Atari Gotcha: The Boob Game

Released in October 1973, Atari’s fourth arcade videogame Gotcha was an attempt to further diversify the company and put some innovative distance between itself and its competitors. At the time, the one thing that Atari hadn’t accounted for were the dozens of clones of its first mass-produced arcade game – the seminal Pong.

Atari Pong 1973
Atari celebrates the release of the first commercially successful arcade video game, Pong. Pictured L-R are Ted Dabney with fellow Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell and early employees Fred Marincic and Al Alcorn. Colourised pic: Adam Pratt

Pong had taken the coin operated industry by storm, and this of course attracted the attention of other manufacturers, who very quickly produced their own version of Atari’s huge hit. So much so, that in all likelihood, you were more likely to come across one of these Pong clones in a bar or arcade, than Atari’s groundbreaking original. Allied Leisure, Nutting Associates and Midway to name a few, all swiftly flooded the market with their own versions of the bat and paddle ball game.

Williams Paddle-Ball
Williams Electronics’ Paddle-Ball. One of many Pong clones released around 1973

Space Race was Atari’s second game, and despite being arguably the world’s first arcade racing game, it was met with a lukewarm response from the public who were still feasting on the thousands of Pong games to be found out in the wild. Reverting back to their roots, Pong Doubles came next from Atari, which was not much more than a four player version of their original Pong game.

Atari Space Race
The flyer for Atari’s Space Race, their second title after Pong

Clearly there was still money to be made by repackaging the concept of the Pong mechanic, and this would continue (Barrel Pong, Dr Pong, Quadrapong – you name it), but Nolan Bushnell knew that more had to be done to ensure Atari’s success. He knew that Pong alone couldn’t possibly hold players’ attention forever.

Atari realised that the only way to stand out from the new competition in the market was to innovate and develop new game ideas. Al Alcorn, Pong‘s creator, was tasked with coming up with something groundbreaking in order to drive the company forward and re-establish itself as the leader of the pack in coin operated videogames. His inspiration for what would become Gotcha came from an unlikely source – Pong itself.

Alcorn started observing a recurring fault when testing newly produced Pong PCB boards at Atari’s production facility. If a bad gate was present in the circuit that produced the on screen scores in Pong, the segments that made up the number characters would be still present, but would be displayed scattered all over the game’s screen. In his mind’s eye, Alcorn saw static maze-like patterns being created.

Gotcha Sreenshot
Gotcha’s game screen. Note how the maze walls are segments of the digits that would normally appear at the top of the screen

His idea was to add a movement circuit to the broken one, which would scroll these random artefacts down the screen – in turn, creating a dynamic, moving maze. Adding two sprites to represent a chaser and a runner, Alcorn now had a game mechanic – he called it Gotcha.

Gotcha is a two player game, where players run through the ever moving maze with one trying to evade the other. Player one receives points for each ‘catch’, and player two receiving points for being able to avoid capture. The dynamic nature of the maze itself generates some interesting gameplay – the scrolling walls could either capture a player or provide a method of escape. Here’s a gameplay video:

As Atari’s Product Designer, George Faraco was tasked with producing the cabinet design for the game. As you’d expect, the machine was fairly traditional looking – upright wooden cabinet, a monitor, plastic monitor shroud and of course the two joysticks required for the players to control their on screen sprites. There are many theories as to why, but perhaps as a reflection of the sexually liberated times of the 70s, or a deliberate attempt to stir up controversy, or indeed just simple humour (because they ‘could’), Faraco surrounded the joystick mechanism with a bright pink dome – the intention being that each player cups the mound and moves it around to control the on-screen action:

Gotcha Boob Controller
An original Atari Gotcha ‘Boob’ controller. Pic: Atari Games Museum

Another theory is that traditional joysticks were regarded as being phallic in shape, and someone suggested to him that Atari should release a joystick that were more feminine in design. Boobs. Whatever the truth about these unique controllers, Faraco is adamant to this day about what they represented:

They didn’t have bumps on them or anything, but the way they were the size of grapefruits next to each other, you got the impression of what they were supposed to be.

As a result, Gotcha quickly became known as ‘The Boob Game’. it was released in October of 1973 with a price tag of just $745. Sadly, the boobs would be short lived. At some point during early production, the pink grapefruits were switched out and replaced with traditional joysticks:

Atari Gotcha Arcade Cabinet
Atari Gotcha arcade cabinet. Sans boobs

But not before the flyer for the game was produced, picturing not only a Gotcha cabinet resplendent with the two pink ‘Boobs’ but also with the depiction of a man chasing a scantily dressed woman. One suspects this didn’t help Atari’s cause when it came to the perception of the game and its physical design:

Gotcha Flyer 1
The infamous Gotcha sales flyer. Boobs!
Gotcha Flyer 2
The rear of the flyer. Atari describes the game as “another great video skill game from ATARI…this time with plenty of psychological twists and turns, and free-flowing adrenalin”

And so barely a handful (excuse the pun) of Gotcha cabinets remain with the pink Boobs intact. The game itself had only lukewarm commercial success – one suspects that being released during videogame’s infancy and at the height of the Pong craze it was always going to struggle to sell.

A couple of interesting side notes to finish up with:

  1. Bushnell himself requested that Alcorn design a 20-player version of Gotcha to display at a Trade Show in 1973 – in fact this never came about. But interesting to note Bushnell’s early visions about multiplayer gaming.
  2. There were rumours of a colour version of the game produced by Alcorn, which would make Gotcha the very first full colour video game, beating Nutting Associates’ Wimbledon (another Pong clone) by literally a few weeks. Although a handful supposedly made it out of the factory, priced at a mere $50 more than it’s black & white standard brother, none of these colour Gotcha cabinets are known to exist today. But collector Ed Fries recently discovered what was labelled as a colour Gotcha PCB which he managed to resurrect, to discover it was indeed a colour Gotcha.
Colour Atari Gotcha
An image from Ed Fries’ Colour Gotcha PCB

An amazing discovery, and I’d urge you to read the story of how this PCB was brought to life at Ed’s excellent blog here.

Nutting Associates’ Wimbledon. Just beaten to the post by Gotcha, as the world’s first colour arcade video game

So, Gotcha then – an interesting title during videogaming’s first baby steps and one suspects, the very first controversial arcade game.

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