August 16th, 2013


First One To Say "Billyuns And Billyuns" Gets The Banhammer

Among video game nuts, there are two factors that determine what we collect.  The first is ease of collecting, so that we can reach our goal.  My first game system that I wanted to collect every title for was the Sega 32X.  Why?  Because there were only 31 games for it, and most of them wound up in the bargain bin for $5 by the time I got one.  Economics?  Check.  Availability?  Check.  Can complete a collection without tearing down a room in your house?  Check-a-roonie.

Electronic games come in all shapes and sizes.  There is a sizable segment that likes collecting the handheld video games.  For lots of us, this was the only way to game, as an Atari required access to a TV set that no one else was using, and in those days, you had one big TV for the family and one smaller one for mom and dad.  And they probably preferred the larger set in the living room.  A game you could play that was independent of this was awesome.  Blip was the premiere example, as it not only didn't need a TV, but it was entirely mechanical, powered by a wind-up mechanism.  The batteries only lit up the light that served as the "ball" -- put the game under a bright enough light source, and you could play to your heart's content without even needing batteries.

Touch Me HandheldMattel, Tiger, Coleco, all kinds of companies came out with a slew of handheld games.  Curiously absent from their numbers was the king of home games at the time, Atari.  Atari had one and only one handheld electronic game, one that, ironically, people thought was a rip-off.  Pictured here on the right is Atari's Touch Me.  The premise of the game is simple -- a light would shine by a color.  You pressed that button.  More lights would be added, and you would have to repeat the sequence.

Atari Touch Me ArcadeNow, you are probably thinking to yourself, Damn, that sounds like a Simon game.  Well, you're sort of right.  Atari actually made an arcade game called Touch Me that played almost exactly like that, pictured here on the left.  Repeat the light sequence for 25 cents a game.  The only difference, as you may have noticed from the picture, is it was just the lights -- there were no colors in the game.  Milton Bradley copied the gameplay and made Simon, leaving Atari wondering what the hell just happened.

Atari wasn't really interested in electronic games.  They set up a division to develop them, but it closed up pretty quick.  All thanks to a little flop called the Cosmos.

The whole thing started in 1978.  Atari was interested in holography, and started buying up every patent on holography it could find.  So R&D had all these patents and no idea what to do with them.  Eventually, they found a way to cheaply mass produce hologram film, the stuff you sometimes see on magazine and comic book covers, sort of the successor to lenticular.  So, what do they do with it?

Atari Cosmos 1The plan was to make a 3D game console.  Sort of.  Atari started bragging about a genuinely 3D game system called the Cosmos.  They stated the 3D was lifelike and the system would be amazing.  It would not be battery powered, it ran on a 10.5 volt AC adaptor and could support two players.  It would use cartridges like the 2600.  The really neat thing, however, was under the hood.  There were two separate microcontrollers inside, one for gameplay (in fact, the exact same one used in the Entex Adventurevision), the other for sound effects, giving the sound a much richer variety than any other handheld could hope to have.  It would cost $100, and each of the games would be $10.

Atari Cosmos 2The unit was unveiled at the 1981 New York Toy Fair.  Reporters crowded to see the machine, and felt distinctly underwhelmed.  The Cosmos was not exactly as advertised.  The biggest problem was the 3D.  The game unit itself used a simple 7X6 LED matrix to display the game.  The cartridges didn't do shit.  Literally.  The game instructions for each game were programmed into the machine itself -- it knew what game to play when the cartridge was inserted.  Each cart had a notch in the bottom, and that told the system what game to play.  You could conceivably play all nine games by fiddling with the notch identifiers.

So what exactly was on the cartridge?  Well, you had to pieces of holographic film with a different image on each.  When the game began, the system would light up one or the other depending on what was happening.  Space Invaders, for example, had a background image that stayed lit as you played.  When you got hit, that image was turned off and another, of an alien shooting at you, lit up instead.  Did it look 3D?  Well, yeah, it was a hologram.  Didn't mean shit for the gameplay, though.  Atari defended this, however, saying that the technology was still in its infancy and people should just enjoy it.  8,000 pre-orders for the game were made, and Atari was confident this would work.

And then, just before it was to hit the market, Atari pulled the plug.

What happened to the units?  Unknown.  Boxes were made, and production logs indicate that 250 were built.  But only two actual working models are known to exist, a third needing major work sold on eBay for $7,500, and three more mock-ups are known to exist.  People who find it curious search long and hard and save their pennies, wondering when this Holy Grail will drop in their laps, establishing their supremacy among video game nuts.