1. Playcable - Filed under “Way Ahead Of Its Time”, the Playcable was a subscription service introduced in 1981 that allowed cable providers to stream Intellivision games over standard cable. The consumer would then use a Playcable adapter to download the game and play it on their Intellivision.
This is 1981, people. The future was then!
The service wasn’t as popular as Mattel had hoped, though – by 1983 only three percent of subscribers had access to the service. Add to that the fact that games were getting more complicated and bigger in size and the inability of the adapter to hold games of increasing size, and you end up with a fantastic idea that died too soon.
And then the videogame industry crashed.
Here’s a commercial for the Playcable service. RIP, you magical cable wizards.
1. Playsack - Fredun Shapur designed toys and children’s books in the 1960s and ’70s. His clean, simple (and beautiful) design aesthetic is a big inspiration of mine:
My favorite toy of his has as much inspiration in the product itself as it does in the way it’s designed. The Playsack takes the idea of a used-grocery-bag-turned-costume and makes it beautiful and fashionable. Playsack was released by Trendon toys in 1969 with packaging that predictably matches the vibe of the outfits but is no less stunning because of it:
Look at these things!
Think that giraffe might be my favorite but it’s a really, really tough call. If you’re interested in seeing more of Shapur’s work, there’s a retrospective book of a lot of it available here.
1. Track & Field - Konami released a collection of sports minigames in 1983 under the name Hyper Olympic. Though the title was suitably rad, there wasn’t really anything “hyper” about the minigames – they were solid yet straightforward, requiring players to mash buttons to make their characters perform amazing athletic feats on the screen. Hyper Olympic showed up on several consoles under several names, the most well-received of which was Track & Field on the NES.
You would be hard-pressed to find artwork more befitting of 1980s athletic prowess.
The NES version was released in 1988 to sync up with the Summer Games, and the events contained in the game were what you’d expect – 100 meter dashes, high jumps, triple jumps, and hurdles. What made the game stand out weren’t the events themselves but the solid controls and the head-to-head gameplay. Track & Field matches could get pretty heated; I myself was punched as a result of a match in 1989.
The arcade versions of Hyper Olympic/Track & Field supported up to four players, a pretty big deal at the time although players had to play in pairs and take turns. The NES release was a big hit, paving the way for a much more robust (and ambitious) sequel in 1992. That one wasn’t quite so great, and I’ll probably do a writeup on it another time.
Here’s a poster for the European release; again, nailed that artwork!
And here’s some gameplay of the arcade title – including this version because I just love the name “Hyper Olympic” so much.
1.Nightmare Cafe - Here’s Nightmare Cafe, a short-lived Wes Craven fantasy/horror-ish series that aired on NBC for about four months in 1992.
Starring Robert Englund as Blackie, the Cafe’s owner, the show centered around the titular cafe, a sort of nexus in the ether which had portals to just about anywhere. This made for pretty convenient storytelling, and the show relied on a rotating cast of guest stars in each episode to draw the regulars (Blackie and a couple of employees) into a unique situation each week.
It was definitely light-hearted fare for Craven, who said in interviews that he wanted the show to be “Twilight Zone meets Cheers“. Nightmare Cafe started out as a straight up anthology show concept, with a unique story each week, but Craven re-tooled it after getting the green light to allow for the three regulars to be the main characters. The show premiered to a warm reception, but ratings were low and the series was cancelled after six episodes.
The intro explains the concept pretty well (Twilight Zone meets Cheers? More like Quantum Leap meets Creepshow) with a fun rundown that showcases the tone of the series followed by a very nineties title sequence:
1. LJN Roll and Rocker – This was the NES accessory that I wanted above all others. This, to me, was the future of gaming. About a year’s worth of requests fell upon deaf ears with my parents, and as an adult I can now look back and agree that they made the right decision to ignore me. Before there was a Wii balance board, there was the Roll & Rocker.
LJN, they of the Karate Kid and T&C games, made a play on the popularity of the Pogo-Bal and released a controller that worked in a similar fashion. The player would stand on the controller, which had a rounded bottom, and their shifting weight would tilt the platform and emulate a finger pushing that direction on a D-pad. Simple, right?
The catch was that if you wanted to push buttons, like you might have to in any game on the market, you still had to hold a controller in your hand. This rendered the entire effort useless. The Roll & Rocker worked about as well as a controller as the Pogo-Bal did as a pogo stick and once revealed as the gimmick it was, the product didn’t last long.
Stick to licenses, LJN – you’ve got a better batting average with those.
1. Vectrex – The Vectrex was a little late to the gaming party, but at least it showed up with style.
Released in November 1982 by a company called Greater Consumer Electronics and then later by Milton Bradley when they acquired GCE, the Vectrex boasted its own monitor which displayed vector graphics in a fashion similar to what you’d see in an arcade. They also had two peripherals – a 3D headset (that actually worked, thanks to the vectors), and a light pen that let users draw on the screen.
(Their marketing materials were fantastic, too.)
These things made the gameplay stand out a bit from its console competitors, but the project wasn’t without its hiccups. It was a monochrome monitor, so the system used overlays to simulate color. Strike one, although it worked better than you would think. It retailed at $199 ($479 adjusted for inflation today), while the mega-hit Atari 2600 retailed at $125. Strike two. Although there was no way to tell this, the industry was poised for a huge crash in just a year that would sink even the most solid investments. Strike three, and Milton Bradley ended up taking a bath on their Vectrex efforts.
The system is fondly remembered today, as it was a pretty powerful machine for the time and the games themselves were good. Here’s some box art for a couple of Vectrex games:
1. The Karate Kid Game - Developed by Atlus, published by LJN, enjoyed by few, 1987’s The Karate Kid NES game was a staple in most game collections. It was an obvious move, to create a game based on the mega-popular Karate Kid and moderately popular Karate Kid II movies, but the execution was a little lazy.
The game loosely follows the events of Karate Kid I and II, starting during the match at the end of the first film and taking you on Daniel-san’s journey to Japan, through a typhoon and on to a final showdown with Chozen.
It’s mostly a side-scrolling beat-em-up,with the difficulty dialed wau up. There are a few ‘karate master’ interludes where you do typical sideshow karate tricks like break ice blocks.
Once you’ve defeated Chozen and save the day, you get what may be the lamest NES ending out there – and that’s saying alot. Maybe it’s the lamest because we’ve all come to expect more out of Mr. Miyagi, but it really punctuates how little Atlus and LJN cared about soiling the Karate Kid‘s (then) good name.
The mystical ending music and the Miyagi wink soften the blow a bit, but not much.
1. Godfrey Reggio PSAs - As if you needed further proof that Godfrey Reggio (Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, Naqoyqatsi) was in a class of his own and a little more forward-thinking than most, here are some PSAs he made in 1974 for the New Mexico Civil Liberties Union. The campaign starts with some ‘teaser’ pieces focusing on different elements of his message, then (around 3:45 in the video) things become more clear. All done in Reggio’s signature style, the concerns raised 40 years ago are pretty chilling.
I wonder what it would have been like to be a television viewer in New Mexico in 1974 and see this campaign play out.Continue reading →
1. Can Animals Think – No question mark here! This 1950 educational film is bluntly titled “Can Animals Think” and spends about 10 minutes pondering this eternally obvious subject. His running commentary is pretty great, though – it’s as if the narrator is seeing this film for the first time along with the rest of us.
1. The Mastery of Space – Here’s a beautiful 1962 documentary produced by NASA about the Mercury program. The fonts used and the static design elements are fantastic, and the actual space footage, test-footage on Earth and spaceflight animations are pretty great, too. It’s kind of hard to tell who the intended audience for this film is, though – it gives a pretty basic description of weightlessness and gravity, like it’s speaking to kids, but then takes a left turn and gets somewhat complicated. I can’t imagine kids catching anything Gus Grissom’s putting out there.