You never forget your first time — watching someone pour several quid’s worth of 10p pieces into a Space Invader machine in 1978, upsetting for a youngster who wanted to have a turn. We’re still waiting, but [Alston] has found an interesting way to get around those arcade video game hoggers by building a replica of Computer Space, the first commercial arcade video game.
Released in 1971, the groundbreaking game was designed by gaming legends [Nolan Bushnell] and [Ted Dabney], and came in a striking curvy fiberglass case that was molded by a manufacturer of swimming pools. [Alston] hasn’t built the case yet, but he does have the electronics up and running.
The electronics of Computer Space are interesting, because there is no microprocessor in there. Instead, it is built from discrete components. [Nolan] had originally planned to use a mini computer called the Data General Nova 800. However, he realized that he could make it cheaper by building it out of discrete components. As [Nolan] described it in an oral history at the Smithsonian [PDF link], the idea came to him after a post-Thanksgiving dinner nap:
“Screw the minicomputer. Get rid of it. Do it all in hardware. Make the game out of this collection, just make it a simple state machine. And the minute that happened, it was like knife through butter. Not only did I get the cost down, but what was budgeted for $1,500 worth of minicomputer, the whole damn computer cost me less than $300 in glue parts. So, I knew that I had something.”
That decision makes it an interesting project to build a replica. Although you can emulate it on a modern computer easily (there is even a version that runs in CSS in the browser). [Alston] is going the hard route, building replica PCBs and using the same components where possible, helped by people who have documented it. So far, the boards are and running and displaying a grainy, pixelated image on a portable TV.
The next step is to take the replica electronics box he has built and make a cabinet to put it into. That’s a big project, and [Alston] is looking for someone with an original cabinet that he can examine and document.
[Sean] from Classic Arcade Repairs fixes classic arcade machines, and he got a request to repair a very special machine. It’s Computer Space, the first commercial arcade cabinet ever made, and loosely based on Spacewar! This grand-daddy of coin-op was a literal barn find, and was in pretty bad shape after sitting for years. All the parts appeared to be original, making them 50 years old. As you can imagine, that combination didn’t bode well for the health of the components. There’s a couple hours of footage here, but it’s invaluable troubleshooting advice, and very cool to see such an old machine being worked on.
Part one is the intro, and [Sean] started with an HP logic analyzer, just probing the many TTL chips on the board looking for floating or otherwise suspicious outputs. Figure out the obviously faulty chips and replace each with a socket and new chip. Just about every diode in the machine needed replacing.
Part two of the repair starts with a broken trace repair, and the discovery that all the ceramic capacitors on the boards were leaky. The interesting thing is that a multimeter tested those caps as having the correct capacitance, but a dedicated leak tester discovered the problem.
Part 3 shows the process of running the remaining chips through a logic tester, which found more problematic ICs. In some cases, a chip would only sometimes test as working. And strangely, one of the new, replacement chips turned out to have a problem. Though as a commenter pointed out, it could be a falling edge vs rising edge variation of the logic chips to blame. Or maybe the new chips were counterfeit. Hard to nail down.
Part 4 starts with a gotcha moment, where one of the first repairs to the board was a misstep. What appeared to be a damaged trace, was actually a factory modification (a bodge cut?). Then a lucky break really helped out, where only half of one of the 7476 chips was in use, and one of the chips on hand was only half working. Put the dead bit into the unused slot, and the machine really started to behave.
Part 5 is the victory lap, where all the components finally arrived, and everything starts working on the bench. How cool to see the old machine bleeping and blooping again.