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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
If anyone has any interesting old games looking for a new home, please contact me at email@example.com
Anyone who has read my blog before knows I am a big fan of retro handheld games, and Grandstand made some of the best. 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 didnt occupy the same space on the game screen.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Retro games reviewed, including 80's arcade machines, classic consoles and early home computers