In the year in which the Atari 2600 turns 40 another forgotten console reach the goal of the four decades, the Bally Astrocade, an item that, despite its insuccess, has an interesting and tormented story to tell.
The story in a nutshell
Let’s go back in time. Really back. In 1932 there were just a few thing that could be considered a form of mass entertaining, and one of these were pinball machines. Back then, there was a company named Lion Manufacturing that after one of its successful machines, Ballyhoo, changed name into Bally Manufacturing, founded by Raymond Moloney.
Step forward in the late 60s: the video game industry is about to born and Bally decided to expand: they bought a company formed in 1958, Midway Manufacturing (yes, THAT Midway…) that later will become the videogames division of the burgeoning video games industry. In the 70s Bally contacted Dave Nutting Associated to produce a graphic chip that was, for the time, the state of the art and that was used in most of later Midway arcade games, then in 1977 they decided to enter the market with their own console, back then names Bally Home Library Computer.
The console was only available via mail order but unfortunately, due to some delays, it was available only by 1978, when the Atari 2600 was already on shelves. By that time was also renamed Bally Professional Arcade and started to be distributed also in retail shop with a tag price of 299$ (almost 1200$ dollars today).
After less than two year od poor sales, Bally lost interest in the arcade industry and decided to sell the consumer entertainment division: at the same time another company was unsuccesfully trying to sell its home console, the Astrovision. The contact between the two companies led Astrovision to buy the game division of Bally and by 1981 the console was again on shelves under the name Bally Computer System. Only in 1982 the name was definitely changed to Bally Astrocade with which the console became “famous”.
But then, the storm: the console never sold well and the 1983 video games crash killed the dreams of the manufacturer and the console by 1985 completely disappeared.
Guess which one? Yes, you guessed right, in the heart of the Astrocade beats a Zilog Z80, that will become famous in many home computers in the 80s, clocked @1,789 MHz. The machine has also 4K of RAM and 8K of ROM.
The controllers of the Astrocade are something similar to the ones of the Fairchild Channel F. They look like a gun without the barrell (but with the trigger) and they have a dial on top that can be rotated.
The Astrocade had one of the most advances graphics for a console in the late 70s. The Z80 CPU controls the graphic chip and both shares the same ROM. There are two graphic modes, the lo-res (160×102) and the hi-res (320×204) and every pixel can display 4 colors store in 2 bits of memory. The hi-res mode was quite demanding and was way more than the technical capabilities of the consoles of the time, since required 16320 bytes of memory, so slightly less than 16K, but the engineers at Bally found a way with some tricks to bypass this limitations. However in the final version this feature was not implemented and the machine can run only in lo-res mode which always requires a big chunk of memory, 4080 bytes, which is almost the entire amount of the 4K of RAM available (equal to 4096 bytes).
The remaining 16 bytes that the demanding graphics of the Astrocade were used for player options and to display the score on screen so all of the additional software was available only on cartridges. The Astrocade was not the first console to feature this technology (being the first the Fairchild Channel F back in 1976) but was surely one of the most important among the firsts.
During the short lifespan of the console were distributed only 28 games:
- 280 Zzzap / Dodgem (1978)
- Amazing Maze / Tic Tac Toe (1978)
- Artillery Duel (1982)
- Astro Battle (1981) (originally titled Space Invaders)
- Bally Pin (1981)
- Biorhythm (1981)
- Blackjack / Poker / Acey-Deucey (1978)
- Blast Droids (1981)
- Clowns / Brickyard (1979)
- Cosmic Raiders (1978)
- Dog Patch (1978)
- Elementary Math and Speed Math (1978)
- Football (1978)
- Grand Prix / Demolition Derby (1978)
- Gun Fight (1977)
- The Incredible Wizard (1981)
- Letter Match / Spell’n Score / Crosswords (1981)
- Ms. CandyMan (1983) (very rare)
- Muncher (1981)
- Panzer Attack / Red Baron (1978)
- Pirates Chase (1981)
- Sea Devil (1983) (rare)
- Seawolf / Missile (1978)
- Galactic Invasion (1981) (originally titled Galaxian)
To be games released at the end of the 70s, the visual are very impressive and we can easily say that these graphics are even superior to those of the Atari 2600 (les capable but more succesful):
With the console was shipped a version of BASIC buid over the base of Tiny BASIC. Since the RAM available to store data was almost zero, the developers had to elaborate some clever tricks to “expand” the available RAM: first of all they “sacrified” one of the 2 bits allocated for every pixel to store data (of course limitating the numer of color available to 2) and secondly squeezing the number of columns from 102 to 88. These two solutions “freed” 1760 bytes of RAM, enough to save some code.
The astrocade has never been a major success and never outclassed the rival consoles, even though it had the means to do it. Even the homebrew community seems not interested in developing games foir this console that has only a fistful of games released after its discontinuation.
The most interesting add-on released for the console was the ZGRASS that, sat inder the Astrocade, transformed it into a computer with a keyboard, a co-processor, 32K of RAM and 32K of ROM with GRASS programming language, along with an I/O port for cassettes or floppy disks to be used with CP/M.