Day 1,004: Summertime Can-Kicking

It’s at least 150 degrees in this stuffy upstairs office, and I have no topic at the tip of my fingers. I turned on the fan behind me, and it laughed at me. I have spent my adult life making a show of how much I love extreme heat, but without air conditioning, and after having endured an unprecedented wave of record-setting hot days, I’ve had enough. Alas, my exhaustion at this perpetual sweat-fest will not help me scrounge a thousand words from the lint-pile of my brain-pocket.

I considered writing about stickball, a beloved pastime from my grandfather’s youth. I quickly learned that stickball is pretty much baseball with a stick (and an appropriately bouncy ball), and no kilograph can be wrested from something so simple. What else did he play? Kick The Can? Isn’t that just about kicking a can? Nope – digging up a topic on this sweltering Friday will be a bit of a challenge.

Then I found a site that explained the rules to Kick The Can “in 14 steps”. Okay, I’m just curious enough to want to break that down.

Proper footwear is, of course, recommended.

Like a stupid person, I assumed Kick the Can was just street-soccer, played with a can because kids in the Depression couldn’t afford proper sports equipment. When we were young we played snow-soccer with a frozen juice-box, which was always fun until someone fell on the thing and oozed tropical punch slush all over their pants. But a more complex and intricate game intrigues me. This was the site I selected to learn the 14 steps to can-kicking wonder. I could tell it was a great choice when I learned that step 1 was to gather your players. It suggests inviting kids to play Kick The Can and offers the helpful tip of saying, “Hey, we’re going to play a game called Kick The Can. Would you like to play?”

I’d have never thought to include the word ‘Hey’. This is why research pays off.

Step 2 is finding a plastic bottle or can to play with. Obviously this is a trick step, because if you select a plastic bottle you’ve already lost at Kick The Can. So pick a can. Empty would be best.

Advanced players may wish to opt for ‘gigantic’.

Step 3 involves choosing the boundaries of the playing area. Playgrounds and cul-de-sacs are suggested, with the tip that you also want plenty of places to hide. I’m not yet sure if this is because hiding is part of the game, or if you’ll just need a place to lay low in case you accidentally kick the can into the wrong person’s face and they get violent.

Step 4 says to designate a ‘jail area’ where players who are caught must stay. At this point I’m convinced that this game has nothing to do with kicking a can at a goal. Is it too late to switch topics back to stickball? Probably. Besides, at this point I want to know how to send my friends (or random strangers who responded positively to my carefully-worded invitation) to this jail place.

The fifth step involves designating one player to be “the seeker”. Not in the Quidditch sense – this is really looking like a game of hide-and-seek, but with kicking a can. Okay, so we’ve got one seeker and a whole bunch of hiders.

Just like John Wick! But with a can.

Next, you set up the can somewhere in the open. I’m starting to see how this game will unfold – with the can receiving one lone kick – and I’m going to hop right out in front of what you’re probably already thinking, and suggest you fill the can with glitter. In fact, even if you’re going to play soccer-style with a can, get some glitter in there. Have some fun on a hot day.

Step seven involves the seeker counting while everyone hides. Hopefully your playground and/or cul-de-sac and/or department store where you’re playing has plenty of quality hiding places. Once the counter has reached the apex of his or her allotted number-quotient (counted to 100 or whatever), they must go searching for the hiding people. Once a hider has been spotted, the seeker announces the person’s name and hiding spot to let everyone know. That’s when shit starts happening.

Both hider and seeker sprint toward the sacred glitter-can in the middle of the playing area. If the hider gets there first, they kick the can, thus satisfying the game’s title. If the seeker gets there first, he directs the hider into the pre-designated jail area.

Another fun idea: play in an actual jail!

The kicking of the can effectively swings open the jail doors. If a hider lands his or her boot on that shiny aluminum, society essentially collapses and all criminals are set free. This means that hiders are free to run out and boot the can even without being found, assuming they have an opening and wish to free their incarcerated brethren. The seeker has to keep constant watch on the thing. Step 9 involves resetting the can after it has been kicked – the seeker does this while the hiders hide again.

Step ten explains that the winner of the game is either the last hider to remain free from jail, or the seeker once they finish catching everyone. Another option – and this will be adopted by the kids who lean more toward being an asshole – is to ‘jail’ one kid you don’t particularly like, then to take a seat beside the can and read a book. The kid in jail can’t move and no one will sneak up to kick the can and free them. Bonus points if you plop the jail in the hot sun while the can rests in the cool shade.

Glitter clean-up is, of course, optional.

Step 11 suggests variations, like having multiple seekers. This is a great idea if you’re playing with 60 or 70 people. Step 12 is just stupid, suggesting you can tag players to send them to jail. This does away with the can concept, except as a means of liberation. It also invites kids to smack one another. Come to think of it, they might enjoy this. Step 13 says you can play in the dark with flashlights, which is always a great idea. Actually, you could play this game quite effectively in a cemetery, and after dark it would be all kinds of fun.

The final step isn’t a step at all, it simply offers an entirely new game involving knocking over a can with a ball. Nope. No kicking, no way.

Or, you can do the really smart thing on a day like this and simply find some air conditioning and read about Kick The Can instead. That’s my recommendation.

Day 994: The Game Of Milton Bradley’s Life

originally published September 20, 2014

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.

Milton started out as a draftsman and patent agent, serving the people of Springfield, Massachusetts during the recession of 1858. Not long afterward, he switched careers and opened up the first color lithography shop in town. With the impending presidential election of 1860 on the horizon, Milton was raking in a fortune selling lithographs of the forerunner, Abraham Lincoln. There was only one problem…

Honest Abe had grown a beard. Furious customers were returning the prints in droves, claiming them to be an obvious forgery. Hell, this Lincoln wasn’t even wearing that funky hat! Milton was distraught; he burned the remaining lithographs in his collection and took a huge financial loss – yet another kick to the groin in the Bradley legacy.

Before long, Milton had discovered a new project. A friend had given him a copy of a board game. We don’t know if it was Britain’s New Game of Human Life, Mansion of Bliss or Mansion of Happiness, but it was some sort of game in which one progressed through a pretend life, earning virtues for progress and avoiding the perils of on-board sins. These games were all similar, with the end goal being the ascension of one’s token into the promised land. Milton loved the concept, but he found the game to be too linear, and ultimately a bit too pushy with the morality lesson. So invented something better.

In Milton’s game, players use a teetotum (a six-sided spinning top – dice were seen as symbols of the evils of gambling back then) to move around, but there is an element of choice in almost every spin. There are potentially unavoidable bad-news squares (suicide is a grisly way for any board game to end), but if you steered yourself correctly, with a bit of luck you could be the first to acquire 100 points and win the game. Points are won through more modern (and American) means of success: wealth, getting elected to Congress, finding happiness, and so on.

Milton called it The Checkered Game of Life.

The ultimate goal (though it was possible to rack up 100 points without it) is to reach Happy Old Age at the top of the board. That’s it. Being good – or, landing on squares with positive virtues – brings rewards, which allowed Milton to pitch the game as a moral activity. But the optimum result had nothing to do with religious ascendance, giving the game more universal appeal. Milton took The Checkered Game of Life into a stationary store in New York in the winter of 1860 and pitched it. Within a year he had sold more than 40,000 copies.

Milton had found his calling. His company began releasing heaps of new games, even developing a way to package them, so that Union soldiers could use them to pass the time during the Civil War. Eventually, he drifted into other interests.

Milton had the opportunity to meet Edward Wiebe, the man who was trying to get educators to re-think how little kids were swept into the school system. Wiebe was a proponent of kindergarten, insisting that young ones might learn from play and creativity, instead of basic memorization and regurgitation. Milton, who had happily swum in the philosophical waters of pro-kindergartener Friedrich Wilhelm August Fröbel, jumped on board. The Milton Bradley company began marketing books and materials for kindergarten, also beating out Crayola to become the first company to manufacture packages of standard-color crayons.

He was a busy guy. Somewhere along the way, Milton also found the time to invent this:

In addition to reinventing how humans cut paper, Milton Bradley was also the first American company to bring the game of croquet across the Atlantic and popularize it in the States. Toward the end of the century though, while The Checkered Game of Life, croquet sets and jigsaw puzzles were still bringing in the bucks, it was Milton’s educational supplies that were keeping the company afloat. When he died in 1911, he felt they were his greatest contribution to society.

The company lived on in his name, as we all know. After falling on some hard times in and around the Great Depression – at one point the company was manufacturing joints for aircraft landing gear for World War II planes – the new company operators revamped the product line. Like a phoenix they returned to their seat of glory in the game world with products like Candyland, Operation, Battleship, Stratego, Trouble and Twister. But it was the centennial re-design of Milton’s original game (now re-titled The Game of Life) by Reuben Klamer and Bill Markham that broke the bank.

While this new version of the game has earned a much longer tenure as the favorite child of the board game brood, there is something clearly lacking from Milton’s original, and that’s the aspect of choice. In truth, The Game of Life owes more to the linear journeys of The New Game of Human Life or Mansion of Bliss than to its predecessor, as once you have either gone through college or leapt into the workplace, your in-game future is left to chance.

Milton was a bit more of an optimist, I suppose. Either that or he felt his fellow humans possessed more control over their direction. Given how he steered his genetic ship toward a bright future when his ancestors had spent so many centuries suffering, I think there may be some merit in seeing things Milton’s way.

Day 891: Dungeons & Dragons & Eternal Damnation

originally published June 9, 2014

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.

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.

Patricia’s first lawsuit was against Irving’s principal, a man named Robert A. Bracey III. She believed that Bracey was responsible for a curse that someone had placed upon Irving’s D&D character before his death. Next she went after TSR Inc, the publishers of Dungeons & Dragons, for having created this toxic environment in the first place. Where most of the world saw a game of fantasy and escape, Patricia saw only witchcraft, demonology, Satanic rituals and blasphemy. She’d have her day in court.

It was a short day. Her lawsuits dismissed, Patricia next adopted a grass-roots approach, founding B.A.D.D. – Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons – to campaign against the wicked pastime. I don’t know… “Bothered” sounds like the game is more of an inconvenience. I’m ‘bothered’ by car alarms on my block or when I accidentally kick my dog’s water dish and splash my sock, but I’m not going to launch into activist mode to eradicate these horrors. But the flaw in Patricia’s enthusiasm stretched way beyond her name-picking abilities.

B.A.D.D. caught a bit of steam from right-wing Christian media, and Patricia’s cause started to spread. In 1984 she acquired her private investigator’s license, and somehow became a law enforcement consultant. She was called as an ‘expert witness’ in a number of gaming-related lawsuits, all of which were lost when actual facts wandered in and messed up the accusers’ finger-wagging arguments.

But there was a backlash against this devil-game, and it stretched beyond the screech of Patricia Pulling’s published voice.

The story of James Dallas Egbert III – which was made into a 1982 TV movie starring Tom Hanks – added more fuel to the anti-D&D fire. Egbert was also a lover of fantasy role-playing games, so when he huffed back a hearty and excessive dose of Quaaludes before disappearing into the steam tunnels beneath Michigan State University, it was believed by many that Dungeons & Dragons must have played a part in his dangerous and suicidal behavior.

Yes, I used the term “believed by many.” That deserves a dollop of explanation: James’ parents hired private investigator William Dear to track him down. Dear felt there must be a link between D&D and the kid’s disappearance, and that was the snippet of conjecture that was pushed to the forefront of the media. The truth was that James was depressed for any number of reasons a teenager might be depressed. He eventually resurfaced, but after one more failed attempt to take his own life, a gunshot did the trick.

North Carolina State University student Chris Pritchard allegedly concocted the murder of Lieth Von Stein (pictured above) in 1988. Despite the teen’s forays into drug and alcohol use, investigators focused instead on the D&D game map they found in Chris’s possession, which featured the layout of the Von Stein house. Chris and two of his friends were found guilty of the murder, but how much of their motivation came from the game and how much came from the lengthy animosity between Chris and his stepdad?

According to Jerry Bledsoe and Joe McGinnis, the true crime authors who published an elaborate account of the case, Chris’s position as a power-hungry dungeon master had everything to do with the murder. Again, TV movies (and also a mini-series!) were made, and the truth was refocused through the lens of conjecture and guess-work to make an interesting narrative. Dungeons & Dragons was a terrific scapegoat for murder.

Despite the efforts of Patricia Pulling and her B.A.D.D.-ass crusade, Dungeons & Dragons has remained a popular pastime among those fascinated with mythical creatures and fancy dice. And while Pulling’s organization attempted to rally together figures and statistics to support their claims of the game’s inherent deviancy, they were outclassed by a few more reputable institutions: the American Association of Suicidology, the US Centers for Disease Control And Prevention and Health & Welfare Canada all published their independent findings that there is zero causal link between fantasy gaming and suicide. In fact, feelings of alienation and societal dissociation – the stereotypical paintbrushes with which the D&D geeks of the 70’s and 80’s are often streaked – are not associated with mainstream D&D players.

It’s all a heap of noise about nothing. While the game does include a number of demons and otherworldly beasts, the players of the game are generally charged with slaying those creatures, not worshipping them. Yes, there is witchcraft, but it’s fantasy. Fun. Not a symptom of Satanism, except in the eyes of the most perceptually twisted.

But then aren’t those the ones who usually make the most noise?

Day 865: Mattel Electronics Presents… My Favorite Childhood Distraction

originally published May 14, 2014

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.

Ah, the classic gridiron battle between Generic Orange and Generic Blue. Intellivision bought the license from the NFL, but did nothing more with it than stick the league’s logo on the front of the box. It was bad enough watching a center and nosetackle who never moved and could be run through like ghosts, but would it have overloaded the cartridge to dump a few actual team names and maybe some colors in there?

Actually yes, it would have. It took years of development before they even figured out how to arc a passed ball; stepping into the passing lane at any point was all you needed for an interception in this game. Screw this; we’ve had 25 years of mostly quality Madden games – this one does not hold up.

Triple Action was Intellivision’s multi-game cartridge, featuring a fun little tank game, a frustrating driving game and a what-the-fuck-are-these-controls-doing biplanes game. Not one of these games was playable as a single player, meaning this cartridge did little more than remind me how lonely childhood can be as an only child. Rather than relive the isolation and emotional pain this collection inflicted upon me, I opted to leave it on the shelf today.

There weren’t a lot of movie tie-ins with the Intellivision system, but dammit they released three games based on the 1982 sci-fi epic Tron. Maze-A-Tron was one I remember enjoying, despite the fact that I never really understood what the hell I was doing. There was a lot of running, a bunch of zeros and ones everywhere, and nothing that really connected me with the experience of the film. I still can’t figure this one out. But at least while pretending to be a pixelated Jeff Bridges I don’t feel quite so lonely.

Yes, I had the Intellivoice module, which brilliantly incorporated clunky robotic speech into a wide swath of only four freaking games. The one I enjoyed most was B-17 Bomber, a WWII simulation that allowed you to be pilot, navigator, gunner and bombardier aboard an Allied plane. The robot-voice told you when enemy fighters were near.

This game is still a raucous riot. Well, almost. My cartridge has had a defect that sent me into a violent rage as a child, randomly dumping me on some other screen the very moment I was set to release my payload of bombs to destroy the enemy’s factory. It was frustrating. It had me ready to Slim-Pickens my console: to leap on it, wave my nonexistent cowboy hat and ride the thing to destruction. It might be time for a more peaceful game.

1981-82 was the golden age for frog-related video games, ranging from Frogger in the arcades to Intellivision’s Frog Bog to… well, that’s it, really. Frog Bog is the peaceful tale of two amphibians, leaping from lily pad to lily pad and snarfing flies from the air. This game is like video-Quaaludes. From the first sunny leap until the game’s time runs out and forces you to sleep… wait, do the frogs sleep at the end? Maybe our little frogs are dying, and they have but three minutes to squeeze every last smidgen of joy (in this case, insect parts) from life.

Now I see it – Frog Bog is a lesson in carpe diem, a call to arms for each of us to grab hold of life and taste its ever-fleeting nectar. By playing video games. About frogs.

I can’t help but wonder how I came to own this game. As an 8-year-old kid, I’m sure I wouldn’t have looked at this box in the store and begged my parents for it. Not when there were other Tron games to be had.

When I think of all the hours I wasted playing “Snake” on my last pre-smartphone cellphone, I always connect it with my childhood love of Snafu. This game was pure Intellivision – there was nothing quite like it on any other system. Originally intended for a handheld system, Snafu allowed you to beat your friends with geometry. Unfortunately, playing as a single-player only meant that you’d be outsmarting the machine, and while it never felt like it in the 80’s, outsmarting a machine of this calibre is a hollow victory at best.

I’ll finish off with sweet, magical Utopia, the game that led us eventually to Sim-City, Civilization, and the entire God-game and real-time-strategy genres. Even as a single-player game, where the only challenge was to build up a nice island and try to maintain it after a wayward hurricane wipes out a hospital, killing thousands with a bloodless thunk, this is still a great way to pass the time.

Utopia landed in the Smithsonian Institution’s “Art of Video Games” exhibit due to its simple brilliance. Dull as it may seem to gamers who gargle with the froth of Call of Duty bloodlust, there’s a meditative elegance in gently guiding one’s fishing boat upon a school of fish-dots, slowly collecting money and not having to panic over anything other than the weather. Utopia invented the art of zen gaming.

For the most part, Intellivision holds up about as well as an early season episode of Diff’rent Strokes. It’s outdated, toiling in a genre that has since been vastly improved upon, and apart from a few clever snide remarks by Gary Coleman (or that squeaky thrill of entrapping a friend’s Snafu snake), it’s nothing special.

But it’s still fun.

Day 852: The Greatest Toy On Four Wheels

originally published May 1, 2014

I may have had a slightly distorted sense of value when I was a child. If I’d been on a sinking boat with the ability to save only a family of four or my Star Wars toys… well, I’m just glad it never came to that. And while I’d have leapt between a bullet and my cherished Kenner Greedo, my collection of Hot Wheels and Matchbox die-cast cars were a close second. It was hard concocting narratives more complex and engaging than a Fast & Furious movie, but dammit I tried.

My Hot Wheels cars convinced me that a giant staircase was navigable terrain, provided I stick to slow-motion jump moves. They taught that treadless tires could propel a Datsun 280Z through thick shag carpeting. And while I knew back then that I’d never become the kind of guy who would stand and nod knowingly at a 455 crate engine with Edelbrock aluminum heads, I would certainly be the kind of guy who likes to roll stuff down ramps and watch them crash.

There are other brands, of course. Corgi, Husky and Lledo made passable mini-vehicles (though I always felt uncomfortable grabbing hold of a Dinky), but Hot Wheels and Matchbox made the superior products. Just as I wasn’t going to accept a Star Striker Spaceship in place of a Millennium Falcon, I had no use for a lime-green Husky-brand Studebaker station wagon. I wanted the good stuff.

The original Matchbox cars debuted in 1953 and were sold in – surprise! – matchboxes, or tiny replicas of matchboxes. Like Corgi and Dinky, their main competitors, Matchbox was a British company. The early models didn’t feature windows or interiors; they were looking to keep costs down, and assumed that British kids had enough imagination that they could formulate their own mental bucket seats if necessary. They were well-made and outrageously popular. Matchbox dwarfed the competition by 1968.

Then along came Mattel. ’68 was the year the first sixteen Hot Wheels dropped onto the market, beginning with a dark blue custom Camaro. “Custom” is the key word here – while Matchbox made a mint off of realism, offering miniatures of popular consumer cars, lorries and work vehicles, Hot Wheels went for souped-up modifications on muscle cars and racing machines. Of the initial 16 models, eleven were crafted by noted designer Harry Bentley Bradley. Bradley would later achieve fame for another iconic vehicle design.

The original Hot Wheels lineup (pictured at the top of this article) were done up in snazzy Spectraflame paint, with a working suspension and skinny little red lines on the wheels, reflecting a trend among muscle cars at the time. There was no noticeable groove where the doors would be cut, because the width of an actual door seam would be microscopic when shrunk down to that scale. That dash of accuracy was reversed later on, after product testing with kids revealed that the little ones really wanted to see where the door would be. Kids love doors, I guess.

In 1968 kids had the option of a pale grey Chrysler Newport Matchbox toy or a shiny magenta Beatnik Bandit, the likes of which had only been seen as a custom vehicle at car shows. Needless to say, Hot Wheels eclipsed the competition pretty early on. And it wasn’t just the colorful lacquer on the polished metal shells or the fancy and fun automobiles they were selling – Hot Wheels had another clear advantage up their sleeves.

Those trademark orange tracks were part of the Hot Wheels strategy from the very beginning. Mattel employed a low-friction plastic from DuPont known as Delrin to use as a bushing between the axel and the wheel, allowing the cars to accelerate up to 200mph. Well, 200mph to scale, but that’s still pretty damn fast. The tracks would come with a special C-clamp for attaching the starting point to a table or a tall but slow-moving uncle. They also sold a two-lane starting gate and finishing flag because young boys are competitive little fuckers.

The 1969 line was massive, including a Rolls Royce Silver Shadow, a ’57 T-Bird, a police cruiser and the classic Volkswagen Beach Bomb, a tribute to the famous hippie vans that were speckling the American landscape that year. The original Beach Bomb featured two surfboards sticking out the back window. Unfortunately, this model was too skinny and top-heavy to navigate those orange tracks, so the bus was redesigned with a side-loading contraption for the board.

Thus was born the holy grail of Hot Wheels collectibles.

Back then, each car was manufactured in a variety of brilliant colors. Hot pink was the least-used color (obviously because it was considered to be a “girl’s color”), therefore any hot pink Hot Wheels car from the first few runs is quite valuable to collectors. Since the rear-loading Beach Bomb was only created in a limited run of prototypes, it’s believed there are only two hot pink ones in existence. These are the ones you want to find.

But you won’t, of course. The collector community knows exactly where those two are at, and they don’t show up on the market very often. It still wouldn’t hurt to scour the garage sales for classics though; an original-release side-loading Beach Bomb in good shape might be worth around $600. If you can find a rear-loading one, you’ll be able to unload it for a five-figure sum. In 2000, one of the hot pink models sold to a collector for $72,000.

That’s a university education for a single die-cast toy.

Collecting Hot Wheels cars is a much less expensive hobby than collecting stamps, coins or Barbies. There are a lot of toys out there to acquire, but they don’t cost too much. Of course you’ll want to get all the extras: the models with thermal paint (they changed color in cold water!), the ones with the crash panels, the Supercharger models with an electric motor, and so on. Mattel acknowledged the burgeoning collector’s market in 1995 when they introduced the Treasure Hunt Series, consisting of hard-to-find models with funky designs and rubber tires. The introduction of forced scarcity has worked; the Treasure Hunt cars are fetching a lot of money.

I never saw the point. Toys aren’t for collecting, they’re for enjoying in the moment, for playing with a passion and for terrifying the dog when a Corvette that’s 1/500th of her size comes whizzing at her across the kitchen floor.

I have none of my original Hot Wheels anymore. But that’s okay – I used them well and wore them out. Also, I didn’t let a rear-loading Beach Bomb slip through my fingers so it’s not like I lost a fortune.

Day 789: No Pain, No Game

originally published February 27, 2014

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.

The name comes from the old-timey tradition of driving a peg two or three inches into the soil, with the loser of the game having to pull the peg out by his (or her, but come on – most girls aren’t dumb enough to play this) teeth. The game has been played for ages, even showing up in Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer. It’s not as popular as it used to be – and maybe parents should be thanking video games for a change – but if you see your kids playing it, you may want to intervene rather than congratulate them on their awareness of history.

There are variations on mublety-peg, just in case you get tired of the monotony of flinging deadly weapons at your own appendages. You can play a variation on the basketball game Horse, in which you try to out-class your friends in fancy knife-chucking maneuvers like behind-the-back, blindfolded, ricochet-off-the-ceiling-fan-whilst-being-balls-out-swamp-fucked-on-PCP, and so on. The ‘Stretch’ variation has you throwing your knife near the other person’s feet, and if it sticks in the earth they have to stretch out their feet to the point of impact until one player falls down. That way you can include the danger of a pulled groin in the game. Fun!

Then there’s Chicken Mumblety-peg, in which one player bets how many knives the other can throw between his feet. I should mention that these games are best played in a country such as Canada where universal healthcare is available. This is the kind of game in which the appellation of “pussy” is no doubt bumped like a hacky-sack between its players. It’s a game without the potential for ‘fun’, only for ‘relief’ at best. And possible maiming.

Rather than dance around the perimeter of perpetual agony, how about a game where the sole purpose of competition is to endure the most physical pain? The World Eskimo-Indian Olympics, held in Anchorage and covering the entire ‘world’ of Alaska and possibly some Yukonians, features a handful of events, including the ear-pull. Had this been featured in Sochi this year, perhaps the Americans might have slipped another gold medal in their pocket; this one is not for the faint of heart. Or ear.

A two-foot length of floss-thin string is looped over both competitors’ ears, at which point both players lean back and see who gives in first. Blood will be shed, pain will be experienced, and more than likely there will be stitches for somebody. In the end, someone wins a medal and presumably some degree of semi-athletic pride.

This would still be more entertaining on TV than curling.

In the realm of the less painful and substantially less tough-looking you have the game known as Are You There, Moriarty?. Two blindfolded players lay facing one another with linked hands, like Sylvester Stallone in Over The Top but with less grunting and more horizontality. Then they try to thwack each other with rolled up newspapers, wrapping paper rolls, unusually large sex toys, whatever. The loser of the game is the first person who realizes just how stupid this game actually is.

I suppose if you want to add the element of lunatic youth into this endeavor you could replace the newspapers with flaming medieval maces or cactus limbs or something. There is a strategy to the game, in which you can roll from side to side to avoid getting hit, but unless you’ve got a third party there to count the landed blows, what’s the point? Just beat the crap out of your buddy for a while and call it fun.

If you’re like me, then violence, mayhem and ear mutilation do not factor into your notion of a fun pastime. Maybe you’d rather cram a bunch of stuff into your yap-hole. Well good news! That can be a dynamic competition too! I’m not talking about snarfing processed tube-meat on Coney Island on July 4 – this is a game anyone can play, so long as they aren’t too possessive of their dignity. It’s called Chubby Bunny, or Pudgy Bunny or Fluffy Bunny or Punchy Monkey or whatever the hell you want it to be called.

The rules are simple: cram marshmallows into your mouth and try to pronounce the game’s title. If you can’t say it because there’s no room left in your mouth, you’re eliminated. If you last till the end then you’re the winner (and probably the most popular girl at the party). Be careful though – a 32-year-old woman died in a Chubby Bunny contest in London, Ontario in 2006, and a 12-year-old girl choked to death at her own school in Chicago in 1999, in what was supposed to be a teacher-supervised event.

In the end, the game with the marshmallows might be the most lethal game on this list. Go figure.

Day 781: The Classic Time-Wasters

originally published February 19, 2014

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

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.

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.

The card trails that heralded a victory could be used as an accurate barometer for the speed of your PC. Also, there’s a cheat in the game: if you’re playing a draw-3 game and you hold down Ctrl-Alt-Shift while clicking on the draw pile, only one card will flip over. Makes for an easy win.

Too bad the game was yanked from the Windows 8 lineup.

No, you probably didn’t play this game on a Windows machine. This is a game called Mined-Out, and it was an impressive hit among the computer platforms that existed in 1983. The origin of the game actually goes back to the 1960’s when mainframe programmers were figuring out how to use those clunky, room-size beast-computers to detract from workplace productivity. Jeremiac Ratliff made a game called Cube which was the forerunner of this style of gameplay.

The object in Mined-Out was to scootch through the mines to get to the end goal. You can see this in greater detail in the astoundingly dramatic cover to the cassette (yes, cassette) on which Mined-Out was sold, Keep in mind, in the 80’s, game covers looked way more interesting than the games back then could ever be:

Puzzle games were huge in the 80’s, as they were less reliant on graphics and immersive thrills and could afford to look a little cheaper, so long as the gameplay was ramped up. This is why variations of the Mined-Out game were all over the place, including a game called Minesweeper which was part of the OS/2 operating system. And of course, this fun toy:

Curt Johnson built Minesweeper into IBM’s OS/2 platform and Robert Donner swooped it into the innards of Microsoft Windows. The board is created randomly before your first click, however in most versions of the game if your first click lands right on a mine, the board will automatically bump that mine to the upper left corner so that your first strike isn’t a game-ender. The Windows Vista version actually ensures your first click is a ‘zero-space’, with no mine and no immediately neighboring mines.

Most people forego the massive 30×16 Expert level and play with the 8×8 (or 9×9 from Windows 2000 on) Beginner or 16×16 Intermediate board. The mine frequency is identical between the 8×8 and 16×16 boards, so the increased ‘difficulty’ is only a matter of how long your attention span can stay glued to the game before you make a mistake.

An Italian protest group complained about the violent nature of the game in 2001 (no, seriously), claiming it was offensive to victims of actual landmines around the world. This is why the Windows Vista and Windows 7 versions contain a ‘flower’ mode. For happier thoughts. Hopefully these protesters don’t turn their attention toward every game in the world involving guns in support of victims of gun violence. They’ll never get any sleep.

I grew up making regular pilgrimages to one of my nearby arcades, and while I’d spew hours of my youth all over Paperboy and Mappy, there was always a spot in my heart (and my change pocket) for pinball. We had pinball machines in our house, and there’s an inarguable craft in nudging the table with your hips, just enough to tweak the ball’s arc but not enough to get a tilt. 3D Pinball for Windows featured none of those physical nuances.

The freebie game was a pared-down version of Full Tilt! Pinball, a 1995 Maxis game. The full game would get you three tables instead of one, and featured a few extra treats like a multi-ball bonus. I was never an addict of the Windows game, but I will give it props for allowing my mother the opportunity to segue into computer gaming. She has now achieved the hardcore gamer status of playing solitaire, so that’s a big win.

FreeCell first found a home in the digital world on the PLATO system in 1978, courtesy of programmer Paul Alfille. Microsoft developer Jim Horne brought it to Windows 3.1 and it has stuck around the Windows world ever since. Well, until Windows 8 – you’ve got to snag all the Microsoft solitaire games as a separate app now.

The original FreeCell game included 32,000 numbered games. In 1994 a guy named Dave Ring started the Internet FreeCell Project to see if all the games could be beaten, and it was determined that all were conquerable but one. Game #11,982 was the lone enigma, unsolvable to this day.

Of course in ‘this day’ we have a million numbered games in the FreeCell stash, with eight of them having been deemed unsolvable. This means that someone (probably multiple someones) has put in the time and effort to test this.

Good thing they weren’t distracted by Minesweeper.

Day 729: When The Screen Runs Red With Virtual Blood

originally published December 29, 2013

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.

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.

In retrospect, any fear that this monochrome blip-fest might unleash a be-mulleted teen’s inner monster is laughable. But now we have hyper-realism in video games. The cars move with some semblance of logical response, and the pedestrians are not stickmen but a multicultural slew of blood-toting human replicas, who splatter and break apart much as we’d imagine an actual person would.

When I was just a few years older than my daughter is now, the western world was breaking apart at its foundation because of the release of Mortal Kombat and its ilk. I was never an avid participant in the ‘savage beating’ genre of games, but I remember chuckling at the cartoonish violence in much the same way I’d later enjoy the ridiculous slaughter scenes in the Kill Bill movies. But for US Senators Joseph Lieberman and Herb Kohl, the bloodshed in these games was worthy of legislative hearings.

Andrea Wilson sued Midway Games when her 13-year-old was stabbed in the chest by a friend who was ‘obsessed’ with Mortal Kombat and believed he was Cyrax, one of the game’s characters. The court ruled that the stabbing action was not actually one of Cyrax’s ‘Fatality’ finishing moves, and the game makers were not deemed responsible.

So are violent video games turning our young people into savage, merciless killers?

The short answer is… I don’t know, maybe?

There have been a heap of studies which have attempted to slap down a final word on the impact of video game violence. Some came up with an assertive “yes”, insisting that there is an absolute correlation between teen violence and the presence of gory games in their lives. A number of books have been written by educated voices with meticulously-conceived and well-reasoned arguments. People like former West Point psychology professor Lt. Col. David Grossman, who believes first-person shooter games are ‘murder simulators,’ and condemns the desensitization to bloody violence that occurs – as he sees it – because of these games.

Dr. Craig A. Anderson associates the cause-effect of game violence to real violence with the link between smoking and lung cancer. Sure, there are studies that will come up with nothing more than a shoulder-shrug when it comes to connecting the two, but common sense and a number of other studies show incontrovertible evidence of causality. It’s a they-said / they-said kind of thing.

So with all these experts wagging their accusatory fingers at video game bloodshed, who’s stepping to the other side of the debate? Well, the Harvard Medical School Center for Mental Health for one. Also the British Medical Journal. Both have conducted studies that have shown no link between game violence and real violence. A US government study prompted Surgeon General David Satcher to declare a minimal impact of media violence on violent behavior.

Even the Secret Service got involved, looking into the histories of 41 kids who brought weapons to school and opened fire. Only 12% of those kids played violent video games and 27% watched violent films. I don’t know how that compares with the norm, but those are incredibly low numbers. A number of meta-studies have procured a more logical conclusion: kids who are otherwise exposed to violence in their lives are more likely to be pushed to act violently due to video games. This suggests that the real cause is not the game itself but the other source (or sources) of violence in their lives.

Also, kids who are already aggressive in nature are more likely to want to play these games to begin with.

As for the sex and misogyny, I’m not really worried. Yes, the Grand Theft Auto series is known for treating women like sex objects and abusable hookers, and that’s awful. But my daughter is well-educated in feminism and gender equality, and I have no fear that a video game will prompt her to reconsider her value as a human being. That’s not to say the game should be exempt from such criticism, however I worry that people might pass off the blame for their children’s perceptions of equal rights on a video game when really that education needs to come from them.

The secret appears to be in simply knowing your kid. If they suffer from a medical condition, something like antisocial personality disorder that gives them a biological predisposition toward fist-swinging behavior, then they’re probably more likely to soak up the influence of GTA and other such pixelated bloodbaths. If this isn’t an issue, then it comes down to ensuring they know the difference between gaming and real life, and maybe making sure they don’t spew too many hours a day down the proverbial gaming drain.

In the end, we let her buy the game. She has been playing it on and off for the past fifteen or so hours, and as yet she has not murdered or assaulted anyone. I’m proud of her. Now if she’d just go to a friend’s or something so that I can get down there and play…

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

originally published November 3, 2013

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.

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.

Most of the games featured a bevy of glitches, crashes and freezes to ensure no consumer was in danger of having too much fun. The Sega Genesis release featured a different lineup of games with fewer technical issues, but still it wasn’t enough of a seller to be considered a success. A Super NES version was announced, but Active Enterprises was tired of losing money, so the plug was mercifully pulled.

I never played Hotel Mario, but the consensus among gamers is that this was Mario’s low-point in a massive chain of games that more often than not didn’t forget to include the semi-crucial aspects of “fun” and “not sucking”. It’s a puzzle platform game in which Mario must search through seven hotels for Princess Toadstool, which strikes me as an odd plot choice, suggesting he was trying to save her from a life of Koopa prostitution or something. On each stage the object is to shut each door within the allotted time limit. That’s right, you aren’t battling enemies in this one, or exploring strange worlds – you’re closing doors, everyone’s favorite fun-time activity.

Nintendo can graciously ignore this steaming turd in the Mario canon, as it was released only on the unsuccessful Philips CD-i in 1994, not on the Super Nintendo. The fully animated cut scenes were outlandishly poorly-made, and the voice acting choices were bizarre. It was as though Nintendo handed off permission to use their characters to Philips, but only if they concocted a game so completely unplayable it would force gamers to toss their consoles in the trash and buy new ones. Preferably new Nintendos.

No, we’re not deviating off-topic here. If you were one of the lucky three or four people to have purchased a 3DO game system in 1994, you might remember Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties. This adult-oriented game may be the most ill-conceived attempt at interactive storytelling in the history of the medium. The game consists of DVD-style menus, with which you can use your controller to decide which of the two or three choices you’d like to take to move the story forward. Then you’ll get another still photograph, with a voice-over narration explaining the next plot point.

This is like a Choose Your Own Adventure game, but with less imagination and more boobs. Also, the narrator arbitrarily changes mid-way through the game, only to change back a few scenes later. This game was so low-budget it’s amazing you didn’t have to travel to the factory where it was made to purchase it. It’s a glorified slide-show, a wretched piece of narrative, and a bad idea from start to finish. Luckily, it was released for the 3DO, which meant hardly anyone wasted their money.

I was never big into the Mortal Kombat, Streetfighter-type battle games, though I appreciate the skill involved in smushing the right combination of buttons to deliver a grotesquely devastating hit combo. On the weird side of this genre we can find Catfight, which was released by Atlantean Interactive – a front for porn-peddlers Vivid Entertainment. This is an all-girl battle, only without any of the enjoyable elements of its peers.

The gameplay of this CD-ROM game for 1996 Windows-95 computers was horrendous. Controls were unresponsive and the so-called action was a mile away from what was advertised. PC Gamer may have delivered the most succinct and delightfully wicked review of the game, claiming “being caught masturbating to it would actually be less embarrassing than being caught playing it.”

Poor, poor Aquaman. The guy just can’t catch a break. He’s the butt of so many superhero jokes, and considered to be the Potsie of the Justice League. Okay, he can communicate with fish. That’s not going to make him the darling of the comic book world, except where it overlaps with the world of marine biologists. But could we at least have given him a decent video game?

Aquaman: Battle For Atlantis splashed into stores for the GameCube and Xbox in 2003, and most who bought it wanted to throw it back. The game consists of Aquaman scooting around the ocean, battling bad guys with his handful of moves and impressive combo attacks. It sounds interesting, however simply smashing the A button will kick most enemy asses if your thumbs are quick enough. The graphics make Aquaman look like a dirty hippie, and the animations are choppy and clunky.

Nevertheless, to those wide-eyed kids (or red-eyed teenagers at the tail-end of a wild night) who poured hours into any of these games, don’t feel bad. You glommed on to a piece of infamy for a while – we’ve all done it. It’s all a part of the lifestyle.

Day 664: The Toys In Marvin’s Playroom

originally published October 25, 2013

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.

Along came Mr. Machine in 1960, distributed by the Ideal Toy Company. This was a brilliant toy for teaching kids how stuff works, as it was designed to be taken apart piece by piece and reassembled with ease. My parents never bought me one of these, which is why I become mechanically befuddled attaching the wand to the end of my vacuum cleaner. If I’d had a Mr. Machine I could have fixed that lawn mower instead of trading it to my neighbor for Fritos.

In my defense though, I’ve now got a fuck-ton of Fritos. So life is good.

King Of The Hill is like a 3-D version of Snakes & Ladders, but with no ladders. Players compete to get up the hill first, but landing your marble in front of a cave will plummet you further down the course. It’s a great lesson in the chaotic random nature of the universe, and also that life will screw you over sometimes just because you showed up.

I grew up with a very distorted view of what boxing is. In Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out for the Nintendo, I learned that boxing is a matter of finding the right button combination for your opponent. With Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, I learned that boxing is about smashing the crap out of a single lever in order to dislocate your opponent’s head.

In the UK, this game went under the name Raving Bonkers. In 1977, Marx Toys decided the robots, which debuted in 1964, needed an update for the Star Wars generation. They gave the ring a more space-ish look and rebranded the toy Clash Of The Cosmic Robots. I think I like ‘Raving Bonkers’ better.

Surprisingly, I have never played the Mystery Date board game. I think it’s fascinating – girls matching outfits in hopes of scoring the ideal date with some stranger. This teaches a great lesson: girls need to focus more on what they wear and how they look to attract the right man than who they are. I’m kicking myself for not buying one of these for my own daughter, who is now weighted down by all that ridiculous self-worth and self-value that girls just don’t need.

Also, the ‘dud’ date was depicted for a while as a construction worker, which is a fantastic way to remind the working class that they should not breed.


Marvin Glass & Associates beat out the Star Wars merchandizing behemoth by 12 years with their James Bond-related toys. Now your children can re-enact Sean Connery’s fear of having his scrotum spliced by a laser! “No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to play!”

Hasbro spread Marvin’s Lite-Brite around the globe in 1967. You can now play this game as an app on the iPad, but where’s the fun in that? Lite-Brite trained us all to be amateur graphic designers. Yes, there were cardboard templates you could follow, but it was more fun to craft your own original work. The downside was that the little plastic pegs, when angled just so in a thick pile or shag carpet, could be downright LEGO-esque with their vicious foot-stabs. I think I may still have a green peg embedded in the sole of my left foot, but I’m afraid to look.

In 1969 Marvin’s crew developed a game in which children gather around a table and attempt to launch plastic vermin at an invisible gentleman’s taint. Ants In The Pants is simply Tiddlywinks with a slightly less goofy name and a theme that cashes in on children’s fascination with insects, as well as their willingness to laugh at even the slightest suggestion of a person’s genitals.

The Inchworm toy, which no child loved as much as the girl in the photo appears to love hers, is a ride-on scooter. It does away with luxuries like steering or brakes, but more than makes up for these shortcomings with a snazzy clicking sound that young children enjoy. At least until they awaken in the hospital with that clicking sound reverberating in their heads as the last thing they heard before careening down the basement stairs because they couldn’t weave out of the way.

Wow, I let this get a little dark. Sorry about that – let’s focus on a toy with absolutely no possible link to cerebral contusions or shattered femurs.

There was a moment in every boy’s life in the 1970’s in which he wanted to be Evel Knievel. Here was a guy who could pop wheelies, leap over semi-trucks and probably terrify a week’s worth of poop out of his mother every time he showed up on TV. The Stunt Cycle could provide children with a miniaturized version of the thrill of leaping Evel’s bike over the fountains at Caesar’s Palace, provided the kid had a fantastic imagination and possibly a goldfish bowl to simulate the fountains.

The Stunt Cycle was the toy of 1973. I wanted one and I wasn’t even born yet. And that’s the beauty of Marvin Glass’s toys – they infiltrated the childhoods of those of us who were born long after most of them were released. In fact, of everything on Marvin Glass’s resume, the only smash hit that was released in my lifetime was this thing:

Freakin’ Simon. Launched at Studio 54 in 1978, Simon combined flashing lights, random melodies (all in the key of an A-major triad in second inversion, as I’m sure you’re all aware), and unconscionable stress. Simon tested one’s memory, but gave you three ways to do it: by recalling the actual order of your instruction, remembering the sequence of flashing lights or re-enacting the tune.

It was based on an Atari arcade game called Touch Me (no, this wasn’t one of Atari’s dirty games), except on that game the buttons were all black and the sounds were awful. Simon was downright brilliant.

Not a bad legacy for an unknown toymaker. Marvin Glass passed away in 1974, and the company suffered a jolt when three of its executives were taken down in a shooting spree by a disenfranchised toy designer a few years later. But they carried on until 1988, when the company folded and its designers went on to other things.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to find someone to play Mystery Date with me. I think it’s about time I try it.