By request: Tabletop games

By request of lcooperberg

I suspect this request was actually meant to do with board games, but to be completely honest I haven’t played much in the way of board games since about… junior high. I’m not talented enough to write some sort of insightful essay about a topic I haven’t cared about in more than 20 years, so let’s expand our search parameters and explore the place where traditional tabletop gaming intersects with the newfangled world of video games.

Coleco Tabletop Arcade Games


For a five-year-old obsessed with video games in the early ’80s, these things were basically the Holy Grail. The idea of owning an actual arcade machine never really occurred to a young me, but Coleco’s tabletop arcade miniatures were theoretically within grasp. At $50-70 a pop, though, they always remained just a bit beyond our reasonable means. They were tantalizing in the truest allegorical myth sense of the word — always within sight, always just a little too expensive to buy.

At the most basic level, these devices basically worked like Game & Watch systems, with pre-drawn graphics appearing around the screen depending on the game in question. Unlike Game & Watch, though, Coleco’s tabletop arcade games used VFD (vacuum fluorescent display) technology instead of LCD (liquid crystal display) — while the concept was the same between the two graphical display systems, VFD — the same tech used even now for some clock and microwave over displays — glowed brightly. With the help of artfully arranged color overlays, there was even a simulation of color. Set against a black background, enhanced by the shadow created by the faux arcade unit’s design, the graphics did a fine job of simulating the contemporary arcade experience, which usually featured bright character graphics against deep black as well.

Coleco’s work on these was spectacular. Frankly, this Game & Watch style approach to Pac-Man proved to be at least as accurate and considerably more fun than the Atari VCS version of the game. Coleco released about a dozen of these, and most of them proved to be highly satisfying takes on their arcade counterparts. Zaxxon even incorporated a complex display involving mirrors to simulate the arcade game’s 3D effect. All in all, these were the way to play games on the go until Game Boy came along… though for most us, the Game & Watch format proved to be much more accessible in terms of pricing.



Spendy as those Coleco devices were, though, they didn’t even begin to compare to the Vectrex. The Vectrex was so premium and out of a kid’s reach that I never even knew it existed until about 15 years after the fact.

Far too bulky to be considered portable, Vectrex essentially existed to play the role of a vector-based arcade unit at home. Its hefty price honestly wasn’t too terrible considering the experience it recreated. While its monochrome visuals lacked the punch of a color vector system like Tempest, it nevertheless managed to do a fine job of putting vector art into mortal hands.

The hardware seems to be a lot more durable than that of arcade vector systems. Where classic vector uprights tend to be pretty hard to come by in working order in this day and age, I see a fair number of Vectrexes (Vectrices?) each year. There’s inevitably one for public use in the PAX Classic Gaming Free Play room, and a few months back my brother-in-law surprised me by bringing his own Vectrex up from storage while we jawed about nerd things late into the night over Thanksgiving break. It works perfectly — and better yet, his kids (ages seven and 10) obsess over playing the thing.

Tech snobbery is a learned habit; for the pure at heart, there’s plenty of entertainment yet to be derived from a classic device like Vectrex.

Virtual Boy


Ah, the poor, benighted Virtual Boy.

The Virtual Boy was a very cool idea executed reasonably well, but it was brought into the world without anyone ever really stopping to ask, “Does anyone actually want this?” The idea: Create an inexpensive “virtual reality” style system that could create convincing 3D visuals at a consumer-manageable price point. The Virtual Boy went up against extremely expensive creations like Sega’s Time Travelers arcade unit and the touring Pac-Man VR system but was priced more like a console — and worked like one, too, since it ran on interchangeable cartridges. Virtual Boy offered more innovation than just its visual gimmick; its dual-analog controller neatly predicted the rise of twin-stick interface design for 3D games.

The problem was, well, 3D graphics have and always will be a boondoggle. They’re a gimmick that gets dusted off every couple of decades when one industry or another runs out of innovation and decides to lean on tech trickery to nudge sales head again. And, inevitably, once the novelty wears off a few years later, no one cares. The one place 3D seems to have found a niche for itself is as a supplementary feature for big-budget Hollywood fare, thanks to a handful of studios who have managed to make smart use of it (Marvel Studios in particular). But in games? No one cares now, and no one cared in the ’90s.

Also, Virtual Boy was very much a tabletop system, not a handheld one. This undoubtedly confused a lot of prospective buyers, given that the “Boy” designation suggested an affiliation with the decidedly portable Game Boy.

Had Virtual Boy been an add-on or peripheral, it would probably be regarded with a mixture of fondness and bemusement. Instead, it remains Nintendo’s biggest-ever screw-up — though some would argue the Wii U is giving it a run for its money — thanks to its cumbersome setup, monochromatic graphics, and relatively high price. Not to mention its fragility; good luck finding one of these in working order.

There’s a part of me that wants to cover Virtual Boy for Game Boy World, but there’s another part of me that is actually sane and values peace of mind.

Speaking of Wii: Also of some relevance to the concept of tabletop gaming is the rise of near-field communication gaming… though Nintendo’s foray into NFC gaming this fall will determine whether that, too, is a gimmick that’s run its course or a brave new sustainable world of exploiting children for money. Stay tuned!

6 thoughts on “By request: Tabletop games

  1. Nice retrospective! I remember an old Pac-Man game we had like that.

    You might want to give some of these newfangled board games a try. A lot of them are really great, and some do a very good job translating the feel of video games into cards, plastic and cardboard. The Gears of War Board Game is an especially good adaptation.

  2. My uncle had the Coleco Donkey Kong machine as a kid. He left it at my grandparents’ house on a high shelf in their closet. I used to sneak it down to play when I had nothing else to do. It took some time to get used to the controls, but I was pretty good after a few summers spent with the game.

    For future tabletop gaming content, you can always do another post about your adventures in the worlds of D&D and GURPS.

    • Honestly, I’ve covered everything there is to say about those adventures. We never even got a game going — just goofed around with character sheets.

  3. “There’s a part of me that wants to cover Virtual Boy for Game Boy World, but there’s another part of me that is actually sane and values peace of mind.”

    Well obviously it would be foolish to cover all the games since a good majority of them were apparently crap, but the one thing I find interesting about the Virtual Boy is that it had a direct sequel to the first Wario Land game, which so far has remained exclusive to the VB. Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3 was one of my favorite platformers on the Game Boy, so I can’t help but wonder how Virtual Boy Wario Land compares.

    • I rented a VB a couple of times and my memory is that Wario Land was the only legitimately good game for it.

      I tried to play it on an emulator recently and found it hard to play — mainly because, without the 3D view, it was hard to make sense of the different action planes and tell the stuff I could interact with apart from the stuff I couldn’t.

      It seems like it would be a really good candidate for 3DS Virtual Console. But so do a lot of things that aren’t on 3DS Virtual Console.

  4. I too have always wanted a Coleco Tabletop, but never quite gotten around to buying one. The Vectrex sure is good eatin’ though! Minestorm (the built in Asteroids variant) is one of the best games on the system. It has quite a few home ports of Cinematronics vector arcade games, out of which Star Castle is the cream of the crop. The Vectrex also has quite the active Homebrew scene. Someday I will track down a 2nd joystick for it.

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