The Story of CommaVid

by Joe Santulli

Last week I had the good fortune of meeting up with the men that founded, managed, and designed games for CommaVid, an early 1980's company who manufactured for the Atari 2600. Until now, very little public information was available about this company. What we knew about them were the games they produced - including two incredible rarities in the Atari 2600 library - and their erratic packaging of games. 

CommaVid was the brainchild of three Chicago area physicists: Dr. Irwin Gaines, Dr. John Bronstein, and Dr. Joseph Biel. Each motivated and fascinated with the technology of the time, these brilliant fellows set out to create games that would be both aesthetically pleasing as well as fun to play. Though CommaVid isn’t the name that leaps to mind when you think of great graphics and gameplay, I’ve always been a fan of their games simply because they were so  different. There really isn’t a game in their library that’s anything like any other game I’ve played.

I took this trip with fellow Classic Gaming Expo and Digital Press associates John Hardie and Sean Kelly. Our first trip was to Dr. John Bronstein’s place. In his words, “Irwin [Gaines] was the creative one, Joe [Biel] was the professional one, and I was the one who was neither”. It’s hard to imagine that Bronstein is anything short of genius. He was the one who designed both MagiCard and Video Life – the company’s first two offerings - for the Atari 2600. And if neither of those titles impress you, consider that he personally reverse-engineered the Atari 2600 using a home-made unit, which sits between a game cartridge and the 2600. The unit allowed him to alter bytes from the input source code via diodes (scores of them) to the output to see the results (click HERE to get a good look at it). Yup. Way over my head.  

We spent several hours going through the archives of Dr. Bronstein, which included lots of home-made circuitry and tools. Oddly, there were as many Tandy TRS-80 Color Computer pieces in his possession as Atari pieces. He explained that what they had to do was “force” the TRS-80 CoCo running a 6809 CPU (and a program written to compile 6809 source code) to compile 6502 source code for Atari 2600. Sean noted that CommaVid seemed “to be built pretty much on Radio Shack parts”, and Bronstein complied with a grin. 

Besides the museum pieces that will be displayed at Classic Gaming Expo next year, we were naturally curious about the games CommaVid produced as well, and learned some interesting things from Dr. Bronstein. Bronstein designed CommaVid’s first real “game”, Cosmic Swarm. In his notes he pointed out that the original name for this game was to be Termite, but after some consultation with marketing friends who urged that the game have a sexy, outer-space hook, Bronstein came up with the story that would later grace the back of the box. The title was changed to Cosmic Swarm. 

Dr. Bronstein kept his development work from his days with CommaVid that turned up some interesting things as well. Naturally, we were looking for game titles that were announced but never released. Where was Mission Omega? Rush Hour? Underworld? Well, at least one of those titles has surfaced, though it has some issues. Rush Hour was to be a later title (CommaVid’s 10th game), and its development was outsourced by CommaVid to an independent programmer. Ironically, this person was in an automobile accident during the development and it's believed the project was eventually scrapped before completion. The game has some syncing problems, which cause some flicker, but it's definitely salvageable. It needs a little tweaking but seems fairly complete otherwise. What we can see and play looks very promising, and there was even a box completed for the game!

In Dr. Bronstein’s notes there were also references to a game called Ortho F. He explained that he began work on this one but it was too large and complex for the Atari VCS. In Bronstein's words "if the Atari system could hold sixteen megabytes of code, it may have been a possibility". Among the beta versions in his possession, there was also an EPROM with a sound creation demo as well as a graphics editor of some sort. These were also home-made, because CommaVid wasn't given any development tools and created these out of sheer necessity. There was also a one-screen demo of some sort labeled Frog. Pressing the button extends the tongue of a frog that is sitting stationary at the bottom of the screen. At the top are three motionless moths. An early version of another game? A demo of some sort? We would later find out the answer to this.  

Still no Mission Omega, a game that Bronstein himself was designing. We did discover the part number among the notes, however: CM006.

Our next trip was to The Caribou coffee shop to meet with Dr. Joseph Biel, who we discovered was the designer of CommaVid’s Stronghold. We also learned that CommaVid was hired by Coleco to program Venture for the Atari 2600, and Biel was the guy who programmed the game for CommaVid under contract by Coleco. 

Dr. Biel reinforced some of Dr. Bronstein’s recollections of CommaVid, and added some interesting new tidbits. For example, when we asked about the various box sizes and artwork styles inherent in their game library, he explained that the original artwork for CommaVid was done by a local artist who had also done some arcade graphics for a local coin-op manufacturer. She did the original, abominable artwork for Cosmic Swarm. Later, when CommaVid began to expand their distribution they were pointed by a marketing consultant to a designer who created the later box art which was markedly more professional. The box art for Cosmic Swarm that was likely only seen in Europe is just fantastic.

Another outsourced project involved a bio-feedback "game" where you could read the "player" pulse, blood pressure, and temperature. Very much like Synapse's Relax by the sound of it but definitely not the same exact project. We had also asked about the Frog game we had seen earlier, which he explained was simply a program used to test some graphic theories that would later be used in his game Stronghold.

Our final destination was the home of Dr. Irwin Gaines, who we discovered was the designer of Room of Doom, Mines of Minos, and Cakewalk – the games most often cited as the best CommaVid had to offer. By the time we had met up with Dr. Gaines, we had most of the information about CommaVid’s history, but he was able to add a few more gems. For example, he had a box of cassette software with compilers, tools, and data on them. There were also several boxes of EPROMs that we have yet to go through and we're hoping to discover some of the other unreleased titles such as Mission Omega and Underworld. We did happen to see some other interesting versions of a few CommaVid titles among Dr. Gaines' archives along with an EPROM containing what appears to be a sprite editing program. We'll update you if we can figure out exactly what this is supposed to do. Oh, one other note. The part number on Underworld (which was previously unknown) is CM007.

We were also quoted some interesting production numbers. According to Dr. Gaines, only 50 to 100 MagiCard cartridges were ever made, and less than 20 Video Life cartridges were ever made. We knew there were very few but that’s REALLY very few. If you have either, don’t part with it! 

Dr. Gaines' back stock of product has unfortunately seen better days. There was some significant water damage to a set of highly sought-after Stronghold game boxes! YIKES. Also interesting was the fact that the games he had were almost all European (PAL/SECAM) versions, not the US versions (just for grins, Sean put the boxes up for auction on Ebay).

After meeting with each of these gentlemen I asked the question “looking back now, was the CommaVid experiment more successful or less successful than you had anticipated it would be?” and in each case I received a similar answer. They all felt that CommaVid did what they set out to do, which was to create some quality games which both looked good and were fun to play. None of them got involved to become "big" but were rather intrigued with the technology. CommaVid bowed out like many others in that early crash but unlike many others, paid all of the bills. There were a few investors in the company who were offered 50 cents on the dollar when the company was about to go out. All of them took that deal.

Here’s one more bit of information regarding CommaVid. John Hardie and Sean Kelly now own the rights to the company! When asked what their plans for these rights meant to the gaming community, they simply stated “no comment”. That’s right. There is a “low” that’s lower than being out of business. =)

ONE MORE FUN FACT! Did you know that the name CommaVid was not the original name of the company? You may have seen the MagiCard cartridge, with its "Computer Magic, Inc." label, that would have been a hint. Actually, CommaVid is a word formed by these fellows original planned company name, Computer Magic Video (COMputer MAgic VIDeo).

ADDED 09/14/03: Check out THIS retro article on CommaVid's Irwin Gaines.

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