Back in the 80s electronic games were the best thing you could get if your parents couldn’t afford an Atari or a computer. Handheld systems, robots, and electronic (and pretty noisy) games were everywhere.
This list covers the top 10 battery-powered, portable 1980s electronic games and toys you wanted in the 1980s (in no particular order).
1. Game and Watch 1980-1991
Perhaps the ultimate 80s electronic games, the Nintendo Game & Watch was a series of handheld electronic games first released in 1980. It featured a single game and a digital clock, hence the name. The game was played on a monochrome LCD screen, while the device was powered by a button cell battery. A variety of different games were available, ranging from simple maze and puzzle games to more complex action games. Some were standard handhelds, but others folded in landscape or portrait mode, a design cue that was revisited by the Nintendo DS.
The Game & Watch was one of the earliest handheld game consoles, and it paved the way for other 80s Nintendo handheld games, and later devices like the Game Boy. Today, it is considered a classic piece of gaming history and original 80s Nintendo games devices are highly sought after by collectors.
(More recently, the Game & Watch form factor has been revived with some special releases.)
2. Tomytronic 3D 1983
Three of these stereoscopic 3D gaming systems were released.
While the advert might exaggerate the graphics (coloured LED cels), these amazing games were actually pretty addictive. Sure, you had to hold the controllers like binoculars and this could get tiring, but they were fun, despite the limited audio.
If you can get hold of a TomyTronic 3D game, give it a go!
3. Coleco Total Control 4
Released in 1981, this handheld gaming system was not widely available in the UK, although some larger stores stocked it. The game featured four display overlays for each of the different games: hockey, American football, basketball, and football (soccer).
Perhaps most notable is the Coleco Total Control 4’s two player mode. In a time when handheld gaming was basically a sequence of red LEDs (as with this console), pulling off two player gaming is quite surprising.
4. Big Trak
Big Trak is a programmable toy robot designed for children that was first released in 1979. It featured six wheels, a retractable front-mounted “photon cannon” and a keypad that allowed children to input a series of commands to direct the robot’s movements.
Commands could be programmed in advance, allowing the Big Trak to navigate through a series of pre-defined routes or perform a variety of tasks. It was powered by batteries and had a range of approximately 30 feet. The Big Trak was one of the first programmable toys and was a popular educational tool for teaching children basic programming concepts.
Where I lived, every kid in the 80s wanted this electronics toy.
Toy collectors and retro-tech enthusiasts consider Big Trak a classic. These days, it is often mimicked using modern micro-controllers, such as the Raspberry Pi.
5. Grandstand Astro Wars
This handheld 80s video game resembled a radar unit, offering a multicoloured experience that relied on a few coloured LEDs to transport you into outer space and destroy aliens.
Of course, with a name like “Astro Wars” you’ve probably worked out what the game is really all about. It’s essentially Space Invaders, requiring you simply dodge and shoot your way to victory.
A basic left-right controller and fire button was all you needed to blast the ETs into smithereens. A few of these units are still around today – if you have one without a badly scratched display, keep your hands on it!
6. LEGO Light & Sound Range
In fairness, this probably demands a list all of its own. In the 1980s, following the success of the LEGO trains and Technic system, the Light & Sound range was released. This added LEDs and basic sound effects to various vehicle types, from about-town vehicles to spaceships.
They looked and sounded unlike anything else at the time, but unfortunately were noticeably more expensive than kits without these enhancements. Despite this, the Light & Sound Lego range remain some of the most memorable electronic toys and games from the 1980s.
7. Grandstand BMX Burner
For Christmas 1984 I wanted the Grandstand BMX game, but for whatever reason, I got something else: Grandstand BMX Burner. Naturally, I was disappointed; happily, that didn’t last for long.
Relying on standard monochomre LCD rather than the slightly more colourful graphics of the other game, this 1980s game was nevertheless a challenge that took up plenty of my time.
In fact, showing it to my cousin one time, she found it far more interesting than her Nintendo Game & Watch.
While the Grandstand games weren’t as sophisticated as Nintendo’s offerings, they were fun and engaging in their own way.
8. Tomy Racing Turbo
The genius of the Tomy Racing Turbo was that it essentially mimicked Atari’s Night Driver, using a light projection system. Of course, this unit was far smaller, about the same size as one of those “backseat driver” toys for kids, and relied on a few batteries.
Like the Tomy 3D systems, Tomy Racing Turbo was endlessly replayable. It was a top toy for taking places, was good for two player challenges, and could stand in for a real car if you were playing make believe games (remember those?).
9. Simon (MB Games)
It was bright, colourful, and noisy, and an absolute classic of the 80s electronic games scene. Simon was essentially the electronic version of Rubik’s Cube – everyone had one, regardless of whether they could play the short term memory game or not.
Except us. However, at least one of my cousins had it, so I can write about this one from a position of unique insight: I hated it. I hated the noice, the speed, the pointlessness of trying to copy the sequence (as in the game “Simon Says”).
Yet I still wanted one, so that was obviously a win for MB Games.
Toy robot Omnibot was first released by Tomy in 1984. It was designed to be an interactive companion for children, featuring a range of different sensors and functions. The Omnibot could be programmed to respond to voice commands, navigate around obstacles, and perform a variety of actions. These included dancing, or playing music, and featured a remote control to direct its movements.
While this electronic toy from the mid 1980s was mostly used to play stories or listen to music, Omnibots really made kids feel like they owned a real robot!
Unmissable 80s electronic games
These games and toys – and many more – made life bearable in the 80s. Electronic games would evolve throughout the decade; just a few years into the 1990s we were into the PlayStation era.
The 1980s handheld games relied as much on batteries as they did imagination – and we loved them for it.
Any favourites we’ve missed? Let us know!
Gaming since 1984, retro gaming since 2004. Contributes to Linux Format magazine and MakeUseOf.com.