MICROVISION (1979) - World’s First Handheld System - Review of System and All 12 Games

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Retro STrife
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MICROVISION (1979) - World’s First Handheld System - Review of System and All 12 Games

Postby Retro STrife » February 9th, 2018, 1:08 am

Hey everyone.. it’s been awhile since I’ve posted a system review and figured this was a good time to share some Microvision love on the forums. With my system reviews, I try to look at interesting obscure systems that I don’t think the Critic will be covering, and the Microvision seemed to fit the bill. I actually posted some of these reviews on the forums several years ago, but I have since completed my Microvision collection, so I figured it was best to add the new reviews, update old ones, and put everything here in one place.

This is a review of Milton Bradley’s Microvision handheld system from 1979, along with all 12 games (11 U.S. games, and 1 European exclusive). As many of you know, this is generally considered the first handheld gaming system ever released, as it was the first to use interchangeable cartridges. Since this is a system with low interest overall from collectors and retro gamers alike, that also means there's not much info about it on the internet. You can find some details about the system itself...but the individual games? Forget it. I searched for Microvision game recommendations all over the internet when I bought mine and found almost nothing. So, I hope this post helps fill some of that void. Without further ado….

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Photo 1: Microvision with no cartridge inserted (top middle). U.S. style packaging on left, European on right.


SYSTEM: The Microvision is a primitive handheld with a basic 16x16 LCD screen, often considered the first handheld gaming system. The games are like swappable faceplates, that snap onto the front of the system. The Microvision was designed by Jay Smith, who later designed the Vectrex. At the outset, I would say that this system is best considered as just a piece for collectors-- there is nothing compelling about it from a gameplay standpoint. The games are not as awful as you might expect from a 1979 handheld that can only display 16x16 pixels on the screen-- but there are also definitely no "must play" games that I tried. But there were a couple games that were able to occupy my time for over an hour, which I consider a good feat considering my short attention span. And that's better than I can say for the Game.com. The version I got is a later model (from 1980, I think), and I had no issues with it (no screen rot or other common defects). The Microvision had 11 games released for it in the United States, and 1 released exclusively in Europe (Super Blockbuster). None of the U.S. games are particularly rare on ebay, so it's very possible to collect the whole set. Super Blockbuster used to be extremely rare to find on ebay (took me 3 years to find one), but it is suddenly popping up a lot in the past year or so, as new old stock is being sold. Microvision prices are reasonable too-- a system with a set of several games should run you about $50 on eBay at my last check; and most games sell individually for about $10-$15.

Gameplay (D): If you buy a Microvision, it shouldn't be for the games, unless you happened to have one as a kid and have some nostalgic longing to replay it. The games are just too simplistic, and the small 16x16 screen made it quite difficult to produce worthwhile games. While there are a few games that could hold your attention in short spurts, there are no must-play games in the entire library.

Collectibility (C+): I view the Microvision as more of a collector's piece, and, in that sense, it has a lot going for it. Most notably, of course, it has the distinction of being the first handheld video game system. It's also cheap and easy to collect for. No U.S. game is exceedingly rare or expensive. Most games sell for around $10, and even the rarest can be had for under $20 if you’re patient. The system itself is cheap too (my set came with 5 games for $50). On the downside, the desire for this system is low (surely, the simplicity and lack of good games is a key reason) and the system is also prone to technical issues (particularly "screen rot") which makes it more difficult to find and maintain a working system.

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Photo 2: A view of the games under review on my portables shelf, and their colorful artwork.


GAMES: I acquired the U.S. system and games quickly in 2013, but it took me until 2016 to find Super Blockbuster. Don’t be fooled by the numerous name variants for the games. For example, Shooting Star was a game released in Europe, but it’s actually identical to Phaser Strike in the U.S. And while “Forza 4” is an Xbox 360 racing game.. it’s also the title to the Italian version of Connect Four on the Microvision. Yet in France, it’s Puissance 4. You’ll see that my copy of Super Blockbuster is the French version: Super Casse Brique. There are many other examples like this, and it definitely adds confusion for system newcomers.

I've discussed each game below, and placed them in the order of best to worst based on my opinion of them. My idea of "best" was what kept me interested and stayed fun for the longest. I used an A to F grading system, based on the VGC Critic’s scale, scoring each game based on comparison to the rest of the Microvision library (so an “A” game is only an A in comparison to other Microvision games).

[NOTE: Games followed by a (*) mean “Instruction Manual Recommended”. Due to the rudimentary nature of the games, certain ones are very difficult to figure out (sometimes impossible) by trial-and-error. I've marked these with an *, after the letter score. Fortunately, manuals can often be found online in PDF form, if you don't receive one with the game.]

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Photo 3: Super Blockbuster in action.


1. Super Blockbuster (A): A Breakout clone, and a pretty good one at that, especially considering the limitations of this system. Released in 1982, Super Blockbuster was the final Microvision game, and it was only sold in Europe. It was the sequel to Block Buster, the Microvision pack-in title. While Block Buster was your standard Breakout knockoff, Super Blockbuster added a new wrinkle to the formula. Specifically, you have your usual rows on the top of screen to destroy, with the new addition of a row on the bottom of the screen that you must protect. There are no lives and you cannot lose a ball—instead, your game ends when the bottom row is destroyed. This presents the same challenge as Block Buster, but it is a lot more fun because the concept is better, it controls better, and you don’t lose the ball cheaply. It feels a lot fairer as you play, making it easier to progress through a few levels in one game. If there’s one downside, it’s that this is a Europe-only cartridge, and I prefer the button style on the U.S. cartridges more. Regardless, this is as good as it gets on the Microvision - the best game on the system.

2. Alien Raiders (A-) (*): Here we go, the peak of "arcade action" on the Microvision. First, despite the name, this is not a Space Invaders clone (in fact, it's unlikely that the Microvision could handle such a clone). And, while it won't give Space Invaders a run for its money, it's a very good arcade-style diversion nonetheless (at least by Microvision standards). In this game, you control a ship (or laser) on the left side of the screen, and alien raiders fly toward you from the right. The goal is to shoot them before they reach your side and "land", at which point it's game over. But there is more to it than just shooting everything in sight. Your ship attacks with a laser beam rather than bullets, and the laser beam will only hit the raiders if it is adjusted to the perfect length (using the control knob) when you fire it. If the beam is too short, or so long that it goes past the raider's ship, then it will not hit the raider. In this sense, there is some true strategy and skill involved in the game. Things get more difficult as you play longer and the objective is to keep besting your high score.

3. Connect Four (B+): Here’s one of the very few official standalone video game versions of Connect Four ever released (since Milton Bradley also made the board game). It has a two-player mode where you hand the console back and forth between turns. You can also play against the computer. The screen is big enough to fit a whole Connect Four board, so it's just like the real game. It's nothing special, but it is what it claims to be. I liked Connect Four as a kid -- in fact, I was the Connect Four champ in second grade!!, my life's greatest achievement -- so maybe that's part of my high score for it here. Only bad thing is that sometimes it can be hard to differentiate your pieces from your opponent's on the screen, especially as the board fills up.

4. Mindbuster (B) (*): This is a puzzle game, most similar in gameplay to Lights Out (the Tiger handheld, also released on Game.com). Mindbuster has two different game modes. One is very easy and the other is very challenging. It'd be nice if there was a middle ground. The game randomly generates puzzles that you try to solve. The more challenging mode kept me busy for a long while trying to solve its puzzles. But I actually don't think I was ever able to solve any of those. Still had fun trying, at least for a little while.

5. Sea Duel (B-) (*): The amount of depth to this game is surprising, and it's by far the deepest game on the Microvision. This is a turn-based strategy game out on the open seas, where one player controls a submarine and the other controls a navy destroyer (either 2 players or versus the CPU). Each player takes a turn moving their ship around the grid and selecting which direction to fire. Then, once both sides have locked in their moves, the actions plays out simultaneously on screen (Milton Bradley even has a fancy name for it -- "Multiple Simultaneous Movement"). The result is that you never know where your opponent will be when your ship fires. So if you shoot where your opponent is currently, there is a chance that he actually moved his ship elsewhere during his turn, but you won't see that until the simultaneous action plays out afterward. Thus, there is a lot of strategy and thinking involved here, as you try to outsmart your opponent with your movements and predicting where he will be when you fire. Think of it like a more active, fluid version of Battleship. I have seen at least one reviewer on another site call this the best game on Microvision -- to me, the pace is a little too plodding for my old school gaming tastes, but with the amount of depth here and a worthy human opponent, I could easily see some people finding this game deserving of a full letter grade higher.

6. Block Buster (B-): Block Buster is essentially a dumbed-down version of Breakout, fit to the Microvision. It also was packaged with every new Microvision back in the day, meaning it’s common and easy to find. I originally gave this game an A- years ago, but playing Super Blockbuster made me realize the error of my ways. Block Buster could be much better. Its biggest downfall is its cheap and frustrating gameplay, hampered by imprecise controls and a ball that does whatever it wants. On the hardest setting (fast speed and a one-pixel long paddle), the game is impossible and unplayable. But on the easiest setting (slow and three-pixel paddle), it's still very challenging, but it also can be fun and addictive. You can choose from 1-9 balls, and it generally makes sense to choose 9 because the game can be cheap and you lose some of those balls when you shouldn't. Just beating the first level is an accomplishment on the easiest settings, with 9 balls. I spent about an hour or so before finally beating that level, having a "just one more game" mentality the whole time. Actually got so caught up in it, that I ended up a few minutes late to work one day. However, once I beat the first level, I didn't think I could make it through another level, so my brief addiction ended. But, flaws aside, that brief addiction is enough to earn you a B- in Microvision world.

7. Baseball (C) (*): I expected this game to be awful (I couldn't picture baseball being good on a 16x16 screen), but it's not half bad in short spurts. It's actually more like "Home Run Derby" than a full baseball game, because there is no fielding. The ball comes from the pitcher's mound, and you swing the paddle (i.e., your "bat") to hit the ball. Depending on where and how far the ball flies, you'll either get out or hit a single, double, triple, or home run. You go through 9 innings of this. Eventually it gets boring though, as it gets too easy to score once you get past the learning curve (but in a two player mode perhaps it would be better). [An instruction manual is highly recommended with this game, because it is very difficult to figure out the swing mechanism without it.]

8. Bowling (C-): This game is alright for a few games of bowling. The problem, though, is that it's too simplistic so it gets boring pretty fast (even with 2 players). There are ten pins at the top of the screen. Your ball moves back and forth at the bottom of the screen. Timing it just right, you press a button to "release" the ball and it goes towards the pins and knocks down a certain amount depending on where you aimed. Woohoo.

9. Cosmic Hunter (D+) (*): One of the last-released games for the system, so it's one of the harder to find. If you can't find it, you're not missing much. In this game, you're supposedly on an alien planet. You are a dot on the screen (the "hunter") chasing another dot around the screen (an "alien", I think). You have to catch the alien. You can only catch the alien from 2 pixels away -- if you are 3 pixels away then you're too far, and if you're 1 pixel away then the alien eats you. So you have to maneuver yourself 2 pixels away and then press the capture button with perfect timing to catch it. The game keeps your score, which is 1 point per alien caught. There is a little bit of strategy involved, in terms of chasing the alien down and cornering it in areas to set up the captures, because the playing field is a bit maze-like. Give it credit for creativity, but overall, it's just about as lame as it sounds. The game might be more exciting and strategic if there were ever multiple aliens on the screen at once instead of just one, but I don't think that happens.

10. Vegas Slots (D-): Now here's a Microvision game your Great Uncle Fred would love. It reminds me of those cheesy $10 slot and poker handheld games that you used to see old people sitting in their recliner playing for hours on end. I never understood the point of simulated gambling games and, of all the gambling games to simulate, I can't imagine one more boring than slots. The fun of slots is the thrill of winning money; take that out of the equation and your left with some sort of lame matching game (where the actual matching is totally out of your control). That being said, if you want a slot simulator, this game works as advertised. The graphics are crude, but it gets the job done. The "highlight" -- if we can call it that -- is the two-player mode, which is comprised of a couple unique slot-based games, including one where you "bank" your winnings as you go along but you lose anything you didn't bank if you get two cherries, and first to 100 points wins. In this way, at least there is some strategy and an objective involved in the 2-player games.

11. Star Trek Phaser Strike [later released on just "Phaser Strike"] (D-): This game is pointless. You control a gun at the bottom of the screen (a ship perhaps, I don't know). Then pixels fly from left to right or right to left across the screen above you (perhaps these pixels are enemy ships.. no one really knows), and you must aim and time your shots right to shoot them. That's it.. shoot the horizontally-moving pixels for points. Very lame. Just stick to Alien Raiders for shooting action.

12. Pinball (F): The lamest, dumbest Microvision game of them all. Which is sad, because Pinball just sounds like a game that would have potential on this system. In this game, you do not get 2 flippers like normal pinball. Instead, you have a paddle at the bottom of the screen (like Breakout or Block Buster). In the field of play, there are four circles that you pretend are bumpers -- and that's it, just four stupid bumpers, that's the whole "pinball machine". So you move your stupid paddle along the bottom of the screen, and use it to hit the stupid ball, and it bounces around the screen, and hopefully hits the stupid bumpers. It keeps your score, which is 1 point for each bumper you hit. This game is incredibly dumb; if you want to use a paddle to hit balls at things, play Block Buster or its sequel, which are much better games. I don't know if Pinball is actually the worst Microvision game, but playing it infuriates me so much that I can't imagine it being in any other spot.



THE END:
So that's all, finally. I know this info is sort of useless for most gamers, but I hope it's helpful to the one other guy in the world who decides to buy a Microvision! And at least informative for the rest. I'm glad I got one, if for no other reason than that it's the first handheld system. I really like the boxes for display too, very big and attractive. But overall I can't recommend it if you're only interested in gaming.

If anyone feels different on any of these games or has any questions or anything to add, please feel free-- I'd be interested to hear!

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scotland
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Re: MICROVISION (1979) - World’s First Handheld System - Review of System and All 12 Games

Postby scotland » February 10th, 2018, 6:58 am

I'd like to also point to this thread as a companion piece
http://videogamecritic.com/forums/viewtopic.php?f=134793&t=12180&hilit=microvision

As some background, you should consider the Microvision relative to what it was competing with at the time - the handhelds of companies like Mattel, Coleco, Tandy, Tomy, Bandai, Bambino, and many many others. It was a lot like the 1st generation of video game consoles with the huge number of manufacturers, some putting out near identical units.

There is a fun website called the electronic handheld game museum here
http://www.handheldmuseum.com/

You'll notice Milton Bradley does have an entry here. The big thing they did was Simon, which was a respectable fad around 1978. The year they released Microvision they also released the Big Trak, a sort of computerized toy truck, that was heavily promoted for Christmas around this time.

I have a bunch of these handhelds, and if you enjoy them for what they are, many are quite fun. You can see technology changing swiftly here too, pre-electronic games that work on coil springs, to Mattel starting it with LED Auto Race and Football, to other display technologies like VFD (very bright - think of those clocks where every number is lit up parts of an 8) to LCD. LCD would eventually win out, but oddly, there is a lot to recommend the earlier much brighter display technologies.

Nintendo's Game and Watch, with LCD screens, came out in 1980 and still fetch handsome prices on the secondary market. Many of us probably had the Tiger electronics games too.

The Microvision really is an anomaly. While consoles turned hard to being systems with interchangeable games, handhelds stayed dedicated units for much longer.

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Re: MICROVISION (1979) - World’s First Handheld System - Review of System and All 12 Games

Postby scotland » February 10th, 2018, 7:33 am

Thanks for the nice review!

So, its a 16 x 16 LCD Screen? Some of the LED games also have swappable faceplates to play a variety of games. Its not swapping cartridges though - you just toggle a switch to change the logic slightly. I have one with football / soccer / basketball and one other (its promoted as 4-in-1).

Alien Raiders, using the knob, sounds creative. Most games like this you shoot bullets, but this is neat to have the adjustable length.

Sea Duel also sounds neat. There is a thematically similar Mattel Game, called Sub Hunt. Its unusual in that you rely mostly on auditory clues (sonar).

I have a baseball handheld that is a lot like a Homerun Derby idea, and it also uses a small LCD screen to form full screen pixelated images of the pitcher, etc.

Bowling sounds very similar to Odyssey 2 bowling, minus the single curve feature. Odd in that the Microvision has that knob, so I thought it would allow some spin on the ball on release.

Vegas Slots - hey, I used to play battery operated Blackjack and 5 card poker games as a kid! In a recliner. It was my grandfather's recliner.

Sorry to hear the Star Trek game is so lame, as I think its the systems most high profile game due to the license.

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Retro STrife
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Re: MICROVISION (1979) - World’s First Handheld System - Review of System and All 12 Games

Postby Retro STrife » February 10th, 2018, 1:47 pm

scotland wrote:I'd like to also point to this thread as a companion piece
http://videogamecritic.com/forums/viewtopic.php?f=134793&t=12180&hilit=microvision


Thanks, scotland. I thought about adding that link as well, but figured my post was too long already. But yes, that topic was started by me in 2013, back before I bought my Microvision (and back when I was posting under the name "PSX"), and it sort of follows along as I gathered information, acquired the games, and reviewed them over time. Now that I finally got Super Blockbuster, I figured I'd re-do it as a Reader Review post here, rather than reviving that old thread. Would have been much messier that way.


scotland wrote:As some background, you should consider the Microvision relative to what it was competing with at the time - the handhelds of companies like Mattel, Coleco, Tandy, Tomy, Bandai, Bambino, and many many others. It was a lot like the 1st generation of video game consoles with the huge number of manufacturers, some putting out near identical units.


Good points, and always good to get your insights from that time period, as it was before my time. I'll collect just about any video game console, computer, or handheld, as long as it's a "system" - regardless of time period or quality - but I have never gotten into standalone handhelds and don't know too much about them. Just had to draw the line somewhere. I do have a Tomytronic 3D game, just because the concept seemed cool. And a few of the Tiger handhelds. But despite being outside my area, I like learning about these things. And that handheld museum website is a great resource. Plus, you never know when one will pique my interest like the Tomytronic 3D did.

Speaking of which, side note... despite also being outside my area, I had to take you up on your recommendation of getting the Atari Video Pinball pong unit. I've had it laying around for a few weeks now, but plan to try it as soon as I can. It was listed on ebay as "untested" though, so hopefully it works.

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Re: MICROVISION (1979) - World’s First Handheld System - Review of System and All 12 Games

Postby Retro STrife » February 10th, 2018, 2:08 pm

scotland wrote:Thanks for the nice review!


Thanks for reading! It's a long read so I figured that, at best, people might read a few parts and skip around. Looks like you even read about each game! Appreciate it.

scotland wrote:So, its a 16 x 16 LCD Screen?


Yes, very primitive LCD screen. As you can see in the Super Blockbuster screenshot above, 16x16 literally means that developers had to use 16 dots across and 16 down. Not much to work with. I'm impressed that they made 12 games out of it! The screen was also prone to "screen rot" and other technical issue, but I've been fortunate that mine still works well.

scotland wrote:Alien Raiders, using the knob, sounds creative. Most games like this you shoot bullets, but this is neat to have the adjustable length.


Yes and this strategic element is what puts it above and beyond Star Trek Phaser Strike, which is your more standard "just shoot bullets" kind of game. "Just shoot bullets" can be fine on some classic systems, but it's not fun on a 16x16 screen.

scotland wrote:Vegas Slots - hey, I used to play battery operated Blackjack and 5 card poker games as a kid! In a recliner. It was my grandfather's recliner.


Sounds like we have similar memories... My memory that led to that review came from watching my uncle sit in his recliner and play those games for hours. I never understood the appeal!

scotland wrote:Sorry to hear the Star Trek game is so lame, as I think its the systems most high profile game due to the license.


Yeah, it definitely got me hoping that it'd be decent. Of course, there's no correlation to the TV show, besides the name.
You'll also find that the game later sold as just "Phaser Strike"... I don't know the backstory, but they somehow lost the license at some point.

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Re: MICROVISION (1979) - World’s First Handheld System - Review of System and All 12 Games

Postby scotland » February 10th, 2018, 3:45 pm

As to that Atari Video Pinball, I think buying 'untested' was a decent bet here. I think most ebay sellers under 35 wouldn't know what to do with the output cable. It may need a little cleaning about the analog knob too. A bit of ghosting is normal, as the paddle is not a crisp hardware sprite, or at least thats my experience.

Hope it works and you enjoy it. Let us know.

And I totally get needing to draw a line about collecting stuff. The dedicated handhelds are neat in that its hard to experience them otherwise, and I have even found the modern vefsions of Mattel Football and Baseball are not the same at all. The timing, the lighting, the plastic allowing the light to bleed through....just not the same and not as fun. I try to stick with units that use old 9 volts.

I posted a review of one or two of those over the year, maybe you've inspired me to review another.

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Re: MICROVISION (1979) - World’s First Handheld System - Review of System and All 12 Games

Postby Sut » February 10th, 2018, 4:37 pm

Great post RetroSTrife, really enjoyed reading it.
Is this thing emulated or simulated ?
I’m not interested enough to buy one but would pass some time on an emulator.

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Re: MICROVISION (1979) - World’s First Handheld System - Review of System and All 12 Games

Postby Stalvern » February 10th, 2018, 6:12 pm

Sut wrote:Is this thing emulated or simulated ?
I’m not interested enough to buy one but would pass some time on an emulator.

It is!
Last edited by Stalvern on April 2nd, 2018, 5:47 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: MICROVISION (1979) - World’s First Handheld System - Review of System and All 12 Games

Postby VideoGameCritic » February 10th, 2018, 8:59 pm

This review is so thorough and well written I'm thinking about giving it its own page, with full credit to guest reviewer Retro Strife of course. It's doubtful I'd ever review this system and I'd hate to see all this useful info buried in the forums. Can we get some screen shots? I think that's the only thing missing.

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Re: MICROVISION (1979) - World’s First Handheld System - Review of System and All 12 Games

Postby goldenband » February 10th, 2018, 9:53 pm

Funny that this (very good) thread comes along just as Microvision screen replacement efforts have suddenly gathered steam:

http://atariage.com/forums/topic/275386 ... hase-here/

Thanks to random good luck, I own two Microvisions and a complete set of US games CIB. I keep meaning to play it more, especially Sea Duel. I've found that the controls noticeably improve when the cartridges are cleaned well (!), but they're still a bit jittery, at least on my main system. IIRC the screens on both systems are rather dim too.


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