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Recreating a unique arcade game using 3D printing

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When the team at the Arcade Archive in Stroud opened their museum of historic arcade video games they were missing one important thing, the very start of the story. In 1971 Nutting Associates engineers Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney, who later formed Atari, created Computer Space.

It was the first commercially available arcade video game and the birth of an industry. The futuristic looking cabinet was constructed in fibreglass by a hot tub and swimming pool company in California and the striking design was delivered for the public to enjoy. It was not the great success its creators had hoped for.

A completely new form of media, intimidating controls and gameplay that bordered on unfair did not capture the public’s imagination, that accolade would go to Pong the following year which became the first commercially successful arcade video game. Nevertheless, Computer Space was the first, and often the most important lessons come from failure.

5 painting | Recreating a unique arcade game using 3D printing
Richard applies the resin and glitter formula.

It’s estimated that between 1,300 and 1,500 units were sold, most of which have long since been lost, so for the Arcade Archive to acquire one to display would be very difficult. On the rare occasion they do come up for auction prices exceed £55,000. The team however were determined to tell the full story at the museum and so set about creating a fully working replica.

Neil Thomas at the Arcade Archive said: “We liken the idea to display a plaster cast of a dinosaur bone in a museum. While it’s not the original it is engaging and stimulates conversation around the topic, and as a bonus we’ll be less worried about people touching it and causing damage. In many ways it’s better than the real thing in this setting”

1 3d print segment | Recreating a unique arcade game using 3D printing
A single 3D printed section of the model

Resident 3D print expert Richard Horne began by designing the model in a Computer Aided Design package. Without access to a real cabinet, he referenced images of Computer Space next to other machines in the museum to extrapolate measurements. At more than five feet tall it would take a standard 3D printer an entire month of non-stop printing, but luckily Heber Ltd, who sponsored the build, loaned the team their 3D print farm to make short work of it.

Richard said: “3D printing allowed me to sculpt and produce a model just like the fibreglass original, but that was just the start, we then had to fill and sand the construction to give it a super smooth finish before tackling the difficult paint job”. The original was available in a range of colours, most famously the white Computer Space which appears as a prop in the movie Soylent Green (1973), and others had a sparkly glitter finish.

Richard continued: “A glitter finish was ideal to give an authentic finish but also to distract from any minor imperfections in the surface, and after a week of experiments with colours, glitter and resin I found a formula that would allow me to apply it to a vertical surface without it sliding off and set about resin coating the cabinet”.

7 arcade copy | Recreating a unique arcade game using 3D printing

The model was finished off with a vintage CRT monitor previously owned by the BBC and electronics by Heber to create a fully working, full scale replica of the historic machine.

The team are already delighted with the reaction it has received by visitors, and have shared the model for others to give it a go, big or small.

Visitors can now try out the world’s first arcade video game for themselves in the Arcade Archive by booking at retrocollective.co.uk

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