I feel old knowing that I was once given a mechanical handheld game…
Back in about 1981, there was an unusual but quite significant event in my family.
As I was only four at the time, I didn’t really know (or care) that much about what it was. My life’s priorities were focused elsewhere, namely lollies and toys.
Looking back now as an adult well into his thirties, my priorities have obviously changed since those childhood days. (Now it’s toys first, then lollies).
But either way, the news in 1981 that my sister (several years older than I) was entered into some sort of charity beauty pageant event, left me unmoved. Apparently the pageant culminated in a big presentation night where a particular girl was crowned “Miss something” (I’ve forgotten what the charity was actually called). And this night was coming up soon.
What’s more, for some reason the organizers were unable to present the tiara to the winner themselves, instead needing the assistance of some willing, four-year-old boy.
Seeing as I was unwilling, I figured that exempted me.
But apparently they were desperate – and needed a small child to walk the length of the community hall dressed in a tuxedo, in front of an audience of nearly a thousand people, to deliver a crown to the lucky beauty queen. A novelty act for the grown-ups.
After my initial outright refusal, fortunately cooler heads prevailed and offered to negotiate a deal. The premise then changed from “We want you to embarrass yourself in public – for nothing” to “Please do it. In reward, we will buy you any item you want from a toy shop!”
Any item, you say?
Off we went then, to the toy shop.
I’m not entirely sure how I settled on the Tomy Digital Derby Auto Raceway game as my reward, but I’m fairly certain the little steering wheel and gear lever (and the notion of hand-held car racing) caught my eye. Car racing, in a box! It was also black, which was somehow alluring…like black road or black rubber.
While I never saw it at the time, there was even a TV commercial for it in the US…
Released in 1978 and powered internally by an electric motor, Digital Derby Auto Raceway is a game that displays a sort of scrolling film-tape material, onto which little racing cars and line markings are printed.
The player controls a racing car at the base of the ‘screen’ (really a window into the mechanical action below) which can move left and right via the cool, sporty-looking 3-spoke steering wheel.
The objective of course is to weave in and out of the other cars on the ‘road’ without ‘hitting’ (hovering on top of) them. Failure to do this results in a bright red crash alert light appearing beneath the cars, along with a slightly terrifying alarm siren.
The game is limited by a timer at the top, and each “race” lasts for one full cycle of the timer, after which the motor simply stops.
The object is to complete as many “laps” as you can (shown on the lap counter at the bottom), which of course only ticks over while you’re not having crashes. Hence the challenge: avoid crashes and complete as many laps as you can, in the short time available!
I’d never dare to pull this game apart as I think the creators have probably built some very neat little clockwork mechanics inside. I actually sympathize with their pre-computing efforts, much as you might sympathize with the inventors of early mechanical computers. They really went to some lengths to create a kind of functionality that was clearly always going to be limited by physical mechanisms.
The gear lever adds extra fun by offering higher speeds while of course making it harder to avoid crashes. Successful play generally involves a lot of quick gear shifts and darting left and right to slip through the gaps in traffic, or waiting behind another car for a gap to open up.
As far as I know, Tomy made a few varieties of these sorts of mechanical games in the late 1970s or so, before they were swept away by the boom in TV-based video games and handheld LCD units like the famous Nintendo Game & Watch series.
But there was definitely something cool about a game involving vehicles that operated a bit like a little vehicle itself rather than just a computer. No sound effects were necessary really – the sound of the motor whirring away was enough for your imagination to believe it could be the engine of your little racing car.
Tomy went on to create many more brilliant toys in the 1980s, a few of which I will feature here in the future. They really were (and probably still are) one of the greatest Japanese toy brands of all time.
To this day I can distinctly remember thinking about this game as I was actually being put through the ‘ordeal’ of the beauty pageant presentation – being dressed up in an uncomfortable tux, being prepped on exactly what to do and not to do, and finally, walking toward the stage and hoping not to trip over or drop the tiara as a hushed audience watched, whispered and took photos…
Talk about pressure for a 4 year old!
But in the end I was actually a bit shocked. It took me all of 10 seconds to walk the length of the hall and hand the tiara to the winner (and it wasn’t my sister). And then it was all over. Within hours, I was back home racing cars inside a little black box. Cue: many subsequent hours (years) of my family having to put up with the sound of my mechanical racing game grinding away, as they tried to watch TV.
Further proof though that great toys – and the memory of those toys – will often last a lifetime. The unit shown on this page is the actual one referred to in the story and it still works perfectly. And here I am blogging about it over 30 years later. Always remember to bargain toys into deals, if you can!