Forgotten handhelds and overlooked games machines
Over the last 40 years, we have seen video games evolve from blocky tennis games to that of a multi-billion pound industry. In the late 1970s, Atari ruled the roost with its colour graphics offering a real advance on the Pong clones. After the great video game crash, Nintendo and Sega emerged from the wreckage along with home computers like the Commodore 64.
Today, Microsoft and Sony are the main players. The former thanks to the success of Windows’ brand recognition. The latter courtesy of the Sony Playstation and an impressive back catalogue to boot.
In an era which has led to PS4s, Wiis and X Box 360s being part of the home, it has inevitably led to a number of forgotten systems. This month’s Not So Perfect Ten will focus on the forgotten. The games machines that went to the bargain bin before you could say “Burnin’ Rubber“, “oversized lozenge”, and “why bother”. Our ten is as follows:
- Amstrad GX4000;
- Fairchild Channel F;
- Tiger Electronics Game.com;
- Phillips Videopac G7000;
- Atari Lynx;
- Nokia N-Gage;
- Panasonic 3DO;
- Tandy/RadioShack TV Scoreboard;
- Quickshot Supervision.
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1. Amstrad GX4000
Throughout the 1980s, Alan Sugar had great success with budget priced stereo systems and its bargain basement word processors. Amstrad was among the first manufacturers to embrace the ‘whole new ball game’ of Direct To Home satellite television. Their Amstrad CPC range of 8 bit computers were Britain’s third most popular system, and le chien premier la France.
Using slightly updated CPC technology (improved graphics modes and its faithful Z80A processor) came Amstrad’s foray into console gaming. Enter the GX4000. Bundled with Burnin’ Rubber, a 3D racing game by Ocean Software, it bombed. The main reason being the lack of something that set it apart from Sega’s and Nintendo’s offerings. Apart from Ocean’s game, the rest of its back catalogue were straight ports of CPC titles, in cartridge form. One game that used the GX4000’s enhancements was the Gremlin Graphics platformer Switchblade.
On launch in September 1990, the system sold for £99.99. Its joypad and lack of stand-out titles saw the games console savaged by reviewers. By Spring 1991, the Amstrad GX4000 cluttered the bargain bins of many a retailer. In spite of the GX4000 debacle, the console’s enhanced modes also appeared in their updated CPC Plus range. Eschewing the black for white, the 464+, 664+ and 6128+ machines had a sleek new look and helped to extend the CPC’s commercial life for another five years. They came with a cartridge slot, so with hindsight the GX4000 should have been scrapped.
2. Commodore C64GS
Even the makers of the world’s most popular computer could come unstuck. September 1990 also saw the launch of the C64GS. In a nutshell, it was a keyboardless C64C and panned by reviewers as “an oversized lozenge”. The joystick ports were on the right with the cartridge slot positioned on the top right of the console.
On launch, the C64GS was bundled with a four game cartridge and a light grey Cheetah Annihilator joystick. The cartridge had Fiendish Freddy’s Big Top of Fun, Flimbo’s Quest, Klax, and – the old standby – Commodore’s International Soccer. The playability of Mindscape/Gray Matter’s circus simulator was enhanced owing to a lack of multiload, which ruined the cassette version a little.
With the C64GS an unmitigated flop, the bundled cartridge and joystick – under the bundle name of Playful Intelligence – would see the oversized lozenge replaced by a C64C. A better move all round. In spite of its lack of success, a number of cartridge games followed in its wake, thanks to the C64 having a cartridge slot from the off (thank you Jack Tramiel). Ocean Software supported the cartridge format’s second coming with Robocop 2, Robocop 3, Battle Command and Space Gun committed to a £14.99 solid state device.
3. The Fairchild Channel F
Mention cartridge based systems, and the first thing that many people think of is the Sega Mega Drive or the Nintendo NES. Some may remember the Atari VCS. Even fewer may remember the Fairchild Channel F. Launched in August 1976, it was the first games console to use interchangeable cartridges. It also had colours, eight of them, and its own joysticks and paddles.
During its short commercial life, it had 27 titles, plus two built-in games (Hockey and Tennis). The paddle design differed from the consoles and TV games of the late 1970s, with the paddle on top of a cylindrical column. A keypad was planned though never materialised.
In the UK, it was licensed as the Grandstand Video Entertainment Computer in 1979. Though the original Channel F sold 250,000 units, 18 million UK citizens – perhaps unwittingly – saw one in use each Saturday night. How?
From 1980 to 1981, Yorkshire Television’s ‘hit’ quiz show 3-2-1, used the system as part of its elimination game. Videocart-17, Pinball Challenge (which in spite of its name is a Breakout clone) would be used to decide which couple would progress to the final third of Ted Rogers’ quiz show.
4. Tiger Electronics Game.com
Cluttering the Argos catalogues in 1997 was Tiger Electronics’ sorry attempt at emulating the Nintendo Gameboy. Unlike the Gameboy, Game.com’s proud boast was internet access. But, there was three snags: firstly, an interface was required to connect the handheld to a REN 1.0 socket; secondly, their internet browser was text only; third – and most damningly – access meant a subscription fee for a knee-capped version of the World Wide Web.
There was also built-in apps which included a calendar, a Patience game, and organiser. As for the graphics, black and white like the Gameboy but slow and fuzzy. Its killer app was the bundled Lights Out cartridge (which Tiger Electronics also sold as an electronic game). Besides the puzzle game, other titles included Batman and Robin (licensed from the similarly panned film), and Resident Evil 2.
With the useless approach to internet access and poor titles, were we surprised to see it fade from memory? Launched in 1997, it looked tired compared with its rivals.
5. Phillips Videopac G7000
In America, the video gaming scene as we know today was pioneered by Ralph Baer’s Odyssey console. The Magnavox Odyssey2 was a quantum leap on its predecessor, with full colour graphics in place of overlays for each game. In Europe, it was known as the Phillips Videopac G7000.
What set the Videopac G7000 apart from its peers was the (Texas Instruments Speak and Spell style) membrane keyboard. The cartridge was placed at the top of the console at an angle over the keyboard. Unique, in comparison with its contemporaries, was the handle on the cartridge.
During its five years from 1978, it had a fairly good innings with software titles like Quest For Rings and Pickaxe Pete. This was Phillips’ last foray into video gaming prior to the launch of the CD-I.
6. Atari Lynx
In 1990, the Nintendo Gameboy’s popularity saw a number of handheld games machines enter the market. Designed by the late Jay Minor (also of Amiga and Atari 8 bit machines fame) in cooperation with Epyx Software, the Atari Lynx’s competition was Sega’s Game Gear. The first version of the Lynx resembled a skateboard and lacked the portability of the Gameboy. Its second version ditched the skateboard look and went for a smaller casing.
As handhelds went in 1990, its technical specs were impressive – stereo sound, a 4,096 colour palette, and 16 bit processing power. Less impressive was its battery life – four to five hours on 6 x AA batteries (six hours tops on the new version).
Though it never had the popularity of the Game Gear and the Gameboy, it had an impressive number of titles. Top of the tree, and bundled with each Lynx, was Epyx’s California Games. Other titles included Chip’s Challenge, Hard Drivin’ and Double Dragon. Since its discontinuation in 1995, there is an active homebrew scene.
7. Nokia N-Gage
Any gaming scene of some description couldn’t have been said of Nokia’s N-Gage. Today’s smartphones allow for games like Candy Crush Saga, but Nokia’s approach in 2003 used cartridges.
Resembling a taco, the number pad was situated on the right of the screen with the thumbpad on its left. In spite of having state-of-the-art specs, there was one fatal flaw. Changing a game meant switching the N-Gage off and opening the case. No wonder it bombed – you never had to tear apart your Atari VCS if you wanted to change the cartridge from Tennis to Yar’s Revenge.
Even so, the Nokia N-Gage mustered 50 titles. More than the Tiger Electronics Game.com and Amstrad GX4000 back catalogues put together!
8. Panasonic/Goldstar/Sanyo 3DO
Throughout the mid-1990s, CD based gaming came to the fore, ultimately consigning cartridges to silicon history. At the high end of video gaming was the 3DO. Which, like the MSX before then, was a common format using three manufacturers. In this case, Panasonic’s (like a sandwich toaster or Art Deco style hotel block), Sanyo’s (like a satellite decoder) and Goldstar’s (like a video recorder).
I remember being awestruck by Road Rash in Calculus’ Oldham branch. Its high points were the full motion video, its 16.7 million colours, and arcade style sound. Other titles include Twisted, a spoof gameshow with gobs full of product placement for Pez. There was also the photorealistic polygon graphics of Foes of Ali – a 3D boxing game viewed from the first person viewpoint (with simulated double vision effects).
Expense and some of its technical limitations saw the 3DO lose out to the Sony Playstation and (to a lesser extent), the Sega Saturn. An expansion board known as M2, allowing 64 bit gaming, was proposed though cancelled.
9. Tandy/RadioShack TV Scoreboard
In the late 1970s, the Tandy/RadioShack TV Scoreboard was among a plethora of a Pong style TV games. One player would have a smaller handset, with another player holding the console in their hand. The bigger controller had a wealth of options, governing the colour settings, reset and pause modes, and the games.
One knob enables you to choose from Football, Tennis, Squash and Practice. A later version included Skeet shooting and Hockey games. Though the Football and Tennis options offered little advance on the Pong architecture, the Skeet option enabled you to shoot at a square target on your television screen. This was made possible with an external light gun.
Though many systems adopted colour graphics by then, the TV Scoreboard was black and white to the end. In Australia, it was repacked and marketed by Haminex.
10. Quickshot Supervision
Our last forgotten video games system of the past was referred to as a “bendibus” inspired handheld in Zzap! 64 owing to its pivoting screen. With Quickshot’s system, a case of missing the bus – three years too late to challenge the Nintendo Gameboy. The Quickshot Supervision was marketed in the UK by the aforementioned joystick manufacturers.
Also known as the Watara Supervision, it enabled players to hook the handheld to a television set by means of a cable link. There was 66 titles released with Crystball (a Breakout clone) bundled with the device. Though a marginal success in Asia, the budget price was still no match for the Gameboy. As detailed with the Game.com entry, another case of a competing handheld with a blurry screen and lack of killer app.
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In 2015, the idea of buying separate cartridges instead of downloading games seems archaic. With the possible exception of the Nintendo 3DS, the smartphone or digital tablet seems to be a popular media for casual gaming. At the other end, today’s consoles have assumed a role in the wider entertainment industry. Besides playing state-of-the-art video games, downloading is something many gamers take for granted.
Furthermore, there is less competition among games consoles. Compare and contrast the gaming scene in 1995 with 2015. Sony’s success in 1995 continues to this day as the Playstation/PSX has evolved to its fourth incarnation; the sort of games you would expect to see on 8 bit machines feature on many a mobile device, albeit with superior graphics.
Could 2020 see greater changes with tablets and smartphones the dominant platform? We shall see. In the meantime I shall dust down my trusty Tandy TV Scoreboard and hope it plays ball with a modern day flatscreen television.
Before I go…
Do you remember, or did you have any of the above games consoles or handheld devices? Were you peeved at paying a penny short of a ton for the GX4000? Did the 3DO have more potential? As always, feel free to comment. Any musings on the games as well as the systems are most welcome.
S.V., 08 October 2015.