Obscure Arcade Game Manufacturers: Thomas Automatics (TAI)
Recently while window shopping (virtual window shopping?) on EBay, I discovered an unusual countertop arcade game. The description described it as a “1979 Atari Galaxian Prototype” (which it obviously wasn’t) playing a game titled Batman Part II. The seller didn’t want very much for it and was willing to ship it so I was game for this…uh game. I was very curious about this great looking possibly bootleg countertop arcade game from the golden age of quarter suckers, so after ponying up for the “Buy It Now Price” I waited for the heavy package to arrive. After receiving the game and a doing little big of digging, my sleuthing revealed its unique heritage.
Thomas Automatics isn’t exactly the company name that comes up in casual conversation when discussing classic arcade game machines. It also isn’t a name that rolls nicely off the tongue like Atari or Nintendo. Despite the obscure nature of the company, it is one of many small companies who threw their hats in the hot arcade market of the 70’s and early 80’s hoping to get a piece of the profitable silicon pie. Thomas Automatics (who we will call TAI from this point on) made a series of interesting and probably mostly bootleg arcade games from about 1980 through 1983, but the company was anything but new.
TAI was formed in 1972 primarily as a manufacturers of banknote and coin change machines, card and token vendors, specialist ticketing machines, self service payment kiosks and transaction automation equipment. They also made stamp vending machines, having operations mainly centered in the United Kingdom. TAI landed a rather lucrative contract in the early 2000’s to redesign many of the UK’s automatic postage machines. (3) In 2011 the company was failing and the assets were acquired by a company called Eurocoin. (1) According to Eurocoin’s website “… Eurocoin is one of Europe’s leading suppliers of products and services to the commercial kiosk, amusement and gaming industries…” (2) With TAI’s background in automated vending, it isn’t totally a surprise they would attempt a foray into arcade video games.
The first mention I could find of TAI’s arcade game ambitions were in the form of a 1980 flyer advertising an arcade game titled Astro Combat. Astro Combat is actually a unauthorized bootleg (or a grey market PCB rebranded for the USA without a proper license) of the Data East arcade game Astro Fighter. (Some versions of TAI's Astro Combat have also been reported as bootleg Tank Battalion games from Namco) Astro Fighter is one of a countless number of space combat games of the era, TAI’s version is built on lesser hardware than the original game causing some variations in sound and gameplay quality. Astro Fighter was common fodder for arcade game bootleg PCB’s sometimes going under the names Astro Attack, Astro Fire and Star Fighter. More interesting than the actual game was TAI’s unique arcade cabinet designs. TAI made their own (very well made) cabinets and offered games in both an upright version and (unusual for the time period) bartop versions. TAI might have been ahead of the curve with a bartop offering of arcade games, seeing an opportunity for casual gameplay on the counters of watering holes. This might also have been a result of the company’s UK background, seeking the customers of pubs across Britain.
One of the factors that made the TAI’s sales model a bit different than a traditional arcade game companies was its direct to customers sales model. Traditionally, major manufactures would sell their games through an authorized distributor. So for example, if in 1979 you wanted to buy an Atari Asteroids machine you couldn’t just call up Atari, you needed to find and contact an authorized distributor. TAI would sell arcade machines directly to a customer, which was common for companies who were dealing with bootleg and grey market machines.
This direct sales model also often had the reputation of being tied to pushy sales techniques centered around so called investment seminars or “Blue Sky” style scams. This scam essentially offers a sub par product for sale at an inflated price (or attached to a high interest loan) with the promise of unlimited profits for the future. “Look at how much Pac-Man is making…surely this bootleg Space game will make as much for you!”
During 1981 TAI would release a number of bootleg versions of popular games in both unique upright cabinets and bartop style cabinets. TAI would advertise a cocktail cabinet version as well, but I couldn’t find any evidence they were ever manufactured. The game PCB’s would all be based on Galaxian hardware, which was a common practice for bootleg manufacturers. Galaxian hardware was easily copied and most of the components could be bought “off the shelf”. Some of these games were bootlegs of Nichibutsu’s Moon Cresta, Centuri’s Phoenix (my TAI bartop is of this variety which TAI renamed “Batman Part 2”) , and Irem’s UniWar S among other titles.
TAI’s bartop design would also be marketed under several different card, slot machine and dice style video arcade game titles. These bartop type machines might again have been inspired more by the needs of the UK market than the US market. “Fruit Machines” are common in most UK pubs, the American equivalent being a Slot Machine style game. Many of these games do not necessary “Pay Out” like the stereotypical slot machine winnings (with coins shooting out of the bottom of the machine for a winning player), instead they are used for “friendly” wagers between paying customers or to simply pass the time as entertainment.
In 1982 TAI would release the extremely odd Pac-Man “inspired” arcade game Oli Boo Chu. Oli Boo Chu seems to be officially licensed from Irem/GDI of Japan. TAI much like other bootleg manufactures (such as the well known Omni Corp. out of New Jersey) seems to have turned a corner and was now licensing obscure Japanese arcade games that major companies had no interest in. The dedicated TAI cabinet is quite nicely adored with unique art, and includes the strange lighted buttons (with plastic outer edges that do not press down) and a joystick which reminds me of early home computer joysticks of the era. Despite these unique attributes.
Oli Boo Chu is a strange and almost unplayable maze/Pac-Man rip off arcade game due to it’s alarm clock non stop background “music”. Today Oli Boo Chu is a very obscure and rare footnote in the history of arcade games with only a handful of surviving machines.
Another unique 1982 offering from TAI would be the game Holey Moley, a video game version of the classic “Whack a Mole” arcade game. Holey Moley was licensed by Yachiyo Electronics from their game titled Mole Attack. The game is housed in a larger version of the TAI cabinet to allow the rows of large buttons (to squash the “virtual moles” on the video game screen), and is adored with very anime inspired artwork which was unique to arcade game machines in the early 80s’.
Holey Moley might have been TAi’s biggest success, actually capturing the interest of Atari. Atari started development of a version of the game for its Kid’s Controller Atari 2600 line up of games. A prototype of the Atari version of the game does exist, but unfortunately it was never released commercially (4).
Despite these forays into legitimate licensing, TAI still continued to produce arcade games with unauthorized bootleg material but at least they were getting creative about it. Ten Spot was a somewhat unique arcade offering from TAI having one arcade cabinet house 10 different selectable arcade games. This jukebox style arcade game could be considered the grandmother of (more successful) selectable arcade game systems such as Nintendo’s Playchoice or SNK’s Neo-Geo MVS system. The games offered in the Ten Spot machine were however again mostly Galaxian based bootlegs of games TAI had offered in 1980 and in 1981. The technology involved in arcade games was evolving quickly and these clunky bootleg shooters (despite having 10 of them to choose from) would have held little interest to arcade game patrons in 1982.
According to TAI’s advertising for the system the games were intended to be interchangeable but no evidence seems to exist to new games being offered beyond the original 10 games shipped with the machine. Like all TAI products, Ten Spot machines are very rare today and where probably produced originally in low numbers.
The final foray into arcade game manufacturing for TAI would be yet another unusual but seemingly officially licensed game. Triple Punch was originally engineered by K.K. International of Japan and licensed to several smaller arcade game companies including Nicole Manufacturing, and Computran (another company who often played rather loose with bootleg and gray market arcade games). Triple Punch is interesting for a few reasons, first the gameplay and concept is almost an exact copy of the Konami arcade game Amidar.
There are a few differences however, the graphics are bit better, the screen scrolls instead of staying static, and the background music is a bit upbeat. The main character in Triple Punch is almost a carbon copy of another famous video game plumber “Mario” from Nintendo (Including the well know red and blue overalls, and big mustache) . Some versions (which might be bootlegs) use a straight up copy of official Donkey Kong artwork on the cabinet marquees and side art. This factor, along with a giant ape character (with a large mallet just like Donkey Kong) seems to lean towards the possibility that Triple Punch was attempting to mislead arcade patrons into thinking it was a sequel to the successful game Donkey Kong. Triple Punch isn’t a terrible game, but it is far from a classic like Donkey Kong. Maybe Nintendo would have taken legal action if the game had seen more than its rather limited distribution.
After Triple Punch, TAI pulled out of the arcade game business and sold the tooling of their bartop machines to Merit. Tegeto B.V. based out of Amsterdam, bought out the company at some point during the early 1980’s and perhaps decided their adventures into arcade game manufacturing should stop. TAI would continue to make change machines and other vending equipment both in the USA and in the UK for years to come. In 1983 they announced a new line of casino style arcade games which used debt cards instead of cash. Although these kinds of cards are commonplace today in both arcades and casinos in 1983 this would be fairly innovative. (5)
Today even the most well versed arcade game collectors might not know who Thomas Automatics were, or what game titles they produced. TAI’s unique cabinets, strange bootleg and licensed arcade games are interesting along with being obscure. Few of TAI’s offerings exist today in the hands of collectors. If you are lucky enough to own the excellent BitKit arcade Jamma PCB from craftymech.com, you can enjoy TAI’s Triple Punch as part of the games comparable with that PCB. TAI is one of many obscure arcade game manufactures who sought riches during the golden age of arcade games, but failed to make much of a splash in the market.
My TAI bartop sports the unique lipped and lighted buttons, and bulky joystick design of their upright cabinets. The cabinet itself is strongly well made and heavy (about 85 pounds), and includes a Wells Gardner 13 inch 4800 series monitor (which itself is rather obscure). The single PCB board runs a watered down version of Phoenix retitled Batman Part 2 on Namco’s Galaxian style hardware. The pinout is almost Galaxian compatible with a few differences, and the cabinet joystick was wired for up and down motions despite not needing it for this game. There are no company markings on the cabinet, only a small sticker with a serial number inside and a handwritten one on the back (with the same serial number) stating the name of the game as “Space Carrier”. Some of the differences between Batman Part 2 and the real Phoenix game are…
The background “star field” is the one from Galaxian and not from Phoenix
The graphics often slow down or blink
There is no mothership fight screen
There is a strange red eagle bird boss which is hard to hit and gives random points after the 5th wave
There is no shield function like in Phoenix
There is no copyright on the game title screen, only a listing of “Presented in 1981”
Also of note is the power supply, speakers, and isolation transformer are so jammed into the cabinet near the monitor they can create a crazy amount of interference with the game monitor. I’m glad to have it part of my arcade game collection, it might be one of the last unaltered versions in existence. A testimony to the unique and interesting history of Thomas Automatics arcade offerings. (You can check out my video below for a bit more info on this unique arcade game)
(1) Yogonet Report, “Change giver manufacturer Thomas Automatics acquired by Eurocoin”, Yogonet Vending News, January 2011, https://www.yogonet.com/international/noticias/2010/12/15/2030-change-giver-manufacturer-thomas-automatics-acquired-by-eurocoin
(2) Eurocoin, “About Us”, https://eurocoin.co.uk/about-us/
(3) Morgan, Glenn & Eyre, Graham, “British Stamp Vending Machines An Update”, Cross Post,
Spring 2013, www.stampprinters.info
(4) Reichert, Matt, “Holey Moley”, Atari Protos, http://www.atariprotos.com/2600/software/holeymoley/holeymoley.htm
(5) Examiner Staff, “New line of casino-type video games in the offering”, The San Francisco Examiner, May 20, 1983.
Special thanks to The Arcade Flyer Archive (https://flyers.arcade-museum.com)