First coin-operated videogame, but not the one that you are thinking now. Computer Space was the opera prima of Nolan Bushnell. When he was an engineer student at the Utah University he discovered Spacewar and he decided to port the game to a coin-operated machine and make money with it.

Years later, while working as a researcher for Ampex (inventors of the videotape) in Sunnyvale, CA, transistors were smaller, cheaper and more reliable so he started to think again about making his own commercial version of Spacewar. Bushnell started working in his spare time but finally he left Ampex to work full time in the project. When he finalized the design of the game, he sold it to Nutting Associates and joined the company as a chief engineer. 1500 units of Computer Space were built.

Bushnell overestimated the skill of the public controlling such a complicated videogame: as with Spacewar, you had to deal with real “space physics” and Computer Space had too many knobs and buttons for the almost inexistent 1971 videogames aficionado.

Along with Ted Dabney, Nolan Bushnell founded Atari, hired Al Alcorn as full time engineer and created the first successful videogame of all times.

In the beginning there was Spacewar

Nolan Bushnell attended the University of Utah in the 1960s, while he worked as a manager at a Salt Lake City arcade during the summer. He spent most of his time at the University playing Spacewar on the PDP-1 mainframe at the university (the University of Utah was one of the few schools in the world that had the computing power to even play the game). Nolan was convinced that Spacewar could become a viable commercial product, if only he could get it off the mainframe, and into the hands of consumers.

He began a multi-year quest to port the game to a coin operated unit, going so far as to build a workshop in his house (so he would have room to develop the game). In 1970 he finally graduated and began to work at Ampex (the inventor of the videotape). At Ampex he met up with Ted Dabney, who joined forces with Bushnell to make Computer Space a reality.

From concept to fiberglass monstrosity

By 1971 Nolan has made considerable progress on his game, so he resigned from Ampex to work on Computer Space full time. He finally completes his first unit and finds a buyer, Nutting Associates (who was a manufacturer of coin operated trivia games). Several sources conflict in saying exactly how many of these games were produced, some say that 1500 copies where made, while other sources indicate that there were 1500 copies made of the 2 player version.

The machines themselves were possibly the most futuristic looking dedicated cabinets ever made. They were all fiberglass, and were designed with lots of sweeping curves and were painted with metal-flake paint (much the same way that the cars on many amusement park rides are painted). There were only 4 parts to each machine, the cabinet, the monitor, the control panel, and the "brain box". The control panel did double duty by housing the coin mechanism (along with several operator controls that were on the underside). The 2 player version had an entirely different control panel that was shaped like a chevron (and used joysticks, something that the single player version lacked). The single player version was not fully consistant in the layout of it's control panel either (different machines often have small differences in the controls). The monitor was a standard store bought 13" black and white television set, several different brands were used (making finding a replacement fairly easy, even today).

Despite the name, Computer Space had nothing resembling a computer inside. The whole thing was run by a mishmash of circuitry, without a CPU or ROM chip anywhere. This design made Computer Space very difficult to repair, simply because it was hard to figure out exactly what was wrong when one failed. This was the most complex game to use this design (even though it was the first). Later CPU-less games (such as Pong) were much more simple, to appeal more to the unsophisticated 1970s arcade market.

Tales from the instruction manual

Computer Space came with a single instruction sheet. I cannot reproduce the whole thing here due to pesky laws, so I am giving you some of the more interesting bits.

BEAUTIFUL SPACE-AGE CABINET attracts players of all age groups. The player is additionally attracted by two flying saucers moving about in formation on the play-field while the unit is in it's non-activated state.

EXCITING PLAYER ACTION ocurs as coin is inserted and start button is pushed to activate the unit. A rocket ship appears out of nowhere and at the same instant the once friendly flying saucer begins firing missiles at the rocket ship. Now at the controls of the rocket ship, you begin to evade the missiles bearing down on you and maneuver into position to fire your own missiles at the saucers.

COMPONENTS? THERE ARE ONLY THREE ASSEMBLIES IN THE ENTIRE UNIT

COMPUTER (BRAIN BOX) is sealed and carries a full one-year unconditional guarantee if not tampered with. FRONT CONTROL PANEL houses the only moving parts in the unit - the rocket ship controls and coin acceptor. BLACK AND WHITE TV SET has the life of any new black and white receiver - no modifications have been made to affect it's reliability/

Weight 98 lbs.; Dimensions 30" wide x 67" high x 30" deep.

Computer Space is People

Computer Space was the first video game ever to have a cameo in a movie. It's first appearance was in the 1973 movie "Soylent Green", where it was being played by a women in an apartment when Charlton Heston comes to visit. The 1975 film "Jaws" also shows a yellow Computer Space cabinet about 40 minutes into the movie.

So, you want to play Computer Space?

You control the ship using a combination of buttons (and sometime a joystick or dial, depending on the exact control panel layout). The game is simple in concept, just shoot down the flying saucers more times than they shoot you down (the game is time based rather than lives based, just like Safari, Fire Truck, and a plethora of other older games). Scoring high enough will bring about "hyperspace", a mode in which the playfield changes to white (to represent "daytime" in space).

Good luck in finding a real machine to play on. Fortunately there are many clones of this game available for most operating systems (one clone is even done in java, so you can play in your browser window).


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