After Hours

Geek Trivia: On a first-game basis

What was the world's first coin-operated video arcade game?

Somebody, somewhere is going to publish an article (and probably already has) proclaiming November 29 as the "birthday" of arcade video games—and that person is going to be wrong.

It's an easy mistake to make: The first arcade game that almost anyone remembers is PONG, the icon of video-game infancy first released by Atari on Nov. 29, 1972. As the first certifiable "hit" in the industry, PONG popularized the genre of arcade video gaming. But if somebody tells you PONG was first, feel free to disagree.

First, let's be clear, PONG was a knockoff. The game's creator, Nolan Bushnell, based PONG on a similar video ping-pong game developed for one of the earliest home gaming systems, the Magnavox Odyssey.

Bushnell played this console unit in 1972 and decided that an arcade version could be the first major product of his budding new company, Atari. So, contrary to popular belief, console gaming spawned major arcade gaming—not the other way around.

Engineer Ralph Baer, the man who more or less invented the first home video-game console in 1966, designed and patented the Odyssey precursor to PONG. Baer sold his "Brown Box" console to Magnavox, and it became the Odyssey. He would go on to develop the first video-game light gun for the classic game Shooting Gallery and earn some additional consumer tech love for creating the electronic sound-and-color-matching game Simon.

While PONG has undoubtedly earned a place in the video-game record books for its role in mainstreaming arcade culture, the first coin-operated commercially sold video game was another Nolan Bushnell creation: Computer Space. Derived from the popular mainframe-based video game Spacewar!, Computer Space was the brainchild of Bushnell and partner Ted Dabney; the pair designed it as a product for Nutting Associates, an early mechanical arcade amusement manufacturer.

Computer Space was the first commercially available arcade video game. However, it wasn't particularly successful, which is partly why Bushnell had to start his own company to make and distribute PONG.

So, Computer Space was the world's first coin-operated arcade video game, right? Nope: Computer Space was the world's first commercially available coin-operated arcade video game. The world's first coin-operated arcade video game was never on the market—because only one ever existed.

WHAT WAS THE WORLD'S FIRST COIN-OPERATED VIDEO ARCADE GAME?

What was the world's first coin-operated video arcade game, an obscure one-off prototype that beat both the all-but-forgotten Computer Space and the legendary PONG?

Stanford University alumni, take pride, because the world's first coin-operated video game—Galaxy Game—made its first appearance in Tresidder Memorial Union at your alma mater in September 1971. It debuted just two months before the release of the Nolan Bushnell-developed Computer Space—and more than a year before PONG first set fire the arcade revolution.

Just like Computer Space, Galaxy Game was a port of Spacewar!, which had been floating between various academic and technical institutions running DEC PDP-1 computers—notably MIT and Stanford. Spacewar! was something of an open source app, with several developers tweaking it while passing it around the fledgling hacker culture. The world's only working model of the original DEC PDP-1 is on display at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA—and it's running a copy of Spacewar!

The common elements of Spacewar!, Computer Space, and Galaxy Game greatly resemble one of Atari's better-known games, Asteroids—a line-art spaceship must avoid obstacles and destroy enemies using basic thruster controls and a missile cannon. Several other Spacewar! clones and ports would pop up under different names throughout the 1970s, making it the ancestor of many original arcade titles.

As for Galaxy Game, Bill Pitts and Hugh Tuck programmed and built the only copy, basing it on a DEC PDP-11/20 at the cost of about $20,000 (which is probably why it never made it to production). It's worth noting that the first coin-operated video game took dimes or quarters; Galaxy Game offered a single gameplay for 10 cents or three games for 25 cents.

While Galaxy Game never really tried to be a major commercial product, Computer Space certainly made a go of it, even finagling some possibly inadvertent product placement in major films. You can see Computer Space stand-ups in Soylent Green, Jaws, and Woody Allen's Sleeper.

By most accounts, the gameplay was simply too complex for the broader audience of the time, while PONG's intuitive gameplay caught on quickly. That's what earned it a place in the public consciousness, but it takes a little more than that to get top billing in Geek Trivia.

Get ready for the Geekend

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The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

This week's quibble comes from the November 15 edition of Geek Trivia, "May the Farce be with you." TechRepublic member Parrish S. Knight scolded me for failing a basic Star Wars spelling test.

"1) Stormtrooper is one word, not two. 2) Please, please, please: It's wookiee, not wookie. I can't stand it when people misspell this word."

You're correct, dear reader: I let the quick and easy path of the spell checker seduce me and didn't think to correct for Star Wars parlance. Thanks for keeping me sharp, and keep those quibbles coming.

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The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.

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Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger -- amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

22 comments
btljooz
btljooz

If so, I admit, I didn't know that! However, I DID own the home 'version' of it. The first coin operated arcade game I recall is Pac Man. If I'm wrong, it's because at the time I was living in Kansas City, Missouri...a place that time forgot!!!

hopecenter1
hopecenter1

When Willy Higinbotham of the Brookhaven National Laboratory invented the first video game, he had no idea that it would be such a hit. In fact, he did not imagine that it would be such a craze among children and adults alike in years to come. As a result, Higinbotham, already a holder of twenty patents, did not patent his video game system. Although, Higinbotham is recognized as the inventor of video games, he has yet to receive a dime from video game sales. (Something Exciting for a Nuclear Exhibit) During the late Fifties, the Brookhaven Laboratory, which was devoted to peaceful uses for nuclear energy, decided to have an annual open house so that the public could see what its nuclear facilities were like. Every year, parents and children filled the building to see the machinery, pictures of reactors, and other complicated devices. The setup, however, was rather boring to the visitors and researchers alike. One day in 1958, Higinbotham decided to invent something that would bring life to the dull exhibit (Flatow 215). He decided that we would try to base is inventions around the newly designed Television. He did no need an entire television, however, just the portion that displayed the imaged: the Cathode Ray Tube (CRT). Searching around his lab for equipment to use, he found an old oscilloscope that he thought might be useful. After tinkering around with the oscilloscope and a CRT, he was able to produce a dot that bounced around the screen randomly. He then wondered, "would it be possible to control the movement of the 'ball'?" After more searching in the laboratory, he gathered up a slew of resistors, capacitors, potentiometers, and any other electrical component that he could find. Flatow describes the design and setup of this first game in his book They All Laughed: Two hours of scratching a design on paper and two weeks of wiring debugging, and the game was complete. The tennis game was displayed on a tiny, five-inch screen. It involved two players, each having a box with a button and a knob. If you pushed the button, you hit the ball to the opponent's court. The knob controlled how high the ball was hit (217). Next to all of the other complicated gadgetry, Higinbotham's game seemed pretty meager. But that did not stop people from noticing it. Huge lines formed; everybody in the exhibit wanted to play the game. For the open house in 1959, Higinbotham made some key improvements to the game. He increased the screen size to 15 inches, and added a feature that let the user select which planet to play on such as the very low gravity of the moon, or the high gravity of Jupiter. (Video Games Surprisingly Flourish) Around 1971, Atari introduced a video arcade system similar to Higinbotham's called Pong. In Pong, the user hit a ball over a net; the whole setup was strikingly similar to Higinbotham's game. A few years later, Magnavox introduced the first home video system, called the Odyssey. All in all, the video game market, which have drastically improved over the last two decades, have been a surprisingly successful one. Video games systems nowadays boast 64 bit processors that deliver lifelike, 3D images. Moreover, with the popularity of computers, people do not have to have separate systems for word processing and video game play. As computer technology evolves, games will become more sophisicated and more packed with sound effects. Few games, however, show any resemblance to that historic piece of laboratory components. References Flatow, Ira. They All Laughed. New York: Harper Collins, 1992.

hogejohn
hogejohn

OMG I still have an original Magnavox Odyssey. I happened to notice it when I was rummaging thru some "spare bedroom" crap.

boomchuck1
boomchuck1

I recall being mesmerized with playing Pong at a Spanish ski resort in 1974. 5 pesata a game - same as the pinball machines. This was while I was in the US Navy. Never saw one of these machines on base! On board ship they had a Wang PC running Lunar Lander. But the top video game was one I only heard of, never saw. It ran on a mainframe and allowed you to control several aircraft in a simulated fight. Don't know the level of complexity but to even hear that you could do that was pretty amazing at the time!

Jim S.
Jim S.

Company: Nutting Associates Year: 1973 Display Properties Orientation: Horizontal Type: Black & White TV monitor Resolution: Standard Pinout Class: Unknown Maximum Number of Players: 4 Player Controls: Unknown Description: A two- to four-player game with a ball bouncing from side-to-side off the borders of the screen. The object of the game is to try to out-maneuver the other player's paddle and score a point. Shortly followed by..... Company: Bally Midway Year: 1973 Display Properties Orientation: Horizontal Type: Black & White TV monitor Resolution: Standard Pinout Class: Unknown Maximum Number of Players: 2 Player Controls: Unknown Description: A timed game in which two players race upward on a black and white screen avoiding one-scan line "asteroids" flying from the left. Only speed can be controlled and when a player gets hit, he starts back at the bottom. When a player reaches the top of the screen, he gains a point.

Brian P.
Brian P.

Comp Sci, U of Maryland, 1975. As fast as it was found, and deleted, ;) there it'ed be again! Sub shop "Hungry Herman's" had pinball. That was our gaming then.

lee0078
lee0078

Where does PacMan fit into the early coin operated gaming world. Its the first one that I ever stuck a dime in. LOL

btljooz
btljooz

So I've reposted to the correct spot. Sorry! :(

Roc Riz
Roc Riz

... I saw a lot of coin-operated games in Coney Island in my day. There was the usual assortment of shoot-em-ups, and ski-ball games galore. There were other niche games that were in arcades back in the day. Video games immediately took off in CI, and are quite popular to this day, but they have become more and more over-complicated as time goes by.

boo_yah68
boo_yah68

Wow! I remember playing Haunted House on our Magnavox Odyssey (probably listening to an 8-track at the same time). Each game had that overlay that you had to tape to the screen. Thanks for the memories.

Jim S.
Jim S.

Company: Nutting Associates Year: 1971 Display Properties Orientation: Horizontal Type: Black & White Raster Resolution: Standard Pinout Class: Unknown Maximum Number of Players: 1 Player Controls: Unknown Description: This is the first ever arcade video game. The game is a basic space-war type game where single players control a rocket ship and face off against two flying saucers or, in the two-player version, players battle each other.

Dr. Tarr
Dr. Tarr

it ran on the Naval Tactical Data System (NTD) computers, which were either PDP-7s or PDP-11s, I cant remember which. I remember setting in the Combat Information Center (CIC) on duty days in port and all of the ships OS, EW, FC and ST setting up all night playing.

JamesRL
JamesRL

After pong(didn't spend too may quarters on it) came other black and white games - Space Invaders (1978) and Asteroid were popular. The first colour one I remember was Galaxian - like Space invaders in color. PacMan came out in 1980. Here is a link for you. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_age_of_arcade_games James

Roc Riz
Roc Riz

I saw 'Computer Space' in my younger days. It was not a very good game, if I remember correctly. I also saw pong on a coin op screen.

Dr. Tarr
Dr. Tarr

It looks as though you are quoteing some reference, but there is no citation. As a fount of useless information, I'd like to find the reference you are using. Thanks

rogue
rogue

Edited by moderator Message was edited by: beth.blakely@...

btljooz
btljooz

Pong was a ping pong game, hence the name "Pong".

Forester1
Forester1

Didn't see you post the name in either posting. Pong was the first one I ever saw, in a bus station pinball arcade.....

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