Saturday, April 26, 2014

Yard Sale roundup, April 2014 edition PLUS celebrating 25k views!

Congratulations, readers! (Or, far more likely, Google Image-searchers who never see any of this text content! Google, do your bloggers a favour and endow them with special powers to force their image-scummers to read their posts!) We just surpassed a total of 25 thousand hits to the blog! This has been a good month here, also its most-viewed month ever despite deviating from the script (hello, video game comic book ads? That's what the URL said, at least!) and serving up some atypical content on niche topics (the demo of my vintage computer, the TINK!TONK! book, the two obituaries, that Lotus 1-2-3 VHS tape, and of course "realia" ... and somewhere along the line we actually did accidentally air a couple of video game ads, hitherto unseen here since mid-February. Essentially, this blog has no theme anymore beyond "Stuff I feel like writing about".) Some specific posts saw some mild promo on FaceBook and Google+, which led to big traffic spikes to those specific posts. Will I ever see regular commentors again? Does this blog have subscribers? Maybe it will somehow find its community. (Occasionally I despair of the time and effort needed to enrich these ads with transcriptions, context and analysis and wonder if I might be doing myself a favour if I turned it into a Tumblr imageblog. It hasn't quite happened yet!)

Anyhow, today was Port Coquitlam's city wide garage sale. As you may recall from past posts, my partner comes from a line of inveterate deal-seekers, spending more weekends than not logging visits to garage sales, yard sales, estate sales, flea markets and thrift stores. I didn't even really collect games (at least, not physical media 8) before meeting her and having to come up with some category of goods of interest to me to seek out on these expeditions. It's been chilling to see the onward march of time throttling what I'm likely to find secondhand -- I remember finding NES carts cheap and in great abundance, while now they are the sole province of collectors who hit up ebay to maximise the return on their investment. My family hit these sales during the golden age of PS2 / Xbox / Gamecube game turnover, and now in town when we find games at sales at all, they are more typically of the following generation -- PS3, Xbox 360, Wii -- none of whose machines I own or can easily emulate (and whose games, consequently, I fail to collect, for that way madness lies.) Anyhow, we are now quite distant from the opening sentence of this paragraph, but if you will hold my hand and nostalgically visit back to it, you can note that I invoked it for two reasons: the first advantage of a city-wide garage sale is a sheer density of sites -- you don't have to look for sales, you can just drive down a single street and stop when you find one that you like: they come geographically pre-optimised, and I think we hit up some 15 of them this morning... the second item of note is that Port Coquitlam is of that species of municipality considered a suburb, and hence its propensity for being hoovered clean by hungry urban dealers and hipsters is lesser. Thus, I ended up with a pretty good haul for my kingly $20 budget:

Starting at 1 o' clock, we've got two cheapie Nintendo DS games: Petz Dogz Pack and Monster High - Ghoul Spirit; then there is the PlayStation 1 game of Jurassic Park - the Lost World (which I was delighted to see reviewed at MobyGames under the hilarious headline "The worst game in history!" ... GameSpot's blurb is summarized as "The Lost World video game is an action-packed 3D platform game that has a perfect blend of frustration and frustration.") with its special lenticular case for cover art animation; there it is, the PS2 release of the most reviled game in the Fallout franchise (but how does it measure up to Fountain of Dreams?), Brotherhood of Steel; a big Game Gear haul of Mortal Kombat, Desert Speedtrap, Sonic the Hedgehog 1 and Shinobi (whose GG incarnation is a wholly autonomous game independent of its arcade and Master System predecessor); and a little trove of Game Boy Advance cartridges, including The Incredibles, The Polar Express, underdocumented Polly Pocket and Cabbage Patch Kids games, and the GBA port of Super Mario 3, which is what made my eyes light up at the baggie and pull my wallet out. Also you'll note there is a pink GBA unit itself -- basically thrown in for free under my budgetary terms -- which I can report is working! I don't need it to play the carts, which fit in my DS, so I would likely try to pass it along... but my toddler took an immediate liking to it, so we'll see if she doesn't end up inheriting it. (Over her mother's dead body, I imagine.) Then also a handful of games I already own but was unable to confirm redundant as my phone inconveniently died as soon as we arrived at the sales -- the desirable Metal Gear Solid for PS1 and MGS 3 for the PS2. (Also the Strawberry Shortcake GBA cart, which is embarrassing enough to own once let alone twice.) Alas, fuel for next year's family garage sale. I found other materials I could have bought -- one sale had a dozen PlayStation 2 joysticks but puzzlingly no games, and another one had several desirable games (FF7, Kingdom Hearts) I'm sure I could have picked up for a song and flipped for profit, were I so inclined -- but down that path (join in with me if you've heard this one before) madness lies. I am not a speculator in retro video game futures. (I just feel bad when I imagine the games going unsold at the end of the day and just being thrown out. But as the Ikea ad says, they don't feel bad: they are inanimate objects, they don't have feelings, am I crazy?)

And then there's the Xbox joystick. Why? Setting up my machine after the move, I found I couldn't get a strong enough signal from any of my existing joysticks to set the date and time on the machine after plugging it back in. This raises a worrying question regarding the health of the unit (and if so, the ultimate fate of my hundreds of Xbox games.) I figure either the joysticks are worn out or the joystick port is, and hopefully a "new" used joystick in good shape can help me get to the bottom of the conundrum.

Why do I care if my Xbox is working? Because I'm having another retro video game party! This time we've unhitched it from my birthday and are getting down to business in May. Retro Video Game Party III: The Legend of Joystickia (pretty terrible name, isn't it?) unfolds Saturday May 10th, from 2 to 11 pm. If you can figure out how to reach me and inquire, you are welcome to attend and play some of my hundreds of old games! I'll probably hit this point another couple of times before the date.

Then again, maybe not! Things might be slow around here for the rest of the month... I've entered several of these contests in the past and have never been able to actually deliver a working finished product by deadline, but I have full intentions of submitting a complete and working game to the ShuffleComp IF competition and I need to come up with more time in order to bring my little prototype to fruition, hence something has to go. (Let's not get too drastic, however!) Time spent designing incomplete games for past competitions still takes time and you get nothing out the other end (except, arguably, practice) and I am sufficiently confident in this one's fit of subject and concept that I want to bring it to the finish line. So if it gets quiet here, don't worry too much. Cheers and play on!

Friday, April 25, 2014

Game Boy's 25th anniversary

And in other missed-opportunity news, this past Monday the Nintendo Game Boy celebrated the 25th anniversary of its first release. I can apocryphally report that it was the top-selling handheld gaming unit of all time, largely due to its running battery-life laps around its competition the Lynx (from Atari, but originally Epyx!) and Sega's Game Gear. Also it was the single video gaming machine that was continually in production and on store shelves for the longest period of time (from 1989 to 2003, 5 or 8, depending on who you ask and what you mean by "Game Boy" -- the original pea-soup unit, or the whole line that ran through Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance) -- a record that will likely stand, given Moore's law. Different markets saw different advertising campaigns for it; here are three entries from a single campaign that stood out to me in my excavations:
Game Boy.  More fun than a ferret down your trousers.
Game Boy. More fun than a hole in the head.
Game Boy. More fun than a clip on the ear.
It seems clear that they're using the same model in all three shots here, though they get a radical hair restyling in the second ad. Am I just perverted to be questioning what, given its relative position, the ferret is up to in the boy's pants? These are '90s ads, self-evidently, as demonstrated amply by edgy non sequiturs. A hole in the head isn't fun. (A putting green on the head doesn't even make it much more playful.) And then "a clip on the ear" is a Britishism for being smacked upside the head, which is quite clearly also not fun -- though this expropriation of office supplies for the purposes of literally misinterpreting the phrase also appears to be no fun, despite whatever his whimsically unshod feet might suggest to the contrary.

The house is lit by an eerie blue ambience, and the floor appears to be, for no apparent reason beyond obligatory middle-finger surreality, made of astroturf. In conclusion, these ridiculous ads (and the Game Boy has some humdingers in that category) really help to establish the brand, but if you don't already believe the product to be something that you need or want, I'm not convinced that they're going to sell you on the lifestyle depicted in the ads. The model? I'm sure his mom told him to stop making that face or it'd stay like that, and he didn't listen.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

RIP The Ultimate Warrior

James Brian Hellwig
June 16, 1959 – April 8, 2014

I used the first of these ads as a punchline earlier (note: when your topic is Fabio, no punchline is needed), but now circumstances sadly dictate that I celebrate the professional wrestler touted in these ads (who just a couple of weeks earlier, I heard described as enjoying the same decorating scheme as a little girl's bicycle) in memorial. I'm a couple of weeks late, but that's par for the course in this low-blog-activity slump. The world of video games is a weird kind of convergence nexus, so you end up finding significance in obituaries from all sorts of circles: math, AI, computing science, literature, music, film, and sports. And, well, professional wrestling. Here's the first of two ads I have featuring the slab of beefcake prominently, this one for 1991's WWF Superstars for the Game Boy:


Take on your favorite WWF Superstars with the piledriver, suplex, headbutt, clothesline, dropkick and more!

Anybody want to take on these 24" Pythons?

Watch out for a powerslam!

Unleash a devastating flying leap on your opponent!

Step into the ring with Ultimate Warrior, Hulk Hogan, Mr. Prefect, Million Dollar Man Ted DiBiase and Macho King Randy Savage!

Everything looks pretty straightforward here, but wait -- was "Macho Man" Randy Savage secretly royalty or did the sport's twisting plotlines briefly upgrade him to a king when I wasn't paying attention? (Oh wait... yes, it did. Thank you, Wikipedia, for keeping tabs on all the notable bits we didn't keep up with.) The curious stuff to me is in the very bottom, where Hulk Hogan, who plays a minimal role in this ad, gets a full array of trademarks asserted as being the property of the Marvel Comics Group, including Hulkamania and Hulkster. Maybe he was licensed to Marvel for a comics deal in this time period? (Nope: truth is stranger than fiction -- Hulk's stage name was seen as derivative of Marvel's The Incredible Hulk, and amazingly for much of his career in the ring -- barring the "Hollywood Hogan" years -- he simply licensed use of "Hulk" and derivatives from Marvel.)

Now, here's one from 1990's WWF WrestleMania Challenge for the NES:





Double-teaming may lead to victory -- or disqualification.
Choose from 8 WWF Superstars or enter the ring as "yourself".
Unleash a Flying Atomic Drop -- outside the ring.

I gather at this point in the sport, Hulk and the Warrior had a rivalry going on, and the out-of-ring side of the sport was gaining prominence. I have a vivid imagination, but I can't turn off my speculation regarding what the special move "the Hulkster Splash" might consist of -- maybe explaining that yellow stuff splattering the ad's backdrop? I don't know if I would risk double-teaming an opponent if a potential consequence would be disqualification on a coin-toss. I like the quotation marks when they say "or enter the ring as 'yourself'." Legal department stuff. Finally -- maybe the out-of-the-ring business really was worth stressing twice, but was the presence of the Atomic Drop really such a selling point?

So many questions that will never be answered. In conclusion... in nipply memoriam:

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

"Lotus 1-2-3 Release 4: Learn the EASY Way INSTRUCTIONAL COURSE", 1994.

So, after the recent "realia" post, you must be wondering -- just what was the latest acquisition in his collection? Well, here it is. It's not a game, and it's not an advertisement for a game, but it is so embodying of the early '90s that it would probably burn you to touch it. Now you know what my secret weakness is. A Lotus 1-2-3 orientation course on VHS tape? Hang on while I grab a bottle of Orbitz and open up my Trapper Keeper...
Learn everything you need to know to get started with Lotus 1-2-3
In less than an hour!

Bob DesLauriers

56 Minutes of High-Quality Instruction
ETN - Educational Television Network

Bob may have been hot stuff in the '80s, but lemme tell you, after '95, his output really trailed off... did the switch in technologies render his expertise irrelevant (Hello, where are all the registrations for my CP/M WordStar workshop?) or did he just make his mint and move to a Thai beach?

As ridiculous as this product seems on the surface, overall Bob must have been a kind of genius -- this is basically the invention of ehow in 1994. But being ahead of one's time is not always profitable...

If you find Software User Manuals too intimidating, then this course is exactly what you need. Try it, and master Lotus 1-2-3 today!

Motivated Instructors
Course Objectives
Practice Basic Commands
Use Help To Expand Skills
Learn Terminology
WordPerfect SIX Instructional Video
Colorful Graphics
Drive A:
Drive B:

Hardware Overviews
Step-By-Step Approach

Document 1
Save (Untitled)?
Document has been modified.
Save As... Yes No Cancel

Clear Computer Screens
Can someone who needs to be briefed on the use of a keyboard really be trusted to operate a VCR? I like how Lesson 1 seems to cover all the basics, with Lesson 2 reserved for "develop skills". It's kind of like the underwear gnomes' plan for financial success:
    STEP 3: ??
    STEP 4: PROFIT!!!
I see they boast "motivated instructors" but yet the only face and name I see on the package is that of Mr. Bob DeLauriers. Are there other anonymous trainers or does he just wear sock puppets and use funny voices?

The Colorful Graphics curiously demonstrate a screen from what must be a different member of the product line, a similarly retro WordPerfect tutorial. (Why promote this product when you can promote the entire line?) What I want to know is, next slide, in the Hardware Overviews section -- who is responsible for that bass-ackwards floppy disk drive arrangement? I've seen various configurations of 5 1/4 and 3 1/2 drives, but never in this particular exotic arrangement, with the 3.5 drive A and the 5.25 one B? For the first half of the '90s, we used the A: practically exclusively for booting from 5.25 floppies. Ah well. In retrospect, it all seems quite arbitrary -- that said, the arbitrary convention still results in this setup looking positively backwards.

I love the textmode character art menu in the final, "Clear Computer Screens" slide: it really was all you needed to get the job done even for a GUI. I gather that in some applications circles this menu style is the final major motivation for interest in boxological textmode support.

Obviously I need to get this thing converted and up on YouTube and let me tell you, it'll set the retro applications scene on fire! I recall that Gaming After 40 actually contacted the author of an old computing video for the rights to re-print authorized copies of it for collectors to enjoy. Let's not get crazy, here. YouTube will clearly suffice. Admittedly the conversion is somewhat low-priority, but we'll see if I manage to make it happen.

(The real question is: who is more foolish, the fool who expects to get money stocking this on their store shelf in 2014 or the fool who actually spent money on it to impress hypothetical blog visitors?)

Saturday, April 12, 2014

"Realia", or, The Angry Birds Dog Chew Toy.

When my partner raised her eyebrow at my picking up the Chuck E. Cheese stuffed toy in the thrift store, I put it down without mounting a defence: but what other single mascot so completely defines arcade gaming in the '80s? Chuck E. Cheese, headed by Atari founder Nolan Bushnell -- loved by gaming enthusiasts for ushering in the mainstream video game industry, and reviled by them for the Chuck E. Cheese policy of dismantling unwanted arcade cabinets to prevent potential competition from using them. The toy cost a buck fifty, and on an hourly wage I probably would have earned that before I'd finished gushing. (Before we haggle over the price and the amount of space all this collecting takes up, to put things in perspective, does she know that some people have even bought up their robot musicians* and reprogrammed them to lip synch to music that doesn't suck? Probably no, and likely she doesn't care.) And I was the one who put on the brakes when she shows me a New Super Mario Bros. backpack hanging in the thrift store -- though, y'know, gaming stuff needs to be stored somewhere -- why not in gaming-related storage? I sure noticed the Giant stuffed Super Mushroom in the back of the Salvation Army, but storage space is finite, and am I going to choose to take it up with actual games, or just the stuff associated with them? (How many Nintendo DS carts could I fit into the room that stuffed mushroom would take up? A: approximately eleventy ho-jillion.) Though I have a couple of tiny sachets of game-licensed bonbons, I've managed to avoid accumulating (thank goodness) any of the videogame-themed breakfast cereals - so do those expired Angry Birds candy canes at the grocery fall under my collecting umbrella or not?

* NB: robot musicians actually from the competing "ShowBiz Pizza Place"** chain.
** Oh hm, this situation is more complicated than it appears.

The germ at the heart of this post dates back several months, when I found my stately & handsome household hound bequeathed a new chew toy from Grandma, and I had to ask myself if I was going to compete with my dog for custody of it.

Researching for an early draft of the post, I looked up the name of the white, egg-laying Angry Bird on the Angry Birds wiki (yes, there is an Angry Birds wiki) and conjectured about in which game he/she (this is not an entirely new problem) would have been most likely to appear in Victorian carolling garb. On a lesser blog (a Tumblr, let's say), that would have been the post: ha ha, here I was, doing research in the Angry Birds wiki about a chew toy. But did I have more to say on this topic? It's an interesting specific in a general trend we have already observed with the Ms. Pac-Man candy dispenser and of course the roll of Pac-Man wallpaper: I like games (even when I don't like the actual games, I like the idea of games) and I claim to collect them so as to be able to play them; why then do I also end up with these patently ridiculous unplayable materials?

A decade ago I was a driven man (not so different from now, the only change being which palace of wisdom I hoped to arrive at by conveying myself along which particular road of excess) who was in charge of performer-coordinating for a monthly variety show event series; along the way we accumulated many, many albums and chapbooks etc. representing the work of our local performers, and I took up the quixotic torch of starting and maintaining a library of cultural materials from my local creative community, literary, musical and visual. These could be recordings and publications, or also more ephemeral artifacts such as gig posters, ticket stubs, set lists, media clippings where members of our community were discussed and indeed entire magazines and newspapers of the alt-weekly variety. I cast wide nets and took what I could find, including small press comix and 'zine publications, novels by local authors hitherto unrelated to our events such as William Gibson and Douglas Coupland, videopoems, costume pieces, and, well, more, with the idea that eventually these could all be indexed and hyperlinked together in a way that would further a deeper understanding of what it was like to live here at that moment in time. Obviously bottling up the entire creative output of a city of millions was a doomed project beyond the capacity of one man and his filing cabinet (liberated from the VIFF offices during a move: the piece of furniture itself had a rich cultural history!) but try telling an artist in his 20s that his scope is too broad and see where it gets you. In my case I ended up well on my way to a Collyer brothers fate, sleeping on a bed surrounded by (and partially encroached upon by) fraying shopping bags filled with what appeared for all intents and purposes to be litter. I didn't fill the house with them but I definitely filled my room, the basement, and a shared hall closet. The collection has been dismantled (I cut the branch off the tree and kept the branch, not the tree) but not long after the end of this era, I renewed my pursuit of old consoles and their games, after a brief fling with assembling them piecemeal from thrift stores -- realising in a moment of lucidity that this couldn't end well, I gave them all away to Video In for their Video Game Orgy events.

This is all a bit of a digression from me talking about video game advertising, but it serves to illustrate the pitfalls of the collector mentality when not narrowly constrained.

Now even though I collected, primarily, books and recordings, I would keep finding these fascinating extrusions of these creative fields into the realms of the everyday, such as merch table commemorative t-shirts (usually) or baseball caps or (very rarely) underwear. Where in the Dewey Decimal System do I file my literary underwear collection? Does it turn up in the catalogue under U or L? It turns out that there's a term from the library science field that names these objects as "realia", summed up aptly by by Wikipedia as "three-dimensional objects from real life that do not easily fit into the orderly categories of printed material". It was a fascinating challenge to my filing system then and it is if anything more in effect now, in this Angry Birds Hallowe'en Costume, Super Mario Action Figure era. (But it applies just the same to James Joyce's writing desk, Mark McGwire's home-run baseball or Lance Bass' chewed piece of French toast. Basically, they're Things With A Hook That Might Appeal To Someone But Probably Not Anyone Or Even Most People.) Near my last place of residence, an apartment-dweller had turned their balcony into an outdoor storage unit, and among the mounds of refuse situated there was a plastic TurboGrafX-16 display that I envied and coveted while passing by, walking my dog, somehow able to abstract away its context: a piece of garbage in the middle of a pile of garbage. But but but... that particular piece of garbage is awesome!

In brief: realia are difficult to store, problematic to file, impossible to play, and basically irresistible. They choke many a gamer's collection, and mine is no exception.

Monday, April 7, 2014

"TINK! TONK!", ~1984.

A problem with documenting what is essentially undocumented is that if you don't get around to putting it down in print, you run the risk of rediscovering things that you have already discovered -- and then forgotten entirely. That's not rediscovery, it's wasteful redundance!

Here, an intrepid amateur video game historian (sadly, of the late variety) documented a link between children's author/illustrator Mercer Mayer and an Angelsoft text adventure, part of the "bookware" wave the Digital Antiquarian has been covering as of late. (This historian was a librarian in their day job, and they brought their professional tools to a critical but underdocumented corner of the software world: educational software. Too uncool to save, who would bother pirating it and in many cases only sold directly to schools anyhow? Thus barring exceptions such as Carmen Sandiego or the Oregon Trail, in many cases these titles can only be found in the memories of grown schoolchildren. A healthy piracy scene is a great boon for digital historians!)
Last year, my partner brought me back this book from a thrift store, imagining that its "big pixels" aesthetic (which must have been cutting-edge in the early '80s) would be up my alley. Indeed it was, and the appearance of Mercer Mayer's name on the cover rang a little bell in the back of my head. Seeing a mention of Angelsoft inside the front cover rang another one in harmony, and I had to dive back into the bubbling brain tank to extract some history goo to spread around for you to enjoy.

You can see how it piqued my curiosity, even second-hand. I guess the character names represent the bleeps and bloops you could expect coming out of early microcomputer speakers. The "inside a computer" theme is just a skin for the characters, not integrated into the setting or the kinds of stories told as in, for example, Reboot. I'm not going to spoil the story for you, as it is pretty much entirely beyond the concerns of this blog. What I dig is an artist almost surely using straight edges and masking (as in the commissioning of Piet Mondrian's geometrical paintings) to produce images intended to evoke computer graphics -- Tink is entirely composed of pixels, but his hat is slanted in such a way as would be impossible to depict without jaggies on a period screen. Ditto for his dog's slanted eyebrows and rounded muzzle and tongue. You've seen it before here -- I love it when artists interpret screenshots in game ads, because there are some artistic liberties they are unable to avoid taking and other fidelities they have a hard time observing. Consumers need to be given a general idea of what they'll be seeing on-screen without seeing a direct reproduction of it -- because early on, screenshots are difficult to make happen! Magazines would typically use photos taken of the screen.
That's not right! Four nibbles = two bytes! Leaving that nit-picking aside, I appreciate the inconsistency that makes tricycle tires pixelated but allow car tires to be rendered as part of the real world.

Anyhow, so this appears to be some kind of early edu-tainmental synergy going on in books and on computers. One VulcanJedi appears to operate the Internet's pre-eminent (and, let's face it, only) webpage about the TINK!TONK! phenomenon, and I'll be giving it a run for its money in this blog post. There are a handful of games, and the following advertisements for the overall franchise, and then they disappear from the record entirely. Were they a flop? Perhaps they were instead a modest success but the overall industry downturn meant that their parent company couldn't be saved by them? From here, it remains a mystery. Now putting us back, at last, in this blog's purview, here's an ad scan borrowed from an interesting post by Mery Lalper about the marketing of educational computer materials.

Meet your kid's new teachers.

At first glance, they look like funny creatures right out of a computer game shoot 'em up. But underneath the funny surface, they represent one of the most serious approaches to home education you've ever heard of.


These amazing teachers are called Tink and Tonk. They come from Sprout. Software for kids 4 to 8.

The beauty of Sprout is how we balance entertainment with a healthy dose of education.

While kids are having fun at home, they're reinforcing what they've learned at school. Things like the alphabet, spelling, vocabulary, counting, adding, and pattern recognition.

You'll also like how Sprout prevents boredom. Our games grow up, instead of wear out. As kids get older; the game gets harder — with many variations and many decisions to make.

Sprout didn't learn how to do all this overnight. You see, we've got a hundred years of experience to lean on. (Our parent company is SFN, the country's #1 textbook publisher for elementary and high schools.)

We've also got the experience of Mercer Mayer who has written or illustrated 80 children's books. He dazzles kids with ideas and pictures that keep them coming back for more.

So let TINK!TONK! software teach your kids. And when they play at the computer, they won't be playing around. They'll be learning something.

Games that grow up.
Instead of wear out.

That's Tink! on the left and Tonk! on the right. Adaptive difficulty? It definitely sounds like they're at least hand-waving toward that territory if not actively describing it. SFN was on top of the game for nearly a century, coasting on such successes as Dick and Jane, but within two years of this venture they would be throwing in the towel. Some good catch-phrases here, and I dig the raster patterns on Tink and Tonk, as if they had literally just been cut out of a screen. I might have been sold on this ad. Anyhow, that isn't even the ad I was looking for -- this was!
Modern times have created a new breed of teachers.

We've cleverly disguised them as funny creatures from a computer game. But underneath the funny exterior is one of the most serious approaches to home education you've ever heard of.


Your kid's new teachers are called Tink and Tonk. They come from Sprout. Software for kids from 4 to 8.

The beauty of Sprout software is how entertainment is balanced with a healthy dose of education.

While kids are having fun at home, they're actually reinforcing what they've learned in school. Things like the alphabet, spelling, vocabulary, counting, adding, and pattern recognition.

You'll also like how Sprout prevents boredom. Our games grow up instead of wear out. As kids get older, the game adjusts and gets harder. Because there are many variations and many decisions to make.

Knowing how to do all this isn't something Sprout learned overnight.

You see, we've got a hundred years of experience to learn on. (Our parent company is SFN, the country's #1 textbook publisher for elementary and high schools.)

We've also got the experience of Mercer Mayer, who has written or illustrated 80 children's books. He dazzles kids with ideas and pictures that keep them coming back for more.

With TINK!TONK!™ software, kids see that learning can be more fun than destroying space creatures.

Games that grow up. Instead of wear out.

This two-page spread covers much of the same territory as the previous ad (all of the content, twice the price!), but we also get to enjoy getting a gander at today's captains of industry.

There are some curious lingering questions remaining about the relationship between Mindscape, Angelsoft and SFN, and as best as I can unravel them: SFN was the parent company, Mindscape was an electronic subsidiary, and Angelsoft would have been I suppose an imprint of Mindscape. Somehow the Mindscape brand kept chugging along after SFN called it quits (perhaps being sold or buying itself out), only to be snapped up by The Software Toolworks in 1990. (Er, or in 1998, following acquisition by Pearson -- which was closer to SFN's business. Wikipedia is ambiguous on this point.) It got bundled up with a number of other companies (SSI, PF Magic), they all end up under the Mattel name briefly, and Mindscape finally departs the software biz in 2011, with its stable being inherited by Electronic Arts, naturally, the game industry's drain filter. I would be very surprised if Tink and Tonk ever depart EA's legendary vaults, rivaled only by the basement of the Vatican as a one-way accumulator of the wisdom of bygone ages.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Birthday retrotech surprise! Here's a hint: it's made by a leather company...

OK, so this wasn't my birthday cake -- I had trifle. But if I was 27 years younger, maybe it could have been:
A CoLeCoVision? No no -- this is retrotech from the /other/ great leather-electronics company. When my partner saw the TRS-80 Colour Computer MC-10 in the thrift store, still in its original box (discontinued in 1984, /30 years ago/), she suspected it might be up my alley. She called up one of my compatriots (who is kindly maintaining custody of my C64, VIC-20 and Sega Master System in his basement while I get my storage figured out). Despite the burden my collection has already imposed upon him, he suggested to her that it was, indeed, my thang. Little did either of them realise that the CoCo was the first computer my family owned, and its green screen and rubbery keys carried with them a great deal of nostalgia for me. This model is only slightly more gutless than the one I cut my teeth on, but that one is long since rubbish -- after having caved in, melted after sitting next to a desk lamp's hot light bulb for too long!
My family actually owned two CoCos, I suppose because we were gluttons for punishment, though my dad's was an enhanced model. I remember my father slaving over his university essay on Milton's Paradise Lost in its Color Scriptist word processor, which he then insisted I use for my Grade 4 presentation on City States of Ancient Greece. You could safely figure that I was the only kid in my class submitting computer-printed manuscripts in 1988. Circa 1993 my now-ex-brother-in-law made the mistake of telling my father that he could really use a computer for word processing on, no doubt angling for a juicy loan with which to buy a current machine, but instead he was bequeathed my dad's CoCo 2 complete with all our software cartridges and audiocassettes, its printer and tape deck. Which I'm sure all went immediately into the garbage. I wouldn't be able to run any of the carts on this machine (no cartridge port!) and surely the magnetized tape, dodgy enough back in '87, would no longer carry a strong enough signal to be readable today. Fortunately, it does come with its BASIC programming book, and should be able to rock any program I care to type into it. I opened it to a random page, and there it was: the hopping ogre (no Dancing Demon, alas!), hopping about on the screen to the strains of a major rendition of the Pogues' "Worms".
Given my early start (see attached period pseudocode for one of the non-random submarine simulators I found in an old notebook -- I think my handwriting has actually gotten worse since Grade 3) and considering that I've probably spent an average of 3 hours on a computer daily since the mid-'80s, I always figured that I'd end up as so many of my BBS friends did, harnessing the power of computers and programming for them to earn my daily bread. But despite logging enough hours at the C64 lab to be automatically considered a hacker by my elementary school librarians, my early interest and experience in BASIC, then Turing (a critical misstep) and, briefly, Pascal, proved inadequate to maintain the momentum -- I moved, but not /forward/. But technology kept progressing and eventually my having once been handy on the CoCo was no longer an asset in giving instructions to the kinds of computers people were actually using. My experience allowed me to tinker, hack and prank on C64s and even in QBasic on my MS-DOS PCs, but the muscle atrophied to the point where I struggle to even complete projects in Inform 7's natural language. (On the plus side, my HTML isn't going anywhere!)
So here it is: a reasonable facsimile of the machine on which I beat my head against the wall trying to make sense of the well-named Madness and the Minotaur. Because of my positive then-experience (and in spite of my negative now-experience) I like to believe that such a machine (well, maybe up to and including an MS-DOS sandbox) is suitable for use by a child as a first computer -- to become acquainted with some computing concepts and get some idea of "how" a computer works and not just "what" it does for you, because I really have no idea at all where the next generation of programmers are going to come from -- unless we're using self-programming computers at that point. I know that others would disagree -- Edsger W. Dijkstra famously quipped that "It is practically impossible to teach good programming to students that have had a prior exposure to BASIC: as potential programmers they are mentally mutilated beyond hope of regeneration." David Brin thought otherwise in his 2006 essay Why Johnny Can't Code, which proved to be quite a controversial piece in and of itself. It's a moot point, since I can't imagine my daughter -- who as a pre-verbal toddler has already figured out iOS despite our best efforts to minimise her screen time -- will be giving anything so user-unfriendly the time of day in six years. Maybe she'll have better luck with Inform 7 than I will (or maybe it'll be Inform 8 by then!)

Unrelatedly: on a birthday run to a thrift store, I saw some Sega Master System cartridges live in the wild for just about the first time I've ever seen: Alex Kidd, Wonder Boy, R-Type, Altered Beast, Alien Syndrome. The Sally Ann was asking $9 a piece for them, which is simply too much. (Garage-sale prices would be more like $9 for all of them, which I would definitely consider 8) It would be nice to have at least one game for my SMS for demo purposes (it may or may not have included Snail Maze on-board, we haven't tested it yet!) but "it would be nice" is a gateway to a thousand and one kinds of financial ruination.

In conclusion, here is another birthday cake that was not mine:

leather company (CoLeCo);

RIP David A. Trampier

Readers of this blog will no doubt recall that for the first month or so of this year, it was dominated with ads for computer conversions of Dungeons & Dragons, that original tabletop fantasy role-playing game that was celebrating its 40th anniversary in January. Though I haven't played in a dog's age, the subject always reserved a soft spot in my heart (and perhaps my head), so it was with some dismay that this past week I received the news that "Tramp", distinguished by his "DAT" initials on his illustrations, had passed away. Beyond his distinguished work on the original Player's Guide cover and Monster Manual illustrations (including the awesome Intellect Devourer and Thought Eater, as well as the Medusa, Basilisk and Lizard Man), he was best known for the beautiful, hilarious and utterly post-modern comic strip Wormy, about an illegally-wargaming dragon, that was mysteriously discontinued from the pages of TSR house organ Dragon Magazine sometime back in the dawn of time. For decades he had completely dropped off of the map, only to be rediscovered a couple of years ago as a cab driver who had very effectively severed all ties to his former fantastic vocation.

As best as I can tell, he did not provide any illustrations that wound up on computer game boxes or in their advertisements, but as part of the deep access SSI enjoyed into TSR's art catalogue, several of his monster profile pictures ended up providing a definitive template for the games to build on. I thought that I could drum up numerous examples from FRUA, but the only one I could find was one I had already rounded up through Google Image Search. I wish I could provide further examples of the before-and-after conversion from b&w manual illustration to coloured videogame art, but for a lack of a handy Gold Box game resource viewer, I would have to play through all of the games in order to continue my investigations... which would leave this little tribute, if somewhat more complete, distinctly less timely.

An Efreet is a fire elemental of sorts, derived from Arabian myths as a sinister counterpart to the Djinn (or Genie). This one has kind of a repulsed face...

and you can see clearly that his disposition did not improve any when he came over to Pool of Radiance on the computer.
The swingin' space-age bachelor of the Monster Manual set, the Rakshasa is a variety of hyper-intelligent, evil magic-using tiger spirit from South Asian folklore. This one likes to spend his leisure hours indulging in some sweet pipeweed while lounging in a housecoat. (And if that isn't a hallmark of hyper-intelligence, then I don't know what is!) He and his pals will give visitors to Myth Drannor a hard time in Curse of the Azure Bonds.
The particulars are slightly tweaked (the weird character on the desk, a reference to the work of a comix friend, doesn't make the leap) but the apple does not fall very far from the tree.
I first posted about his death to a cadre of fellow travelers from the ANSI art era (another recent theme you may recall 8), as a panel from one of DAT's Wormy comic strips was the subject of my final attempt to paint on my computer screen with 80 x 25 textmode characters. It was a good idea, however botched my execution. But enough about my failure -- let's leave with an instalment of his Wormy strip: