After I moved out of the house when I was 20, my parents kept all the stuff from my old room in the closet. I’d periodically take a box or two of it home with me over the years (and the occasional well-deserved “when are you going to take the rest of your stuff”), but once I got my own house it all came to live with me. All my old Transformers. All my 1e AD&D books. Comics. Stuffed animals. I thought we’d claimed it all years ago, but my parents were cleaning the basement around Christmas and unearthed several boxes of Star Wars toys, causing my brother and I to spontaneously emit every memory we’d ever experienced regarding them. Then, we figured, we had everything.
At dinner last night, my parents informed me they had a surprise for me. This surprise came in the form of a box full of electronic treasures from my early childhood.
Star Wars Electronic Laser Battle Game
The above is a Star Wars Electronic Laser Battle Game from 1977. At the time of its release, I was two years old. Seeing Star Wars at the local drive-in theatre was one of my earliest memories (I was standing on the back seat wearing Ernie footie pajamas when the Death Star blew up). This game was under the Christmas tree that year.
The gameplay is pretty simple. A series of quick beeps sounds and all the red LEDs in the middle flash, alerting both players to be ready, then there is silence. Another sound plays, and the red lights start inching toward both X-Wings, and the first player to hit one of their buttons wins the round. If the round winner pushed the orange “F” button, they fire at the Death Star and get a point (displayed as an increasingly longer string of lights coming from their fighter’s nose). If they pressed the yellow “B”, they instead take a point from the other player (which, in almost all cases, resulted in somebody getting mad). First person to 7 points wins. Being so little, I didn’t really understand how the controls worked at the time, and my 7 year old brother consistently beat me at the game for years to come, but seeing the Death Star light up and hearing the Star Wars theme when you won the game put the same smile on my face at 37 as it did at 2.
I don’t know if the cacophony of sounds this thing makes when you turn it on are supposed to be a rendition of some theme from Star Wars, but if it is I can’t make it out. All I know is I’m glad I finally know where they came from, because I was remembering them off and on for the last 20 years.
The most curious (and awesome) thing about this game for me is that, even with its simplistic gameplay and noises that only vaguely sounded like anything from the movies, this was the very first time I ever felt like I was controlling an X-Wing and firing the lasers for real. The amount of imagination I poured into this game as a kid still staggers me, and a little bit of my breath still leaves me every time the clear plastic Death Star is about to flash. Needless to say, playing this one with my 5 year old son has been one of the highlights of my year. He gets the same look I get when that thing goes off.
Star Wars Electronic Battle Command
This one belonged to my brother. This one came out in 1977 as well, though I think we got it a year or two after. I recall my brother being pretty good at it. Little me, on the other hand, was both enthralled and utterly frustrated by this game.
Like a lot of electronic games from the late 70’s and early 80’s, this game was about being on a grid, figuring out somehow where the bad guy was relative to you, and shooting something at him before he kills you. This game in particular stood out, though, in that there were several different difficulty modes and a lot of cool stuff you could do with your X-Wing. In the basic mode, you had a battle scanner that showed where you were (a flashing LED) as well as anything else – a planet, a TIE fighter, or a TIE fighter hiding on a planet – displayed as solid LEDs. The basic game was based on figuring out which one any given solid was and moving around to flush the TIE out where you could hit him before he hit you.
I never did learn how to play the intermediate or advanced games, but from what I saw when my brother played, it involved hyperspace and deflector screens. Moving and firing alone was enough to completely immerse me into LOOK MOM I’M PILOTING AN X-WING mode, so when I got to play I frequently didn’t even care if I won or lost and pushed buttons to fight the TIE fighters in my head.
I haven’t yet been able to find the instruction manual for this thing online yet, but you can be sure I’m going to try out the other two modes once I do. As it is, it took me a few minutes to remember how to play the Basic mode, and I still die about 50% of the time. I’m never getting into Rogue squadron at this rate.
Coleco Pac-Man Tabletop
This game was part of a line of miniature tabletop arcade cabinets released by Coleco in 1981, and it marked another very excited Christmas morning for us. A Real Arcade Game in Our House???
Honestly, I had mixed feelings about this one growing up. The noises it makes are Awful, like a recording of an electronic banshee wailing skipping endlessly until your sanity leaves. I remember 5-year-old me being scared of the sound but too excited about having a Real Pac-Man Game In Our House to stop playing it.
The gameplay was difficult and frustrating. This game was done using LEDs that lit to show Pac-Man wherever he needed to be in the maze, as well as all the dots and ghosts. This made it really hard to do anything precise, and resulted in a lot of needless Pac-deaths.
One thing this game did sport, though, was a head-to-head mode where two people could play at once. I don’t know if this is the first time a Pac-Man game ever featured this, but even after a decade spent marinating in MAME, I am hard-pressed to think of an official one before the Namco Museum “arrangement” version in the late 90’s. The downside, however, was that the 2-player mode somehow made the noises even worse.
I still played this one a lot. Not nearly as much, though, as its cousin:
Coleco Galaxian Tabletop
As you can see the Galaxian mini-cabinet shares the same form factor and itty bitty joysticks as Pac-Man – even finding space for fire buttons somehow. It was not particularly comfortable to play. The gameplay, however, was much better and the sounds it made were light-years better than the banshee-wail Pac-Man emitted during the whole game.
Even better, this game had two single-player modes. There was regular Galaxian — and “Midway’s Attackers”, which was a Space Invaders clone that I found more fun than the regular game. Like Pac-Man, it had a 2-player simultaneous mode that featured a second player shooting from the top while the Galaxians tried to kill everyone involved. I really liked how Coleco added in gameplay that wasn’t available in the arcade versions at the time that even built on existing gameplay. It’s a shame they didn’t do this on a platform that would have showcased it better, like the Colecovision console they released the year afterward.
Merlin was a strange and wonderful electronic device with 6 different modes ranging from Tic Tac Toe to a version of Mastermind to a musical instrument. My particular favorite was Magic Square, where you attempted to push the buttons and light the grid of 9 LED buttons in the middle (but every time you pushed one the adjacent ones would toggle).
I don’t know how many hours we logged on this thing, but it was a family favorite. Sadly, the Merlin was the only one of the devices shown that doesn’t currently work. It seems we left the batteries in it for a couple decades and they blew up, so now I’ve got to take some isopropyl alcohol and try to bring my old red friend back to life.
I wish I had a cordless phone that looked like a Merlin.
I Feel So Old But So Good
Playing these old games has brought back so many memories. It’s obvious in retrospect, but this kind of stuff is just another piece of why I am the way I am. It’s always a blast to go back to my pre-console videogame roots. Videogames were like nothing I’d ever seen back then. I was too little to play very well, but I’d always get lost in the graphics and sound, and any accomplishment you made there felt like a huge deal. In retrospect, those games were freaking hard. I am proud of little me for doing what he could, and I see my son overcoming the same obstacles when he plays videogames with me. He’s right where I used to be at that age. Gives up easy, but takes great pride when he succeeds. He’ll get there.
Thanks for storing all this stuff for so many years, Mom & Dad. You have a very happy son today.