Wednesday, 22 November 2017

The 'Orribe 'Ouse of Terrible Old Tat - Are Friends Electric?

Welcome once again dear fiends to the 'Orrible 'Ouse of Terrible Old Tat! Well boys and ghouls, December is nearly here once again and so we are going to be sticking with the toy theme for a few weeks, revisiting some old favourites that, around now in years gone by, kids would have been pestering their parents for. However we are going to begin out investigation of former regular guests in Santa's sack, by shining a light upon a somewhat forgotten genre of toys. 

Now then, these days toys and games tend to be packed with microchips and batteries - they move, flash lights and make noises seemingly designed to irritate parents pretty much as standard. Many even link to computers or phones and have their own tie-in apps. And then of course there is the whole arena of video games, the endless killing zone that is the console wars, game apps and handhelds, a cupboard full of novelty controllers and joysticks, and the cut-throat jungle that is additional downloadable content. However I'm old enough to remember the strange, dark days of a pre-digital world when "internet access" meant how a fisherman got at his catch. 

Of course, toys that had required batteries had been around long before me, and no, I'm not talking about the type you buy in specialist shops found in the best grubby backstreets everywhere. Dolls that walked, cars that drove, or things that just flashed lights and made a noise had been gobbling up batteries for decades. However at the end of the '70s, two new sorts of games and toys began to emerge. One sort was a kind of bulky box that incredibly plugged into your television, dubbed at the time "TV games", and they were the ancestor of what we know call consoles. However a second breed was smaller, more affordable, and therefore much more common. These were the so-called "electronic games", which in some regards could be considered the forefathers of the modern handheld platforms, but in others were something entirely different.

The very first "electronic game" was Mattel Auto Race and this now very primitive beast emerged in 1976. Boasting of a then massive 512 bytes of RAM - that's half a kb in real money - this then futuristic game didn't even have a proper screen. Instead it had what many of the early electronic game had - the illusion of one created by LEDs. In the case of Mattel Auto Race there were three columns of red LEDs  - exactly the same type that create the displays in electronic calculators and clocks. The player's car was a single vertical dash which could be "moved" across or up the screen with the buttons by basically lighting up the adjacent LED. There was no joystick or controller, just a button to go left or right and a slider switch offering four gear changes (which basically just made everything faster). The object of the game was to swerve past cars coming in the other direction and complete four "laps" - that is, get your dash to the top of the screen four times in a row. 

Now admittedly that doesn't sound terrible exciting, and in fairness there was a great deal of scepticism about this new type of game. Yes, everyone wanted to develop some kind of home equivalent of the games machines that were becoming increasing popular in arcades but no one was entirely sure how to do that. Mattel at first were confident, and very quickly developed a second electronic game, Mattel's Electronic Football which hit the shelves in 1977. This was was pretty much the same machine cunningly tweaked and reskinned, with the screen was set horizontally so there were three rows instead of three columns. But the objective of the game is much the same - instead of four laps, you're looking to dodge tackles and get four downs. 

However despite releasing two titles in quick succession, after less than 100,000 of both were made, production was more or less halted, with bosses getting nervous that these new-fangled electronic games wouldn't sell much after the novelty value had worn off. However sales not only continued but began to climb, with Mattel's Electronic Football shifting a whopping 500,000 units a week by February 1978.  A new age had begun... 

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