Lost relatives



The National Science Museum in Japan had a TV Games and Digital Science exhibition back in the summer of 2004.

The article describes many of the elements of the early history of computers and computer games and, of course, has a Computer Space. However, the paragraph describes a re-launch, stating the curved space-age cabinet was part of a redesign of the machine. To my understanding, Nolan Bushnell himself helped design the cabinet of Computer Space and it was always the curvy space-age look. But in researching this, I believe I found what the author must have mistaken for a first run version of Computer Space. I came across what I can only describe as Computer Space's long lost brother, "Galaxy Game."





It would seem that Nolan Bushnell was not the only computer student to enjoy Steve Russel's Space War game on the PDP-10 (by the late 60's, the PDP-1 had gone through a number of upgrades) and this later version of the mainframe machine was finally getting small enough and inexpensive enough to consider placing into a dedicated console. In the early 1970's, such was the brainstorm of Bill Pitts, a recent Stanford graduate and his high school buddy, Hugh Tuck who formed a company called Computer Recreations in June of 1971.







Taking the new low-cost PDP-11/20 machine and connecting it to an HP 1300 Electrostatic Display, they had made something very much like Computer Space, albeit for $20,000. Their revised version of Space War was named Galaxy War. However, since it was the early 70's and events like Viet Nam were displaying the horrors of real warfare on the nightly news, it was decided that the name of this game should not contain the word "war" in it, the name was soon changed to Galaxy Game.






In September of 1971, the machine was placed in the Stanford Union coffee shop and charged ten cents per play. Although Galaxy Game has many similarities to Computer Space, its greater expense to construct and lower revenues (going for a dime a play in one coffee shop did not prove too profitable), the game was not much of a financial success. But the machine remained in service and enjoyed a great deal of play until May of 1979, when the display was beginning to show wear and tear from old age and Galaxy Game was finally retired.








Significant to note, however, is that the release date of September means that Galaxy Game beat Computer Space by only a month or two in being the first coin-operated video game in history. Unfortunately, due to its lower revenue and extreme expense to build, Galaxy Game cannot lay claim to the title of first "arcade machine."




UPDATE: A 2010 book "Replay - The History of Vido Games" has a recent interview with Bill Pitts during which he discusses the origins of Galaxy Game, early discussions with Nolan Bushnell and a Space War-style cabinet, and how he gave away the coin-op market.

"He called me up and said, 'Hey, come on over and see what I'm doing. I know you're building a version of Spacewar! using a whole PDP-11 and that's gotta cost a lot of money and I just want to show you the one I'm doing because I think you're going to lose a lot of money.'"

"I was very impressed by his engineering skills but our game was absolutely true to Spacewar!."

Computer Space was created with hardware that needed no expensive central computer ... "Compared to the games that came after, it looks like a flop. But I had never created a million-dollar product before," he added. "It represented a reasonable royalty stream for me." And with it, Bushnell had birthed the arcade videogame scene in the US."

More details of the book "Replay - The History of Video Games" can be found here.

Another machine that could claim to be a long lost relative of Computer Space is the 1973 Atari game "Space Race." This game was the next one developed by the fledgling Atari company after the monumental hit Pong. Although the game play is very different from Computer Space or Pong, (more akin to Steeplechase) Space Race has many things in common with Computer Space, including the space-age fiberglass cabinet (seen on the left). As you can see, the housing is quite different from Computer Space, but the green silver-flake finish is apparently exactly the same finish used on the two player Computer Space, and this game similarly uses a TV set and simple diode ROM construction. According to some reports, the maintenance manual shipped with Space Race was clearly a Pong manual and you can easily see someone has just scribbled out where it says Pong and written Space Race over it. What I personally find intriguing in Space Race's cabinet design is how it went through two versions. The speckled green fiberglass cabinet is apparently quite a rare version. The more common unit (seen on the right) was a basic squared-off cabinet that, in my opinion at least, bares a striking resemblance to the cabinet used for Galaxy Game.

Space Race is one of the last machines to use the fiberglass design. After it, arcade video games were built of durable wood housings, flattened on the sides. My guess is that the fiberglass cabinet must have cracked easily in typical arcade situations. And admittedly, having oddly-shaped sides on these machines must have made them difficult to line up against a wall, so I can understand why the concept never lasted. A few final machines such as Hi-Way and Night Driver also had fiberglass construction but as these were large driving games, it would seem the benefit for going fiberglass was more to reduce the weight of the machine, rather than any artistic value.

And it would not be fair to leave out Computer Space's older uncle, the game previously built by Nutting Associates before they undertook the space-age machine, Computer Quiz. An Atari collector sent me a collection of pictures of his Computer Quiz machine and he says it is quite the impressive machine. A number of questions snap into place to be illuminated, something like the way a slide projector works. When you press the button that corresponds to the correct answer (all the questions are multiple choice) a beam of light is interrupted, closing the circuit and the game registers a score on the machine.
















Another machine from Nutting has come to light called Computer Space Ball.

Clearly this machine is another Pong game, and if you listen to the sound effects of Computer Space Ball, it is obvious they are identical to those of Atari's Pong. Any references online to Computer Space Ball seem to date this machine to 1972. This is significant in that it is around the time that Syzygy left Nutting Associates and went on to form Atari (see my History section for details). If you look closely at the following page where several Computer Space Ball thumbnails are posted, locate a close up of the control panel and you will see no Syzygy logo on the panel at all. Possibly with the advent of Atari's new successful Pong game Nutting may have acquired their own version of the same tennis game and packaged it under their own title (a name obviously close to "Computer Space"). If you also check the pictures of the rear of the machine, you can clearly see the familiar wooden door seen on the back of all Computer Space machines as well. Inside is the same television set used in the other machine too.

Pictures and video footage of Computer Space Ball provded by www.classicpinball.com













Click if you would like to see more detailed pictures of Galaxy Game, Space Race, Computer Quiz, and Computer Space Ball.





Apparantly, back in 1972, a gaming company called "For-Play" took the internal workings of Computer Space and put it into their own black wooden cabinet and called it Star Trek. This would appear to be the first case of video game cloning. The company did not have the legal rights to the Star Trek name and were pursued in the courts. As a result, very few of the gaming machines were ever made. Further details can be found at the following links:

Link 1 Link2 Link 3