As industry long timers and historians know, there wasn’t one single video game manufacturer back in 1970. But by 1980, there were 10 American companies (from Atari to Williams), plus six more Japanese factories turning out what some still called “coin-operated TV games.” If we really want to be complete, we can lump in another seven making poker and other “gray area” machines. Adding in kits not many years later, coin-op video manufacturing would continue to grow bigger before it turned around to the small, but sterling few, making them today.
But, let’s return to the game’s beginnings. Atari, which had invented coin-op video in the first place, also earned what some would call the “dubious distinction” of creating “home video” as well. During the mid ’70s, their designers launched the consumer side of this form of amusement by building a small “console” with wires and alligator clips that connected to the back of your living room television set, enabling the family to play their signature game Pong without having to go to the bar, arcade or convenience store to enjoy it. It marked the beginning of an industry that would spectacularly out-distance coin-op and hurt it in the process.
I remember going out to Las Vegas for one of the early Consumer Electronics shows at which my friend Paul Jacobs was showing some Neo-Geo home video cartridges. RePlay was doing well covering the coin-op side, consuming so much of my time then that I only looked at this home product with mild interest. I had better fish to fry writing about games like Defender and Pac-Man that were kicking butt out there on the street and in the game room. Somebody at that show, Paul maybe, wondered if I should make a magazine for this home video business and I said something like: “No, that’s a tall order, and I’m already up to here making RePlay.”
If I’d have gone after that market, I could be living in Elvis’ old house in Beverly Hills on the “good side” of Sunset Boulevard today. But, however true that may be, I don’t regret spending my life covering the coin-op business. If you do something long enough, it becomes a comfort zone. There may not be many still around who remember Bert Lane, Barney Sugerman, Billy Cannon or Bob Jones, but I do…and a whole lot more like Billy O’Donnell whose Bally/Midway combine brought the business some of the finest electronic pins and videos in history.
Maybe I was imprinted as a “member of the coin-op tribe” the day “arcade king” Mike Munves brought me up to the second floor of his dealership on New York’s 10th Avenue and, after adjusting my eyes to the blazing light of all those shopped-up, picture-perfect Mutoscopes, kiddie rides, fortune tellers, hockey tables and target rifles on display that he used to rent to the movie business, felt like I’d arrived. Sometimes there’s a whole lot more to a person’s life’s work than building a retirement nest egg. Sometimes there are priceless memories to go along with that.
–– Eddie Adlum