Update [Mon 5th Sep, 2022]: Since this piece was originally published at the end of August 2022, we were fortunate enough to visit the Retro Computer Museum and see the Playboy with our own eyes. This feature has now been updated with new photos to reflect this.
UK company Rare was one of the most prolific supporters of Nintendo's NES and Game Boy consoles, even before Nintendo bought a stake in the studio. However, it's important to remember that the company held a very keen interest in hardware around this time; Rare's founders, the Stamper brothers, famously reverse-engineered the Famicom in order to convince Nintendo to give it the opportunity to make games for it, and Rare was very hands-on when it came to creating the tech which powered the Killer Instinct arcade hardware with Midway. Indeed, the Stampers were involved in arcade games prior to founding Ashby Computers and Graphics Limited (which traded as Ultimate Play The Game), the company which preceded Rare; hardware was in their DNA, you could say.
One hardware project which never came to fruition was the RAZZ arcade board. Developed around 1988, it apparently used a Zilog Z80 processor and could display thousands of on-screen colours and handle complex sprite rotation. It would ultimately be cancelled, but not before it made its way into another ill-fated hardware venture: the "Playboy" handheld. This full-colour portable would have gone toe-to-toe with the likes of the Atari Lynx and Nintendo Game Boy, had Rare's bosses not decided to ally with Nintendo and make a fortune via software instead.
Speaking to this writer for a feature on Rare's history for Red Bull Gaming back in 2013, Paul Machacek — one of the studio's longest-serving employees – explains the background of the project. "The RAZZ board was Chris Stampers’ project. It was entirely homegrown, but he and Tim had an arcade hardware background, so it wasn’t completely out of the blue. I don’t remember whose idea it was to try and turn it into a handheld device running on a few small batteries, but we did it anyway, undaunted by the short running time or bulky form-factor produced."
This was a prototype in every sense of the word. "It was a loose collection of chips suspended in thin air, squashed together carefully so that it fit inside the casing without shorting out anything," Machacek continues. "Tim was responsible for the exterior styling, and I did the software demo. It ran on some AA batteries and used a colour LCD screen ripped from a little portable TV that Tim had brought back from Japan. Then, just to ensure that we’d never be able to actually release it, we called it the Playboy."
It's tempting to think of the Playboy as a fun little diversion, a way for the Stampers to stretch their wings in the world of hardware. However, they were clearly serious about turning the machine into a fully-fledged commercial venture and Tim Stamper even took it to the Consumer Electronics Show in 1989 with the aim of attracting the attention of a larger company (Epyx did something very similar with the aforementioned Lynx, which was eventually sold as an Atari product). However, upon seeing what Nintendo was cooking up, Tim changed his mind – very wisely, you could argue.
Machacek spoke about this on Twitter, sharing a little more about the console's history. "Tim [Stamper] took The Playboy to CES show 1989 to show it to major manufacturers. When he returned (understand this: we had no internet, no email, comms were fax or awkward-to-arrange international phone calls) he disappointedly said that Nintendo had unveiled a 'little handheld thing'. [The Playboy] used to be on display in [Rare's] canteen; no one realised what it was, but is probably in a box at the studio somewhere. We won’t have thrown it out. Once it was put together, Pete [Cox] daredn’t open it up again in case the wires broke. I wrote the demo software though I don’t now recall what it did. I do generally recall working on the RAZZ Board for a few months and compared to NES the graphics were pretty."
When asked if the stamina would have been as bad as the Game Gear, Machacek replied: "It ate batteries far faster than that. It was a totally impractical commercial proposal at the time but was a glimpse of the future – “Designs on the Future” – and was exactly as groundbreaking as so much we did." Machacek also confirms that this is the only unit ever made and that he suspects the contacts for the buttons "may have been cannibalised from a NES controller."
Former Rare developer Paul Byford adds: "It was a hand-soldered version of the RAZZ board with 2 breadboards linked with some fragile wiring and a mini LCD TV sourced from Japan. So much of the RAZZ board was TTL logic. I was in a couple of meetings on creating an ASIC, but it never happened."
So what games would have actually been on the Playboy, had it been released? Outside of Machacek's aforementioned demos, The Pickford Brothers created a title for the RAZZ hardware called Fleapit, which would evolve into Plok on the SNES.
"We were developing our Plok/Fleapit game for Rare's Razz Coin-op board," John Pickford tells us. "Back then we thought making a coin-op game was big time. The machine itself was based around a Hitachi Z80 clone which had a fast DMA system for moving data about. Chris Stamper worked out a way to hijack that DMA so the top two bits of each byte modified the destination address of the next (Up, Down, Left or Right in screen memory). So basically it could draw sprites really quickly. We didn't know anything about the Playboy till we visited Rare one day and they handed it to us with Plok running on it. I believe it was pitched to Nintendo using our game."
"Only a small handful of people ever got to write RAZZ board code," Machacek explains. "Ultimately interest was somewhat lost after the Playboy didn't go any further, though the core hardware existed at Rare for several years in our homebrew graphics editor. The RAZZ board had a novel way of storing/writing graphics data. Each byte represented a pixel with the (IIRC) bottom 6 bits holding the colour palette value and the top 2 bits indicating which pixel to draw next up/down/left/right of the one just drawn."
Instead of venturing into the wild world of consumer hardware, Rare instead threw its considerable talents behind Nintendo's NES and Game Boy systems, developing a staggering number of titles for both. It also supported the SNES, with the groundbreaking Donkey Kong Country helping to sell millions of consoles. Nintendo eventually purchased a 49% stake in Rare, effectively making it a second-party studio for the Japanese giant, but in 2002 rival firm Microsoft purchased the entire company.
So where is the Playboy now? As Machacek says, it was previously housed in Rare's Warwickshire HQ, but vanished and for the longest time its whereabouts appeared to be unknown (it wasn't featured in an otherwise exhaustive 2018 exhibit of Rare's history in the UK, for example). There were some – ourselves included – who feared the device had been lost forever; no images of the machine could be found online and it seemed that the Playboy had simply disappeared in the mists of history; a footnote in the story of one of the UK's most famous developers.
However, we can now exclusively reveal that the Playboy is not lost, and it has been kindly loaned to the nearby Retro Computer Museum in Leicester, along with other items of note from Rare's illustrious history.
First established in 2008, the RCM houses a massive selection of vintage gaming hardware and software and is home to unique items such as several fully-working Virtuality VR systems (Virtuality was based in Leicester) and a totally unique Commodore Amiga CD1200.
"We are absolutely honoured that Pete [Cox] has let us borrow this piece of awesome history," RCM founder Andy Spencer tells us. "He told us the story about creating it and it not working properly until the very last minute, only to be turned down by Nintendo." Andy Spencer explains that a mutual friend introduced him to Cox, who is still with Rare and visited the Retro Computer Museum with the Playboy in hand.
Cox offered to loan the device to the Museum so it could be seen and enjoyed by the general public. Spencer confirms that, at the time of writing, the Playboy is non-operational, but the RCM has been given permission to try and get it working again – so who knows, Paul Machacek's demos could come to life once more. The tech boffins at RCM – who really do know their way around obscure vintage hardware – think that it could be as simple as a few misplaced wires, so there's a good chance it could come back to life in the not-too-distant future.
If you'd like to see this unique piece of gaming history in the flesh, then you can check out the opening times for the RCM here.