Handheld gaming in 1976 meant staring at a red blip as you tried to move it away from other red blips. This early LCD technology was the basis for Mattel Electronics' Auto Race and the wildly successful Football, both of which kick-started a handheld industry that generated an estimated $400 million in sales. By the end of the decade, Milton Bradley realized the potential for a portable system that could have programmable games.
After all, people were already enjoying the Atari 2600, so why not use the cartridge medium to expand handheld gaming? If consumers were happy with one game, they would be even happier once they realized they could play multiple titles on the same portable system! That thought helped fuel Milton Bradley's Microvision, the first programmable handheld in video game history.
Consumers could walk into a store and purchase the Microvision in 1979. The system was packaged in a black and gold box with a photo on the cover. The concept of using interchangeable cartridges was prominently displayed to the right of the photo, with a body of text explaining how the system could play different titles. The unit also came with one game, Block Buster, which was essentially a scaled down version of Breakout. Players could steer a horizontal line back and forth as a ball ricocheted into three rows of blocks. This pack-in was particularly suitable for the system, as the Microvision featured a single knob to control the action.
Yet the most striking feature of the Microvision was the fact that cartridges were an integral part of the unit, essentially serving as its faceplate. Gamers simply snapped the plastic cartridge onto the front of the system before playing. Each cartridge (retailing for $19.99) came with a built-in overlay that automatically covered the 2" x 2" screen. This was important since the Microvision featured simple LCD block graphics; the overlay could get around the limited display by offering a colorful image that helped define the screen. Cartridges also included between four and six touch-sensitive buttons that would relay such information as the number of players or difficulty setting for a particular game.
Along with Block Buster, the Microvision came with a 2" X 2" sheet of copper foil to protect the unit from static buildup once a cartridge was inserted. There was also a rather long list of precautions detailed in the instruction manual. The first warning was that players should store both the Microvision and cartridges between 32°F and 104°F. The LCD screen was also sensitive to "direct sunlight, abrupt temperature changes, high humidity or dampness and dust." Other problems could result from leaving the power on for an extended length of time or by pressing down on the screen area. Furthermore, players were cautioned that touching the cartridge's contacts or leaving it attached to the system for more than a day could also be harmful.
The system itself measured 9.5" in length, 3.5"in width and 1.5" in thickness. Power was supplied through one nine-volt battery, although earlier models required the use of two nine-volt batteries. Later versions explained the second battery was needed only if the main battery ran out of power, and a compartment on the back of the system provided space to store it for safekeeping. A circular contrast knob, which could be turned with a dime or fingernail, was also featured on the back so players could adjust the display. To switch games, players had to first turn off the Microvision. They could then slide the cartridge at an angle so it fit into the groove on the upper part of the system. Once attached, the plate could be lowered and snapped into place.
The six games offered at the time of the Microvision's release were listed on the back of the system's box. By the end of 1979, players could purchase Connect Four, Vegas Slots, Mindbuster, Star Trek: Phaser Strike, Bowling and Pinball. Little did consumers know that this initial offering would represent more than half of the entire system's library! Only two cartridges were released in 1980 (Sea Duel and Baseball), which were followed by two more in 1981 (Alien Raiders and Cosmic Hunter). All games were recommended for those eight years and older.
It appeared consumers were not quite ready for the Microvision. Despite earning an estimated $8 million in revenue during its first year of production, the system was long forgotten by 1981. Gamers seemed to prefer all-in-one portable game units that did not require separate cartridges to sustain them. This would explain the success of Milton Bradley's Simon (a sound and pattern matching game) and Parker Brothers' Merlin (which played tic-tac-toe, blackjack and other games). Still, the Microvision paved the way for an industry that would be forever changed with the introduction of the Game Boy in 1989, the second programmable handheld in video game history.
The man who designed the Microvision, Jay Smith, went on to create the Vectrex for GCE in 1981. The system featured a nine-inch monochrome monitor that displayed vector graphics. Like the Microvision before it, the Vectrex made use of color overlays to overcome limitations in its visual presentation. While Milton Bradley would re-enter the video game business by purchasing the Vectrex from GCE in November 1982, they found little success. Amidst the video game crash of 1984, the company reported a loss of $31.6 million. ~ Scott Alan Marriott, All Game Guide