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January 2014 Retro Gaming Article

January 26, 2014 Retro Gaming Blog Post:

The Video Game Selection Center in-store kiosk enabled game play without an Atari VCS

Article update 4/30/14: We were recently contacted by Goodwill Hunter who owns the VGSC unit shown below. He provided the PCB photo and a lot of insight and info about this device.

In today's world of retail game sales, we've come to expect demo kiosks. Everyone involved, from manufacturers to gamers & retailers, benefit from letting customers try new hardware as well as the games that run on it. Online trailers can be excellent sales tools by showing various levels and atributes to a geme. What they lack is the ability to convey game play. I've watched trailers that really motivated me, but playing the game in a local store could go either way.
Wii U in-store demo kiosk
Movie trailers, in particular, are masterful at making awful movies look great. Game trailers can have the same effect. Trying the game in a store - with a controller in my hand - always helps to make my final decision. Sometimes the control just feels bad or the excitement of the trailer is totally lacking in the actual demo game play. Then there are times when you know you've found a winner and the whole experience makes you want to play for hours... except you're standing in a crowded game store :)

Modern Game Kiosks

From the mid 1990s forward, I recall a variety of innovative gaming kiosks set up in stores to showcase hardware and games. Predominantly, these kiosks are mini fortresses to protect the hardware and disuade thieves from running off with anything of value. So, we are accustomed to demoing games and hardware on the actual consoles. We don't see controller cables disappearing into mysterious black boxes. Most kiosks let you see the console. This wasn't always the case...

Atari 2600 Video Game Selection Center This Video Game Selection Center has 44 (+ one blank space) Atari 2600 games, set up for 1 or 2 players with control for joysticks and paddles. This unit doesn't have any external branding, but there is an Atari logo on the PCB. These units were designed for Sears.
Atari 2600 Video Game Selection Center Video Game Selection Center's control options.

There are advertisements, from the late 70s & early 80s, showing that the Atari 2600 was being sold by a variety of different kinds of retailers from appliance and TV stores to drug stores and toy stores. No one really knew what it was (electronics, toys, etc) or how to categorize it. Gaming eventually evolved into a category - and an Aisle in many stores. As the 2600 gained competition from Mattel and Coleco, gaming became more established, but retailers still struggled with in-store displays to entice consumers.

Many retailers set up multiple game consoles, each with a game inserted, with a corresponding TV. Sometimes the consoles were bolted down, other times locked in a transparent display case. Retailers were finding ways to engage customers while separating themselves from the other resellers. The interesting thing about the Video Game Selection Center is it is so removed from the 2600 hardware.

Neither an Atari console or it's actual controllers were used to demo the 2600 games. It's a slick device that can demo a lot of titles, but it's interesting that is has no visible branding on it. I thought is may have been conceived during the rift with Sears and Atari. I was later informed that Atari actually built these units for Sears! They were designed by Atari's arcade division and were to be displayed on the counters of Sear's electronics departments.

The Video Game Selection Center was made by Atari?

Like the Atari 2600 Test Console, I wish there was more public information about the Video Game Selection Center. I'm wondering if there are other styles & configurations. I've read that these units were Atari-made, but you have to view the internal PCB to see the Atari logo. I've been told that Atari requested the return of the PCB upon reaching the end of it's useful life with the understanding that the reseller would destroy the console. This accounts for the rarity of the device since there are more PCBs than complete consoles in existence.

From the outset, Atari was very brand conscious. As far back as Pong, clones, copies and duplicates flooded the market. Atari knew they had to protect their brand legally as well as perceptually in the marketplace - put your name/brand on EVERYTHING! As far as I can see this Video Game Selection Center has no mention of 'Atari" in text or logo. In fact, until you read through the list of games on the top face of the unit, there's no indication that it contains 2600 titles. Perhaps in it's era, it would have been contextually obvious that it contained Atari 2600 games, but I find the lack of branding very interesting.

Atari 2600 Video Game Selection Center An online game forum indicated that this device is PCB-driven, containing a large internal board with 2600 ROM-chips soldered in place. I've seen customer demo set-ups like the Parker Brother's kiosk that simply interact with cartridges plugged into a common PCB along with a selection switch. Why would the Video Game Selection Center have an internal PCB making it difficult to add new games in the future. Having the names printed on the face of the unit suggests one would not be changing or rearranging the offered titles.

Another facet I hadn't paid much attention to is the listing of games on the face. They are not alphabetically arranged - or so it seems. The titles are listed with their "Sears" names, but appear in alphabetical order according to their "Atari" names. Being developed by Atari, I'm sure the order of games, on the PCB, made more sense internally to Atari employees who were accustomed to Atari names and SKUs.

Look at the photo showing a close-up of the controls and game selection buttons.I like that this unit is 2-player and supports both Joystick and Paddle games, but look at the selection buttons that let you choose a game. The selection process is broken down into 2 actions - selecting the game number and pressing start.

But the game's number is broken down into 2 actions - each digit of the number is individually selected with a "Tens" and a "Ones" button. Selecting game #27 would entail pressing the Tens button twice and the ones button 7 times. I'm sure your progress is displayed on the monitor. Speaking of which, the video connection goes to a standard RF box just like the Atari 2600.

I liken this to selections within a 2600 game where moving the joystick left was one action and moving right was another. Why would such an odd mechanic be placed on the face of this unit, split into Tens and Ones? That seems like a proto or proof-of-concept move that would be replaced with a more intuitive scenario like a keypad. Atari had a lot of experience from arcades to home consoles - tens & ones seems like an odd choice for anyone with electronic's knowledge. I suspect the decision is tied to some programming aspect of the PCB, but you have to admit it's rather strange.

Video Game Selection Center - Atari logo The PCB image shows the location of the Atari logo on the upper edge of the board. Click the image for a larger view. This "Sears" unit is based on the Atari Point-Of-Purchase (POP). The Atari POP was a large unit with storage, Marquee and a 2600 on a shelf. But wait! That "2600" is only a shell!

The innards of the Atari POP were beneath the shelf. The faux 2600 simply helped guide a game cartridge into a slot on the PCB. This allowed new games to be added via this cart slot. Nestled inside the VGSC for Sears is the same slot, but the outer case does not allow access to it. Same PCB / different outer shell. The Atari POP was a large stand-alone display, whereas the VGSC was designed for countertop use. It may be possible to insert a cart into the slot on the VGSC, but that remains a mystery (to me).

The PCB has 48 ROM slots, numbered 0-47. Slot 0 seems to hold Atari's POP operating system and slots 1-45 hold game ROMs. The last 2 slots are open. The Video Game Selection Center has 3 additional games than the Atari POP units, because it includes 3 games exclusive to Sears; Submarine Commander, Steeplechase, and in the blank slot 44 (so far, no one knows why it's unlabeled) Stellar Track.

Video Game Selection Center's included games:

  • 01 Adventure
  • 02 Target Fun
  • 03 Asteroids
  • 04 Backgammon
  • 05 Basketball
  • 06 Bowling
  • 07 Breakaway
  • 08 Canyon Bomber
  • 09 Poker Plus
  • 10 Circus
  • 11 Tank Plus
  • 12 Dodger Cars
  • 13 Football
  • 14 Golf
  • 15 Hangman
  • 16 Baseball
  • 17 Cannonman
  • 18 Maze Mania
  • 19 Missile Command
  • 20 Night Driver
  • 21 Othello
  • 22 Gunslinger
  • 23 Soccer
  • 24 Darediver
  • 25 Maze
  • 26 Space Invaders
  • 27 Speedway II
  • 28 Superman
  • 29 Tic-Tac-Toe
  • 30 Checkers
  • 31 Chess
  • 32 Pong Sports
  • 33 Pinball
  • 34 Warlords
  • 35 Berzerk
  • 36 Haunted House
  • 37 Math Grand Prix
  • 38 Defender
  • 39 Yar's Revenge
  • 40 Pac-Man
  • 41 Super Breakout
  • 42 Demons to Diamonds
  • 43 Submarine Commander
  • 44 [blank] Stellar Track
  • 45 Steeple Chase

The Video Game Selection Center is another rare piece of Atari history whose answers likely lie with the lucky owners of such devices. Retro collectors are often really great about posting info regarding rare items they own. I wish there was more info available for this fascinating device. More pictures can be found at Atarimania and Classic Games Blog

Again, our thanks to Goodwill Hunter who reached out to us with info, images and further proof that the retro gaming community is comprised of really good people.

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