Introduced in 1978, Simon represented an evolution in tabletop gaming. Not exactly a board game but not quite a video game, it straddled the line between the past and future of recreational diversions. To play the game, users must memorize a series of tones and lights on the four-button surface, then repeat them in order. As the patterns grow more complex, the game becomes more challenging. (Or frustrating, depending on one’s perspective.) Simon was a hit upon release and has remained a pop culture fixture for over 40 years. For more on the game’s history, keep reading.
1. Simon was invented by Ralph Baer, the “Father of Video Games.”
In the 1960s, German refugee and former World War II Army intelligence officer Ralph Baer was a military engineering contractor who decided to moonlight as a video games pioneer. Baer visualized a system that could be connected to a television to play games on the screen. In 1971, Baer and his employer, Sanders Associates, filed for and later received the first-ever video game patent. The system would become the Magnavox Odyssey, which went on sale in 1972.
Years later, Baer would have another idea. Working as an independent consultant for the toy firm Marvin Glass and Associates, Baer was drawn to an Atari arcade game called Touch Me. He and Marvin Glass employee Howard Morrison had seen it at a trade show in 1976. While they liked the premise—players had to repeat a musical sequence—they felt the execution was lacking and the sounds were unpleasant. Using Touch Me as a jumping-off point, they decided to try and craft a better version. (It was only fitting, as Atari had taken a cue from the Magnavox Odyssey to create their arcade hit Pong.) Along with programmer Lenny Cope, Baer and Morrison worked for nearly two years on a handheld version originally titled Follow Me that had four buttons. Crucially, the four tones they selected were much more pleasant to the ear. Baer selected the four notes played by a bugle. Milton Bradley licensed the idea, and Simon (named after the children’s game Simon Says) was released in 1978.
2. Simon was the hottest toy of the 1978 holiday season.
Making a splashy debut at the trendy Studio 54 nightclub in New York on May 15, 1978, Simon quickly made an impression with adults and found itself hastily added to many holiday wish lists. That winter, several stores reported a Simon shortage and long lines of people hoping to get a crack at a new shipment. One store sold through 1000 of them in just five days. Milton Bradley ultimately put Simon on allocation, meaning that stores received only a portion of their orders until they could ramp up production to meet demand.
3. Simon was very expensive for its time.
Simon originally had a retail price of $25, which amounts to about $92 in today’s dollars. Unlike video game systems, Simon could only do one thing. But people were enamored with computer-based diversions, with many pointing to the novelty of the microprocessor chip as a key reason the game was so popular. (Just a few years prior, the chips had mainly been used for handheld calculators.) The original Simon was also big, taking up considerable space on a tabletop and devouring multiple D batteries.
4. Simon got a sales boost from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
The year before Simon went on sale, director Steven Spielberg released Close Encounters of the Third Kind, starring Richard Dreyfuss as a man who establishes a relationship with extraterrestrial life. During the finale, the aliens communicate using musical notes and lights on their spaceship. Though there was no connection between the movie and the game, the popularity of Close Encounters helped raise awareness for Simon, which exhibited a similar pattern. More than 10 million copies were sold by the end of 1982.
5. Simon led to a lot of knock-offs.
Milton Bradley found that there was no shortage of devices looking to capitalize on the Simon phenomenon. A device called Einstein was rectangular instead of circular but had a similar layout. Atari, which produced the Touch Me arcade game Baer and Morrison used as inspiration, released that same game in a handheld version. Among the knock-offs, only Tiger Electronics had a subtle sense of humor about taking obvious inspiration from Simon. They titled their octagon-shaped device Copycat. According to Baer, none of them took off because their noises lacked the charm of the four-note bugle.
6. Simon inspired a Queen album cover.
The musical toy had fans in Queen, the rock band led by Freddie Mercury. For their 1982 album, Hot Space, the band seemed to take inspiration from the design of Simon for the cover, which features the four bandmates in a four-colored grid.
7. There’s a touch-free Simon.
Since its inception, Simon has seen a variety of spin-offs hit the market. In 1979, Milton Bradley released Super Simon, with four buttons on each side of a rectangular device that pitted players against one another in a timed contest. Simon Stix with drumsticks followed; Simon Swipe offered touch-based interaction. The most intriguing might be Simon Air, a vertical Simon iteration released by Hasbro—which bought Milton Bradley—that allows players to wave over the colored sections with their hands. Another version, Simon Optix, uses a headset to flash colors before the user's eyes. Players can then use their hands to replicate the pattern.