Monday, August 17, 2009

Fred Ford and the origin of handheld gaming

Toys For Bob’s Fred Ford: the man, the myth, the Melnorme Trademaster. And as I discovered, possibly also a founding father of handheld videogames? Could it be...


(above photo taken from a web archive of Yukki’s old site)

In a recent interview I conducted with Fred Ford, he revealed some fascinating and hilarious background to the work he did before teaming up with Paul Reiche III. What I found particularly interesting, was that he worked on a Japanese monochrome handheld with a screen about 1cm by 4cm”, creating several games for it. Based on when Toys For Bob was founded, this would put the device at pre-Gameboy era, essentially making Fred Ford one of the earliest people to work on handhelds.

His entirely unedited statement goes thus, followed by some musings of my own:
I was attending U.C. Berkeley at the time and, being the eighth out of nine kids, was responsible for paying my own way as my parents had long ago been sucked dry.

I somehow sensed that the promotion I was striving toward in my janitorial job was always going to remain beyond my capacities and so I answered a 'Help Wanted' add for a local software company, Unison World. I only had my work ethic to offer, having no prior experience, and when the interview ended with "Well, we're not hiring just yet, but we might call you in a month or two.", I figured I was being let down easy.

But I did get a call in a couple of months. After spending a sleepless night, agonizing over what I was throwing away in the field of custodial engineering, I grudgingly accepted. And the crazy thing was that they let me do whatever I wanted, ruining me for later Silicon Valley corporate jobs where my bosses actually wanted to have some say about what I did. First I worked on some sort of Japanese monochrome handheld with a screen about 1cm by 4cm (maybe 16 pixels by 64 pixels). I did a bowling game, a first-person bi-plane game, and a top-down window on a find-the-other-tank game.

After that I moved onto the NEC, Fujitsu, and MSX. Sometime during this halcyon time, the two owners of Unison World had a falling out and one split off to form Magicsoft. Their agreement had all of the employees, including me of course, going to Magicsoft. Not too long after this, Erol Otus, would coincidentally go to work for Unison World although I did not meet him at the time.

Some of the games I did for those systems were: Pillbox, Sea Bomber, Ground Support, and some submarine game whose name escapes me. I was working on a game for the MSX (I still have the eight inch floppy) when Magicsoft ran out of money. This was just as I was finishing my degree at college and the timing seemed right for me to put away childish things and join the corporate world. Luckily, after six years lost in the corporate wilderness, my senses returned and I hooked up with Paul.

Perhaps the most memorable thing as a callow, introverted 20 year old were the hookers who would primp in front of the large, mirrored window that fronted our office on Adeline Street in Berkeley. Some things you cannot forget even if you want to.

The question is, which handheld is he talking about? Google searches concerning Unison World don't bring up much pertaining to games...

The easiest thing would be to email him again and ask, especially since Fred Ford and Paul Reiche III must stand as two of the finest developers in the industry, happy to answer questions and just chat with fans (such as this forum topic on Little Witching Mischiefs), even if it’s not going to further any plans for intergalactic domination (which is not something I can say for most other developers, controlled by PR reps who won’t even acknowledge your existence unless you can guarantee high-scoring prime-page magazine coverage). Yeah, FF and PR3 are some good guys, and apart from not wanting to take advantage of this situation with more questions, I think it’d be fun for us to try to deduce the answer ourselves.

The orientation of the screen makes me think it’s Milton Bradley’s Microvision (the screen was actually square, 16x16, but it’s still an oblong system), especially since it also had a bowling game and other titles released for it which fit Fred’s description (see above link). Picture below taken from Wikipedia and rotated counter-clockwise.

On the other hand, Fred describes it specifically as Japanese handheld. Assuming it’s obscure, there’s not going to be much information on it in English. A good bet could be the Epoch Game Pocket Computer, from 1984. Except online sources say that only 5 games were released, none of which match Fred’s description... Which makes me think it’s the Microvision again. Picture below taken from Handheld Museum.

Quite a puzzle, I’m sure you’ll agree readers. Winnie Forster’s Games Machines encyclopaedia sheds no light on the subject, and was even lacking in an entry for Epoch’s handheld. But it’s a fascinating piece of handheld gaming history, pre-Nintendo Gameboy. If you have any ideas on what it might be, let us know!

So I emailed Rik at the Handheld Museum, and he shed some possible light on what else it might have been. Thank you Rik!
I'm really curious about what he was working on... If he can't remember details, one thing to try to figure out would be what year this was. Microvision came out in 1979, and I know the people at GCE (the company that made the Vectrex) were involved with it. But that might have been designing the base unit, and Fred's company was programming games...

Do the names Dan Shafer or Chuck Blanchard sound familiar to him? There's another cartridge based game that came out in 1983 with a 16x32 pixel screen (though larger than he described) called
Super Micro Cartridge. I don't think it was for the Japanese market, and none of the games sound like his (although you could imagine them being re-named with the right 'stretch of the imagination').

Maybe he'd recognize the look of it?

I assume this was a cartridge based game? It might have just been a game with several games built into it... Hard to say. Most of the cartridge based games back then had custom screens instead of just 'pixels'...


Fred Ford gives a response, and the plot thickens!

About the Japanese hardware I was working on, I remember only that the screen was shaped more like a calculator's screen than a typical handheld (i.e. rectangular rather than square). But I don't recall its being a true calculator. I also think I recall that it was mostly black. So maybe it was the missing link between calculators and handhelds. This would have been 1981 or 1982.


  1. Just FYI, the yellow and orange text is completely unreadable in RSS readers as they usually have a plain white background.

  2. Yeah, honestly you could stand to just make that part of your Blogger template - set it to colorize bold text or something?

  3. I assumed everyone had a black background. Thanks for the tip, I shall stick to green in future.

  4. Yeah, I'm totally at a loss. I thought MAYBE it could be the Watara Supervision, whose name sounds Japanese (but isn't), and it has plenty of games, but it came a couple years after the Gameboy, so the dates wouldn't match up.

    After listening to the Retronauts podcast about portable game systems, I kinda want one now.

  5. Would it have been something like this?

  6. Wow, nice find! That looks like it could be it... I'm wondering if this warrants another post... I think it does!