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Atari: The Golden Years -- A History, 1978-1981

August 21, 2008 Article Start Previous Page 9 of 20 Next

1979: Pinball

Atari's struggling pinball division started 1979 with the release of Hercules in January, the largest pinball machine ever manufactured. It stood seven feet tall, was eight feet long, and used (what resembled) pool cue balls in place of steel pin balls.

As you might imagine, while the machine was certainly a spectacle, the action was not all it could have been.

"I was always intrigued by Hercules...and I still am. I try play it when I go to the Redondo Beach Fun Factory (one of the only places that still has an operating version of the game). While it certainly is an 'experience', I can't say it is actually fun to play."

-Steve Fulton (Atari Fan)

The last official Atari pinball machine was Superman, announced in March 1979, and licensed from the movie. The game was significantly successful, selling nearly 3,500 units. lxxxiv

In fact, Atari simply could not produce enough units to fill demand. However, when that license was lost, the machine was re-named and re-themed as Solar War and Orion XIV. Neither of these machines ever saw an arcade.

"Atari pinball machines were disasters, but they were also artistic masterpieces. I mean, we worked day and night, seven days a week on Superman, which was the state of the art, and then it got killed. That's probably something I never really forgave the corporation for." lxxxv

- Noah Anglin, Atari engineering VP

Without Bushnell pushing to innovate in the pinball area, the division soon descended into chaos. Atari simply did not have the manufacturing experience to produce pinball games reliably.

"Bally could have produced in two weeks what took us four months, which is why we dropped out of pinball in 1979." lxxxvi

- Don Osborne

Not soon after, the division was closed completely, leaving multiple machines, including Road Runner, 4x4, Monza and Neutron Star all unreleased.

"It was a mess, but we pulled the plug too soon." lxxxvii

- Gene Lipkin

1979: The Rise Of The Arcade

After the massive success of Space Invaders in 1978, the Atari coin-op division was desperately trying to gain back its reputation as the king of the arcades. Atari had dabbled in space-themed games in the past, but for the most part it had stuck to realistic driving and war concepts. However with Space Invaders literally invading Atari's territory, the company had to respond with something very special.

The engineers at Atari's Grass Valley facility had been tinkering with a vector image generator since they had seen one used by Cinematronics' Space War game in 1977. Atari coin-op engineer Howard Delman was tasked with taking the Grass Valley prototype and perfecting it for use in a game.

"The original architecture for Atari's vector generator came out of the Grass Valley group. They built a prototype of a system that could display vectors on an appropriate monitor. It wasn't ready for production, but it did clearly demonstrate the viability of their ideas." lxxxviii

- Howard Delman

Unlike pixel-based bit-mapped raster graphics, vector images were created by defining points that could be joined with solid lines. While this gave games a "skeleton" feel, mostly because the images could not be filled with color, it made up for it with sharper images, with a then unheard-of 1024 x 768 resolution visuals.

"Vector graphics -- sometimes called XY graphics -- were great for video games because they provided very high resolution, razor sharp images in a day when 200 x 180 pixels was considered 'hi-res'. Atari designed and built all its own game hardware, have it we did, thanks to some very clever engineering by Lyle Rains, Howie Delman, and others at Atari.'" lxxxix

- Owen R. Rubin

After developing a working vector generator, a monitor was required to display the images. Rick Moncrief and Howard Delman combined their efforts to continue to create a working system.

"At the same time, Rick Moncrief was working on the display. (I don't know if he started from scratch, or was provided a preliminary design from Grass Valley.) Rick and I worked together, since our respective elements had to work together in any finished product." xc

- Howard Delman

The hardware was ready to be programmed by 1978, and the team needed a game concept to test. Howard Delman chose the game Lunar Lander, itself a mainframe computer game much like Computer Space. In Lunar Lander, the player attempted to tweak thrust and angle, formulating the proper velocity to land a lunar module on a rocky moonscape.

"Of course, a finished product needed to include a game, and so I was made project leader for Atari's first vector graphic game. I decided to go with the classic vector game, Lunar Lander. Rich Moore was assigned the task of writing to software. Over the next year (roughly 1978), Rick, Rich, and I developed (the game), and the final product was Lunar Lander." xci

- Howard Delman

Lunar Lander was released in August 1979, and while it was only a modest success (4,830 units manufactured, and sold for $1695 each xcii), the design of the game intrigued the other engineers and designers in the coin-op division. Even before Lunar Lander was released, another vector-based game was already in development.

"As the design of the hardware and game progressed, other engineers became interested in using it. A team composed of Lyle Rains, Ed Logg, and Steve Callfee had been working for some time on a traditional raster game called Planet Grab. As Lunar Lander took shape in the lab, they asked about using the hardware for their game, which would eventually be released under the name Asteroids." xciii

- Howard Delman

When the Asteroids coin-op was finally released in November 1979, arcade operators were skeptical, but it took the arcade by storm anyway.

During its run, it was Atari's biggest selling game (at about 55,000 units xciv) and unseated Space Invaders in the mindshare of the rabid and rapidly growing legions of players showing up in arcades across the U.S. as the best space game available.

"Asteroids surpassed Space Invaders. That's when the business community started to think that maybe video games were not flukes." xcv

- Don Osborne

It's interesting to note that, much like some of Atari's advances in hardware from the past (i.e. discrete logic), Atari's vector hardware was took a step back in technology to realize gains for successful production.

In the case of vector graphics, it was Howard Delman who redesigned the hardware from digital to analog circuitry, inventing a hardware design that would help Atari rule the golden age of arcades.

"The original vector generator hardware that was used in Lunar Lander and Asteroids was almost completely digital. It became clear to me that a vector generator was one place where analog circuitry could outperform digital in cost and efficiency. I redesigned a portion of the hardware to replace digital components with analog circuitry, and the analog vector generator was born. Although the player in the arcade wouldn't know the difference, the change shrunk the size of the circuit board, and lowered its cost. ." xcvi

-Howard Delman

Besides the vector games, Atari released other arcade games in 1979. In an attempt build on the success of Football in 1978, Atari created the Atari Sports label to market its games. The first Atari sports game released was Baseball, in May 1979 -- 1050 units were manufactured and sold for $1595 each. xcvii Baseball had a similar cabinet and control mechanism to Football. Also developed for Baseball was a voice synthesis unit that was cut before the game went into production.

"The whole idea behind this game was to use the same hardware and cabinet design that was used to make the very successful Atari Football game... We did, however, prototype a voice system for this game that was developed by Dan Pliskin. It used delta-modulation technology and played back a sampled voice saying such things as 'Strike', 'Ball', "Foul', and 'Yer out!' It didn't make it into the final product. I believe that I have the only prototype of this voice unit at home. Even though it never made it into production, it was probably the first voice unit ever put into a coin-op game." xcviii

- Ed Rotberg

As well as Baseball, Basketball and Soccer (programmed by Dave Theurer xcix) other games were also produced under the Atari Sports banner in 1979, including Four Player Football (901 units manufactured and sold for $1995 each c) developed at Grass Valley with help from Ed Logg.

Rounding out the coin-op releases in 1979 were Subs (May) and Video Pinball (March), also programmed by Ed Logg.

"I did not believe Video Pinball would be successful... However, there were places video games could go that large pinball machines could not. In the end, the game earned more than I expected and it was a commercial success." ci

- Ed Logg

There were couple games that remained unreleased from this period, including Sebring, a pseudo first-person color driving game designed by Owen Rubin and engineered by Jed Margolin cii.

The game was finished but a dispute with cabinet manufacturer (and possibly the emergence of better hardware) kept it from being sold. Malibu Grand Prix was also a first-person 3D driving game using the vector hardware. ciii It was scrapped because of hardware limitations.

However, all of this was overshadowed by the phenomenal success of Asteroids, and with it the emergence of Ed Logg as one of Atari's top coin-op designers.

"Ed Logg is the world's greatest games designer. He's done the most, the best games." civ

- Steve Calfee, Atari coin-op designer

With old coin-op standbys either leaving Atari (Joe Decuir) or on the ropes (Al Alcorn, Ed Rotberg), it would take a new generation with the likes of Ed Logg and Dave Theurer to launch Atari coin-op into the next decade.

Article Start Previous Page 9 of 20 Next

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