RETRO REVIEW – Challenger: The Adventure Machine

Publisher: Price Stern Sloan Limited
Release Date: 1989


Challenger, the unique microchip pen, is for you to use to challenge your wits. You program it to play dozens of exciting games which are woven into the Adventure Packs that come with Challenger.

Hold Challenger like a pen. To SPOT, press the top on the page and then lift off. To TRACK, run the tip along the page.

The floating tip responds to the printed information on the page.

For our first retro review for ToysWorld, we have a rather special item – to me, at least. The toy in question was released in 1989 when I was 9 years old. I remember clearly being in my first year at boarding school and what few posessions I was allowed to bring with me, included a recent present I had received from my parents; Challenger: The Adventure Machine!

Now, obviously many years have gone by since then, and sadly my original Challenger has been lost in the mists of time, but thanks to a recent eBay find, I was able to actually source a brand new, unopened set which appears to have been perfectly preserved in time!

So what is Challenger? It’s actually kind of hard to describe it, but, essentially, it’s an electronic pen with a digital square LCD display at the top, that allows you to input codes using the metal tip of the device and an accompanying ‘data bank’ booklet to play games and solve puzzles in a series of ‘Adventure Pack’ books.

The books were a softbound glossy publication that each featured a striking illustration on the front. They were both educational and fictional, ranging from ancient egypt, Marco Polo, the human body and Indiana Jones, and have more amazing artwork and illustrations throughout.

The titles of the Adventure Packs released, and included in this set were:

Space Rescue
A space adventure set in the near future. The American space-shuttle Discovery, now on one of its last missions, is on a crash course for Earth. An international rescue effort takes off the crew, except for the captain, who bravely remains to try to land the shuttle to safety…

Indiana Jones and his Life of Adventure
The life of Indiana Jones as seen through his personal diary. Indy relives many of the adventures from his films, narrowly escaping death in the Temple of Doom, only to come face to face with the full force of evil in The Last Crusade.

Curse of the Serpent
Ancient Egypt’s strangest pharaoh, Akhenaten, sends a young scribe on a dangerous mission to negotiate with Egypt’s enemies, the Hittites. The survival of the pharaoh depends on Setna’s success…

Amazon Escape
A geographical adventure set in the 1930s. A lone American aviator crashes in the remote Amazon jungle and has to find his way back to civilisation, braving head-hunters and dangerous animals…

Empire of Mystery
The adventures of Marco Polo, one of the greatest travellers in history, who made his way over Asia to China and served the emperor Kublai Khan – at a time when few Europeans knew that China existed.

A high-technology adventure in which a team of doctors is miniaturised and sent into the body of an important scientist. Their mission is to find and destroy the tiny poison capsules which enemy agents have implanted in the scientist’s body…

I remember owning two of these books when I was a kid; Amazon Escape and Indiana Jones and his Life of Adventure – the latter of which sticks out particularly in my memory with great fondness, and this is the Adventure Pack we will focus on for the review.

It’s worth noting that this book was released the same year that Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade got its theatrical release, and bearing in mind this was at a time where movies took nearly a year to have a home video release, to be able to relive scenes from the movie with Challenger was incredibly exciting.

Each game has a corresponding code from 1A all the way through to 8D. The codes use 4 black squares and once all 4 have been pressed by the pen, it sets up the game mode that you’re about to play.

Rather cleverly, the first activity (which uses Mode 3A) ties right into the start of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, as we relive the scene where a young Indy is hopping over the train carriages. There are a series of questions that you have to answer, and to do so you have to press the bottom of the Challenger pen on the correct square. Even to this day the technology (as simple as it may be) blows my mind.

As we progess we visit Pankot, India (1935) – the setting of the second Indiana Jones movie (Indiana Jones and the Temple Of Doom). It’s the infamous scene where Willie has to put her hand in the correct, bug-ridden hole to release the spikes and save Indy and Short Round. In another game we’re treated to the scene from the first Indiana Jones movie (Raiders Of The Lost Ark), where Indy has to reach the gold idol. In this game (Mode 4D) you have to make your way through a series of floor tiles to reach the idol.

And so the games and puzzles continue, spotlighting each of the three movies (at the time). Every game and puzzle is prefaced with some introductory text, which, in some cases, provide key clues to answers or strategy for what’s to come. This of course means the kids have to actually do some reading (and absorb some education, in some cases) to progress – genius!

I briefly touched on the artwork earlier, but it really is worth stating just how detailed and eye-catching it is. Every game and puzzle is accompanied by key illustrations, which in most cases actually become part of the gameplay itself.

I must say it was wonderful to be reunited with this childhood gem; I let my own kids try it out too, and I was thrilled to see it actually pulled them away from their gaming consoles and tablets and were genuinely entertained by Challenger. My son (Jacob, 6) particularly loved Amazon Escape, whilst my daughter (Amelia, 9) is currently studying ancient Egypt in school and really loved getting to grips with Curse Of The Serpent.

The odd Challenger set still finds its way onto eBay, and whilst we were particularly lucky with the unopened set we purchased, you too may find a bargain, and if you do, it is definitely worth the punt. Challenger is a blast from the past that is just as entertaining today as it was back in 1989.

5 Star Rating!

ToysWorld got in touch with Philip Childlow, the concept and art director for the range, who answered some questions and shared his memories of Challenger:

What are your memories from concept to final product and did you have a particular favourite Adventure Pack?

I started work on the earlier Questron [Challenger’s precursor] when a small design company I was a designer with (Millions Design), were approached by someone at PSS [Publisher, Price Stern Sloan], Paul Honeywell, thanks to a mutual contact.

The idea was to take the existing product and create a whole new set of more exciting books than they had at the time. Because of my background in gaming – I was one of the first players of D&D in the UK and I had worked with Ian Livingstone/ Albie Fiore at Games Workshop – I was chosen to work on these.

I don’t have any examples of these early projects now and in truth don’t remember much about them. I do recall though, that I did push the limits of the limited technology at the time and gained experience in the special printing required. This made me, I suppose, a natural choice to help create products for the new ‘Challenger – The Adventure Machine’ pen. It was also called Questron Digital but is possibly best know outside the UK as ‘Super Q’.

I was initially involved with PSS and Frazer Design on the actual product development – particularly refining what percentages/densites of tint of the special ink the pen would be able to differentiate. From a book production point of view, this was the main difference between the original Questron and the new device; it wasn’t a simple ‘yes/no’ we could now build in a couple more responses. And in this pre-digital era, the complexity of the artwork increased enormously. Let’s say I got pretty proficient with ‘rubylith’ and scalpel.

The title ‘Curse of the Serpent’ (written by Lionel Grigson and illustrated by Nikki Palin) was the first I designed with a more advanced age range in mind.

I don’t think I have any examples of the work now (more’s the pity) but I did work closely with writers and illustrators (I wrote – or co-wrote at least two books for the series – Amazon Escape and Space Rescue).

I came up with the concepts for all of them. Curse of the Serpent, Amazon Escape, Space Rescue, Micro Medics, Indiana Jones and his Life of Adventure and my favourite Empire of Mystery (which had, if I remember correctly the most difficult puzzles and best illustrations).

I was responsible for most of, if not all of the puzzles and it started to get more involved than Questron ever had.

Regarding Indiana Jones. we started work on this even before any material relating to the third movie was available – I remember we received some early stills from the film later on (e.g the scene where the boat gets smashed up by a propeller) and it was a real rush to get everything done in time to allow the book to be released almost alongside the movie release. I did find that I had to build more intricacy into the puzzles themselves (so in many cases they worked even without the added layer of Challenger interaction) and this resulted in me moving into the field of more general game design (again) later on.

Why did the range come to an end? Were there any plans for more titles and if so how could that have looked?

In the end we planned a second batch of titles that exploited more of the features of the pen (I can’t remember if Frazer added new functionality to it, but it wouldn’t surprise me). It saddens me that as far as I know these weren’t printed. The artwork was on a different level – and the age range was effectively raised a bit; certainly more effort went into the storylines. The one I miss – and I don’t know what happened to the original artwork (I’m going to try to find out) was set in medieval France and involved a plot to kill a king which was foiled by a clever and brave jester. Nikki Palin did some magnificent work for it.

Other concepts involved Sci-Fi, a Racing Driver, a tie-in with TinTin and more – but these didn’t progress much. There was even talk of a board game (an interactive ‘Save the World’ type environmental awareness one was certainly on the list).

I think what happened was technology overtook the Questron / Challenger product(s) and with the digital explosion it was swept away by Atari, Commodore, and their ilk. PSS saw the writing on the wall and pulled the project. The physical feedback element was supplied by the hand controllers and joysticks that abounded and sadly the simple pen / wand wasn’t enough anymore. It lost its magic.

It didn’t end there – quite. In 2004, a new company was created; Imagini Technology Ltd. The pen was redesigned and now included voice and sound effects, music and even a face that changed expression. Three versions; Q!Pal, for the 3-7 yr olds, Q!Maxx for older kids and Q!Study for revision guides were envisaged. I was involved with creating some demonstration games and puzzles in print for the product. As far as I am aware, this did not take off as those branding ideas have certainly appeared elsewhere and for other products/companies since.

We absolutely loved playing with Challenger again; the adventure elements are very real and more importantly entertaining. In today’s digital world, do you envisage a way that Challenger could somehow make a return? 

In all honesty I think it’s time has passed. At least in the ‘pen interacting with a book’ way. Of course I would love to think that the book-based, story-led puzzle/riddle book has a future (I’d be happy to do them!) and there might be a time where AR plays a part.

However, now that old tech is becoming popular – be it vinyl, cassettes and traditional board games plus the resurgence of RPGs like D&D, I would not write it off completely: I think back at the board game concept we considered and that is where, I think a Questron-esque piece of technology could come into play.

+  Do you remember Challenger? Leave a reply in the comments, below!






6 thoughts on “RETRO REVIEW – Challenger: The Adventure Machine

  1. I happen to have these left from my children. Now my grandchildren want to use. My question is how do you change the batteries? I don’t want to break it.

  2. I loved Challenger and was pleased to find this article after a rummage in one of my ‘mystery drawers’ (we all have one!) upturned my trusty Wand. Sadly, I think I’ve lost my Databank booklet, which I remember as being key to calibrating the Wand before each Game. I shall have to endeavour to find one as I’m pretty sure I have the adventure books on a shelf somewhere. I remember being very excited indeed to play the Indiana Jones book, but I seem to remember the Egyptian one ended up as the favourite.

    Thanks so much for tracking down Philip and for him sharing his memories of the project with us. Interesting chap and very cool to have worked with Ian Livingstone of GWS and Fighting Fantasy fame! I must have been around 4 or 5 at the time and I think it was bought for me by the late Roger Lyons, who made his fame directing the black and white Levis advertisments in the Laundrette, so it’s a special memory for me.

    • Thanks so much for your comment, DY! It’s so good to hear from fellow fans of Challenger! It was actually really difficult to track down the team members who originally worked on the series. We literally had to look in the Challenger game booklet and worked our way from there, before finally finding Phil!

      We still think that there’s a whole generation of kids who would love a modern-day Challenger game. It takes them away from their iPads / gaming consoles and involves some logical thinking to solve some of the challenges.

      Will see if we can track down more of the team and see if we can get some of the publishing houses to consider giving Challenger a new lease of life.

      Either way, we all have our memories of this fantastic game!

  3. Thanks for the article. I’ve first encountered Questron in 1984, in age of 3, being a son of a soviet diplomat in USA. The memories of those wonderful illustrations and beeping sound brought me back to Questron in the Ebay era when I decided to get what I once loved for my own kin of six. We have now, after few years since I’ve started my hunt, what I believe is almost full set of all Questron books ever published (except for quite rare 4 books of “First class” series). And – boy! – my children (age 1 to 10) just love playing Questron! So it still lives, gives joy and inspires little minds.

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