These days it’s not unusual to read stories about game collectors buying rare game cartridges for thousands of dollars. But what is in those cartridges? Typically just code and data stored in one or more ROM (Read Only Memory) chips.
In my last story, Fixing Gran Trak 10, I documented the first arcade game to use a ROM. The problem was which ROM? Was it the one we found over and over again with the number 74186 or was there an earlier, much rarer ROM with the number 74181? This idea was championed by one of my collaborators, Andrew Welburn, and supported by several pieces of obscure but provocative evidence: A track that appeared on an advertising flyer but not any shipping game we could find; A schematic for a an early development board called “proto-b” that no one had seen; A snapshot taken by one of the original game developers of his kids playing an early version of the game over 40 years ago.
I waited as long as possible before publishing that story. I talked to everyone I could think of, but eventually I had to admit that I was stuck. Maybe by publishing I would get the word out and someone would step forward. I pushed the publish button and waited. I was still waiting six months later.
An Unexpected Message
Okay, a few pieces of context here. First, John Hardie is an old friend and co-founder of the National Videogame Museum. He knows his stuff. Second, by Portland, he is referring to the Portland Retro Gaming Expo where I would be later that evening. I was heading to the show to give a speech the next day with Ron Milner on Chasing the First Arcade Easter Egg.
I told John that Tank boards are pretty easy to spot because they are two big boards connected by a ribbon cable, (I had just fixed a Cocktail version of Tank a few months earlier) and I went on to say that Tank was produced just after Gran Trak 10. Any chance he got one of those?
I asked him to try to get closeups of the ROMs if possible. I didn’t have to wait very long.
This was the second picture he sent:
This was the fifth:
This was it. The holy grail that Andy, Tim Giddens and I had been looking for. After some gentle arm twisting, John agreed to bring me not just one PCB but six. He hand carried them in a box through security before boarding his flight from Texas. They didn’t blink an eye.
I sat with John that evening in the hotel bar in Portland and carefully unwrapped the stash. It included three Gran Trak boards, one of which held the precious 74181 ROM, and three other interesting boards including the first revision of the PCB for the game Gotcha (see Fixing Color Gotcha) .
God I Hope This Works
I returned home late Sunday night after a fantastic conference celebrating 40 years since the launch of the Atari 2600 and filled with talks from early Atari employees including Tod Frye, David Crane, Gary Kitchen, Howard Scott Warshaw, Joe Decuir, and many others,
Monday morning I got to work.
I unwrapped John’s six boards:
I took the board with the incredibly rare 74181 and carefully removed the ROM. I’ve seen pins rip right off old ROMs like this before but the chip is in great shape and it came out easily. Note the date stamp below the part number: 7401. That means it was manufactured in the first week of 1974. The earliest date stamp we have found on a 74186 is 7414.
I put the ROM in my working Gran Trak 10 machine, said a short prayer to the god of engineers everywhere, and flipped the switch.
There it was. The track as shown on the Gran Trak 10 flyer and as seen on the picture of the prototype Larry Emmons had sent me. Andy was completely right. There was an earlier ROM and it contained exactly what he said it would.
I flipped the track selector switch on my (modified) machine and up came the track from the Kee Games Formula K flyer, again as predicted:
I shipped the ROM to Tim that afternoon. He will copy the data and document every aspect of what he finds. (Here it is! 074181_memory_map) Then we will ship it back to the National Videogame Museum so it can be placed on display for all to see.
I wasn’t sure what to do next. I was at the end of a long and sometimes difficult journey. I had found the treasure I was looking for. I had no idea where to go from here. So I did what I always do: I put in another quarter and started to play…
(Thanks to everyone who made this possible: My partners in crime Tim Giddens and Andy Welburn; The creators of the game Steve Mayer, Larry Emmons and Ron Milner; The museum folks John Hardie at National Videogame Museum and Jon-Paul Dyson at The Strong Museum of Play; The game historians Marty Goldberg, Curt Vendel, and Kevin Smith. The supporting cast Lanny Netz, David Oliver, Matt Griffin, Van Burnham, Chris Taylor, and Steve Golson.)