Is It A Game? Or A Calculator?

If you are a certain age, you probably remember the Mattel Football game. No LCD screen or fancy cartridges. Just some LEDs and a way to play football when you should be in class. While these might seem primitive to today’s kids, they were marvels of technology in the 1970s when they came out. [Sean Riddle] looks, well, not exactly at the games, but more like in them. As it turns out, they used chips derived from those made for calculators.

[Sean’s] post is a glimpse into this world of over four decades past. Football was actually the second electronic game from Mattel. The first one was Auto Race. There were also games called Space Alert, Baseball, and Gravity. Inside each are quad in-line packages with 42 pins, a Rockwell logo, and a custom part number.

The analysis led [Sean] to buy several games along with Rockwell calculators and microcontrollers. By decapping the ICs in each, he was able to note the similarities and differences between the old processors. There were also patent filings that had key information, along with donated source and object code and an interview with the designer of several of the games.

In a classic case of a bad computer model, Mattel made 100,000 Football games which were sold by Sears and Roebuck. Sears sold a few and used a computer model to predict that Football and Auto Race would not be big sellers, so production stopped. However, the game was a runaway success, selling up to 500,000 units a week, according to the article in the Handheld Museum.

If you haven’t had the pleasure of seeing a state-of-the-art 1977 Football game, check out the video from [The Retro Future] below. Mattel even made a personal computer back in the day. Milton Bradley was in the game, too, with their programmable Big Trak.

27 thoughts on “Is It A Game? Or A Calculator?

  1. There was a lot of creativity that went into these devices in the 70’s, given the crude and expensive chips and the manufacturing technologies available.

    I had adult friends who owned BigTraks and the Mattel football game and they thought that these things represented amazing technology. Well, it was at the time!

        1. Its gonna be RP2040, its the only chip I know of available and on such an advanced node it can be made dirt cheap. Also the programmable IO logic can really make it do crazy stuff.

  2. Sean decapped and looked into these games as part of a years-long push to document and emulate as many of these LCD, LED, and VFD-based games in MAME as possible, and as soon as he had worked out this info, it was provided to the MAME team, at which point it was emulated in short order.

    Sean has been pivotal, also, in ensuring that every single Nintendo Game & Watch game is now documented and preserved through MAME, as well as the acid-decapping of countless other microcontroller-based LCD handhelds, and tack-soldering wires onto epoxy-blobbed TV plug-and-play games in order to get their contents dumped, too.

    I’m a little surprised that how hand-in-hand Sean and MAME are, to not see it mentioned anywhere in the article, Al.

    1. I guess people don’t like doing basic research on the item they are demonstrating.

      Could be worse, at least it isn’t someone complaining about how to use a n64 controller or not reading directions.

    1. Why would you use a simulator when you can literally *emulate* this and countless other LED, VFD, and LCD handhelds and tabletops from the 70’s/80’s in MAME? That was the main reason why Sean was digging into this in the first place.

  3. 15 wasted minutes later… and an angry scroll-back-through…

    Ohhh, I get it… this post was a test to see who clicks through the links rather’n just skipping to the vid.

    Well played, sir.

  4. Interesting. The Game and Watch handhelds came around 1980 and were based on calculator silicon from Sharp, i think. I thought G&W were first, but apparently Mattel were using calculator silicon as early as 1977.

    Both Mattel’s and G&W games were too expensive, but very desirable.

  5. MB Electronics (Milton Bradley) had Vectrex, an all-in-one vector graphics with X-Y magnetic deflection CRT about 1980. Vectrex had a fairly decent Asteriods game in ROM and an analog joystick controller. There were a handful of other cartridge games and supposedly a BASIC interpreter too. One of the 9-pin ports could drive a very rare to find set of LCD shutter goggles for 3D effects. I still have a Vectrex in a closet.

    Back in the day I bought ten Vectrexes from Children’s Palace when they were being remaindered for $39. I just disabled the 6809 processor board and CRT blanking that would save the phosphor if the CPU crashed and stopped scanning the display. I used Vectrex CRTs as displays instead of expensive oscilloscopes on Apple ][ workstations in a biology lab. It was pretty successful, the lady at Children’s Palace asked why I wanted so many Vectrexes and gave me a very funny look when I explained what I was going to use them for.

  6. “amazing that they managed to do so much with so little back then.”

    To an age where it takes 4gb JUST to run the OS
    (looking at you windoze)
    I remember my 1st HDD, it was 10mb and I thought
    “I will never fill that up” :) hahahaha

    1. I saw my first 1GB HDD on the physics department PC while I was in college. I thought “what an absurd waste of my tuition money” (at the time I was making do with government surplus MFM 20GB drives at home) — then I noticed that the drive was almost full with logged data from student experiments.

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