Something that's interesting, that I wanna use, is that there's actually recorded interviews that we have from the early 80s and late 70s of phone conversations that Bob Fabris did (from the ARCADIAN publisher). There was a newsletter called the ARCADIAN and it published for seven years (from 1978 to 1984 or 85, depending on how you view things a bit). He recorded some conversations with some of the more prominent people of the time.
Chris: That's cool!
Adam: We've made WAV files of those or FLAC files and they're available for download (or many of them are already) from BallyAlley. But, it might be interesting to take out snippets from some of those and put them in the show. I hadn't thought of that before, but that's why we're going over this.
Chris: Yeah. Absolutely.
Chris: That's really cool. We say Bally Astrocade, like we say Atari 2600, but it was never actually called the Astrocade when Bally owned it.
Adam: Not when Bally owned it; no. But after it was resold they had the right to use the name Bally for one year.
Adam: And Astrovision did do that. So, for a short time, for one year, it was known as the Bally Astrocade. And it actually was called that.
Chris: Oh. Okay.
Adam: But, somehow that name has stuck. And that is what the name is called. And many people think it was called that from the beginning. It was originally released under a few different names, which we'll get into at a later date. I think of it... I like to think of it as the Bally Arcade/Astrocade.
Adam: It depends on how you look at it. Sometimes I go with either. Sometimes I go with both. Sometimes I call it the Bally Library Computer. It just on how I'm feeling at the time. So, we also don't plan to pre-write episodes. You might have noticed that by now. We do have a list that we're going by, and we do wanna use notes, but reading from a script is not what I wanna do. I don't want to sound dry and humorless. I like to have Chris here making fun of me-- well, maybe not making fun of me, but, you know, Chris here... helping me along to give me moral support. And I enjoy that I'll be doing this with him, and hopefully Paul as well.
Chris: It is strange for you and I to sit around talking about old videogames.
Adam: Oh... isn't it! Isn't it though!
Chris: [Laughing] Some of the sections that Adam has come up with are really interesting. They sound like a lot of fun. And what's cool is that they are necessarily unique to a podcast about the Bally console. For instance, we were talking about the ARCADIAN newsletter. There's going to be a segment-- it will probably be every episode because there is a LOT of source material. This segment will delve into ARCADIAN notes and letters that did not make it into the published newsletter. It's kind of a time capsule. In some ways it will be fascinating even for people who don't know a lot about the Bally Astrocade because what you're getting is correspondence from the 70s and 80s, before anybody really knew what was gonna happen with the 8-bit era, you know?
Adam: There's material in the archives. All of this material is from Bob Fabris. He was the editor or the ARCADIAN. Two people, Paul Thacker and I, we bought that collection from an individual who had bought it in the early 2000s directly from Bob. It was never broken up, so it's all together in about eight boxes-- large boxes-- all in different folders. Bob Fabris kept a really, really detailed collection and in great order. He kept it in that shape from 1978 until, what?, about 2001 or 2002 when he sold it.
Adam: So the fact that it survived and then someone else bought it and didn't want to break it up and sell it is pretty amazing to me. We were able to pool our funds together, Paul and I, and purchase it. All of it has been scanned. Not all of it is available. Oh, and by the way, BallyAlley, in case there are some listeners who don't know... BallyAlley is a website that I put together. It's mostly from the archives of the ARACADIAN. But, there's a lot, a LOT, of interesting material there. If you're interested in the Bally Arcade, you should check it out. It's BallyAlley.com.
Chris: Adam is being kinda modest. He's done a lot of work on this. You're gonna find archived materials that will make your eyeballs pop out of your head.
Chris: You know, he's...
Adam: If you saw Chris, then you'd know that's true.
Chris: Yes. Absolutely. I'm recording blind. You know, he's very picky about high quality scans (as high as possible only). He's vey meticulous about it. And I definitely recommend that you guys visit BallyAlley period com. I know it's a lost battle; humor me. They're not dots. All right... anyway.
Adam: All right. Cartridge reviews. The Bally Arcade... it has a lot of perks, one of them is not it's huge library of games. I take that back. It has a huge library of games. Many of them, as some people may not even know who are listening to this, were released on tapes. But the vast majority of games, that people would think of as the console games, are cartridges. The Bally could "see" 8K at once. It didn't have to bankswitch or anything like that in order to do that. There was never a bankswitching cartridge that was released for the Bally. At least at that time. Since the library is so small, I'm not sure if we're planning to cover a game per episode, or since we plan to cover all of the games (and there are certainly less than fifty, if you include prototypes) and some of them are not games. Some of them were... BIORHYTHM, so that you could know when it would be a good time to get it on with your wife to have a baby. You know... [laughing] So, if that's what you wanna talk about and listen to... write us and say, "That's sounds great. I want you to tell me when I can get my wife pregnant." [laughing] The other day my wife was taking a look at a game I was playing for a competing console, the Atari 8-bit game system.
Chris: I thought you were gonna say the Arcadia.
Adam: No, not the Arcadia. I was playing a SUPER BREAKOUT clone. She took a look at it and didn't know what it was. I said, "You know, it's a BREAKOUT clone." She's like, "I don't know what that is." I said, "No. Look at the game for a minute. It looks like BREAKOUT." And she still didn't get it. And I said, "Okay, so you're gonna have a ball that bounces off a paddle and it's gonna hit the bricks up above." And she goes, "I've never seen this before." And I said, "Okay. You've heard of PONG, right?" She's like, "Well, yes I've heard of PONG." I said, "It's that."
Chris: [Laughing] It's that... except better. Between you and all of the people you're in contact with from the Bally era, and people like Paul. People who actually wrote games back then...
Chris: Information about how the console works and its languages and stuff... is that pretty-much taken care of, or are there more mysteries to be solved.
Adam: There's some mysteries. The neat thing about this system was that even in the ARCADIAN, in the early issues, you could get access, for like $30, to the photocopies that were used at Nutting Associates. These are the people who actually designed the Bally system for Bally. They did arcade games-- we'll go more into that in another episode. This information was available to subscribers... almost from the get-go. So, if you wanted to have a source listing of the 8K ROM, you could get it. Of course, it came with a "Do Not Replicate" on every single page, but... it was... you were allowed to get it. You could purchase it. It was freely available and it was encouraged for users to use this information to learn about the system.
Chris: The reason I ask is that I'm wondering what the next step is. Whenever I think of this console... do people refer to it as a console or a computer, by and large?
Adam: A game system in my eyes. I mean, it's a console. People don't think of it as a computer. No.
Chris: I'll start over. Whenever I think about this system, what usually comes to mind is the fact that it is unexploited. And that is perhaps the, not quite an elephant in the room, but that is the only real disappointment about the Astrocade is that there are these amazing, vivid, brilliant, games. I mean, the arcade conversations on the Astrocade are, for all intents and purposes, arcade perfect. This was a superior machine. And yet, players were teased with a handful of astonishing games and then that was it. So, "what could have been," comes to mind for me a lot. And the phrase tragically untapped. What I'm wondering is why nobody has brought up the initiative of making new games. The last two were arcade conversations. They were not original, but they are, of course, phenomenal. I mean, two of the best titles, you know are WAR (which is a conversion of WORLORDS) and, of course, CRAZY CLIMBER. You were in charge of all the packaging and EPROM burning for those. I'm not saying...
Adam: Partially. Partially. For all of one of them I was, but the other one was handled by a man name Ken Lill. I did... I came up with the package design and stuff like that, and made a lot to make it happen. But, I didn't program the games. No.
Chris: Right. But I mean, somebody else did the coding, but didn't you have all the cartridge shells. And you were burning...
Adam: I made sure it all happened.
Adam: Yeah. I mean, I didn't do all the work though.
Adam: It helped that I was there. Put it that way.
Chris: We're talking about CRAZY CLIMBER, mainly, right? Because you helped with WAR as well.
Adam: Yeah. I did both. Yeah.
Chris: And you wrote some of the back of the box copy.
Adam: I did all of that. Yeah.
Chris: As expensive and limited as such a run would be, that's not really quite what I'm talking about. As having to go through all that to give people physical, boxes copies, I guess. Another reason why people might not have written anymore Astrocade games is that the relatively few surviving consoles could be prone to overheating themselves to death at any time. But, then there's emulation.
Chris: MESS is all that we have, and it's not perfect. So, wouldn't that be the first step for somebody to write a really good Astrocade emulator? I would do it, if I knew how.
Adam: Yes. If there's one of you out there who's like, "Who couldn't write an Astrocade emulator?"
Adam: Please, would you do me a favor and send that to me tomorrow?
Chris: It's time. ...Tomorrow... [laughing]
Adam: Something that I wanna get at is that MESS does work for most games. There are a few that don't work. Some of them used to work and now they're broken. MESS was updated to make it "better," and now some games don't work. I don't understand why that happened. The biggest drawback to MESS is that is doesn't support the tape. It doesn't support-- it supports BASIC, but you can't save or load programs. And since they're hundreds... there's probably over 500 programs available. And there's... many, many of those have already been archived and put on BallyAlley.com. So you can try them out on a real system, but not under emulation. And it's quite easy to use under real hardware. We'll get into that at another time too.
Chris: In terms of cartridge reviews. And I'm only going to say this once. Thanks, by the way, for saying that this is our podcast.
Chris: I thought I was just being a guest.
Adam: No. No... you're just a gas.
Chris: I'm just a gas. So, should I help you pay for the the Libsyn?
Adam: I think we'll be okay.
Chris: All right.
Adam: All of our users are going to send donations every month.
Chris: Oh, that's right.
Adam: [Laughing] Just kidding there, guys.
Chris: So, I'm just going to say this once. And you're welcome. Review is a word I have a problem with when it comes to my own, well, stuff I write. But now, apparently, stuff I talk about. Because I associate the word review with critics. I think I was telling you the other day, Adam...
Adam: Yes, you were.
Chris: I would never hit such a low level of self-loathing that I would ever call myself a critic. Talk about a useless bunch. For me they'll be overviews. It's very picky. Very subjective. It has nothing to do with anybody else. You wanna consider yourself reviews-- totally respect that-- but I don't do reviews. So, either that, or I'm in some sort of really intense denial. But, personal reflections on games, reviews leaves out... when you call something a review, it leaves out the fact that taste is subjective. It's a personal thing. I can't review food for you and have you think, "Oh, now I like that food I used to hate." One's tastes in games, music, etcetera is just as personal. So, Adam was saying that there's so few of them, that we're not going to cover a game every episode. So, what we're going to do is alternate, so that you don't go completely without game "content" (isn't that a buzzword, a frequent word online now: "content").
Adam: That is. Yeah.
Chris: Everybody wants content. I gotta table of contents for ya. We're going to alternate actual commercial cartridge games with commercially available tape games and even type-in programs, because there were a lot of good ones.
Adam: Most of them were written in BASIC.
Chris: Which is just awesome to me.
Chris: We were thinking of alternating the games stuff I was just talking about with this.
Adam: The Astrocade system, well, the Bally Arcade system, as it was originally designed for home use, it had two versions. There was an arcade version, which came out in 1978 with the first game, Sea Wolf II in the arcades. And there was the version that was released for the home. It had 4K of RAM, while the version in the arcades had 16K (and some additional support), but they use the same hardware (like the data chip). They're so similar in fact, that many of the systems games were brought home as cartridges. They don't use the same code. They are not-- you can't run code for the arcade and vice-versa. You can, for instance, take a Gorf and run Gorf on Wizard of Wor hardware. It'll look the wrong direction, but you can do that. The systems are very similar in that respect. But, you can actually take an Astrocade (and it has been done before) that is a 4K unit, and actually do some fiddling with it, change the ROM a bit, give it more RAM (there's more that you have to do)-- there's actually an article about it, it was written in-depth (it's available on BallyAlley, the website). And you can make it into an arcade unit. It wouldn't be able to play the arcade games, but it would have access to 16K of RAM and that sort of thing.
Chris: When you say Sea Wolf II, you mean the arcade game was running this hardware that you're talking about.
Chris: Much of which was also in the console.
Chris: Okay. And that goes for WIZARD OF WOR, GORF, SPACE ZAP. Well, that explains why there are so many arcade perfect home versions.
Adam: Um. Right. They don't share the same code, but they are very similar. The Hi-Res machine could display, in what was considered then a high resolution. The Bally display in 1/4 of that resolution. I think perhaps will have the first episode cover specifically the hardware of the Astrocade.
Chris: So, you are saying that this segment would cover the arcade games that used the astrocade hardware, and I find that really, really interesting (because I never knew that). I thought that they were just, you know, very similar and some of the same people created the home versions, but I didn't realize that... I never realized they were so close.
Adam: So, another segment that we plan to do is called, "What the Heck?!?" It's going to focus on unusual hardware and maybe even released items, but something that, while it was released through the Arcadian newsletter or perhaps the Cursor newsletter (and maybe even one of the other small newsletters that were around for a short time for this system exclusively). When we're talking about a released product here, we are probably talking about in the tens-- the twenties. I mean, new homebrew games get a wider release than games that are considered released back then. Maybe not the games, but hardware peripherals. There was something called the Computer Ear which could do voice recognition-- sort of. But the software for that isn't available, I don't think... maybe it is. I have the hardware, but I've never tried running before.
Chris: We're also gonna-- I say "we," even though Adam's knowledge about, well pretty-much all of this stuff is much greater than mine, hoping to cover the Zgrass keyboard/computer. Is that a fair description?
Adam: Yeah. That's what you would read on the Internet about it. And if you can call that true, then that's what it is.
Chris: Right. And not just on the WikiRumor page.
Chris: It's a very unusual system and it's worth learning about. See, you don't hear about any of this stuff anywhere else and that's what's really cool about this podcast. Everything you've got archived, everything you've learned, you just never read about it back then, you know?
Adam: It was available to read about, but not in the normal sources that people read about the Astrocade. Which would have been Electronic Games and some of the other computing magazines at the time. But they didn't talk about, I mean, it was mentioned briefly... but only as a product that was supposed to come out. But, in a way, ZGrass did come out. The product, the language, ZGRASS, was available. There was a hardware system, a computer (which could cost upwards of $10,000) that used some of the custom chips that were available in the Astrocade. It was called the UV-1. It was-- I'll get more into that when I cover the Zgrass system in some future episode, which is why we're talking about it here. I would like to discover more about it. I wanna learn. I want-- I don't think I can use it, because it has not been archived. But, the documentation is available on BallyAlley. I have that. Maybe I'll go through that a little bit. It was... something to learn about and share...
Chris: Yeah. Really cool.
Adam: It's all about sharing, man. And caring. Okay. The Bally Arcade and Astrocade history. History of the month is something that we are going to have. It's going to start with the "Arcadians" #1, which was the first available newsletter. The "Arcadians" was a newsletter that published for just four issues. And it was published-- and it was only two pages. The first one, I think, was only front and back. Then, I think, maybe the next one was four pages, but that was only two pages front and back. It was really just a round-robin letter. It predates the "Arcadian." It was only available to a few people. These have been archived. You can read them online. I'm gonna start there. As soon as BASIC was released, it took a few months after the Astrocade came out (excuse me, before the Bally Arcade came out). Once that system came out with Bally BASIC (which required a separate BASIC interface so that you could record to tape), then Bob Fabris, the editor, said, "We've got something we can explore together. Let's do this. Let's pool our resources and come up with a way to share information. That was what they were all about. They did this very early on. That's something that interests me greatly about the system, and I want to be able to share that and compare it with knowledge of other systems that were out at the time.
Chris: That's really cool. I mean, it's one of the earliest systems of any kind, that I know of, that actually did have a community. You know, that were really trying to goad each other into doing new things and write programs and stuff like that. I mean, I can't imagine there was an Altair community. I'm trying to...
Adam: There was an Altair community.
Chris: Oh. Well, but they were all very rich. And they had a lot of time on their hands!
Adam: ...those switches, right?
Chris: I hope that you're gonna to do a "What's New on Bally Alley" I know I keep going on about this, but that is just an amazing website to me. You do a lot of updates to it, so when you do add new things to the BallyAlley website. And, who knows, maybe this will give you a reason to add more things to the website.
Adam: It could. The website isn't updated very frequently. I have great intentions, everyone. So, if you've been wanting to see updates, give me some motivation to do some. I don't mean send me money. We, as the two of us (and other people on the Yahoo group), we do like to BS about the system. But, there's so much information in my archives, and there are only a few people who share it with me. Basically, two other people. We're thinking about putting it up on archive.org, but some of it is kind of-- I think it should, might remain hidden from viewers, even though it might be archived there. Because, it's personal letters that, I think, probably shouldn't be shared. Because, there's personal information there. I mean, when I got the collection, there was actually checks still that were un-cashed in it that were written in the 70s.
Adam: Those kind of things I did not scan. Because I was like... what? [sounds of exasperation and/or confusion], it was very strange to me. They are un-canceled, unused checks out there in some boxes that were people subscribing to the newsletter. I'm not sure why he didn't cash the checks, but... they're there!
Chris: So you could have them in the archive, I guess.
Adam: Right. But I don't think I wanna-- I don't think that sort of information should be shared.
Chris: Oh, I agree. But, you know, I mean back then a dollar, back then, was the equivalent of fifty grand today. Don't you love it when people say stuff like that? It's like... well, you're going a little overboard.
Adam: Right. [Laughing] We had to walk up and down the hill both ways...
Chris: Both ways!
Adam: ...in the snow. Pick up the coal from between the tracks.
Chris: Any Cosby reference, I'm on! What I'm hoping... do you think that Paul is going to take part in some way in this first episode?
Adam: I would like him to. If we take a long time, then probably.
Chris: Well, I'm hoping we're going to hear a lot from Paul Thacker.
Adam: Paul Thacker, he will definitely join us, at least, for the... if he can't make it into this zero episode, he will be in for the first one. He's a good guy. He has helped me-- more than helped me!-- he has... he is in control of archiving tapes. That is his department. After I wasn't really updating the site too much anymore (I actually had even pulled away from it), in about 2006, Paul Thacker came forward and he introduced himself to me through an email. He said he would like to help with archiving tapes. And... he really, really has. He's the leader in that department. He has contacted people to make archiving programs possible. He has followed up with people with large collections. He has archived them. Not all of it is available on the website yet, but it is... it has been done. They're truly archived. And, what's neat about Paul he has tapes that were available between users. If you're familiar with growing up with these old systems, you might have had a computer like an Atari 800 or a Commodore 64. Maybe you had some tapes that you recorded to (or disks). You would write a "Game Number 1." And then that was what you'd name the program-- even if the program was a type-in from a "Compute!" magazine or an "Antic" magazine.
Chris: Oh, you would save it as "Game Number 1"
Adam: This is how these tapes were. People would write one program on it... maybe, maybe even give it a clueless name, that meant nothing to either Paul or I. Paul would record the whole side. Paul would go through and say, "What's on here?" Paul would find a program. Paul would find SIX different versions of that program! Paul would find programs that had been halfway recorded over. Paul made sure to archive all of that, separately (and as efficiently as possible), document it. So, something I want to cover... there are so many topics... I should back up here, and I should say that there are a lot of topics available to anyone who is starting a podcast. Something that has to be zeroed in on (and that's not supposed to be a pun on the zero episode) is that you have to choose. You have to narrow. You have to focus. I am no good at that. I am not good at that... I can't do it.
Chris: How many fingers am I holding up?
Adam: Chris is holding up a finger, and I'm supposed to see one. And I'm hoping that is what he was doing-- and not giving me the finger.
Adam: So, I would like to cover the ancestry of the Bally Arcade. Something that came up and about 2001, perhaps 2002, is someone named Tony Miller, who was responsible for working on the Bally Arcade when it was created, mentioned that the Bally Arcade's chipset is actually a direct descendent of "Space Invaders" arcade game's... the CPU for "Gun Fight". Or something to that affect. I didn't understand it then, I might be able to understand it better if I find those exact posts (which are definitely archived). Now, "Gun Fight" used the Intel 8080 CPU, which is why the Astrocade uses the Z80. Because it's compatible... sort of. The Z80 can run 8080 but not the other way around. As you can see, my knowledge of all of this is completely limited. What I just told you, is pretty much what I know. There's obviously a story there. If I could find people to interview, if I can dig into this, there is a GOOD story there. And I would like to discover it and present it.
Chris: Yeah, 'cause that would mean Taito took some technical influence from Midway. Because it was Midway that added a CPU, at all, to "Gun Fight," right? So... that's pretty interesting.
Adam: We'll find out, Chris.
Chris: Yeah. So, I've already talked about writing new games as the next logical step once one has a lot of information about any game system, or any computer (or anything like that). So, are we going to encourage activity in the homebrew Astrocade scene? Because, there is a latent one there. You should definitely cover the two released games that we've already talked about: WAR and CRAZY CLIMBER. Those were pretty big deals. The first new Astrocade game since... what?... 1985-ish? I mean, on cartridge...
Adam: It depends on how you look at it. There were actually some people in the community, who were just sending cartridges back and forth to each other, who were sharing code in the 80s. They're not considered released cartridges. Something that is available to the public... yes.
Chris: In terms of talking about homebrew programming, you can also talk about people who just play around with this system, or even interview them. What do you find interesting about the...
Adam: Yeah. I would like to do interviews with people who actually have a lot of experience with the system and maybe grew up with it, which I did not do. I didn't learn about it until... the 90s. About homebrew programming: I believe, and I would love to make you guys believe, that homebrew programming did not start in the 90s. I would like to let you know that homebrew programming has been around since 1975 (in my eyes) and earlier. The very, very first PCs, and by that I mean "Personal Computers," not "IBM Personal Computers," (alright?)... these systems were programmed in people's living rooms, in people's kitchens. If that is not homebrew programming, I don't know what is.
Adam: These people were learning for the sake of learning. They were playing for the sake of the experience of touching the hardware, learning the software-- they weren't doing this for work, they were doing this for pleasure. This is the same exact reason people are homebrewing games today. They were doing this back then. An insight that you get to see very clearly is in the in the "Arcadian" newsletters, and in the "Cursor" newsletters as well, is people want to teach other people. They are about sharing. They are about, "Hey I wrote this. This is great. You guys should type it in and try it out... and if you find out anything about it, let me know what you think. If you can add something to it... if you can cut off six bytes and add a sound effect, please do that, because there's no sound." These people wanted to help each other, and through that it is available in archives, and we can look at this and learn today. I would like to have that happen, so that people of today, people who have the knowledge, have modern computers that can cross-compile and create new games-- that would be neat... to me.
Adam: It has been neat, went two have been released already. But, even if new games don't get created, what about MESS? Let's make that better.
Chris: Before we go any further, I think you should "share" your email address so that you get feedback.
Adam: My name is Adam, and you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Chris: You can private message me on AtariAge. I'm chris++.
Adam: Now we expect to get loads of email. We are gonna be clogged. We're going to have to have the first episode be nothing but reader feedback.
Chris: I'm telling ya, we really got a good thing going, so you better hang on to yourself.
Chris: That's a Bowie quote. Well, before we wrap this up, let's cover the obvious thing. How did you get so involved in the Bally Arcade/Astrocade?
Adam: When I first began collecting some of these older consoles and home computers... I never stopped playing them, but when they started becoming available for a quarter, I said, "You know, why don't I just buy each one of them." I had a very large collection for awhile, until I finally gave some of it to Chris... got rid of most of it, and... I am glad I did, because now I play the games I own. What I don't play, I get to eventually. In about 1994... '93... I read about this system in one of the books I had that was from the early 80s that covered the Zgrass, actually. It was the system, I was like, "I want to get a Zgrass, that'd be neat." I don't have one. I did find out that it was related to the Bally Arcade. From there... I wanted one. I found my first one for a quarter. I picked it up at a flea market.
Adam: It came with a few games. In fact, I saw the games first, and I was like, "How much you want for these?" Each game was a quarter. I think there was four or five of 'em. Then I saw the system, but I didn't have that much money with me. I had like a dollar left or something (I'd already bought some other things). I was talking to a friend that I'd gone with, and he said, "Why don't you go back there and offer him your buck for it?" I went back, and I said, "How much do you want for the game (the system)?" And he goes, "A quarter."
Adam: So, I still had change to go by another: 2600, an Intellivision... no... [laughing] But, I didn't find anything else that day.
Chris: Those were the days before you people let eBay ruin that part of the hobby.
Adam: So, I did know that there was an "Arcadian" newsletter. But, I was a member of an Atari 8-bit user group here in town. It so happened, I was bringing it up... talking with someone there, and they said, "Oh, I've heard of that!" I'm like, "Oh, you've heard of the Bally?" They said, "Oh, sure. You should talk to Mr. Houser" (who was the president of the Atari club). Then he said, "I think he wrote some games for it." I said, "Hmm. That sounds interesting." So, I approached him. By 1994, there were very few users left in the Atari 8-bit group. Who was left, we all knew each other very well (or, as well as we could-- even though some of us only knew each other from meetings). We started talking. He told me that he'd been involved with the "Arcadian." He had published tapes. He had something called "The Catalog" [THE SOURCEBOOK], which I now know was the way most people order tapes (but, back then I didn't). He kept track of all this, and he still had all of his things. He invited me over one Sunday afternoon and he showed me what he owned, which was... pretty-much everything for the Astrocade that was released. We went through it one Sunday afternoon, and his son (who was in his early 20s) shared his memories of the machine. I fell in love: I thought, "Wow, this system is great!" While I was there Mr. Houser, his name was Richard Houser, he said, "Hey, you know what... we should call up Bob." I said, "Bob, who?" He said, "He was the person who used to publish the "Arcadian." I said, "... Really?" He's like, "Yeah, let's call him." So, he called up Bob. They chatted a bit (for a while) and he told him who I was-- I didn't talk to Bob. But, he was available back then. I thought that was great, so I wrote Bob a letter. I said, "Would it be okay if I get some of your information..." Later on, in the late-90s, he gave me permission to do that. At the time, I just said, "Hey. Here I am." What's really neat, is I started sending him ORPHANED COMPUTERS & GAME SYSTEMS (which was a newsletter I did in the early-90s. After three issues, Chris, here, joined me on board). I sent them to him. When I bought the Bally collection from him, those issues that I'd sent to him brought back to me. Which, was, like, this huge circle... because it came through several people, in order to come back. I found that really neat.
Adam: Eventually, with Chris, we discovered the system together. We played around with it. What was it...? About 2001, I started BallyAlley.com. It doesn't look great now, and it looked worse then. Now, here I am... having a podcast. How about you, Chris?
Chris: I never stopped playing all the way through either. You know?
Adam: Why should've we?
Chris: Well, yeah. I kept playing the old games through the period when they started to be called "classic" and "retro." This happened at some point in the mid-90s.
Adam: During the HUGE crash during in the 80s (that none of us saw).
Chris: Yeah... that none of us knew about, except for the great prices (which I attributed to over-stock).
Adam: I didn't even think about it.
Chris: Well, they weren't all cheaper. Even into '83/'84, I remember spending thirty-odd dollars on PITFALL II: LOST CAVERNS for the 2600.
Adam: Yeah, right. I got that for my birthday, because it was $30... and I didn't have $30, I was a kid.
Chris: Right. 'Cause... that was about two-million dollars in today's money.
Adam: Also, for us, I think, we went onto computers, like many people our age at the time. So, we sort of distanced ourselves. The prices for computer stock stayed about the same, as they had for Atari cartridges, and things like that.
Chris: That's a good point. Yeah. In coming across "classic," after I hadn't really stopped playing my favorites (and discovering new favorites, thanks to the advent of thrift shops and video games at Goodwill, and stuff), I'd read that and say, "Oh, they're classic now. Oh, all right. If you say so." I thought that was really funny. So, by the late 90s, I thought I was the only person on earth (not literally, but pretty close) who is still playing these "old" videogames. All I had when we started hanging out again, Adam, was an Atari 2600 and a Commodore 64. That was all I wanted. I didn't want to know about anything else, I didn't want to know about this new CD-ROM, with the "multimedia."
Adam: So, let's... this time period would have been...?
Chris: This is 1997. By this point, I had been writing my own articles and essays for my own amusement (saving them as sequential files on 1541 floppies using the Commodore 64). I wrote a file writer and reader program. I thought I was the only one doing nerdy stuff like this, but I had fun doing it. And I was still playing all the old games, picking 'em up for a buck or less, while making my rounds at the thrift shops and at Goodwills and everything like that. I was in a subsidiary of Goodwill that was attached to the largest Goodwill store in Albuquerque. I ran into a buddy of mine, from ten years previous. He and I have been freshman in high school, and then I went to another high school and lost touch with all of my friends. This guy's name, if you can believe this goofy name, was Adam Trionfo. The store had an even goofier name: the U-Fix-It Corral, but then it changed into Clearance Corner. Is that right?
Adam: Correct. Yes.
Chris: Adam was working there. So, I'm going through a box of... something... from the 80s. He came over, "Are you Chris?" I said, "Yeah. Adam?" He and I, you know, sort of shook hands. I said, "Well, that's cool, you're working at Goodwill." "Yup." Then I left, and I never saw him again...
Adam: [Laughing] Until today.
Chris: Until today. That's why it really sounds improvised here. He gave me a newsletter he had written about... old videogames (and they weren't even all that old yet, at the time). He started ORPHANED COMPUTERS & GAME SYSTEMS (on paper, kids!) in 1994. I asked him, "So, you write about video games too?" He said, "Yeah." We started hanging out playing games... a lot. I didn't know anyone else at the time who liked to play Atari 2600 and Commodore 64 games. He eventually nudged me to the Internet (or, dragged me... kicking and screaming). When I encouraged him to start up his newsletter again, he said he would if I'd collaborate. We did that for couple of years. Sent out a lot of paper issues. Had a ball writing it. Going to World of Atari 98 (and then CGE 2003). Using interviews that we had conducted at those to feed the material for the newsletter. In 1999, it became a website. We've actually been pretty good about adding recent articles...
Adam: Recently. Yeah.
Chris: ... which is good for us. I don't know what any of this has to do with what you asked me. In 1982, we took a trip back East to Buffalo to visit family. My mom's sister's best friend had a son named Robert, who was a couple of years older than me (I was ten, he was probably twelve or thirteen). He was the kid who first showed me Adventure.
Adam: Never heard of it.
Chris: Summertime of '82 [mumbling/talked-over??] I got my mind blown by it. This same guy, Robert, took me into his basement to show me his Atari computer (I believe). He said not to touch it, because he had a program in memory. He was typing in a program and he had a magazine open. That's all I remember. I wish I had focused on the model number or which magazine it was. It looked like all of this gobbledygook on the screen. I was absolutely captivated because-- who didn't want to make his own videogames? I'd been playing Atari VCS games since February of '82. It became an obsession with me, on par with music (believe it or not). He said not to touch it because he hadn't saved it yet. I said, "How do ya save it?" You know what I mean? I didn't ask him any smart-ass questions: "Okay, ya gonna take a picture of the screen?"
Chris: He said, "I save them on these." He showed me just a normal blank cassette, like you would listen to music on. That just entranced me: all of these innocent music cassettes hiding videogames on them.
Chris: I learned how to program in BASIC that summer from a book checked out from the library. I mean, I just really got interested in talking to this new thing. This home computer: the microcomputer (as it was called quite often). The "micro" to separate them from "mainframes," because, you know, a lot of our friends had mainframes in their bedrooms.
Chris. Then he brought me over and showed me one more thing before we had to go. This was the Bally Professional Arcade. I thought it was one of the most amazing things I've ever seen. We played THE INCREDIBLE WIZARD. He let me play for a little while. I said, "This is just like WIZARD OF WOR!" He said, "Yeah, it is." I can't remember if he had an explanation, or had read an explanation, of why the name was changed. That was my only experience with the Astrocade. I loved the controller. To this day, it is still one of my favorite controllers. I love the trigger thing, and I love the combination of a joystick and a paddle in one knob on top of it. I didn't see another Astrocade until I started hanging out with you again in '97. It figures that you were able to collect all of that amazing stuff because you worked at Goodwill.
Adam: I didn't use that to my advantage.
Chris: [sarcastically] I'm sure you didn't!
Adam: I wasn't allowed to do that.
Chris: Yeah, well, I'm sure you didn't steal it...
Chris: But I mean, come on!, you probably made note of what came in.
Adam: There was actually a rule that I had to follow. When anything came in, it had to sit on the shelves for 24 hours before it could be purchased by an employee. That didn't mean we had to show everyone where it was, but it had to be out. And, that was true: it was out. That didn't mean we said... (because there were people that came in every single day, just like I used to like to go around too). It would be on the shelf, but that didn't mean it would be right on the front shelf, saying, "Buy me please, Atari game collector." It was in the store somewhere!
Chris: You put it in the back, near the electric pencil sharpener!
Adam: No, I didn't hide it either. I didn't want to get in trouble.
Chris: Nah. I know. Adam had an original Odyssey with all of the layover-- the "layovers?" With all the airplane stops. No, with all the overlays.
Chris: Which, is pretty amazing! You had an Odyssey, with original 1972 Magnavox console, with everything else: an Intellivision, he had an Odyssey 2 (with boxed QUEST FOR THE RINGS)... and...
Adam: I had 43 different systems.
Chris: Holy cow!
Adam: I am so glad that I don't have that anymore!
Chris: That is a lot for an apartment.
Adam: So, now I have a few left.
Chris: Yes, folks, he does have an Astrocade.
Adam: I do.
Chris: He does have all of the original cartridge games for it. I think you got all of them?
Adam: I had them, but now I have a multicart. I got rid of most of them. I feel... I kept some of my favorites. I kept my prototypes.
Chris: Which is cool. Obviously, you have WAR and CRAZY CLIMBER.
Chris: THE INCREDIBLE WIZARD.
Adam: I think, I have number 2's, because the programmer got number 1's.
Chris: That's pretty cool.
Adam: Yeah. But, honestly, I don't care about the numbers on them. They were hand numbered, because collector seem to like that. Personally, since I did the numbering, I found it annoying.
Chris: Well, there were fifty sold?
Adam: There were fifty each. Yeah. There was a run of 20 for WAR, because we didn't have any cartridge shells. We got more, and we did the second run. The run of CRAZY CLIMBER was always 50. It was released all at once.
Chris: You have number two, and [sarcastically], that's a collectors item..
Chris: ...if anyone knew what it was.
Adam: I should have got number 0! Think of this, this episode is a collector's item already!
Chris: You taught me a great deal about the Astrocade and how it worked. You've told me some things that I just find... so cool. Like, you had to use the screen for code, because part of your available RAM was the Screen RAM, right? (And still is.)
Adam: Under BASIC, that's correct.
Chris: That's how I became even more interested in the Bally Arcade/Astrocade.
Adam: We are about finished wrapping things up here. Just for the last few things to say. We are going to have an episode every two weeks (or so). So, that would be bimonthly. I hope you guys... if you have any ideas that you want to come up with, will send in some feedback. If we get no feedback by the first one, that's okay... because we expect... a couple of people... to listen to this.
Chris: Thanks for listening, and thanks for inviting me along, Adam.
Adam: Good to have ya!
[End of Astrocast #0 Transcription]