Close examination of the original promotional flyer for Atari’s 1981 Centipede arcade cabinet shows three styles of cab; from left to right, a cabaret, upright and cocktail. Nothing particularly unusual there, as most releases around that time looked to house themselves in a similar portfolio of cabinet designs:
But further inspection of the cocktail cabinet pictured to the right there, reveals something you may not have noticed before. The cabinet style is different to a typical Atari cocktail. The one pictured appears to show a cocktail machine with a 19″ monitor, rather than the smaller 13″ typically found in this game.
There is only one other Atari cocktail machine that houses a vertically mounted 19″monitor, and that’s Tempest:
Great looking cab that – super rare too. This unusual configuration was done for practical reasons – the only colour vector monitor around at the time was 19″ (ignoring the 25″ Amplifone for a moment). To build a bespoke 13″ monitor just to house this vector based game in a table top machine would have made no sense, and was probably a technical challenge not worth taking on at the time. Well, as the mountain wouldn’t come to Muhammad, Atari solved the problem by simply building a cabinet that would house the monitor already available – hence the bespoke design above to accommodate the game.
That makes sense of course for the vector based game Tempest. It needed that monitor to run. But what of the 19″ Centipede cocktail pictured on the flyer which required just a regular raster based monitor?
Here’s a typical Centipede cocktail that you may have seen out in the wild:
So that’s a 13″monitor, turned vertical as the game requires, and it sits in the middle of the cab between the two control panels quite comfortably. A standard setup, and one I’ve certainly seen in the flesh before. It’s fairly common in fact.
Compare this to the design of the Tempest above, and you can see the differences. The Tempest cab is made longer to accommodate the extra 6 inches of the 19″ screen, and the screen is offset to one side so that everything required to run the game can be accommodated within the space available. The two players as a result, sit further apart from each other. Not quite as cosy as the 13″, but arguably a better playing experience on the larger screen.
I’ve dug a bit deeper into the Atari archives, and have found some conflicting information. Take a look at this promotional video for Centipede (forward to the 3:00 minute mark for the relevant part):
In the video, Atari promises just a limited run of 13″ cocktail cabinets, after which it says, all three styles of cabinet will house the larger 19″ screen. (Arcade trivia nerd alert – notice the orange bezel surround on the upright – this became blue/green on the production Centipede)
So why don’t we see any 19″ cocktail Centipedes out there in the wild, as pictured in the flyer and as promised in the video? It’s a bit of a mystery. What we do know is that Atari documentation indicates that just 25 of these 19″ cabinets were produced, before a decision was made to run with the more common 13″ design. In fact, 5,997 of the 13″ cocktails were rolled off the production lines and were sold for $1,795 each. I have two theories on this:
- Perhaps there was a glut of 13″ monitors floating around that Atari wanted to use up?
- The quoted price difference for operators between the 19″and 13″ was only $20. Was going with the 13″ a commercial decision to earn more margin per unit by Atari, by shipping the cocktail with a 13″ (and presumably cheaper) monitor?
Whatever the reason, this isn’t the first time that Atari’s documentation doesn’t match reality (I’m looking at you Missile Command manuals). I can see the headlines now:
ATARI COIN-OP DIVISION IN “SAYS ONE THING, DOES SOMETHING ELSE” SHOCKER!
What is clear, is that the 19″ cocktail ended up being the limited run, not the 13″.
There are no documented examples of the 19″ cocktail out there as far as I can see. Given that only 25 were produced, it’s hardly surprising. As an aside, it’s worth noting that there are claims that there are a few converted Tempest cocktails out there. If you’ve ever owned a Tempest you’ll work out why: that WG6100 colour vector monitor is notoriously unreliable. One can imagine pissed off operators ditching the game for the more reliable raster equivalent of a Centipede once it inevitably broke down – and so they would rip out the guts of the Tempest, and replace with Centipede along with the requisite 19″ raster. But then that would require a bespoke control panel, which would surely be too much trouble for an operator. So I’m not convinced about that theory.
So what happened to the 25 actually produced? I can’t find one pictured or referenced anywhere on the web, other than the one shown on the flyer:
That said, author of “Atari inc: Business is Fun” (superb book, go buy it at Amazon) Marty Goldberg was kind enough to share this image with me. Released as part of an early press kit for Centipede, it gives more detail of the artwork on top of the machine, albeit in Black & White:
However, what appears to be an original example has turned up on eBay! The seller has posted some great pictures too which you can see below:
In the auction description, the seller gives some detail as to the condition of the machine:
The machine is 100% working with 100% working sound, however there are a few issues I’ll attempt to outline here. The player 1 controls work perfectly and is 100% playable in 1 player mode. Player 2 controls appear to not be functioning although both control panels are in good shape as shown in the pictures. Also I don’t believe the top glass is original. It appears at some point it was replaced with a piece of plexiglass. Although it fits perfectly and doesn’t look as though it was cut as all the edges are nicely bevelled. One of the dome switches for player 1 and 2 “Start” looks as though it was replaced. The other appears to be original. And lastly the bezel and artwork is missing as you can see. The current artwork on the game is just some I printed out and slid under the glass. As far as I can tell this is all that’s wrong with it. Would make an easy and awesome restoration project for someone.
And the proof it’s an original 19″Centipede cocktail machine and not a Tempest conversion? Here:
There’s the correct model number – 30204, with a serial number of 19. Well within the range of 25 we know were produced.
I’ve spoken with the seller and he tells me that all that’s missing is the green artwork that you can just about make out on the flyer (and is sadly missing from the video). But with a bit of ingenuity, that could easily be reproduced if you refer to the pictures above. This fabulous piece of history can be regarded as a “Holy Grail” in arcade circles. It’s great that one has surfaced, and I thought it was worth recording here on the blog.
If it’s not already sold, and you want to get your hands on this machine, you can find the auction page here.
Why do all the best cabinets come up for sale in the USA? Grrrr.
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More updates on the Centipede restore next week (we’re on a roll with this game for some reason!).
Update 11th June: I’ve had a message through via an Atari contact who suggested the following reasons for the cab not seeing a full release:
- The game was very uncomfortable to play. If you look again at the pictures: your right knee bashes against the coin door.
- To fit the 19″ monitor into the cab, several modifications had to be made to it, resulting in the neck board getting snapped off when it was dropped into the cabinet.
- Other components had to be moved around to fit everything in, resulting in the power supply being placed nearer the top of the cab. The liability lawyers wanted all sorts of warning labels to be placed in and on the machine as a result.
So perhaps with these teething issues during design, it was felt too much aggravation to roll out the 19″ cocktail in large numbers?
Update 2 February 2017: Collector Brian Umstead purchased this cabinet and has restored the artwork, using the two rather low res pictures as a guide. It turned out stunning!
Fantastic work there and great to see this cab restored to it’s intended glory.