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The Astrocade Turns 40!

40-year anniversary

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#1 ballyalley OFFLINE  

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Posted Tue Feb 6, 2018 10:44 AM

The first Bally Home Library Computer Arcade finally shipped and arrived in people's hands in late January 1978.  Many of these people who got their units had ordered their system from a three-page JS&A ad that appeared in the September 1977 issue of Scientific American.

 

Happy birthday, Astrocade!

 

The Bally is now 40 years old and we're still fiddling around with it.  Good for us!

If anyone has any stories to tell about the Astrocade (especially if you got your system in 1978 or for your birthday!), then I'd love to hear your tales!

Oh, and if you're curious, you can see the first ad for Bally system, here:

http://www.ballyalle...(Sept 1977).pdf

The advertisement ran in B&W in the original September 1977 ad, but JS&A's 1977 catalog has the ad in full color, here:

http://www.ballyalle...1977)_color.pdf

The Astrocade is dead; long live the Astrocade!

Adam



#2 Place Logo Here OFFLINE  

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Posted Tue Feb 6, 2018 11:24 AM

Great post. I only finally got into Astrocade last year and it immediately stunned me. An awesome, and vastly underrated, system.

#3 sparkdrummer OFFLINE  

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Posted Thu Feb 8, 2018 7:29 AM

I got my first Astrocade many years ago from Montgomery Wards - They were dumping them and I paid $50.00. I should have bought them out but who knew?



#4 ubersaurus OFFLINE  

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Posted Thu Feb 8, 2018 7:55 PM

I picked mine up back in 2015 (in late January actually) when someone was selling a boxed Astrocade on Craiglist for about 100 bucks with a handful of games and one controller. I was a bit wary when the guy was being weird about meeting up, but sure enough he had the goods and it tested just fine! Promptly added heatsinks to it and now run it sitting on a laptop cooler, and it's been humming along just fine since. I really dig it - not only does it have the comfiest controllers of its day, but it very much reminds me of a Neo Geo: the Cadillac console of its time. Great machine, and I'm glad I've got one that works for however long that is!



#5 BassGuitari OFFLINE  

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Posted Sat Feb 10, 2018 11:29 AM

The Astrocade was pretty well before my time; I never even heard of it until I started researching retro systems in the mid '90s. I finally added one to my collection about 10 years ago when I got one from jboypacman--I don't remember if I was specifically looking for one at the time, but items from that era always interested me and it was a really good deal, so I took him up on it. I was very impressed by it--the combination paddle/joystick pistol-grip controllers, the graphics resolution (if not necessarily the color palette), the sound, four controller jacks, built-in games which were good enough to be cartridge releases, the keyboard (such as it is), BASIC programmability, hot-swappable cartridges, even just the look of the thing...everything about it seemed so deluxe and innovative for its time. "Cadillac Console" is a good descriptor.

 

I remember thinking that if it only had the Atari's colors and a little more support (or smarter distribution), the system should have dominated the market.

 

That system died some time later (in storage, no less) and I eventually gave it away as parts to a collector friend. I bought a second one around that time which was advertised as working but came DOA. Some time later, I was actually straight-up given a beautiful, tested, working Astrocade by a different collector friend who was downsizing (he had been running it at MGC for years, never had an issue with it)--I removed the RF shielding as a precaution, as conventional wisdom dictated, and it stopped working after that. That one still burns me up to this day when I think about it. Now I'm on my fourth, and it works, and I'm not opening it up for anything...not even to replace the power brick with the chipped-off shell. :twisted:



#6 ballyalley OFFLINE  

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Posted Sat Feb 10, 2018 1:13 PM

I was very impressed by [the Astrocade--] if not necessarily the color palette [...] I remember thinking that if it only had the Atari's colors [...[ the system should have dominated the market.

 

First off, you have a great history with the Astrocade, thanks for giving your background with the console.

 

I'm a little surprised to hear that you are down on the Astrocade's color palette.  It has access to 256 colors, while an NTSC Atari VCS has access to "only" 128 colors.  Maybe you don't like that the Astrocade can only display eight colors on the screen at once?  I hope not, as then you're probably really disappointed that it usually is limited to six color onscreen (and sometimes even four colors).  This just depends on how the game is programmed.  Like the early Atari 2600 games, the early Astrocade games use less colors.  This color limitation is just the basics of how the system works.  Even the "Nutting Manual," written in 1977, explains that more colors can be put on screen by manipulating the color registers on the fly (just like on the Atari 2600).  The trouble with the Astrocade's limited colors is that only a few games took advantage of changing the color registers while the game was being played; here are a couple examples of that:

 

The third-party game, Treasure Cove, uses more colors for the title screen:



The homebrew game War is a good example of using extra colors on the screen during gameplay (the castles look really nice in this game!):



Having defended the Astrocade's allowance of extra colors on the screen at the same time, I also tend to agree that, for the most part and with most games, the Astrocade does have limited colors.  It is that way... but it doesn't have to be that way.

 

Adam



#7 BassGuitari OFFLINE  

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Posted Sat Feb 10, 2018 3:14 PM

 

First off, you have a great history with the Astrocade, thanks for giving your background with the console.

 

I'm a little surprised to hear that you are down on the Astrocade's color palette.  It has access to 256 colors, while an NTSC Atari VCS has access to "only" 128 colors.  Maybe you don't like that the Astrocade can only display eight colors on the screen at once?  I hope not, as then you're probably really disappointed that it usually is limited to six color onscreen (and sometimes even four colors).  This just depends on how the game is programmed.  Like the early Atari 2600 games, the early Astrocade games use less colors.  This color limitation is just the basics of how the system works.  Even the "Nutting Manual," written in 1977, explains that more colors can be put on screen by manipulating the color registers on the fly (just like on the Atari 2600).  The trouble with the Astrocade's limited colors is that only a few games took advantage of changing the color registers while the game was being played; here are a couple examples of that:

Having defended the Astrocade's allowance of extra colors on the screen at the same time, I also tend to agree that, for the most part and with most games, the Astrocade does have limited colors.  It is that way... but it doesn't have to be that way.

 

Adam

 

I'm not necessarily "down" on its palettes, and I certainly wouldn't say I'm disappointed by it in any way--I've owned Astrocades for over a decade and have been impressed with it since the first time I played it. It's just that if you compare, say, Brickyard on the Bally and Breakout on the Atari...Breakout feels like a breath of fresh air.

 

Whatever it's technically capable of is irrelevant when we're talking about how it was actually used in practice, though. But despite its limited palettes, I still think that, as a game system overall, the Astrocade holds its own against the Atari VCS, and even the Intellivision. It's too bad that the Bally sort of fizzled out and went underground while those two were hitting their strides. It would be fascinating to see what a developer like Imagic or Parker Bros. would have been able to do with it.

 

Treasure Cove is a nice game. I'm glad I grabbed one of the repros Bah was selling a while back. :)



#8 ubersaurus OFFLINE  

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Posted Mon Feb 12, 2018 9:34 AM

The Astrocade was pretty well before my time; I never even heard of it until I started researching retro systems in the mid '90s. I finally added one to my collection about 10 years ago when I got one from jboypacman--I don't remember if I was specifically looking for one at the time, but items from that era always interested me and it was a really good deal, so I took him up on it. I was very impressed by it--the combination paddle/joystick pistol-grip controllers, the graphics resolution (if not necessarily the color palette), the sound, four controller jacks, built-in games which were good enough to be cartridge releases, the keyboard (such as it is), BASIC programmability, hot-swappable cartridges, even just the look of the thing...everything about it seemed so deluxe and innovative for its time. "Cadillac Console" is a good descriptor.

 

I remember thinking that if it only had the Atari's colors and a little more support (or smarter distribution), the system should have dominated the market.

 

That system died some time later (in storage, no less) and I eventually gave it away as parts to a collector friend. I bought a second one around that time which was advertised as working but came DOA. Some time later, I was actually straight-up given a beautiful, tested, working Astrocade by a different collector friend who was downsizing (he had been running it at MGC for years, never had an issue with it)--I removed the RF shielding as a precaution, as conventional wisdom dictated, and it stopped working after that. That one still burns me up to this day when I think about it. Now I'm on my fourth, and it works, and I'm not opening it up for anything...not even to replace the power brick with the chipped-off shell. :twisted:

It's kind of wild you had such issues with your systems - the one I got, I removed the RF shield and heat-sinked the chips and it didn't mind at all! I wonder if there was a static component to the one that died or something. That said, even with those precautions I only run it while sitting on a laptop cooler - just touching the panel next to the keypad I can feel a dramatic difference in heat buildup with the cooler running.



#9 ls650 OFFLINE  

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Posted Mon Feb 12, 2018 2:26 PM

I've never seen an Astrocade in the flesh: I wouldn't mind picking one up, but not at eBay prices!

 

I guess I'll just have to settle for MAME emulation.  It does have some pretty good game!



#10 ballyalley OFFLINE  

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Posted Mon Feb 12, 2018 2:45 PM

I've never seen an Astrocade in the flesh: I wouldn't mind picking one up, but not at eBay prices!


 I hope that you get to use one someday; they're a fun machine.  I don't mind ebay prices for the Astrocade-- as long as the console works.
 

I guess I'll just have to settle for MAME emulation.  It does have some pretty good game!


The MAME emulation of the Astrocade is pretty good.  Nearly all cartridges work fine.  Notably, you can't play any cartridge that must be hot-swapped (and there are quite a few of these, although none were official releases).  When using MAME, you do also miss out on the Astrocade's unique controller design, which allows for digital and analog control at the same time.  Some games make serious use of this controller design, and these games are nearly impossible to play without an Astrocade controller.  For instance, the built-in game, Gunfight, isn't any fun playing with a mouse and keyboard, but it's great on the real hardware.

 

There are two big parts of the Astrocade experience that you miss in MAME emulation.  The first is that you can't hot-swap cartridges, a feature that many "BASICarts" use.  The second missing feature is that you can't load or save to tape via "AstroBASIC" 2000-baud interface or the the 300-baud interface.  The 300-baud tape interface should be relatively "easy" to add to the MAME emulator because the 300-baud interface uses KCS (Kansas City Standard), which MAME already supports on other platforms.  Without the ability to load programs into BASIC, the Astrocade emulation user is missing out on a library of hundreds of titles, some of which are really very good.

 

Adam



#11 mckafka99 OFFLINE  

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Posted Mon Feb 12, 2018 7:57 PM

Just wanted to throw out a reminder in this thread that there is the Astro-daptor which works like a charm, allowing use of the Astrocade controller on a PC.

#12 ubersaurus OFFLINE  

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Posted Tue Feb 13, 2018 2:39 PM

 I hope that you get to use one someday; they're a fun machine.  I don't mind ebay prices for the Astrocade-- as long as the console works.
 


The MAME emulation of the Astrocade is pretty good.  Nearly all cartridges work fine.  Notably, you can't play any cartridge that must be hot-swapped (and there are quite a few of these, although none were official releases).  When using MAME, you do also miss out on the Astrocade's unique controller design, which allows for digital and analog control at the same time.  Some games make serious use of this controller design, and these games are nearly impossible to play without an Astrocade controller.  For instance, the built-in game, Gunfight, isn't any fun playing with a mouse and keyboard, but it's great on the real hardware.

 

There are two big parts of the Astrocade experience that you miss in MAME emulation.  The first is that you can't hot-swap cartridges, a feature that many "BASICarts" use.  The second missing feature is that you can't load or save to tape via "AstroBASIC" 2000-baud interface or the the 300-baud interface.  The 300-baud tape interface should be relatively "easy" to add to the MAME emulator because the 300-baud interface uses KCS (Kansas City Standard), which MAME already supports on other platforms.  Without the ability to load programs into BASIC, the Astrocade emulation user is missing out on a library of hundreds of titles, some of which are really very good.

 

Adam

gotta be honest, I didn't even know hot swapping was a safe thing to do on the Bally. Also kind of surprising the BASIC wav files aren't emulated properly - I feel like a dedicated astrocade emulator may be in order.



#13 Rob Mitchell OFFLINE  

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Posted Thu Feb 15, 2018 2:50 AM

I just reread the 1977 ad .. JS&A makes the future sound so cool! I wonder about the diagnostic cart which they promised to send out ..

#14 Mezmaron OFFLINE  

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Posted Tue Feb 20, 2018 10:22 PM

I still have some love for the Astrocade, even though I no longer own one and don't actively collect games anymore. I first caught sight of one in an early 80's issue of "Games" magazine, which was primarily a magazine for puzzle games, but had a special issue where they were showcasing what was going on with video games. (the same article also showed the Starpath Supercharger, which I think was still being called the "Arcadia Supercharger" at that point.) This was the only time I ever saw one growing up, since I live in a rural area and game systems that didn't get hugely popular were usually even less known in small towns, but I always remembered those odd controllers and wondered what they were all about.

 

Fast-forward to the early 90's, when I was in my early 20's and started collecting old games and computers. One reason I got into it was to find the best home versions of the arcade games I loved growing up, and also to play all the other game systems and such that I didn't get to growing up since I only ever had a Coleco Gemini/2600. I came across one for cheap at a flea market with a couple of controllers and some games, the Bally Professional Arcade version with the "Bally Home Computer" tag. For the most part it worked great, although you had to be careful not to bump it while playing since you stood a chance of resetting the game or glitching out the graphics. The controller cables were also in sad shape and worn where they went into the controllers, making it necessary to have to take them apart and cut some of the cable off and re-solder fresher wires to the contacts. That was also risky business, since the boards and contacts seemed a bit fragile. The was really blown away by games such as the port of Wizard of Wor of course, and also Artillery Duel, and I also loved the unique sound effects and music it put out. I also spent a fair amount of time with the Scribble program, fantasizing about and making screens of games I wished were ported to the system and how they might look.

 

Over the course of the 90's while I was still actively collecting and hitting up flea markets I came across a few more games here and there, along with another system that was in better shape. One of the cartridges I found was Treasure Cove, which I could not get to work for the longest time and assumed it was shot, not to mention how hard it was to actually get into the slot. One day while messing around a bit I got the title screen to come up and realized that the case was just warped in a way that wouldn't allow the pins to make proper contact. I ended up cannibalizing another cart to put the TC board in, and it worked and I was blown away by the music, even though the game was tough and got old after a while.

 

In the early 2000's I had a perfect storm of getting somewhat disinterested in collecting due to emulation, needing some extra money, and the realization that my musty basement was going to eventually ruin my collection, so I opted to start selling. I sold the better Astrocade unit and most of my games on eBay, along with loads of other stuff I had. I hung on to the original one until a few years ago, after getting into a band where the drummer was a collector. I made him a deal on the Astrocade, tested it out, and it proceeded to quit working when he tried to fire it up when he got it home. I have it back in my possession and would love to fix it and give it back to him if I could figure out what's wrong with it; it has the black screen of death, and I can find nothing visibly wrong inside of it. (this is actually part of what brought me here- there was a comment on a post on the AtariAge Facebook page where someone mentioned someone here that fixes them?)

 

An interesting note in my years of collecting- there was a local TV shop in my town that was around for ages, and in the early 90's the owner decided to put a few arcade games in part of his shop. One day while looking around I happened to notice buried in his clutter of TV stuff behind the counter was 2 or 3 boxed and sealed Astrocades! I practically begged him to sell me one of them, and he refused, saying he would want too much for them but would never give me a price. He said he had them since the late 70's/early 80's and was given them to sell from one of his vendors- I can't remember for sure, he was primarily a Philips/Magnavox dealer, but for some reason I think he said it had something to do with Zenith? Anyway, sadly, I wasn't in the financial shape to be able to make him a good offer, and years later he passed away.

 

Like with many failed gaming systems, I still look at the Astrocade and think of what could have been. You would think with all of the Bally/Midway-badged arcade games at the time, they could have ported a lot more arcade games for it. Especially Gorf! Seems like part of the problem may have been being stretched too thin with the popular idea at the time of making add-ons to turn a gaming console into a home computer.


Edited by Mezmaron, Tue Feb 20, 2018 10:24 PM.


#15 ballyalley OFFLINE  

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Posted Wed Feb 21, 2018 11:05 AM

I have [the Astrocade] back in my possession and would love to fix it [,,,[ there was a comment on a post on the AtariAge Facebook page where someone mentioned someone here that fixes them?)

 
What a great story!  Thanks for sharing!  If (when?) I ever get around to making another episode of the Astrocast podcast, would it be okay if I read your story on there?

Allen Schweitzer is the person who now works on getting dead Astrocades up and running again.  He gets help from Ken Lill.  You can contact Allen at:

http://atariage.com/...len-schweitzer/

Michael Matte has also written a very detailed troubleshooting guide which he submitted to me just a few days ago.  Ken is looking it over now to see if he sees anything that needs to be revised.

Adam



#16 ballyalley OFFLINE  

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Posted Wed Feb 21, 2018 11:19 AM

I first caught sight of one in an early 80's issue of "Games" magazine, which was primarily a magazine for puzzle games, but had a special issue where they were showcasing what was going on with video games. (the same article also showed the Starpath Supercharger, which I think was still being called the "Arcadia Supercharger" at that point.)


The article that you're talking about is called Private Screenings: The GAMES Guide to Home Video Games, by Phil Wiswell.  It was published in the December 1982 issue of GAMES magazine.  Page 38 of the magazine (page two of the article) has the Astrocade system on it:

 

Private Screenings Guide (Mail Order Service)(Phil Wiswell)_Page_38_Cropped.jpg

 

I uploaded my scan of the magazine to Archive.org on August 23, 2017.  You can view the 16-page article, here:
 

https://archive.org/...1982PhilWiswell

 

This is one of my most favorite articles that I've archived; I'm glad that someone saw this article when it was new.  I never saw it until I came across the ripped-out pages that were part of the Bob Fabris collection.  GAMES magazine was a cool magazine; I also read it in the early 1980s.  I think it's still around today, but its current coverage of the Astrocade and Atari has somewhat diminished.

 

Adam



#17 Mezmaron OFFLINE  

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Posted Sun Feb 25, 2018 12:04 PM

 
What a great story!  Thanks for sharing!  If (when?) I ever get around to making another episode of the Astrocast podcast, would it be okay if I read your story on there?

 

 

Yes, you may!

 

The article that you're talking about is called Private Screenings: The GAMES Guide to Home Video Games, by Phil Wiswell.  It was published in the December 1982 issue of GAMES magazine.  Page 38 of the magazine (page two of the article) has the Astrocade system on it:


 

This is one of my most favorite articles that I've archived; I'm glad that someone saw this article when it was new.  I never saw it until I came across the ripped-out pages that were part of the Bob Fabris collection.  GAMES magazine was a cool magazine; I also read it in the early 1980s.  I think it's still around today, but its current coverage of the Astrocade and Atari has somewhat diminished.

 

Adam

 

Wow, thanks for that! I was just about to try searching around online for the article; great to see it again! I think when I picked that issue up, I was mainly thirsty for a video gaming magazine, and thought it was all about that. Wasn't there also a full-page ad for the Supercharger in that issue? I seem to remember that, but it could have been in another magazine from that era that I seen it in. Outside of that, the only other place I ever saw the Astrocade mentioned was in an old hardcover book I found when I first started collecting, I believe it was "The Complete Guide To Conquering Video Games".

 

Also, thanks for pointing me to the contact info for the guys that do Astrocade repairs. I'm going to keep an eye out for that new troubleshooting guide you mentioned, and perhaps contact Allen if that guide doesn't help me.

 

I meant to say that my old system had the "Bally Computer System" badge instead of "Bally Home Computer". It had Bally BASIC with the cassette port on it, so it was likely it was one of the ones that came bundled with that cartridge. Unfortunately at some point I dropped something on the smoke cover and it shattered, and I never was able to get it glued back together nicely. I actually thought I remembered it as saying "Bally Professional Arcade" on the badge, but I guess they never badged them like that, so I was remembering it incorrectly.



#18 Mezmaron OFFLINE  

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Posted Thu Mar 15, 2018 7:07 PM

Any word on when that new troubleshooting guide will be posted?






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