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Notes from a 2019 Interview with Jamie Fenton By Adam Trionfo May 3, 2019 I've been listening on and off to "They Create Worlds," a podcast devoted to the history of videogames, for a couple of years now. On April 23, 2019, Kevin Bunch sent me a private message via Atari Age. He said that Alex Smith, one of the two hosts of the podcast, did an interview with Jamie Fenton. Jamie was heavily involved with the creation of the Bally Arcade and programmed Bally BASIC, "Astro BASIC," and the extended BASICs, as well as various other software for the system. Kevin sent me an excerpt of the interview. I asked Alex if I could share this information and on May 2 he gave me the okay. I want to make it clear that Alex Smith and Jamie Fenton are the original source of this information. I am passing along the information as it was given to me via Kevin Bunch. You can listen to the "They Create Worlds" podcast here: http://podcast.theycreateworlds.com/ Alex is writing a book on the history of videogames. I mentioned to him that I didn't expect much coverage of the astrocade. His response surprised me. He said, "While you are correct that the Astrocade will not get a great deal of coverage in my book (though more than you might think as I have 600 pages to tell the story of 1971-81 and try to give everything of note at least some attention), preserving and spreading the history of all facets of the industry is a personal passion of mine." He also said, "I certainly admire your work, which has been invaluable to my own research." It's great that perhaps a little bit of the work that has gone into the archiving of the astrocade by me and others is being disseminated to a wider audience. Kevin told me that Alex spoke to Jamie Fenton specifically about Astrocade software, BASIC, and possibly ZGRASS. I guess he spoke with her a couple of weeks ago, possibly in early April, about the hardware side of things. Kevin went on to say: "Oh, Alex tells me this is actually for the book they're working on, not the podcast (though that could happen at some point). Said in total they have 2 hours of conversations about the Astrocade for this. If there's anything you'd want to share, I suggest reaching out to him at some point - I'm sure he could accommodate to some degree without undermining their manuscript I imagine (or at least give you an idea when the book might come along)! This is just scratching the surface of what they talked about. "That said, he passed along the following items to me, which you might find interesting: "The BASIC cartridge actually was originally created due to laziness. Management wanted a demo program for the system, Fenton didn't want to write one, so she decided to write a BASIC version instead. That was finished so fast that she ended up having to write the demo program anyway. Additionally, the Bally BASIC version that was sold was actually version 2.0 - the first version didn't have any command shortcuts. The usage of video memory and the ability to send calls to the hardware for specific graphical uses are why she considered it to be a fairly successful project. "As for the add-under, Fenton told Smith that she was interested in ZGRASS because it reminded her of BASIC - simple to use but with better graphical abilities. But towards the end of the process she soured on the language, feeling it was too slow. The final version of the add-under actually used Forth, not ZGRASS, which was later adapted to Terse for writing arcade games. Which makes me wonder if the unit that the NVM [National Videogame Museum] may have bought actually has ZGRASS, or if it has Forth." My response to this information from Kevin was that "I am glad that Alex is able to do an interview, or a couple of them, with Jamie. When I spoke to her in 2001, she would not allow me to record conversation. "I can't think of anything in particular that I can add to Alex's book for the astrocade. I presume, since he will be covering so much in the book, that the astrocade will be all but a footnote. I do hope, at least, that he brings up that the astrocade was the least expensive computer upon its release to be able to run BASIC. I guess that is debatable, depending on what you consider a 'computer.' [...] "I have heard that the BASIC cartridge was created as a stop-gap measure while Z-GRASS was in development hell. It was a quickie conversion from Tiny BASIC. Although the language has Tiny BASIC at its roots, at the time, Jay added many of the graphical features which allow programmers to create games in less than 2K of RAM. "I'm not sure what you mean by Bally BASIC was the second version of language. What are the 'command shortcuts' that you mention? Do you mean the graphic commands like LINE? Certainly, the CALL command is what eventually allowed programmers to access the onboard ROM subroutines. That was a hidden command that was only let out of the bag by Jay himself via the Hacker's Manual that was available to/through the newsletters. "I consider Jay's hack of allowing screen RAM to store a program to be extremely clever. Many people seem to misunderstand how this 'trick' works. "I can understand why J soured on Z-GRASS, but I would consider it a success, as many of the students at the University of Chicago seem to have loved the language. In the examples of its usage on YouTube, the language does seem slow. However, in comparison to BASIC, it seems about the same speed. Plus, it has access to much more memory and many more commands. "I do seem to have a faint memory that the add-under was going to use Forth in some way. The add-under, as designed by Bally, seems to have been pretty much scrapped in favor of the version that Alternative Engineering was creating and was sold to the National Videogame Museum a few years back. That version of the Z-GRASS add-under certainly was supposed to have Z-GRASS in the ROM. Now, whether or not the NVM has even tried to boot the system is something I do not know right now. Have you ever been able to get in touch with them about this hardware?" Kevin responded: "I'm actually not familiar enough with using the BASIC cart to know what Fenton means by command shortcuts; my initial thought is the keypad shortcuts. I did note the uploads you made to archive.org when you made them, so he should be aware of them (I also sent him my raw notes of the Defanti interview I did). "You know it's funny, I spoke with John Hardie at the NVM the other day about a couple other research questions I had and completely forgot to ask about the ZGRASS add-under! Supposedly he wants to try and make VCF East in a couple weeks - if he does, I'll check in with him there. Otherwise I'll just call back about it. I maintain that if the add-under works and does have ZGRASS in its rom, it would absolutely be worth dumping and trying to build an emulator for." These few tidbits of information are enough to whet my appetite for more and I hope that at some point the interview with Jamie that was conducted by Alex is made public. Perhaps after Alex Smith's book is published that will be a possibility. I'm glad that Kevin told me about this interview with Jamie Fenton that was conducted by Alex Smith. Special thanks to the three of them for their work with the astrocade and videogames in general. Fenton's work, in particular, is still used by me on a weekly basis whenever I use my astrocade. Long live the astrocade; long live Bally BASIC! Adam Trionfo
Season 2, Round 5 of the Astrocade High Score Club will last about two weeks. This round ends on Sunday, May 21'th 28'th at 8pm MST. The main game is 280 Zzzap! / Dodgem. The bonus game is Super Slope. These are both racing games: in the main game you're racing on a paved road, and in the other game you're racing your way down a snow-covered mountain. 280 Zzzap! / Dodgem If you've played Atari's Night Driver, then you're familiar with this racing game for the Astrocade. 280 Zzzap! / Dodgem (cartridge #2001) is a 2K cartridge released by Bally Mfg. Corp. in 1978. It was re-released three years later by Astrovision Inc. in 1981. It is part of Action/Skills Series and was programmed for the Astrocade by Jay Fenton. The first game on the cartridge is a port of the B&W 1976 arcade game 280 Zzzap by Midway Manufacturing Co. This is the description of the games from the manual's cover: "Two different high-speed car races demand quick response and raw courage. Enter your racing time into the computer-- floor the accelerator-- and go for speed and distance. 280 Zzzap challenges you to hold a road filled with dangerous hairpin turns! Dodgem puts you up against other cars driven by the computer. The sharper your driving skills, the more mileage you'll get!" 280 Zzzap! / Dodgem is a relatively easy to find cartridge for the Astrocade. It probably will play best on real hardware, as it uses the knob to move your car left and right. The game can be played under MAME emulation using a mouse, but I'm not sure how well that will work. For those that are interested, on October 12, 2016, I spent about one day disassembling 280 Zzzap / Dodgem. If Z80 programming interests you, then maybe you'll enjoying browsing the disassembly: http://www.ballyalley.com/ml/ml_source/280%20Zzzap,%20Dodgem%20(1978)(Bally%20Mfg%20Corp)(Disassembly).zip The Astrocade version of the manual is here: http://www.ballyalley.com/cart_manuals/pdf_manuals/280_ZZZap-Dodgem_(instructions)(bally)(color)(300%20dpi).pdf The original Bally release of the manual is here: http://www.ballyalley.com/cart_manuals/pdf_manuals/280%20zzzap%20-%20dodgem%20(instructions)(bally)(a1)(color)(300%20dpi).pdf Here are the Astrocade version of the instructions for 280 Zzzap! / Dodgem: 280 Zzzap (1 player) Feeling the pressure of speed and time, you're off-- along the course of a cross country road race. Negotiate the curves as carefully and quickly as possible to score the most points. Starting the Game Choose 280 Zzzap by pressing 1 on the keypad or by using remote game selection (pull the trigger on hand control #1, turn the knob until 1 appears on the screen, then pull the trigger again). Enter the game time-- up to ten minutes in length. Enter 9 Play 9 seconds. Enter 9 9 Play 99 seconds. Enter 9 9 9 Play 9 minutes and 99 seconds. If the race time being entered on the keypad is 99 seconds or less, you must press the = sign to start the game. Playing the Game Since this is a one-player game, you will need to use hand control #1. The hand control functions for 280 Zzzap are: Trigger Controls the speed of the car-- accelerator. Knob Steers the car-- steering wheel. Joystick Has no function. The object of the game is to accumulate as much mileage as possible by traveling as far and as fast as you can without crashing into the white road poles. Every time the car crashes into the poles, you lose valuable speed and distance. The numbers in the lower center of the screen represent the speedometer. As the car accelerates, the speed is indicated by the bar underneath the numbers. The numbers on the right side of the speedometer record the miles traveled. On the left side of the speedometer is the race time remaining. Scoring To compete against two or more players, enter the same race time for each player. The winner is the one with the highest mileage when the race has ended. Playing Again To play 280 Zzzap again, press the RESET button and follow the instructions for starting the game. Dodgem (1 player) Test your skill as a race car driver. Although this game is similar to 280 Zzzap, you have an additional hazard of crashing into the other cars in the race! Starting the Game Choose Dodgem by pressing 2 on the keypad or by using remote game selection (pull the trigger on hand control #1, turn the knob until 2 appears on the screen, then pull the trigger again). Enter the game time--up to ten minutes in length. Enter 9 Play 9 seconds. Enter 9 9 Play 99 seconds. Enter 9 9 9 Play 9 minutes and 99 seconds. If you enter a race time that is 99 seconds or less, press the = sign to start the game. Playing the Game The hand control functions for Dodgem are: Trigger Controls the speed of the car-- accelerator. Knob Steers the car-- steering wheel. Joystick Has no function. The object of Dodgem is to go as far as possible without crashing into the race track walls, other cars in the race, or having them crash into you. The light colored car is the only one that you can control. The other cars are controlled by the Arcade. The numbers in the lower center of the screen represent the speedometer. As the car accelerates, the speed is indicated by the bar underneath the numbers. The numbers on the right side of the speedometer are the miles traveled. The left side shows the race time remaining. Scoring A player's score is determined by the miles driven in the specified racing time. If two or more players are competing against each other, the same race time must be entered for each player. Playing Again To play Dodgem again, press the RESET button and follow the instructions for starting the game. The 280 Zzzap! / Dodgem cartridge ROM image (called "280zzap.bin") is part of this archive: http://www.ballyalley.com/emulation/cart_images/cart_images.html#AstrocadeROMCollection 280 Zzzap! / Dodgem (High Score Club Options): This is a timed game. Once you get used to the controls, you will probably never crash, so we're probably all going to score about the same. For this reason, we'll play a rather short game of 99 seconds. If anyone wants to play longer, than maybe we'll extend it... but I surely wouldn't want to play for a time of 999. 280 Zzzap! / Dodgem (Scoring): Up to ten points are awarded for playing 280 Zzzap! / Dodgem: five points will be awarded for each game. For available bonus points, see "Bonus Points" section below. I can't remember ever coming across a contemporary review of this game. If you've seen one, then please point it out to me. Super Slope The BASIC bonus game is Super Slope, by Esoterica Ltd (Dan J. Drescher and James P. Curran). This machine language game was released on tape in 1982. In an Esoterica advertisement on page G7 of the spring 1983 Source Book, the game is called Ski Slope. The game's description from that ad says "'They called him SUPER SKIER, though he never had a lesson.' And now you take up where he left off. Super Slope is a super skiing program from Esoterica Ltd. No experience necessary." The game's description from the December 1982 Arcadian is very similar. It says the game thing, but adds this: "Great fun! (In Smooth Action Machine Language Graphics)" Michael White notes that the "AstroBASIC" cartridge is only needed to load the Super Slope program; the game will run with the "AstroBASIC" cartridge removed. Here are the game's instructions, which seem to talk about some features not available in the game: Load the game with :INPUT; RUN. In less than one minute the program will run automatically. Stop the recorder and follow the play instructions. In multiple player games, you will be asked to input the number of players. The tape is now in position for Game 2. They called him "Super Skier" and even though they had to carry him off the hill, he was back on top in minutes ready to try again. Under the skillful guidance of your joystick he will dodge rocks and brush trees in a mad downhill race against time as arm waving fans pack the sidelines urging him on. Warning: Do not pull the trigger unless you are Olympic material. Which end will you experience? The thrill of victory or the agony of defeat. Your Score: Greater than 50 - Go directly to the hospital. Do not pass the finish line. Do not collect the prize money. 39 to 49 - Beginner slopes are more suited to your ability. 29 to 38 - You can now fall down on national TV and still look good. Less than 29 - You have achieved the thrill of VICTORY! Super Slope is a 100% machine language program. During the entering routine, a sign will appear at the bottom of the screen. One-half of the sign will then disappear. As the screen scrolls down the program will load and then run automatically. To replay press GO on the keypad. Note, that the game doesn't actually seem to follow these scoring directions, as your score is four digits, not two. Perhaps the last two of the four digits represents hundredths of a second? Michael Prosise wrote a review of Super Slope in The Game Player #9, which was printed in Arcadian 5, no. 9 (Jul. 22, 1983): 140. Here is the complete review: It is no longer necessary to go to your neighborhood Video Arcade and drop a quarter in Atari's ALPINE SKI, for SUPER SLOPE is just as good. As the one and only skiing game for the Astrocade system, this Esoterica ski adventure is extremely good and well thought out. In this one-player game, the player directs his skier downhill, avoiding pine trees and large rocks by using the joystick to ski left or right across the slope. A quick tap on the joystick increases the skiers' direction from straight to slightly angled: another tap increases the angle further; and another tap will have the skier doing a traverse. The same holds true for either direction. Squeezing the trigger will increase the skiers speed. As one who enjoys downhill skiing, I am impressed at how well Esoterica has simulated the actual movement of a real skier. The graphics in SUPER SLOPE are well done, and the sound of skis on snow is well simulated. SUPER SLOPE is a good example of what machine language can do for a game. There were only a few problems with SUPER SLOPE. The skier often leaves an arm or leg behind when he skims a tree, and we have not been able to determine how the scoring is accomplished. The instructions, which could use some improvement, indicate a score of 50 as not so good but less than 29 as a victory. However, the screen will show a four digit number at the end of play, such as 5471. We deliberately crashed our skier constantly and achieved a score of 2428. What do these numbers mean? (GAME PLAYER will publish an explanation if it receives one from Esoterica.) The other problem we found is that there is a loud continuous raspy noise during initial play until the skier hits an object. Then the noise will disappear. Perhaps this is a problem with our particular cassette, or it may be a program problem. Overall, SUPER SLOPE is an excellent game, and will probably be enjoyed even by non-skiers. Those who played it liked it, and it held their attention. It's a good game, folks. Herb Matthews wrote to the Mail Bag in The Game Player, #17 (Vol. 6, pg. 43, March 30, 1984). Herb said, "Thanks for the consistent high quality and informative nature of your monthly reviews. They have definitely influenced my software purchases." Michael Prosise says, "Herb loves SUPER SLOPE and feels that it would be terrific as a cartridge." You can download the "AstroBASIC" version of Super Slope here: http://www.ballyalley.com/program_downloads/2000_baud_programs/esoterica_ltd/esoterica_ltd.html#SuperSlopeEsotericaAB Remember, in Super Slope we're playing for the lowest score. Bonus Points Up to four bonus points are available this round for both games: 280 Zzzap / Dodgem (1 Point) - Video Review - There is no quality video of Super Slope on YouTube. Anyone who makes a video review of this game will get a bonus point. Super Slope (1 Point) - Playing the bonus game. Super Slope (1 Point) - Lowest Score. Super Slope (1 Point) - Video Review - Anyone who makes a video review of Super Slope will get a bonus point. Summary I don't care much for 280 Zzzap or Dodgem; these two games are much too easy, plus isn't enough variety to the gameplay-- honestly, there is no diversity to either game at all. I suppose the different crash noises are interesting, including the notable inclusion of "ZORK!" If the Astrocade's game library wasn't so small, then I'd probably skip this double-game cartridge. There are some defenders of this round's main games. On May 1, 2006, I compiled a list called the Top Ten Astrocade Games. Various people listed their favorite games for the system. Ben Bauer chose 280 Zzzap/ Dodgem and commented, "This was as good or better than the arcade versions!" Lance Squire also liked this game; he picked it too, adding, "280 Zzzap - AKA Night Driver. Again loved to play the arcade and Bally did this well. Back in the day Compucentre (HudsonsBay center Toronto) had a Bally Pro Arcade system and a Vic 20 set-up side by side and both playing this game. The Bally was way better!!!" On the bonus game front, Super Slope is interesting. It seems really close to being a good game, but doesn't seem to have the polish or follow-through, plus there are some graphical glitches. I have a soft spot for it though, as it does some pretty impressive technical tricks on an unexpanded Astrocade for a game that is not a cartridge. Have fun playing this round's games. Adam
This may have been posted already but I didn't see it in our forum. I came across this 6 part article on the history of Atari's Night Driver that also has some interesting history on Dave Nutting and Jamie Fenton. Dave Nutting: https://allincolorforaquarter.blogspot.com/2014/07/the-pre-history-of-night-driver-part-4.html Jamie Fenton: https://allincolorforaquarter.blogspot.com/2014/07/the-pre-history-of-night-driver-part-5.html