The Father of the Video Game was also the inventor of Simon.
Inventor Ralph Baer is best known for developing the first video game system, but he has accomplished far more. In 1975, Baer started an independent consulting business and began to work in association with Marvin Glass & Associates in Chicago, the toy design firm responsible for some of the most successful American toys of the 20th century. Baer’s job was to develop electronic toys and games. The best-known result of this partnership was Simon.
Named for the children’s game of “Simon Says,” the game was inspired by an Atari arcade game called Follow-Me. Baer and Howard Morrison, a partner at Marvin Glass, first saw Follow-Me at a trade show in 1976. Both agreed that while the execution of the arcade game was horrible, the game itself—trying to repeat a musical sequence the machine created—was worthy of exploration. The two set about creating a hand-held game around the same concept.
Like Follow-Me, Simon had four different colored buttons. Each button played a unique note. Players had to be able to repeat an increasingly long string of tones that Simon created. If you got the order wrong, you lost. Baer was aware that choosing Simon’s four tones was a critical decision. He and Morrison both felt that one of Follow-Me’s main failings was that its sounds were unpleasant.
But how to choose four notes that could be played in any sequence and not hurt the ears? Baer found the answer while looking through his children’s Compton Encyclopedia. He discovered that the bugle can only plays four notes. So, Simon would play those same four bugle notes.
Simon was released by Milton-Bradley in 1978 with much fanfare, including a midnight release party at Studio 54, the elite disco in New York City. An instance success, the game reached its peak during the 1980s and continued to sell for decades thereafter.
Baer was very careful to document in his patent application that Simon was based on Atari’s Touch-Me, given his past history with the company. Years earlier, Atari was sued for patent rights infringement. At the center of the controversy were the video game prototypes invented by Ralph Baer. With Simon, Baer found himself on the other side of the story. His patent was to protect his innovations, rather than an original game idea.