By Bill Paul, Copyright 1996
The history of Cinematronics has intrigued me
for several reasons. One is that I have had the opportunity to talk to the people that were involved.
It is that much more real getting the story from a first person point of view rather than reading
articles and press information from others to put the pieces together. Another reason is having an
understanding for what it takes to design something, I can appreciate the ingenuity in the
hardware and software that make up a video game.
This is the first pass at getting all the facts. I had been postponing the release of this hoping to talk to some additional people, but decided to get what I have out on the web and update it as I learn more in the future.
Some of the sources wish to remain anonymous since some of the information concerns people's incomes and legal actions taken by Cinematronics against other parties, and they weren't really supposed to know. I have attempted to make this article as accurate as possible, but if you have facts to the contrary, I would like to know so I can make my article more accurate.
Another source of excellent information on the History of Cinematronics is the FAQ authored by Steve Ozdemir. It contains a description of each game, including some well written articles on the converting of one game to another. It is a few years old at this point, and a lot of additional information has been learned since he wrote it.
And finally, many thanks must go to those who provided me information, and thanks in general to those that made Cinematronics happen, since you provided us with good memories of fun in the arcades. Also special thanks to Gaymond Lee, who has been the source for most of the hardware and flyers I've encountered.
The video game industry has almost a 'glamour' to it because so many people have dumped
their allowances into them and grown up around them. For those of us in the Generation X age
group, it's a part of our lives. Now video games are so popular and ingrained in our society,
they've grown out of the arcades of yesteryear and into our homes, our hands, and our personal
computers, and can even be found on some commercial equipment as Easter eggs. We have
even taken the game aspect out of it and used this technology as training tools.
Video games had been floating around computer labs since the 1960s. Somewhere around 1972, Atari started a new industry with the creation of Pong. It started to make enough money to get other peoples attention. Copy catting games was easy enough to do at this time, and Atari wasn't going after anybody, so a few companies started making Pong machines.
Jim Pierce and two other entrepreneurs, Dennis Parte and Gary Garrison, decided to get into the embryonic video game industry and started Cinematronics in El Cajon, CA in 1975. Dennis and Gary where basically investors, and Jim ran the business. Pong was easy enough to copy, so they started out making those. Later, Dennis and Gary sold their portion of the business to Tom 'Papa' Stroud. Tom eventually brought most of his immediate family into the operation giving the company a family business atmosphere.
Things progressed along, and their next creation was Flipper Ball, a sort of breakout game. This was a copy of a Centari game. So far all they had done was copy other games and manufacture them; a formula which was working.
By this time, Cinematronics needed a new game to sell. The industry was ramping up quickly and new ideas were needed. A new game was created called Embargo. Embargo was a nautical theme game with a map type view of an ocean with two islands in the center, which roughly resembled Cuba. The object of the game was to steer your ship around and drop mines for your opponent to run over and sink. Well, the only thing that was sinking was Cinematronics sales figures, and fast. The game was a flop, only selling well in Florida. Guess they recognized the islands. Cinematronics needed something different as they were dangerously close to losing it all.
The game Space Wars had been around for many years, running on various platforms dating
back to the PDP-1. An enterprising MIT student named Larry Rosenthal based his Masters thesis
on Space Wars on the concept that he could produce a hardware platform economically that
would run the game. Since the average CPU and chipsets were a few hundred dollars, Larry had
to create a processor on his own. What he created was effectively a RISC (Reduced Instruction
Set Computer) processor board constructed out of cheap TTL logic chips. He also created a B+W
vector display CRT system to complete the system. He took his creation to a few companies,
including Atari, who turned him away. Cinematronics liked the idea, and it was good timing for
them to get into something new. Space Wars was a success and things were looking up for
About this time, the third owner dropped out of the business, leaving Jim Pierce and 'Papa' Stroud to carry on the company.
Larry was receiving royalties on every Space Wars sold, somewhere in the neighborhood of
$50 per game shipped. Apparently he felt that he wasn't getting enough and wanted much more.
His solution was to leave the company, while still getting his royalty checks from Cinematronics,
and set up shop in the Sunnyvale, CA area as Vectorbeam. His departure was not a friendly one
from Cinematronics, and he took with him the only copies of the instruction set for programming
the CPU board. An engineer who had been with the company before Larry Rosenthal came along,
was tasked with the project of reverse engineering their own board. He did this, and created a set
of software tools so they could move on and possibly make addition games based on that
Vectorbeam made the exact same game but the board and monitor were of higher quality, typically lasting longer. The cabinet was also of high quality being made from plywood were the Cinematronics cabinet was made from particle board.
Naturally Cinematronics took legal action against Larry. He had left them in a very bad position. It's unclear on whether a judgment was made or if there was an out of court settlement but the result was for Cinematronics to buy Vectorbeam and all rights to the hardware design. They paid Larry handsomely for Vectorbeam, around 1 million dollars. It seems that Larry made out like a bandit, getting sued and ending up with millions -quite a good deal.
With the Vectorbeam fiasco behind them, Cinematronics would forge ahead creating new
games using the same hardware.
One unique thing that made Cinematronics more profitable and successful is the fact that they let the technicians do a lot of the design work. At times, they would have about 3 to 4 technicians for each engineer. The techs would come up with ideas for circuits, sound boards, etc., and with approval, be free to work on it as their own little project. The design and math would be verified by the engineer, who worked almost as their mentor. Another advantage to this was that some of the designs were based on repairability and reliability, rather than strictly theory. With cost savings on the payroll, and many techs working on designing, Cinematronics was able to crank out games quickly and cheaply.
Here's a quick list of some of Cinematronics vector based games with some additional comments on a few:
Ripoff (1979) A cocktail version was also manufactured under license by Centuri.
Sundance (1979) was an interesting story. Cinematronics tried to make about 1000 of them, but the production fallout rate was around 50%. The problem was the 23" CRT which was manufactured by outside vendor. The carbon coating sprayed onto the inside of the tube was defective, and would shake loose and settle around the neck if the game was left in certain positions. When the game was powered up after shipping to the operators, the CRT would instantly burn up from arcing inside the tube. As a result, most Sundances suffered a quick death, and were likely destroyed or sent out to pasture in an operators back room.
Armor Attack (1980)
Star Castle (1980) Written by Scott Bodden. The star constellation in the background was actually the outline of a centerfold form a 1980 Oui magazine. When the management after they had shipped about 5000 units, they flipped out and almost stopped production of the game. They came to their senses later and nothing was changed.
Tailgunner II (1980) This was the same game play as the original Tailgunner but in a sitdown cockpit manufactured under license by Exidy.
Boxing Bugs (1981) This game may have been manufactured by Dynamo, a manufacturer of other types of redemption equipment.
Solar Quest (1981) was a last minute game. Cinematronics was heading towards the trade show season with only Boxing Bugs to show, which they felt was not a winner. Scott Bodden, the author of Star Castle who had left the company earlier, was called in as a contractor to write Solar Quest. He completed this in a mere 90 days.
Star Hawk (1981)
War of the Worlds (1981) Less than 10 were made. They were all sold to distributors and sold at trade shows. The game did not generate enough interest to be put into production. One interesting note is that the game was originally made with the B+W X-Y monitors, but a couple years later, it was resurrected with a color monitor around the time of Solar Quest. Only one or two where made this way, and it is doubtful that they still exist.
Cosmic Chasm (1983) was the first and last game based on a new 68000 board. The board was designed to have interchangeable ROM boards with easy access from the front, but unfortunately no other games were released on this hardware.
5000 was the average run for a game due to manufacturing limitations. The game industry at the time was a seasonal business. Games would be designed and the software written in the summer. There would be a small production run for samples and trade shows in the fall. Assuming all went well, the distributors would place their orders shortly after the trade show, and they would start making games as fast as they could. If the orders did not come in, or in small numbers, the game was canceled. Cosmic Chasm (1983) is one example suffering this fate, so there were only about 50 made. Cinematronics was limited by staff and facility to making 50 games a day, at best. The manufacturing season would be over in the spring when the final orders were due. The distributors would move them to the operators, who would have the games in the arcades just in time for summer break from school.
Most games would be popular for one season. Some games were popular enough to warrant a second run, but for the single season games, the most they could make was about 5000.
Space Wars was one such game having a long production run. Additionally Vectorbeam manufactured an unknown amount, so there were quite a few out there. Star Castle was popular for at least two seasons and just over 14,000 were made.
Serial numbers has always been an owners insight into how old, popular, etc. something might be. For this reason, Cinematronics would start their serial numbers somewhere around 400. There was actually some psychology behind this, because many distributors feared getting early games that might still have some unresolved hardware problems
Some at Cinematronics felt the laser games was the future of the video arcade. Dragons Lair
(1983) was an expensive game to produce, but it was justified because orders were pouring in. All
in all, they shipped over 5000 of the games. Unfortunately, the game play was rather easy, and
most kids mastered the game in a short time, never returning to it. Less than six months after
operators got their Dragon's Lairs, the quarters stopped, and most ended up not even recovering
their investment in the game.
Cinematronics quickly countered with Space Ace, but it never did very well because the operator still had the bad taste of Dragons in their mouths.
Here's an interesting technical note on one of the laser disc players: The original player was a Pioneer PR-7820 (the later one was a Pioneer LVD-1000). They were among the first laser disc players on the market, and were plagued with problems. Pioneer made about 25,000 of them, 15,000 of which were sold to an auto manufacturer for training and sales videos. 5,000 went to Cinematronics, and the final 5,000 were scavenged for spare parts.
Vectored graphics games had been around for 5 years by 1983. Distributors were starting top
get tired of them. Cinematronics took on some more staff, including Fred Frucamoto, who would
be the President of the company. Mr. Frucamoto was able to coordinate a one time buy for 5000
game boards from Japan based on the 8088 CPU and used a raster type display. The only
documentation this board came with was the schematic, no programming instructions, nothing.
Skilled technicians spent a considerable amount of time reverse engineering the board and
creating a Software Programmer's manual. Naughty Boy and Jack And The Giant Killer were
written to run on this new board. Later, additional software would be written for these boards and
sold as an upgrade to Jack and the Giant Killer machines. One was Brix, which was renamed to
Zzyzzyxx before release.
At the same time, Cinematronics decided that they could increase their game output if they had a larger facility. They moved into a larger building for considerably more rent. Between that and putting about 2 million dollars out for Jack and the Giant killer boards, which weren't selling, Cinematronics was in trouble again. It is also rumored that Mr. Frucamoto received some sort of kickback for the purchase of the boards. About this time, this video game industry was falling. Sales were down for everyone and the arcades were losing customers.
The inevitable finally came, and the company filed for bankruptcy. They operated under Chapter 11 for a while hoping to recover, but never did. The Leland cooperation bought what was left of Cinematronics in 1984. They continued to ship products, now under the Leland name. Many people were let go and much information disappeared. Some of the people stayed on and continued working for Leland, and some went their separate ways. It was not a friendly take over, so there was a bit of animosity in the air. After 9 years of doing business in the video game industry, Cinematronics was no longer.
Web art by Bill Paul. Copyright 1996