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.
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…
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.
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…
My mission today is to return to my childhood, albeit briefly and without overdosing on peanut butter-Cheez Whiz sandwiches. My parents raised me using an unorthodox less-is-more approach, meaning “less money spent” equals “more good”. So when I asked for an Atari 2600 I received an Intellivision. When I asked for an Apple IIe I received the Intellivision computer module which sucked more ass than a hemorrhoid vacuum (should such a thing exist; I’m not a doctor).
Actually, the Intellivision was not a cheap knock-off of the Atari at all; it was a far superior system in every way – even the weird disc control was great, provided you hadn’t played for several hours and reddened your thumb to an aching groan.
I’m going to re-visit some of my favorite games to see how they hold up. I’ve got a good 30 years of post-Mattel gaming under my Batman-brand utility belt, and I’m curious to see if those sepia-tone memories have been frosted with the cool minty icing of a distorted perspective or if those games truly were fun. Fun by my 39-year-old standards, which include all-you-can-eat shrimp and sex. It’s a much higher bar to reach.
The granddaddy of all Intellivision games is Astrosmash, the Asteroids answer whose only great in-game achievements are the sudden and illogical changes to the background color when a certain point total is achieved. Actually, this is still an oddly enjoyable game, despite the fact that it is inherently depressing.
Think about it: your little ship-dude is the last line of defense to keep your base safe from those falling asteroids, those pesky UFOs, and those insipid and unexplained twirling things. But it never ends. You keep shooting these objects, knowing that your demise (and the destruction of the base and its inhabitants) is the only inevitable conclusion. It’s a bleak philosophy. Read more…
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.
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…
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 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.
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…
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.
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…
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. 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…
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?
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…