Introduced as two types of products prepared to take over the world – personal computers and home video game consoles – the Bally Professional Arcade tried very hard to be both at the same time…and maybe that’s why it didn’t catch on like wildfire.
On the surface, a home game machine by Bally – who, via its Midway division, already had a strong pedigree in the arcade – would seem like a shoo-in. (Midway’s greatest successes – licensing Japanese titles such as Pac-Man – were still in the future, however.) The Professional Arcade counted among its lead designers one Jay Fenton, who would later go on to create Gorf (and who would later become Jamie Fenton), and featured unique controllers and unique games. Though one might think that Bally would’ve had the first right of refusal on Midway’s games, most of those games made their way to the Professional Arcade under different names rather than as fully licensed titles. The Professional Arcade boasted some of the best arcade ports of its day, but when the games’ names didn’t match up with their arcade counterparts, few seemed to notice.
One feature that was unique to the Bally Professional Arcade for a long time was the Bally BASIC cartridge, allowing players to create their own programs and simple games. With the ability to save the resulting programs to cassette, there was an underground market for user-created software, certainly the first time that a home video game’s user base even had that option. This also kept Professional Arcade users satiated when Bally somewhat surprisingly bowed out of the home video game race, surrendering to console heavyweights like Atari so it could instead concentrate on Midway’s arcade games and Bally’s line of casino games.
The Bally Professional Arcade later resurfaced under the name “Astrocade”, slightly repackaged and boasting some new software; as with Fairchild’s Channel F, the Professional Arcade was bought by an outside company that wanted to gamble on getting into the video game market. Astrocade wasn’t on the map for long, though – this new generation of the Bally Professional Arcade was around just long enough for the industry to crash, taking Astrocade and nearly everyone else out with it.
There was still a demand for user-created software, and even now homebrew game programmers are rediscovering the Professional Arcade.
Special thanks to Kevin Moon for the Bally Professional Arcade photo.