Spare a thought for the forgotten heroes of retro gaming

Electronic games were as important to the 80s gaming boom as Nintendo and Sir Clive Sinclair

After Burner table-top
(Image credit: Numskull)

Like vinyl records and perms, retro gaming is in the midst of something of a resurgence. Not only do we have multi-system machines that can play 10s if not 100s of games, but some of the old favourites are returning.

Take the Atari 2600+, for example, not only is it the reimagining of an old console, it is compatible with the cartridges of yesteryear. And there's the recently-announced Analogue 3D – a forthcoming, new machine designed to play old N64 cartridges in 4K on modern TVs.

We don't just want versions of old games, we want to play them directly.

However, there's one area of past gaming that has so far largely remained untouched  something that many of a certain age remember fondly, but few others know much about – electronic games.

Rather than a swanky and expensive games console from Nintendo, or computer from Sinclair or Commodore, most kids in the 80s got their gaming kicks from a single-game gadget from the likes of Tiger or Grandstand.

These often took the form of handhelds in various form factors that featured simplistic versions of popular arcade machines, playing out on a tiny LCD or, even, LED screen.

Dracula House table-top

(Image credit: Numskull)

An arcade machine at home

However, if you were a particularly lucky child, you might have found a table-top electronic system under the tree at Christmas. These were the most sought-after playthings around, looking a little like the coin-op cabinet on which they were based – either through a licence or barely disguised clone – and they are also the subject of a new book by games journalist and retro expert, Mike Diver.

As a huge fan of electronic games myself, owning several in the 80s with a couple still working today, I caught up with the author to talk about "From Coin-Ops to Table-Tops: The Essential Electronic Games" and retro gaming in general.

To be published by Numskull – the company behind the superb Quarter Arcades machines that revisit old coin-ops but at 1/4 of the original size – the book is currently being crowdfunded on Kickstarter and, as Diver explained, presented a joyous stroll down memory lane.

"it’s important to bear in mind they don’t all work, exactly," said Diver in reference to the machines that were chosen to be included.

"Some simply weren’t fun to play then, and definitely aren’t fun to play now. But the best of them manifest a sort of magic, a unique experience where you’re playing a version of a game you’re aware of, like Space Invaders or Pac-Man, but it’s reshaped into this standalone entity which, often, was absolutely maximised for the platform it’s on."

Tomy Caveman

(Image credit: Numskull)

The golden era of games?

This isn't really something that can be easily replicated today, where the one game provides countless hours of play with few distractions. Especially in an age where a reasonably-priced Xbox Game Pass subscription provides immediate access to 100s of titles.

"I wouldn’t say I miss it, but perhaps there was something about the era that can’t be recreated now, which I’m sad has become rather lost," he said.

"When you got one of these table-tops, that was your game for the next however many weeks. You played it and played it, and learned its ins and outs, how to game the game in a way. And you can absolutely do that today with any game, but the freedom of choice has definitely made the chances of anyone doing so significantly slimmer.

"But I’m not so naïve to say something like the 1980s was the golden era of gaming, or anything like that. We’ve never had it as good as we do now."

Ms Pac-Man table-top

(Image credit: Numskull)

A future for the past?

Indeed, the riches we now enjoy include the ability to play the games of yesteryear alongside those of today, with services such as Antstream Arcade giving us instant access to 100s of retro titles thanks to emulation. Diver thinks this kind of approach could benefit the forgotten wonders of table-top electronic games too.

"Now that these VFD (vacuum fluorescent display) games can be emulated, it’d be very cool to see a several-games-in-one table-top, from Tomy or Grandstand," he enthused.

"I’m not sure what the status of the Grandstand brand actually is, who owns the game – or who owns the rights of these games, for that matter. But a new table-top machine styled after something like Caveman or Astro Blaster, that classic mini-arcade look, packed full of Grandstand favourites from back when, that’d be something to behold.

"I’m not sure there’s a market for it – but you never know."

Let's hope so. In the meantime, we can flick through the pages of Mike Diver's hardback homage and reminisce over some of the greatest, unsung heroes of gaming. And then head to eBay to see if we can snag some of the originals on the cheap.

I'll see you there.

From Coin-Ops to Table-Tops

(Image credit: Numskull)

From Coin-Ops to Table-Tops: The Essential Electronic Games is now available to pre-order/back on Kickstarter from £10 for a PDF of the finished book to signed copies and more.

The crowdfunding phase expires on Friday 27 October 2023 and shipping is due to start in April next year.

Rik Henderson
News Editor

Rik is T3’s news editor, which means he looks after the news team and the up-to-the-minute coverage of all the hottest gadgets and products you’ll definitely want to read about. And, with more than 35 years of experience in tech and entertainment journalism, including editing and writing for numerous websites, magazines, and newspapers, he’s always got an eye on the next big thing.

Rik also has extensive knowledge of AV, TV streaming and smart home kit, plus just about everything to do with games since the late 80s. Prior to T3, he spent 13 years at Pocket-lint heading up its news team, and was a TV producer and presenter on such shows as Channel 4's GamesMaster, plus Sky's Games World, Game Over, and Virtual World of Sport.