The First Handheld Game System To Use Interchangeable Cartridges Was The?
Answer: Milton Bradley Microvision
It may not have survived long enough to become a household name the same way the Game Boy did, but the Milton Bradley Microvision did cross a certain record finish line first (and clearly enough) to get put down in the annals of video game history with a clear achievement to its name: it was the first handheld game console with interchangeable cartridges.
A decade before handheld consoles like the Game Boy and Game Gear hit the market, way back in the virtual dark ages of gaming, 1979, you could play multiple games on the Microvision. The experience was both primitive by modern standards and weirdly advanced for the time. The Microvision had a tiny monochrome LCD screen with a mere 16×16 pixel resolution. The interface was a variable configuration of buttons and a control dial.
Variable configuration of buttons? To understand that statement, you need to understand how the Microvision worked. While modern portable game consoles have a set button layout and you change the game by swapping out small cartridges, the Microvision’s entire upper physical interface, minus the dial at the bottom, was the cartridge. To change the games out, you would snap the faceplate off and swap it with a new one. This not only plugged the new cartridge in and loaded the game on the screen, but the face plate itself had anywhere from one to six or more buttons hardwired into it. The symbols and layout of the buttons directly corresponded to the complexity and theme of the game.
Further, the snap on face plates also included physical overlays that corresponded to the games. The Connect Four cartridge, for example, had a grid painted on it and the bowling cartridge had a bowling lane—all designed to compensate for the very low resolution of the LCD screen and the inability of the system to render complex onscreen graphics.
The base unit (which included the game Block Buster, seen here) retailed for $49.99 and each game cartridge was $19.99—adjusted for inflation, that’s approximately $180 for the console and approximately $71 for each game. Despite its shortcomings and incredibly high cost, the Microvision certainly hinted at the future potential of the budding industry and foreshadowed the late 1980s when portable gaming would shift from a niche to a profitable industry.
Image courtesy of Milton Bradley.