During the late 1970s, consumer electronics took a rather impressive leap forward. VCRs brought big-screen blockbusters into the home, Sony’s TPS-L2 Walkman introduced a new form of portable music to the world, and Parker Brothers looked to jumpstart a new era of handheld gaming with the release of a little electronic device known simply as Merlin.
While rather simplistic by today’s standards, Merlin quite literally took the world by storm when released all the way back in 1978 – and gave consumers a glimpse into a future where portable electronic entertainment was the order of the day.
In fact, so revolutionary was the little console that many saw it as the next step in the evolution of play! It was new! A magical marvel of modern technology! And it predated the Nintendo Game Boy by more than a decade!
Grab your plaid pants and some extra AA batteries! This is the story of Merlin!
Merlin Game Mechanics 101
Merlin The Electronic Wizard was invented by former NASA employee Bob Doyle. Both an ambitious inventor and Harvard-trained astrophysicist, Doyle, along with his wife Holly and brother-in-law Wendl Thomis, conceived of a handheld gaming unit featuring 48-bytes of RAM that was powered by a TMS1100 microcontroller courtesy of the folks at Texas Instruments.
Seeing the potential of electronic games just a few years prior, the trio formed Micro-Cosmos in 1975. In addition to Merlin, the company was credited with creating over twenty different game prototypes – several of which would end up being published through Parker Brothers.
Measuring about 9.5-inches long and 3-inches wide, Merlin is rectangular in shape and powered by a total of six AA batteries. Sound is heard through a top-mounted internal speaker, while the play area of the device is made up of a matrix consisting of eleven buttons. Each one of these buttons houses a red LED light, which will either flash or light up depending upon which game is being played.
In addition, four unique control buttons adorn the bottom portion of the unit. These allow the user to select between playing a new game, the same game, and permitting the computer to take its turn. The fourth controller button, labeled simply as Hit Me, is for use exclusively with Merlin’s Blackjack 13 game.
The entire array is encased within a rather vibrant red plastic housing. This has led to the unit oftentimes being compared to something that resembles a cordless touch-tone telephone.
A Handheld Game That’s Lots Of Fun
At first glance, Merlin might not look like much. When compared to the larger arcade machines and fresh home consoles from Atari, Fairchild, and Magnavox that were hitting retailers at the time, it was a bit of an oddity. Additionally, at this point, the entire concept of portable electronics was still so new that most viewed it as nothing more than science fiction.
However, as the old saying goes, one should never judge a book by its cover.
Merlin’s simple array of buttons and flashing lights support a total of six completely different games, and players can decide to square off against either the device and its advertised “strategy-packed computer brain” or a friend. The six games that can be played on Merlin include Tic Tac Toe, Music Machine, Echo, Blackjack 13, Magic Square, and Mindbender respectively.
Echo is a memory game like Milton Bradley’s Simon, while Magic Square is a pattern game that plays similar to the Tiger Electronics title Lights Out. Additionally, Mindbender can best be compared to the classic code breaker game Mastermind which first hit the market in 1970.
Tic Tac Toe plays just as one would expect, while Blackjack 13 is the only game included within the Merlin console to have its own unique controller button at the bottom of the device.
While all the games are both fun and extremely addictive despite their simple nature, it is the Music Machine function that truly stands out here!
Interestingly, this game actually allows Merlin to act as a sort of musical instrument. In this particular mode, each button is assigned a different musical note that can be combined with others to form synthesized versions of such popular songs as Blow The Man Down, Clementine, Knick Knack Paddywhack and more. The songs, which are all listed within the information pamphlet included with each Merlin unit, can then be recorded and played back for the user as desired.
This officially makes Doyle’s Merlin machine not only one of the earliest examples of a handheld game but also one of the first digital sequencers to ever be produced. In addition, Merlin can also be considered an early example of a consumer-level electronic synthesizer!
The Merlin Marketing Campaign
Computers have always been seen as the way of the future, and the toy industry of 1978 was no exception to the rule. Displaying the utmost of confidence in a new line up of electronic games that also included the likes of P.E.G.S. and the return of runaway success Codename: Sector, Parker Brothers presented Merlin to an eager grouping of retailers in early 1978 as “…a creative breakthrough that will serve as an industry model.”
Glossy brochures were handed out at New York Toy Fair heralding the device as a sleek, space-aged plaything that was ready to take on all challengers in six dynamic games. Controlled by a state-of-the-art computer brain, this mystical electronic wizard was not only capable of countering your moves in play, but also keeping track of scores and informing users of the outcome of each game!
However, this was to be more than just a simple toy. Merlin had been programmed in such a way that children would be forced to use creative thinking, memory, and reason in varying amounts.
Additionally, the device was said to be something truly magical that would appeal to each member of the family. Parker Brothers guaranteed that you would not only find something unique to love about this new electronic wizard – but also have a handful of fun at the same time.
As if that wasn’t enough, the company constantly heaped praise upon Merlin. They assured retailers that they would soon find this new product to be the brightest star in their catalog of electronic games. Backed by more than $1.5-Million in pre-Christmas advertising across print and screen, it looked as though Parker Brothers was ready and willing to bet it all on this new generation of Gaming On The Go! And, with a planned sticker price of just $24.95 USD, it would surely take some business away from those expensive home gaming consoles.
Yes, Merlin truly was unlike anything the world had ever seen! And retailers ate it up!
However, the question remained, how would the public take to Merlin?
I Put A Spell On You
Merlin The Electronic Wizard landed at retailers in the Fall of 1978.
Leaving nothing to chance, Parker Brothers made sure the toy was constantly within the public’s eye. Commercials not only ran during the day alongside regular children’s programming but also within the coveted prime time viewing slot! Merlin popped up in the middle of family specials, Sunday football games, and even during the 1978 Baseball playoffs.
Even if you weren’t big on television, Parker Brothers made sure you wouldn’t escape Merlin’s spell. Ads and cleverly worded sales pitches sat firmly nestled within the pages of every major publication ranging from Better Homes & Gardens to Family Circle.
Articles in Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, and Strategy And Tactics hyped the little electronic wizard as futuristic family fun that officially set the stage for a brave new world of portable electronics. Shoppers were besieged by eye-catching endcaps crammed full of the latest Parker Brothers products with each trip to the department store.
There was just no escaping Merlin, and consumers soon took to the toy in a very big way!
In a marketplace that now included some stiff competition from Kenner’s newly launched Star Wars action figure line, Merlin carved out a unique niche and quickly became one of the hottest selling toys of 1978.
The toy was so popular that Merlin would appear alongside Milton Bradley’s Simon on the cover of the Christmas issue of Newsweek. The October 1978 issue of Boston would also feature the popular plaything front and center as it confidently declared this new generation of revolutionary electronic games the next step in entertainment.
The popularity of Merlin would continue into 1979 with the Parker Brothers game leading a new generation of electronic offerings that included Stop Thief and Wildfire. And, in 1980, The Toy Manufacturers Of America would even name the portable plaything as the best selling toy in the country with an astonishing 2.2-Million units sold that year alone!
Merlin would continue to climb in popularity during the new decade, with over 5-Million units sold before Parker Brothers discontinued production once and for all in 1985. However, the story of this little electronic wizard was far from over!
Merlin: The 10th Quest
In 1995, a full decade after the original Merlin console was discontinued, Parker Brothers redesigned and released a new version of the device known as Merlin: The 10th Quest.
A one-player game this time around, the new Merlin featured a total of nine games. Upon completing one of the games, an icon was displayed on the screen showing proof of the user’s victory.
The nine games featured on the new Merlin included Swords And Shields, Seek The Grail, Castle Keep, Spell Bender, Mindcaster, Magic Square, Singing Sword, Ghost Walk, and Dragon Dance respectively.
Swords And Shields plays similar to Tic Tac Toe, while Seek The Grail is just like the classic shell game. Castle Keep requires users to guess a number between 0 and 99, while Spell Bender is a memory game. Mindcaster and Magic Square play similar to both Mastermind and Lights Out.
Singing Sword requires players to push the right buttons to make the swords on the screen disappear. Push the wrong button and a new sword will appear within the game. As for Ghost Walk, players must use directional pads to move the ghost towards the center of the screen and destroy it – even though the character is capable of resisting. Finally, Dragon Dance sees the player surrounded in all directions by dragons. If one pops up during gameplay, it is killed by pressing the directional pad where it appears.
As if these last three games don’t sound difficult enough, Parker Brothers also programmed Singing Sword, Ghost Walk, and Dragon Dance to keep time!
After all nine of the games have been successfully completed, Merlin will announce “Brave Knight, The Challenge Awaits”, and the console’s tenth quest officially begins!
This new game involves running through a dungeon maze to escape through the exit. Separated into three levels, the first stage is rather straightforward. The difficulty increases with the second stage, which briefly shows the walls temporarily before vanishing. The third level gets even harder as the full maze features invisible walls.
Should the maze be solved in record time, Merlin regards you with “Congratulations, You Are A Master”, and then display the final time within the dungeon maze.
A worthy successor to be sure, and one that fans of the original were happy to see back on store shelves – if for but a brief moment before some other hotly anticipated products quickly pushed it out of the spotlight!
A Magical Legacy
Merlin truly was unlike anything the world had ever seen.
And yet, the little Electronic Wizard ushered in a new age of gaming on the go.
Dare it be said that there would be no Game Boy without the release of Merlin. There would be no Game Gear. No Tiger LCD games. No iPad Air. Every significant handheld gaming device owes its existence, at least in part, to that fantastical little toy first conceived of by the team at Micro-Cosmos all those years ago.
With its blinking lights and series of simple beeps, Merlin may be more than a little outdated here in today’s world. However, forever will it be credited for putting society under its spell and kickstarting a whole new generation of electronic entertainment that left behind the outdated arcades and an aging generation of home consoles for something more.
Something still felt even now. Some forty-plus years later.
Way to change the game, Merlin! Way to change the world!