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December 2014

Volume 29 Number 12

Editor's Note : The Greatest Game of All Time

Michael Desmond | December 2014

Michael DesmondI am a child of the 1970s. I was raised on American steel, Led Zeppelin and The Six Million Dollar Man. I marveled at Pong, was a beast at Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots, and never understood all the panic and concern over lawn darts. Those things were awesome.

But like any child of a particular decade, I tend to wax nostalgic about the places, events and things I experienced growing up. Which is why I never forgave Bruce Springsteen for “Born in the USA,” and still regard the old, handheld Mattel Electronics Football game as the greatest toy of all time.

For a kid weaned on meatspace fare like tabletop hockey and the ball-in-a-tilting maze game Labrynth, Mattel’s handheld Football was a revelation. Here was a simple, compact, devilishly compelling game that could be played absolutely anywhere. You directed a tiny, calculator-quality, LED dash up a rectangular football field populated with other dashes that maneuvered to “tackle” you. If one of those dashes caught you, you were down. You can see a YouTube video of the game being played at

Like so many great innovations, no one got it. At first. According to an interview with Howard Cohen (, one of the leaders of the Mattel Football project, the original production run of 500,000 units was halted after just 100,000 were made. Early sales figures from Sears, Roebuck, didn’t support continued production. And then, sales took off. Before long, Mattel was pumping out a half million of the handheld game consoles each week.

Mattel Football was a classic case of savvy reuse. The game was powered by a Rockwell calculator chip modified to display the on-screen action. The players were rendered as red LED dashes instead of dots, Cohen said in his interview with the Handheld Games Museum, “because they are basically the little segments of the number 8 on a calculator display.” Other quirks abounded. For instance, a limitation in the chip constrained the digital football field to a length of 90 yards. I’m pretty sure none of us ever noticed.

What Innovation Looks Like

In an age of touchscreen tablets and cloud apps it’s hard to believe, but this is what innovation looks like. Working from the foundations of available technology and platforms, Mattel created something wholly new and exciting that both exceeded and reset expectations. For me, as a child of the 70s, there was life before Mattel Football and life after it.

Like so many great innovations, Mattel Football wasn’t the first of its kind. A little-remembered handheld game called Mattel Auto Race preceded Football by a year. It proved out the repurposed calculator chip and display hardware used in the Mattel handhelds, and showed that Rockwell programmers could knock out a game experience in just 511 bytes of ROM. But it was Football that nailed the experience—and foretold the future. You know the universal head-down, hands-forward posture of commuters staring at their smartphones ( Mattel Football invented that.

Mark Lesser was the Rockwell developer who wrote both Auto Race and Football, as well as other, early handheld games. In a 2007 interview with Digital Press (the 30th anniversary of Football’s release), he described working in “a primitive assembly language that was ad hoc to the specific chip being programmed” ( His take on what made Mattel Football so compelling should echo forward for anyone crafting modern experiences today.

“Even with the crudest graphics and sounds there are hooks that carry sufficient and enduring interest,” Lesser said. “So much of the appeal of a game relates to the way it is tuned—the harmony between the elements. Complexity is not required to create fun gameplay.”

Michael Desmond is the Editor-in-Chief of MSDN Magazine.