Tuesday, December 31, 2013

No Hangovers in 2014!

Well it's time to flip the calendar again as 2014 is nearly upon us. For my final post of the year, I'm harking back to 1978, the year my family came back to the U.S. and in my opinion, the best year ever next to 1982 (Joust, Q*Bert and Ms.Pac-Man) and maybe 1987 (Star Trek: The Next Generation). The following print ad touting Alka-Selzter's hangover-fighting abilities is from a time when people were much more open about inebriation and intoxication. The children of the 60s had grown up, they were now in power and were continuing to pursue their dreams of, as Austin Powers put it, "having unprotected sex with many anonymous partners, while experimenting with mind expanding drugs in a consequence free environment." Of course then Nancy Reagan and Mr. T came along in the 80s and shut the whole damned party down. So enjoy this little nugget from a simpler time and perhaps you too can avoid the dreaded New Year's Day hangover.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Star Wars on the Small Screen

Star Wars on your TV? No way!
Within the Grand Geekdom of Star Wars, it seems that the producers of said saga have always relished in the scapegoating of the now infamous television one-off, The Star Wars Holiday Special, which has long been regarded as the "red-headed stepchild" of the entire pew-pew franchise. This funky two-hour special was originally broadcast in 1978 and featured musical numbers by Jefferson Starship, comedy skits with Harvey Korman and Bea Arthur, and the public's first introduction to space-opera's greatest bounty hunter and general badass, Boba Fett. But I think it's a bit unfair for Lucas and company to shrug off this classic 70's variety show as if it were their only foray into total goofiness, because I recall more than a few odd appearances by Luke Skywalker and his galactic buddies on the small screen during that quiet period between the first two films, which, although I didn't realize at the time, mostly served to keep the giant Star Wars publicity machine rolling until the next flick was released. After all, you gotta keep selling action figures during down time, right?

So in order to support my ongoing quest to prove that I'm right about everything, I present to you one of my favorite retro moments featuring disco, droids and Jedi in hopes that you'll all come to see that George Lucas has, perhaps, a few more skeletons in his closet than he'd like to admit to. Enjoy.



Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas, If That's OK

Happy Holidays from the Bots
This is one of my favorite TV show Christmas songs. It comes to us from way back in 1993, that's 20 years ago to you and me, and was featured on the obscure geek extravaganza known as MST3000. At the time this video was originally broadcast, cultural awareness and political correctness were quickly becoming the hot topics of the day. This little Xmas ditty hit the nail on the head and actually might be even more relevant today in 2013, when perhaps our collective level of cultural sensitivity has spiralled so far out of control, that everyone on the planet is afraid of saying anything to anyone. The song, entitled Merry Christmas, If That's OK, does contain a positive message of tolerance, although the performers quite obviously have their tongues firmly planted in their cheeks. Happy birthday, Jesus, don't let the bastards get you down.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Nobody Expects the...

…Spanish Inquisition. 

Can a parakeet repeat this famous Monty Python line? Yes. Yes it can. BTW if you're wondering, it's completely real. Odd that they didn't teach it the "parrot sketch" though.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Into the Dragon's Lair

Illustration by TBottch. Stolen from DeviantArt.com - how's THAT for deviancy?
In 1983, as the Great Video Game Crash was looming upon the horizon, ready to crush huge software development houses and well-established corporate brands into digital dust, the gaming industry still had a few tricks up its Coca-Cola shirt sleeve. While kids continued to rabidly stuff quarters into arcade machines all over the country, the availability of increasingly sophisticated home gaming consoles was already chipping away at the coin-op market. This of course wasn't that surprising because after all, who wants to drive all the way out to the mall and drop $5 in quarters on Donkey Kong at the arcade when you could hit "reset" on your Colecovision at home as many times as you liked? So just as the film industry had done by introducing Technicolor and Panavision into theaters to stave off irrelevancy during the post-war television boom, the video game industry began looking into ways to pull kids away from their Ataris and Intellivisions in their living rooms and back into the money-sucking arcades.

Improvements upon graphics and sound had been, up until then, the standard way to attract gamers who were looking for the latest and greatest in what the arcades had to offer, but the computer technology behind most games of the time was already being pushed to its limits. As fate would have it, however, a bright fellow named Rick Dyer, who at the time was the president of Advanced Microcomputer Systems, got the idea to take the basic structure of early computer text adventures and scale it up to accommodate prerecorded audio and photo stills, which would form a sort of visual story in which a player could take part. After several failed attempts at generating investor interest for what he dubbed his "Fantasy Machine," a chance viewing of producer Don Bluth's 1982 animated film, The Secret of NIMH, got him thinking about replacing the static photos with quality, full motion video which, as it turns out, was just what the project needed to get people excited about it. So Rick hired the veteran Disney animator's production company to do the grunt work and on an anemic budget of about a million dollars plus, they produced roughly 22 minutes of animated footage, which could then be played back on standard arcade machine monitors using Pioneer laser-disc players and coordinated by Dyer's "Fantasy Machine" hardware.

In partnership with seasoned coin-op manufacturer, Cinematronics, the first game released to utilize this new laser-disc technology was called Dragon's Lair. It's story revolved around a brave but sometimes reluctant sword and sorcery hero named Dirk Daring, whose purpose it was to explore a dark wizard's castle and battle magical monsters in order to rescue the beautiful Princess Daphne from the clutches of the evil dragon, Singe. As in most video games, the player would interact by using a joystick and button, and had only a limited set of lives with which to complete the game. However unique to the arcade industry at the time, Dragon's Lair cost not just a quarter but a whopping 50¢ to play, which didn't sit well with a lot of gamers. Complaints also surfaced regarding Dragon Lair's gameplay as the pre-rendered video scenes only allowed the player to react to the canned events of the game, which meant that the player could not actually direct character movement or action as in traditional video games like Pac-Man, Galaga, etc.

The initial success of Dragon's Lair did succeed in bringing excited gamers back to the arcades and eventually resulted in a number of sequels, knock-offs and competitors entering the market. But it was a short-lived victory as the Great Crash (known in Japan as Atari Shock) eventually came anyway and obliterated everything in its path, leaving the landscape fresh and clear for a little company called Nintendo to take root and rebuild the video game industry from scratch. But that's a tale for another time.

In the meantime, please enjoy this video which contains all 22 minutes of the original Dragon's Lair footage, as well as about 8 minutes of prototype video, taken from the 2002 laser-disc reproduction of the game.





Monday, December 9, 2013

Little Professor Calc for Android

…with a REAL computer inside!

Before the Speak 'n' Spell, which became an official 80s icon by its inclusion in the movie E.T., there was the Little Professor Calculator that was invented by one-time computing powerhouse, Texas Instruments, in order to finally bring a happier, friendly face to the blood-sucking horror that is modern mathematics. Oh I know that math has brought us countless innovations from toasters that enhance our breakfasts to the latest and greatest supercomputers that spend all day planning military strategies, but let's face it, most kids find it pretty boring. Luckily for rich Western children, TI introduced this educational calculator dressed up as a cartoon professor back in 1976, which was born from the (then) dream that through the use of technology, the human condition could be improved upon and utopia would finally be within mankind's reach. So people started cramming microchips into everything they could get their hands on and now here we are today.
Aside from the kiddy artwork that adorned the casing, the Little Professor was a fairly standard calculator except that it also functioned as a basic quiz game, randomly generating simple equations to which the operator would presumably input the correct answer, resulting in hours and hours of fun and learning. For example: 6 x 9 = ? And the answer is 42. "ERROR!" The Professor would then shame you with stark computer-speak displayed on its LED screen and then give you another chance to enter the correct answer. At the end of a round of questions you got to see your total score which let you know if you were going to be a Humanities student or not.
For those of you old enough to remember this little gem and who perhaps would enjoy sharing childhood memories with your own modern iPad/Netflix electro-children of the 21st century, you can now pick up an app-ified version for your Android device from the Google Play store and (as far as I can tell) it's free. Check out the video demo below and then click the link to visit Google Play and pick it up. Enjoy!


Friday, December 6, 2013

Light Those 8-Bit Candles

OK, so apparently Hanukkah ended yesterday and I was trying to get a related post up before then but dammit, there's just not a lot of retro-Hebronic stuff out there on the net. But I did find a little 8-bit styled interactive candle-lighting diversion that's kind of fun. So I apologize for this belated post but the way I see it "belated" is a just another word for "retro" so I'm in the clear. I'll try and do a little better next year. Now, I'm off to start my search for retro-Kwanzaa stuff on the web. That can't be too tough, right? 

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Mad Ducketts: The $500 Pac-Man Watch

My kind of smart watch.
OK, these things don't come up often on eBay and when they do, they're gone PDQ. It's the Nelsonic Pac-Man watch and back in 198-whatever, they were hot, very hot, since the Holy Grail of gaming at that time was to bring Pac-Man into the home, even if he was a three millimeter dot on an LCD screen the size of a postage stamp. Nelsonic, who still exists today but just makes boring old regular watches (boo!) produced two different models of the highly coveted Pac-Man watch - one with the tiniest little joystick you've ever seen, and another that employed basic directional buttons instead - apparently the tiny joystick was too easily lost or broken for them to keep producing. 30 years later, Nelsonic's game watches are just as hot as they were when they were new (albeit in a much smaller market) and right now there's one on eBay that hails from the U.K., so I guess you wear it on your other wrist. The starting bid for this electronic bad boy? Just £299.99. That's about $500 to us Yanks, and there's three days left on the auction so I'm pretty sure the price will go up from there. Check out the video below to see a demo of someone else's awesome watch and then click the link to drop some mad ducketts on my Christmas present…and please include a gift receipt if you can. Thanks!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The 8-Bits of Christmas

…and a cartridge in a pear tree.

Tired of hearing the same old Christmas music, year after year? Me too! So I went to the website, 8bitpeoples.com, and downloaded an all-star chip tune artist album, The 8bits of Christmas, absolutely free! Now you too can enjoy soon-to-be classic holiday songs like Jesus Holy, Born So Lowly, Last Christmas Hot Digi Rmx and The First Blip Blop Noel (sample video below) all played on retro game and computing gear including an NES, a ZX-Spectrum and even a Commodore Vic-20. You can preview the individual tracks or download the entire thing from 8bitpeoples' site. Cover art included.


Tuesday, December 3, 2013

BetaMaXmas 2013

Disturbingly representative of my childhood
Here it is, December of 2013 and so far, where I live, it's been a pretty mild winter with almost zero precipitation. But back when I was a little kid in Wisconsin, my family were afforded no such meteorological reprieves. We may just as well have been living at the North Pole for all the snow, ice and sleet we had to endure, and that was just in the springtime. So after a typical day of trudging through knee-deep snow in my moon-boots trying to keep the snot from freezing up in my nose, I would find that there was no better way to warm back up than to snag one of the less creaky spots on our old pull-out sofa in the basement and zone out in front of a toasty Zenith while I crawled under Grandma's old quilt and watched and waited for that little kid to get his tongue stuck on the pole in A Christmas Story. And if I was extra lucky, mom would let me eat dinner right there in front of the TV -- it's the little things in life, you know?
It's now a whole bunch of years later, but I still miss that shabby little basement with the faux wood panelling and the Suzanne Somers poster hanging next to the baseball-themed dartboard. I miss all three static-filled channels that endlessly streamed the same holiday drivel every year until we'd all had our fill of Alf, He-Man and Smurfs Christmas Specials. And I miss the TV Guide, dammit.
So as fate would have it, a few years ago I discovered a way to relive those warm and fuzzy memories without having to steal a Tardis and, even better, without having to go back to Wisconsin.
The site is called BetaMaXmas.com and basically it's a virtual recreation of the childhood memory I just described, lo-fi and complete with wood paneling. Upon entering the site, you'll be greeted with a couch and an old TV that loops 80s commercials and holiday specials from YouTube ad infinitum. Appropriately, the boob-tube sits atop an 8-Track player and Betamax machine whose clock keeps flashing 12:00. The experience is pretty complete: Don't like the channel? Use the clicker. Too much snow on the screen? Adjust the rabbit ears. Wanna know what else is on? Check out the TV Guide (if anyone under 35 is reading this, their head is probably exploding right now).
Over time, BetaMaXmas become a regular tradition for me and nowadays we turn it on around the Holidays and leave it running for hours at a time. And now that I have kids, I've found that it serves as an excellent historical pop-culture tool I can use to teach them about the time-honored tradition of commercializing Christmas, retro-style.