Atari historian, Marty Goldberg recently revealed that legendary designer, Steve Bristow has passed away. He was instrumental to the success of the company in its early years and headed Atari’s coin-op division at one point. He was a gaming pioneer who will be sorely missed. What follows is a extract from an article we ran on him in issue 75. Our thoughts go out to his friends and family.
“It was the summer of ‘71 and I was working at Ampex, while I was studying at the University of California at Berkley,” begins Steve Bristow, who was born and still lives in the Golden State. “I noticed I was building something that definitely didn’t look like Ampex stuff. Turned out to be circuitry for Computer Space!”
Many of us stacked shelves or pulled pints to pay our way through university, but Steve must be the only one whose summer job involved creating the first ever arcade machine. Of course, it helped that his supervisors were Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney, who would set up Atari the following year and kick-start the whole industry.
“Nolan’s bosses knew he was working on something,” Steve adds. “He presented it to them, saying, ‘Hey, I’ve got this great thing,’ but they said, ‘Nah, we’re not interested. If you want to do that, do it on your own.’ Basically, Ampex turned down videogames.”
So Nolan moved on to Nutting Associates, where his vision became beautiful, fibreglass reality. Steve joined him there in March 1972 and was responsible for fixing any faulty boards destined for those elegant Computer Space cabinets. When Nolan left, after disagreeing with Bill Nutting over the company’s direction, Steve stepped up to VP of engineering and started a two-player project, in more ways than one.
“I got married that July and my wife constructed the prototype wire-wrap for a two-player version of Computer Space. She and I took the train to Chicago for the AMOA show that year where Nutting exhibited it. I thought it was pretty neat, but who knew how big videogames would be?”
While Computer Space can claim to be the first, it was, of course, Pong that introduced arcade machines to the masses. Once Steve had finished his degree, he went straight to work for his old mentor Nolan Bushnell, whose new company Atari was coining it in thanks to its ubiquitous yellow cabinet. Steve’s first project was Pong Doubles, which brought two extra paddles into play. A simple enough task, you might think, but these really were the early days.
“There was no code and no microprocessor,” chuckles Steve. “It was a case of, ‘Here’s the circuit for Pong and now we want it for four players. You look at the circuitry, add some blocks on the schematic, build it up and try it out. And hope that it works!’”
The hulking Pong Doubles did indeed work, and, not afraid to get his hands dirty, Bristow continued to fiddle with those basic circuits to produce Quadrapong, the spiritual antecedent to Warlords, and the volleyball-inspired Rebound. The latter bears a striking resemblance to Spike, released by Sunnyvale neighbour Kee Games, which turns out not to be a coincidence…
“The way the industry worked back then was that each town had, say for pinball, a Bally distributor, a Williams distributor, one for Chicago Coin and they all had exclusive deals,” explains Steve. “It was the same for videogames. Atari was selling products but they were only going through one channel in major areas, so Nolan got a neighbour, a smart computer guy called Joe Keenan, to set up a ‘competitor’.”
It was a clever ruse, designed to covertly increase sales avenues. Steve became the VP of engineering for Kee Games, which despite being set up with Atari money and sharing its manufacturing facility and R&D group, did build up its own engineering personnel and assembled and shipped its own games. “To the outside world, Atari and Kee Games were in competition, but internally, there was a rivalry too,” notes Steve. “For example, Atari produced their two-player driving game, Gran Trak 10, and we did our version, Twin Racer. It was exactly the same game inside! Our cabinet was uglier but easier to drive and was more popular, much to Atari’s chagrin.”
This friendly one-upmanship produced many first steps along now well-trodden gaming paths. At the AMOA trade show in 1974, the secret couple showcased Touch Me, which inspired Simon (see boxout); a prototype pinball machine that was the first to contain a microprocessor; the landmark lightgun game Qwak; and Indy 800, an eight-player driving game. You were certainly pioneering some new genres there, Steve…
“Yeah, we probably were,” he replies, modestly. “I remember with Indy 800, it wouldn’t fit through the doors, so we had to dismantle the whole game, pass it through this single door and reassemble it inside the show. And with Qwak, it was the first time we’d really put a weapon in someone’s hands. The question was could they break the cabinet? I went to an engineering review and said, ‘Let’s give it a try!’ I did my best to punch through the Plexiglass with the gun and it survived. Then I tried to break the screen with my foot. That was fun…”
While they weren’t breaking glass, Atari and Kee Games were definitely breaking new ground with some left-field thinking. Who before or since has opted for a control setup modelled on a pair of breasts? “The idea of putting those ‘round-ish’ controllers was George Faraco’s,” chuckles Steve, recalling the distinctive pink mouldings that encased the joysticks on 1973’s Gotcha. “By that time, we actually had a couple of designers, artistic types. We all looked at it and said, ‘Ooooookay!’ That was one of George’s more memorable ideas. Creating a maze game was a challenge when you still didn’t have a microprocessor. One circuit could create a checkerboard pattern and another could effectively ‘filter’ that information to give you what showed up on screen. Everything was being done in real-time without a computer, which is perhaps hard for people to understand.”
What is also difficult to comprehend is that despite all this innovative work, by the middle of 1974 Atari was in serious trouble. Pong had stopped selling, the company was reputedly $500,000 in debt, and staff were being laid off. It desperately needed a hit to survive and who should deliver it but its supposed competitor.
“The thinking behind Tank was that Computer Space had a lot of good things, like the ability to turn, move and shoot, but people were confused by Nolan simulating real space, so if you thrust you just kept going,” Steve explains. “I said maybe we could do Computer Space but with something that’s not so hard to drive. I had experience of driving caterpillar tractors in my youth, so I thought, ‘Okay, let’s have two controllers – one for each track – and a gun… and you have Tank!’”
This conceptual breakthrough tied in with two other key factors. In early ‘74, Steve had been working on an American football game, creating a prototype system that put Xs and Os on the screen, but with every object requiring a separate circuit to move, manoeuvring a whole team around the pitch proved impossible. Later that year, Steve hired a bright young Berkley graduate called Lyle Rains, passed on his prototype and game idea to the new recruit, and the boy did good.
“Lyle kicked it around and turned it into Tank,” smiles Steve. “He used a little bit of ROM for the maze, which was a first for us. What he pulled out of pure air, which he should get more credit for, is it also used RAM. The maze was fixed but the minefield was in RAM. It was the first Atari game to do that.”
Tank not only brought the company back from the brink of financial ruin, but the demand for it from distributors was so overwhelming that they forgot about their previous exclusivity deals, allowing Atari to come clean about its clandestine relationship with Kee Games. The latter became a ‘wholly owned subsidiary’, though its crucial role in the survival of the parent company was acknowledged when Joe Keenan was appointed president of Atari and Steve became VP of engineering. “It was a case of the minnow eating the whale,” winks Steve.
With the two companies merged, Steve became part of the management team and under his guidance, Atari pushed ahead with such black and white beauties as Super Bug and Sky Diver. He also wrote the contract for one Steve Jobs to deliver Breakout, which dominated arcades in 1976. “I think Steve Wozniak did most of the ‘heavy lifting’ on that project but they did a good job,” says Steve, knowingly. “Steve Jobs always had an appreciation of his own ability. He wasn’t allowed onto the production floor because he wouldn’t wear shoes, only sandals. There was a special-ness to him. Is it true he stole the parts from us to build the first Apple computer? Not to my knowledge! It was like at Ampex – there was always a stock of parts that no one kept track of. It was easier on the paperwork and hey, who knows what someone might come up with? In fact, Jobs did offer the idea that he and Wozniak had for a home computer to Nolan, but he said no. Nolan turned down Apple, Ampex turned down videogames… No one’s perfect.”
But then Atari had its own ideas for new hardware. Having created home versions of Pong and several other of its arcade hits, the Atari R&D group proposed a console based around a dedicated chip that could be controlled by a microprocessor, allowing much greater flexibility. The all-conquering Atari VCS console was born, which, of course, came bundled with the ubiquitous Combat cartridge.
“The original rule on the chip design was ‘can it play Tank, Pong and a driving game?’” Steve notes. “We had three big hits and that was how we were going to sell this new console!”
And that wood-grained wonder would go on to sell 30 million units over the next decade, creating the whole home videogame industry in the process and making Atari the fastest-growing company in American history. Steve had many different roles during Atari’s golden years. He headed up the coin-op division until 1979, overseeing the development of the vector monitor, before becoming VP of the Consumer and Computer Group, where he helped put Atari’s home computer range into production. “Yeah, it was exciting getting into home computers,” nods Steve, “but we were Atari and we always knew people wanted to play games. Our computers weren’t text terminals. They were always orientated towards having gaming facilities – good display capabilities and good sounds.”