Over the last 35 years we’ve seen the release of dozens of video games systems. Hardware manufacturers looking to push the limits of technology and provide innovation in their new consoles. The likes of Nintendo, Atari, Sony and Sega have been hugely successful. However, even the best companies sometimes get it wrong and there are plenty of others that never got it right in the first place!
Mat Corne takes a look at some of the most unusual, ill-conceived and sometimes plain useless systems that companies worldwide have tried to make their fortunes from…
Coleco Telstar Arcade
In the late 70’s Coleco entered the fledgling videogame market with their range of Telstar Pong systems. Undoubtedly the weirdest product to come from this range was the Telstar Arcade, a triangular monstrosity with the obligatory faux woodgrain finish.
This unique piece of hardware featured controllers on all three sides – the first contained the usual Pong paddles and the second housed a fairly authentic looking pistol, but the third side was certainly the most impressive. With a large steering wheel and gear shifter, this was one of the earliest realistic driving controllers to grace home videogames.
Unsurprisingly given its multi-function controls, the unit contained a selection of Pong, target shooting and driving games. These were supplied on another oddity for the time – a removable game cartridge. In keeping with the design of the console, the cartridges were triangular in shape and were connected to the top of the system at the summit of the three sides. Three additional cartridges were sold separately featuring sports, shooting, driving and even pinball games.
Coleco’s console range may not have been the most successful but there’s little argument that in the Telstar Arcade they created one of the wackiest and most memorable systems.
Japanese Dedicated Systems
Many people will tell you that Japan gets all the best technology first, and here are two early examples that prove that. The rest of the world had to make do with a plethora of Pong systems featuring the same limited options of tennis, soccer and squash. But in Japan they got these odd-looking but undeniably cool offerings.
First up is Nintendo’s Block Kuzushi TV Game from 1979. This dedicated system offers six different variations of Breakout and is a notable piece of Nintendo history for two reasons. It was the first machine to bear their now instantly recognisable logo, but more significantly the console’s striking shape and colour was the brainchild of a certain Shigeru Miyamoto in one of his earliest design projects for the company!
The second system is Epoch’s ominously named TV-Vader, launched in 1980. As the name suggests, this is a dedicated Space Invaders TV game – how cool would that have been in 1980!? The compact unit houses four colourful game variations and even features a start button for arcade-style authenticity. Sadly it is rather hamstrung by the world’s smallest joystick and an uncomfortably-placed fire button. There is however no denying that compared to the dedicated TV games available in the West at that time, it’s pretty impressive.
Sharp Twin Famicom
Following the success of the 8-bit Famicom (better known as the NES on these shores) Nintendo launched the Disk System add-on in Japan that allowed you to play games recorded on 3″ disks. Disk games were a lot cheaper than cartridges since the media was less expensive, and in electrical shops there were kiosks where you could insert a blank disk and buy a game to put on it.
The Twin Famicom is a licensed hybrid of Nintendo’s Famicom and Disk System, released by Sharp in 1986. It has both a cartridge port on the top and a disk slot on the front of the console, plus a little switch to go between disk and cart mode. Like the original Famicom, the system came with two hard-wired controllers.
The system is popular with import gamers because there are hundreds of Japanese exclusive games for both the Famicom and the Disk System. Highlights include the true sequel to Super Mario Bros, and Otocky, a rhythm-based shoot em up that is seen as a precursor to Rez.
Clearly given the success of the Famicom this doesn’t fall into the ‘woeful’ category but it is certainly weird, not least due to the eye-catching bright red version that really stands out from the crowd as an example of Japanese 80’s console cool!
Worlds of Wonder was a company that specialised in electronic toys and games in the 80’s. Their most famous products were Laser Tag and Teddy Ruxpin, but they were also one of the early distributors of the NES in the USA. Once their deal with Nintendo expired they decided to launch their own games system in 1987 called the Action Max.
The Action Max is special, and not in a good way. Rather than use cartridges like other systems of the era, Action Max games come on VHS videotapes. Setup of the system involves plugging the base unit into your video recorder, attaching the supplied lightgun to the base unit and also connecting a large red lamp to the corner of your TV screen with the provided suction cup.
Gameplay consists of watching the videotape and whenever you see a white target blob on any of the characters in the ‘game’, you try to shoot it. On the rare occasions you actually hit the target, the red lamp lights up and you score a point that is registered on the base unit’s LED display.
It goes without saying that with the games on videotape it doesn’t matter whether you hit the targets or not as the story plays out exactly the same every time. The base unit serves no purpose other than to keep score and the gun is so poorly made that frequent firing actually hurts your trigger finger! The selection of games is limited to half a dozen frankly dreadful tapes with titles like Sonic Fury and The Rescue of Pops Ghostly. This all made for one of the worst consoles in the history of videogames and unsurprisingly it was a total flop. Amazingly the Action Max has recently been given a new lease of life as it has appeared in discount stores across the UK with a DVD version of the pack-in game – it’s still crap though!
This one is a bit of a cheat because it is “the console that never was” but it still warrants mention, especially as a British contribution to our games console freakshow.
Stories about the Multisystem began to circulate in 1988. The system was to be the result of collaboration between popular joystick manufacturers Konix and little-known hardware developers Flare Technology. Flare consisted of several former Sinclair employees who were working on a powerful games system with specifications and performance far in advance of the 16-bit computers of the time.
With Flare providing the technology, Konix providing the appealing design and a host of software developers on board, the future looked bright for the Multisystem. The first prototypes were showcased at the Earl’s Court Toy Fair in early 1989. Along with the unit itself, which could be configured as a driving or flight controller, Konix demonstrated exciting peripherals including a lightgun and the impressive Power Chair, designed to mimic popular hydraulic arcade cabinets like OutRun and Space Harrier. With MIDI support, network play capability and a suggested RRP of under £200, the Multisystem looked set to take the gaming world by storm.
Unfortunately financial problems hit Konix with employees not being paid and final development on the system grinding to a halt. The company sold off it’s joystick range to try and generate cash to bring the console to market, but in the end it was to no avail. By Autumn 1990 the company went under and the Multisystem passed into history, it’s potential never realised.
Epoch’s Barcode Battler was launched in Japan in 1991 and released worldwide a year later. This handheld system was shipped with a number of collectible cards, each featuring a barcode. Each barcode could be swiped to generate attributes for the character on the card, which would then be pitched in battle against another character in a marginally more hi-tech version of Top Trumps.
The unique selling point of the system was that any barcode could be scanned to generate a character, allowing you to answer the eternal question of who would triumph between a can of Spaghetti Hoops and your sister’s Take That CD! While it was undoubtedly a clever use of barcode scanning technology, the lack of any serious gameplay and the popularity of proper handheld consoles like the Gameboy and Game Gear pretty much signed the Barcode Battler’s death warrant in the West.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the system was far more popular in Japan where consumers loved the quirky idea and let their imaginations run wild with the different items that could be scanned. A second version of the unit was released that could be interfaced with Nintendo’s Famicom and Super Famicom, with games developed for both systems that made use of the Battler and special card packs released featuring characters from Nintendo’s famous Mario and Zelda games. For the rest of the world however, the novelty wore off very quickly and the Barcode Battler was soon consigned to the bottom of toy cupboards and store bargain bins.
Sega’s Megadrive was obviously one of the most popular and successful consoles of all time, so it’s no surprise that many third party companies wanted to get in on the action. Sega certainly didn’t seem to mind selling their technology on to be used in all manner of unusual inventions, as these examples show.
Launched in 1993 and produced here in the UK, the Amstrad Mega-PC placed Megadrive hardware inside a desktop PC giving what Alan Sugar hoped would be the ideal combination of a business computer and a cutting edge games machine. Can you really imagine your employer considering these hybrids as a viable option for the office? We didn’t think so! With the rapid evolution of computer hardware the PC part of this unit became obsolete far faster than the Megadrive part, so it wasn’t a big seller despite offering the only easy way to play Megadrive games on a VGA monitor.
One of the rarest and most desirable variations is the Aiwa Mega-CD, released towards the end of the Megadrive’s commercial life. The unit combines a CD Boom Box with a Megadrive add-on unit and includes an unusual sky blue controller. As the name suggests, it is capable of playing Mega-CD games, but bizarrely rather than build the interface between the Megadrive and the CD player within the unit, you have to use a cumbersome cable in the back to connect them.
As odd as the aforementioned items may be, they pale in comparison to the Sega MegaJet. This curious-looking unit began life on Japanese airlines as part of their in-flight entertainment system. The MegaJet was offered to travellers to allow them to play Megadrive games on the TV in their seat. In 1994 it received a retail release, effectively becoming the first portable Megadrive system, but one that had no internal TV screen and could only be powered by the included AC adapter. Needless to say, with it’s unwieldy look and limited practical use the MegaJet was a commercial failure. Several months later however the design was reused as the basis of the Nomad, a true handheld Megadrive with a built in TV screen and battery power, albeit with a brutally short battery life.
Now this is a shame – the Bandai Playdia really could have been something special. It’s got a cool blue colour scheme. It has an appealing compact form, rather like the Dreamcast which was released five years later. It even has a wireless controller, the first console to be shipped with one, over a decade before the Wii. Basically the Playdia is a great looking system that appears to be way ahead of it’s time. That is until you switch the thing on…
Clearly not recognising the potential and inherent coolness of the system they’d designed, Bandai filled the Playdia with mediocre hardware and marketed it as a console for young children. Effectively it is little more than a glorified Video CD or Laserdisk player, with the simplistic controller acting as a remote control for a modest selection of interactive cartoons and edutainment titles featuring Bandai’s popular TV show characters.
Designed solely for the Japanese market this was never going to be a massive success and one suspects Bandai never intended it to be a big seller, but you can’t help thinking that if they’d invested a bit more in it, it could have been so much more.
If you wanted a single system to encapsulate both weird and woeful then the PC-FX is probably it. Launched exclusively in Japan at the end of 1994, NEC’s follow up to the hugely successful PC-Engine was rush-released to challenge the Sega Saturn and Sony Playstation. You can probably guess what happened!
Although it boasted 32-bit hardware and used CD-ROMs for storage medium, the similarities to its competitors ended there. Housed in a bizarre mini PC tower style case, the PC-FX had no 3D capabilities (although a later 3D expansion card was promised) and instead offered a unique selling point of far superior Full Motion Video quality compared to any other fifth generation consoles.
The net result was a curious looking system with superb 2D capabilities but nothing to compete with the 3D technology offered by Sony in particular. Developer support for the console was almost non-existent and out of desperation NEC allowed an abundance of dubious Hentai titles to be released alongside a large selection of text-heavy strategy and RPG offerings and a few decent action games. The limited software library ensured a release of the PC-FX outside of Japan would never happen.
With just 62 games released and under 100,000 units sold, NEC discontinued the PC-FX in 1998 and pulled out of the console market, leaving their final piece of hardware as a stark warning of the perils of backing the wrong horse.
Funtech Super A’Can
On the face of it the Super A’Can looks like a decent console. Released exclusively in China, at first glance it appears to be a SNES clone but the hardware is actually comparable to the Sega Megadrive. This would have been the basis for a powerful console and a serious competitor in the early 90’s console war, but the A’Can was launched in 1995 when the Playstation was on the verge of bringing 3D gaming to the masses!
If missing the hardware boat wasn’t bad enough, development of games was both rushed and complicated. Just 12 bug-ridden games are known to exist for the system and are typically clones of popular SNES or Megadrive titles such as Sonic, Street Fighter, and Bomberman.
The A’Can was such an abject failure that it lost Funtech over $6million. The company eventually sold the remaining systems to the USA as scrap parts and as a result the console is now incredibly rare, with boxed examples fetching over £100 on Ebay.
This article was first published in Replay magazine, 2011.