The Milton Bradley Microvision is the Game Boy's Grandpa.
Updated: Jan 18, 2022
In this entry, we're going to look at a video game system which should have more of a public awareness, if only because its legacy has been usurped by the Nintendo Game Boy. An ambitious piece of equipment, the Milton Bradley Microvision was probably too innovative for its time, and quickly faded into obscurity. Compounding its fleeting lifespan, Microvision systems haven't aged well, and are difficult to find in working condition. Yes, the Microvision has suffered a one-two punch in the gut of nostalgia, and Retro Injection is doing its part to give the spawn of MB some much-needed love.
Below is my Microvision, complete with box. I picked it up at our Salvation Army Family Store, around 2009. With the possible exception of worthless PlayStation 2 sports titles, I can't remember the last time I saw anything video game-related there, but it's a still a great source for cassette tapes. The poor console has languished in my basement, never receiving any attention... until today.
Let's see if this baby still fires up.
According to the box, the Microvision takes two 9V batteries, but mine is the revised design, which needs only one. By this point in its production, the internals had been reworked to prevent the overheating which occurred in early Microvisions, when one battery was installed backwards. To save on production costs, Milton Bradley never revised the plastic mold; Microvision owners could use the additional space for storing a second battery (or anything else that would fit). Note the lack of terminals on the right side:
Could I have an elusive, functional Microvision?
I got some beeping, and it looked promising it first, but I have screen rot (more on that later). The game isn't playable. I'll just tell myself that it might have worked when I bought it ten years ago, so I don't feel like I wasted the... three bucks? Whatever.
Released in November of 1979, the Microvision was the first handheld game system to utilize interchangeable cartridges, almost a full decade before Nintendo's Game Boy. Unlike the Game Boy's 1,049 released titles spanning twelve years, the Microvision would receive a paltry twelve games (all published by Milton Bradley), to be discontinued in the United States in 1981 and in Europe in 1982. European gamers got one exclusive game in Super Block Buster, a revamp of the Breakout clone which was shipped with the Microvision.
The console's design may seem strange, but there was no precedent: The Microvision contains no CPU! Each cartridge, which served as the faceplate for the overall unit, carries its own brains. The remainder of the system provides a means to view the action and control the game, courtesy of its liquid crystal display and a single knob. Note the tab at the top of the cartridge, which slides into the contacts on the console.
The Microvsion's LCD screen was a radical improvement over what had been the industry standard of light-emitting diode (LED) portable games, most famous of which is Mattel's 1977 entry, Electronic Football. Ironically, LED football games are still being produced by Basic Fun, and the game is even available as a smartphone app.
The closest thing I have to the Mattel game is this Tandy Championship Football. I have no idea how to play it, but dig those lights. It's like a little Christmas tree.
These days, it's tricky to find a functional Microvision. The screen on the console has become notorious for its high failure rate. The rudimentary, er, pioneering construction used on the LCD allowed air to seep in, and resulted in the rotting of the screen. Even if you can find a Microvision with a working display, you might still have problems playing a game, due to its buttons having a tendency to break. This issue resulted from the membrane buttons activating upon release. It caused confusion for players, who would press the buttons with a greater degree of force, thinking the system wasn't registering their commands. The buttons thus took some beatings, and suffered premature failure. Also, the cartridges could easily be shorted out by the normal, low- voltage levels contained within the human body. And if someone was packing higher-than-normal voltage, like what you could pick up from walking across the carpet, it could actually short out the system. I consider mine working at all to be a small miracle.
The Microvision's biggest claim to fame may be its cameos in 1981's Friday the 13th Part 2. The console is never mentioned by name, and the "Football" and "Hockey" cartridges are fictitious. (The actual games are Block Buster and Connect Four.) You could make an argument for the hockey reference being foreshadowing, as Jason would receive his signature look in the next sequel, but that's a coincidence: The iconic mask would be the result of a lazy special effects crew!
Like so many camp counselors, the Microvision would be nearing the end of its life by this film's release. I remember freaking out over seeing the big-screen debut of my little-known system, even then dwelling in its subterranean lair.