Sunday, March 26, 2017

*Hyperspace Used, a.k.a. The Great Father/Son Vectrex Minestorm Rivalry of 1985

Videogames were an important facet of my life back in the early 1980s (I was in grade school), and between my network of friends, I had access to all the major home systems of the day. Friend #1 had the Atari 2600 (1977), the old, reliable workhorse, a system so popular and ubiquitous that its joystick controller became a de facto symbol of the gaming industry itself.

Friend #2 had the Odyssey 2 (Magnavox, 1978), an oddball system with full-Qwerty membrane keyboard that made it superficially resemble a personal computer. Considered a lesser system due to its inferior graphics and sound (every game seemed to emit the exact same set of bleeps and bloops), it had a few notable system-specific titles such as K.C. Munchkin, a Pac-Man knock-off that was more fun than any other dot-eating maze game available on cart at the time, and Quest For The Rings, a board-game/videogame hybrid that required two players to cooperate as a team in a multi-level dungeon crawl.

Friend #3 had the newish Colecovision (1982), which had superior graphics and licensed arcade hits like Zaxxon and Donkey Kong, as well as titles built around popular pop-culture characters like Rocky Balboa, Buck Rogers and The Smurfs.

And finally, I had the Intellivision (Mattel, 1979), viewed as the more sophisticated machine, since its name was a portmanteau of "Intelligent" and "Television". Apparently, your time spent mindlessly zapping flying saucers on the Intellivision was actually an enriching intellectual exercise.

One glaring omission from my circle-of-friends system-collective was dark horse Vectrex, by Milton Bradley. Introduced in 1982 and retailing at $199,Vectrex stood unique from the other systems because it was a portable machine, and rather than hook it up to your television, had its own built-in vector-scan display.

Vector graphics were composed of rays of light that traced lines between points, rather than a bit-mapped grid of blocks. Some vector-graphics arcade games of note were Asteroids, Tempest, Battlezone and the original arcade Star Wars. The bright, clear lines of the display, similar in brilliance to those you might see on an oscilloscope screen, were very striking and had a definite futuristic science-fiction aesthetic. No other system before or since offered this unique display type (and modern arcade emulations can't quite capture the effect).

I spent enough hands-on time with the Vectrex at in-store kiosks to decide I definitely would welcome this little machine to my home, if not for the two-hundred dollar price tag (as well as the disapproval from my parents, who felt it was something akin to betrayal to add a new cartridge-slot to feed when we already had a perfectly good system at home.)

Unfortunately the Vectrex may have been too unique for its own good, as the system floundered commercially and was discontinued in 1984, with less than 30 games ever released (Atari 2600, by comparison, had hundreds of titles.) Even unique add-on peripherals like active-shutter 3D goggles and a light-pen were not enough to save the system from consumer disinterest. Vectrex systems were soon sitting on toy store clearance racks, priced at $49. This was my chance to finally grab one!

Even these genuinely cool hardware peripherals couldn't save the system.

After several months of saving every penny I could get my hands on (fifty bucks was a lot of money to a grade-schooler in 1984) I finally scrounged together enough to buy the discounted system, but with no money left over for cartridges.

That's okay, though, because Vectrex came with one built-in game, and it was, as the kids say today, a killer app. Minestorm was basically Asteroids on steroids (A-Steroids?) You piloted a space ship using rotate-left/right, thrust and "hyperspace" controls, shooting floating space "mines", which sometimes shot back or followed you around the screen.

So it was Asteroids, leveled-up.

Magazine ad for Vectrex highlighted the free pack-in game Minestorm
and a very, very excited family.

The Minestorm instruction manual included a few pages to document high scores, and I started logging my steadily increasing achievements (although I never bothered recording the date when the scores were achieved.)

Today, the score record stands as an amusing account of father/son one-upmanship.

Dad, you see, was a bit of a videogamer too, although he tended to gravitate towards those with a simple controller layout (the joystick-only Frogger was his arcade favorite.) Although initially against the Vectrex purchase (our loyal Intellivision may get jealous, was perhaps his thinking) he soon warmed up to this latest addition to the family and was adding his own personal-best Minestorm scores to the list, although with his scores barely halving mine, I was in no immediate danger of being overtaken.

I mentioned my Dad's preference for uncomplicated controls... he could handle the ship rotation (joystick controlled), fire and thrust buttons that Minestorm required, but lacked the dexterity to include the third "hyperspace" button (the manual calls it "Escape") in his repertoire. The rare occasions he tried using the feature always ended in disaster, since he had to divert his eyes from the screen to visually locate the evasive third button on the controller before finally navigating his finger to it, always seconds too late.

Consequently, my Dad made it a point of pride that HIS scores were achieved without using the hyperspace feature, as if this was some kind of lesser, unsportsmanlike tactic. Much like professional athletes who hold records qualified with an asterisk to denote some questionable circumstance associated with the achievement, to my Dad, my scores all bore the scarlet H... "*Hyperspace Used."

On one particularly good run, I managed to nearly triple my previous high score, achieving a then-impressive 166,958 points.

This must have lit a fire in Dad's belly, because what follows is a streak of steadily increasing scores as he chased my new record, finally topping it on 5/15/1985 (at least three months after my entry), with a score of 171,105. And Dad did not rest on his laurels, either, pushing himself harder and higher, eventually landing an unprecedented score of 218,090 two months later (7/11/1985)!

Dad, basking in high-score glory, was simply too much for my pre-teen ego to bear. Enough was, decidedly, enough.

After having semi-retired from the Minestorm scene, I quietly returned to the playfield for the sole purpose of reasserting my superior skills, and in a move worthy of videogame record-holding villain Billy Mitchell (King of Kong:A Fistful of Quarters), proceeded to rack up a previously unheard of score of 681,070, tripling-and-then-some my Dad's once proud record, and noting the achievement in the official record book with a little triple-underlined, exclamation-pointed self-aggrandizing smugness ("Bill Super Star!")

Lest there be any doubt who was currently on top...

"But you used Hyperspace!" father despaired, as his hard-won scores were dumped into the ash-bin of history...

Don't feel too bad for Dad, though. As the years rolled along and my interest in Minestorm waned (this ended up being my last recorded score), he perfected his game, eventually besting my historic achievement with an impressive 954,819 ("11/8/85 Dad New Champ!"), then nearly doubling that years later (5/4/1987, 1,906,735).

At this point, Dad was no longer competing against me--but against himself. He was on a long, personal journey of discovery.

...a journey made longer, perhaps, by not using hyperspace.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Go to the Head of The Class (Amazing Stories, 1986)

There are two words that distinguished NBC's Amazing Stories from the other sci-fi/fantasy anthology TV series that arrived in the mid-1980s (titles like The (New) Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Ray Bradbury Theater), and those two words are:

Steven Spielberg

Of course, Spielberg got his humble start in television, directing memorable episodes of Rod Serling's Night Gallery (1969) and one of the best made-for-TV movies of all time, Duel. But this was 1985, not 1971, and Spielberg now had Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Twilight Zone: The Movie and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom on his director's resume, not to mention a producer credit on Poltergeist, The Goonies, Gremlins, and Back To the Future.

So the prospect of this Hollywood-conquering hero returning triumphant to the unworthy boob-tube was kinda sorta unbelievable.

And he wasn't doing it alone. A who's who of talent, both on-screen (Kevin Costner, John Lithgow, Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, Harvey Keitel, Mark Hamill, Keifer Sutherland, Christina Applegate, Drew Barrymore, and Forest Whitaker, for starters), and behind the camera (Robert Zemeckis, Joe Dante, Clint Eastwood, Irvin Kershner, Martin Scorsese, Brad Bird, and Tobe Hooper) would be pitching in to make sure Amazing Stories was the greatest thing to grace your television screen. Ever.

Unrealistic expectations aside, Amazing Stories, it turned out, was not exactly what I was looking for in an anthology show. While technically impressive (every episode looked like a big-budget feature film), the stories were often of the treacly variety, eschewing irony for sentimentality, and straining to emulate those moments of wonder that Spielberg's films seemed to deliver effortlessly. (A July '86 TV Guide blurb suggested the show was poorly titled, since the stories were so often "banal and juvenile.")

The worst Amazing Stories episodes frequently reminded me of my least favorite segment from Twilight Zone: The Movie, which happened to be Spielberg's "Kick the Can", a saccharine fairy tale about a group of geriatrics magically transformed into children for one last romp on the playground before settling back into their comfortable aged bodies. George Miller's terrifying "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" remake and Joe Dante's fever-dream funhouse take on "It's A Good Life" were much more my cup of Kool-Aid.

We were promised at least one haunted house and green ghost. (A still from the opening title sequence.)

I stuck it out with Amazing Stories anyway (it was 1985, after all... what else was I going to watch, Scarecrow and Mrs. King?) but definitely favored The New Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

My persistence paid off halfway through the second season, when Amazing Stories delivered a genuinely frightening and unsentimental episode, Go To the Head of The Class (S2E8), that could have leapt right out of the pages of an E.C. fright comic. This special hour-long installment (episodes were normally half-hour) was directed by Robert Zemeckis, hot off the success of the original Back to the Future, and who would go on to produce a revamped Tales From the Crypt series for HBO a few years later, so it's not totally surprising that Go To the Head of The Class plays like a mash-up of those two properties.

High schooler Peter Brand (Scott Coffey) has a thing for monsters (his bedroom is decorated with horror posters and toys) and for classmate Cynthia Simpson (Mary Stuart Masterson. The pair would appear on screen together again in 1987's Some Kind of Wonderful.)

But he also has a problem getting to class on time. In an opening scene reminiscent of BTTF, Peter realizes he's late for school while talking on the phone, and has to sneak into first period.

Professor B.O. Beanes (BTTF alum Christopher Lloyd) is delivering a lecture about Shakespeare, specifically MacBeth (more specifically, about how Lady MacBeth "... used sex, the promise of it, the implied threatened denial of it, to control and dominate her husband...") as Peter slips undetected into his desk across from Cynthia, who goes by the nick-name "Cyn" (get it?) and will soon be tempting Brand with the promise of forbidden fruit.

While Peter sneaks glances at the object of his desire, Beanes continues, "Men, perhaps even some in this very room, continue to say things, do things and participate in behavior they wouldn't normally dream of for the promise of sexual favor."

When Beanes reveals that Peter and Cynthia both submitted identical papers, it's Peter who takes the blame even though it's obvious Cynthia plagiarized his work without his knowledge. We are then introduced to the cruel and unusual punishment Beanes favors in the confines of his classroom, forcing Peter to stand in a stress position with a stack of heavy books in each hand, a torture he calls "Meet The Misters" (Mr. Funk, Mr. Wagnall, etc.)

After school, Cynthia cooks up a plan with Peter to get revenge using a black magic spell that can be heard by playing the album The Last Supper by heavy metal group Blood Sausage backward (a modern alternative to the old witch's spell book, which seemed relevant, if not entirely plausible, in the era of Satanic Panic, when backwards masking and subliminal messages were believed to be hidden in rock records. The gimmick was also used in 1987's The Gate.)

The spell is said to give the victim an extreme case of hiccups that lasts several days, and has to be cast exactly at midnight. The prospect of a late night rendezvous with Cyn is too good to pass up, even if it will be in a spooky old graveyard.

Add dirt from a grave that is freshly dug,
And the fingertip of a dead relation by blood.
This mixture ignite at the stroke of midnight,
By the united hand of woman and man.

The idea of kids trying to wield supernatural power using whatever pop-culture resources were available to them really spoke to me (I previously posted about my childhood dabbling with the dark arts trying to perform a spell depicted in the adaptation of John Bellairs' The House With A Clock In Its Walls from the TV special Once Upon a Midnight Scary). But although I fancied myself capable of casting black magic spells on my enemies and perhaps raising the dead, I never quite had the courage to sneak out my bedroom window at night.

The action moves to a wonderfully atmospheric cemetery (gnarled trees and ankle-deep mist), and after some spooky business with the pair hiding in an open grave to avoid a drunken caretaker, they break into the Beanes family crypt to prepare the potion ingredients, which include a severed bat's wing (supplied by Cyn, no questions asked), dead katydids, a graven image (a picture of Beanes from the school yearbook), rose water, the dirt from a freshly dug grave, and finally, a finger tip from a blood relative, which they procure from a reposing corpse (Ebenezer Beanes, 1854-1936) using a pair of garden shears.

In another similarity to BTTF, this scene turns into a nail-biting race against time, punctuated by the loud clanging of a clock bell, to assemble all the elements of the spell at the precisely prescribed moment (BTTF's "weather experiment" to power a time machine with a lightning bolt was, after all, little more than magic dressed up in a scientist's lab coat.).

The spell cast, the kids check up on Mr. Beanes at his spooky mansion home, only to find him laying dead on the floor!

Luckily, the Blood Sausage album contains an anecdote spell on a track titled "The Dead Shall Rise" which promises to set things right. But in their hurry to perform the ritual, which, like the first spell, requires a yearbook photo, the couple accidentally tear the image of Beanes at the neck while adding it to the mix.

The unexpected result is that Beanes returns to life, sound in mind and body, but with the former no longer physically attached to the later. A lengthy chase scene follows that is both frightening and funny and plays like a modern take on Ichabod Crane's final flight in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. The humor never undermines the horror of the situation, though, but adds a layer of surrealism, especially a nightmarish moment when Beanes's severed head bites onto Peter's pants leg and refuses to let go no matter how vigorously he kicks.

The special effects in this segment, a combination of in-camera trickery, animatronic figures (courtesy of effects guru Stan Winston) and opticals, were state of the art at the time and hold up very well today.

Like BTTF, the episode was filmed on the Universal Studios back lot, and as the chase spills outdoors onto the streets, the neighborhood sure looks similar to BTTF's Hill Valley (in some shots you can even see that the streets are still dressed with 1950s era automobiles, an incongruity as Go To The Head of The Class is set in present day 1986.)

Go To the Head of The Class is available on the Amazing Stories The Complete Second Season DVD set here (it's an import release from Umbrella Entertainment, but is all-region and plays fine on U.S. equipment. All screen caps were taken from the DVD.)

While researching this article I happened upon this blog post that covers the episode thoroughly and even documents additional similarities to BTTF which I was planning to include here, so I'm just going to encourage you to read that original post instead.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017


What started out as a little retro-review of obscure 80s horror film "Anguish" turned into a longish piece on the history of subliminal messaging as horror film gimmick. Read all about it at We Are The Mutants...

I assure you there are no hypnotic suggestions hidden in the article, so if you should find your eyelids getting heavy while reading, there's probably some other explanation.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Monsters: Fiendish Facts, Quivery Quizzes and Other Grisly Goings-on (A Golden Family Funtime Book, 1977)

This entry in the "Golden Family Funtime" series is called (take a breath...) "Monsters: Fiendish Facts, Quivery Quizzes and Other Grisly Goings-on", a collection of essays, puzzles, games and trivia revolving around all things monster. Written by Donald F. Glut (he also wrote, interestingly, the novelization of The Empire Strikes Back, among other comic and horror titles for kids) and illustrated by Dennis Hockerman (cover only) and Carole Jean Bourke (interiors), "Monsters" offers a fairly comprehensive overview of the monster genre with an emphasis on their presentation in books and films, padded out with a little cryptozoology for good measure.

Categories of monster reviewed here include the literary (Frankenstein's Monster, Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde)...

...traditional/folklore (Werewolves, Vampires, Mummies, Voodoo Terrors)...

Werewolf indicators. Keep the tweezers handy if you want to pass for normal.

A depiction of the burning at the stake of accused werewolf Stubbe Peter, Germany, March 31, 1590.

...and cryptozoological/extra-terrestrial "real world" monsters (Prehistoric Monsters, Monsters From Outer Space, and Abominable Beasts).

The quizzes revolve around monster movies and are actually kind of fun and require some knowledge of the genre. "Creature Color Contest" asks you to complete the movie title with the correct color name.

"Dracula's Countdown" is the same concept, but using numbers selected from a list.

Simbar the Werelion (a character from the comic book "The Occult Files of Dr. Spektor") challenges you to match the actor to the monster they portrayed.

There are a few visual puzzles as well, challenging you to find hidden animals in a drawing (The 13 Black Cats and Find the Missing Werewolves)... the party game where you stare at a picture for a period of time and then are expected to answer questions about details of the picture from memory (No Hyde-Ing Place).

Optical illusions and magic tricks are found here as well, including the severed-finger gag I remember from Spooky Tricks (presented here as Frankenstein's Finger).

There's a board game "Escape To the Castle" that takes up a two-page spread...

...and finally, Sinister Shadows demonstrates how to make Godzilla, a werewolf, vampire bat, and other monsters with your hands.

Other entries in the Golden Family Funtime Books series focused on crafts, games, magic, and riddles. Take a look at that funtime family!