Here’s a tale that comes much more recently than you might expect. As recently as a decade ago, grocery store toy aisles tended to have sections dedicated to LCD handheld games. The more nostalgic types my age would probably remember the Tiger Electronics handhelds that were usually shrunk-down, cheaper versions of full-size video games like OutRun, if not original works based on licenses like Doug. The older Tiger games were largely built on the success of Nintendo’s Game & Watch series, so when Nintendo released the Game Boy in 1989, one would have expected Tiger to go down in the face of superior tech.
But somehow, the LCD game market continued to exist, even well into the first decade of the 2000s. And while it was no longer Tiger Electronics that supplied the majority of LCD games, they were no less ubiquitous, thanks to Radica Games…who had a very different lineup of LCDs than Tiger. Radica Games were mainly known for stuff like 20Q and Cube World, as well as a popular line of bass fishing games, but the majority of their market was in LCD adaptations of tabletop games like Yahtzee, and approximately five billion different iterations of handheld Solitaire, one of which my family came to own back in 1999.
Radica Solitaire was a nifty little gadget. Simple at first glance, it’s a little $20 pocket game that simulates – with as little hardware as possible – the game of Klondike. While it has no Undo button, and it follows the stricter Patience rules that allow only single cards and complete stacks to be moved, Radica’s implementation does allow for cards to be removed from foundations, and also offers a choice between 3-card and 1-card-draw games in the form of Vegas scoring, and the option to enable a game timer. The thing’s even capable of saving your score in Vegas mode (as long as nobody switches it back to 3-card deal). Manipulating the piles is as simple as pushing the button corresponding to your pile of choice. There are no fiddly D-pads or touch screens to be found in Radica’s handhelds. The process of playing this Solitaire is so simple, that it became a bathroom staple. After my brother and I had tired of it ourselves, our Solitaire game became stationed in the master bathroom, where it’d be played primarily by our parents during lengthier visits. I hadn’t realized that was the case until I heard the telltale beeper playing “Happy Days are Here Again” from just outside the door.
With the apparent success of the first line of Solitaire handhelds, Radica continued expanding said line by taking the same electronics and putting them into increasingly stylish cases. The one-handed game received a couple of different shell designs, while other releases had larger screens, some bearing lights for play in dark rooms, and one even displaying in color, but every one of them still bearing the same basic electronics and identical gameplay handling. Other companies would manufacture solitaire handhelds as well, and Radica went on to implement other solitaire rules in new handhelds themselves, but somehow those are getting to be…ridiculously expensive, to say the least.
Strangely, Radica Games only stopped existing on its own in 2006, having been acquired by Mattel and – for the most part – dissolved. Much as I’ve tried looking around the usual stores like Fred Meyer, Target, and even stores that acquire overstock like Ross, the usual array of LCD handheld games has totally vanished from stores. Admittedly, there is one chain I have yet to search, but it does feel as if toy sections don’t contain LCD games anymore. Maybe we’ve finally left the technology in the past. To be fair, even Radica’s output very rarely got much more sophisticated than what we saw in the mid-1980s, and tended to be a bit too costly in spite of it (though nowhere near as insane as the above Amazon listing). But for reasons unknown, I don’t even see the games at Goodwill stores anymore. I acquired mine on eBay, having purchased a used lot of eight games (two of which were Solitaire; the rest were various Blackjack, Tetris, and Yahtzee games) for about $27. That’s a bit closer to what I’d expect to pay for these now, at a little under $4 a game.
Do these games still have a place in the modern world, though? In a society where a bathroom visitor is just as likely to have their phone in their pocket, perhaps they don’t. In a world where your kids tend to get more enjoyment from a free game from the App Store than from a $20 toy they can keep for themselves, perhaps the LCD solitaire is no longer worth the price of entry. But in my world, where sometimes a visit to the restroom can take a little longer than expected, and where there are no convenient bottles of soap from which to read the full ingredients to pass the time, I am fully willing to station a handheld Solitaire in each bathroom, if only as a gesture towards the poor soul who might not have remembered to put their phone in their pocket beforehand.