On the last day of term at my primary school we would all bring in toys, which back in the early 80’s would include games like Operation and Buckaroo, which still exist relatively unchanged 20 years later.
There would also be the kid who had the really cool toy of the moment, and one of those was Astro Wars.
Grandstand had previously brought out handheld electronic games such as Kevin Keegan Soccer, which was a single colour LED based game, not so much using a screen but a number of red lights to represent players on the field and the ball. Later on they introduced the first of the classic handheld shooters, Galaxy Invader, which used a Vacuum Florescent Display (or VFD), to represent brightly lit green character sprites on a black screen. This game was a passable version of Space Invaders, albeit in a fixed 3 column format.
Grandstand took the basic format of Galaxy Invader and ramped it up to 10 with Astro Wars, with it’s multi-coloured VFD display, 5 column play area and unique magnified lens. The action was also suitably turbo-charged, with the speed and volume of enemies on screen increasing to a frenetic level, putting the maximum score of 9999 well out of reach of all but the most dedicated players. There was also a novel docking station level, similar to that on arcade game Moon Cresta (at least that’s what I remember) to introduce some variation in the gameplay.Compared to the handhelds of today, Astro Wars was slightly less than portable, and heavy too given it was powered by 4 “D” batteries, so this is probably better described as a tabletop rather than a handheld. As with all of these early units, the play was fairly repetitive, given that it was hard wired in both hardware and software terms to support only one game.I’ve become a big collector of Grandstand handhelds, having examples of most of the games released in my collection, and today you can still find good examples on ebay. The games are robust, but tend to suffer from being left in the loft with batteries in, and from the VFD display giving out, which is pretty much game over as they cannot be replaced.
I will be looking to cover a number of these fantastic machines in the coming months, but for me Astro Wars will always be the greatest.