Orphaned Computers & Game Systems

Vol. II, Issue 4    June 1998

A Transplant for the Bally?

by Adam Trionfo

I have a Bally Astrocade system that has been sitting idle because of a lack of cartridges. I have some cassettes for it, but I have never been able to get any of them to load with success. The Stella Gets a New Brain CD-ROM compilation has inspired me to try my hand at converting some cassettes that I have for the Bally BASIC cartridge into wave files.

Cartridges are the primary media for collectors, but they are just a small fraction of the software that is available for the Astrocade. There is a great wealth of public domain software that few people have used because it is so difficult to find. This software was distributed on cassette for use with the BASIC cartridge.

Both versions of the Bally BASIC cartridge load programs only from cassette into the 1.8k of available memory. The original version of Bally BASIC loads software at 300 baud. The newer version, the one with which most people are familiar, loads software at 2000 baud. But loading software from cassette is not very reliable. Many of the problems stem from the media itself: used cassettes. They have a limited lifespan, during which time they begin to deteriorate, until, finally, the data is no longer available for use.

If you have been lucky enough to find some cassettes for the BASIC cartridge and have tried to load them, then you know just how difficult it is to make them work. In order to load a program, the volume on the cassette player must be adjusted until the cartridge is able to communicate with it. It can be a very frustrating task. With enough patience, a program or two may get loaded, but it is a rare event. The worst part is that the same program that loaded fine yesterday does not load today. This is the same problem that I was having. I figured that there had to be a way around it. I finally reached a solution.

As stated at the beginning of this article, I was inspired by Stella Gets a New Brain. I wanted to make the audio cassettes of software that I have for Bally BASIC more reliable. I used the Windows '95 sound recorder and the Shareware version of Cool Edit '96 to create wave files that could be loaded into the BASIC cartridge. After the wave files were created, I was able to load them much easier, using very few volume adjustments.

I have been able to convert to wave format programs that I was never able to load from cassette before. Saved from the perils of oxidization are eight programs, included on four different cassettes. They are now stored digitally on my hard drive, safe from the death threatened by the slow deterioration of tape.

These eight programs are just the beginning of what is available. I have also converted about twelve public domain programs that originally appeared in the newsletter The Arcadian. Some of these are very simple. Inverse, for example, just has the player reversing the order of a group of numbers. Shallow by today's standards; they would probably not hold my attention for more than a few minutes. However, they provide an excellent view of the state of games in the late seventies and early eighties.

The history of home video games can be gleaned from the early computers and systems. But the Bally Astrocade is unique because the users were the primary force behind it. They breathed life into the Astrocade for years after it was left on its own by Bally and later picked up by Astrovision. The cartridges make great games, but it is the selection of games written in BASIC and the fact that users could tinker with the hardware that makes this system such an important piece of history. Keeping this history around through the use of wave files is very important. Because I have little knowledge of how to manipulate sound samples, I do not know where to begin in cleaning these wave files up. For example, I would like to get rid of some of the background noise. If anyone can give me some pointers, such as suggesting software that works well for sound editing, let me know.

After reading this article, you may want a Bally machine. However, the Astrocade is a difficult system to acquire. If you so desire, one can be obtained from classic dealers or individuals on the Internet. A look on most of the search engines on the Web will bear fruitful results. Before long, you will be able to play The Incredible Wizard with the best of us!

Wouldn't it be great to have a collection for the Bally that is similar to Stella Gets a New Brain? I think the Bally needs a brain transplant too!

This is a subject that I find very fascinating. It deserves much more attention, and shall receive it in a follow-up article which will appear in the next issue.