I am under a self-imposed moratorium regarding purchasing additional arcade games since we are planning to move late next Spring. The pending reality of having to move my entire collection of giant wooden and metal boxes is already giving me anxiety. Despite this false promise of self-control, I still religiously check games for sale in all the normal places (Facebook, Craig’s List, KLOV, etc.) to provide data for updates to the price guide and for my own widow shopping amusement.
One of the results of researching for the price guide book has been my new found appreciation of the importance of saving Bronze Age (1971-1978) arcade games. These early innovative titles tend not to be as desired by mainstream arcade collectors resulting in making some titles scarce from a preservation standpoint. Additionally, the non-standardized cabinet designs from this period tend to make these games less than desirable to those individuals who desire a cabinet for multicade transformation. This can be a benefit or a determent for their survival when the savages of time take hold of machines that are not stored in ideal conditions.
The arcade game classifieds I view every morning while drinking coffee are mostly populated with multi-game “recreation” cabinets, hacked-up cabinets, or arcade 1up machines. True original coin-operated machines that have not been mutilated in some way or another are rare to find in the wild consistency as they once were in past decades. Enter our Bronze Age Anti-Aircraft pick up taking place a mere nine days before Christmas.
When I saw this bronze age classic in cherry condition pop up it really grabbed my attention. Originally it was listed for $1400, after a month it shot down to a heck of a good deal at $795. A short week later when the seller marked it to $495, I knew I had to grab. This was for no other reason out of fear that someone would buy this unmolested 48-year-old arcade game and do untold terrors to its originality, or at least that was my excuse to break my mortarium on new games to the collection.
Released in June of 1975, Anti-Aircraft debuted only 2 ½ years after the release of Atari’s industry milestone Pong. The game was created during an interesting technological growth period for the arcade video game world. More sophisticated digital technology was starting to creep into game hardware development, allowing for gameplay concepts beyond titles that were mostly variations of Pong. Although this title still uses similar technology to early discrete logic titles (such as Pong and its many copies) of the early 70’s, Anti-Aircraft is gifted with a ROM for the sprite image of planes (or UFO’s but we will get to that in a bit) but is not graced with a microprocessor.
Anti-Aircraft is best described as a bare bones shooting gallery style game using a military theme. Two players, one on each side of the bottom of the screen shoot at jet planes flying from one side of the screen to the other at varying heights. Players can adjust the angle of their gun turret from one of three possible angles using three different buttons (pressing a button adjusts the height of the gun and fires at the same time). The graphics and sounds are simplistic as you would expect from the era yet charming. The end of the game is determined by time elapsed and not by any measure of scoring or level progression. Time allotment is set by the operator from 30 seconds to a maximum of 3 minutes.
Like most Bronze Age titles, Anti-Aircraft utilizes a black and white monitor. Two colored gel overlays are shown in the owner’s manual covering the bottom part of the monitor to give a visual difference between the two players gun turrets and scores, but it appears that the gels were never officially available. The French release of the game included a light blue gel overlaying the entire screen with some white puffy cloud graphics at the top, like the overlay of Atari’s Jet Fighter. The cabinet is only 58 inches tall and 28 inches in depth, making close to the size of a 1980’s cabaret sized cabinet than a full sized upright. Some nice simple yet stylish side art competes the outer visual presentation. Each player gets three fire and turret angle buttons, and between the sets of buttons is a single start button. The game is referred to as Anti-Aircraft II in the manual, PCB, and in some Atari sales information but there is only one version of the game. The indicator of II does not appear on the game cabinet and is most likely a descriptor of the title being a two-player game.
The title was developed by Gary Waters who seems to have started working on the project in 1974. He was also was responsible for finalizing the design of Breakout for mass production after the prototype designed by Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs) (https://atari.com/blogs/atari/new-insight-into-breakout-s-origins) Retro enthusiastic gamers might better know this title from the ported version on the Atari VCS/2600 system retitled as Air and Sea Battle, one of the first titles released for the system. In addition to being in full color on the home system version, the game also offers multiple options of game variations and options as well. Other Atari produced arcade combat themed like titles of the era including the Tank series (November 1974), Jet Fighter (October 1975), and Outlaw (March 1976) would also be ported as early Atari VCS/2600 offerings.
Atari didn’t release official production numbers of most their arcade game titles before 1978. We can take an educated guess based on the spread of serial numbers that around 1250-1750 Anti-Aircraft machines were perhaps originally manufactured for the US market. This would have been lower than some other big hit games from Atari during mid 70’s era such as Stunt Cycle or Tank, but still consider to be a successful run. It is unknown how many European variants or variants in Atari’s modular cabinets were manufactured, but I would guess few of these styles survive today.
There is an interesting hidden feature in Anti-Aircraft that changes the plane target from the plane sprite to one of a UFO which some arcade historians have considered to be one of the very first video game easter eggs. This change is achieved by a slight modification to the PCB…
“There is an undocumented option available that switches the planes into UFO's. Pin 14 of the 003127 IC -- a PROM located at grid location K1 -- is tied to ground, but also has a pullup resistor. Cutting the ground trace causes address bit A4 to be pulled high, selecting the UFO data.” (1) https://www.arcade-museum.com/game_detail.php?game_id=6892
My gut reaction initially was that this hidden trick by Atari for the purpose of a Kee games division (a sub-brand of Atari during the 1970’s) released version of the game with the UFO modification. In Atari’s early years several Kee Games variants of Atari titles were sold with slight differences along with a title change.(an article on Kotaku seems to agree with my assessment https://www.kotaku.com.au/2021/04/chasing-the-first-arcade-easter-egg/) .
However, after a bit more digging an internal memo from Kee Games shows the plan was to have a variant of Anti-Aircraft with planes that could dive bomb towards the player turrets instead of moving across the screen in a straight line. The game would have been renamed as Kamikaze, but it was never released. (https://www.ataricompendium.com/archives/documents/memos/arcade/kee_games_memo_6-20-74.pdf).
Our example was part of a long-term collection in a private home that included two very nice 70’s pinball machines. It is unknown how long it was owned by the previous collectors, but I am willing to bet it was for a several decades. The game is about as clean inside and out as any game from this era I have ever seen. Everything works as it should, and the only this we really had to attend to when we got it home was a quick pass inside with a Shop-Vac, a bit of scratch remover compound on the plexiglass, and some Windex. The game appears to be a 100% original “survivor” right down to the crisp owner’s manual that was inside the cabinet. The only downside to its condition is the amount of cigarette burns on the plastic control panel, a testimony to how many people smoked during the 1970’s.
Playing the game today with another fellow video game fan is a surprisingly fast paced and fun endeavor. The game is charming thanks to its vintage vibes and visuals, and the playtime set to around 90 seconds keeps the game from wearing out its welcome with players. The legacy of Anti-Aircraft is probably strongest with the home version for the Atari VCS/2600 more than the arcade game itself. Despite this, the title is a good historical showcase for the technologies and game design Atari was progressing towards as the 1970’s rolled along. This is one of Atari’s foundational games that provided growth for newer gameplay ideas and a catalogue of concepts to bring into the home market with the arrival of the Atari VCS/2600 a few years later. Anti-Aircraft may not be the most well remembered title of Atari’s early years, but an important title for things that were yet to come.