Steve Bristow: An Appreciation
While we all know the names of many gaming pioneers and “rock stars,” there is an equally important group of people who work quietly in the background, building the foundation of departments, keeping things running, and encouraging and helping the many designers, programmers and engineers who create the final products that we enjoy so much. One of these was Steve Bristow, who passed away on Feb. 22, 2015.
Bristow’s story in gaming begins at Ampex, where he replaced Al Alcorn as a work/study student when Al went back to UC Berkeley. When Steve went back to Cal, he managed Syzygy’s pinball servicing route in Berkeley. In a 2001 Wired oral history by Mike Dolan, Steve recalled, “I worked part-time doing maintenance on the Pong machines and collecting the money. In Berkeley, a weapons permit is hard to get, but they won’t stop you from carrying a hatchet, so people out at 2 am would see my wife walking ahead of me carrying a hatchet and me carrying $1,500 in quarters, and they’d say, ‘Leave them alone’.“
He interned at Nutting Associates, then took over Nolan Bushnell’s spot at Nutting when Bushnell and Ted Dabney left to form Syzygy. When Steve graduated from Cal, he came to work at Atari as an engineer, but when Kee Games was started he was designated as VP Engineering, where he developed Tank.
When Kee was merged back into Atari, Steve took over as VP engineering for Coin-Op, replacing Al Alcorn who went off to work on Consumer Pong. Al tells us that “Bristow inherited Steve Jobs from me and Job’s critique of our ill fated soccer game was addressed to Bristow.”
Mike Albaugh recalls, “Steve was one of the originators of what became my most successful game: Atari Football. It had to wait until Lyle Rains and Dave Stubben came up with a reasonable-cost hardware to do it. I was the game-designer/programmer, with help from Ed Logg and Dave Theurer tuning what are now called the ‘AI”s or NPCs.’“
Before Warner Communications bought Atari, Al was developing the 2600; after Warner took over, Steve became VP of Engineering for the Consumer Division and oversaw the product development on the 2600 and the Atari 800/400 computers.
Bristow moved through a series of positions at Atari, finally becoming the VP Engineering of the Computer Division and an Atari Fellow. He left Atari in 1984, continuing his career as a engineer in other fields.
Steve is remembered by everyone as a warm and caring person. Mike recalls “Having this vaguely-familiar looking guy wander into my office within my first two weeks there, ask me how I was doing. I told him what I liked, what bugged me, how I felt things were going. Later I found out it was Steve, then the VP of engineering. Kind, generous, and a good feel for the games. What more could one ask.“
Steve was married to Pati for 42 years: in addition to hatchet carrying, she built the wire-wrap prototype for the two-player Computer Space. Steve is also survived by a daughter and two grandchildren. We join them in sorrow for the passing of this fine man and friend to gaming.
Thanks to Al Alcorn and Mike Albaugh for their help with this article.
Further reading: An excellent interview via Retro Gamer.