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RCA Studio II GOLD MINE! An interview with the Studio 2 Production Manager!


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I did get a look at the Hagley library at the punch card programs in their collection. There were a total of 5, three mixed in with some FRED code listings and others included in the audio/visual materials (possibly also FRED or System 00, not sure).

 

Of the initial three, the extant punch cards were labeled "Deduce," "Type Write" and "004." I went through the code listings and found Deduce, but did not turn up the code listings to Type Write, nor did I find what program "004" referred to (each code listing had a title and an alphanumeric code similar to 004). Deduce is listed as a program on Andy Modla's github that was written for the Cosmac Game Development System (FRED stuff), and I've included the scan I made of its punch cards.

 

The latter two were labeled 'Draw House" and another alphanumeric code that I couldn't parse.

 

I've gotten in touch with the University of Delaware near Hagley to see if they can provide any expertise on decoding the punch cards. I did find in the System 00 manual information on how the system read them, so hopefully that can provide some insight. Beyond that it seems like anyone enterprising enough go through those code listings at the library could likely recreate those early programs and resurrect the very first games in the Studio II's ancestry.

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I might be forgetting something, but have you unearthed any RRP lists, in particular during the later part of the Studio II lifetime? In another thread about the Unisonic Champion 2711 (see the Intellivision programming section) there was a feature from Popular Mechanics, December 1977 where they did a round-up of existing video game systems. They listed the recommended retail price for the Studio II at $150 which should be the same as the launch price in April. I would've imagined the price had dropped after more than six months, or perhaps RCA held their prices until they dropped the system completely?

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I might be forgetting something, but have you unearthed any RRP lists, in particular during the later part of the Studio II lifetime? In another thread about the Unisonic Champion 2711 (see the Intellivision programming section) there was a feature from Popular Mechanics, December 1977 where they did a round-up of existing video game systems. They listed the recommended retail price for the Studio II at $150 which should be the same as the launch price in April. I would've imagined the price had dropped after more than six months, or perhaps RCA held their prices until they dropped the system completely?

There are a couple folders of press clippings and advertisements (including a truly odd newspaper ad recruiting a programmer!) for the Studio II and VIP. The best I have for you is from what looked like a mail-order catalog advertisement (Spiegel?) from December 1977 advertising the console at $139 and a spare switchbox for $9.95. Space Wars and Tennis were $14.95 each, while Schoolhouse 1 and Baseball were $19.95. Past that there were some 1978 Radio Shack advertisements with lower prices while it was being liquidated, but I don't believe I took down the exact price at that point (I think it was around $80 in one).

 

For what it's worth a press release dated Nov 15 1977 suggests $149 for the Studio II console. Attached the 2nd page from that.

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Edited by ubersaurus
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Hi Ubersaurus,

Thanks for posting the punch card information.

I have been studying the System 00 and FRED (version 1) Manual documents and verified that the Deduce program dated 12/7/1971 in these two documents are all identical with the cards program.

The cards have the hex codes for the program printed on them along with the hole punches making it easy to verify against the documents.

Note that both of these computers had 32x32 pixel displays.

 

There may be different versions of Deduce because the table listing Cosmac Game Development System games on my Github site are FRED II summarized from an internal RCA memo.

 

The FRED 1 computer had more advanced hardware such as a tape cassette storage interface whereas SYSTEM 00 did not, but both had card readers.

Both used discrete TTL logic on the circuit boards, no microprocessor yet, that came later with FRED II using the 1801 microprocessor.

FRED II had a 32x64 display.

Edited by ajavamind
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Incidentally here are the "high quality " scans of the photos from the Studio III games/demo. They were apparently taken on film, but I didn't see the original negatives in there. They really do seem to have different colors than the released Studio III clones - if any of those programs are on the cassette tapes remaining at the Hagley I'm wondering if they'll have color differences on them.

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Thanks for the price info. I kind of expected a little more aggressive pricing than so, but I realize that every $10 in 1977 equals $40 today so it is easy to be blinded by the numbers themselves without considering the buying power back then. The RCA Studio II also was some $40-50 less than the Atari VCS so when it comes to competition you could get a Studio II with two extra games for the price of just the VCS.

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After checking the thread, there was some talk a little while back based off of some documents (which I'm reattaching here for completion's sake) about the Studio IV's specs. At the Hagley I did turn up the schematics for the Studio IV's video card, as well as some details on the video chip - it seems that it would have been one of the earliest console chip designs to have RGB video output. While I doubt that would have actually translated to an RGB output cable, it does mean that had this come out some enterprising person nowadays could have tapped it for RGB as is the style these days! Someone more knowledgeable might get some nice insights out of the schematics, too - much like the SNES CD, it might just be a fun thing to try and build out for emulation if the right information can be gathered.

 

The Hagley does have on file the interpreter code for the Studio IV.

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I might be forgetting something, but have you unearthed any RRP lists, in particular during the later part of the Studio II lifetime? In another thread about the Unisonic Champion 2711 (see the Intellivision programming section) there was a feature from Popular Mechanics, December 1977 where they did a round-up of existing video game systems. They listed the recommended retail price for the Studio II at $150 which should be the same as the launch price in April. I would've imagined the price had dropped after more than six months, or perhaps RCA held their prices until they dropped the system completely?

There is a document (part of the press-kit) sent to dealers indicating that the cost for dealers to buy Studio II systems was $82 with recommended retail of $149, and the cost of cartridges was $8 each with recommended retail of $14-$19 (for Schoolhouse I). RCA's suggested retail prices seem to have held steady during the original retail lifespan, but they are known to have been sold to employees at a discount down at the Swannanoa factory, and likely elsewhere. We also know that some retailers would have reduced prices just to get them off of shelves, given fairly poor sales. In essence, there'd have been a fair amount of price variance.

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One can't help but think that RCA really wasn't worthy of it's own employees, and that practically any other company could have made much, much better use of their talent and far too many innovations that got to market too late or never even made them the money they ought to have. For example, the FRED Lightgun, from Spring of 1973!

  • They were called lightguns even that early
  • They were familiar with the tech (Joseph Wiesbecker actually owned an Odyssey and Lightgun rifle)
  • They had a design ready to go, that would have cost less than $10 to make and worked far better than the Odyssey gun
  • the FRED lightgun was computer controlled
  • At least one prototype was made (and where is it now???), and many different programs/demonstrations for it
  • Heck, they could have just patented this tech and licensed it out and made a bundle.

Reading through these sorts of archived documents is like reading some sort of alternate history from another dimension where this is how things transpired. Glimpses of how much different things would be now if but one or two things had been done differently.

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The game "Most Dangerous Game" does exist for the chip8, see here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MYIZUHSoZxk

 

But it was done by Peter Maruhnic.

 

That list of VIP II games is a list of them to be converted to play on the VIP II from other platforms. Whether or not those VIP II versions ever happened isn't indicated on any document yet seen, but it can be used to determine some games having already existed on some format. Edited by Blazing Lazers
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While over the years there has been a bit of computer data recorded on vinyl records for novelty value, I don't see the practical point. As the document indicates, the records are sensitive to clicks, eventually scratches and worse. While RCA was a big record label, surely the manufacture of 7" records could not have had so low initial costs that it would be more efficient than tapes. Were compact cassettes in use for computers already by 1973 or were those applications a few years later?

 

Also if I should nominate one company for wasting resources on getting nothing done, my vote goes to Xerox during the entire 1970's. From what I understand, the Xerox Parc was one huge think tank where engineers could work for a decade on a technology that never resulted in any products and eventually the engineers may have the option to receive their own intellectual properties and run those in own companies. Perhaps that simply was how bigger companies worked in the 70's, if they made enough money on their main business they could afford to run labs that may or may not yield products.

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My understanding is that cassettes became a regular storage medium for computers in the early 1970s, and upthread a little Andy noted that the FRED 1 computer did include a cassette connection. It sounds like the idea was that commercial record players would have been a cheap piece of equipment that people would likely already own - and thus allow them to sell the computer cheaper, if records as a storage medium worked out.

 

I did chuckle in some of Weisbecker's personal notes he listed particular lines of research as "justifying" his salary, so I think the idea that everything had to end up a moneymaking idea wasn't floating around RCA labs either. To their credit that division's 180x processor line did have a hell of a life.

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Wikipedia writes that Philips introduced the compact cassette in 1963. Already in 1966 there were 250,000 cassette recorders in the USA, a number that skyrocketed to 2.4 million by the end of 1968. At the end of the 60's, the compact cassette business was estimated to be worth $150 million.

 

Out of those customers in the market for a new-fangled home computer like FRED, quite likely most who already owned a record player would also have a cassette recorder or wouldn't mind buying one anyway.

 

It is said the audio quality on cassette recorders in the late 60's wasn't that great, but that it improved greatly in the early 70's. Perhaps using records would allow RCA to use a higher baud rate if the audio quality was better, even as means of copy protection if duplicating the audio from a record to a cassette would distort it until the quality improved.

 

Edit: The document is dated 1973, so by then perhaps the improved cassette recorders already were beginning to hit the market...

Edited by carlsson
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As an update to the tape digitization effort, I just received another 16 tapes done as wav files, though for whatever reason the Mines/Fighter VIII tape that might contain another of the missing arcade games wasn't among them. I've reached out again to the Hagley about that one - I'm hoping it was just missed and isn't missing.

 

Of what I did receive, there's a fair number of VIP-labeled programs (like Pinball, a music demo, and some Chip 8 stuff), some demos that i think are for the VIP, the arcade Chase game, a couple pre-release Studio II games (Speedway-tag and Baseball notably) and something that was unlabeled. "Color Demo" might still be referring to the Studio III, but the flip side label suggests it also contains another color demo I saw pictures for on the VIP. So we'll see what that looks like. I haven't actually had the chance to crack open any of the files yet to identify or attempt to convert them to binaries using Andy's tool.

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I came across this while looking into the old RCA Family Stores to see if they ever might have sold Bingo or any other unusual items. It's a blurb from the December 1977 issue of Ebony magazine. Hopefully somebody could contact the gentleman, but it is a very common name. In the meantime, it gives us a glimpse of a sort of display unit from the end of the retail life of the system. For those that were at PC2K and 2K1, was this what was seen there?

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Just an FYI, TCNJ's Sarnoff Collection is also in the process of digitizing its program tapes. Having looked at their list, there are some duplicates from the Hagley, but also a number of unique ones - particularly for the FRED development systems and System 00. Of particular note to me: they seem to have a copy of the Jackpot game Joyce Weisbecker wrote on FRED, and given her place as the first woman to work professionally in the game industry her first computer game is a really cool artifact. It's entirely possible that in the coming months we could have a complete program history of the Studio II and its brethren thanks to the two archives!

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  • 3 weeks later...
Hello,


I was fortunate enough to have temporary access to the rare RCA Studio II Tester 1 cartridge.


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While I had it, I created a schematic and dumped all six ROMs inside.


The bad news is that it won't work in the multicart the way the code and hardware interact. It may be possible to modify the code so that the Tester 1 code appears to run in the multicart. It could go through the steps the way it does in the Emma 02 emulator, but it would not actually check your Studio II hardware.


I have created a web page outlining what I did with the cartridge while I had it. You can find it here:




On that page you can download the schematic I created, the service manual for the Studio II and a zip file with the contents of the six ROMs.


I am not the owner of this rare cartridge. Thank you to the actual owner for allowing me to document this awesome piece of RCA 1802 history.


I hope you found this useful.


ED

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