Playing Around with Chuck Miller
1970s Handheld Electronic Sports Games

The classic Mattel Electronic Football game from 1978.  Notice the stadium-shaped housing and the nine-yard screen.  Photo courtesy handheldmuseum.com.
The classic Mattel Electronic Football game from 1978. Notice the stadium-shaped housing and the nine-yard screen. Photo courtesy handheldmuseum.com.

If I were to mention handheld games to you today, you might think of the Nintendo GameBoy, arguably the most popular handheld gaming platform. You might also think of the Sony PlayStation Portable (PSP), or maybe those games you can play on your Apple iPod.

But back in the 1970s, Mattel Electronics designed a series of handheld sports games, each replicating the popular team and individual sports of the 1970s - football, baseball, basketball, hockey, soccer and auto racing. Not to be outdone, several other companies entered the handheld market, with varying degrees of success. Many of these examples are now gathered in the online "Handheld Museum," where we can all wax nostalgic about those calculator-shaped games we had as a kid.

Mattel Electronics' handheld "Football" game is the handheld most of us remember - a mad dash to the end zone, all on a teeny tiny screen - but that game was Mattel's second release. The first release, "Auto Race," allowed you to imagine yourself in a Grand Prix race, guiding your open-wheeled speed machine along an illuminated track. You could control the car's speed by using a sliding gearshift, and could change lanes by moving a switch on the game's front panel. Okay, you had to imagine that the little red diodes on the game were your car and other cars on the track, but it was a start.

The original
The original "Missile Attack," with box, is very hard to find these days. Mattel recycled this game, rebranding it as a "Battlestar Galactica" tie-in game. Photo courtesy handheldmuseum.com.

Then came Mattel Electronics Football. The handheld game allowed you to play a stripped-down version of football, as you guided your running back around two defenders, in an attempt to gain 9 yards for a first down. No, that's not a typo - the game was modified from a calculator chip platform, so each of the little blippy diodes on the game panel represented diodes on an LED calculator screen.

Of course, you are just a little running back blip in this game - and the opposing team is ready to bring all its diode-ic might to stop you. Your ability to score in Mattel Electronic Football is tantamount to whether you can dodge or zigzag around your opponents and run for daylight, just like you were Gale Sayers or Walter Payton (for all you young-'uns reading this column, just use the words "Devin Hester" or "Willie Parker" and it will make sense).

Mattel's initial sales client for Electronic Football was Sears, who thought their stores might sell as many as 100,000 copies of the game for the entire 1977 buying season. That's all Sears ordered. By mid-1978, Sears stores were selling 500,000 copies of Mattel Electronics Football PER WEEK!

Box art for Parker Brothers'
Box art for Parker Brothers' "Merlin" handheld game, whose magic illuminated buttons housed six different skill games. And it probably gets better phone reception than today's iPhones. Photo courtesy handheldmuseum.com.

An upgraded version of Mattel Electronic Football came out a year later, this time allowing your running back to run forward AND backward, so as to possibly juke out the opposition (or, in some cases, to run blindly backwards in fear of its LED life). Football II also featured a 10-yard screen, so as to bring it closer to the reality of professional football. In 2000, Mattel re-released their Football handheld games as "Classic Football," available at Wal-Mart stores; a year later, miniature "keychain" versions of the popular game were sold as well.

With the success of Football, Mattel branched out to other sports, creating handheld editions of baseball, basketball, soccer and hockey. As a kid, I was partial to the Mattel Electronics Soccer game, which allowed me to move my little blip along the pitch, waiting for the opportunity to shoot into the net and celebrate like I was Giorgio Chinaglia.

If a Mattel Electronics game didn't initially sell, the product was re-tooled and re-branded for future use. Such is the case with a 1977 game called "Missile Attack." This game featured alien missiles raining down on your position, while you shoot missiles upward to destroy the airborne invaders. "Missile Attack" was created with an advertising campaign that featured an outline of a city being threatened with invading missiles - which some television networks refused to air, fearing that kids might think if they didn't win the game, a real city would be destroyed. "Missile Attack" sold poorly and was shelved - only to return a year later as the handheld game "Battlestar Galactica." Now the incoming missiles are Cylon attack spaceships, and your missile launcher is actually a fighting Battlestar. Whether fighting missiles or Cylons, this is a very hard game to find, especially with box, manual and styrofoam inserts.

Twenty years after Mattel originally released this electronic basketball handheld game, the game was re-released with an additional three-point scoring line. Photo courtesy handheldmuseum.com.
Twenty years after Mattel originally released this electronic basketball handheld game, the game was re-released with an additional three-point scoring line. Photo courtesy handheldmuseum.com.

In addition to sports games, Mattel designed two-player word games such as 1979s "Brain Baffler," a handheld anagram game. Player one inputs a word into the game, the game scrambles the letters, and player two must now unscramble the word to win points.

Of course, with the success of Mattel's electronic handheld division, other toy companies got into the miniature market as well. One of the most ubiquitous games of the time was Parker Brothers' "Merlin," a red mini-computer that allowed you to play anything from tic-tac-toe to blackjack, compose simple songs and match up light patterns. The device, shaped like an oversized cell phone, was a very popular toy in its day, and has been re-released over the years with various upgrades.

Not to be outdone, Milton Bradley released its own handheld gaming system, "Microvision," in 1979. This game featured a 16 dot by 16 dot mini-screen and a small knobbed controller; the games themselves were on miniature cartridges that snapped into the handheld unit. The main person involved with the creation of Microvision, Jay Smith, would later be part of the creative team for the Vectrex system that was part of last month's "Playing Around" column.

But by the early 1980s, the appeal of miniature blips and dots to replicate people running or tackling or kicking faded away, replaced by (at the time) more realistic sports games available on the home television screen (i.e., the Atari 2600 or the Mattel Intellivision systems). These original handheld classics disappeared for nearly 20 years, only to return as "retro" or "classic" editions for future collectors and generations to enjoy.

For more information on the classic era of handheld games, along with a stunning photo gallery of handheld classics, visit www.handheldmuseum.com.

Journal Home Page     Contents Page     Brimfield FleaMarkets.Com     Brimfield Country Store     Subscribe