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[GUEST POST] Jamie Todd Rubin Revisits The Handheld Games of the 80s

jamieJamie Todd Rubin writes fiction and nonfiction for a variety of publications including Analog, Clarkesworld, The Daily Beast, 99U, Daily Science Fiction, Lightspeed, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and several anthologies. He is Evernote’s paperless ambassador. He writes about technology, quantified-self, and life on his blog. He lives in Falls Church, Virginia with his wife and two children. Find him on Twitter at @jamietr.

“I’ve Got Pac-Mac Fever”: Handheld Electronic Games from the Decade of Excess

by Jamie Todd Rubin

pacmanTwice a year we pack the kids into the car for a long drive north or south. Summers e go north, often into Vacationland, also known as Maine. Winters we go south to the warmer climates of the gulf coast of Florida. In addition to the luggage, the snacks, and the kids, the car is packed with gadgets to keep everyone entertained. A look into our car at any given point during the trip would likely find my son playing Minecraft on the iPad, my daughter watching Frozen on an iPhone, my wife watching Netflix on a Kindle Fire, and me listening to an audiobook as I drive.

It makes for a smooth ride, but it also seems like a sleight-of-hand, a way of tricking ourselves into making the time go by faster. After all, when I was a kid, we kept ourselves entertained on long car rides by looking out the windows, counting license plates, singing songs, playing “I Spy”, or sometimes, just listening to Casey Kasem on American Top 40. This was exactly what I was prepared to tell my son when he asked me on our last trip if I played Minecraft on road trips when I was kid.

“Little Man,” I said, “we didn’t have Minecraft when I was a kid.” I was about add that we simply made things up to entertain ourselves, but I stopped. Because that was when I remembered the winter of 1981/82. I was nine going on ten, and it was the dawn of the electronic game era. I’m not talking about console games like Atari or ColecoVision. I’m talking about handheld games that you could take with you on the road. The holiday season that spanned the winter of 1981/82 was my introduction to the electronic game.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe first of these games that I ever remember getting was Parker Brother’s Merlin. It looked like red phone–if you can envision of phone circa 1980 instead of 2015. You could play half a dozen different games on Merlin, including Tic-Tac-Toe. The games were nothing special, but the novelty of playing a game against a machine kept me and my brother occupied for hours, and led to heated arguments over whose turn it was to play. I can still hear the chirps and tones that the little red device used to make.

I remember getting an electronic baseball game–I think it was Mattel’s Classic Baseball. It was an incredibly simple game, and after a time, I quickly grew bored with it. There didn’t seem to be a pattern to how the game behaved. At ten, I couldn’t have described the reason for this. Today, I know that it was likely because the game play was completely random, and not based on any algorithms for situational baseball play.

Much more exciting was the version of Electronic Football that we got. I think we eventually had two versions of these games. The first, I am almost certain, came during the holiday season of 1981/82, and was either Mattel’s Electronic Football, or Coleco’s Electronic Quarterback. Either way, the game was a vast improvement over the baseball game. There was a strategy to the game. There was a running and passing game, and the opposing players had seek-and-destroy programming, at least enough to make the game exciting. You clicked these buttons to run or pass. I can still hear the sound and patterns of those button clicks 35 years later.

quarterbackSome time later we got Coleco’s Electronic Quarterback Head-to-Head handheld. I can recall my brother and I playing this game for hours. We played them at home, of course, but we also played them on the three hour car ride between our house in Rhode Island, and our grandparent’s house in New York. When we played, the time melted away as quickly as the power in the batteries. That constant CLICK-CLICK-CLICK of the receiver taking the ball into the end zone for a touchdown must have grated on our parents. But perhaps it wasn’t quite as grating as the alternate refrain, “Are we there yet?”

Later–I can’t recall exactly when–we got a slightly more sophisticated game: the Pac-Man Coleco Tabletop Arcade. This was a scale model replica of the kind Pac-Man games you’d find in 7-Eleven at the time. Slightly bigger than the standard handheld, it was still portable, and a lot of fun to play.

It’s strange that I should have forgotten about these gems for more than thirty years, especially since they arrived with the other great media innovation of the early 1980s, MTV. It’s hard to think of those early videos of Peter Gabriel’s “Shock the Monkey”, or Duran Duran’s “Rio” without also hearing the sounds of the clicking and clacking of buttons in time with the bleats and blurts of those handheld electronic games.

“No, Little Man, we didn’t have Minecraft when I was little. But we did play baseball and football in the car. And occasionally we chased colorful ghosts around a maze, while trying to eat pellets and gob berries. We played in the car, while listening to Casey Kasem read long distance dedications, and count down the top songs of the week (when Olivia Newton-John’s ‘Physical’ seemed like it was in the top spot forever), and the hours melted away.”

I can’t say for certain those games made the long drives easier for our parents. But they sure the rides more fun for us kids.

About Jamie Todd Rubin (31 Articles)
Jamie Todd Rubin is a science fiction writer and blogger. His fiction has appeared in Analog, Intergalactic Medicine Show, Apex Magazine, and most recently through 40K Books. He writes the Wayward Time Traveler column for SF Signal and vacations frequently in the Golden Age of science fiction.
Contact: Website

2 Comments on [GUEST POST] Jamie Todd Rubin Revisits The Handheld Games of the 80s

  1. Paul Weimer (@PrinceJvstin) // April 15, 2015 at 12:21 pm //

    Such great memories, Jamie.

  2. Bryan Babineaux // April 22, 2015 at 11:20 am //

    I remember playing with these electronic games as a kid. This brings back memories. I have to comment on the phrase “decade of excess”. Compared to this decade it was far from being a time of excess. My kids are baffled that most people only had 1 TV, had to share vehicles, and would have never dished out cash for a over priced cup of coffee.

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