I’ve been eyeing up these third generation Atari Vector cabinets for some time now. Space Duel is a particular favourite of mine, and I’ve been banging on about wanting a Quantum for years. My issue to date has been twofold:
- Space. I have very little of it, and these vector cabs are large beasts.
- These things rarely appear for sale over here in the UK, given their desirability.
So when an Atari Gravitar upright came up for sale from a fellow collector recently, I had two options:
- Bemoan the fact that I would miss out yet again on an opportunity to acquire one.
- Say “balls to it” and just buy the damned thing.
You’ll be pleased to hear that I went for option 2. Which is a good thing really, otherwise this would be a very short blog post. Which reminds me, an incredible looking Space Duel cocktail came up for sale a couple of weeks back. These are very rare units globally, let alone over here. I ummed and ahhed about it for a few hours, decided to go for it, only to learn I’d already missed out. Which is a good lesson: buy these things as soon as you can, and worry about the consequences later. Which is basically what I’ve done with this Gravitar. And I’m glad I did, as she’s a beauty.
Released in 1982, Gravitar holds a particular interest to me, as it was programmed by Rich Adam, who also had a hand in the development of Missile Command. Designed by Mike Halley, the game is a full colour vector, that places the player at the controls of a space ship, surveying and exploring various worlds within a Solar System.
Aside from Atari’s use of glorious bright vectors, of note is the game’s clever use of gravity, pulling the player’s craft towards deadly planets and terrain. Limited fuel is available to the player to thrust away from these dangers, and continue in the quest to pick up blue pods throughout the game, whilst taking out bullet-spewing turrets along the way. Think Lunar Lander meets Asteroids, and you’re just about there. An early Atari commercial describes the game (apologies for the poor quality of this vid):
Gravitar is regarded as a very difficult game compared to some of its Vector-based cousins released during a similar period – Space Duel, Quantum, Major Havok and Black Widow. They are all housed in similar shaped cabinets, and share much of the same hardware – so much so that it’s not unusual to see conversions between each game.
After its release, feedback from operators was that customers simply weren’t playing the game due to its perceived difficulty – the machine wasn’t taking money for anyone. Word got around, and the sales of the cabinets dried up quickly, leaving Atari with inventory sitting in the factory. In fact, such was the commercial failure of Gravitar, that many were converted to Black Widows using official kits released by Atari. Operators could buy the kit at a discounted price, and convert their non-performing Gravitars to Black Widows. The kit comprised of a replacement marquee, new CPO and ROM kits (the Gravitar PCB requires just a simple ROM swap to run Black Widow); and indeed many of the remaining unsold Gravitar cabinets were hastily repurposed into Black Widows at the factory before being pushed off the production lines.
This turned out to be quite the U-Turn by Atari.
Amazing really, considering the effort that Atari put into the initial marketing of the game. I think that Gravitar has a great deal of depth – perhaps too much for what had become a rather fickle 1982 arcade audience.
The game even made cameo appearances in a number of films of the time, including War Games, Death Wish 4 and here in Never Say Never Again behind a young Kim Basinger and Sean Connery, where an even rarer cabaret version of the game is featured:
(By the way only one of those cabarets is known to exist – now owned by a former Atari engineer). Of course 30 years later, the game is regarded as highly collectible for all these reasons. There aren’t many about – especially over here in the UK. Few were produced, and most of those didn’t last long. So to have an opportunity to own this rare title was too tempting to pass up.
So with my Gravitar secured, I was faced with a 300 mile round trip to pick the machine up. I found myself (not for the first time this year) squeezed into my driver seat with a six-foot arcade cabinet taking up half of my SUV.
The cab fit OK, but I was twisted slightly in my seat by the angular top of the machine, so by the time I got home, I was walking like a bloody crab. A bad back comes with the hobby one way or another.
But once back at base, it was time to unload and take a closer look at my new purchase. Easy does it with the unload – it’s a good idea to place a large cushion under the cab so the bottom edge doesn’t get scuffed when lowered onto the floor from the car:
Once safely rested, grab the top and push her upright, remove the cushion, and here’s what we have:
Well the first thing to note is that the side art is not only spectacular looking (the artwork was designed by Brad Chaboya, responsible for much of Atari’s glorious art in the early 80s), but it is in amazing condition for its age. The cabinet is very solid – which means no woodwork repairs. Alleluia!
Marquee looks nice, although the retaining bars show the usual signs of rusting. Easily fixed as you will have seen on previous restorations on the blog here.
So far so good. The cab itself is in parts, but everything is there, including the original Wells Gardner 6100 colour vector monitor – a staple in Atari colour vector games. I’ve worked on one of these before on my Tempest cabinet. This one isn’t working I’m told, but we have a new LOPT ready to drop in, so hopefully no more than a good service will get things up and running again:
Worthy of note is the back door, which still holds the original instruction sheet from the factory, and the original identifier plates are still on the back of the cab. These are both nice bonuses:
We have serial number 07867. The control panel is in pretty nice shape, although there is tearing on the curved areas at the front. The good news is that some good folk in the USA have made reproductions which used the original Atari printing films – these are 100% accurate in both size, texture and colours, so I may purchase one of those and get it shipped over if this can’t be repaired in some way. It’s pretty grubby, but a good scrub in hot soapy water will get the colours popping again. Buttons are all original and the loom is intact:
The coin doors are pretty messed up with rust, but again, nothing that can’t be fixed. Someone has plonked a horrible coin faceplate on the top door for some reason. We’ll need to get that removed and fixed up too. If you’ve been following my Centipede upright conversion you’ll see how we can deal with the rust and get things looking brand new again:
Aside from that, it all needs a bloody good clean, new t-molding and all the parts put back together again, and we should be good to go! Super excited about this one. The only issue is going to be getting it up the stairs to the games loft, and then fitting it in somewhere!
We’ll work something out. For now, Gravitar sits in the garage opposite Centipede waiting it’s turn for a clean up and restoration.
Stay tuned for the full restoration in future blog posts soon.
Thanks for visiting this week.
The logo/screenshot image above was nicked from Dan Coogan’s excellent Gravitar site which is worthy of a visit. The page is full of tips, interviews with the developers and other interesting info related to the game. You can check it out here.