The Microvision, also known as the Milton Bradley Microvision or MB Microvision—was a pioneering handheld game console that marked a revolutionary shift in gaming technology. This groundbreaking device, which hit the market in November 1979 at the retail price of $49.99, introduced the concept of interchangeable cartridges, making it one of the earliest reprogrammable gaming systems.  In this article, we will dive into the remarkable story of Microvision, its popular games, and its significant impact on the gaming industry.
The History of Microvision
In 1978, after the success of their Simon games, Milton Bradley (MB) was searching for their next big toy. They saw the popularity of handheld electronic games, like Mattel’s Auto Race, and wanted to join in. Smith Engineering, a company skilled in electronic toys led by Jay Smith, approached MB with the idea for a new video game. Jay Smith, who had experience working on games like Mattel Football, was the right person for the job. He was tasked with creating MB’s new toy line for 1979.
Before this, the idea of using interchangeable cartridges in gaming had been around since the Magnavox Odyssey – the first commercial home video game console, in 1972. But it wasn’t until the Fairchild Channel F in 1976 that it became common.  No one had tried making a handheld with cartridges because it was technically challenging. The main issue was finding a suitable display technology for a portable device; LED technology was limited, VFD required too much power and was expensive, and early LCDs could only display three rows of dots. 
Jay Smith, who already knew about LCD technology from his other work, decided to improve it. He realized that some parts of the screen could stay on all the time without using too much power. Most of the screen would only be active when moving parts crossed it. He managed to increase the number of rows to 16, which was a big deal at the time.
The first Microvision design was about the size of a Game Boy, but Milton Bradley wanted it to be bigger, thinking it could sell for a higher price. After completing the design, MB collaborated with Smith Engineering on manufacturing and game creation. In November 1979, about a year after they started the project, the Microvision was released along with its games.
What set Microvision apart from other existing game consoles was its groundbreaking use of interchangeable cartridges. This feature allowed gamers to explore a multitude of gaming experiences on a single device. Hence, one of the distinctive features of the Microvision was its unique architecture. It functioned more as a gaming platform than a standalone device, lacking its own processor or memory. Instead, these essential components resided within the cartridges themselves.  This design approach opened up exciting possibilities for game developers, as each cartridge could house different processors, enabling diverse gameplay experiences.
Initially, the Microvision utilized the Intel 8021 processor, a member of the 8-bit micro-controller MCS-48 family. However, as technology advanced, newer cartridges adopted the TI TMS 1100 – known for its significantly improved power efficiency, as part of the 4-bit micro-controller TMS1000 series. 
The Microvision boasted an LCD screen and a 12-key keypad, with each game taking unique advantage of these input methods. To facilitate this adaptability, each cartridge came with a corresponding front panel attached to the device, transforming its controls to suit the specific game being played. This modular approach added an extra layer of immersion and excitement to the gaming experience, making the Microvision a truly remarkable and forward-thinking device in the realm of handheld gaming.
Games From Microvision
The Microvision boasted a library of 12 games in total. While there existed both U.S. and European versions of the system and its cartridges, they are generally designed to be interchangeable. However, there are three primary distinctions between the U.S. and European cartridges: the button types, packaging, and game titles. Specifically, the U.S. cartridges feature membrane-style buttons, whereas their European counterparts are equipped with plastic buttons.
Here are the 12 games that Microvision released:
- Block Buster – This can be likened to a simplified version of Breakout, and it came bundled with every new Microvision system, making it a common and easily accessible title. The game offers different settings, with the most challenging setting featuring fast speed and a one-pixel paddle, rendering it nearly unplayable due to its difficulty. On the other hand, with a slow pace and a larger three-pixel paddle on the easiest setting, the game remains challenging but becomes somewhat addictive in short bursts. Players can select between 1-9 balls, and opting for nine can help compensate for some of the frustrating losses. Completing the first level alone feels like a significant achievement, often requiring an hour’s worth of retries, fueled by a “just one more game” mentality. However, after that initial triumph, the game’s appeal wanes, leading to diminished interest in replaying it. Despite its short-lived addictive quality, Block Buster earns its B- rating within the Microvision world.
- Bowling – This offers some initial fun for a few rounds but quickly loses its charm due to its extreme simplicity. Even in a two-player mode, it struggles to maintain player engagement. The gameplay consists of ten pins displayed at the top of the screen, while your bowling ball moves horizontally at the bottom. To play, you simply time it correctly and press a button to release the ball, sending it straight toward the pins – and that’s about it—repeatedly rolling the ball down the lane. While it might provide a momentary diversion, it’s not a game that will keep you entertained for long.
- Connect Four – This is a rare gem, offering a digital version of the classic board game by Milton Bradley. This release allows you to play against the computer or challenge a friend in a two-player mode, taking turns with the console. The game faithfully replicates the Connect Four experience, with a screen spacious enough to accommodate the entire game board, delivering an authentic feel similar to the physical version. While it doesn’t introduce any groundbreaking features, it delivers precisely what it promises. However, as the game progresses and the board fill up, distinguishing your pieces from your opponent’s can become a tad challenging. Nevertheless, for fans of Connect Four, this Microvision adaptation is a nostalgic delight, evoking fond memories and offering hours of strategic fun.
- Pinball – This stands out as the least enjoyable and most lackluster game in the entire lineup. It’s unfortunate because the concept of Pinball seems like a natural fit for the system. However, this version of Pinball takes a drastically different approach. Instead of the two flippers you’d expect in a standard pinball game, you are stuck with a single paddle at the bottom of the screen, much like in Breakout and Block Buster. The playfield consists of four dots as bumpers, comprising your entire pinball experience. Your task is to move the paddle along the bottom of the screen, trying to hit the bouncing ball and hoping it collides with the bumpers to score a single point per hit. The combination of uninspiring gameplay and squandered potential is incredibly frustrating.
- Mindbuster – This is a hard-to-explain puzzle game that’s most similar to Lights Out (the Tiger handheld, also released on the Game.com portable). Mindbuster offers two engaging game modes; both centered around a grid of illuminated squares. Each mode presents a unique challenge that tests your puzzle-solving skills. In the “Rings” mode, your objective is to encircle small black squares with larger ones. Meanwhile, in the “Lights Out” mode, your task is to clear the screen by turning off all the illuminated squares. At the start of each game, the puzzle is randomly generated, and your goal is to find the solution using as few moves as possible. While the game’s manual suggests that you can create your own puzzles, some players had difficulty figuring out how to do so. Additionally, a few players found the “Lights Out” mode to be too easy, while the “Rings” mode posed a significant challenge. As a result, many players expressed a desire for a middle-ground difficulty level to enhance their gaming experience.
- Star Trek – Also known as Phaser Strike. In this game, you’re in control of what appears to be a gun or your ship, stationed at the bottom of the screen, while groups of pixels, presumably enemy ships, traverse horizontally across the top of the screen. Your sole objective is to aim and time your shots accurately to hit these moving pixels for points. That’s the entirety of the gameplay. What makes this game even less thrilling is that only one “enemy” is present at a time, which doesn’t exactly get the adrenaline pumping. There’s simply no fun to be had here, and it feels like a wasted opportunity to leverage the Star Trek license. 
- Vegas Slots – This game brings to mind those unexciting $10 slot and poker handheld games you’d find older folks playing in their recliners for hours on end. Simulated gambling, particularly slots, never made much sense to some.  Once you remove the allure of potentially winning money, all that’s left is a rather mundane matching game driven solely by luck. That said, if you’re specifically seeking a slot machine simulator, this game does what it’s supposed to do. The graphics are basic but serviceable. The most noteworthy aspect, is the two-player mode, which introduces elements of risk management and banking winnings, adding a touch of strategy to an otherwise uneventful experience.
- Baseball – This game is closer to a Home Run Derby than real baseball because there’s no fielding. In this game, the pitcher throws the ball, and you control a knob to swing your bat and hit the ball. Depending on the direction and distance the ball travels, you can achieve different outcomes, like making an out or hitting a single, double, triple, or home run. The game follows the structure of baseball with three outs per inning, and you play through nine innings. However, as you become more skilled and surpass the initial learning curve, the game can become somewhat monotonous since it becomes relatively easy to score. To fully enjoy the game, having an instruction manual is crucial, as understanding the swing mechanism can be quite challenging without it.
- Sea Duel – This is by far the deepest game on the Microvision and in more ways than one.  Sea Duel offers a turn-based strategic gaming experience amidst the expansive open seas. In this engaging game, one player commands a submarine, while the other takes control of a navy destroyer. You have the option to engage in battle with a friend or challenge the CPU. Think of Sea Duel as a more dynamic and action-packed counterpart to the classic game Battleship. In Sea Duel, each player is entrusted with a single ship, and the game introduces an element of secrecy. You maneuver your ship clandestinely across the game board, shrouding your precise location in mystery from your opponent. The challenge lies in anticipating your adversary’s movements and strategically launching attacks. Once both players have finalized their moves, the action unfolds concurrently on the screen, a concept aptly coined by Milton Bradley as “Multiple Simultaneous Movement.” During this phase, you’ll observe both ships as they navigate to their chosen positions while engaging in intense exchanges of gunfire. The game calls for a strategic mindset as you strive to outwit your opponent with your tactical decisions and accurately predict the ideal spots to target.
- Alien Raiders – This offers an exhilarating dose of arcade-style action on the Microvision, making it a standout title within the system’s limited library. Despite its name, this isn’t a Space Invaders clone, as the Microvision’s resolution couldn’t quite handle that game. Nevertheless, Alien Raiders delivers a compelling arcade-style shooter experience, especially when judged by Microvision’s standards. In the game, you assume control of a ship or laser positioned on the left side of the screen, while alien raiders menacingly approach from the right. Your objective is to shoot down these invaders before they reach your side and land, which would spell game over. What sets Alien Raiders apart is its unique gameplay mechanics. Your ship employs a laser beam rather than traditional bullets, and to hit the raiders accurately, you must adjust the laser’s length precisely using the control knob. This introduces an element of strategy and skill, as it’s easy to fall short or overshoot a raider. As you progress, the game’s speed and intensity increase, providing an engaging challenge that keeps you on your toes.
- Cosmic Hunter – This is one of the later releases for the Microvision, and is a rarity to find today. However, if you can’t locate it, you’re not missing out on much. In this game, you assume the role of a hunter on an alien planet, represented by a dot, as you pursue another dot, which represents an alien. Here’s the catch: you can only capture the alien when you’re exactly 2 pixels away. If you’re 3 pixels away, you’re too far; if you’re 1 pixel away, the alien devours you. The game does involve a degree of strategy as you navigate the maze-like playing field to corner the alien for capture. Achieving success requires precise timing to press the capture button at the right moment. While Cosmic Hunter deserves credit for its creative concept, the gameplay becomes monotonous and unexciting once you get the hang of it.
- Super Blockbuster – This stand as the ultimate Microvision game and was exclusively available in Europe.  Serving as a sequel to Microvision’s bundled title: Block Buster, Super Blockbuster is a Breakout clone that impressively pushes the system’s limits. While Block Buster adhered to the conventional Breakout formula, Super Blockbuster introduced a fresh twist. In this game, players must not only eliminate the typical rows at the top of the screen but also protect a row at the bottom. Notably, there are no lives, and you cannot lose a ball; your game concludes when the bottom row is destroyed. Super Blockbuster not only outshines Block Buster, but also offers improved controls. The only drawback might be its exclusivity to Europe, with U.S. gamers potentially preferring the button style of their own Microvision games. Nevertheless, within the Microvision’s limited library, Super Blockbuster reigns supreme as the finest game on the system.
Microvision’s Common Problems
- Screen rot – This was a prevalent problem stemming from the Microvision’s LCD manufacturing process, which, by modern standards, is essential. The issue arises due to inadequate sealing and impurities introduced during manufacturing. Consequently, the liquid crystal within the screen can spontaneously leak and permanently darken, making the game unit still functional but incapable of correctly rendering the screen. While extreme heat, such as prolonged exposure to direct sunlight, can instantly destroy the screen, preventing screen rot in most Microvision systems is nearly impossible.
- ESD Damage – This problem stems from electrostatic discharge (ESD), and it was a big issue with the early Microvision units. The trouble starts with how these units were designed, especially the microprocessor inside each game cartridge. This microprocessor doesn’t have protection against ESD, and it’s directly connected to the copper pins that link the cartridge to the Microvision device. When a user opens the little sliding door that covers these pins, the microprocessor can get exposed to any electric charge the user might have built up. If that charge is significant, it can jump around the edges of the door or even go through the door itself, which is called dielectric breakdown. The microprocessor inside the cartridge is sensitive to ESD, and it can be ruined by even a small electric shock, even if the person holding the unit doesn’t feel it. This issue caused a lot of trouble during the 1979 holiday season, and many units were returned as defective, which worried the folks at Milton Bradley a lot.
- Keypad trouble – This was another problem with the Microvision unit. It had a twelve-button keypad with hidden switches under a thick layer of bendable plastic. To help people find the hidden buttons, the game cartridges had openings on their undersides that matched the keypad. These openings were covered by a thin piece of printed plastic, which showed what each button did in that game. The issue with this setup was that pressing the buttons made the printed plastic stretch out over time, eventually tearing it. People with longer fingernails had an even harder time with this problem. Also, many of the first games were made so that they only gave feedback when you let go of a button, not when you first pressed it. Because of this, users often pressed harder on the keypad because they didn’t feel anything right away when they pressed a key. This difference in how the keypad worked came from using one type of keypad for making early models (which gave feedback as soon as you pressed a key) and then using a different kind for the ones they made to sell (which didn’t give feedback right away). This change in keypad design made people frustrated and caused the printed plastic on the keypad to get worn out.
The Microvision entered the game console market with aspirations of becoming a standout due to its unique architecture and pioneering use of cartridges, a relatively uncommon feature at the time. However, as time passed and technological advancements surged forward, the Microvision began encountering a series of issues that led to its decline. Nevertheless, despite its eventual setback, the Microvision, along with its library of games, left an enduring imprint on the era in which it existed and on the history of gaming as one of the earliest game consoles. It remains a significant part of the gaming heritage, reminding us of the early innovations and experiences that shaped the gaming industry we know today.
(1) “Milton Bradley Microvision – Pop Culture Maven”. 2014-02-19. Retrieved 2020-07-21.