I’ve written about the VTech Socrates before, in a piece on game consoles with fun names. In that piece, I mentioned that the educational console scared me, but didn’t say much beyond that. Here, then, is the history of this weird little console, as well as the details of my personal experiences with it.
Released in 1987 by Hong Kong-based VTech, the Socrates was an 8-bit console intended as an educational device. The console came with several games built-in, mainly dealing with math and word problems but also including some creative fare like a music program and a paint application. The Socrates was a strange beast — it was controlled with a wireless, infrared keyboard that had two controllers wired into it, each with a single button and awkward stubby D-Pad, looking for all the world like someone had done a crime to an Atari 2600 joystick. It ran on six D batteries or an optional DC adapter, like the Pong consoles of the 70s. It’s not like it was portable, though, so I don’t know why it even took batteries — some kind of deal with Duracell, maybe?
Boasting a 3.57 MHz processor (the NES only had a 1.79 MHz), the Socrates seemed to be pretty powerful for the late 80s. But compared to the apparently slower NES, this thing crawled. It took its sweet time, filling in different parts of scenes one by one like it was reading off of a cassette or something. The unsettling image of the console’s Johnny-5-esque mascot, also named Socrates, would appear first bodily, his various colors rendering before his dead eyes turned to the task at hand.
Why did that little guy freak me out so much? I think part of it was that the console talked, thanks to an add-on voice cartridge. That was kind of a rarity back in the early 90s, when my childhood friend’s parents had presumably gotten the Socrates at a discounted rate from its introductory price of over $100 (in 1987 dollars — that’s over $250 in 2022). Anytime a computer spoke back then it scared the hell out of me — I think maybe the ads for The Omega Virus had primed that pump — and the janky, already-out-of-date feel of the Socrates didn’t help things. On the rare occasions my friend booted it up, I always felt like it wanted revenge on us for playing Forgotten Worlds instead of learning math problems with it.
Looking at footage of the Socrates now, I find it kind of charming. It was so obviously outclassed even when it was first released that I can’t help but feel a little bad for that weird robot, who was apparently named “Professor Weiss-Alles” (Professor Knows-All) in Germany. The console received nine total disk-based games, as well as a couple of additional peripherals — a mouse and an early touch screen — but its high price point and low power meant that it just couldn’t compete in the market. Nonetheless, VTech went on to make more educational consoles, such as the V.Smile in 2004 and the V.Flash in 2013. The company is still around today, though is perhaps most recently known for a data breach that leaked the data of over six million children a few years ago. If there’s one thing I can say for the VTech Socrates, it’s that it never did that.