The Video Game Critic's Console Reviews
Bally Astrocade (1977-1982)

Manufacturer: Bally
Format: Cartridge
Controller ports: 4
Save Capability: None
Number of Games: 40+
Video Output: RF
Initial Price: $299

The Bally Astrocade was a very capable video game console that stacks up favorably to other systems of its day - namely the Atari 2600 and Intellivision. When I first showed my friends what the Astrocade was capable of, they were amazed. The system boasted vibrant graphics with smooth animation, The objects on the screen are rendered with flicker-free, multi-colored sprites. The game had an arcade quality that combined the rich visuals of an Intellivision game with the fast action of an Atari 2600 game. The system's robust audio easily outshines the typical beeps and buzzes of comparable systems. The controllers don't look like much, but if you use one, you'll be impressed. The grip and trigger feel comfortable in your hand, and the small knob on top doubles as a joystick and paddle controller. All things considered, it's hard to believe the system failed!

So what was the problem? Well, the game selection for one. The Astrocade's modest library was lacking in high-profile licenses and original titles. In fact, the system's best games are knock-offs of classics like Galaxian (Galactic Invasion), Pac-Man (Muncher), and Wizard of Wor (The Incredible Wizard). Few games took full advantage of the system's capabilties, and after you play the few top-tier titles, there's a severe drop-off. Most of the older games are very rudimentary. The system is still worth owning, just as long as you realize that the fun is limited.

Like all home computer's of the late 1970's and early 1980's, the Bally Astrocade supported the programming language BASIC, allowing fans of the system to create their own games, save them to cassette tape, and exchange them with each other. Since BASIC is an interpreted language however, these games ran much slower than normal Bally cartridges. Bally discontinued the Astrocade in 1980, but other companies continued to support the system to various degrees until 1985.

I always considered the Astrocade to be one of the "holy grails" of video game collecting. There are never too many systems for sale on Ebay at a given time, and a package that includes many games can run into hundreds of dollars. I personally spent years attempting to obtain one of these systems. The first time I thought I landed one, it never arrived and I had to get my money refunded. Later, I won another, but it arrived broken and also had to be returned. If not for the kindness of a reader who was willing to part with one of his extra systems, I'd probably still be searching.

Incredible Wizard Console Appearance: F. The Astrocade is probably the ugliest piece of hardware I have ever laid my eyes on. That fake wood trim, gold trim, keypad, and smoked glass looks like something left over the 1950's - much less the 70's. The back half of the unit holds up to 15 cartridges under its removable plastic lid. This console has no sense of style. Did I mention it was big?

Console Functionality: D+. The front half of the system has a cartridge slot and two buttons: eject and reset. The 24-key keypad has black keys on a gold background, making it look like an old calculator. The power switch is inexplicably hidden on the lower part of the back of the console. There are also four controller ports back there, and it was the first console to have that many.

Durability: D. Astrocade systems were unreliable from the outset, so it's hard to find one that's fully operational. Many FAQ documents advise against leave the Astrocade on a carpet as the system is prone to overheating. The keypad does not age well, and over time its buttons tend to "stick". Fortunately you can completely circumvent the keypad by using the controller to select game variations instead.

controller Controllers: A. While they look like half of a toy gun, the controllers are remarkably comfortable and perfectly functional. The knob at the top functions like an eight-way joystick, and also turns to double as a paddle. This allows certain games to utilize both digital and analog controls at the same time.

Media: D. The cassette-tape shaped Astrocade cartridges are compact but lack any kind of decorative artwork. There's no label along the top edge, so you can't tell what the games are when they're stacked.

Packaging: F-. Astrocade games have incredibly cheap, generic packaging. Most were sold in a generic gold boxes with stickers on the edge indicating the title of the game. Worst yet, the instruction manual (the only thing containing art) doubled as the box cover. Once you take off the plastic shrink wrap, the whole package falls apart.

Games: C+. The Astrocade offers very modest library, but there enough gems to make it worthwhile. Several are first-rate knock-offs including Astro Battle (Space Invaders), Muncher (Pac-Man), and Incredible Wizard (Wizard of Wor). There are some fine multiplayer games, and even the built-in game (Gunfight) is impressive. Unfortunately, few games were produced for the system and the lack of original titles is glaring.

box Graphics: A. For a first-generation console, the Astrocade delivers some extremely attractive visuals. The early titles were rather plain, but some of the later titles were pretty amazing. Although somewhat chunky, the sprites seen in Astrocade games are well defined and flicker-free. Unlike the Intellivision, the Astrocade could animate many objects on the screen at a time without experiencing rampant slow-down.

Audio: A. Certain Astrocade games exhibit some astonishing audio effects that are far beyond other consoles of its time. The cacaphony of weird sounds that can be heard in Incredible Wizard continues to amaze to this day. Few titles boasted that level of audio quality however.

Collectability: C-. An Astrocade console is difficult to obtain, so only determined collectors will ever get their hands on one. Once you have the console, acquiring the games is fairly easy. Fortunately, the better games like Wizard of Wor and Galactic Invasion tend to be the most common and inexpensive.

Innovations: Controllers with both digital and analog control, keypad built into console, four controller ports, ability to run BASIC programming language.

Pros and Cons:
+ Crisp, well-defined graphics + Outstanding sound capabilities
+ Ergonomic controllers
- System hard to acquire/expensive
- Ugly design
- Low reliability
- Terrible packaging
- Small library

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