Much has been written about gaming’s first decade, with a particular focus on western innovation and domination. This focus is understandable considering Americans developed the first console, the first arcade games, the first hit videogame, the first system to support programmable games and the first console that was a true mainstream success, among many other important foundational contributions. It didn’t take long for the rest of the world to notice and rush towards videogames in an attempt to claim a portion of the new medium for themselves. This piece sheds light on the near-forgotten story of one of those companies who saw gaming’s potential and whose contributions helped lay the foundation for the Japanese home console industry: Epoch (sounds like “epic”).
While baseball had existed in Japan since the late 1800s, its popularity skyrocketed post-World War II. Taketora Maeda was a jigsaw puzzle developer who had been enthusiastic about an imported baseball game that he remembered playing at his uncle’s house when he was a child. He yearned for a similar game that faithfully replicated every move of a baseball, including throwing and hitting a ball. And since there wasn’t one available, he decided to make one himself. Maeda created a baseball game that he called Yakuban, Baseball Board. Baseball Boards were two-player board games that resembled baseball fields. The at-bat player controlled a bat at the plate while the opposing player rolled a pinball-style ball towards the plate. There were plastic holes in the field that stood for fielders and more at the back of the field representing hits and outs. If the ball fell into one of the fielder holes it would be an out. If it didn’t fall into a hole it would be a hit.
Maeda founded Epoch in May, 1958 to manufacture and sell the baseball boards. The game was a homerun in Japan and launched Epoch as one of the Japan’s premier game manufacturers with Yakuban as the company’s flagship product.
Baseball would remain a popular focus for many of Epoch’s toys and games that followed, but they did cater to other interests. Many other types of games followed including table soccer, a remote control helicopter game, and in 1967, a tabletop device called Torpedo Game.
The Birth of the Japanese Console Industry
Prior to late 1976 with the release of the Fairchild Channel F, consoles were shipped with all of the games built-in without the possibility of adding more. These are referred to as “dedicated” consoles, while systems with interchangeable games like Atari 2600 are referred to as “programmable” consoles. Many dedicated consoles of the era featured Pong-like “ball and paddle” games.
While arcade games had been released in Japan since the early ’70s, the Japanese would have to wait until the middle of the decade to play at home. Released in late 1972 in America, the Magnavox Odyssey – the first console ever to be released – was imported into Japan at the tail-end of its life cycle where it retailed for ¥58,000 ($198), which is roughly $1,000 when adjusted for inflation. This price point would almost certainly qualify Odyssey as a luxury item for the more affluent, and the unconfirmed sales numbers state it did not sell very well. It is believed a maximum of 4,000 units were imported to Japan. While it isn’t known precisely when or why, Epoch became a licensee of Magnavox’s technology, and on September 12, 1975, released the first Japanese-built console, the Electrotennis.
Like the Odyssey, the Electrotennis was built from discrete components, in this case eight ICs and 26 transistors. While the Odyssey had several games built-in which were unlocked by inserting external circuit boards, the Electrotennis only featured what seemed to be a close version of Odyssey’s Pong-like Table Tennis title which couldn’t keep score. Both consoles were also battery-powered, and that is where the similarities seem to end. Electrotennis didn’t look anything like the Odyssey. The console itself was bright orange and horizontal in shape and more than two-feet wide. It had built-in knobs to control the paddles as opposed to Odyssey’s two wired controllers, two knobs for each player. The Electrotennis was also completely wireless. The unit broadcast its signal into the airwaves, where it was picked up by a separate UHF antenna that was packaged with the console. This antenna could then be hooked up to any television antenna. Interestingly, the Electrotennis seemed to have more in common with Magnavox’s bright red Odyssey 100, which was released a month later and only featured two built-in games.
Epoch charged ¥19,000 ($65) for the unit, which is roughly a third of what Odyssey retailed for, and sold nearly triple the amount– roughly 10,000 units. This seemingly modest success helped inspire Epoch and competitors to continue releasing new devices. Several dedicated consoles would be released in the late ’70s from lesser-known companies, mostly using American General Instrument AY-8500-1 chips. These chips contained seven ball & paddle and target games and basically all a company had to do was purchase them and build a console around it. The games rarely varied from model to model.
After the apparent success of the Electrotennis, Epoch partnered with electronics manufacturer Hitachi to release a silver version stripped of Epoch’s branding and simply called Video Game. It is believed this unit was sold exclusively in Hitachi-affiliated stores. Soon after in April 1977 Hitachi released a second console that had been built by Epoch. This one, like the original, was also a silver horizontal unit that was labeled Video Game. However this one had Hitachi branding and a model number: VG-104, which effectively became its nickname. The ¥24,800 ($87) VG-104 played four monochrome ball & paddle titles, and Epoch built 10,000 units.
The VG-104 sold steadily for its first two months on the market until another Japanese toy company released its own Pong-like dedicated console catering to color TV owners (black and white sets were still common in the ’70s). Nintendo, who were known mostly for toys, cards and a few arcade games, decided to sell its own console that was manufactured domestically by Mitsubishi using Japanese parts. The Color TV Game 6 and 15 were released roughly within a week of each other and sold for ¥9.800 ($36) and ¥15,000 ($56) respectively. Japanese consumers embraced the cheaper systems, which would end up selling millions of units between them. The success of both consoles helped establish Nintendo as a legitimate player in the fledgling Japanese console industry, and in turn became Epoch’s main competition.
Epoch’s answer to Nintendo’s Color TV Game 15 was a console that played ten games. The System 10, which was released in September, 1977, included ball & paddle games which could be enjoyed solo, or by two or four players. In addition, it featured target games that were used with a German Mauser C96 light pistol that was included with the console, which retailed for the same ¥15,000 as Nintendo’s deluxe machine. Epoch would continue to battle Nintendo and other competitors for the next two years by releasing dedicated systems, but their console released at the very end of the decade would be a notable departure.
On October 1 Toshiba released a videogame console simply called Toshiba Video Game. However, it has popularly referred to by its model number: TVG-610. Although it looked nothing like the System 10, internally they were the same machine and the underside of the unit revealed that it had also been manufactured by Epoch. The unit only sold for ¥9,800 ($37) but this did not include the light gun that had been included with the System 10. However, Toshiba did market the same Mauser C96 light pistol for ¥3,800 ($14).
Epoch’s next console, TV Baseball, which was released in August, 1978, only played baseball. It was Epoch’s videogame version of its famous Baseball Board. It was also Epoch’s first console that employed a microprocessor, the uPD77xx which had been jointly developed by Epoch and NEC. In this game two players switched off as pitchers and batters. The pitcher had access to buttons on the console to set the pitch. The batter used an external controller that featured a single button to bat at the appropriate time.
Epoch initially priced TV Baseball at ¥18,500 ($78) to compete against Nintendo’s Color TV Game Racing 112 which had been released two months earlier at the same price. However, once TV Baseball was on the market, Nintendo immediately lowered the price of its console to ¥12,500 ($65). Epoch quickly dropped TV Baseball to ¥13,400 ($56). Despite its simplicity, the console managed to sell 230,000 copies.
Epoch released its next console in May, 1979 and followed a different approach. The company purchased chips from Atari and built its own version of Atari’s Video Pinball, which it called TV Block. The layout of the game selections on the console, along with the paddle dial and the flipper buttons, were roughly in the same place as they were on the Atari units, but the console with its bright red plastic body couldn’t be mistaken for Atari’s model in any way. And while the audio from the Atari units was heard through the console’s speaker, Epoch went ahead and channeled the audio through the TV set.
Epoch would turn to Atari for its first programmable console, which was released in October, 1979. Instead of just purchasing chips from Atari like it had done with a previous dedicated console, Epoch imported the two year old Atari VCS in its American packaging and sold it that way. The only indication that Epoch had distributed it was a small sticker on the outside of the box and the inclusion of a Japanese user manual. The Cassette TV Game, as Epoch had renamed it for Japan, sold for ¥39,500 ($172) without a cassette (in Japan cartridges were referred to as cassettes), which is about $600 when adjusted for inflation. If there was any doubt that the Japanese shied away from premium-priced consoles, the failure of the Cassette TV Game should have been convincing. But it wasn’t all doom and gloom during its life cycle in Japan.
In 1980 Atari licensed its first game for VCS – up to that point all of the system’s games were developed in-house – in the form of the smash arcade hit Space Invaders. Demand for the console exploded in the United States when the port was released. Epoch took advantage of the demand and bundled a Space Invaders cassette with the Cassette TV Game and raised the price of the unit to ¥57,300 ($262), over $800 when adjusted for inflation. Despite the astronomically high price, the system sold moderately well when the Space Invaders cassette was included. Perhaps this is the exception to the trend that the Japanese favored cheaper consoles or an illustration that some Japanese would pay a premium for quality content.
The generally accepted story regarding the port of Space Invaders is that it was an idea generated internally at Atari to license the game. Space Invaders had been a huge arcade hit which actually led to Yen shortages in Japan and was equally embraced around the world. However, according to a 1997 Japanese language interview translated by shmuplations.com, Epoch employee and designer Masayuki Horie claims:
“The VCS Invaders game wasn’t part of the original Atari console; it was made at our request. The fact that a big American company like Atari listened to our request like that was, in and of itself, groundbreaking. I was amazed, and when the chip arrived in my hand, it was a very moving moment for me.”
This would not be the first time an industry contemporary was at odds with a narrative originating from Atari. For instance, Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell is a notorious fibber. While a potentially tantalizing addition to the historic record, I was unable to connect with Mr. Horie during the writing of this piece, nor was I able to turn up any evidence buttressing his claim. He may very well be telling the truth, but without evidence Atari’s version of events cannot be ignored.
In 1980 Epoch brought Space Invaders to the masses at a drastically reduced price when it released a console that only played that game. TV Vader retailed for a modest ¥16,500 ($75).
TV Vader was Epoch’s final dedicated console, a system in which games could not be changed, as opposed to programmable systems, those where games could be changed by switching program cassettes. Although programmable systems were the norm in the United States, they were still expensive rarities in Japan. In addition to the VCS that Epoch had imported, the only true programmable systems that were available were Toshiba’s ¥54,800 ($250) Visicom and Bandai’s ¥59,800 ($249) Super Vision 8000. Adjusted for inflation both of these consoles retailed for the equivalent of approximately $783 each. Epoch’s goal was to produce an inexpensive console that used interchangeable game cassettes.
After the failure of the Cassette TV Game, it seems clear that Epoch’s ambitions were to release an inexpensive programmable console of its own. At the time the company had been working on the Super 10, which was an updated version of its earlier System 10 that would use the NEC D777C microprocessor that it had used in TV Baseball and TV Vader instead of the hardwired logic chips that had been used in the System 10. However it was determined that the NEC microprocessor could be used inside of individual cassettes, and the console itself would only need to contain the power supply, the controls and the video and sound output. The Super 10 was discontinued in favor of a new cassette-based system.
Epoch realized its ambition in July of 1981 when it released the Cassette Vision, which accepted individual ROM cassettes like Atari VCS. Priced at only ¥13,500 ($56 – only $159 in today’s dollars), the Cassette Vision cost roughly the same as Epoch’s TV Baseball and less than TV Vader. Both of those games would be released on cassette for the Cassette Vision for ¥4,000 ($21) each.
The Cassette Vision faced an uphill struggle from the beginning. The NE microprocessor that was used was already three years old and its obsolescence showed in the machine’s simple graphics which were inferior to those found on the Atari VCS. Only two games were available initially, Galaxian and Baseball, but Epoch was able to release two additional games within two months. But creating new games was a problem. Games were programmed in Assembler language but then loaded onto an NEC TK-80 computer which stored the program onto an audio cassette. The problem was that Epoch only owned one of these computers so only one game could be coded at a time.
Seemingly aware of the Cassette Vision’s shortcomings, Epoch began designing a new system in 1982 to succeed it. Epoch’s plan was to continue releasing new games for the Cassette Vision while working on its successor. Epoch managed to release seven more games following the system’s launch bringing the total to ten over a three year period. Between 1981 and 1983 the Cassette Vision was the top-selling videogame console in Japan with more than 400,000 units sold. Atari 2600 and Mattel’s Intellivision would sell millions of units during the same period, mostly in North America, illustrating how small the Japanese market was.
Rapid technological advances coupled with very old technology meant it would only be a matter of time before the competition surpassed the Cassette Vision. In an effort to curb the tide, Epoch went ahead and planned a lower-cost version of the system called Cassette Vision Jr., but it was too late. On July 15, 1983, two competitors released programmable home consoles. Sega, an arcade developer and importer, would release its first console, the SG-1000, and would not be a hit. Epoch’s main competition, Nintendo, released its ¥14,800 ($61) Famicom that day as well. The Famicom used much newer technology in comparison to the Cassette Vision and it showed in its games. While the low-cost Cassette Vision Jr. was released just four days after Sega and Nintendo’s new systems, it wasn’t a hit either, but the Famicom was.
Nintendo had claimed 90% of the Japanese console market within Famicom’s first year on sale, and there were no signs of slowing. Even in the face of Japan’s first hit programmable console, Nintendo’s dominance wouldn’t deter Epoch from releasing what would become its swan song as a console manufacturer. Nearly a year after Famicom was introduced Epoch released the Super Cassette Vision.
Epoch released several new games for the Super Cassette Vision through 1986 including licensed arcade titles such as Mappy and Pole Position II. Epoch also released Dragon Slayer, a successful role-playing game that first appeared on Japanese computers in 1984. A videogame console port of the game was not considered feasible because there was no way to save the data. Epoch got around this by incorporating a CMOS RAM chip into the cartridge, powered by batteries.
Despite this innovation, Epoch cancelled the Super Cassette Vision by the end of 1986, roughly a year before NEC’s PC Engine console stormed Japan. By that time the company had sold approximately 300,000 Super Cassette Vision consoles. The discontinuation of the Super Cassette Vision served as Epoch’s exit as a console manufacturer, closing an important chapter in Japan’s console history. But the Super Cassette Vision wouldn’t be Epoch’s full exit from videogames.
In 1989, Epoch would begin creating third-party software for its former rival Nintendo. Naturally, the first title produced was Yakyuban, a digital version of its famous baseball board game. Third-party development would prove to be fruitful for Epoch, and by the end of 2000 it had produced software for the Game Boy, Super Famicom and PlayStation.
Of all the titles Epoch produced during this period, perhaps it’s most noteworthy was released in support of Famicom. In 1992, nearly a decade after Famicom was released, Epoch developed Barcode World, which had been published by SunSoft. The game worked in conjunction with an Epoch handheld device called Barcode Battler II.
Epoch had released the original Barcode Battler in 1991. This unit had an LCD screen in its center and an action button on each side of the screen. At the lower portion of the unit was a card scanner. Players could scan bar codes from either cards that came with the device, or from every day products. The Barcode Battler would then create characters based upon the inputted codes, which would then battle against one another.
The Barcode Battler II wasn’t much different than the original except that it also featured an output port. Barcode World was sold with an adapter that plugged into the output port on one end and into a Famicom controller port on the other end. Once connected, the battles took place on the TV screen instead of the Barcode Battler II’s screen.
Barcode World was the only barcode game that was playable on the Nintendo Famicom. However, in 1993 Epoch released an interface that connected the Barcode Battler II to the Super Famicom. Between 1993 and 1995 Epoch also released eleven games that supported the interface unit.
The Barcode Battler II was distributed around the world as Barcode Battler, but not from Epoch. In North America it was imported and distributed by a Canadian toy company called Irwin. And although the exported units featured the output port, it was only utilized in Japan.
Epoch re-entered the hardware arena for a final time in 2000. This time the company licensed products from SSD Company Limited, the company that a few years later would release the XavixPort, a system that used motion sensor to detect the movement of its controllers, two years before the release of Nintendo’s Wii. The products that Epoch licensed utilized XavixTechnology, which “combined leading-edge human interface sensors, including optical sensor and infra-red, to allow any television to respond directly to a user’s actions.” The units used controllers that resembled real sports equiptment that were connected wirelessly to a small console that plugged into a standard television set. Because of the simplicity in setting these systems up, they would soon be referred to as plug-and-play systems.
Naturally, the first plug-and-play system that Epoch released was a baseball game called Excite Stadium. Attached to the console was a baseball peripheral that allowed the player to pitch a physical baseball during a game. Wireless sensors within the ball communicated with the base unit and provided such information as the type and speed of the pitch. A bat that also connected to the base unit via sensors was also provided. Excite Stadium allowed people to pitch and hit as if they were in a real game, while the rest of the team played on-screen. Soon other plug-and-play systems licensed from Xavix followed including ping-pong, tennis game, and soccer. Several of these games were available in the United States from Radica, which had licensed them directly from SSD.
Epoch’s final plug-and-play, and its last videogame console, was Tetris, which was released in 2007. As with all of its console games, Epoch’s Tetris was not released in the United States, although a different plug-and-play version was released by Radica in 2004.
Despite its importance to early Japanese console history, Epoch largely sticks to toys since it is no longer developing videogames or producing hardware. Epoch currently ranks as the third largest toy company in Japan and it is cool that videogames still play a part in its product lineup. Epoch licensed Super Mario from Nintendo and the IP appears in many of its games. Among them is Super Mario Baseball Board, a fusion of one of Epoch’s most enduring products with its former rival’s most enduring mascot.
Japan’s first decade of videogames might be harder to document than America’s due to a scarcity of records and lack of coverage, which has lead to so many pre-Famicom contributions being forgotten or ignored. While so many fly-by-night companies looking to cash-in on the videogame craze of the ’70s deserve a footnote or less, Epoch is different. Epoch’s foundational contributions should never be forgotten or dismissed, and have certainly earned a place in the historic record.
During the seventies and eighties, Epoch was on the forefront of videogame innovation. Despite this, none of the Epoch consoles or software were sold outside of Japan. This is curious since Epoch had offices all around the world including the United States. Epoch had opened an American office, Epoch Playthings, in New Jersey in 1967 to sell Americanized versions of its most popular games. Naturally the first game imported into the US was Epoch Champion Baseball Game, an American version of its best-selling Yakyuban.
In 1976 Epoch Playthings imported Computer Baseball, which from its name would imply one of the company’s first electronic games. But the name was a misnomer. Computer Baseball was actually a pachinko-type game that stood nearly two feet high in which the object was to launch a ball from the bottom of the unit to the top, where it would then descend through several different paths that determined the play. The unit didn’t even need batteries.
Epoch’s earliest handheld game was a miniature version of Computer Baseball that was less than six inches tall but like its larger cousin, it didn’t contain any electronic components.
In 1977 Epoch Playthings offered a line of handheld games that were roughly the same size as the LED games that had been released by Mattel Electronics and Coleco. Among the nearly two dozen titles were Roulette, Backgammon and of course Baseball. However all of these units were mechanical and like Computer Baseball, didn’t require batteries.
Epoch didn’t release an electronic handheld game until 1978 and that was a pretty humble affair. Casino 21 was a simple combination calculator and blackjack game.
Epoch’s first true electronic handheld game arrived on both sides of the Pacific in 1979. Electronic Baseball was a revamped version of its baseball game that appeared in several guises over the years. In this version, two players sat across each other and each handled one end of the unit. The pitcher was able to select the type of pitch in secrecy thanks to a lid that hid what he did from his competitor. The player at bat could press a button to swing or bunt and then the computer decided whether it was a hit or out. Electronic Baseball was also the first baseball game from Epoch that offered a one-player game.
Through around 1988 Epoch released more than 120 various handheld and tabletop electronic games and many of them were imported into North America by Epoch. Among these games was 1981’s Epoch-Man, which was a clever play on words for what was essentially a Pac-Man clone. The name of the Japanese version was even more daring: Pak Pak Man. Despite what appeared to be an obvious deception, Epoch claimed that the games were fully licensed from their respective patent holders.
Despite its innovative importance in Japanese videogame history, Epoch is no longer in the electronic toy business today. However, videogames still play an important part in its marketing. Super Mario has been licensed by Nintendo and appears in many of its games. Among them is Super Mario Baseball Board. After more than sixty years, the company continues to manufacture baseball boards. In fact baseball factors in many of Epoch’s products. The company even prints and sells Japanese baseball cards.
Super Mario Baseball Board or any of other Super Mario-themed toys are not available in North America. But the American subsidiary, now called Epoch Everlasting Play, boasts a huge line of toys and games for children of all ages. And yes. Keeping with company tradition, Super Stadium Baseball Games is one of those toys.
Copyright © 2020 Leonard Herman