Sunday, August 26, 2012

Introduction and Cinematronics Early History


I am creating this blog in part to gauge interest in a book I am writing on the history of arcade video games from 1971-1984 and in part to generate more discussion of the history of these games and the industry during that time period.

There are a lot of video game history blogs out there, but few of them seem to concentrate on the history of arcade games during the bronze and golden ages - at least not the way I would like to see. The ones that do cover this area seem more focused on collecting the games than history.

Anyhow, more about the book at the end, but on to the first blog subject - the early years of Cinematronics.

The company has always fascinated me for some reason and there is a good deal of information on it but the years prior to 1977 are hazy at best. The company was founded in 1975 by Jim Pierce, Dennis Partee, and Gary Garrison (the latter two were former San Diego Chargers) - or so goes the story. They supposedly produced a Pong clone in 1975, though no one knows its name and no flyer has turned up. They followed in 1977 with Flipper Ball and Embargo (the latter, designed by Robert Shaver, was their first original concept game).

That's pretty much what was known about them prior to 1977, but what did they do between 1975 and 1977 and what was the name of that alleged Pong game?

I talked to many of the designers from the post 1977 era (including Larry Rosenthal) but never could track down Jim Pierce or anyone who worked there in the early years. Tim Skelly didn't arrive until later (the chapter he wrote for the book Before the Fall says he arrived in 1976 but that's not the date he gave me or gave in other interviews and is clearly too early since they didn't introduce Space War until the 1977 AMOA and Rosenthal left to form Vectorbeam in 1978 and Skelly arrived right after he left).

One of the things that's changed since I dropped the book is the availability of searchable online newspaper archives.

NewspaperArchive.com has back issues of the San Diego Union. A few days ago I was searching their site and found some interesting info about Cinematronics.

At least it's interesting to me - though I'm probably the only one (one of the reasons I'm writing this is to see if anyone else is interested).

The earliest article I found was this ad from the May 21 1975 issue of the Arizona Republic:



Interestingly, it doesn't list Jim Pierce's name. In fact, it looks to me like the ad they used to hire Jim Pierce (though he may have already been involved.

An article in the September 10, 1975 San Diego Union talks about the company, with Pierce referring to himself as "a tractor driver from El Centro".

Also interesting was a February 1976 article from the Union, which reported that their 'tennis' game (no name given - rats) had "become available through a major chain department store" and could now be hooked up to a home television set or purchased in stand-alone cocktail table format."

If this is accurate, it means that Cinematronics made a home game - but I've never seen any reference to it elsewhere.

So, is anyone else interested in this kind of thing?

I will try to make future posts more interesting

The Book

My other main reason for this blog is to gauge interest in my book and see if it's worth finishing or if I should just drop it.

About 15 years ago, I started writing a book tentatively called All In Color For a Quarter: The Definitive History of Arcade Video Games 1971-1984.

While there is a library of video game history books out there, none of them were covering what I wanted to see.

The differences between my book and others was that 1) it was going to focus on the games and the designers and 2) it was going to cover the companies no one else did. The story of Atari has been told and retold time and again and though I plan to include it I also want to tell the story of Cinematronics, Exidy, and even companies like Mirco Games and Meadows Games (the bronze age of the pre-Space Invaders era seems to always get the short shrift).

Anyhow, I combed through volumes of sources, interviewed almost 100 designers and executives from the time and started writing the book. Around 2001 I dropped it for a number of reasons (though I did write some articles for Game Room magazine and supplied information for the Mame history file), but I've recently picked it back up with plans on publishing it as a Kindle book/e-book if nothing else.

There was so much fascinating info I found that I feel I need to get it out there somehow - even if I give it away.

Among the things I can think of off the top of my head:

  • The interview with Larry Rosenthal
  • Ted Michon's account of his years with Digital Games/Micronetics (including the German original that inspired Night Racer, 280 Zzzap, and Night Driver and how he found out about it).
  • Dave Needle's account of his early years designing coin-op games in suitcases independently (including the Star Trek game he created for the Federation Trading Post).
  • A lot of great interviews with most of the staff at Marvin Glass (who designed games for Bally /Midway).
  • How Game Plan could have had the rights to Pac-Man
  • An interview with Bill Pitts, creator of Galaxy Game
  • How Allied Leisure outsold Atari and Midway with their Pongclone Paddle Battle
  • Plenty of game design stories (one of the main reasons I started the book was because I LOVE game design stories).
  • The story of the Simutron Tournament Center - the almost completed ultimate arcade (an early 1980s arcade in San Diego that featured network play in a laserdisc game using footage from Star Trek the Motion Picture).
  • Info on unreleased games like Pitch Man and Earth Friend
  • Appendices including the most complete list of design credits out there for this era, summaries of the Replay popularity charts, production numbers (such as they are, which is to say skimpy and of limited accuracy), a list of games released from 1971-84 (often with approximate month of release), a list of the Arkies and other awards, a list of prototypes (and not just Atari's).
Others I talked to include almost all the major designers at Atari and Gottlieb and a good number of people from Exidy. I also talked to people from Fun Games, Chicago Coin, Elektra Games, Meadows Games, Game Plan, Nintendo of America, Taito America, Gremlin, Simutrek, Stern/URL, Dave Nutting Associates, Arcade Engineering, and Williams. Though I'm still looking for more.

 

4 comments:

  1. Keith, I could hang out with you.. Your not the only one who is fascinated by Cinematronics and a fan of Golden Age arcade games in general.

    I program iOS games, and I have a new iPad App in the works that you might find interesting..

    My website is celtroniclabs.com You'll see that I am more than casually inspired by Cinematronics.

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  2. Keith,

    I realize this is your first entry and it was written many moons ago. It's possible I'll read shortly how the book is in-progress. Nevertheless, I put myself in the "HOLYJEEZUSGODPLEASEPUBLISH" category.

    Thank you.

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  3. very cool blog, I am very interested in this stuff.

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  4. Hi Keith,
    Just discovered your blog, so naturally I'm back at the first article to make sure I don't miss a post. If that's any indication, I think there would be a market for your book. I've got my own ideas for playing and learning about Gaming History, but the work you've already put into it, and the knowledge you already have collected -- well, can't wait to read it.

    Move on forward!

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