I touched on the subject of the rare Sundance arcade game previously here on Arcade Blogger, when an original cabinet built by the game’s creator, Cinematronics, was pulled from an abandoned building a few years back (you can read about that amazing tale here).
Developed by Tim Skelly, Sundance is now a very rare arcade treasure. The upshot is that this obscure vector game was never a commercial success – the hardware was flaky (machines were arriving dead at arcades from the factory), Cinematronics struggled to get a foothold in marketing their games at the time against the might of Atari, and the gameplay wasn’t exactly easy for players to pick up:
One thing that Cinematronics did accomplish however, was a licensing agreement with Sega to distribute the game in Japan. With arcade games being the hot thing back then, many of these agreements were set up often with little focus on the quality of what the licensee was actually paying for. The industry was developing a habit of putting any old game into a cabinet and throwing it out into arcades. The assumption was that thrill-hungry arcade players would embrace and play pretty much anything, and for someone like Sega, securing a license to distribute a game already developed by someone else, was more cost-effective than investing in the creation of an original in-house arcade title.
Of course not every game (licensed or otherwise) would be a success, and many of these commercial failures have now become “holy grail” titles for today’s collectors. Sundance is one such title.
A Japanese cabinet turning up in the USA is an unusual occurrence at the best of times, as arcade collector Joshua Neels was about to find out after spotting this cabinet for sale on a Freeport, IL Facebook “for sale” page recently:
At first glance, it looks like a Sega licensed Asteroids cabinet (Asteroids was developed by Atari). This cabinet’s home territory would have been Japan – but at some point it seems to have found its way over to the US. We know that this Japanese cabinet existed because the manual has surfaced:
But what is particularly unusual about this cabinet, is its glorious Sundance artwork on the sides. This looks to be an exact replica of the original Cinematronics design, with a Sega logo added for good measure:
This sparked Josh’s interest, and he quickly snapped the cabinet up. Getting the machine home, he was able to take a closer look at what he had. Things on the back of the cabinet seemed to check out – note the reference to the Asteroids Atari trademark:
Inside, everything was as expected – that appears to be a Sega Asteroids board with correct marks and the at the base of the cabinet, everything looked original:
The tech heads among you will probably appreciate the rarity of a bespoke Sega branded vector monitor – very unusual (but expected in this cab). Working too!
And note the odd button layout compared to what you’d find on an Atari Asteroids control panel. You can see the ‘Hyperspace’ button sits next to the ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ buttons. Perhaps this was intended to compensate for the smaller size of Japanese hands?
Weird. I rather enjoy the hard panicked “SLAM!” of using the ‘Hyperspace’ feature on an Atari cab where the button is some distance from the others. It adds to the adrenaline rush of Asteroids. Looks like there’s too much opportunity to trigger an accidental and risky ‘Hyperspace’ playing this cab.
But interestingly, if you look at pictures of an original dedicated Sega Asteroids cabinet, the control panel is a totally different setup:
Note the joystick control for left/right. So perhaps the new circular buttons buttons were applied to the machine back in the US?
The marquee is clearly original:
For now the cabinet wasn’t working – looked like a power issue. But the more pressing thing was this side art. Why would a Japanese Asteroids have Sundance artwork? Looking at the sides of the cabinet, Josh noticed the outline of a sticky residue, in the exact shape of what would have been Sega Asteroids side artwork, which has a very distinctive shape. It appeared that the Asteroids artwork had been placed over the Sundance art, then removed at some point, revealing the Sundance underneath.
So logic says that this was a Sega Japan Asteroids cabinet, built as a Sundance, then converted back to Asteroids. Surely that can’t be possible? Josh decided that further investigation was required, and started searching the inside of the cabinet for clues.
Looking at the underside of the control panel, he spotted this:
Notice those squares cut into the metal panel and clearly covered up again. Well here’s an original Cinematronics Sundance control panel:
Those holes were clearly the templates for the nine button hatch controls. Indeed, removing the panel altogether, revealed the full extent of the conversion:
This was quite obviously once a Sega Sundance cabinet. No doubt about it when you look at the original cabinet:
What’s more, after closer inspection of the Asteroids control panel, once the badly applied overlay was peeled off, it revealed the original instructions had been covered with black paint. Shining a torch on this area revealed the Japanese silk screened instructions underneath, alongside some English words:
The “NOVA” feature is a key part of Sundance‘s gameplay mechanic. This was the final confirmation that this Sega-built Japanese cabinet once housed (or was intended to house) the Sundance game.
Another collector dug through his collection of old industry brochures from Japan, and found this picture of an original Sega Sundance cabinet – you can clearly see that it is the same design, and the button placement matches up with the original template cut holes in Josh’s Asteroids machine:
So what can we conclude from all this? Well the best guess would be:
- Sega Japan came up with a cabinet design as above, originally intended to house the Asteroids license.
- The Sundance license was acquired at the same time, and a decision was made to use leftover Asteroids cabinets (or perhaps reallocate some?) to house the new game. The Sundance art was applied at the factory. New control panels were made and the Sundance machines were built.
- Either before or after this machine left Sega’s Japanese factory, there were problems with the Sundance game (and/or the game was badly received), so a hasty commercial decision was made to convert the machine back to Asteroids.
- Whether this cabinet was shipped to America before or after that conversion took place is up for debate, given the button control layout.
What a bizarre sequence of events! And poor old Cinematronics – not only did the game not get any traction in the US, but it seems that the Japanese market was also less than enamoured with it.
Josh was able to replace a simple faulty transistor in the power supply and get the board running again. After adding a new ballast and bulb for the marquee, he had a fully working Sega Asteroids!
And that is the current state of the cabinet. Josh is now faced with a big decision: leave the cabinet as-is, or try a very complex conversion back to Sundance. This would almost certainly have to involve emulation, as finding an original vector Sundance board is going to be nigh-on impossible. I think the jury is still out on that, but the general consensus is to leave it as it stands. The cabinet represents a fascinating piece of arcade history documenting a somewhat turbulent time in Sega’s early arcade life.
I’d like to thank collector Joshua Neels for allowing me to use his pictures and share this interesting find with you all here on the blog. Some great detective work was done here to try to figure out the history of this unusual arcade cabinet.
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As an aside, if you’d like to see some Sundance gameplay footage, take a look at this video: