Looking back, Merlin wasn’t much different than the other electronic handheld games released around the time, including a series of sports games from Mattel and Coleco. They all ran on 8-bit processors from companies like Intel and Texas Instruments and in lieu of even basic LCD screens used a grid of red LEDs which were the cheapest to manufacture at the time. What made Merlin still appealing to me years later was its design that allowed for multiple games to all run on the same device. Simon never appealed to me because it was a one-trick pony. If I got bored of music, I could always jump back to a quick game of Tic-Tac-Toe. As mobile distractions go, Merlin might be the closest thing to the smartphone’s great-great-great-grandparent.

Despite never being as popular as Simon (I don’t remember ever seeing a single Merlin toy commercial on TV as a kid, where as Simon seemed to be everywhere), Merlin The Electronic Wizard still went on to sell over 5.5 million units before being quietly discontinued sometime in the mid-’80s. It was groundbreaking when it was first released, but just a few years later Nintendo introduced its first Game & Watch handhelds with LCD displays featuring real graphics and animations. They, and the hundreds of LCD-based handhelds that were to follow from companies like Tiger Electronics, were much smaller and less power-hungry than Merlin was. Parker Brothers’ creation also faced stiff competition from the burgeoning home console market, and despite including multiple games, it didn’t come close to the number of games offered on consoles like the Atari 2600 and ColecoVision which used swappable game carts.

Like many of my childhood electronic toys, Merlin eventually died in storage, presumably at the hands of six AA batteries that corroded away over time. I wasn’t pleased to learn my parents had thrown it away, but I do appreciate them actually allowing me to enjoy and experiment with it when I was younger. I’m sure it was the catalyst for them bringing home a Commodore 64 a few years later, which was a fundamental part of my childhood and a big part of who I am today. But Merlin was definitely the first spark.