Notes from a 2019 Interview with Jamie Fenton

I’ve been listening on and off to “They Create Worlds,” a podcast devoted to the history of videogames, for a couple of years now. On April 23, 2019, Kevin Bunch sent me a private message via Atari Age. He said that Alex Smith, one of the two hosts of the podcast, did an interview with Jamie Fenton. Jamie was heavily involved with the creation of the Bally Arcade and programmed Bally BASIC, “Astro BASIC,” and the extended BASICs, as well as various other software for the system.

Kevin sent me an excerpt of the interview. I asked Alex if I could share this information and on May 2 he gave me the okay. I want to make it clear that Alex Smith and Jamie Fenton are the original source of this information. I am passing along the information as it was given to me via Kevin Bunch.

You can listen to the “They Create Worlds” podcast here:

http://podcast.theycreateworlds.com/

Alex is writing a book on the history of videogames. I mentioned to him that I didn’t expect much coverage of the astrocade. His response surprised me. He said, “While you are correct that the Astrocade will not get a great deal of coverage in my book (though more than you might think as I have 600 pages to tell the story of 1971-81 and try to give everything of note at least some attention), preserving and spreading the history of all facets of the industry is a personal passion of mine.” He also said, “I certainly admire your work, which has been invaluable to my own research.” It’s great that perhaps a little bit of the work that has gone into the archiving of the astrocade by me and others is being disseminated to a wider audience.

Kevin told me that Alex spoke to Jamie Fenton specifically about Astrocade software, BASIC, and possibly ZGRASS. I guess he spoke with her a couple of weeks ago, possibly in early April, about the hardware side of things. Kevin went on to say:

“Oh, Alex tells me this is actually for the book they’re working on, not the podcast (though that could happen at some point). Said in total they have 2 hours of conversations about the Astrocade for this. If there’s anything you’d want to share, I suggest reaching out to him at some point – I’m sure he could accommodate to some degree without undermining their manuscript I imagine (or at least give you an idea when the book might come along)! This is just scratching the surface of what they talked about.

“That said, he passed along the following items to me, which you might find interesting:

“The BASIC cartridge actually was originally created due to laziness. Management wanted a demo program for the system, Fenton didn’t want to write one, so she decided to write a BASIC version instead. That was finished so fast that she ended up having to write the demo program anyway. Additionally, the Bally BASIC version that was sold was actually version 2.0 – the first version didn’t have any command shortcuts. The usage of video memory and the ability to send calls to the hardware for specific graphical uses are why she considered it to be a fairly successful project.

“As for the add-under, Fenton told Smith that she was interested in ZGRASS because it reminded her of BASIC – simple to use but with better graphical abilities. But towards the end of the process she soured on the language, feeling it was too slow. The final version of the add-under actually used Forth, not ZGRASS, which was later adapted to Terse for writing arcade games. Which makes me wonder if the unit that the NVM [National Videogame Museum] may have bought actually has ZGRASS, or if it has Forth.”

My response to this information from Kevin was that “I am glad that Alex is able to do an interview, or a couple of them, with Jamie. When I spoke to her in 2001, she would not allow me to record conversation.

“I can’t think of anything in particular that I can add to Alex’s book for the astrocade. I presume, since he will be covering so much in the book, that the astrocade will be all but a footnote. I do hope, at least, that he brings up that the astrocade was the least expensive computer upon its release to be able to run BASIC. I guess that is debatable, depending on what you consider a ‘computer.’ […]

“I have heard that the BASIC cartridge was created as a stop-gap measure while Z-GRASS was in development hell. It was a quickie conversion from Tiny BASIC. Although the language has Tiny BASIC at its roots, at the time, Jay added many of the graphical features which allow programmers to create games in less than 2K of RAM.

“I’m not sure what you mean by Bally BASIC was the second version of language. What are the ‘command shortcuts’ that you mention? Do you mean the graphic commands like LINE? Certainly, the CALL command is what eventually allowed programmers to access the onboard ROM subroutines. That was a hidden command that was only let out of the bag by Jay himself via the Hacker’s Manual that was available to/through the newsletters.

“I consider Jay’s hack of allowing screen RAM to store a program to be extremely clever. Many people seem to misunderstand how this ‘trick’ works.

“I can understand why J soured on Z-GRASS, but I would consider it a success, as many of the students at the University of Chicago seem to have loved the language. In the examples of its usage on YouTube, the language does seem slow. However, in comparison to BASIC, it seems about the same speed. Plus, it has access to much more memory and many more commands.

“I do seem to have a faint memory that the add-under was going to use Forth in some way. The add-under, as designed by Bally, seems to have been pretty much scrapped in favor of the version that Alternative Engineering was creating and was sold to the National Videogame Museum a few years back. That version of the Z-GRASS add-under certainly was supposed to have Z-GRASS in the ROM. Now, whether or not the NVM has even tried to boot the system is something I do not know right now. Have you ever been able to get in touch with them about this hardware?”

Kevin responded:

“I’m actually not familiar enough with using the BASIC cart to know what Fenton means by command shortcuts; my initial thought is the keypad shortcuts. I did note the uploads you made to archive.org when you made them, so he should be aware of them (I also sent him my raw notes of the Defanti interview I did).

“You know it’s funny, I spoke with John Hardie at the NVM the other day about a couple other research questions I had and completely forgot to ask about the ZGRASS add-under! Supposedly he wants to try and make VCF East in a couple weeks – if he does, I’ll check in with him there. Otherwise I’ll just call back about it. I maintain that if the add-under works and does have ZGRASS in its rom, it would absolutely be worth dumping and trying to build an emulator for.”

These few tidbits of information are enough to whet my appetite for more and I hope that at some point the interview with Jamie that was conducted by Alex is made public. Perhaps after Alex Smith’s book is published that will be a possibility.

I’m glad that Kevin told me about this interview with Jamie Fenton that was conducted by Alex Smith. Special thanks to the three of them for their work with the astrocade and videogames in general. Fenton’s work, in particular, is still used by me on a weekly basis whenever I use my astrocade.

Long live the astrocade; long live Bally BASIC!

Adam Trionfo

BallyAlley Website History / Past Feb. 7 Updates

This Astrocade blog is really giving me an opportunity that I have not taken before now. I have been going through BallyAlley.com’s “What’s New” area looking for updates that I have made in the past. This is a fun experience. It gives me a chance to remember that this website, devoted to a long-forgotten videogame console, has been around for almost 20 years! In the next few weeks, I plan to write a blog post about this with a title like, “What’s so great about the Bally Arcade / Astrocade, anyway?” I’m not sure that I have an answer, so exploring this area of my mind, and understanding why I have been a fan of the astrocade since I was introduced to it in the early-to-mid-1990s, will be a rich and rewarding topic for me to write about at length. I’m sure that I will learn a little bit about the gaming hobby, and about myself too.

Let’s get into the meat of this post. What content did I add to BallyAlley.com on this day of any year? To answer that question, I have to go all the back to February 7, 2001. On that day I added an early article that I wrote called “Discovering and Exploiting the Bally Astrocade Cassette Format.” At that time, there was little known about the AstroBASIC 2000-baud tape format. Now there are tools to work with WAV files that allow BASIC programs written for the Bally Arcade to be manipulated and digitally archived. Back in 2001, this wasn’t yet possible. The tape format was a popular topic on the Bally Alley Yahoo group.

Take a look at the way the article looks now:

bally_cassette_format_Screenshot

Bally Alley.com remains primitive-looking compared to modern websites. Parts of the website, such as this article on tape formats, are even more primitive. This article harks back to the very beginning of the site, before there was a theme. As you can see, the picture is just plain HTML. To this day, the website remains completely written in HTML and CSS. Here is a link to the article about BASIC tapes:

Discovering and Exploiting the Bally Astrocade Cassette Format, by Adam Trionfo

Be warned, this article and all of the old areas of the modern Bally Alley website, probably don’t look very good on widescreen monitors. Sorry about that, but changing the website now would require rewriting hundreds of HTML pages. That’s the problem with hard-coding how a website is set up. I guess I didn’t know better at the time… and now it’s too late to change it. Besides, even if I did, then in just a few years the look of the site would fall out of fashion again.  I’ve never been fashionable, so why start now?

Also on this day in 2001, I linked to the Astrocade Discussion Group at Yahoo Groups, here:

https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/ballyalley/info

I made the first posting to the Yahoo group the next day. It said:

Today, February 8, 2001, marks the beginning of the Astrocade discussion group. This is the day when the Astrocade community begins to have a place to meet and call our own.

Anyone want to start off discussing who we are, what we do, and how we use our Astrocades?

The astrocade yahoo group is still active and it has 363 members. As of today, there have been 16,237 posts made there. You don’t have to be a member to read the posts, but you do have to be a member to post to a thread. According to the group’s statistics, I have made about 6,200 postings to the group since 2001. Wow!— that’s a lot of typing! My most recent post there was only yesterday.

Over the years I have written some fairly lengthy posts to that group. I’m not sure which is my most favorite post that I’ve written, but one of them is called “Astro Battle ‘Lives’ Cheat/Hack.” You can read it here:

Astro Battle “Lives” Cheat/Hack, by Adam Trionfo

If you find cheating at Astro Battle (a Space Invaders clone) interesting, then read the follow-up threads to the post.

Back when the Bally Alley website was first started, I hosted in on my own. I don’t remember where it was exactly. Before long, William Cassidy, of The Odyssey2 Homepage! asked if I wanted the site hosted on classicgaming.com. I took him up on that offer right away. Under William’s guadance, ClassicGaming.com was an excellent website. Eventually the site sold out to GameSpy. Things changed and I moved BallyAlley.com away from there. The ClassicGaming.com URL now brings you to IGN.com. That’s too bad, as it was nice to have a centralized hub for nearly all of the classic console systems.

The last update I made to BallyAlley on February 7, 2001 was that I added the “Classic Gaming” ads to the top of all pages (this was required by the host). Did banner ads really work to bring in money for any of these hosting services? I don’t know, but I certainly don’t have any advertising now on my website now. If you’d like to see how BallyAlley.com looked back in 2001, then you can view it on Archive.org, here:

www.classicgaming.com/ballyalley

The website looked pretty ugly, but the important matter was, and remains to be, that the content of the site was, and will continue to be, strong and directly related to the Astrocade game console and its arcade cousins.

This blog is bringing back plenty of memories. I’ve been part of the classic gaming hobby since 1989/90, when “classic games” were just called “games.” By the mid-1990s, “classic games” were referred to as “old games” and people wondered why anyone would still play that old junk anymore. This was a time when you could buy an Atari 2600 for a buck or an astrocade for fifty cents (like I did).  Eventually, I really jumped into the hobby by creating a paper newsletter.  I’ve been part of the classic gaming community since 1994. I guess that after all this time I’m here to stay!

Space Gauntlet by The Tiny Arcade

There has only been one addition to BallyAlley.com on February 6 in years past. That was in 2017, when I added two different BASIC listings of Tiny Arcade’s 1982 game Space Gauntlet, which looks like this:

Space_Gauntlet_(The_Tiny_Arcade)_03

In Space Gauntlet “You control a star cruiser patrolling a remote sector of the galaxy when you encounter the local inhabitants. These denizens of deep-space don’t “cotton” to strangers and they arrange themselves into two columns, firing missiles and challenging you to fly between them and survive the deadly gauntlet.”

Complete Space Gauntlet Instructions

Here is a video of Space Gauntlet in action:

Here is a printed listing for the game:

Space Gauntlet (Printed BASIC Listing)

Most (nearly all) Astrocade programmers didn’t have access to a printer for their system. Who can blame them; this was primarily a game console.  Therefore, BASIC programmers had to keep track of their programs by carefully writing them down like this:

Space Gauntlet (Hand-Written BASIC Listing)

Writing down a BASIC program by hand and keeping track of it is one thing, but check out this example of a hand-written machine language program:

Machine Music Demo – Brett Bilbrey (Hand-Written Machine Language Program)

In February of 2017, the first round of the second season of the Astrocade High Score Club featured the cartridge game Solar Conqueror and the BASIC game Space Gauntlet. There is plenty of extra information about both games in that thread on AtariAge.com, which you can read here:

HSC02, Round 1: Solar Conqueror / Space Gauntlet

In that round, the final scores for Space Gauntlet were:

1st – ranger_lennier – 410 pts
2nd – BallyAlley – 260 pts
3rd – nd2003grad – 130 pts

Do you think that you can top those scores? Then download the 300-Baud, Bally BASIC version of Space Gauntlet from BallyAlley.com, here:

Space Gauntlet (Bally BASIC, 300-Baud version)

Give this game a try! If an “AstroBASIC” version of this game exists, then it has not been archived. This means that you’re going to be using the 300-Baud interface to transfer the program to your Astrocade– which isn’t really a bad thing; it’s a neat hardware item to play around with from time to time.

Enjoy!

Cosmic Raiders Z80 Disassembly

I added a new version of the Z80 machine language disassembly for the game Cosmic Raiders to BallyAlley.com.  I started this in September 2016 and Richard Degler sent me this version on December 25, 2018. This is the third release of this code.  It is now commented and most everything has been disassembled.

Cosmic Raiders is one of my favorite Astrocade games.  Here is a video review of the game by “niceandgames” that he published on Aug 26, 2011 to YouTube:

Richard has these few comments about this Z80 disassembly:

Here’s “COSMIC RAIDERS 2019.zip” (early VideoCADE #2019 New Year’s present) anyway. […] Check the names of the different fighter patterns – Type-2 and Type-4 might be switched. And notice that the BOMB-Explosion is NOT used for the Bomb! […] Contains the infamous “LD A,$F0 / OUT ($CC),A” (BASIC equivalant “&(204)=240”) which fooled [some few] into believing there was a MYSTIC register hidden in their machine’s hardware. Probably just a command to turn off a Printer, UART or Electronic Module in the test bed instead.

The disassembly can be downloaded here:

http://www.ballyalley.com/ml/ml_source/ml_source.html#CosmicRaidersDisassembly

Thank, Richard. As always, it’s always fun to read your excellent comments.

HVGLIB.H, Ver. 3.02

On December 31, 2018, Richard Degler sent me an updated version of the Home Video Game Library equates file called HGVLIB.H. It is now at version 3.02. The previous version, from 2010, was 3.01. This is an equate file for Bally / Astrocade assembly language programming. If you’re going to be creating machine language programs with the Nutting Manual, then you need this Astrocade equate file.

Richard comments:

“Also included is an updated “HVGLIB.H” where I finally corrected the FIRSTC and NORMEM comments … surprised no one called me on that!! Updated the “FonT BASE character” comment again, also the URINAL memory cell since we now have empirical data on that in TERSE/Addin_Mar1979.pdf (which is not TERSE but may have come from TERSE source originally ??). They were probably right to change the COUNTER UPDATE & NUMBER TRACKING equate – I was shocked to see that abbreviation written down!!1! Break that out and replace the old HVGLIB.H on Bally Alley for me.”

The file can be downloaded from BallyAlley.com, here:

http://www.ballyalley.com/ml/ml_tools/ml_tools.html#HVGLIB

Thanks for the update, Richard!

Past February 5 Updates

Here are some past February 5 updates to BallyAlley.com:

February 5, 2016

“Programmables: Show Business Is In Cartridges”
“Consumer Electronics,” May 1979: 23.

Programmables - Show Business Is In Cartridges (Consumer Electronics)(May 1979)_tn

“In a year when the industry is expecting limited growth in programmable video games, major firms in the field will strive to maintain momentum by focusing on new cartridges at Summer CES.”

“Bally will also be at CES with new cartridges for its programmable, recently upgraded to perform computer functions. The company will introduce two or three new cartridges, including a pinball program, says Jack Nieman, national sales manager.”

http://www.ballyalley.com/articles_and_news/articles_and_news.html#ProgrammablesShowBusinessIsInCartridges

February 5, 2010

Added four tape covers or miscellaneous tape-cover related items to the WaveMakers Box section.

  1. Backgammon / Obstacle Course Tournament (Tape Cover)
  2. Collision Course / Sound Effects (Spine)
  3. Slot Machine / Perversion (Tape Cover)
  4. WaveMakers Label (Close-Up)

http://www.ballyalley.com/pics/box_pics/wavemakers/box_pictures.html

Added a red L&M Software sticker that was originally on tape “boxes.”

LM Software (Sticker)(Red)

Reorganized and added two tape covers to the Miscellaneous Box Section.

  1. Nam-Cap (Tape Case – Cover Only)
  2. Video Wizards (Tape case)

http://www.ballyalley.com/pics/box_pics/misc_boxes/box_pictures.html

Added screenshots of three tapes:

  1. Allemande, Part I & II – George Moses
  2. Buggin’ BC – Dave Ibach and George Moses
  3. Crazy Face – Steve Walters

These blog posts are a great way to revisit older updates.

“Hidden” Astrocade Links

Every once in a while I’ll just type in the word “Astrocade” in Google and see what I find in the deep links. You know, the ones that no one ever clicks because they’re dozens of pages from the top of the searches. I posted a few of these not-at-the-top links to the Bally Alley Yahoo group back in August 2018. I figured that it would be fun to share them here again. It’s fun to find “hidden” Astrocade links!

Adam

Bally Astrocade RGB Schematic

I came across this Bally Astrocade RGB schematic by someone named “hotdog6394.” I’ve attached the original file.

https://easyeda.com/hotdog6394/Bally_Astrocade_RGB-4W86GgdNn

Can anyone vouch for this hardware? Does anyone know if this is an original design?

The Bally Astrocade, A True Hidden Gem

Here is a blog post about the Astrocade called “A closer look at the Bally Astrocade, a true hidden gem among game consoles.” This was posted by zadoc on April 11, 2018. The “article” is quite general, but I like the pictures:

https://imgur.com/gallery/tQJJI

Not too bad, right?

Revived Astrocade by drunknretro!

On June 24, 2016, a blog post was written by “drunknretro.” He fixed his Astrocade that had bad video and he shows pictures of the steps that he followed to do it.

https://drunknretro.blogspot.com/2016/06/up-from-crypt-bally-professional-arcade.html

It’s always nice to see an Astrocade live again!

Twitter has Astrocade Hashtag?!?

I’m not a Twitter user, but maybe I should join the “fun.” There are several people that use #astrocade. I didn’t expect it to be about the Bally Arcade/Astrocade, but the “tweets” (I hate that word) all seem to belong to the little console that could(n’t).

https://twitter.com/hashtag/astrocade

Does anyone here use this tag on Twitter?

“Meet me in the Astrocade” Lecture (June 2018)

Rachel Weil gave a lecture at the Joy of Coding 2018 conference on June 8, 2018 called “Meet me in the Astrocade: peace, love, and 8-bit hardware hacking.” You can read about it here:

http://joyofcoding.org/2018/rachel-weil.html

I met Rachel in July of 2018 when she was passing through town. We had a three player game of the homebew game “War” together. Great fun!

3D Moveable Model of Astrocade

Here is a link to a 3D moveable model of an Astrocade:

https://3dwarehouse.sketchup.com/model/ue9c95c6f-746c-4cc9-9eae-882e23ac2289/Bally-Astrocade

This is kind of cool. You can move the Astrocade console around in 3D!