What was the First Home Computer? What was the First Game Console? Well, there’s some debate on the subject. For those that know however, a leading contender for the title is the Bally Astrocade, also known as the Professional Arcade. It was first shipped to the public in 1978!
But why are we interested? Because as TigerDirect enters its 20th year in the computer industry, we reflect on the changes we’ve seen, as well as participated in creating. It’s important that we understand the history computers and consumer electronics share so that we have a sense of where we’re going from here. So take a trip down Nostalgia Lane with us. We’ll visit some products that changed the world, and some that were just too strange, even for the era they were born in.
The Astrocade was first shipped to the public 30 years ago, in 1978. But what was it? An early video game console and simple computer system conceived by a design team at Midway, the video game (read: consumer electronics) division of Bally. Bally was a pinball manufacturer that also built many of the vintage Las Vegas Casinos. The Astrocade was sold for only a limited time before Bally decided to exit the market. The rights to the system were later picked up by a third party company who re-released it and kept it alive until 1983.The Astrocade is particularly notable for its very powerful graphics specs, but the Bally engineers never really provided the hooks and access to it so it was, in a way, a waste of capability.
Changing How We Played the Game
One of the Bally Astrocade’s major innovations was its game controllers. It offered a pistol-like grip, with a thumb-stick that doubled as a paddle control (read: rotating knob), and had a Proportional Trigger. A proportional trigger differs from a traditional game controller’s trigger in that trigger-pulls of different strengths delivered effects of different intensity. The more common opposite, an on/off trigger (think Duck Hunt) has only two signals, triggered or not triggered.
This kind of advanced controls provided a far greater degree of sensitivity and precision than that of other consoles. If the Bally Astrocade had access to the library of cartridge titles that were avialalbe to the Atari 2600, who knows? Perhaps Midway and its Astrocade could have been the leader of the then-burgeoning game market. Alas, that was not to be.
Playing the Name Game
The Astrocade was originally referred to as the Bally Home Library Computer. It was released for sale in 1977, but only through mail-order. Engineering and production delays meant the first units didn’t actually ship until 1978. That makes the production release of this system was a full 30 years ago! By this time the machine had been renamed the Bally Professional Arcade. In this form, it sold mostly at computer stores and had little mass-retail exposure (unlike its rival, the Atari VCS 2600 Game Console). In 1979 Bally grew disinterested in the arcade market and decided to sell off Midway, their Consumer Products Division. This included development and production rights for the Bally Professional Arcade (remember? Name Change).
At about the same time, a 3rd party group had been unsuccessfully trying to bring their own Astrovision Console Design to the market. According to one source, the corporate buyer for Montgomery Ward (one of the larger deparment store chains of that era) who stocked the Bally console played matchmaker between Bally and the Astrovision owners, and the Bally Consumer Products Division was sold.
The new owners re-released the unit in 1981, with the BASIC cartridge (shown in our photos) included for free. At that time, they called it the Bally Computer System and then changed the name to the Astrocade in 1982. It sold under this name until the video game crash of 1983 (which killed Atari Inc. and hundreds of game software companies, including my own Romox) and disappeared completely by 1985. By 1981 however, it was considered an inferior system to when compared to the stellar Atari 400/800 Home Computers, or even the Commodore VIC20. Regardless, the Astrocade was State-of-the-Art at the time of its release!
Bracing for Oblivion
Bally’s Midway division had long been planning to release an expansion system for the unit, known as the ZGRASS-100. The system was being developed by a group of computer artists at the University of Illinois. It was reported that Midway felt that such a system, in an external box, would make the Astrocade more interesting to the market. However it was still not ready for release when Bally sold Midway off. The expansion system would eventually be released as the Datamax UV-1. Aimed at the home computer market during the design phase, the console was now re-targeted as a system for outputting high-quality graphics to videotape. They were offered for sale some time between 1980 and 1982, but it is unknown how many were built.
In the end, the Bally Astrocade was a foundational system that helped pave the road for what followed. While is was one of many competing systems of that era (from market leader Atari to names like Commodore, Coleco, Mattel, Oric, Sinclair, Texas Instruments, Tandy/Radio Shack, Processor Technology, and even the lone survivor, Apple) it represented a significant breakthrough in sophistication. But much like the Dodo Bird, the Astrocade species was doomed.
Can’t get enough Astrocade? Click here to watch our Flickr Slideshow all about the Bally Astrocade.BTW, Astrocade is such a cool name!
Send your comments to me about your retro gaming experiences at this link.
Bally Astrocade Specifications and Juicy Tidbits
YEAR: September 1977
END OF PRODUCTION: 1985
BUILT IN SOFTWARE / GAMES: 4 built-in programs (Gunfight, Checkmate, Calculator, Scribbling)
CONTROLLERS: 2 pistol-grip controllers with 1 trigger and a short 8 directions joystick / analog knob
SPEED: 3.579 MHz
RAM: 4 KB
ROM: 8 KB
GRAPHIC MODES: 160 x 102 (Basic cartridge : 160 x 88)
COLORS: 8 (Basic cartridge : 2)
SOUND: 3 voices + noise & vibrato
SIZE / WEIGHT: 15” (W) x 10 3/4” (D) x 4 3/4” (H)
I/O PORTS: Cartridge slot, 4 controller connectors, Expansion port, Light pen connector
NUMBER OF GAMES: About 40 cartridges released
PERIPHERALS: 2 additional controllers, audio cassette interface, RAM expansions, Computer expansion, light-pen
PRICE: $299 (USA, 1977) (1977 Dollars – equivalent to $1,000 now!)