Journey back with long-time journalist Leonard Herman to the days when the newest game releases were mere whispers and shadows, mock-ups and promises in just a handful of game magazines. Leonard shares true stories from the heyday of trade shows including galleries of many long lost press releases, catalogs, and flyers.
Last time around I discussed my trials and tribulations with CES. This time I’m going to talk about another important trade show for gamers: The Toy Fair!
The International Toy Fair is one of the oldest trade shows in the country. It’s held every year in mid-February in New York. For me that was both a good and bad thing. It was good because it was only a 20-minute train ride from where I lived in Northern New Jersey at the time. It was bad because unlike Las Vegas in January, New York in February could feel like the coldest place on the planet. Toy Fair usually runs four days and the day I picked to go in 1983 was the same day a massive snowfall hit the New York metropolitan area.
In the early eighties Toy Fair was held at two adjoining buildings: 200 Fifth Avenue and 1108 Fifth Avenue. Together the two buildings, which are connected by a bridge, are known as The Toy Center. Any company worth its salt had a presence inside these mammoth buildings. In some cases the companies, such as Atari and Coleco, had their own sales offices and showrooms. Smaller companies usually grouped together in one office that usually belonged to an advertising firm or distributor. More on that in a minute. The way to peruse Toy Fair was by getting a copy of the directory and marking off which companies you wanted to visit. I then took the elevator to the top floor and then canvassed each floor before taking the staircase down to the next one. This was the only way to do it since the elevators were always packed. Sometimes I would discover that I missed a showroom but there was no way I was going to fight my way into the elevators again just to see what I missed.
You may wonder what Toy Fair had new to offer, especially since the Winter CES was held only a month earlier. Surprisingly, many companies debuted products at Toy Fair rather than at CES. When Parker Brothers first announced its entry into the Atari 2600 market, it was at Toy Fair that they first showed The Empire Strikes Back and Frogger. When you think about it, it makes perfect sense. Parker Brothers was a game company with no experience in exhibiting at an electronic show such as CES. However they were already set up for Toy Fair.
However even the established videogame companies used Toy Fair to debut new products. It was at Toy Fair 1983 that Atari showed off My First Computer, its computer upgrade for the 2600. At the same show Coleco showed it Expansion Pack #3, the expansion pack that would use wafers to store games which was eventually scrapped in favor of the Adam. At the 1984 Toy Fair, Milton Bradley showed off the Armored Command Controller, the third in its series of specialized controllers for the Atari 2600. Along with the controller was a game called Tank Blitz. Neither has ever been seen again.
The one exhibit at the 1983 Toy Fair that I was very anxious to see was that of the Great Game Company. The company was exhibiting in room 620 of 200 Fifth Avenue. The Great Game Company had received a lot of press about its forthcoming line of game show games for the 2600. Among them was going to be Password, The Price Is Right and Family Feud. The big question was how were they going to pull it off? The 2600 couldn’t possibly be able to play such games. Since the Great Game Company didn’t appear a month earlier at CES, all of my questions were finally going to be answered. Or were they?
Room 620 belonged to a manufacture’s rep, not the Great Game Company itself. Zimag also was represented here but Zimag at least had appeared at CES. In fact, Zimag had ads on the billboards that lined the roads from the airport to the Convention Center. And while Zimag didn’t show its Pizza Chef, which was featured in its catalog, I did meet the president of the company and got on its mailing list. They later sent me the four released games for the 2600 along with two or three other games that were playable on the Atari 800.
The Great Game Company also had a presence, of sorts, in Room 620. They had fliers for the taking, which had descriptions of the games. That was it. No screen shots. No demonstrations. Not even anybody ask questions to. Just a flier proclaiming that the games were “realistic – with all of the features that have made the original TV shows such long-running hits. They let the player experience the thrill of actually being a contestant on these shows.” On a 2600? How?
These questions would never be answered. The games were never released and the Great Game Company faded into oblivion. Or did it?
In 1988 a new company called Gametek released a trio of game show-based games for the Nintendo Entertainment System. One of the titles, Jeopardy, immediately brought back memories of the Great Game Company. But even more of a coincidence, Gametek was based in Hollywood, Florida, the same place as the Great Game Company. Alarms should have rang in my head that this was more than a coincidence but they didn’t.
Last year there was a thread on one of the websites concerning Gametek. In it someone mentioned that Gametek was a division of a company IJE and then the alarms once again flashed into my head. I went back into my archives and dug out the old Great Game Company flier and there it was in black and white: THE GREAT GAME COMPANY – Division of IJE. Then I checked the instruction manual to one of my Gametek games and those three letters, IJE, were in there also.
They were the same company! And I had the evidence all along and never was able to get two and two to equal four. If only I had connected the dots earlier! I could have contacted someone at Gametek and perhaps finally learned the fate of the evasive Great Game Company. But now it was too late. Gametek had folded a few years earlier.
When Nintendo released the NES in the United States, they included R.O.B. to give the unit a presence in toy stores. Today the toy industry had broken from the videogame industry and you’d be hard-pressed to find any evidence of a videogame industry at Toy Fair. My visit to the 2005 Fair will probably be my last. It’s now held at the huge Javitts Convention Center where I walked every aisle and found nothing that interested me. A few booths belonging to distributors displayed some Jakks Pacific TV Games but they weren’t even new. In fact the last time Toy Fair had any videogames was in 2001 when Hasbro Interactive was going strong. (The two largest toy and game companies, Hasbro and Mattel, don’t even have booths at Toy Fair. They show their goods at their own showrooms, which are several blocks away from the Convention Center).
But once upon a time videogames and toys co-existed happily. And for one special week in February, we had our own mini-CES in New York.
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