Tim Skelly Cinematronics 1951-2020

Very sad news to report on the blog today. Tim Skelly, the legendary designer and programmer of many classic arcade titles has passed away.

Tim’s contributions to the early days of arcade gaming shouldn’t be under-estimated. He was a fierce proponent of innovation and wasn’t afraid to go against the grain in developing ground-breaking titles during his short tenure with Cinematronics and Gottlieb.

Until Skelly’s arrival in 1978, Cinematronics was known primarily as a “Pong” knock-off company. Riding on the coattails of Atari’s pioneering video game wasn’t unusual for an arcade manufacturer at the time, but clearly, that game alone wasn’t going to keep the company afloat in the long term. Desperate for new blood, Skelly was hired on the spot.

Using little more than legal pads and a pen, Skelly wrote his first game, Starhawk, just in time for a large trade show happening at the end of the year across the pond in London – this would generate much-needed orders for the firm (and inadvertently save the jobs of many Cinematronics’ employees who were largely twiddling their thumbs due to the lack of game development up to that point). The trade shows were where arcade product was sold, so arriving there without anything new to show was not an option.

The development tools at his disposal were largely non-existent, and Skelly had to literally make things up as he went. In fact, he described the development process as rather fluid:

At the time, I just winged it, which was something I loved about the business at that time. There were no fixed [game] categories like fighting, driving, and shooting. In fact, a novel game concept was likely to get a lot of play. When I finished writing “Starhawk,” it was the first program I had ever written in assembler code that worked!

And so began Skelly’s association with vector graphic technology. He recognised this as something of an edge over Cinematronics’ competitors like Atari, who were still writing and releasing arcade games using raster displays. Coupled with the freedom he was afforded at the company, the titles he developed stood out on arcade floors. The clean lines of Cinematronics’ vector games were unique at the time, and their first-mover advantage in this field served them well.

Skelly would go on to develop a raft of vector titles for the company. Working largely alone on his projects, each would take around four months to complete.

I would know I was done when the pile of program listings next to my desk reached the level of the desktop!

Reactor is a sublime game and in my view, probably Skelly’s crowning achievement. Players must attempt to cool down a nuclear reactor by literally bumping enemies into walls without succumbing to their force fields which repel the player around the gameplay area. The game utilises a trackball, requiring heavy investment from the player to get the best out of the game.

Reactor was the first arcade title to feature an on-screen credit to the programmer – something Skelly negotiated in his contract with Gottlieb at the time.

Do check out some of these iconic arcade titles if you get a chance. They are a key part of arcade history.

I’ll be the first to acknowledge that this article doesn’t even come close to fully recognising Skelly’s achievements and the importance of the amazing arcade titles he’s left us with. I’d like to revisit some of these games in more depth here on the blog in the future to do them the justice that they deserve. Suffice to say, Tim’s legacy lives on in the classic games he was responsible for.

Reading the fond memories of him shared by former colleagues, it is clear he will be very sadly missed. Tim leaves a wife, Flora – and I’m sure you’ll join me in sending positive thoughts her way.

If you want to read more about Tim, here are a few of the rare times he was interviewed about his early days in the industry – I highly recommend checking out this and this. And for a more recent discussion, check out Paul Drury’s great interview from Retro Gamer magazine here (from page 16).

Credit: Tim Skelly Cinematronics 1951-2020