The magic of Merlin

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For those of us of a certain age, there is a deep fondness to physical electronic games.

Any game that was mostly electronic, ran on a few batteries but still required you to press buttons and “manage” the device. All those pre-2000 handheld electronic games like the Game-N-Watch, Tiger LCD games, electronic football and things in between. Even games like Simon and Speak-N-Spell would qualify. 

Merlin

Merlin was a hefty toy

I have wonderful memories around the little, credit card-sized LCD games that were popular in the 1980s and found at Radio Shacks all around the country. Tiger Electronics had similar games but were usually licensed to popular brands like Terminator or Ninja Turtles. I remember a Ninja Gaiden handheld that was pretty awesome.

Before the NES kicked off a sustained popularity of home consoles, these battery operated wonders were the best we had. You never really new how they worked or why they worked. As a kid, you didn’t really care but even then they were true wonders of modern science…and frankly, I’d argue they still are, either because technology is now so far advanced that something so simple seems odd, or just because the aesthetics of these devices is contrary to the beautifully designed things we carry in our pocket everyday.

Somehow those old electronic games still look and feel like The Future, even if they don’t behave that way. And maybe that’s why I love to find them. I appreciate them as entertainment and, in a way, art. But then a trip to a local antique shop found me something I had never seen as a kid, nor owned…and I was enthralled.

The thrill of the hunt

The Merlin was a handheld electronic computer introduced in 1978 and, by all reports, was ridiculously popular throughout the following decade. It ended up being the Best Selling Toy of 1980…who knew?

Yet this was the first I had seen one, oddly enough. When I came across it in the antique shop I knew it was a vintage electronic toy. It just looked like one…all clunky and plastic…it looked like The Future. The Future you dreamed about in 1982 and, frankly, it still looks like something from The Future. It’s unlike anything you see today and it’s method of interaction and feedback is just as alien as you’d ind in the distant future.

The thing said “Merlin” on the top and I quickly pulled out my phone to do a history check…and yup, sure enough, this was some late-70s electronic toy. Amazingly enough, the price tag on it was only $5.00. I instantly knew this fell into one of two categories, 1) it was broken, or 2) it worked but they had no idea what it was. Usually it’s the former but after a quick shake resulted in silence, and the battery slots were free of erosion, I decided it was worth the gamble.

I was excited to try it out and once home the only challenge was finding six – yes, 6 – AA batteries to put in this thing to watch it work. And work it did…five dollars well spent.

The magic of Merlin

With batteries installed, I turned on Merlin and it beeped to life. The face of Merlin has 11 buttons, each one also a red LED. There were also four buttons at the bottom labeled with commands like “New game” and “Same game”. So there I was, face to face with Merlin, not sure what to do next.

On the back of Merlin were some basic directions like “Press New Game and then press a number to start,” followed by list outlining which numbers played which games. I did as instructed and then tried to press a few of the buttons on the face but they didn’t press.

“Crap,” I thought, thinking that this was the broken part, but it turns out Merlin doesn’t really have buttons…at least not ones that you would think of with old electronic games. These weren’t buttons that had depth that you pressed, per se, they were very sensitive buttons that you just had to touch…honestly, not unlike the touchscreens we have everywhere today. A light touch was all Merlin needed. Again I was reminded why things like Merlin always felt like The Future.

Merlin

Who knew 11 blinking lights could be so much fun.

But I quickly realized that playing around with Merlin wasn’t going to get me far, it was just too cryptic. So I turned to my old pal Google to find a manual. I then spent the next hour or more fiddling with Merlin…learning his ways, his language and having some fun. Half the fun was just having a manual to follow and read, rather than a bunch of on-screen/in-game tutorials and help. It makes you feel just a little bit smarter when you’re not hand fed directions in context but rather have to read, comprehend and then apply. Old school, indeed.

Merlin can’t hold a candle to today’s most simple tech. I mean, playing Tic-Tac-Toe against Merlin requires you telling him when it’s his turn…he has no awareness. Playing with Merlin is tedious at best but that’s half the fun and the price you pay when you want to experience The Future. There’s a very basic and challenging game of Simon as well as very poor version of Blackjack, but the best part of Merlin is “Music Machine” mode which is actually a very simple music sequencer…I could bleep, blip and boop all day with this thing.

For me, Merlin was a reminder of other electronic games that I’ve since forgotten. To anyone under the age of 35, Merlin would be written off as “too hard” to use. But I’ll argue that Merlin still looks like The Future, and it’s worth it for that if nothing else.

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Brian is a staff writer at TMA. He races Hot Wheels at RedlineDerby.com while watching cartoons with his kid. You can follow @morningtoast on Twitter.

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