Tag: Toys

Ouija Board

Ouija

So there’s no gray-haired psychic in your town? And you can’t sneak another call into the astrology hotline without your mom noticing the long distance charges? If you need some answers in your life, and answers more specific than the good old Magic 8 Ball can provide, the Ouija Board might be your next stop. Not only, for example, can the Ouija tell you if you should go ahead and color your hair, it can tell you what color you should choose. Fortune telling was never this specific! There is much debate as to what moves the pointer around on the board-is it the players themselves or the busybody spirit world? And if you think the 8 Ball has its fair share of literal-minded, no-fan-of-anything-you-can’t-reach-out-and-grab opponents, you should get a load of the apprehension and controversy that the Ouija inspires. All of it would make William Fuld, the board’s quirkily entrepreneurial patriarch, very, very proud.

In mid-nineteenth century New York, communing with the “other side” was all the rage. Spiritualist churches were popping up everywhere, and the city’s chic hostesses clamored for authentic mediums to attend their gatherings, so that chatty members of the spirit world could speak through them. As an alternative to all that zany vocalizing, there was “spirit writing,” wherein the medium would establish contact with a spirit, grab a pencil, and let the spirit do the rest. A doohickey called the “planchette” was invented for such parlor sessions-a small, heart-shaped plank (planchette means ”little plank” in French) with a pencil at the heart’s apex. The downside to spirit writing was that the mediums, or ahem, their spirit-communicators, didn’t always have the most legible penmanship, and message transmission tended to be a bore-and nobody wants that at a seance party.

“Talking boards,” the brainchild of three Americans named E.C. Reiche, Elijah Bond and Charles Kennard, came next. This rectangular wooden slab provided a flat surface for the wooden-pegged planchette to glide over, featuring the alphabet, numbers one through ten, and words “yes” and “no.” According to some, Kennard called the board “Ouija” after an Egyptian word for good luck, and even better yet (at least better for Ouija’s sometimes purposely murky history), Kennard claimed the board itself suggested the word. In 1892, Kennard’s ex-foreman, William Fuld, took the company over, named it the Ouija Novelty Company, and began producing the board in high volume numbers.

Ouija 2

Fuld, no marketing dimwit himself, concocted his own version of the Ouija’s genesis: claiming he invented the whole enchilada himself, and that the word Ouija was actually an amalgam of the French “oui” and the German “ja”-possibly just a way to force people to pronounce it correctly. Fuld didn’t own the market on talking boards (there was Milton Bradley’s Genii, for instance), but he certainly cornered it. In 1927, Fuld fell from a factory roof in his native Baltimore-some say suicide, some accident. Fuld’s children took over after that, and then in 1966, Parker Brothers bought the company.

Today, the board is made of folding cardboard instead of wood, and the planchette glides on velvet tabs instead of wooden pegs, but other than that, it looks nearly the same as it did over one hundred years ago. The alphabet spans the board in two crescent rows, the numbers are below that, and in the corners are the words “yes” and “no,” and at the bottom, “good bye.” All this handy data faces the player who sits at the base of the board, so if reading upside down doesn’t come easy, savvy players sometimes recruit a note-taker to jot down the letters, which can then be deciphered later.

The unspoken rules that go along with this game are legion. Never play it alone. Never play angry. Never, especially in the case of permanent hair color choices, let the Ouija be the final authority. Play at night, because according to Ouija aficionados, there is less traffic in the psychic atmosphere. Decide on one person who will ask all the questions, because there is less confusion to any, um, spirits who are out there, navigating said psychic traffic. Candlelight is recommended (the spirit world having always been a big advocate of energy conservation), and two players are best. The board is best placed atop the two players’ knees, but a table is okay if the candlelight is making a jittery player’s knees knock. Warm the planchette, or pointer, up by moving it around in circles, but then stop moving it altogether. Check for white around the fingertips, which indicate someone is pressing down, and then ask a clearly stated question. Hopefully, if the atmosphere is favorable and the traffic is light, the spirits will take over.

Or will they? Some believe the board is just a reflection of the players’ inner psyches no spirits at all, just us good old fashioned, earthbound folks who guide the pointer unconsciously. Fair enough, but let’s face it, sometimes the pointing isn’t always unconscious. Those same rascals who occasionally “borrow” from the bank in Monopoly when no one is looking are also known to form words on the Ouija Board deliberately. And then, of course, we feign great surprise (with a sly mental nod to their junior high drama class teachers) as that magic planchette spells out exactly what we want to hear.

Parker Brothers likes to avoid negative Ouija connotations, but when dealing with a supposed conduit for incorporeal intelligences, there’s a certain degree of creepiness can’t be helped. The board was supposedly banned in Britain during the 70’s, and there are plenty of parents and religious groups today who’d just as soon their kids just play checkers. Of course, all the mystique just sells more boards and makes impromptu Ouija sessions feel nicely forbidden and scandalous-a feeling you just can’t get from checkers.

Sea Monkeys Were a Cool Concept

Sea Monkeys

There have been plenty of toys that allowed to children to put their natural creative energies to work. Legos, Erector sets, and countless other similar items let kids build elaborate kingdoms and complex machines to satisfy the need to create. Sea Monkeys took this process one step further and allowed more enterprising youngsters to actually create life. With the help of elaborate ads that seemed to appear in every comic book released during the late 1960’s and 1970’s, the scientific marvels known as Sea Monkeys became one of the most popular toys of all time.

Sea Monkeys are not actually monkeys, but they do come from the sea and are real living things (contrary to popular belief and urban legend). To be specific, they are “Artemia Salina,” or “brine shrimp” in layman’s terms. They were thought of as mere fish food for many years until Harold von Braunhut, a man who is famous among toy enthusiasts for inventing X-Ray Spex, discovered these marvels of the sea. He saw their potential as a pet and developed a simple, three-step kit that allowed aspiring young marine biologists to raise their own brine shrimp in a container of water.

Honey Toy Industries obtained the rights to Von Braunhut’s kit and began marketing it in 1960 as Instant Life. When it didn’t become an immediate hit, Von Braunhut came up with the brainstorm of advertising the kit in comic books. Von Braunhut also noticed that the little brine shrimp resembled monkeys when they grew to adulthood, so he added the phrase “Sea Monkeys” to the packaging of Instant Life. As a result, sales for the newly-named Sea Monkeys began to skyrocket, and Sea Monkeys ads became an ubiquitous presence in the ad pages of comic books everywhere.

By the 1970’s, Instant Life was one of the coolest toys a kid could own. As a result of its success, Honey Toy Industries changed its name to the more official-sounding Transcience Corporation. Also, Instant Life became known simply as Sea Monkeys, since the fanciful depictions of Sea Monkey families used in the ads had become the crucial selling point. Indeed, comic book-reading kids everywhere fantasized about raising their own kingdoms of these strange humanoid-looking creatures.


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Sea Monkeys gained additional hipness when they were packaged with special containers called Ocean Zoos. These mini-aquariums have since become the definitive home for Sea Monkeys. Sea Monkeys gained another home when the Deluxe Sea-Monkey Speedway was introduced in 1974. This device, which took advantage of the fact that Sea Monkeys swim against the current, included “tracks” so the Sea Monkey owner could raise champion Sea Monkeys. Another success, the Speedway led to follow-ups like Sea-Monkey Cycle Race, Sea-Monkey Ski Trails, and Sea-Monkey Fox Hunt. There was also the Incredible Sea-Bubble, a mini-aquarium on a chain that could be worn as a necklace.

The Sea Monkeys phenomenon had become an institution by the end of the 1970’s. Its success also inspired a follow-up pet from Transcience Corporation known as the Crazy Crab. They were actually hermit crabs, a land-dwelling scavenger species. Like the Sea Monkeys, they became a hit and inspired a craze. In the 1980’s and early 1990’s, Sea Monkeys moved on to new distributors like Larami and Basic Fun with middling degrees of success. They were no longer as hip as they were during their 1970’s heyday, but the novelty of Sea Monkeys remained strong enough to keep them selling on name-value alone.

In the mid-1990’s, Sea Monkeys made a triumphant comeback when they began being distributed by ExploraToys. Now that the toy was old enough to be retro-hip, both kids and the adults who grew up with the Sea Monkey phenomenon were buying Sea Monkeys. They have also transcended their comic-book ad origins to be sold in national toy-store chains. And as long as toy fanatics want to take their love of creating things to the next level, Sea Monkeys will allow them to “create life.”

Small Cars, Big Fun: The Short Story of Penny Racers

Penny Racers

At first, it seemed like kind of a rotten deal. You’d saved up every last penny you could scrounge to buy one of Takara’s Penny Racers cars, and here they were, asking you to give up another cent just to play with it. Oh, but it was worth it. Matchbox and Hot Wheels were great for driving fast or for zipping along tracks and playsets, but for the spin-crazy, wheelie-happy, stunt driving kid, only a genuine Penny Racers would do.

Takara’s dinky little toy cars were originally released as Choro-Q vehicles in their native Japan. Brought over to the States as Penny Racers in 1981, the cars grabbed the attention of many kids, who saw the amazing tricks executed on TV commercials and knew they had to have one.

At its core, the Penny Racer was just a pull-back motorized car, something that had been around in one form or another for years. The gimmick was in the penny. A slot in the back of the car let kids slide in a penny to shift the weight around. Slide the penny to the right, and the car would favor that side, hitting quick spins before taking off in a new direction. Put the penny dead center, and chances are you’d see some two-wheeled wheelie driving. The package gave a few tips on tricks you might try, but experimentation was always encouraged.

A wave of Penny Racers in several styles hit the market in 1981, taking names like Van Man, Baja Blaster, Grizzly Gasser and Z Machine. Unfortunately, the gimmick wasn’t enough to sustain an international career. Takara continued to make Choro-Q cars in Japan, but American kids had to content themselves with similar models from major U.S. die-cast makers like Tonka. The toy was reborn, however, as a racing game for the Nintendo 64 in 2000.

Before Magic or Settlers of Catan, There Was Dark Tower

Dark Tower

Dark Tower…it was like every planet in the game universe had suddenly aligned. It was a board game, it was an electronic game, it was Dungeons & Dragons, all rolled into one. Milton Bradley called it Dark Tower; we called it “Dear God, I promise I”ll never ever do anything bad ever ever again if you make sure I get this game, and please make world peace, amen.”

The center of this 1981 game was the Dark Tower itself…not only did the big edifice loom over the circular game board, it was also the engine that made the whole game run. The object was to work your warrior’s way around the circular board, all the while building up armies, finding three needed keys and hoarding supplies of gold and food. Individual game cards with red and white pegs kept track of your current physical and financial status, but the real action took place inside the tower itself.

When it was your warrior’s turn, you pressed a button on the tower keypad to signal your turns action’s visit to the Bazaar for purchases and haggling; an exploration of Tombs or Ruins, where reward or battle might await; a simple one-space move; and so on. A randomizing engine inside the tower took care of the rest. At any moment, an enemy army of Brigands could strike, famine could decimate your troops, or luck could yield surprise treasures – the opponent-cursing Wizard, the dragon-slaying Dragonsword or a quick-travel Pegasus card. All results were indicated by one of many lit-up icons inside the tower’s dark, translucent face (an LED display took care of numbers). A dragon game piece roamed the board as well, acting as a fire-breathing spoiler.

After circling the board and amassing keys and troops, the final battle was an assault on the tower itself. After solving the riddle of the keys (which of the three went in what order), a final force of Brigands awaited, one that would tax the limits of your troops’ reserves. Fare thee well, young warrior.

Part of Milton Bradley’s leap into the electronic future of toys (along with Simon, Big Trak and others), Dark Tower was certainly a step up from your run-of-the-mill, dice-rolling board game. The emerging Atari generation was spellbound, as were D&D; aficionados. Unfortunately, the game’s relatively hefty price tag kept it from joining the ranks of Risk, Battleship and others, as Dark Tower vanished back into the Medieval mists after an all-too-brief lifespan.

Things I DIDN’T Have as a Kid

I’m sure we can all wax poetic about all the cool toys we had when we were kids and all the hours of fun they brought us.  But on the other side of that coin are all the things we wished and hoped for, but never had for whatever reason.  Well, here I’m discussing those things.  The things we would salivate over, plot and scheme to try to get, yet always came up short.  I hope some of you out there reading this had these things so you can fill me in on all the fun I missed out on by not having them.  So, if you DID have any of this stuff, please drop some memories in the comments, because I want to hear that they were as awesome as I always imagined they would be.


USS Flagg

 

G.I. Joe U.S.S. Flagg Aircraft Carrier

This single toy was, and still is, my Holy Grail. Never was there another toy that came before GI Joe in my eyes. It was the grand daddy of ’em all. I had most of the figures, the vehicles, the play sets, the action packs, and nearly anything else tied to the GI Joe toy line. But the one thing that always eluded me was this aircraft carrier.

When fully assembled, this toy was a whopping six feet in length! That goes beyond the realm of toy, and into the realm of something more like a coffee table. It was released in 1986 with a hefty retail price of $89.95, so it was definitely not to be found in my house. My dad would have had an easier time giving birth to one than actually paying that much for a toy.

But for years I would sit and think about all the cool battles that could have been had featuring the Flagg at the center of the action. It was so big, you could have incorporated many planes and helicopters on it’s deck. You could have loaded it with fifty or more figures without cramping things too much. Even while typing this, my mind is drifting away to endless assaults on Cobra Island with this thing as the center piece.

 

USS Flagg

As an adult in the early 2000’s, I tried again to acquire one. Searching on eBay, I found dozens of them, but none complete. The incomplete ones there were going for several hundred dollars. I actually did see one in a comic book shop one time, still sealed in it’s original box, but with a price tag of $1500. If I could have ever decided which child to sell, I may have ended up with it.

But who knows, maybe one day I’ll run across a good deal on a complete one and be able to purchase it. Then my friends, the battle for superiority of the bedroom will resume once more.

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Lawn Darts – The Most Dangerous Toy of All Time

Lawn Darts

Starting in the 1970’s, people began to cast a suspicious eye on the safety standards used in making toys. Parents and lawmakers began voicing their concerns and this led to new legal standards for what could and could not be sold to children at the toy store. Toys have become much safer over the years as a result of this, but a hazardous toy slips through the cracks every now and then and makes it to the market. One of the most notorious examples in recent memory is the case of Lawn Darts. These outdoor leisure items enjoyed a lengthy period of popularity, but quickly got yanked from the marketplace when its potential for danger became too obvious.

Lawn Darts began to appear in sporting goods and toy stores in the 1960’s and were made by various manufacturers (Sears Department Stores had their own Sears Lawn Darts, and so on). Also sold under the name “Jarts”, these items were 12 inches long, with a heavy tip made of metal on one end and decorative plastic fins at the other end. The metal tips were blunt so they wouldn’t cut the hands of the person tossing them, but remained pointy and heavy enough to stick in the ground they were thrown at.

Lawn Darts

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Who Remembers Battle Beasts?

Battle Beasts

Battle Beasts finally gave us the answer to a question that has plagued mankind since the dawn of time: If animals were bred into anthropomorphic warriors with cool-looking weapons and body armor, how would they play Paper, Rock, Scissors? But even better than answering that question, Battle Beasts let you play along, pitting your armada of wolves, hawks, walruses and spiders against your best friend’s legion of snakes, elephants, deer and gorillas. Oh, what a time to be alive…

In the mid-80’s, Japanese toymaker Takara added a new subset to its Transformers line: the Beast Formers. Like the early American Transformers, the Beast Formers had heat-sensitive “rubsigns” on the front of their chests, revealing the toy’s allegiance (Autobot or Decepticon) with the touch of a human finger. When the toys came to the U.S. in 1986, courtesy of Hasbro, the Transformers connection was dropped, and the Battle Beasts took on a style of their own.

The Beasts themselves were anthropomorphic “half-animals, half-warriors” from all over the wild kingdom. And we do mean “all over.” Pirate Lion and Ferocious Tiger may have seemed like naturals for combat, but Slasher Sea Horse, Panzer Panda, Killer Koala and Frenzied Flamingo had a rough time overcoming the cute and friendly reputations of their animal counterparts. Each small action figure also came with its own plastic weapon, but the real battles took place on the beasts’ chests.

Instead of the Autobot/Decepticon rubsign, the Battle Beasts wore “Battle Badges” on the front of their armor. When touched, the Battle Badge showed one of three Elemental Powers: Fire, Water or Wood. The idea was that kids could play a newer, higher-tech version of Paper, Rock, Scissors, with Fire burning Wood, Wood floating on Water, and Water dousing the Fire. And for a kicker, a small number of Battle Beasts held the power of the “Sunburst” in their Battle Badges. This Elemental Power trumped all, winning any battle it entered (the equivalent of the “Bomb” or “Superman” option, depending on which made-up Paper, Rock, Scissors rules you used).

Battle Beasts

Taking their Battle Beast forces into combat, kids went one-on-one with each other’s collections. Pick one figure from each side, rub the Battle Badge, and see who was victorious. But therein lay the problem for the casual Battle Beast player. There were several dozen Battle Beast animals, but if you only had two or four in your collection, it was kind of hard to pretend you didn’t know that Bloodthirsty Bison was Wood and Armored Armadillo was Water. Each animal came in at least three versions (one of each element, with the occasional Sunburst), but collecting them all was an expensive undertaking. Add in the problem of not knowing which element you had until the package was opened (“FIRE! WOOD! or WATER! You’ll never know until you own them!”), and you had the potential for much Battle Beast frustration.

Still, there was something cool about playing schoolyard games with deadly warrior animals, and the Battle Beasts became a minor rage for their short life span. Three series were released in the U.S., along with a few vehicles and assorted merchandise. Japanese kids got a fourth series, the Laser Beasts, which exchanged the rubsigns for clear gems in the beasts’ bellies that showed their signs when held up to light. But by that time, American kids were left playing Paper, Rock, Scissors the old-fashioned way.

SNES Classic

Games I Wish Were Included on the SNES Classic

After the success of the NES Classic Edition,  this Christmas season will see the release of a SUPER Nintento Classic Edition!  Sadly, I missed out on the NES Classic, but if the rumors of an SNES Classic prove true, I will definitely pick one up if the game selection looks good.  With that said, thoughts turn to what games may or may not be included on the system.  I know there are a lot of licensing issues with some games that keep them from being included, but for the sake of this post, I’m going to ignore all of that and just focus on the games I WISH were included on it, whether it could ever happen or not.  At the end, be sure to drop a line in the comments section about what games YOU want to see included.

 

Super Mario World

Super Mario World

I don’t know how you could release a mini SNES classic and not include the flag-ship game of the original console.  Mario IS Nintendo, and Super Mario World was not just the flagship title, but one of the best games on the system.  It’s a shoe-in.

 

Super Mario Kart

Super Mario Kart

Another Mario title, and the last one I’m including in this list.  I know there are plenty more great Mario based games on the system, but I never really got into them.  Mario Kart on the other hand is a classic with a quite a pedigree in the world of gaming, and is my personal favorite racing game on the system.

 

Legend of Zelda

The Legend of Zelda:  A Link to the Past

The Zelda franchise is synonymous with the Nintendo brand, and this game has a reputation as being one of the better incarnations of the game.  I played it a few times, and really hope it’s included in the mini version so I can finally get to sit down and play all the way through it.

 

Mega Man X

Mega Man X

Another icon of the Nintendo era was Mega Man, and any system looking to capitalize on its history needs to include a Mega Man title.  I never played this Mega Man for some reason, but I always loved the various Mega Man games on the NES, so I’d like to see this included to relieve those days.

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