Category Archives: Handhelds

Grandstand Scramble 80’s Retro Handheld Game

Grandstand Games

If you were a kid in the late 70’s and early 80’s it is likely you will have owned, or knew someone who owned a Grandstand handheld game. For many retro gamers this was their first real “video game” – for me it was Galaxy Invader, but games like Astro Wars and Munchman were also incredibly popular. These were handheld versions of popular arcade games such as Galaxians and Pac-man, but only one of these Granstand games was named after an arcade original, and that was Scramble.

Scramble arcade game by Konami
Scramble arcade game by Konami

Arcade Scramble

The arcade Scramble was one of the earliest side scrolling shooters, relased by Konami in 1981 and set the format for such classics as Gradius and R-Type. The arcade version of Scramble featured a novel weapon configuration of a front facing missile, and bomb which followed a realistic arc to destroy ground based enemies. As an additional twist, you had limited fuel, and had to destroy fuel depots in order to top up (not quite sure of the logic here). This introduced a risk / reward element to the game, requiring you to concentrate not only on avoiding the scenery and enemies, but also keep up your rocket fuel levels to stay in the air.

Grandstand Scramble Handheld

Grandstand Scramble followed a similar in not identical format, a neat trick considering the limited capabilities of the Vacuum flourescent Display (VFD) which could only show fixed graphical images which could be turned on and off, like the LCD display of a Nintendo Game & Watch. Unlike earlier Grandstand games, the VFD was multi coloured, and through clever use of the space managed to pack in multiple images into each square on the screen, allowing the display of a missile one moment, and a spaceship the next. By scrolling the bottom layer of laser turrets, the impression of movement was acheived, with your player ship on the left of the screen shooting to the right.

Grandstand Scramble Handheld Game
Grandstand Scramble Handheld

Before you get to the display though, the first thing that strikes you about Grandstand Scramble is the size of the game, this is no handheld, not unless you are a weightlifter, its more a tabletop game, and is best played resting on a flat surface. You could use an adapter, but if you wanted it truly portable you were looking filling it with “D” type batteries, the biggest and heaviest you can get, and normally only used these days in high powered torches. With these loaded the game is VERY heavy.

The other thing you notice when you fire up the game is the sound, which is incredibly loud, and would be extremely annoying to anyone within shouting distance. With no headphone option, the game is best played alone, in a locked and soundproofed room.

Controls were well thought out, with a proper joystick and separate bomb and missile buttons, and a big on off switch. Everything feels very physical, and you imagine the individual plastic buttons connecting with the metal switches beneath as you play.

The objective of the game was not identical to the arcade version, as there was no scenery, and no requirement to refuel, just shoot enemies, bomb the ground based gun emplacements, and get to the end of the game before losing the 3 lives available.  The differences are probably down to the fact that the game was not designed to be a Scramble clone, but a rebranded version of a Japanese game from Epoch called Astro Warrior.  Presumably Grandstand thought it would sell more with the arcade association.

Grandstand Scramble Pocket Handheld Game
Grandstand Pocket Scramble

There were 2 versions available, the only difference seeming to be the colour of the word Scramble on the front of the game.  I have both (see my video below), and that’s the only difference I could find between the 2. Grandstand also released a Game & Watch style version of Scramble with an LCD screen and virtually identical gameplay to the arcade game – this time a true handheld, powered by watch batteries, which you could fit in a shirt pocket.

What happened to Grandstand Games?

Not much is documented about the Grandstand company other than it imported and rebranded its products from manufacturers such as Epoch and Tomy, releasing games in the UK and New Zealand, and that it ceased to exist some time in the Eighties. For a company with such a short career, it managed to make its mark on a whole generation of gamers, and produced some games that were so well built that they are still being used 30 years later.

Donkey Kong Game & Watch by Nintendo

Nintendo’s most famous (if not the first) arcade game needs very little introduction, but the origin of the Game & Watch is less well known. Gunpei Yokoi, the Japanese creator of the Game & Watch series, as well as the Gameboy, got his inspiration whilst riding a commuter train, and watching a fellow passenger playing with an LCD calculator.

Donkey Kong Game & Watch
Donkey Kong Game & Watch
What if the same technology for displaying the digits on the calculator could be used to display character sprites?

Nintendo have proved over the years that existing technology, used in a novel way, can create all new products and markets – just look at the wii, not the best graphics, or the most polygons, but by incorporating accelerometers into the handset, created a whole new games market.. By creating a large LCD display, filling it with character sprites, and simulating movement by turning the sprites ion and off in n sequence, the Game & Watch was born.

Early games were simple affairs, games like Fire! which tasked you with catching falling victims from a burning building, using simple left and right controls and a single LCD screen. Later games became more elaborate, with the famous Nintendo D pad being used for controlling characters, and a novel double screen model which allowed play to carry across a larger area.

The most popular of these twin screen games was Donkey Kong, an incredibly faithful (given the limited graphics capability) conversion of the arcade game, and the first appearance of Mario. Looking like a small orange DS, the game flipped open on a hinge to access the screens and controls (D pad and jump). By colouring the rear of the screen to create the girders of the building, and also the ladders, the LCD screen itself could be used to display mario running, jumping over barrels, and even using a hammer. There was also a Kong graphic waiting at the top for you – albeit with a different mechanism for defeating him, involving jumping on a crane and pulling out pins to destroy the platform Kong is stood on.

See my history of Donkey Kong here!

At the time I remember playing a friend’s version of Donkey Kong, and not being able to afford one myself, being very jealous of his ability to carry this fantastic game around with him. About 5 years ago, I was browsing ebay and found one of these games for sale, and a week later it was in my hands, looking like it was made yesterday. Due to robust construction and use of watch batteries, these games are incredibly durable, and many early examples are still in existance.

There are many avid collectors out there, their mission to collect the 59 different versions of Game & Watch that were made throughout the 80’s and early 90’s, but I just wanted to get my hands on the one game I couldn’t have all those years ago. This has now been joined by other classic handheld games from Grandstand, CGL, Bandai and Tomy in my collection, but due to the gameplay Donkey Kong is still the one I return to the most.

Astro Wars by Grandstand Handheld Review

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.

Galaxy Invader 1000 Screenshot
Galaxy Invader 1000

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.

Legend of Zelda : Links Awakening DX

The Best Handheld Zelda Game Ever?

I’m very fond of the original Gameboy, which was a classic Nintendo product, using existing technology in a novel way, and focusing on addictive gameplay rather than flashy hardware. The software for the Gameboy could however be a bit hit and miss, with many games being rushed onto the market, and not translating particularly well to the format.

Legend of Zelda : Link's AwakeningNintendo already had a great series in the Zelda games, starting on the NES and continued on the SNES, and a huge fanbase. It was only a matter of time before a Zelda game was released on the Gameboy, and when the first game was announced, there was a massive level of interest.

In 1993, The Legend of Zelda : Links Awakening was released to an expectant public. I bought this game at the airport on the way to Tenerife, with a view to playing on the, or the odd moment between beers by the pool. I had heard about the Zelda series, but having never played any of the games (something I have since addressed) I was not sure what to expect.

[amazon asin=B004JHY3Z8&template=iframe image]Slotting the small grey cartridge into the small grey handheld, you were immediately immersed into the world of Link, and I’m not sure I actually put the Gameboy down for 2 weeks.

As hero link, waking up on a desert island, you have to find 8 magical instruments to wake the mysterious windfish and escape.  The game itself was an overhead scrolling action-RPG, and many of the classic Zelda features are there, including puzzles, dungeons, bosses, weapons and gadgets, bombs, chests, rupees, secret tunnels and side quests.  It also had great music and effects for such a limited handheld console.

More than anything it had that magical ingredient that made you want to keep playing, to battle through the puzzles in each dungeon to the Boss level, and to unlock the next special power or piece of equipment, that would allow you to enter previously inaccessible areas.

Legend of Zelda : Link's Awakening DX5 years later, and having long ago put away my original Gameboy, Ninteno introduced an updated version of the game for it’s current platform the Gameboy Colour.  Taking the original game, Nintendo used the colours available to introduce new puzzles, and also the ability to take screenshots for printing on the new Gameboy Printer.  Playing this game again brought it all back to me, just hearing the music at the start of the game and I was back in Tenerife.

My son is now the biggest Zelda fan in the house, and he has the latest 3DS, and is looking forward to getting hold of the Occarina of Time.  I’m not sure about all the 3D effects, but I know I shall be giving this a try when he has gone to bed to see if the magic is still there.