Let me start by saying that this is the most amazingly poignant tale I’ve come across in arcade collecting circles. I’ve written before about incredible rare arcade “finds” that have happened over the years, including the yarn about the Sundance cabinet found in a long-abandoned building, and of course the epic Fun Ship raid.
But this story tops even those.
With a factory in Hialeah, Florida, Centuri produced arcade machines during the arcade Golden Age from 1980 until its eventual closure in 1985. Formed following the takeover of Allied Leisure by the former President of Taito America, it was responsible for some of the more memorable 80s arcade titles ever produced. These included Gyruss, Rip Off, Time Pilot, Hyper Sports, Track & Field and of course Phoenix. Most were licensed from Japanese developers, notably Konami.
In addition to these licensed products, four games were developed and produced in-house. The last of these was 1983’s Aztarac, developed by Tim Stryker. Being its only color vector release, the game was seen as a brave voyage into a new era of arcade games, looking to mimic the direction of the darlings of the arcade industry, Atari, who were releasing a raft of color vector titles at around the same time. For an arcade manufacturing minnow like Centuri, it seemed to be the obvious way to go.
Tim joined Centuri after moving to Florida from Connecticut, following the lacklustre response to the games he’d written to date via his company Mach 2 Software. Keen to develop more of its own titles and grab a foothold in what appeared to be a burgeoning vector arcade market, Centuri gave Tim a free hand to explore what this new technology could do. The result was the impressive Aztarac:
The game puts the player in control of a tank with a turret that operates independently, allowing movement to be made in one direction and shots to be made in another. The player has to protect several Space outposts from a never ending attack from enemy ships. It’s a take on Space Duel and Asteroids I guess. This isn’t a game that I’ve ever played, but the game play videos that are out there look pretty cool:
The cabinet looks glorious. Its most noticeable feature is the unique fishbowl bezel design, which intensifies the visuals generated by the hi resolution Wells Gardner 6401 color vector monitor – state of the art tech at the time.
Screenshots and logos from centuri.net.
But despite the stunning visuals (for the time at least), the game was not a commercial success at all. There are various estimates of the number of Aztaracs actually built – many put the figure at 500, but based on Centuri’s 1983 annual report, it seems that perhaps less than 200 is a more likely figure. Either way, this cabinet is now considered to be very very rare, with almost no known examples in the hands of collectors.
Disheartened by the reaction to his game, Tim parted company with Centuri and video game development forever shortly thereafter. After working as a consultant to large companies in the Florida area, he set up his own company Galacticomm Inc, and wrote assembler routines for IBM based computers, culminating in the release of MajorBBS – which pre-dated the internet as we know it today by allowing up to 32 users to “dial up” and access a single piece of software. His Bulletin Board Software was a huge hit and went on to become the backbone for many online communities. Tim had found success at last.
Tim was quite the visionary. He began development of what he called the “Superdemocracy” movement, and released several books outlining his bold ideas. His aim was to give US citizens the ability to vote and participate in the political process within Cyberspace. This ultimately, in Tim’s view would eliminate the need for Congress – putting power into the hands of people through the use of computers (uncanny right?)
Sadly, some ten years later, things would end in tragedy after moving to Utah with his wife and children. After a bout of severe depression which Tim was known to suffer from, on 6th August 1996, he drove deep into the hills of Colorado, stepped out of his car, raised a shotgun to his head and pulled the trigger. He was just 41.
By this time Aztarac like many of its arcade contemporaries, was long-forgotten. In more recent years, interest in the game has grown. Collectors have been aware of the title, but very few examples were turning up. Many consider it to be their “Grail” machine – the one to be hunted down and found. Just a handful of machines are known to exist, and the occasional part has been discovered, like this bezel uncovered in a warehouse in 2014:
In the summer of 2016, like many arcade collectors, Neil from Miami, Florida was browsing an online “For Sale” website one afternoon, when a listing turned up with this picture:
The description was minimal:
My grandfather’s arcade game.. Needs gaming motherboard.. Collectors edition. Great condition. $975
There was no mention of the word Aztarac, but Neil knew exactly what he was looking at, and called the seller immediately. After being given the green light to come view the machine, Neil jumped in his truck with a friend and arrived only to find another buyer sniffing around the Aztarac. Neil picks up the story:
We get to the location and there was a guy already there. He was low-balling the seller and had the idea to grab the cabinet and turn it into a 60-1. I pulled the guy to one side, and told him this wasn’t going to be his day with this machine, and that he needed to leave it to the pros. I almost slapped him across the street when he mentioned 60-1.
The mind boggles that someone would consider butchering such a rare piece of history to make a quick buck. Installing 60-in-1 PCBs into a classic arcade machine is an easy and cheap way to buy and flip. Whatever – Neil’s “quiet word” with the guy did the trick – he backed off, and Neil was able to buy the machine, load up and drive away with this incredibly rare title on the back of his truck. The Aztarac was literally saved from an uncertain fate.
But here’s where the story gets interesting. Arriving back at his unit, Neil was able to take a closer look at the condition of the cabinet. After a quick clean up, it looked to be complete and in amazing shape:
The identifier plate was intact at the rear of the cabinet:
But there was a problem. The cabinet was locked and there were no keys.
I had a bag of old spare keys and I remembered having another Centuri title, Circus Charlie, with a bad lock. I threw away the lock and kept the keys… I’m glad I did, because the same keys opened the front coin door of the Aztarac.
Inside the Aztarac was literally a Pandora’s box. A goodie bag sat in the base of the cab still sealed from the factory, which contained a sales invoice, a delivery receipt and a New Equipment Condition Report form.
That’s when Neil looked at the coin counter meter. it read “000001”:
And, sitting in the coin bucket was a single coin; a quarter dated 1983.
This 35 year old machine had a single recorded play from a single quarter. But then came the bombshell. Neil opened the bag and examined the delivery receipt:
It was clear that the original recipient of this Aztarac arcade cabinet was none other than the late “Tim Stryker”.
The enormity of what he had found hit Neil. This machine was built by Centuri at its factory and was delivered to and owned by Tim himself – the guy who wrote the game. And what’s more, it had only one play recorded on the coin counter, and the coin that triggered that single digit on the meter was still sitting inside the cabinet after almost 35 years. Not only is this one of the rarest arcade titles in the world, it is THE original Aztarac. Truly a grail find.
What’s missing from the tale is how the cabinet ended up where it did. All we know is that the seller said it belonged to his grandfather. Perhaps Tim sold it when he moved to Utah in 1995?
As for the machine itself: The PCB doesn’t work and the monitor could do with a rebuild, but everything is complete and present, and things are in motion to get it up and running again.
The good news is that the Aztarac is now in the safe hands of a specialist Vector arcade collector in Florida, and word is that the machine should be at this year’s Free Play Florida arcade event and available to play. To have an opportunity to see and play Tim Stryker’s personal Aztarac machine, is one I’m certainly not going to miss.
What an incredible find this was. Not only was a very rare cabinet saved, but an amazing piece of arcade history has been found and recorded.
I would like to thank my buddy Neil for allowing me to share this great tale with you all.
Thanks as always for stopping by the blog – please consider sharing this article using the social media buttons below. See you next week!
In memory of Tim Stryker 1954-1996:
Update, December 2017: You can read the follow up to this article here.