Atari Centipede Prototype surfaces!
Atari’s Centipede was a huge hit with arcade operators and players during the golden years of classic arcade gaming. Second in terms of production numbers only to Asteroids, Centipede shifted just over 46,000 upright units during its lifetime.
Released in 1981, three units were produced; an upright, cabaret and cocktail variants rolled off the production lines. I wrote about the tale behind the cocktail version here. Just 25 units housing a 19″ monitor were produced (despite it appearing on the sales flyer), before a decision was made to revert to a traditional 13″ monitor version. I guess we could argue that the 19″ monitor cocktail is a prototype of sorts, as the run was cut short at such a low number. A few have turned up, so whilst rare, it’s not impossible to find one if you hunt around hard enough.
“Prototype” versions of arcade cabinets are highly sought after by collectors for obvious reasons. These would be pre-production cabinets, often built by hand with usually interesting variations to the final cabinet designs. Atari prototypes typically might house different PCBs, hand-drawn artwork, etc. Typically they would be produced in very low numbers – maybe even just a single cabinet.
So when a prototype does turn up, especially one not seen previously, there is a certain amount of excitement in arcade collecting circles. Which is precisely what happened earlier this month.
A Centipede cabinet was listed on eBay The seller claimed it was a prototype. The following description was added:
Very rare Atari Prototype Centipede arcade game. Game is complete and working! Factory hand colored and drawn marquee, does have fade from light. The Control panel is held down by carriage bolts not clips and is a different shape, with printed and laminated artwork. Monitor bezel is printed on a translight material with paper backing between two pieces of plastic like marquee. Game has factory white sides. Does show bumps and bruises from being moved around over the years. Game Pcb looks to be built by hand and is fully working. Original G07 monitor. Looks great low burn in.
The photos accompanying the listing appear to back this up:
The cabinet was purchased by Greg McLemore, curator of the International Arcade Museum. He had this to say about the cabinet:
I’ve been offered other similar types of rough protos before, and I usually have passed on them if they are for some random unreleased game. But this is for a released game. And not just any released game… one of the most famous and popular of them all. We already have several other protos for famous games.I looked at the circuit board. Besides the hand wiring, this one has a dozen and a half more sockets than a production board. That in and of itself means close to nothing. And the wires on the board, while supporting evidence, was just that, as someone could always have added some. And even if it was a proto board, did it actually belong to the cabinet?
The board is a white PCB, as opposed to the production boards that are green. There are several subtle differences in the build of the board too (besides extra wires and sockets). Also, all other centipede boards I’ve looked at have an extra printed layer… a yellow layer. This yellow label includes the Atari name and logo, as well as labeling every single resister on the board and identifiers such as ‘GND’, ‘HSYNC’ and ‘VSYNC’. This layer doesn’t appear on the proto board.
In making a decision as to the cabinet’s authenticity, Greg compared the artwork to a previously seen cabaret prototype machine:
I compared the machine art, design, and build to both the cabaret proto photos as well as Atari design art. I re-looked at Atari proto design art… The marquee work was consistent with other similar work. And the panel stripes on this machine were consistent with the style of both the cabaret centipede proto as well other proto work. I found this evidence supportive and consistent, but meaningless in and of itself.
Here are those pictures:
So there you go. It’s very hard to put a value on these things, and the market is going to be limited to collectors with deep pockets. This was an $8,000 one-of-a-kind Centipede, and it sold pretty quickly. Amazing how these things just keep turning up, filling in another small piece of the history jigsaw of the ‘Golden Age’ of classic arcade gaming, which is exactly what this blog is about. Now it’s in the hands of the International Arcade Museum, let’s hope at some point, the public will get to see this cabinet in the flesh.