Video Game Firsts - Mattel Auto Race

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Geek Dave goes digital...

Mattel pioneered the category of handheld computer games, with their most popular title being 1977s Mattel Football. But a year earlier they launched the range with Mattel Auto Race, the first handheld game that was entirely digital, having no moving mechanisms except the controls and on/off switch.

The visuals were represented by red LED lights and the sound consisted of simple beeps. The game itself used about 512 bytes in memory (half a kilobyte, or 1/2048 of a megabyte).

The player's car is represented by a bright blip, which is simply a vertical dash sign (that you can see at the bottom of the screen above). The player must make it to the top of the screen 4 times (4 laps) to win, but, while make it towards the top, the player must swerve past other cars using the switch at the bottom of the system to toggle between three lanes. If hit by a car, the player's vehicle keeps moving back towards the bottom of the screen until it gets out of the other car's way. The goal is to beat the game before the 99 seconds (as high as the two digit timer can show) are up, and to get the shortest time possible. The player's car has four 'gears' and the faster the gear, the faster the other cars come at it.

Just as they are today, back then Mattel was known mostly for Barbie dolls and Hot Wheels, and the company was at first skeptical of products based on electronics, especially at what was considered a high price point at the time ($24.99 retail). But sales of Mattel Auto Race beat all expectations, and convinced the company to proceed with the development of Mattel Football (which was often sold out and in short supply) and lead to the creation of a new Mattel Electronics Division in 1978, which for a time was extremely profitable.

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