Updated: Apr 13
With the rising tide of popularity from Atari’s Pong, then Taito’s Space Invaders in the 70’s, and after the 1980 Namco cultural bomb Pac-Man, traditional toy companies dived deep into the new waters of electronic playthings and videogame themed toys. A lot of this might have been based around the concept of FOMO or “fear of missing out”. The new industry around video games sent a scare throughout the toy industry. This was driven by early successes of home Pong machines and their many clones. Soon after the Pongphenomenon the monumental success of the Atari VCS home system really made toy companies stand up and notice. Early video game machines were sold often in traditional toy and department stores who in turn, eventually also sold early home computer systems such as the Atari 800 and Commodore 64. Silicon Valley upstarts like Atari became the “cool kids” to 80’s kids and quicky ate into the profits from traditional toys. Kids in 1980 wanted Missile Command and Space Invaders, and no longer desired Easy Bake Ovens or Monopoly games leaving toy executives scrambling to wonder what the future of the industry would be like.
Several major toy companies most notably Mattel, Coleco, and Milton Bradley invested heavily into video game products during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. These products included everything from handheld games, cheap electronic music devices, traditional toys with licensed arcade game characters, stickers, software, and even competing videogame home systems. For all the companies that went down this rabbit hole, most would eventually pay a huge financial price with the video game crash of 1983-84. This crash not only destroyed the growing video game, home computer, and arcade markets but also led most of the toy companies to financial ruin as well. After 1984 kids went from wanting LED Football games, Q*Bert stuffed animals, and Intellivision systems for Christmas back to wanting G.I. Joe action figures and Cabbage Patch Kids creating a whiplash across several industries.
Out of all these video game and video game licensed or related products during the golden age of arcade games (1978-1984) none are quite as bizarre as traditional board games infused with arcade game licenses. Many companies manufactured board games in the USA, but Milton Bradley was by far the largest and most profitable. Milton Bradley (or just MB) was a powerhouse in the toy industry with a predictable and highly sought-after product line-up. MB originally started as a lithograph company in the 1860’s eventually finding success designing and selling a game titled The Checkered Game of Life. This unique game could be considered sort of the great-grandfather of the popular 20th century board game Life we know of today. As MB came into the 20th century, they would create and sell many board game titles that would become fixtures of childhood for most America households including games such as Battleship, Operation, Connect Four, and Candy Land.
With the advent of television entering the American landscape by the 1950’s, MB started to produce several original board game concepts based around licensing the rights to popular TV shows, celebrities, game shows, and movies. These licensed products would become one of the staple products in MB’s catalog for years to come providing some truly strange properties for board games considering most of these games were targeted to young children and pre-teens. Some of the licensed board game titles included: I Dream of Jeannie, Charlie’s Angles, Dark Shadows, James Bond, Archie Bunker, and even model Twiggy had her own game.
MB games produced a very large amount of licensed board games from both arcade and home video game licenses during the early 1980’s. MB seemed to have little loyalty to any company whom they licensed from exclusively, seemly trying to tag onto any hit arcade game. Some of the board game titles produced were based on: Sega’s Zaxxon, Frogger, and Turbo, Atari’s Centipede, Nintendo’s Donkey Kong, Stern’s Berserk, Midway’s Ms. Pac-Man, Activision’s Pitfall, and Taito’s Jungle Hunt. Without a doubt the most popular and best-selling game within the line however was the board game adaptation of Namco’s original Pac-Man arcade game.
Milton Bradley was far from the only toy company to get into the odd world of board games based on video game properties. Manufactures like Parker Brothers, Entex, Ideal, and Pressman also wanted in on the attempt to turn pixel quarter love into cardboard-based fun for the whole family. Parker Brothers grabbed up several licenses that MB seemly didn’t want including Namco’s Pole Position, William’s Joust, Popeye (based on the Nintendo arcade game) and Gottlieb’s Q*bert. Entex had the licenses for the Konami arcade game Turtles, William’s Defender (in North America only, MB would release their own version of Defender for most of the rest of the world) and produced a strange game called Invaders which was obviously inspired by Taito’s Space Invaders. Ideal made do with Konami’s Pooyan and Tutankham, and Midway’s Blue Print and Wizard of Wor. All of Ideal’s releases used a strange interactive plastic rolling device they titled “Flip R'Cade”. Copies of the Ideal arcade-based titles are very hard to find today, possibly due to low distribution or due to the fragile nature of the “Flip R’Cade” device built into the game board.
So, you might be asking what these games play like or are they any fun to play? How does the board game compare to the arcade version? Most of these games use play dynamics and devices to replicate the video game play in a board game format. The rules and concepts around the games tend to be the same as the video game. For example, in the MB board game version of Jungle Hunt you swing around the board in attempt to be the first player to rescue the girl in the jungle swinging from vines and avoiding an angry monkey just like in the arcade game. Jungle Hunt uses a unique spinner that attaches to the cardboard game mat with a unique series of movable plastic vines that the plastic character pawns attach to.
In Parker Brother’s board game adaption of Q*Bert, the game board looks just like an arcade level in the real video game and the concepts around game play are almost the same. In MB’s version of Berserk, the video game is turned into a two-player maze strategy game were players take turns playing the human character or the Evil Otto character for the highest number of “points”. Almost all these games share one thing in common, they are boring to play. These board games require little strategy, do only a pale impersonation of the real video game experience, and offering little in the ways of originality. Coming off like a cash grab at best by the companies selling them, my guess is they were probably often given as Holiday gifts, played once, and then stashed in the closet and forgotten about.
Out of the several classic arcade board games I scooped up from EBay in preparation for this article, the only game I really sort of enjoyed was MB’s adaptation of Sega’s Turbo. After playing it a few times, I felt it had a bit of strategy and originality behind it compared to many of the other games. The arcade game licensing aspect of Turbo seems inconsequential to the game itself compared to the other arcade themed board games. Don’t take this as huge praise however, if you enjoy more modern board games I practically guarantee these nostalgic arcade-based board games will only leave you wanting to play something else.
One interesting oddball within the genre of these games might be the somewhat rare board game version of Cloak & Dagger (manufactured by Pressman) based around both the somewhat obscure Atari arcade game and the 1984 film of the same title. The game was shown briefly in the movie and contains the same “Jack Flack” character figurine used as a prop in the film. The game is a progressive stat building RPG hybrid game and one of the few games based on an arcade game with a deeper sense of play dynamics. The vague instructions included with the game unfortunately don’t really help matters but the game is well produced and Pressman Games seems to have made some effort to make a more dynamic product.
After the video game crash many of the companies that had invested heavily into the video game market (most notably Mattel, Coleco, and MB) suffered huge financial losses. MB would eventually get bought by Hasbro after the financial losses suffered from its failed (but innovative) video game systems the Microvision and Vectrex. This didn’t stop board games based around video games to end, however. With the late 1980’s resurgence of the home video game market lead by Nintendo, soon a new wave of crappy board games based on Super Mario Bros, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Link would be headed to store shelves. There have also been countless traditional board game versions themed around well know video game characters (Monopoly, Life, Clue), and countless newer more modern games based on current and classic video games.
To wrap it all up, these odd traditional board games of classic video games are a fun historical footnote of how toy companies both wanted to cash in on the “new hot video game market” of the early 1980’s. At the same time, they helped contribute the poor market conditions with an over saturation of crappy products based around video games, leading to a market downturn. As a nostalgic time capsules these games are neat, offering some very nicely done artwork, gameboards, and memories of days gone past. As games however, they are all mostly lackluster and probably only made the kids who received them on birthdays hungrier for a trip to the local arcade to play real arcade games.
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