Monday, September 22, 2008

Milestones : Mattel's Dungeons and Dragons Handheld

After playing Adventure on the Atari, I was hooked on games with a set quest and an ending, which were scarce in the Golden Age of Arcades where almost everything was a shooter or a maze chase. I was also at the time, and still am, a fan of portable gaming, but most of those were the same old song and dance - LED sports games or pared down versions of arcade games.

Imagine my delight, then, when Mattel put out a tiny LCD game version of Dungeons and Dragons. I saw it in either a game magazine or the JC Penney Christmas Catalog and knew I had to have it. I didn't know too much about it then, but had hoped for the best. On that Christmas morning in 1982, I hit the jackpot with the first fully contained portable adventure game.

It had much more depth than I had hoped for - three difficulty levels, randomly generated mazes, several items and obstacles, great audio effects used to enhance gameplay, and challenging exploration. Players carefully work their way through a 10 x 10 grid maze littered with pits, searching for first a magic arrow, and second, the dragon to shoot it at. In a possible unintended homage to Atari's Adventure, an annoying bat sometimes picks up the player and deposits him in a random room - sometimes right into a pit, ending the game if the player doesn't have a magic rope.

The elegance of the design of the credit-card sized game, no thicker than a magazine and controlled with three simple buttons, is awesome for its time. It runs on 2 A76 watch batteries, which they still manufacture to this day and sell everywhere. It has a demonstration mode that saves battery life, which is necessary since there is no off switch. Once the batteries are installed the game is powered and running.

Probably my favorite non-programmable handheld of all time, Mattel's Dungeons and Dragons is a technological masterpiece from 1982 that gave me my first taste of portable adventuring, and did it right in every way. I still break it out of its original box and go for a quick adventure in that dungeon every so often, and it's still quite challenging and fun.

No comments: