During the early ‘80s, two revolutionary gaming systems designed by Jay Smith III and sold by Milton Bradley (MB) hit the French schoolyards: the Microvision and the Vectrex. I was really in the computers and programming at the time, so I never begged my parents to gift me any of them. Nonetheless, I was exposed to them, and 42 years later, I own them all. If I often posted about the Vectrex here, I never mentioned the Microvision. I will fix this today.
The first time I saw the Microvision, it felt like a revolution. Just think about it. You could play on the move; it used a gorgeous monochrome LCD (16 x 16 pixels), and you could change games at any time. I am sure that the guy showing it off is a big brass in a bank today. He allowed us to play a few games – I played breakout – and he charged us ~25c per game. A real businessman!
Microvision was a revolution. So much that Nintendo game designers and engineers (Satoru Okada and Gunpei Yokoi) confessed it inspired them the concept of the Game Boy and the Game & Watch games! The design of the Microvision was original indeed. It contained the LCD, its controller, and 64 bytes of RAM, and a 2KB ROM provided the code. You certainly notice I didn’t mention at all the CPU, right? That’s because there was none. Instead, the CPU – really a microcontroller – was in the game cartridges themselves. Each one had its CPU (Intel 8021 originally and TMS 1100 later). Fun fact, the battery compartment has a capacity for two 9V batteries: the one used and one space. Well, the spare was initially required to power the Intel-powered games. Later on, it became a spare battery holder.
You may wonder why I didn’t write about Microvision. That’s because they are almost all failing four decades after they were manufactured. The biggest issue is the LCD rot. The same problem is known as the black oil in the Tandy and Sharp early pocket computers. Indeed, the technology was nascent back then, and impurities and other defects doomed the precious display. The other well-known issues are real but not always present (ESD damage, keyboard membrane, physical destruction, etc.). That’s it. The cartridges are rock solid, and you can still find them for a reasonable price. But that may change, as replacement LCDs are available today! So now is the time to grab them up and fix them before they become unaffordable.
I bought my replacement screens on eBay (here). Wao, the price almost tripled already when I checked today. The repair is straightforward and can be done in less than an hour the first time. Note that there is a replacement model with an embedded backlight. Installing this one requires altering the console. I am considering doing the surgery on one of my Microvision. Still, I hesitate as the original was not backlit, and I try keeping my systems original (or making only reversible changes).
There was a whopping dozen of games available. Depending on the market, their name and color scheme differ. The console came at least with Block Buster. Now, remember, we were in 1979-1981, and the gamer’s imagination was greatly solicited to make 16 x 16 pixels represent a spaceship or a submarine. But because of the console’s design, various and evocative frontends were created, making the Microvision a fun pocket – big pocket through – console.
The Microvision is quite big (24 x 9 x 3 cm), which makes using the paddle – a potentiometer – and a subset of the twelve buttons entirely usable when holding it with both hands. Some game cartridges used actual buttons, whereas others just a membrane. The latter design aged less well. Interestingly, Star Trek: Phaser Strike was renamed Phaser Strike (dropping the forbidden Star Trek). The games are still easy to find, but their price is on the rise too.
Have a fantastic WE; I will now shoot at a few Klingon Bird-of-Prey😊