Vintage Video Games: In Praise of Mattel Football

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It was 1977, and I was 10 years old.

My summer days were spent getting together with a couple of friends and riding our bikes a mile down the road to an ice cream shop called Zips, where we’d spend handfuls of quarters on video games. We’d play for hours, then ride home sweaty and fulfilled. We were kings of our own destinies … for those afternoons, anyway.

Then something magical happened: Toy manufacturer Mattel released a handheld game called Electric Football.

Holy Freakin’ Shit!

This was months before Atari 2600 hit the market, and even more months before every household had one. This little game, with its red dashes and simple interface, was small enough to take to school and play on lunch and in the hallway and … Oh man, were we elated. We all had them, but usually one would do. We would pass it back and forth, challenging each other in championship play, first on Pro 1, the beginner level, where the red-blip defenders moved slower than Jabba the Hut stuck in hot asphalt. It wouldn’t be long before we would engage Pro 2, and we would still smoke those suckers.

Mattel-Football

Like any game geek, we would learn all of the finite patterns the defense would follow, and we’d wait for the patterns to develop before making our moves. The object wasn’t scoring, but scoring big and crushing the face of your opponent to dust. We were living the glory days of handheld video gaming, and we didn’t even know it.

I used the two-handed method, right hand for up and down, left for speedy forward movement. I became so familiar with the sounds that I recognized them in popular music (the “fourth-down tackle” sound was used in The Logical Song by Supertramp and the “touchdown” sound appeared in the original Rock the Casbah by The Clash. Subsequent mixes have the sound removed.) I was obsessed.

Then came 2600.

800px-Atari-2600-Wood-4Sw-Set

Early on, there were only a few cartridges — Pong and Combat — so Electric Football was still part of our daily game regimen. But within a year or two, Space Invaders and Pac-Man were released. Not only that, but Mattel had also rolled out a few new handhelds, including Football 2 and Basketball.

Mattel-Basketball

We were won over. Everyone but me, that is.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, I played the hell out of Space Invaders and Pac-Man. And Asteroids and Berzerk, too. I loved the Basketball handheld, but wasn’t as fond of Football 2. (The passing option seemed a cheaters way to gain yardage; I was a ground-game kind of guy.) I mastered them, just like my friends. But secretly, I had created my own Electric Football 1 league, using the NFL as the basis for the rankings.

Back then, IHOP (the International House of Pancakes, for you Denny’s fans) released a magnetic NFL standings board that would accommodate all of the teams’ helmets, and I had collected them all. I used this to track each game. I kept a notebook full of handwritten schedules, complete with playoffs and a Super Bowl date, which always coincided with the real Super Bowl. (Yes, this went on for years.)

NFL Magnet Board

Of course, my home team, the New England Patriots, would somehow win … undefeated Super Bowl champs every year, but the games that didn’t include the Pats were always nail-biters. I would actually break a sweat, swearing to remain objective during gameplay while trying my hardest for each team to come out on top. At night, under the covers muffling the speaker, on lunch break leaning on my back-pack, on rainy Saturday afternoons. It was my obsession.

Eventually my interest in video gaming waned. Music, already my other obsession, consumed me, and record collecting and performing became my life. But I remember with great fondness the earliest days of at-home gaming. I still have my Mattel Electric Football 1. (They go for hundreds these days.) It’s banged up pretty good, but it’s the original, before they even started calling it “1”. The battery cover is gone, and the packaging, of course, disappeared the moment I opened it back in ’77. But its charm, its nostalgic value washes over me in waves whenever I take it out.

And play it.

And the Patriots win.

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