Games

Day 994: The Game Of Milton Bradley’s Life

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I confess: I am but one week away from commemorating my 40th year on this planet, and I have yet to ever play The Game of Life. This is not due to some ethical or existential objection to simulating the course of one’s existence upon a square slab of cardboard, but rather due to my friends and I having spent our youthful recreation time with Star Wars toys and kindly ol’ Super Mario. I never got around to playing Candyland either.

As beloved as this board game may be, with its plastic minivans, its cruel cash-drains and generous paydays, buried deep within its roots is a transformative story. The original version of the game, concocted by Mr. Milton Bradley himself, elevated the concept of gaming from prescriptive quests for moral elevation to a more practical and modernized measure of success. More importantly, it came packaged with choice.

The Game of Life as we know it (well, as you probably know it, since I’ve never played the thing) features one early decision: go to school or get a job. After that, each soul is subjected to the whim of the spiteful spinner, suggesting that life is but a cavalcade of random collisions, and that we are always at the mercy of the fickle flick of fate. Mr. Bradley’s outlook on destiny was far more empowering.

Milton Bradley, 1860s

Tracing the Bradley lineage would suggest that a rather dreary definition of “life” could have taken center-stage in his outlook. The family tree was planted in America in 1635, and since then its bark shows the hatchet-marks of murder, Indian attack, kidnapping, and at one point hot embers being poured into an infant’s mouth. When Milton finally squeezed his way onto the planet in 1836, the Bradleys were a little less prone to being butchered, but far from being economic titans. Read more…

Day 891: Dungeons & Dragons & Eternal Damnation

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Any responsible parent already knows that their children are but a wayward blink away from an eternity of fiery evil. It seems that every fad, trend or popular pastime of the past half-century has fallen beneath the dusty scrutiny of some religious group or another, damning the activity as Satanic, amoral or corrupting (or all three for the really fun stuff). Your kid’s into Pokemon? Those monsters are an affront to God. He likes reading about Harry Potter? Just a bunch of liberal brainwashing with a firm footprint in the occult. Really into chess? Only God can steer horses along an L-shaped path.

But Dungeons & Dragons was an easy target. You’ve got a cast of creatures from Tolkien’s nightmares dotting the landscape, and children who immerse themselves into a godless world of fantasy and imagination. Since the game rose toward the mainstream of geekdom in the 1970’s – back when geekdom was a truly excluded sub-clique and not the faux-aspiration of every duck-faced twit looking for chic value because they’ve seen a Marvel movie or two – it has been under attack by the ever-threatened right.

I’m not certain why there appears to be a significant link between the devout adherence to religion and the desire to protest and/or ban things, but it’s there. Gary Gygax and the creative team behind Dungeons & Dragons had to see this coming when they first hammered out the game’s rules. But they probably didn’t expect a response like this.

Any game with Super Punchy Lion-Dude must be an insult to God.

Any game with Super Punchy Lion-Dude must be an insult to God.

When young Irving Pulling shot himself in the chest one day in 1982, it was nothing short of a tragedy. Teen suicide leaves a wake of anguish and confusion, and often a heap of unanswerable questions that will plague his or her surviving friends and families for decades. Patricia Pulling – the grieving mother – felt she had the answers she needed. Irving was an avid player of D&D, and Patricia believed his suicide had something to do with the game. I’ll point out here that Patricia was also a fundamentalist Christian, though I think that will become evident as I tell the story. Read more…

Day 789: No Pain, No Game

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By their very nature, kids are insane.

In grade school my friends and I magnified the potentially face-smushing violence of dodgeball into something we called murderball. In junior high, a number of us gave each other bear hugs to induce unconsciousness (though, to my credit, I knew well enough to hold out for the good drugs later on). In high school we drove like half-crazed grouse, wildly swirling upon ice and packed snow, riding precariously on one another’s car hoods or running boards in a scraggly zoo parking lot that we dubbed “Beggars’ Canyon.” Somehow we all survived to adulthood.

Thanks to a healthy brew of curiosity, consequence-blindness and morbid creativity, kids will find a way to dance as close to the brink of serious injury whenever possible. If they can, they’ll devise a means of elevating their precarious attempts at leisure into a competitive sport. That’s when the blood really starts to flow.

Most kids know better than to mess about with Russian Roulette or other such gun-related idiocy. But knives? Knives are awesome. Hence the invention of Mumblety-peg.

MumbletyPeg

Mumblety-peg is the game for kids who feel that toes are the surplus extras of the human body. Players stand with their feet roughly shoulder-width apart. Each throws a pocket knife hard at the ground so that its blade embeds in the earth. The object is to be the one whose knife lands closer to your own foot. The loser must shamefully admit that they lack the knife-hurling skills, or perhaps the manly machismo of their opponent. If you actually stick your own foot, you win by default. But at a cost. Read more…

Day 781: The Classic Time-Wasters

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If you are fortunate enough to possess a job of such little consequence that you can while away your clocked hours with fanciful amusements and digital distractions, then you have probably logged a lot of hours with Microsoft’s built-in activities. Myself, I prefer to devote my daytime downtime to writing kilographs and memorizing TV theme song lyrics. When the fancy strikes for some blips, bleeps and computerized explosions, I head online to one of the vast repositories of Flash games like Kongregate or AddictingGames.com.

I should point out that I get a lot of downtime in this job. Had I been so blessed in the 90’s I would have poured much more of my time into the mundane clickery of Minesweeper, FreeCell and the other games that had found themselves woven into the fabric of Windows 95, 98 and XP.

These were the freebie games that everyone played. Minesweeper is as much a collectively shared experience as any global recession or Olympic games. These games are the common denominator no one uses as a conversational connection. But we could. We have all been there, mired in the scrutiny of robot card-backs and simulated pinball bumpers.

Solitaire

Wes Cherry, an intern at Microsoft in 1989, made untold millions of dollars for designing Solitaire. Or he would have, had he been paid in commission. Or at all.

Yeah, Cherry got nothing. Perhaps the most-played game in the history of computers, and Wes Cherry handed it over for the price of a handshake. His girlfriend at the time designed half the card-backs as well, and her work was also treated as a donation. The cards themselves were designed by Susan Kare, a one-time Apple employee who had designed the Chicago typeface that was used on old Macs and the first four generations of iPods, as well as the Happy Mac that greets users when they boot up. Read more…

Day 729: When The Screen Runs Red With Virtual Blood

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Yesterday morning I was confronted with one of those pivotal moments in the parental experience, one in which a father finds himself perched upon the precipice of coolness, wavering like a basketball on a hoop’s rim. Do I tilt toward the two points and lock in my status as the awesome dad? Or reject the score in the interest of conservative reason and cautious prevention?

My daughter, who had recently acquired an impressive amount of Christmas cash from relatives who didn’t want to gamble with clothes sizes or outdated notions of what her fleeting interests might be at this moment, told us she wanted to purchase Grand Theft Auto V. The family became immediately polarized: “It’s violent.” “It’s fun.” “It’s misogynistic.” “The city is magnificently rendered.” “Did I tell you about the doctor that performed my hip replacement?” (Grandma has a way of bumping a conversation onto a wholly different track.)

It came down to me. Of course I don’t want my daughter exposed to a negative influence; it’s bad enough that she watches crappy TLC shows for hours on end. But she’s sixteen years old, not at all violent in nature, and apart from a handful of truly flummoxing quirks, she’s an astoundingly well-adjusted kid. So what do I do?

Let the controversy begin.

DeathRace

In 1976, a game called Death Race hit local arcades, stirring up the first controversy on the shelf of violent video games. Players control a car and try to steer over ‘gremlins’ (which look a lot like little stick-people), turning them into little tombstones when they do. The National Safety Council called it sick and morbid. 60 Minutes ran a story about the psychological impact of video games. The technology was still four years shy of Pac-Man, and already parents were alarmed. Read more…

Day 673: A-Buttoning The Atrocious – Worst Video Games Part 2

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Philistines may mock and deride, but some of us possess a truckload of warm memories playing bad video games. I remember when my friend Josh obtained a questionably legal Japanese multicart (that’s a single game cartridge with dozens of crappy games on it) for his Nintendo Entertainment System. We were in high school, and I welcomed in the dawn after a long night of inebriated attempts to conquer the cat-vs-mouse world of Mappy.

Mappy

Mappy contained two of childhood’s greatest loves: crime-fighting and trampolines.

Not that I’m suggesting Mappy was a bad game. But of the 51 or 81 or 101 games on that cartridge, most were repetitive platformers or half-ass variations on Pac-Man. But I played those too, if for no other reason than they were there.

I am fortunate that my game hobbying never steered me to the depths of the world’s worst video games. Okay, I dabbled with ET: The Extra-Terrestrial on the Atari 2600, and I still maintain that one or two of those text-based Infocom games I owned for my PC were designed to be impossible without the hint book (sold separately!). But I never had the misfortune of flushing my own hard-earned dollars down the poop-encrusted drain of a rotten gaming experience.

Here’s some of the drek that I missed.

Cheetahmen

In 1991 a legitimate multicart was dropped upon the Nintendo crowd. It was called Action 52 because it had 52 games and each of them involved some form of action, even if it was only the act of you slapping your own forehead in frustration for having bought this thing. I’d list off some of the games on Action 52, but you haven’t heard of any of them. Perhaps you remember The Cheetahmen, which was launched in this pack with the intent of sparking a Ninja-Turtles-like synergistic frenzy: action figures, comic books, a TV series… no, you don’t. This game was so loathed (as was almost everything on the cartridge) that The Cheetahmen fled for the hills.

Perhaps the $199 price tag wasn’t helping either. Read more…

Day 664: The Toys In Marvin’s Playroom

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Do you recognize this man?

Probably not, but if you’re over 30 he probably had a thunderous impact on your childhood. That’s Marvin Glass, concoctor of toys, brewmaster of amusement, mixologist of mirth. Marvin Glass & Associates was a fiendishly clever company, foregoing the tedious chore of peddling their goods to every toy merchant in the land, and instead focussing on creation. License it out to Hasbro or Kenner or Milton Bradley – let them do the filthy work of shipping this crap all over the country.

Let’s just make some good crap.

And oh did they make some astoundingly bodacious crap. Toys that spurned obsessions, toys that became icons. For a few marvelous decades in the 20th century, back before every toy needed a synergetic tie-in to a movie franchise, book series or procession of idiotic movies, Marvin Glass’s goods reigned supreme.

TalkingTeeth

It all started with a set of chattering teeth. Marvin’s employee, Eddy Goldfarb, came up with a concept so ludicrously simple and noisy it had to be a hit: the Yakkity-Yak Talking Teeth. This windup novelty put Marvin Glass & Associates on the map in 1949. The dentist community was finally rewarded with the desktop gimmick they’d craved for centuries. Overnight, the world was a happier and more peaceful place. Read more…

Day 628: Heads, Tails, Noses & Lizards

Header Another day, another thousand words. But what to write about? I’ve got a few ideas lurking in my patented idea slop-bucket, but how do I know which is the right one to scoop into today’s word-trough? I could flip a coin, roll some dice, maybe pin the ideas to a dartboard, fire back some tequila and see which concept bubble the dart of my focus should puncture today. I could assign each idea to a marble then dump a laundry bag of marbles down a hill and write about the one that rolls the furthest.

No, too much work. I can respect a good game of chance, but there’s a limit on how much cleanup I’m willing to undergo just to get a random result. There is a simple elegance to the coin toss, despite its potential complications: What if it hits the ceiling? What if it bounces off a table?

A game of chance should be simple. These are games we play in order to facilitate a balanced decision, or to figure out who has to go downstairs and deal with the pizza guy. They are games designed to speed up life, to allow us to scuttle past the weighing of pros and cons so that we can sink our teeth into the meat of the rest of our day. So why write about them? Well, it came up tails this morning, so here we go. CoinToss As long as we’ve had coins, we’ve flipped them so we could avoid making decisions. But is this really the best method for turning our responsibility over to fate? Not according to researchers at the University of British Columbia. Learning how to manipulate a toss to land a certain way is not that hard, provided you’re using the standard flip ‘n catch method. They taught a group of people the technique, then watched them compete to see who could land the most heads in 300 flips. Everyone scored over 50%, and the winner pulled off a 68% success rate. Read more…

Day 627: The Day The Blipping, Bleeping Music Died

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In my lifetime I have been fortunate enough to witness the birth and subsequent collapse of a handful of markets. I watched the dot-com bubble explode from my own safe little corner of the internet (no, not only on porn sites, but thank you for thinking so highly of me). I saw the home video world puff out its chest, cough up video stores into every local strip-mall, then wheeze out the back door, leaving a debris-pile of empty retail space and stripped-bare yellow signage.

Mine was the first generation to plug in to the home video game market. I also saw it plummet into a dark, ugly void before rising from its ashes in a flutter of plumber-leaps and hedgehog spikes. But there was a period of about two years, while Mario and his Nintendo friends were still stretching their legs and warming up for the North American market, when the entire floor beneath the home console world just about collapsed.

I’m not talking about a dip in profits that forced a few executives to hold off on reupholstering their yacht couches. This was roughly a 97% dip in the market, which is more a light-the-damn-yacht-on-fire-and-collect-the-insurance-money situation. A crash the likes of which we haven’t seen since. So what the hell happened?

First-Gen

For those who haven’t been keeping track, we are up to the seventh generation of video game consoles, with the eighth already pulling its car into the parking lot outside and looking for a space (actually, the Wii U crashed the 8th generation party a little early). The first generation included the Magnavox Odyssey and Pong. An excessive number of clone machines that could Pong it out as well as the brand-name consoles led to the first video game crash in 1977, leaving only Atari and Magnavox in the market. Read more…