I gotta be honest with you, I don’t even know how to start talking about this project other than this was something that I wanted to build. I wanted to build something unique and different in my arcade. And I was kind of intrigued by the very early Atari “Syzygy” arcade cabinets. Some of them are very, very cool, very unique. This is something I’ve never seen before, I’ve never seen a real Atari Barrel-Pong out in the wild. They were supposed to have been made in 1973 and they went to Australia, however I’ve only seen Barrel-Pong on the flyer.
Interesting thing about that flyer: this was the first time in history that Atari used the iconic Atari “Fuji” logo. Can you believe that? And this is the first time. And we never even saw this cabinet! We did see Pong. We got inundated with Pong. We had Pong Fever I guess you could say. But Atari’s Barrel-Pong is an arcade cabinet that I have never seen. So I wanted to make one! I’m pretty handy, I know how to use tools. I needed to blow off some steam in the summer, I had a crazy summer, and this was like my thing that I went to, to kind of unplug my brain.
“I’m wearing my Regal Beagle t-shirt because I wanted to build something that I might see Jack and Larry, and Chrissy and Janet playing at The Regal Beagle. I mean, couldn’t you see them like all gathered around this and playing a game of Pong or Breakout?”
– Brian Thomas Barnhart, 7800 Avenue
Every year my son and I go to an arcade event in Banning, CA called Arcade Expo. We love it. It’s like our father-son mecca. We go and we just get bombarded with any kind of pinball you can think of, any kind of arcade game you can think of, they have it all there and we play it for like two to three days until we’re ready to puke. It’s a blast, we love it. You know as well as I do that there’s only so much you can take in an arcade and sometimes you just need to have like a “detox”, and we always find ourselves over at the older Atari cabinets. The Bronze-Age stuff. Pong and Gotcha and Fire Truck and Smokey Joe’s. Stuff like that.
Going back in time and playing those very, very simple games. Number one it’s very cool because this stuff is just so old, and number two it’s kind of nice to just play something very simple. That doesn’t mean the fun is not there. Some of our most heated events came from Pong. We’re jabbing each other with our elbows, we’re smacking our hands, I mean it’s a lot of fun. We love hanging out in that old Atari “Syzygy” section. So I wanted to recreate that at home, and I decided that I was going to build something that nobody’s ever seen in a very long time. In fact maybe nobody’s ever seen it other than a flyer. This is my version of Barrel-Pong.
So you want to build your very own Barrel-Pong? Here’s how I did it – step by step:
By studying the flyer from 1973, I had to figure out what the dimensions were and how everything else came together. No other plans or pictures were available online, and the more I looked at the barrel shown in the brochure the more I started to notice it wasn’t even made out of wood. It was most likely fiberglass, plastic, or even an old beer keg – but it definitely wasn’t wood.
You can find all kinds of full-size or half-size wine barrels, but finding a smaller wooden barrel: kinda difficult. You can order smaller barrels online but finding the actual sizes in inches – good luck. Plus the price is outrageous and shipping can kill your budget real quick.
Finding the right size barrel was easier said then done, until I stumbled upon “cedar display barrels” online. You’re likely to find these types of barrels used as retail displays holding nuts, dried beans or dried fruit in high-end health food stores. These barrels are much more affordable. They’re brand new and easier to work with, but you won’t be storing wine in them or using them for heavy duty use. The great thing about the website where I found these barrels was that it actually had measurements in inches as opposed to gallons or liters. Plus, the barrel I bought actually had the center cut out and ready to go, so this was one less step for me regarding the monitor placement.
Once the barrel arrived I realized that the cedar was very rough, so I had to do a bunch of prep-work. Lots of sanding and cutting in order to get the monitor to sit properly. The website I ordered the barrel from had the option to have it pre-stained, but I chose to do it myself once the barrel arrived. I wanted to use a darker stain than what was on the flyer.
Pre-check on the monitor placement, plus bent aluminum angle for the plexiglass to sit on. I used an old tire rim to bend the angle and it was just about the same size as the barrel. Side Note: Be prepared to be flexible while working on the barrel. Your monitor is perfectly square, your bezel perfectly measured out… however the barrel is NOT. It’s organic, it’s wood, it’s not perfect. I had everything dialed-in and ready to mount, only to find that one size is smaller than the other – so be sure to give yourself a little wiggle room when working with the barrel.
Here’s a trick I’ve used many times before: I take a piece of glass or plexiglass, tape off the area where the monitor is going to show through, then spray paint the rest of everything around it. Once dry, place the painted side inward toward the monitor so the shiny side faces outward towards the player.
The plexiglass has to bend with the curvature of the barrel. My first attempt with bending the plexiglass didn’t work out so well. While adjusting my fit, I put too much pressure on the bezel and cracked it. I realized during the hot 100 degree days in California the plexi had a nice bend to it, but during the morning it became brittle again. Home Depot’s brand was brittle, and thats fine if it’s a normal monitor bezel, however I needed the plexiglass to curve with the shape of the barrel. After three attempts I found that Lowe’s had the most flexible plexiglass around and it worked beautifully for this project. You’ll have to do some testing on your own depending where you live.
Now that the barrel was on the way, it’s time to switch gears and start working on the cabinet. Using one sheet of 3/4 inch plywood I was able to construct the entire cabinet, however I needed a little bit more for the cabinet door. I used a thinner, cheaper grade wood because I knew I was going to wrap it in vinyl for that ’70s finishing touch.
One of the most challenging elements was the feet that cradled the barrel on top of the main part of the cabinet. Looking at the flyer I knew I wasn’t going to mount the spinners into the wood feet. #1.) I don’t have the tools for that, and #2.) the spinners I was going to use would not mount in that position anyway.
Here is where we begin to deviate away from the original Atari-Syzygy Barrel-Pong design and I start to make my own “BTB-style” modifications to make this arcade cabinet my own. To craft the feet that hold the barrel I took a 4×4 piece of wood and cut the angle with a chop saw. Then I broke all of the pieces off and followed up with a heavy dose of the belt sander. If I had a band saw this might have been easier, but you have to use what you got and keep your costs down.
I was designing this project to play more than just Pong, so more buttons were needed. Two action buttons per player, coin and player select, plus exit button to pick a new game. Any game that used a spinner, plus a few driving games was where my head was at regarding button placement. Using all LED arcade buttons was the way to go. I knew this would make it pop, but seeing it in person you get a real wow factor. The red buttons were the right choice, and it reminds me of the red Atari volcano buttons on the early cabinets.
I went with gun stock stain instead of the walnut shown in the original flyer. The result came out a little more red than I wanted. but after a while I really dug the reddish look. It’s different, it’s lush, it’s decadent and it’s meant to be an homage to the early ’70s. The stain was a perfect fit. Complementing the wood grain would be the tufted vinyl touches and decorative buttons. This is actually easier than it looks: cut your shapes out of cheap wood, drill your button holes, wrap the wood in cotton batting and then again in vinyl – now it’s a nice, puffy, fake leather, 1970s looking shape… But you’re not done yet!
To create the tufted leather paneling use strong string and your ’70s buttons, plus the buttons for the backing in order to tie it off and secure it. These buttons, pulled in and tied off, will create that classic ’70s pucker. The design of the barrel is one thing, but the vinyl pieces really set it off and it screams “1973 “ATARI-SYZYGY” – strait out of Los Gatos.
Inside the barrel are the brains: an LED unit and controller interface, along with the monitor and speakers. Most of the stuff inside I already had, but there were a few things I needed to purchase. I’ve provided a “shopping list” below with links to all them goodies and where to find them.
Imagine playing Arkinoid with a joystick. Well, you can do it but it’s just not the same. Groovy Game Gear solved this problem with the oh so attractive “Token top Turbo Twist 2”. Words and videos cannot describe the way this spinner plays. Everything you want and more comes with this attractive controller, however it was the most expensive part – but totally worth every penny, and this baby is built to last!
Did the world need another Pong cabinet? Probably not, but I didn’t make it for the world – I made it for me. This is my take on a 40 year-old Atari-Syzygy Barrel-Pong arcade cabinet that may or may not have even seen the light of day, at least in the United States. All of the great spinner games are at the twist of a dial and then some. The great thing about a build like this is you can make it however you want. We can use the past as a starting point, but this is a project that can be customized any way you want. Get creative, do something different and make it your own.
If you’re ever in the neighborhood stop over for an “Atari Twist” and you now know where I’ll be reaching to get those ingredients… remember I’ve got the key.
- Cedar Barrel
- Groovy Game Gear – Turbo Twist 2
- Mini PC – ACEPC T11 – eBay – $157.49
- EG STARTS Zero Delay USB Encoder to PC LED Joystick Set Compatible LED Arcade Joystick DIY Kit Controller Part Mame Games
Brian Thomas Barnhart is a classic gaming aficionado, retro pop culture connoisseur, and a Senior Fellow at Atari I/O. He is host of The Jag Bar, Lynx Lounge, 7800 Avenue, and the Atari I/O After Hours Podcast. Brian is a Moderator in the Atari I/O Forums under the name btbfilms76. You can follow him on Instagram and at his YouTube channel.