Wildfire was an electronic pinball game introduced in 1979 by Parker Brothers, the makers of the hit handheld game, Merlin. Both games were created by a company called Micro-Cosmos, made up of former astrophysicist and astronomers, Bob and Holly Doyle, and Holly’s brother, Wendl, a computer scientist. Wildfire originally cost $45 (~$189 today).
The game consisted of 70 LED light bulbs under a Bakelite plastic sheet where the gameplay took place. Some of the circular bulbs represented the ball, others were bumpers, and rectangular bulbs were the flippers. Perhaps most impressive is the game’s physics. While not perfect, the ball bounces off the walls and takes a fairly realistic path, but it is also affected by where you hit the ball on the flipper. Sort of like a baseball player swinging early or late, the ball would go in different directions based upon when you activated the flipper. And all of this worked using six AA batteries.
When Micro-Cosmos presented their working prototype to Parker Bros, it was done using a handheld device attached to a computer inside a briefcase. The briefcase contained a 16-bit 8086 processor and a bunch of RAM/ROM, making up around $3,000 (~$12k today) worth of equipment. That configuration would be far too expensive for it to be sold commercially, of course.
The task of re-engineering the game fell on Garry Kitchen, a young electrical engineer working for his brother’s consulting company, Wickstead Design Associates. Garry was able to program the game for the cheaper, 4-bit, S2150 chip, running at 1.8 Mhz. Garry had to program the complex physics, LED switching, and even sound effects using 1.5 KB of ROM and only 40 bytes of RAM.
Garry would go on to invent another game for Parker Bros, Bank Shot, an electronic billiards game. But is perhaps best-known for programming the Atari 2600 version of Donkey Kong, as well as a handful of other games for the Atari.
Check out my brief video to see the game in action!