The 3D Printed Computer Space Takes Shape

A few weeks ago we brought you news of a project to recreate the flowing lines of the first computerised arcade game, Computer Space, as a full-size 3D printed replica. We left the project with all the parts put together to make a complete but unfinished shell that was very recognizable as a Computer Space cabinet but had neither finishing nor internals. Now we’re very pleased to bring you the conclusion of the project, as it moves from unfinished 3D print to playable cabinet.

The video below the break is a journey of print finishing to a very high standard with that lustrous blue glitter resin, but oddly it’s most interesting to find out about the manufacturing quirks of the original. How the rear door was imprecisely cut from plywood and fixed on with gate hinges, how the ventilation holes differ from cabinet to cabinet, and how the collection vessel for those quarters was an old tin. The monitor is a newer broadcast CRT in this version and the electronics are naturally¬† modern, but if you didn’t know, you’d be hard pressed to spot that you weren’t playing the real thing.

Finally we see the gameplay which is admittedly frustrating, and a little bit of punditry as to why this wasn’t the commercial success of the following Pong. It’s a fascinating look at the early computer game industry.

Have a look at our coverage of the first episode of this project.

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3D Printing Computer Space

The first computer game available as a commercial arcade cabinet is unsurprisingly, a rare sight here in 2024. Nolan Bushnel and Ted Dabney’s 1971 Computer Space was a flowing fiberglass cabinet containing a version of the minicomputer game Spacewar! running on dedicated game hardware. The pair would of course go on to found the wildly successful Atari, leaving their first outing with its meager 1500 units almost a footnote in their history.

Unsurprisingly with so relatively few produced, few made it out of the United States, so in the UK there are none to be found. [Arcade Archive] report on a fresh build of a Computer Space cabinet, this time not in fiberglass but via 3D printed plastic.

The build itself is the work of [Richard Horne], and in the video he takes us through the design process before printing the parts and then sticking them all together to make the cabinet. Without a real machine to scan or measure he’s working from photographs of real machines, working out dimensions by reference to other cabinets such as PONG that appear alongside them. The result is about as faithful a model of the cabinet as could be made, and it’s cut into the many pieces required for 3D printing before careful assembly.

This is the first in a series, so keep following them to see a complete and working Computer Space take shape.

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Computer Space Replica Is Up And Running

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.

Computer Space Flies Again

[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.