The regular arrival of the new Marshall Ward and Littlewoods and sometimes Kays and Freemans mail order catalogues twice a year was always a big event for my middle brother and me during the early eighties, but biggest of all was the arrival of the autumn/winter editions because, as well as about seven hundred pages of everything you could ever imagine as usual, it had a massive toy section, just in time for Christmas! I’m sure that’s where my aversion to the summer comes from – about a dozen pages of toys if you were lucky, where the other one was War and Peace! Exciting stuff, and we’d happily spend hours poring over all the things we couldn’t have! We even had a game called “Best on This Page” where you’d turn a page blind and have to be the first to point at the thing you wanted most on there, though in reality, the biggest win was piling humiliation on the other when they missed out on the least offensive item on the doll or toddler pages! Worked for watches too, and prospective school bags, and even the greatest fashions history has ever provided for us. Would have eventually worked for the legendary underwear pages too, no doubt!
Of course, there was also a serious side to all of this – these catalogues were one of the biggest influences on our Christmas present list, and having this pre-internet but equally always available information shoved down our young throats would allow those careful choices to ferment over almost as long as it took to pay each purchase off in weekly instalments! Just remembered I bought my first CD player that way after I got my Saturday job in Sainsbury’s in the summer of 1988; can’t for the life of me remember what it was – a Goodmans mini stack thing, possibly. Anyway, back to our pointing fingers at catalogues, there were some pages where everyone was a winner – always more than enough cool Scalextric and Lego sets, and Action Man and Star Wars vehicles to go around! And as these fancy new handheld and tabletop electronic games gradually started to dominate the pages that used to be full of electronic chess sets, the same was definitely true of those! By the way, credit to the Worcestershire Archive & Archaeology Service for the pic from Kays Autumn/Winter 1980/81 you’ve just seen, which includes the very Action Man helicopter I got for Christmas that year, and the training tower that followed for my ninth birthday the following May!
Over the next few years we ended up with a pretty decent haul of these electronic games between us! Grandstand’s Invader From Space was the very first, also making it my very first video game, and I reckon that might have been Christmas 1981. It’s still a great take on Space Invaders with a clever multicoloured display and sound effects you’ll always be able to place if you ever hear them again, just like its inspiration! Sucked up a load of big batteries in no time though, so a universal mains adaptor was quickly essential! Probably the same time, my brother got Bandai’s Missile Invader, a smaller scale and simpler take on Space Invaders but equally fun and one you could eventually play just by sound, to give an idea of how much we both played it! Red on black not ideal when you’ve got red-black colourblindness though, so in this case a darkened room was equally essential!
I’m a bit less clear on the chronology for the next two, but there’s a fair chance they both arrived for Christmas 1982. Whenever it was, my brother’s next one was Mini Munchman, also from Grandstand, which was a rebadge of Epoch’s Epoch Man from 1981. It’s a proper LCD screen now, in a slim profile but absolutely great-looking handheld take on Pac-Man. It’s got a couple of unique features, including some cool rustic bridges to travel under, and if the unit itself looks good then the mirrored-silver box it came in is another level! My turn now, and it was my one and only Nintendo Game & Watch (at least until Mario and Zelda reappeared more recently), and that was Snoopy Tennis, released in 1982. I loved that game and still do – you’re Snoopy on a beautiful three-level tree knocking back balls to Charlie Brown and occasionally Lucy; it’s pretty much perfect, and is still in perfect working condition (although the box is a bit worn now) forty years on.
And that just leaves us with BMX Flyer, which I think came on my brother’s eleventh birthday in 1984, but we’ll come back there in a second because that last comment about Snoopy Tennis is a good place to look at the provenance of all those other machines we’ve just looked at that are now in my possession! Apart from Snoopy Tennis, none of them are either of our original units, unfortunately… I actually got through two Invaders From Space units in the early eighties (the second originally belonging to my auntie) because the somewhat fragile left and right arcade stick broke after extended use. Missile Invader definitely ended up in a box in the loft and who knows where it eventually ended up from there, several clear outs and house moves later. I think the screen eventually went on Mini Munchman and BMX Flyer is a mystery, but most likely ended up at a school or church fete. If only we’d known…
I’ve usually got one madcap mission or the other on the go on eBay! Going back about twenty years, the first was probably some vintage horror movie magazines like Famous Monsters of Filmland, and old pulp novels or copies of Weird Tales I’d never really had access to before. Then it was The Doors and Jack the Ripper memorabilia, which resulted in my two biggest ever eBay purchases – a fully-certified Jim Morrison signed photo and the Punch yearbook from 1888, which is also the most I’ve ever spent on a book anywhere, and by a long way! Around the same time, my huge collection of cassettes was becoming increasingly redundant, with nothing big left to play them on in the house, so I started replacing them with CDs. To this day, a lot of that early nineties indie and alternative stuff I was into still commands a high price on CD because they just didn’t make many, and some of it, for example Killing Joke and Ministry offshoot Murder Inc’s only album, has also never been released anywhere else since.
There’s a bit of a gap then, probably to about 2015, and in preparation for moving to a house that had new space for all sorts of stuff to come out of hibernation! Nintendo GameCube was the first to get some love, which it really hadn’t when my wife bought it for me when it first came out and I was all about the PlayStation. I put together a curated list of maybe twenty games I wanted and over the course of several years gradually found them in decent condition and for a reasonable price; more joined the list along the way and I’ve got a pretty decent collection now! Exactly the same for PS2 once I’d finished with the GameCube, which I gave away to my cousin and then most of the games to the bass player in my old band when I moved to PS3. Two working consoles and a huge collection on there now, including Time Crisis 2, which arrived a couple of hours ago as I write! And same for Atari ST, which started out as topping up what I had at the time with what I couldn’t afford at the time, and we’re now down to a handful of nice-to-haves over there from a list of about thirty titles.
It was towards the end of 2020 that I turned my attention to replacing our old handhelds, but while a few GameCube games had been a challenge within my price range (Luigi’s Mansion in particular), these things were something else! Working units with screens that aren’t all covered in scratches or don’t have battery covers missing are rare. Boxed versions are mega-rare! And as such, any of the the above can command a ridiculous price – go and have a look now because there’s sure to be a couple of eye-watering non-auction units for sale! I’ve always been strict with not veering away from my carefully thought-out targets for any of these projects though, and I’ve always had a price limit so I’ve learned to be patient! Mini Munchman was the first to tumble, unboxed and with a small LCD bleed mark on the screen, but it’s barely noticeable when you’re playing. Then, over the course of 2021, first came Invaders From Space in what was left of a box, but boxes have never been a consideration so no worries there, and that was closely followed by Missile Invader, which doesn’t come up much but was never very popular so actually was well within my limits. Unlike BMX Flyer, which was at the very edge. Kind of!
This one has become my eBay holy grail over the last couple of years; BMX Flyer is a rare one in any condition, with email alerts for actual auctions (rather than a recurring boxed unit that’s about £500 and will never be sold) probably appearing once a month if you’re lucky. As said, I’m not fussed about boxes, and I’m also not fussed about a bit of wear and tear, but for this one I didn’t want dirty great scratches across the screen because it’s black and it’s going to look crap unless where you are is pitch black too. That probably reduces the number of auctions of interest to about three per year, also assuming they’re not starting at a silly price. My own price limit started at £80 but eventually crept up to £150 by the time I did finally win the right auction at somewhere in-between in the summer of 2022. I’d come painfully close a couple of months earlier, when I thought my last second bid of £125 was well out in front, only to be scuppered by a single Pound, but the one I got was worth waiting for – pretty much perfect, and, apart from where it looks like a label was torn off the front at some point, so is the box, which was a nice bonus!
It’s no coincidence that Grandstand first released BMX Flyer in 1983; that was absolute peak BMX! Bicycle Motocross had already swept across America by the time it reached us here in the UK, but I doubt there was a more popular Christmas present request that year, thanks in part to this totally unique bike design that could never have emerged out of another time period, with its vibrant colours and big, solid plastic spokes and padding around the frames promising to take jumping over your friends lying in a terrified row on the ground beneath a rickety ramp fashioned out a plank of wood and a couple of bricks to a whole new dimension! It wasn’t just having them rammed down our throats by the likes of Halfords though – most of us had been to the cinema that summer to see BMX Bandits, with a young Nicole Kidman and her trio of BMXers getting tangled up with a bunch of bank robbers after they found their cache of walkie-talkies! And if we hadn’t, then we’d definitely seen E.T. flying across the front of the moon on one a bit before that! Even Roland Rat couldn’t compete with this level of cool back in 1983, and BMX Flyer was perfectly timed to take full advantage!
The aim of the game is to get your BMX rider, who seems to be known as either BMX Rider or Super Rider, clear of as many obstacles, such as cans, crows, gaps, jumps, Mad Riders (yes!) and a “gangster” dropping bombs out of a helicopter (even better!), as possible through increasingly fast and crowded stages. These are displayed as laps, greeted with a nice audio fanfare and bonus points, and you keep going until you’re out of your three lives. Every so often your girlfriend is also going to appear above you in a hot air balloon, and if you can jump at the right time you’ll be able to touch her for another nice bonus. Also important, according to the instruction manual section where it explains all of this, is that “comical music will accompany you to liven up this exciting BMX game!” We’ll be the judge of that shortly, but first let’s quickly cover the unit itself…
It’s a generous 15cm long by 10.5cm wide and 3cm deep at its deepest from a starting point of just under 2cm at the bottom, which all helps to hold it comfortably! You could say the “Lasercolour LCD” screen is 4.5-inch but in reality there’s a cutout hiding the actual screen, which is letterbox 3-inch but pulls off a clever illusion of being bigger as a result! It’s powered by four AA batteries, or, as the box and the unit itself recommends, four Duracell MN1500 batteries to “give longer life in this game.” Interestingly, it’s very specific again later on when it’s warning you about spilling liquids onto the unit, “especially orange juice!” You can also use that universal mains adaptor you’ve got for Invader From Space, although the battery life is a bit more generous here despite the reduction in battery size! It’s coloured like the iconic Raleigh Burner Mk1, with a bright yellow plastic front and blue back and buttons, plus the black on black screen area when it’s powered off. As well as the sliding power button on the front, there’s one for sound on/off too, which any kid of the time will know is an absolute godsend for illicit sessions under the sheets in bed!
You’ve also got four “directional” buttons on the front, with a Dirt Key for dispatching any Mad Riders coming up your rear with a puff of dirt in the face; the Wheelie Key will see you over a small gap or an abandoned drinks can; then the Jump Key is for jump, for example when you want to cop a feel of your girlfriend in her balloon; finally, Down Key takes you down, when you come across a gap that’s too big to wheelie or jump over. Both jumping and spraying dirt uses energy, and this is represented by an energy meter containing a maximum of six vertical bars, or pins. You lose one of these each time you jump or dirt, and when they’re gone you can’t do either anymore until you lose a life, which becomes far more imminent at that point, or get to the end of a lap, where any pins remaining will translate to bonus points and you’ll start again. There’s also occasional water tanks that will replenish two pins, and successfully reaching the balloon also earns you the one you used to get there back. Doing these also earns you a hundred points for each, where everything else like a wheelie or using dirt will earn you ten points. The water tanks are found in water supply areas, which are kind of tunnels that you can either wheelie across the entrances to if the tank is on ground level, or go down into if its been placed down there. You’ll only get a split-second to react though, especially when you’re moving a bit faster the further you’ve gone – by lap three it’s a lot of quick decisions and a lot of quick button taps!
Most other obstacles and enemies give you a bit more notice of their presence, and as you progress the skill becomes about timing over reactions – do you jump or dirt first, and do you really need to use dirt at all because you might make the approaching gap before you need to, but if you jump instead have you got time to land again before you hit the crow that’s just appeared in the air? That said, if you want to get to the balloon you don’t want to hang around either – it’s there just long enough that you’re going to be really frustrated if you miss it but with everything else going on it’s not always that simple! I almost forgot about our friend the gangster in his helicopter too! When he appears, it becomes about survival – there’s no points at stake, just your life, as you tap wheelie to avoid the flurry of bombs he’s dropping! It’s these simple, brief and individually minor switches in gameplay mechanics that I think are the real genius behind BMX Flyer! You’re kept constantly on your toes as you react to danger and opportunity, and make tiny decisions about priority, all the while influenced by that energy bar, and the panic when you realise you’ve just jumped when you should have wheelied and you’ve got nothing left to deal with the guy now behind you, and there’s now no way you’re reaching that gap before he gets to you! And behind all of that, there’s the raw pleasure of riding your BMX like a boss, which becomes second nature within mere minutes of picking up the game again, even decades after your last game! Oh yeah, if you hold down any of the keys between games you’ll see your previous best score, which is unfortunately (but obviously) lost when you power-off, but touch nothing and you’ll get an attract mode demonstration, which is a lovely way just to admire everything we’ve just described in peace!
This game really is something to admire in action too! The landscape you’re riding over is made up of repeating individual lines (think blocks) each with a textured surface. Gaps are similar, with a downward curved line then more individual blocks depending on the size of the gap, then it goes back up, or it’s more of a curved V-shape for small gaps. I know I’m not doing it justice by describing bits of line as landscape, but it works, and all put together it becomes perfectly identifiable as a BMX track that you instinctively know how to traverse, and, most importantly, it scrolls perfectly smoothly too. No worries about doing justice to the rest though – the characters, and in particular their always-impressive resolution, their rich, bright neon colouring and their above-and-beyond animation is so good that you’ll quickly forget you’re playing a 1983 LCD handheld! The mere fact that your bike is a pale blue, your legs white, your top red and your helmet yellow is staggering to me! Similar for your girlfriend when she appears overhead, and the gangster and his helicopter and its rotating blades! Then you look closer, and you can not only see every spoke on your wheels, but there’s tiny motion lines around them as you move too, and the crow’s wings flap, and when you jump over another rider they’ll wave as their head follows your motion from back to front, and you’ll look up as bombs begin to fall… I genuinely can’t think of a better-looking handheld of any form or format!
I can probably think of a better sounding one though! That “comical” music will start to grate by the time its gone through its familiar (although I’ve no idea what its called) few seconds loop, only occasionally punctuated by the lap fanfare or similar. But you’ve always got that sound on/off switch if it grates too much, and actually I kind of like its primitive nostalgia so it’s fine! And the rest is just beautiful, and behind that beauty – all the more jaw-dropping when you look back today at where it’s coming from – is the timeless addictiveness that would go on to fuel the auto-runner craze on mobile years and years later, ironically also in the palm of your hand but a whole new world away! While it might have cost a bit more than my other eBay replacements, it was worth every penny to own this piece of history again. And it’s not like it’s ever going to go down in price! All that’s left then, is what’s next on eBay? Well, it’s not BMX Flyer’s sibling, Grandstand’s Thomas the Tank Engine, in case you’re wondering, although I always have half an eye out for one! To avoid going on an even bigger tangent than I did earlier, I didn’t go into an ongoing project to replace some of the Lego sets that, years ago, ended up as thousands of unidentified individual bricks in a huge box which eventually went to charity, but I have recently replaced most of the smaller Lego Space sets from the late seventies and early eighties that went amiss, as well as a helicopter ambulance and the police van that was probably the set I played the most with as a kid. But there was no chance I was ever getting the 1979 Lego Castle as a kid, so there’s my new holy grail, currently retailing at about £300 (or an eye-watering £3,000 new, if such a thing exists!) but on the rare occasions it appears for auction in decent used, complete and unboxed condition a little bit less. Just don’t tell my wife or they’ll be no chance I’m getting it as a middle-aged man either!