When people think of handheld gaming their first thought is Nintendo but while they do pretty much own the handheld gaming market it might not have happened if it wasn’t for a little company named Milton Bradley and the first handheld system with changeable cartridge games Microvision. While the home video games started with the Magnavox Odyssey in 1972 and later the Atari 2600 (1977), Odyssey 2 (1978) but with those systems you always needed a television set to play them on. The origins of handheld systems started in 1976 with Mattel releasing it’s first LED handheld Auto Race and was followed up with the more popular Football, Baseball and other sports games. Many other companies made LED games like Coleco, Parker Brother’s Entex and Bandai.
But what made Microvision different was the fact that you could buy cartridges for it. It was the first handheld unit to do this. Released in October 1979 it was truly revolutionary for handheld games. It was also the first handheld system that used a LCD display and was the first system to use a D-Pad controller for the game Cosmic Hunter. While the display was only 16 x 16 LCD blocks it was a huge step over the small red lines in the LED games. There were only 13 cartridges that were released for the system and it was created by Jay Smith who later went on to make the great Vectrex system for GCE in 1981 (You can find my retrospective of it HERE).
The systems processors for the first Microvision cartridges were made with both Intel 8021 (cross licensed by Signetics) and Texas Instruments TMS1100 processors. Due to purchasing issues, Milton Bradley switched to using TMS1100 processors exclusively including reprogramming the games that were originally programmed for the 8021 processor. The TMS1100 was a more primitive device, but offered more memory and lower power consumption than the 8021. First-revision Microvisions needed two batteries due to the 8021’s higher power consumption, but later units (designed for the TMS1100) only had one active battery holder. Even though the battery compartment was designed to allow the two 9-volt batteries to be inserted with proper polarity of positive and negative terminals, when a battery was forcefully improperly oriented, while the other battery was properly oriented, the two batteries would be shorted and they would overheat. The solution was to remove terminals for one of the batteries to prevent this hazard. Due to the high cost of changing production molds, Milton Bradley did not eliminate the second battery compartment, but instead removed its terminals and called it the spare battery holder.
Because of the limited technology at the time the units are prone to a number of defects that may affect the units over time. The first is Screen Rot where poor sealing and impurities introduced during manufacture has resulted in the condition known as screen rot. The liquid crystal spontaneously leaks and permanently darkens, resulting in a game unit that still plays but is unable to properly draw the screen. While extreme heat (such as resulting from leaving the unit in the sun) can instantly destroy the screen, there is nothing that can be done to prevent screen rot. It may or may not happen to your unit. The second issue is ESD damage where the microprocessor (which is inside the top of each cartridge) lacks ESD protection and is directly connected to the copper pins which normally connect the cartridge to the Microvision unit. If the user opens the protective sliding door that covers the pins, the processor can be exposed to any electric charge the user has built up. If the user has built up a substantial charge, the discharge can jump around the door’s edge or pass through the door itself (dielectric breakdown). The low-voltage integrated circuit inside the cartridge is extremely ESD sensitive, and can be destroyed by an event of only a few dozen volts which cannot even be felt by the person, delivering a fatal shock to the game unit. The third problem will happen no matter what you do and that is the keypad destruction. When you are playing a game you press on plastic overlays and they were very easily destroyed. Because each games required different button layouts there was a “giant” button (sensor) on the unit and each overlay had a thin “button” on it that you would press and the unit would identify the area based on each game. The only way that you will find a game that does not have damaged buttons is one that is brand new. While the unit was quite successful in the first year of release it seemed that consumers wanted all in one type units instead of cartridges for their handhelds. The later success of the portable Simon and Merlin by Parker Brother’s seemed to prove this point. The system was released in Germany and the games there had real buttons instead of the thin layer of plastic. This matched the original prototype units that were made. There is only one game that was exclusive to the European market was Super Blockbuster (1982). The Christmas 1982 Montgomery Wards catalog included an advertisement for Super Blockbuster and Barrage. Super Blockbuster was released in Germany and this seem to match this ad. Barrage appears to be a unique game that is not a working title or derivative for another game. It appears that they game was never released nor a prototype has been located.
The games that were released were;
Launch Titles (1979)Block Buster Bowling Connect Four Shooting Star Pinball
1979Mindbuster Star Trek: Phaser Strike (later released as just Phaser Strike) Vegas Slots
1980Baseball Sea Duel
1981Alien Raiders Cosmic Hunter
I recently was lucky enough to get a working unit with the original box and the Star Trek game. My unit is a second run unit because there is only one 9-volt battery needed to work and the extra storage space. The best way to describe the games is it’s kind of like playing variations of breakout. All of the games are limited to the 16 x 16 display so there is not a lot of room for big variances between the games. By todays standards the games are very primitive but in 1979 it was far superior to the LED handhelds. The incredible thing is that you could play different games on the system and considering Milton Bradley was the only company developing games for the system 13 games is not bad for the time. In fact it wasn’t until 10 years later in 1989 that Nintendo released the GameBoy and surely was surely influenced by the Microvision. It’s unlikely that Milton Bradley made a lot of the units and at a retail price of $49.99 it was pretty pricey at the time. The cartridges cost $19.99 each. To put that in perspective in todays dollars the system would be $160.41 and the games would run $64.14 each. This is definitely one of the more obscure systems in the history of video games and is very much worth owning for the hardcore collector. The systems run about $50.00 to $130.00 and the games are more reasonable running around $10 to $20 for the common ones but the rarer ones and the German release ones with the buttons can run quite high. The system was even featured in Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981) of all places and ironically at pretty much the end of the units lifespan.
For me the system is a milestone in the history of video games and more importantly handheld gaming. While you can easily find Mattel and other LED games from the same era, getting a Microvision is more difficult to uncover. The most important thing to know when you are looking for one is to make sure the unit is working. A lot of them are dead and if the screen has crapped out then it’s pretty much worthless beyond using it for parts to fix another unit. I would also avoid the first production run of units with the two battery configuration due to the power issues with those ones. If you are able to find one then it’s a pretty neat system that while there is not a lot of replay value in the games it’s a must have for the hardcore video game collector.