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Bally Astrocade — should have been a contender

By: 13 November 2010 4 Comments

What do you get when you put together a video game console with graphics and sound that were well ahead of what the Atari 2600 had to offer and one of the best controllers of any early gaming system?

You get the Bally Astrocade, a system that was released (sort of) in 1977 and had a lot going for it. If you just look at the specs, the system should have whipped the socks of the Atari, frankly — the CPU was faster, the graphics were sharper and even rivaled the much-touted Intellivision in terms of visual and sound. Still, the system just really never took off. One has to wonder — just what the heck happened?

The answer to that question is fairly simple — it all comes down to games, man. There were around 40 titles released for the Astrocade compared to the Atari’s over 500 or so. That’s a hard row to hoe, particularly when you consider how many of those titles were simply terrible and in no way pushed the systems hardware.

Does that mean there were no great titles released for the Astrocade? Not at all. The Incredible Wizard — a port of Midway’s Wizard of Wor — is simply incredible. Similarly, the system had great versions of Galaga (Galactic Invasion) Pac-Man (Muncher) and Space Invaders (Astro Battle) available. Those versions were, in many ways, superior to the officially-licensed titles available for the Atari, but that’s kind of the problem — a lack of licenses.

Back when the Astrocade was attempting to compete with the Atari 2600, getting an officially-licensed arcade hit on a home console was a big deal. It didn’t matter how great Astro Battle might have been — kids wanted to play Space Invaders. You know, the real version of the arcade hit.

Here’s a fascinating footnote that may reveal that Atari didn’t consider the Astrocade much competition at all. Way on back in 1981, Magnavox released a title for the Odyssey 2 called K.C. Munchkin! (yes, Magnavox was just wacky for exclamation points). Atari filed suit, claiming the game looked and played a lot like Pac-Man, an arcade hit for which Atari held the only valid license. Atari won it’s case, of course, but here’s the question — what about Muncher? That Astrocade title was incredibly similar to Pac-Man, but where was Atari and its Super Weasel Lawyer Team? The only answer that makes sense is this — the Odyssey was regarded as major competition, whereas the Astrocade was not.

Frankly, the Astrocade was plagued with problems that had little to do with the systems superior hardware since it was released. The system was Bally Home Library Computer in 1977 and was available only through mail order (the Atari, meanwhile, was for sale at major retailers and Sears even had a house-branded version of the console available). Production delays meant none of those systems were shipped until 1978 and, by they, the system had been renamed the Bally Professional Arcade.

Still, retail problems persisted — Astrocades were available at computer stores and some department stores here and there. Kids could run down to the local Wal-Mart or Sears and grab an Atari, meaning the 2600 had a lot more exposure than the Astrocade ever could. Bally didn’t help matters when, in 1979, the company became more interested in casino games than the Astrocade.

The result? One of the Astrocade’s retailers — Montgomery Ward — put Bally in touch with a group of fans who were organizing a company called Astrovision in hopes of releasing a console. Astrovision purchased the rights to the system, changed the name of it to the Bally Computer System and then the Astrocade (the moniker under which the system is most commonly known). By 1985, the system vanished.

The name changes, sale of the console from one company to another and scant retailer support, then, had a lot to do with relegating the Astrocade to “second banana” status. Furthermore, there was little third-party support for the Astrocade, and that’s understandable — given the choice between developing games for the wildly successful Atari or the Astrocade, it’s easy to understand why companies concentrated on the 2600.

Again, the Astrocade is still a system worth owning. While there aren’t a ton

The excellent Astrocade controller.

of great titles for the system, some of them are simply exemplary (head on over to The Video Game Critic for some reviews). Furthermore, the controllers remain my favorite from those early days of video game consoles. The thing looks like a pistol grip with a knob on top of it and works like a charm. The “fire button” is the trigger on the pistol grip and the knob moves in eight directions (for joystick-type control) and also turns (for paddle-type control). The controller is comfortable and allows gamers to play in comfort for long periods of time.

Also, there’s the superior sound (3 voices and one “noise” channel) and sharp graphics to consider. The games that are solid do look great on this system and a couple of them even support up to our players (provided you’ve got enough controllers on hand — the system came stock with two). And, hey, if you’re a collector, this console is just weird enough to warrant your attention.

For one thing, it’s pretty rare. Finding one of these “out in the wild” and at a low price is a feat, indeed, as those things can run up to $100 (and sometimes more depending on what all comes with it) on eBay.  The games, however, are pretty cheap and there’s one cartridge out there that will be of interest to collectors — a BASIC compiler. That’s right — you can write your own programs on your Astrocade and there are a lot of people who do that (a great Internet resource for Astrocade fans is Bally Alley, where you’ll find some BASIC programs ready to be typed in and, well, just a lot of stuff).

Another quirky feature of the system is that cartridge installation and removal is rather unique. Most cartridge-based systems warn the users not to pull out or insert games when the system is powered on — that’s not a problem with the Astrocade. I never could quite get used to that feature, having owned a slew of systems over the years where I was warned that terrible things would happen if I jerked out a cartridge with the console running.

Here’s a handy tip — don’t bother trying to hook up that junky RF converter for this system (or any of the other classic consoles) to your television set. Want your system to look great? Spend a couple of bucks for this converter and hook the system up through the cable jack on your television. You’ll be glad you did. And if you want to want to find one of the best groups of classic console fans on the planet to interact with, register with the forums at AtariAge.com — if you’ve got questions, the members there can answer them.

Stay tuned — more reviews to come in the “retrogaming” category here at First Arkansas News.

About: Ethan C. Nobles:
Benton resident. Rogue journalist. Recovering attorney. Email = Ethan@FirstArkansasNews.net.

4 Comments »

  • Lance F. Squire said:

    About Muncher,

    1. Bally/Midway owned the coin-op rights to PacMan.

    2. A good clone of PacMan would be a sure system seller.

    This is why, Atari,

    A. negotiated for the First ever Home rights to said game with Namco. (The Japanese creator of the game)

    B. Quickly released a work in progress To get on the market first and,

    C. Sued Magnavox who had the only other contender at the time.

    This both bared Bally from releasing the game under the PacMan name and gave them pause about releasing it at all. Astrocade/Astrovision actually tried to get legal rights to release the game but coulden’t.

    Muncher first hit the market as a trickle of carts labeled either “DEMO” or “TESTPROGRAME” Only much later was it officially released by a third party as “MUNCHER” and even then as a limited run.

    B.T.W. the effect of Atari’s creation of the Home Rights licence also had a devastating effect on the game titles for the Emerson Arcadia 2001.

  • Ethan C. Nobles (author) said:

    Lance:

    First off, thanks for stopping in. Second, good point on the Emerson titles — as I understand it, they had a bunch of “arcade hits” that they felt they couldn’t release following the Atari/Magnavox suit, thus leaving them with a pile of cartridges that could have helped sell the system if they were distributed. Tough break there.

    Again, however, “Muncher” was a lot more like “Pac-Man” than “K.C. Munchkin” was. I still wonder why that title didn’t draw a suit from Atari. Odd.

  • Eric Wyant said:

    I happen to own one of these systems, an inheritance from a relative who died back when I was 10 or 11 years old. He worked for HP at the time and I didn’t know if that was how he found it or not. I only have a few games left, and the glue has worn off of the stickers, so some of those are gone, but I’d be really interested in knowing more about this system, and the things I can do with it. If there is anyone who would be willing to talk with me about this, you can reach me at my business email, hometowngc@gmail.com, and we can go from there. Thanks a lot for the info you have posted, and I hope to hear from someone so I can learn more. Thanks!

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