Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Ultimate (So Far) History of Exidy - Part 3

Exidy's new  plant - 1976

Robot Bowl
Death Race was followed by a number of less morbid games. Alley Rally (July, 1976) was a 1 or 2-player racing game in the mold of Atari's Sprint 2 in which the player raced around a figure-8 track while avoiding four drone cards that moved in an unpredictable manner. The game was apparently too tame for kids who’d cut their teeth on its more violent predecessor[1]. Attack (September, 1976) was a two-player jet vs. ship combat game. 1977 saw the release of the hit Robot Bowl, perhaps the most popular of the many video versions of bowling that appeared during the late '70s. One or two players could compete in 10 frames of video bowling. Two buttons allowed them to move their “robot” left and right and another rolled the ball. After the ball was released, the player could make it hook left or right. Strikes were greeted with a “yea” and gutter balls with a “boo!” In two-player games, one frame at would be a “beer frame” (a suggestion of the many league bowlers at Exidy) in which a waitress was chased across the screen by a ball-wielding bowler. At the time Exidy was working on the game, Sunnyvale rivals Meadows Games was hard at work on a bowling game of their own (Meadows Lanes) and Exidy had to work hard to beat them to market. Robot Bowl also featured an interesting cabinet design, though the innovation was a result of necessity being the mother of invention

[Michael Cooper-Hart] Howell had come up with Robot Bowl which was a fun game to do. It had a beer frame in it where the waitress comes across with a beer on a tray. We needed to get into production quickly. We had bought a company called Fun Games and they had a bunch of inventory over in Oakland. They had these cabinets, which cost us maybe a third of what we would normally pay. The problem was they were for a driving game and they had a hole in the middle of the front panel for a gas pedal with no pedal in it. So I brought this cabinet back over, I think there were 300 of them over there. I set it down and said to Hal “Why don’t we make the hole the ball return”. So we just silk-screened above the hole “Ball Return” and we were in production a week later.

Robot Bowl featured, once again, the work of Howell Ivy who, during Exidy’s early years, was one of the leading forces among a small group of designers. Ivy would go on to produce a number of minor classics of the 1970s but his name is rarely listed among the ranks of the great coin-op designers.

Exidy manufacturing area - circa early 1976

            Perhaps most importantly, Robot Bowl had another feature that previous Exidy games had lacked – a microprocessor. At the time, the use of microprocessors in video games was still somewhat innovative and Exidy’s designers were unsure that they would work. To prove it, Ivy had to purchase a MOS Technologies 6502 out of his own pocket. Ivy had been masterful when it came to creating hardware-based, TTL games, often creating new game variants (such as the unreleased Spiders From Space[2]) within a few weeks or even days of starting. With the rise of the microprocessor, however, game design began to change from a hardware to a software-oriented process.
Marquee from the unreleased Spiders From Space


1977 also saw the release of another Howell Ivy creation that would go on to be Exidy’s biggest hit of the decade (easily eclipsing Death Race) and one of the classics of the pre-Space Invaders era. Circus was co-designed by Ivy and Edward Valleau and inspired by the Atari smash hit Breakout. Three rows of balloons (colored blue, green, and yellow via cellophane tape overlay) moved across the top of the screen.  Gameplay was simple - break all the balloons. Rather than a ball and paddle, however, Circus featured a teeter-totter with a clown at one end. Two platforms jutted from each side of the screen and at the start of a game, a second clown would leap from one of the platforms and plummet towards the ground. The player would then try to position the empty end of the teeter-totter under the clown, propelling his counterpart upwards toward the waiting balloons. Hitting the teeter-totter near the end generated maximum momentum and, as in Breakout, if the player shot a clown through a gap in the balloons, it would bounce around breaking balloons while the player racked up point after point. Bursting all of the blue balloons in the top row awarded a bonus and beating the game’s high score awarded a free game. Circus was also billed as the first video game to include music created through software, rather than via a built-in 8-track tape cartridge.
Introduced at the 1977 AMOA show, Circus was a smash hit. It became Exidy’s biggest seller and established them as a major player in the video market. At its peak, 100 units were being sold every day as the production run topped 13,000. Some sources state that as many as 20,000 were built. Exidy was still a relatively small company. Their plant didn't have enough space to store completed Circus units and a number of them had to be kept in the parking lot outside (Exidy hired a guard to keep watch over them). The game was also licensed to Bally/Midway who released their own version called Clowns[3]. Perhaps the best-know version of the game was Circus Atari for the Atari 2600. As with Death Race, a follow-up game (Trapeze) failed to match the success of the original.
      Storage wasn't the only problem Exidy had in the early years. Parts shortages were another. Exidy couldn't afford to shut down production and wait for the parts to arrive so instead they built them without the needed part and stored them until it arrived. At one point they were waiting for a shipment of power supplies and had to stack the nearly completed games on top of one another on their sides to make room for more.
            While Exidy’s other early efforts may not have matched Circus in terms of success, a number of them surpassed it in technical innovation. Car Polo (1977) was one such game. Like Destruction Derby and Death Race, Car Polo was a driving game with a unique twist. The players used cars to push a ball towards the opponent’s goal (like polo with cars replacing the horses). Car Polo most distinctive feature, however, was that it was Exidy’s first true color game (previous games had achieved color via tinted overlays) and one of the industry's earliest games to compbine color and a microprocessor.

The most offbeat 1977 effort was Score – a game that ads referred to as “The Love Machine”. Oddly, the game was actually another extension of the Destruction Derby concept with the cars replaced by bar patrons. Set in a singles bar, the object of the game was to “score” with as many members of the opposite sex as possible. When the onscreen Lothario made contact with the object of his (or her) affections, a heart appeared on screen. A cocktail version of the game came in a heart-shaped cabinet.  For those who weren’t satisfied with the mere thrill of conquest, Exidy also built an optional dispenser that could be attached to the game belching out tokens in response to high “score”s. Despite the innovative concept, amorous bar patrons understandably preferred the real thing and the game failed to catch fire.

            With the success of hits like Death Race, Robot Bowl, and Circus, Exidy was steadily becoming a major player in the U.S. videogame market. One reason for this success may have been the company’s open game design process. Anyone could submit game ideas (Michael Cooper-Hart had even created a series of blank storyboards that they could fill in) and even people on the production lines made suggestions. Periodically these ideas were gathered and the design staff would head of to Pajaro Dunes (a favorite haunt of Atari’s designers) or some other location for 2-3 days of intense discussion and planning. At the end, various game ideas would be listed and the design staff would vote on them, then Pete Kauffman would make the final decision as to which games would be produced.

[1] Some sources indicate that Exidy released a game called Alley Death Derby that consisted of Alley Rally cabinets modified to accept Death Race boards, but sources at Exidy deny that such a game ever existed. The source of this rumor appears to have been a posting on the rec.games.video.arcade.collecting newsgroup.
[2] Since Exidy was a relatively small manufacturer, they couldn’t afford to scrap many games once they’d been developed, so  “unreleased” games like Spiders From Space were rare
[3] Reportedly, a legal dispute arose between the companies over the game.


  1. Just curious where you got those Circus sales figures from, because I have seen that number floating around the Internet in a few places, but never seen a primary source giving a total. Not doubting or anything, just curious.

    1. The 13,000 figure came from an interview I did with Paul Jacobs in January, 2002)
      I'm pretty sure I've seen it elsewhere, though. I'm not sure about the 20,000 figure.
      Unfotunately, back when I started collecing info, I didn't always note my sources for production runs. At the time I wasn't planning on including it, plus I felt that the numbers were so unreliable anyway (I am now much more careful about documenting production number sources).

      I may have gotten it from Pete Kauffman or it may have come from an article in Gameroom magazine from the 2000-2010 period (I have digitized versions of all the Gameroom issues so I may try and find it).

      The Pete Kauffman interview was by phone and I threw out all my interview tapes some time back (including Larry Rosenthal). Yes, stupid I know, but at one point I had dropped the book entirely and wasn't planning on picking it up again (sometimes I wonder if that wasn't the right decision).
      I did take notes on the interviews and transcribed the parts I wanted to, but I wish I'd kept the original tapes.
      Of course, Pete Kauffman is a very soft-spoken fellow and I'm a lousy interviewer so that one was pretty short.
      I interviewed Paul Jacobs by e-mail. Thankfully, I kept all of those.

    2. Hey you made the right choice reviving the book project. It may not make you rich but researching and archiving history is a very valuable service for future generations. How are people supposed to learn from past mistakes and not repeat them if they aren't properly documented? Just gotta keep it all in perspective.

  2. My name is Larry Hutcherson. I was there when Exidy started in 1974, and I was there when it closed in 1989. Few people know as much about it as I. Pete recently passed away. He will be missed.

    1. Indeed! I hope Keith saw this and made contact with you. RIP Pete.