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

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