Tag Archives: Handheld

Astro Wars by Grandstand Handheld Review

The best 80’s handheld game?

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 Grandstand’s Astro Wars.

Anyone around in the 80’s with any interest in gaming will have come across the Astro Wars handheld, but do they know how the multi-colour display was achieved? Or that Grandstand never actually manufactured the games?

Astro Wars by Grandstand
Astro Wars Handheld by Grandstand

Origin of Astro Wars

Astro Wars was created in 1981 by Japanese games manufacturer Epoch, and licenced to Grandstand for distribution to the UK and European markets. Grandstand was known in the UK for its early “Pong” based TV consoles, also imported from Japan, and had previously released the popular “Invader from Space” handheld game. Grandstand went on to release a number of popular handhelds, including Tomy’s PacMan clone Munchman, and Epoch’s Scramble.

Epoch’s version of the game was released as Galaxy II in Japan, and was virtually unchanged by Grandstand apart from the branding around the magnified game screen.

Galaxy II from Epoch
Epoch Galaxy II released in Japan

Hardware Technology

Grandstand’s previous Epoch game “Invader from Space” used a Vacuum Florescent Display (VFD), originally developed for pocket calculators. The original VFD calculator displays showed glowing green on black shapes in fixed locations which could be turned on or off to show different numbers. With “Invader from Space”, as well as showing numbers for the score, the display could also show 3 columns of aliens and bullets, and 3 player ships at the bottom of the screen. By switching the aliens, bullets and player ship on and off, basic movement could be simulated on the screen.

Astro Wars VFD Display
Astro Wars Colour VFD Display

Grandstand took the basic format of Invader from Space and ramped it up to 10 with Astro Wars, with its multi-coloured VFD display, 5 column play area and unique magnified “Fresnel” lens. The multi-coloured display was actually only 2 colours (green and red), with the other colours being achieved with the use of coloured film, similar to that used on early Space Invade arcade monitors.

Astro Wars Gameplay

Astro Wars followed the “Galaxian” arcade gameplay format, with aliens diving from fixed formations at the top of the screen, and the player at the bottom of the screen firing upwards. The five column format, colour display and Fresnel lens presented a much more arcade-like gameplay over the previous Invader from Space.

Astro Wars Grandstand Animated Gif
Astro Wars Gameplay)

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 were 4 distinct phases to the game, and 5 lives with which to complete them, with slight variations in the gameplay:

  • Phase 1 – Enemy ships loiter at the top of the screen before dive bombing in a zig-zag pattern down the screen. Destroy 10 to progress.
  • Phase 2 – Solitary enemy ships attack in a looping pattern. Destroy 10 to progress.
  • Phase 3 – The enemy “command ships” at the top of the screen are now vulnerable, and will shoot a barrage of missiles. Destroy all three for a “GOOd” message and progress to the final phase
  • Phase 4 – control a falling space shuttle with the joystick to meet with the moving base at the bottom of the screen, using fire to abort and retry. This was an idea borrowed from the 1980 arcade game Moon Cresta which also featured a docking level.

On completing the 4 phases, the game looped back to the start, repeating until the top score of 9999 is reached. The game also featured 4 difficulty levels available via the “Select” button, combining single or double attacking aliens with slow or fast attack speeds, providing at least some variability in the challenge.

Astro Wars Variants

There are 4 variants of Astro Wars available, all virtually identical apart from the font and wording on the screen:

  1. Galaxy II – the original game launched in Japan with Epoch branding
  2. Super Galaxian – also by Epoch, with the game being marketed in Japan as Super Galaxian, but showing “Astro Wars” on the screen.
  3. Astro Wars – the Uk version with white lettering and Grandstand branding. This is the most readily available version for European gamers.
  4. Astro Wars (Red Font) – another UK version, with the title in large red letters and an extra pinstripe around the screen lens. There are some references online to this being the “launch” edition.
Astro Wars Variants
Galaxy II, Super Galaxian. Astro Wars & Astra Wars (Red Font)

Finding an Astro Wars Handheld Today

I’ve become a big collector of Grandstand handhelds and own examples of most of the games released in my collection. Due to their robust design and huge number sold, you can still find good examples on ebay today

The games are built from study plastics but they suffered from being left in the loft with batteries in. This corroded the terminals, dropping acid onto the circuit board. The VFD display could also fade and die, which is pretty much game over as they cannot be replaced. The PCB was very simple, but did have a couple of weak points. The NPN power transistor (D882) can fail, and also Zener diode (S06) can fail, either of which will leave you with a dead game. Fortunately they can both be replaced by anyone handy with a soldering iron.

The only moving parts are the joystick, start, select and fire buttons and on-off switch, which can all benefit from cleaning the contacts and sometimes lubricating with WD40.

The games also benefit from robust packaging, protected by polystyrene inserts within a cardboard box. Due to the cost of these games they tended to be well looked after and many games for sale will include the original packaging, albeit with 40 plus years of wear and tear.

Grandstand Astro Wars Box

Was the Astro Wars game any good?

Compared to the handhelds of today such as the Nintendo Switch or any of the many retro gaming handhelds currently for sale, Astro Wars was slightly less than portable due to its shape and size. It was heavy too given it was powered by 4 “D” batteries, so this is probably better described as a tabletop rather than a true 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 with 2 basic levels.

But at the time in 1981, before availability of home computers such as the ZX Spectrum and the BBC Micro, these VFD handhelds were the closest thing to an arcade game experience available for a budget, at £30. For comparison, the Atari VCS / 2600 was £199 at launch in 1977, down to £99 by 1980, with each game around £30.

The advent of home computers such as the ZX Spectrum, with games retailing at £5-£10, spelled the end for these dedicated handhelds. They are however still beautiful as well as functional objects in their own right and should be celebrated at such. With its unique design, Astro Wars will be remembered as one of the best.

Bandai Missile Invader and Mattel Sub Chase – Video Game Consoles as Art

Between 1978 and 1980 Mattel released a popular series of handheld games that featured LED technology, using simple glowing red lights to represent the on-screen characters, pre-dating the more common LCD and VFD formats seen on later portable machines.

By necessity the Mattel handhelds had to augment the game displays to put the simple glowing LEDs in context, helping players understand what they were seeing on screen. This meant that the handhelds themselves were styled in the theme of the game, to give the player a clue as to what they were supposed to be doing.

In the case of Mattel’s Missile Invader, the console showed a view screen with a planet surface and layers which lined up with the less that represented the invading alien forces.  For Sub Chase, the screen was round and modelled on a submarine periscope, with the less representing enemy ships. Both games featured classic 2 digit, 7 piece LED numerals for the score – always allowing the player to score a maximum of 99.

The design of these Mattel handhelds is purposefully over the top relative to the simple LED displays, which only serves to enhance the game rather than distract the player – like early space invaders games with shaded screens, the console itself was part of the game, rather than a means of just presenting and controlling the action.  When each unit only had a single game mode and a single purpose, the design had to be memorable, compered to the bland and functional designs of multi-game handhold consoles today.

This photo is one of a series I am taking of my collection to make sure I have a decent store of images to accompany my retro game blog updates and reviews.   Rather than using a camera phone I have resorted to my Nikon D60 digital SLR for the maximum quality and impact.

UFO Master Blaster by Bambino: Video Game Consoles as Art

The early 80’s were the golden era for handheld electronic games, and Bambino produced some of the most beautifully designed units. UFO Master Blaster was an unremarkable (at least in terms of gameplay) space invader clone, using a similar Vacuum Florescent Display as the more common Galaxy Invader handhelds. What set the game apart was the large sculpted plastic body shell that hinted towards a sleek spaceship that would not have felt out of place in Star Wars or Battlestar Galactica.

UFO Master Blaster Handheld Game by Bambino
UFO Master Blaster Handheld Game by Bambino

All of the Bambino handhelds featured these over-the-top futuristic designs, that look as good today as they did when they were first released. Combined with the fact that theu are virtually bomb-proof, UFO Master Blaster and it’s Bambino siblings make a great subject for retro game collectors today.

I couldn’t find a picture online that really did this unit justice so I took one myself – it took a while to get the right angle that showed off the flowing lines and the luminous finish of the plastic casing on this fantastic retro handheld.

Handheld Games – The RolyRetro Collection

One of my earliest video gaming experiences was at the end of term in my primary school, where we all got to bring in a toy and lessons were given over to general playtime. Amongst all of the classic board games like Mouse Trap and Kerplunk, I spotted a small tabletop machine that had a crowd of excited boys around it. A loud bleeping noise could be heard above the chatter – it was my introduction to the world of handheld games.

The object of my desire – Astro Wars
The game was Astro Wars, and I can’t remember wanting to play with anything as much before or since. Except maybe the first time I saw a sit down Star Wars cabinet.

CGL Galaxy Invader
Galaxy Invader by CGL

I didn’t really have the cash back then to buy these handheld games, which even at the end of 1980 retailed at around £30 – with inflation around £120 in today’s money – for a dedicated console that only had one game on it. I did get a more basic handheld, a Space Invader clone called Galaxy Invader, which I played to death, but I really wanted that Astro Wars game.

Time passed and the handheld games made way for cartridge based consoles that plugged into the TV, and my interests moved onto home computers like the BBC Micro and the ZX Spectrum.

Handheld Games Aplenty

Many years later in 2004 and my 34 year old self came across an Astro Wars game on ebay, and I was instantly back in that primary school, lusting after this amazing game. I had kept up my video game habit over the years, always having at least one current generation console, but had never thought that I could go back and buy the old handheld games I could never afford as a kid. But there it was, a mint Astro Wars for a tenner. A quick bid and it was mine.

Now for anyone who has been bitten by the ebay bug, you will know how easy it is to get drawn into a bidding frenzy, and this was how my handheld collection started. I wanted some more of the Grandstand games, so I bid on titles like Scramble and Munchman, as well as the Game & Watch titles that I had lusted after as a child such as Donkey Kong. From there I diversified into tabletop games by Tomy and Hales, as well as some of the US titles by Coleco with their great multi-coloured cases.

These games would arrive at my house, and every day after work was like Christmas as I opened up the next parcel, and another memory from 30 years ago would hit me – when I first saw the game, who owned it, what was playing on the radio. It was such a buzz, my wife and kids could not understand my excitement at playing with these old handheld games.

My spare room was filling with games…

At a certain stage I had to take stock, I had so many games building up I was starting to get doubles, and with nowhere formal to display them in my house, my spare room started to resemble that of a compulsive hoarder, with boxes piled from floor to ceiling. By this point I had examples from all of the major manufacturers of the time, not complete sets but all of the most popular examples, and never having paid more than 10 to 15 quid a unit. I had been buying regularly for around 2 years, but due to work pressures and a growing family, I put my collection on hold.

A few years passed by, 3 kids later and having finally got around to renovating my house, the only room left was the spare room, so I had to face my handheld game collection, also know as “dad’s massive pile of old tat”. The spare room needed to be converted into my son’s room, but I negotiated a wall that would house my collection. A wonderful weekend was spent going through the boxes, selecting the best examples for display, and generally discovering my handheld games collection all over again.

Games from Grandstand, CGL, Tomy and Hales

When I could finally see all the games together I realised I had built a fairly comprehensive collection of 80’s handhelds, when all I had really set out to do was acquire some of the games I had missed out on as a child.

What next for my Handheld Games collection?

Now I have finally admitted that I am a collector, I have an OCD like urge to fill the gaps, although I am now looking at some of the rarer and therefore more expensive items. There are a couple of units that I would really like to add, such as the arcade cabinet shaped games from Coleco, and a rare Thomas the Tank Engine game from Grandstand, which are going to set me back a few quid. I have also avoided the temptation of building a full Game & Watch collection, as at over 60 games, and a huge amount of competition, this could cost a small fortune.

For now I am just enjoying having the games on display where I can easily get to them and play them, and with my eldest son at the same age as when I first discovered them, he is starting to understand my handheld games obsession.

My favourite handheld games
Some of my favourite handhelds – including Astro Wars

If anyone has any interesting old games looking for a new home, please contact me at alex@retrogamesnow.co.uk

Grandstand Munchman 80’s handheld review

Who created the Munchman Handheld?

Anyone who has read my blog before knows I am a big fan of retro handheld games, and Munchman from Grandstand was a great example. Many of these games attempted to recreate the big arcade games of the time, which explains the proliferation of space invader clones, including the likes of Galaxy Invader and Astro Wars. The Space Invaders game format translated relatively well to the VFD handheld games, due to the relatively simplistic graphics, and that fact that the invaders and the player character didn’t occupy the same space on the game screen.

Grandstand Munchman
Grandstand Munchman Handheld

When it comes to replicating a maze game, and of course we are talking about Pac Man, the graphical challenge is much greater using a VFD screen. As well as having to create a realistic looking maze, you also have a playfield that requires the player character, the enemy ghosts and also the pac pills to be represented in the maze at the same time.Grandstand managed to achieve this with the classic Munchman, delivering a great Pac Man clone that stays true to original despite the limitations of the format.

Grandstand Munchman Design

The game itself is large and round, like a dinner plate, in a bright shiny yellow, a clear reference to it’s Pac Man heritage. Rather than using a joystick, which would have stood out against the smooth surface of the game, 4 directional buttons were used to control your Munchman. The only other switches are the on / off switch, and a difficulty selector that dicates the speed of the chasing ghosts.

The gameplay is as you would expect, albeit with a smaller maze and fewer ghosts, with the objective being to clear the maze of pills before being caught by the chasing spooks. Eating a red power pill would make the ghosts flash, and allow you to eat them for bonus points. The one thing that does however stand put about the gameplay is that your Munchman always faces to the left, regardless of which direction he is travelling, and can only eat going left, resulting in some back tracking needed to eat all the pills. Helpfully there is still a short cut, so you can continuously travel right to left and reappear on the other side of the maze. To accompany the gampelay there is a great soundtrack, typically loud as all Grandstand games tended to be, with jaunty intro tunes and in game effects.

Mini Munchman

Mini Munchman

Much like the Grandstand Scramble handheld, Munchman also had a smaller LCD based sister, predictably titled Mini Munchman, which aped the yellow case if not the classic round shape.  Both games were very popular, and due to the rock solid build quaility can still be found in working order on ebay.  In fact its difficult to believe these games are 30 years old, and can still be played today.

A “must have” for any retro handheld collector.

Grandstand Scramble 80’s Retro Handheld Game

Grandstand Scramble Handheld
Grandstand Scramble Handheld

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.

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.

Scramble arcade game by Konami
Scramble arcade game by Konami

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 “Red Letter” Version
Grandstand Scramble Handheld “red letter” version

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.

Grandstand Scramble handheld gameplay

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.  

There were five distinct phases to Grandstand’s Scramble:

  • Phase 1 destroy 4 waves of fighters that move towards you from the right in groups of four. Don’t get hit by missives or the enemy ships
  • Phase 2 destroy 4 base ships on the right, by first shooting the fighters they fire you in a zig-zag pattern
  • Phase 3 destroy a single moving base ship that fires fighters directly at you, while avoiding missiles fired up from the (now active) bases below
  • Phase 4 the base ship is now firing missiles at you, and asteroids are raining from the sky. Destroy the base ship enough times to proceed
  • Phase 5 avoid meteorites and destroy the moving energy base at the bottom of the screen

The differences to arcade Scramble 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 Pocket Scramble LCD 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.