Thursday, August 24, 2017

Basic Fun for Retro Gamers - The Stealth Invasion of the Mini-Arcades

In the late 1970s, the handheld electronic game was born with Mattel Auto Race.  More games like Football, Baseball, Basketball and Soccer followed and they were successful. These games ran on a microcontroller and used red LEDs to represent objects.  Companies like Nintendo followed up with the Game & Watch series, which could display much more detailed objects using monochromatic, fixed-pattern LCD displays.  Coleco provided innovation in its mini-arcade games using Vacuum Fluorescent Display (VFD) technology, allowing for color displays that could be viewed in the dark. Milton Bradley introduced the first handheld system with programmable cartridges in 1979 with the Microvision.

The Microvision had the advantage of having individually addressable pixels instead of fixed patterns, but at 16x16 pixels the types of games it could play was extremely limited.  The Game and Watch series and later, cheaper handhelds like the Tiger Electronics' games survived long after Milton Bradley and Coleco got out of the gaming market.  1989's Game Boy, with its 160x144 resolution screen, programmable microprocessor, PPU and APU and 16KB of RAM made the fixed-screen LCD games obsolete.  When the Atari Lynx introduced color and backlighting later that year, not even the color VFD units could compete.  But we are not here to talk about the programmable consoles today, today we are going to take a look at more modern, fixed LCD games released by a company called The Bridge Direct under its Basic Fun brand label.

Under the Basic Fun label, The Bridge Direct sells many kinds of toys, mainly recreations or updates of older toys that were once very successful like Lite-Brite and Strawberry Shortcake.  Original inspiration is not the forte of Basic Fun, but unlike Dormitus Brands (formerly River West Brands), they actually make products to sell.  In 2016 it began releasing interesting little mini-arcade handheld video games in stores.  These were not Basic Fun's first handheld video games.  They had previously released recreations of Mattel's Football, Baseball and Basketball and also mini carabiner versions of Breakout, Space Invaders and Frogger.  The first game in the series was Pac-Man, and since then they have released Space Invaders, Centipede, Q*Bert, Asteroids, Frogger and Pac-Man Color.

The evolution of the series has been unusual.  The first Pac-Man used a non-backlit monochrome LCD screen.  The screen's reflective layer reminds me squarely of a Game Boy.  Space Invaders uses the same type of screen.  These are the only two games profiled on The Bridge Direct's website.  But then things get interesting and weird.  Centipede uses a color backlit TFT screen with individually addressable pixels, not patterns.  It appears to run the Atari 7800 version of the game as recreated by a&nbspNintendo-on-a-Chip.  Q*Bert runs the NES version originally released by Konami.  Frogger looks like a port of the Sega Genesis version.  But Asteroids used a backlit fixed-pattern screen as did the color version of Pac-Man.  There are also fixed-pattern releases of Centipede, Q*Bert and Frogger.

One of the best features of these devices is the box and packaging.  Every game can be found in a box with a number, 01-07.  These boxes have a flap and are taped closed, so they can be put on a shelf without having to damage the box to get to the game.  The boxes may or may not be exclusive to Walmart, but the TFT games are exclusive.

The fixed-image versions of the games can also be found in Blister packs.  The fixed-image versions of Centipede, Q*Bert and Frogger are only available in the Blister pack and do not have numbers on them.  All fixed-image games use more flat enclosure style compared to the post-Space Invaders boxed games.  The flatter image made perfect sense for the non-backlit units, where the overhang on the top of the unit tends to block the ambient light needed to see the screen.
All units have an On/Off switch, a speaker volume (with three levels) and a single speaker on the bottom of the enclosure.  One of the big draws of these units is the use of authentic arcade sounds in place of the single-channel square wave beepers found on older handheld games.  Each game has a joystick and one or two play buttons.  There is also a reset button on the back of each unit and every game has a demo mode that is deactivated by pulling out a plastic slip.

The units themselves are very attractive in their arcade-cabinet like enclosures.  These enclosures tend to use the original coloring found on the true arcade cabinets, yellow for Pac-Man, blue for Space Invaders white for Centipede but no wood-grain for Frogger :(  Characters tend to be updated, so Pac-Man does not have the classic Midway-look.

Here is a list of games with display type and box number :

Game Title Display Type Box Number
Pac-Man Monochrome Fixed 01
Space Invaders Monochrome Fixed 02
Centipede TFT Color Backlit 03
Q*bert TFT Color Backlit 04
Asteroids Mono Back-Lit Fixed 05
Frogger TFT Color Backlit 06
Pac-Man Color Backlit Fixed 07
Frogger Color Backlit Fixed
Q*bert Color Backlit Fixed
Centipede Color Backlit Fixed

The TFT games are the most interesting, technologically speaking.  Basic Fun probably found Konami to be more approachable to license its version of Q*Bert for the NES than Nintendo was to license HAL Labratory's version of Millipede for the NES.  Q*Bert has all in-game references to Konami omitted and uses a blank "Loading............................." screen where you would originally select the controller style.  Plus, Centipede for the 7800, as simulated by NES hardware, had already been released for the original Atari Flashback, which used a Nintendo-on-a-Chip.

Frogger is an interesting case.  Frogger was never released for the NES during its lifetime, but there is the homebrew game Ultimate Frogger Championship by KHAN games.  The game being played on the Frogger TFT mini-arcade does not look particularly like the version from KHAN games.  Basic Fun may have had to subcontract this version out.  When Konami originally made Frogger, it used music from more than anime series.  As a result, modern versions of Frogger use alternate or altered music.  In the Basic Fun units, both the fixed-LCD and TFT versions, Basic Fun appears to have tried to sidestep any copyright issues by altering most of the music so that it plays in a different pitch or key.  Bars from songs like Yankee Doodle Dandy are not affected, since that song hails from 1904.

Let me end this blog entry by comparing the earliest Basic Fun unit with the latest.  Since these are both Pac-Man, this makes the comparison easier.  The earlier Pac-Man uses the monochromatic screen with fixed patterns.  Its controls are ambidextrous.  It provides two games, the first is regular Pac-Man.  The second has no dots except the power pellets, which you have to collect and then return to the ghost trap.  The screen has a red overlay that outlines the maze.

The later Pac-Man makes several improvements over the older.  The enclosure is in the newer style and uses black as well as yellow plastic, which ties into the arcade.  The joystick panel labels are closer to the real arcade as well.  You are now given three lives instead of the two the mono unit gave you.  It also takes 3xAA batteries vs. the 2xAA batteries of the older units.

The biggest difference is the screen.  The new Pac-Man uses a color screen with red, yellow, blue and white, even though the patterns are fixed.  You can play the new Pac-Man in the dark without any ambient light.  You cannot play the old Pac-Man without an external light source.  There is a backlight behind the LCD that looks similar to the Game Boy backlight upgrades.  A translucent overlay provides the color, the LCD behind it twists and untwists to let the white light through.  It is a cheap method to get color but vastly more energy efficient compared to the VFD display used in the Coleco Pac-Man.  The Coleco Pac-Man mini-Arcade used 4xC batteries.  One downside of the translucent overlay method of color is that the color can vary by viewing angle and it is easier to see the inactive patterns.

There are 72 pellets in Basic Fun's Pac-Man Units.  By a likely coincidence, Coleco's Pac-Man has 71 pellets (the 72nd would be in Pac-Man's starting position).  Coleco's ghosts have eyes, Basic Fun's do not.  On the other hand, Coleco's ghosts show the Pac-Man image when they are active and lose it when they are scared.  Basic Fun's ghosts flicker when they are scared.  Another similarity is that Game 2 of the Basic Fun is identical to the Eat & Run of the Coleco machine.  But the Coleco machine has a two-player head-to-head mode and a second joystick to match.  The Coleco game has a Skill 1 and Skill 2 switch and you can easily set the game into demo mode.  But its sounds are very loud and there is no volume switch or automatic shut-off.

The last thing that should be addressed is the joystick.  The joystick on the color Pac-Man has plastic to make it a 4-way joystick.  There was nothing to prevent you from pushing the joystick diagonally on the mono Pac-Man or Space Invaders joysticks.  This requires more of a deliberate motion to move Pac-Man on the color machine, but when the direction is pushed, you can be assured that Pac-Man will go in that direction.  It can be more difficult for an adult's hands than a child's hands to do.  Whether you would go in the direction you pressed was always somewhat up in the air for the mono Pac-Man machine.  The other games like Centipede, Q*Bert, Asteroids and Frogger also have a 4-way joystick indentation.  Q*Bert has its joystick rotated 45 degrees to match the arcade game, which is a nice touch.

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