With the emerging popularity of video games in the late 70s, it was only a matter of time before the technology was introduced into a plethora of hand-held devices. Many of these disappeared as quickly as they arrived, but the ones that proved both challenging and versatile enjoyed much greater success. One such game was Merlin, introduced by Parker Brothers in 1978. Boasting a wide variety of game variations that included everything from memory games to Blackjack and even a musical sequencer, Merlin had all the magic necessary to become a hit.
Devised by Harvard PhD and former NASA scientist Bob Doyle, Merlin was housed within a bright red plastic case that featured a matrix of eleven buttons, each equipped with their own red LED light. Looking much like a touch-tone phone, with a speaker at the top and four game selection buttons at the bottom, Merlin was perfect any place where boredom reared its ugly head, say perhaps the backseat of a car during a long road trip.
Contained within Merlin was a small microprocessor that allowed users to play one of six games. Traditional games such as Tic Tac Toe and Blackjack were included, Mindbender taunted players to figure out a secret number (much like Mastermind,) Magic Square challenged them to form a square within a shifting playfield, Echo was a version of the already-popular Simon sequential memory game, and finally, Music Maker converted the device into a musical instrument, where sequences of notes could be recorded and played back.
Parker Brothers eventually improved upon the concept with Master Merlin, which offered more game playing possibilities and Split Second, which introduced games that required they be completed within a certain amount of time. The original boasted the most success, however, with over five million units sold in the initial run. And while home videogame consoles would eventually dominate the market, you couldn’t exactly play Intellivision on a road trip to St. Louis or inside an airport terminal. For versatility and portability alone, Merlin won a place in the hearts of gamers everywhere with its simple charm and technological wizardry that left a magical impression on anyone who ever had the pleasure of holding one in their hand.
If you have fond memories of matching wits with Merlin back in the day, we welcome them in our comments section. Tell us which games were your favorites and why the toy holds a special place in your heart, as we celebrate this handheld classic, here at Retroland.