Blast from the Past: Mattel Electronics Handheld Games
You see a kid walking down the street. His eyes are glued to the game in his hands, so he barely notices when he strolls across a busy street, and he doesn’t hear tires squeal and horns blare. Could he be playing Pokemon Go? Or is he doing something else on his smart phone?
Of course not. The year is 1976, after all.
How can that be? Believe it or not, way back in the dinosaur ages we actually had electronic handheld games, and they were quite popular. Sports games were probably the most common, but plenty of others were available. Companies like Coleco and Sears (yes, that Sears) had plenty of games available, and it seemed more came out every year, especially at Christmas.
But of all the companies which sold such devices, by far the most popular had to be Mattel Electronics. This company kicked everything off with the very first all-digital electronic game, Auto Race, which came out in stores in 1976.
By today’s standards, Auto Race was a simple game with red LED (light-emitting diode) lights. The player controlled a bright red line one the bottom of the tiny screen. The goal was to steer your race car (that red line) from the bottom of the screen to the top of the screen four times before a time of 99 seconds ran out. If the player made it, then the player won the game. The hard part was avoiding all the other race cars (more red blips) which came at you at high speeds, and if one hit you, then your car was forced back to the bottom of the screen. The main control moved your car from left to right, but you could also change gears to speed up or slow down play.
Simple play, but back in the day it was loads of fun.
Auto Race proved popular enough that a year later Mattel came out with its now-famous Football game in white plastic. Football was a massive hit. It seemed everyone had one in the late ’70s, and it seemed every school bus always had a bunch of kids sitting in the back while playing the game.
Football was a little more complicated than Auto Race, but not much. Again, you controlled a red blip, and again you had to steer down a field while avoiding other players. Eventually you would score a touchdown if you made it far enough along the field, or you would lose the ball after four downs and your opponent got to play, or you could play yourself. Once more, simple play but great fun.
Football was so successful that in 1978 a new version was released, Football II. This game came in dark green plastic, and now not only could you run the ball, but you could pass it down field as well. Football II also proved popular, but I don’t believe any of the early handheld games were as popular as the original Football.
With all this success, Mattel started putting out other LED handheld games. Baseball and Basketball were on just about everyone’s Christmas and birthday lists, but there were other games such as Hockey, Soccer, Sub Chase, Armor Battle, and more. An early sci-fi game called Missile Attack soon had its name changed to Battlestar Galactica Space Alert when the Battlestar Galactica show became a hit.
It was not long after that Mattel began to produce LCD (liquid-crystal display) games. I don’t believe any of these became as big as the earlier LED games, but there were some notable inclusions here. For instance, in 1981 Mattel Electronics released an AD&D LCD handheld game in which the player controlled a character moving around a dungeon full of monsters. Other LCD games included Masters of the Universe, Speed Freak, Ultra Dome and others. Also, Mattel Electronics went on to make several other types of handheld electronic games, though the LED games would always prove to be the most popular.
Unfortunately in 1983 came along the great video game crash, and this also affected the handheld gaming market. Video games would recover a couple of years later when Nintendo released its famous NES home system, but by then the technology had improved enough that the old handheld games seemed rather quaint and uninteresting.
Still, love for the old Mattel games holds on to this day. Any number of the old games can be found for sale online, and in the year 2000 several of the games were re-released to brisk sales. Baseball, Basketball, Soccer and Football got to live again. Even Football II made an appearance. Then in 2001 there were smaller versions of some of the Mattel games released as keychains.
So, old technology doesn’t always die, but sometimes comes back as nostalgia. And while you’re taking a look back, always remember to Stay Nerdy!