Arcade games don’t get much cooler than Tempest. Released in 1981 by Atari, Tempest didn’t look—or play—like any other machine in the mall: from the angular shape of the cabinet and the spinner knob control, to the vector graphics and fast-paced 3-D action. It was even in the “Subdivisions” video of Rush!
But the game was so hard—as you spun your ship around weird blue alien webs, zapping pulsars and fireballs—that I never cracked the high score. When my neighbor Nick told me he had a broken Tempest machine that was mine if I could I fix it, I seized the challenge. Game on!
I hauled the machine to Penn Vending Home Sales outside Philadelphia, where they’ve been repairing and selling arcade games for over 50 years. Walking inside, I found a warehouse filled with dozens of classic games, jukeboxes, and vending machines. As head technician Phil Ivany tried to turn on the Tempest, I hoped for the best.
Phil Ivany: “I’m seeing here that the LED on the motherboard is on, so I’m assuming that the power supply is okay at this point. What I want to do is fire up the game and listen for audio sounds from the board to see if the game is working. That will tell me if the monitor is working. At this point we have to find out why the board’s not firing up first. Because the board is what’s going to drive the monitor, the video output.”
On closer inspection, Phil discovered that the motherboard was missing an EPROM memory chip. But he found a second dusty motherboard inside the machine and gave it a try.
Ivany: “I just fired it up, so what were going to do is go in the front again and see if we hear any audio sounds. [[Clicking sounds.]] Now that’s a good sign, it credits up. You can see the flashing lights here, this is indicating player one and player two. At this point we should hear audio now, providing the audio output is working.”
Unfortunately, it wasn’t. And as Phil shined his flashlight inside the machine, we found out one possible reason why.
Ivany: There’s a dead mouse in the machine, which is a bad thing. There must be something on that wire.”
Kushner: “That would be the tempest in the machine, I would say.”
Phil had to clean up more than the dead mouse. First he had to get the power supply running to the motherboard. Then he found that there was a problem with the video section of the board that drove the monitor.
Unable to pursue that without the right chips, Phil had to contact a small company founded by a late, ex-Atari engineer nicknamed Mr. Atari—a man on the west coast who had amassed collection of arcade game parts. Mr. Atari’s son delivered with the EPROM Phil needed, enabling him to get the monitor running. But then Phil found another problem: a bad picture tube. Finally, after weeks of waiting for parts, Phil had everything fixed.
When the truck with the Tempest machine backed up into my driveway, I felt as giddy as the kid playing it in the Rush video. Even better, I had convinced my wife to let me put the machine in the house! The final bill, including delivery: $525. But it’s money well spent. I have the top score—for the moment at least. My friend’s second grader is not far behind.
David Kushner is the author of many books, including Masters of Doom, Jonny Magic & the Card Shark Kids, Levittown, The Bones of Marianna, and Alligator Candy. A contributing editor of Rolling Stone, he has written for publications including The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Wired, and The New York Times Magazine.