Just the other day, after a marathon seven hours listening to classic 70s and 80s Christmas songs as I wrapped up all my Christmas presents, I started to think of my Christmases as a child and the vast array of cool toys that were available in the shops. Although as a child from a not-so-well-off working class family I only dreamt of owning most of them.
Aside from writing stories and making stuff up, one of my favourite passions is collecting the retro games and toys that I, or my parents, could never afford during my childhood in the 70s and 80s, whether they be TV video game systems, games consoles, classic board games, wind-up or mechanical toys, electronic ‘vacuum fluorescent display’ (VFD) table-top and handheld games or awesome toys such as the British version of the American GI Joe action figure known as ‘Action Man’ – “now with gripping hands!”
The last day of school term before Christmas or summer break (or the last week if you were really lucky) meant being allowed to bring games into school to play. This allowed the wealthier kids to show off their vast array of electronic games from manufacturers like TOMY, Grandstand and CGL, to name but a few. As the majority of them were only single player games it was always just the popular kids or the bullies that were allowed to have a go, whilst the rest craned their necks to try and get a glimpse of the VFD action.
The VFD display consisted of pre-formed in-game characters, bullets, etc. on a dark background, allowing the objects to be lit up in a set sequence to give the illusion of motion. Some games, such as Grandstand’s ‘Firefox F-7’ and ‘Astro Wars’ required magnifying Fresnel lenses to aid viewing and often made the viewing of the game action virtually impossible if you weren’t sat directly in front of the screen, hence the craned necks.
Originally the electronic games were just copies of the popular arcade games of the era such as ‘Pac-Man’, ‘Space Invader’ (or Galaxian style games) and ‘Donkey Kong’ but as time went on, more and more new and original handheld games were born. Titles such as ‘Caveman’, ‘Frogger’, ‘Grand Prix’ and ‘BMX Racer’ started to corner the market.
Some handheld’s were obviously more popular than others, which is why they can now be found in abundance on eBay, such as Grandstand’s ‘space invader’ style game called ‘Astro Wars’, whereas those not-so-popular are now much rarer and drawing in much higher bids, which pains collectors like myself. Occasionally I spot a rare find at a car-boot sale and, if I’m lucky, I get it for an absolute bargain but more times than not I hear the dreaded seller uttering the words ‘Do ya know how much these are going for on eBay?’ and that’s when I know it won’t be going cheap and sadly, in most cases, I just shrug my shoulders and walk away.
I couldn’t write a post on retro games without mentioning the iconic ‘Rubik’s Cube’ from 1980, which, incidentally, I could never complete more than one or two sides. In 1981 a 12-year-old whizzkid, Patrick Bossert, wrote the book ‘You Can Do The Cube’ which sold 1.5m copies. I got a copy of this book on eBay a few months back and I still can’t do the bloody thing!
My favourite Rubik’s toy was the ‘Rubik’s Snake’ but even that bored me after a while, as there were only so many items/objects you could make with it and it was really easy to do, which was probably why it was my favourite. The ‘Rubik’s Clock’ came along quite a few years later in 1988, when I’d turned eighteen, and I couldn’t fathom that one out either.
Before the electronic games came along most games and toys were of the wind-up or mechanical type. The classic games that spring to mind of this type are Evel Knievel’s Stunt Bike, ‘Buck-a-roo!’, ‘Perfection’ and ‘Downfall’. Many of the board games used marbles or small ball bearings in some way to achieve your goal and win the game, either by collecting or retaining as many balls as possible such as Milton Bradley (MB) games ‘Stay Alive,’ navigating your ball through a maze as in TOMY’s ‘Screwball Scramble,’ building your tower before the ball takes it crashing down in Ideal’s ‘Up! Against Time’ or using your ball to capture your opponents mouse in Ideal’s ‘Mouse Trap’. One of my personal favourites was ‘Haunted House’ but the hardest part with some of these family games was getting other willing participants to join in, especially if you were an only child or if your brother was outside fixing Raleigh Strikers, Grifters, Choppers or Tomahawks which, in effect, amounted to the same thing really.
One of the most sought after games on eBay at the moment is the ‘shoot em’ up’ table-top game classic from 1971, also by Ideal, called ‘Crossfire’ which was a two player Ice Hockey style ball bearing game in which you had to fire your balls from a plastic gun at a ball bearing ‘puck’ and send it hurtling into your opponents goal.
Ideal games also had a hit with another ball game during the 1970s called ‘Rebound.’ It was a game of skill in which you had to bounce your ball bearing ‘puck’ (same as the one in Crossfire) off two elastic bands and get it to stop in the scoring area. However, if you exerted too much force your puck flew past the scoring zone and ended up in the ditch and out of play. If you were really lucky, er, I mean skilful, you could knock your opponents puck out of the scoring zone and into the ditch and really piss them off.
As a kid I always saved up my pocket money whenever there was something new to collect and I remember walking into Garrod’s newsagents and seeing the rotating display of little green boxes containing Palitoy (and later on TOMY) ‘Pocketeers.’ Pocketeers were the perfect example of mobile gaming for a kid in the late 70s and in the 80s and there wasn’t a touch screen or pixel in sight.
The original eight pocketeer games came out during 1975 & 1976 and in total there were forty-six different games produced. The majority of the games involved moving, balancing or firing ball bearings but there were a few, such as ‘Grand Prix,’ ‘Rally’ and ‘Splash Down’ that used little hidden magnets to move or hold the play pieces. The rest of them were purely mechanical by flicking or sliding levers or wind-up, such as ‘Pile Up.’
Note: For a full list of the Pocketeers that were released it’s worth checking out James Masters’ awesome page at: http://www.masters.me.uk/pocketeers/completelist-pocketeers.htm
During the 80s if a child wasn’t playing in a field, swinging from a tree, building a den or whizzing down the middle of the road on a homemade kart or skateboard then they were probably condemned to staying indoors (for some absurd reason) and you could pretty much guarantee that they were sat in front of a TV screen playing on a computer game instead, which is what the kids nowadays prefer to do anyway (personally I’d rather be in a tree).
In the early days, if it wasn’t a Binatone colour TV game, it was probably an Atari 2600 Video Computer System (VCS), either the wooden ‘woody’ model or the black ‘Darth Vadar’ plastic version, playing ‘Pong’ tennis or ‘Pac-Man.’ These TV games consoles usually came with two joysticks and one or two paddles and would connect to the TVs aerial socket. The games were cartridge based.
A huge drop in sales, due to the market being flooded with game titles and games producers being unable to cope with large amount of returned games from retailers, resulted in the top titles being placed in bargain bins and poor quality titles being rushed for release. This caused the North American video game crash of 1983 as companies like ‘US Games’ folded under the pressure. The crash was also partly due to the competition from Home Computer systems such as Commodore’s VIC-20 (and later the Commodore 64) and Sir Clive Sinclair’s ‘ZX81’ and later the more popular ‘Spectrum 48K’ (with the rubber keys).
As I moved into the latter comprehensive school years I started working as a milkman on Mr Woods’ milk van for £10 a week and, at the same time, I started doing a Sunday paper round. Now unlike our American paperboys who could whizz down a road on their pushbikes and lob the rolled-up newspapers in the vague direction of the intended house (as depicted in the Nintendo NES game ‘Paperboy’), I had to visit each front door and shove the paper through each individual letterbox, so every penny I had was well earned and certainly appreciated by me.
My saved pennies allowed me to buy my very own Spectrum 48K and my life as a speccy user commenced; at the time you were either a Commodore or a speccy user and once you were in your chosen ‘club’ it was mandatory to hate the other users.
The games for both computers were supplied on tapes, similar to music cassettes, rather than cartridge based and getting them to load successfully was an art form that each gamer had to master individually. It could take you hours to fine tune your volume and tone dials on your cassette recorders to obtain the correct balance to allow the games to load first time, every time. If you were clever you marked the player with a permanent marker or scratched it with a penknife so you knew roughly where the settings were. I, on the other hand, didn’t do that until after my Mam came in and dusted my room, whilst I was at school, and subsequently moved my cassette player dials – I was not a happy bunny to say the least!
My favourite speccy games were ‘Manic Miner’ and it’s sequel, ‘Jet Set Willy,’ ‘Atic Atac,’ ‘Full Throttle,’ ‘Chuckie Egg’ and ‘Pssst’, but there were thousands of games available ranging from the Sinclair’s ‘Hungry Horace’ and ‘Chequered Flag’ games to movie based games such as ‘Ghostbusters’ and ‘Rambo’.
Thanks to a successful recent Kickstarter campaign there are now two modern ways to revel in the nostalgia of speccy games; the Sinclair endorsed ‘ZX Spectrum Vega’ (with 1000 games built-in) and the ‘Bluetooth ZX Spectrum’ keyboard that is almost identical in looks and size to the original 48K but it also requires a tablet device and suitable app to play the speccy games. Neither of these devices are perfect reflections of the original but they’ll certainly bring back memories.
The original iPad for kids of my era was the ‘Etch-a-sketch’ and family games of my childhood, other than those I’ve already mentioned, ranged from such classics as ‘Master Mind,’ ‘Cluedo,’ ‘Monopoly,’ ‘Battleship’ and ‘Ker Plunk’ to infuriating electronic games such as ‘Operation’ and ‘Simon’ (which is going for big money on eBay, especially if boxed) or energetic room games such as ‘Twister’ (although the adults can still enjoy this game – just add copious amounts of alcohol to destroy your inhibitions first!).
Obviously the boy’s equivalent of the girl’s Barbie doll was the awesome Action Man which was available in just about every ‘version’ that you could imagine; policeman, soldier (German, British & American versions), frogman, deep sea diver, mountain rescue and pilot for example, all with ‘gripping hands’ and moving ‘eagle eyes’ (from the 70s onwards, anyway).
The huge popularity of figures for boys meant that films and TV shows also brought out figures, with probably the most famous ones being Evel Knievel and Lee Major’s The Six Million Dollar Man but I’m sure you can think of more.
The list of available toys for the 70s and 80s child is endless and now, as I enter my middle-age crisis, I’m in a position to collect the games I couldn’t afford as a kid and my nostalgia levels have now reached astronomical proportions but I shall still be chucking my‘Slinky’ down the stairs for many more years to come.
Christmas may have changed but the memories will stay with us retro kids forever – now I’m off to play on my ‘Tin Can Alley,’ ‘Tomytronic 3-D,’ ‘Munchman,’ ‘Blip,’ ‘Merlin,’ ‘Galaxy Invader,’ ‘Game & Watch,’ ‘Game Boy’…