Handheld Classics: Retro Roundup

Takin' it back to the old school

Handheld Classics: Retro Roundup

As part of our Handheld Classics and Nintendo's Portable History series we've delved deep into the history of transportable gaming to give you the low-down on systems such as the Game Boy, Atari Lynx, Bandai WonderSwan and Nintendo Game & Watch.

With this one-off special we're going even deeper undercover to investigate some of the more obscure entries in the portable pantheon.

Rose-tinted specs at the ready.

TomyTronic 3D

Japanese toy manufacturer Tomy was somewhat prolific when it came to producing electronic handheld games, and the TomyTronic 3D is probably the most famous of them all.

If you're over the age of 25 then chances are you had one of these bad boys when you were a nipper and can still remember the rigmarole of finding a decent light source to play under (the games relied on external illumination to light their LED displays).

Presenting the kind of three dimensional visuals that Nintendo would later try to replicate at a greater cost (and with much less commercial success) with its Virtual Boy console, TomyTronic 3D came in a wide range of different flavours.

UK gamers will probably recall Shark Attack (pretty self-explanatory), Sky Attack (looked like a scene from Tron), Planet Zeon (a Star Wars rip-off complete with copycat X-Wing fighter) and Thundering Turbo (pretty bog-standard racing title).

However, in its homeland the device was even more popular and Japanese kids were even gifted movie tie-ins; Shark Attack was subtly re-branded as Jaws 3D there.

Grandstand Scramble

Not to be confused with Konami's arcade hit of the same name, this is easily one of the most instantly recognisable table-top LED games ever produced.

Grandstand's horizontally-scrolling shooter is actually a re-branded version of a game called Astro Command, produced by Japanese firm Epoch. In fact, the vast majority of Grandstand's titles were actually created by other companies and were simply licensed for distribution in other territories - the UK included.

Although this game was a little too bulky to be considered truly portable (it was intended for table top use), a more mobile edition was created in the shape of Scramble Pocket, an LCD version that skilfully aped the technology showcased by Nintendo's burgeoning Game & Watch range.

Both variants were insanely popular here in the UK and are fairly easy to track down for a reasonable price these days.

Palitoy Pocketeers

Another case of Tomy licensing out its product to other companies, the Pocketeers were handheld games from the '70s that didn't actually feature LED or LCD technology. Instead they were largely mechanical, with many of the games sporting wind-up motors to power the action.

Other games in the series involved relatively mundane tasks such as guiding metal balls into holes, but the real beauty of these games is that they were pocket-sized and entirely self-contained - encased in plastic, there was no chance of any of the parts going missing, and this added immeasurably to their appeal. The also didn't require batteries, which was a bonus for those kids with a limited amount of pocket money.


At first sight this appears to be a shameless rip-off of what is arguably Namco's most famous coin-op but it's worth noting that while the game went under the name MunchMan here in the UK (with Grandstand handling the distribution duties), it was actually released with official blessing in other parts of the world.

It's not a perfect representation of the arcade original (the play area is 'squashed' in order to fit on the LED display) but the action is surprisingly faithful. The incredible popularity of Pac-Man ensured that Tomy made a pretty penny out of this title and if you have nostalgic memories of playing this as a small child, it's worth seeking out again as the experience is surprisingly robust, despite the ravages of time.

Barcode Battler

Proof that not all of the most popular Japanese ideas have international appeal, the Barcode Battler has gone down as a laughable failure in the west but was actually a major hit in its native Japan.

Produced by Epoch, this handheld device allowed players to face off against each other by creating an army of fantasy warriors generated from humble barcodes. Yes, it sounds stupid, and that's largely because it was.

The idea was that when you were done using the pre-packaged barcodes included with the machine you could cut ones out from everyday items (hence the term 'commerce conflict') and use those to create new and fearsome warriors.

For all its conceptual faults there was an undeniable thrill to swiping a new barcode and seeing if it created a super-powerful beast for you to use. However, these moments of excitement were few and far between as the device wouldn't read many barcodes.

The machine required users to have a very active imagination because it displayed no character graphics whatsoever: the screen merely showed numbers (relating to the power of your character) which would change as attacks were exchanged.

Although it briefly inspired a playground craze where players would swap tips regarding which supermarket product boasted the most powerful barcode, the interest soon began to wane when people realised that the Game Boy offered much better entertainment.

Longsuffering mothers, sick of finding their groceries butchered by their children in an effort to locate the perfect monster, breathed a huge sigh of relief when the Barcode Battler sank without trace in the early '90s, with stock changing hands for as little as a fiver.

In Japan it continued to sell in modest numbers and some argue that it ultimately paved the way for the Pokemon phenomenon.

Bandai Solar Powered LCD

When you're talking about handheld gaming it's impossible not to mention Bandai. The company produced hundreds of portable electronic games, although the vast majority of these never saw release outside of Japan (in many cases this was due to the licensed nature of the games - Bandai produced tie-ins with popular Japanese anime franchises such as Mobile suit Gundam and Fist of the North Star).

One of the most innovative products to be manufactured by the firm was the 'LCD Solar power' range. These were fairly standard LCD games but the selling point was that they could harness the energy of the sun (and other light sources) to operate, very much like a solar-powered calculator. Bandai was obviously thinking of the environment all those many years ago.

Thanks to the excellent Electronic Handheld Game Museum for many of the images used in this feature.
Damien  McFerran
Damien McFerran
Damien's mum hoped he would grow out of playing silly video games and gain respectable employment. Perhaps become a teacher or a scientist, that kind of thing. Needless to say she now weeps openly whenever anyone asks how her son's getting on these days.