Then and Now: Mattel Electronic Football

This weekly column looks at classic video games both in how they looked back in the day and how they stand up today. Though scores will be assigned, our tough review standards will be relaxed a bit for these games to give a general overview instead.

All retro games come courtesy of Retro Games Plus, located at 1761 Post Road East in Westport, CT. If you’re in the northeastern part of the United States, please give them a look.

Typically when we think back to the games that we used to play, we think of typical video games: NES, Atari 2600, games around that generation. Not many people think of games even simpler than the early arcade games, which were essentially programmed on transistors. There was a time before even my own birth when “video games” were nothing more than LEDs with a simple logic circuit. The late 1970s brought the earliest arcade games, the first truly successful home gaming console in the Atari 2600, and an advent of handheld games that were simple in design but addictive to people who had nothing else to do on long car trips and the like.

Today, we look back at arguably the most famous of those games, the Mattel Electronic Football game. Nothing more than a 9 x 3 LED grid with the ball carrier being a slightly larger hash, the system is still remembered well by the children of that era. Growing up in the 1980s, I bypassed Mattel’s games in favour of Game and Watch and later Tiger LCD games based off of larger properties, so other than a couple of times where I didn’t understand what was going on, my exposure to this legendary game has been limited.

Obviously, the difference between Mattel Electronic Football and modern handheld games is like the difference between a prototypical caveman’s wheel and modern Goodyear tires. But can it still be fun to play thirty-five years after its initial release?

Mattel Electronic Football
Original System: Standalone
Developer: Mattel
Publisher: Mattel
Original Release Year: 1977 (re-issued in 2000; the 2000 version reviewed)

HOW WAS IT THEN: As far as portable gaming went, you basically had two choices in 1977: this, or a deck of cards. This was highly sufficient for what it was. The entire game took place on a nine panel wide by three panel tall LED board with everything rendered as nothing more than a hyphen. The ball carrier was just a slightly larger hyphen, and the goal was to run through the five defensive pixels—no blockers—until the ball went into the end zone. On plays over nine yards, the ball carrier simply went back to the other side as if the game hit the return key on a typewriter.

For people who complain about the multiplayer nature of today’s games not allowing single-player play, that was literally the only option available: two-player games, with each player starting on their half of the field switching sides between quarters. Artificial intelligence? Forget about it; the movie Tron was still a twinkle in Steve Lisberger’s eye.

For such an old game, there were actually six buttons. The up and down arrows moved, and another button moved to either the left or right depending on which direction the play was going; there was no going backwards. The K button was the kick button for field goals, though punting was a bit too much for the game to handle. Finally, ST and SC showed the status (down, yards to first down, direction) and score, respectively. These also doubled as ways to reset a finished play and start the next one. Games actually played four full quarters, though every minute was about ten seconds long, which could be heard if the sound was on. Two difficulty settings existed, with the harder setting being faster.

Mattel Electronic Football was great in short burts of time in an era where the distractions were far fewer than they are today. It’s not even fair to “grade” the game according to how it was when it was new; there was simply nothing else to grade against. It’s like being the valedictorian of a class that’s been eaten by zombies; you get the title, but it’s a little hollow.

THEN: Inc.

HOW IS IT NOW: In 2012, Mattel Electronic Football—something I could’ve built in my high school electronics class—technically “competes” against every handheld football game that’s come since. Forget NFL Football for the Game Boy, Tecmo Bowl, and Joe Montana Football for Game Gear. Imagine putting this up against Madden ’12 for PSP.

So how does the old man stand up thirty-five years later from a fun standpoint? Not too shabbily!

Obviously, there are no playbooks, no NFLPA rosters, no motion capturing, or anything else that sets up games today. You know what else this game doesn’t have? A menu to select players. A loading screen. A freaking online pass. It has two switches: one for difficulty that turns it on, and one for sound. From boot up to being able to play, it literally takes less than a second.

Of course, NES games were quick to get into as well, but not all of them were good. The definition of “good” here is in the eye of the beholder, but this is simple yet effective gameplay. There’s actually more strategy here than anyone would admit at first glance. The defence lines up in a 3-1-1 of sorts, with everyone clogging the line three pixels back. The ball carrier can’t just slam it into the line because that’s only eight yards in four downs. Play doesn’t start until the carrier moves, so the player often has to go forward a bit, move around, and see if a hole opens up, at which point there’s no guarantee that they will get through because any pixel that’s adjacent to the ball carrier can tackle. Sometimes, the hole doesn’t open up, which could leave only a one yard gain. Since punting is basically not an option, that can be critical in a close game. Field goals are an option and are pretty much automatic from the 20 yard line in (I don’t know if there’s a set length before they miss or go in, or if that’s consistent). However, due to the nature of the defence, there’s no goal line stand. Any time someone gets first and goal from inside the 8, it’s pretty much a guaranteed touchdown because they can just slam the line until they cross. It’s not exactly Madden ’12—it’s not even NES Play Action Football—but it’s more than one would expect.

As a two player game, Mattel Football’s beauty is its simplicity. There are no money plays and no being at a disadvantage because your opponent plays more and therefore knows the AI’s tricks. The entire game can be learned within two minutes, and both players get the same defence, so that means the odds are about 50/50 in each game with a few breaks that could go either way. That’s much more fair than any online game of Madden I’ve played, and if you’re competitive enough, the technological strains will be meaningless in the larger competition. Trust me; I lost a come-from-behind game to a friend, and I was legitimately pissed. Then again, I’m competitive to the point where I get wound up over rock-paper-scissors, so I’m abnormal in that sense.

I got my copy of Mattel Football for $7.99 at RGP. It’s the reissued version from 2000, but from a playing standpoint, that’s actually better. Aesthetically, the only differences are a couple of labels, and the new version takes two AAs instead of the 9V batteries used more frequently in 1977, notwithstanding the $70 – $90 price tag that the vintage units are drawing online. For that price, this is more enjoyable to actually play than virtually any other handheld game that came before the PSP as those games tried to do much more, but ultimately, football is about the guy with the ball trying not to get tackled. While it won’t last for longer than a few minutes at a time, there is fun to be had with Mattel Electronic Football even thirty-five years after its initial release.

NOW: C+

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Christopher Bowen

About Christopher Bowen

Christopher Bowen is the Editor in Chief of Gaming Bus. Before opening Gaming Bus in May of 2011, he was the News Editor at Diehard GameFAN, a lead reporter for DailyGamesNews, and a reviewer at Not A True Ending, also contributing to VIMM, SNESZone and Scotsmanality. Outside of the industry, he is a network engineer in Norwalk, CT and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.