Archive for the 'Nostalgics' Category

15
Feb
10

Dysentery; You have it.

Concurrently, your mom has come down with typhoid fever and your BFF Solomon drowned after you ordered your malnutritioned oxen to ford Kentucky’s Green River– not to mention, at a grueling pace. Congratulations on reaching Oregon, you stone-hearted pioneer, you.

Oregon Trail I

You guessed it. Today, I pay homage to a true American icon.  Since making its way into elementary school computer labs in the 70’s, the Oregon Trail video game has become one of our country’s greatest cultural hallmarks. (At least according to kids like me who played it to death.) Not only did the game provide the earliest reference to a time in history in which a bold American people set out to find their own “promised land” in the unexplored West, but The Oregon Trail also brought to light the many risks of exploring the largely untamed continent that existed in the mid 1800’s.

The Oregon Trail experience defined a new frontier of educational adventure games to incorporate historical boundaries to first-person variable role-play.  When it first hit the Apple II computer platform in 1971, the game was primitive and text-based. However, the concept remained largely unchanged as graphic improvements and added variables made players’ treks across the country more reflective of the journey that early pioneers faced.

So before the fleeting aroma of Carmen Sandiego’s perfume could throw even the keenest of sleuths off their mark or Math Blaster could rocket his way towards fraction mastery, there was the Oregon Trail. And it beckoned:

“Try taking a journey by covered wagon across 2000 miles of plains, rivers, and mountains. Try! On the plains, will you slosh your oxen through mud and water-filled ruts or will you plod through dust six inches deep?

How will you cross the rivers? If you have money, you might take a ferry (if there is a ferry). Or, you can ford the river and hope you and your wagon aren’t swallowed alive!

What about supplies? Well, if you’re low on food you can hunt. You might get a buffalo… you might. And there are bear in the mountains.

At the Dalles, you can try navigating the Columbia River, but if running the rapids with a makeshift raft makes you queasy, better take the Barlow Road.

If for some reason you don’t survive — your wagon burns, or thieves steal your oxen, or you run out of provisions, or you die of cholera — don’t give up! Try again… and again… until your name is up with the others on The Oregon Trail Top Ten.”


The original version of the game, which was created by three student teachers at Carelton College in Northfield, Minnesota, began as the pet project of history buff, Don Rawitsch. After releasing the title through the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium’s (MECC) network, the game gained popularity.  It soon became a hit among the other titles in MECC’s Elementary Series, released in 1980. Five years later, positive response a game simply entitled “Oregon” at the time, led to releases of a deluxe version in 1992, and later, Oregon Trail II in 1996. In the following years, 3rd, 4th, and 5th editions were to follow.

Improvements in gameplay throughout the series came in the form of activities like hunting, which was especially vital to the sustainment of the wagon crew.

In the text-based version of the game, hunting was experienced through how fast a player could type the words, “Bang,” “Wham,” or “Pow.” Slow or misspelled responses meant a failed hunt. Once graphics were introduced to the series, a small character could actually be made to aim on-screen at animals that passed throughout the hunting grounds. Eventually, the player would be given control of cross-hairs by using the mouse in order to target and fire on animals like rabbits, bison, and deer.

Other things that a player’s crew might encounter along the trail West included rivers crossings, Native Americans, other settlers offering goods or advice, towns and forts, gold panning missions, and of course, death.

Oregon Trail Deluxe

Death was arguably one of the most interesting phenomena included in the Oregon Trail video game series. It always seemed so far off when it was desired but so near when players tried to avoid it. An abbreviated list of fatal remedies along the trail included the following:

  • Cholera
  • Starvation
  • Dysentery
  • Drown
  • Typhoid Fever
  • Snake Bite
  • Diarrhea
  • Broken Leg
  • Measles
  • Exhaustion

Terms such as these provided hours of dissection and discussion for elementary schoolers, as well as an expansion of their medical vocabulary.

But that’s not all the game taught children. It also forced them to use critical thinking skills.

At the outset of the journey, players were forced to choose an occupation for their wagon leader. Skills inherent in each occupation would prove either useful or worthless within the predicaments the party would face. Other supplies were also available for purchase at various times during gameplay, allowing players to stock up on the essentials. However, an overweight wagon meant the need for more oxen and a significantly lower chance of successfully fording a river.

Oregon Trail II

The Oregon Trail game gained so much popularity during its many years of development that its legacy lives on today. It has officially gained its place in T-shirt slogan fandom. It has been developed into an iPhone App. It has even inspired fan fiction…. from its non-fiction history.

So if you’re anywhere in the 19-25 age range and you missed out on this piece of American legend, I highly, highly, encourage you to somehow…obtain a copy. And if you are a member of said age group, I also sympathize for you, because back in elementary school during free time, while everyone else was suffering from dysentery, you were probably suffering from a fate far worse. Boredom.

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05
Feb
10

A Stroke of Genius

Some pieces of pop culture seem to possess a vitality far beyond their contemporaries, or even what the normal life-expectancy of such things tends be. It’s the reason we all feel dumbfounded when these bits and pieces that have become as reliable as a “good morning” at the start of our day suddenly go unsaid. Sure, the greeting was never actually expected to ensure a pleasant–let alone good–morning for anyone, but something about its subtle optimism has always been enough to trick even the most down-trodden of people into responding with just the slightest bit of enthusiasm.

When cartoonist Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes cartoon strip reached daily syndication in 1985, he probably didn’t realize that he would be the one to extend a warm cup of coffee and a “good morning” to the globe’s breakfast table every day for the next ten years straight.

So what makes Watterson’s comic strip so great, that, even after 15 years out of publication, its 6-year old star named after the 16th Century Reformation theologian, John Calvin, and his accomplice, a six-foot tall imaginary tiger named after Thomas Hobbes, a political theorist of the same era, will appear in reruns in newspapers worldwide this year?

Maybe its because for twenty years, Watterson wrote and illustrated the comic himself, and at the end of its run, refused to sell the rights to any company offering cash to replicate Calvin’s image as a delinquent peeing on a peace sign/flower/Ford Logo/”Democrat”  as a window sticker.

(Makers of these images have only narrowly avoided lawsuits due to their obscurity)

Maybe it is because of the nature of the comic itself. Readers fell in love with the mischievous, yet innocent character of Calvin, and the way that even his parents didn’t quite know what to expect from his devious impulses. Or maybe it was the reliable sarcasm of his stuffed cohort, Hobbes, who seemed to be possessed by a fragment of Calvin’s psyche, and yet, had an agenda all his own.

Either way, some have argued that, at its height, after appearing in over 2,400 newspapers and 18 books across the world, Watterson’s comic strip rivaled Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts” in artistic vision.

After retiring the strip in 1995, a near-reclusive Watterson also retired to Chagrin Falls, Ohio. In 15 years, he has avoided the public eye and allowed his characters to exist solely within the pages of newspaper archives and comic strip collections.

Recently, John Campenelli, a reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Watterson’s hometown paper, scored an exclusive interview with the cartoonist.

Long live the classics.

01
Feb
10

Where the Sidewalk Ends

Among the multitude of books that  topped elementary reading lists where I attended grade-school, a select few titles have remained with me over the years. In most cases, they’re works that have navigated their way through decades of awards and accolades and become mainstays of the language arts curriculum. My personal favorites were the classic fictional novels about man’s best friends. To name a few–Old Yeller, Where the Red Fern Grows, Sounder, and Shiloh.

Alongside the requirement that came with sitting around the carpeted  corner where my teacher took her perch on a stool with novel in hand, I did my share of leisurely reading. In those days, it was truly a habit that I did not have to trick myself into enjoying. Of course, my selections were far from academic.

Try these:

And I wasn’t the only one reading them. These series are so popular that they were all adapted into moderately successful seasons of television shows. Sure, they couldn’t come close to matching the excitement delivered by the imagination-inspiring text, but they were honest attempts to appeal to the masses of youth that enjoyed these books.

But there was one series, especially, that was near to my heart. Growing up, the work of  Sheldon Alan “Shel” Silverstein inspired my early love for poetry.  His was simple, engaging, funny, and odd. Something about his writing and accompanied illustrations seemed skewed in a way that rode the fine line between freakish and fascinating. And to make the whole package that much easier to digest–his poems read like short glimpses into the lives of the little characters he created and their unique predicaments. In the fourth and fifth grades, his three-part collection series of poems and illustrations were in constant rotation under my name at the school library.

They were equally hefty–coming in around 200 pages each.

Some poems were longer or more serious than others. I had a handful of personal favorites, but each time I checked the books out, I was always drawn to read them from cover to cover. Once I had finally reached the last poem and disappointingly flipped through each collection’s remaining blank pages, I always paused to examine the photograph of a man who had held my attention for what seemed like so much of my childhood. Something about Shel Silverstein’s appearance made his talents that much more intriguing to me.

I mean… The guy looks like a creep.

Of course, the thought first came to me when I was younger, but even today, he still doesn’t fit my mind’s image of a children’s writer. He looks more like a children catcher.

Thanks to good ‘ol wikipedia though, I learned today that Silverstein was much more than a poet and illustrator. He was also a singer-songwriter, musician, composer, cartoonist, and screenwriter, who claimed to have never seriously studied the work of any contemporaries when it came to his writing, which allowed him to develop a unique style.

Silverstein’s wiki-entry included this blurb by Otto Penzler, a collaborator who wrote about him in his crime anthology Murder for Revenge (1998):

“The phrase “Renaissance man” tends to get overused these days, but apply it to Shel Silverstein and it practically begins to seem inadequate. Not only has he produced with seeming ease country music hits and popular songs, but he’s been equally successful at turning his hand to poetry, short stories, plays, and children’s books. Moreover, his whimsically hip fables, beloved by readers of all ages, have made him a stalwart of bestseller lists. A Light in the Attic, most remarkably, showed the kind of staying power on the New York Times chart — two years, to be precise — that most of the biggest names (John Grisham, Stephen King, and Michael Crichton) have never equaled for their own blockbusters.

And there’s still more: his unmistakable illustrative style is another crucial element to his appeal. Just as no writer sounds like Shel, no other artist’s vision is as delightfully, sophisticatingly cockeyed.

One can only marvel that he makes the time to respond so kindly to his friends’ requests. In the following work, let’s be glad he did. Drawing on his characteristic passion for list making, he shows how the deed is not just in the wish but in the sublimation.”

If you are looking for fun poetry with style and soul and you missed out on these publications in grade-school, I would still encourage you to give them a read. They are just as great today as they were when they were first penned.

I’ve already said a lot. I’ll just let the man’s work speak for itself.

Thank you for your artistry, Mr. Silverstein(1930-1999).

27
Jan
10

Matchbox can suck it.

If there is one accessory of my childhood that I couldn’t cast off even if I wanted to, it would be my love for the miniature roadsters known formally as Hot Wheels. And I know I’m not alone. While the girls were off steering their impossibly proportioned Barbies around inside of that all-pink jeep or whatever it was, the fellas had more than enough to occupy themselves with in Hot Wheels toy cars. Mattel estimates by sales that around 41 million children grew up playing with Hot Wheels cars, and that boys between the ages of 5 and 15 own approximately 41 cars each.

The amazing thing about these cars is that they’re only about 6 or 7cm in length, but contain a detail almost identical to the full-sized vehicles many are modeled after. The sturdy, die-cast replicas were fully functional–some with doors that opened, trunks that popped, tiny motors that allowed the car to move on its own, and all with spinning wheels.

General Motors, Ford Motor Company, Chrysler Motors, Ferrari, Mazda, and Toyota are just a few car makers who have licensed Hot Wheels to make the 1/64th sized scale model of their cars.

Every Hot Wheels model falls under one of the following categories:

  • Street Car
  • Racing Car
  • Extreme Car
  • Rigs or Buses
  • Vans and Off Road Vehicles
  • Formula Fuelers
  • Motocross and Stunt Cycles
  • Special Series Cars (themed from movies, other brands)

A History of Hot Wheels

Elliott Handler, husband to Ruth Handler, who had recently been responsible for the debut of Barbie through their co-owned Mattel toy company, invented the idea of die-cast model cars for boys during the 1960’s. The first line of successful Hot Wheels included models such as the Corvette, the Cougar, the Barracuda, the Firebird, the Mustang, the Volkswagen, the Deora and the Hot Heap.

The first 16 models, which have now come to be known as “the sweet sixteen” in the collector’s world, sold so well in 1968 that Mattel produced a second set of cars for the following year.

“Designs included the Chaparrel 2G, the Charger, the AMX, the Lotus Turbine, the Mclaren M6A, the Rolls Royce, the Police Cruiser, the Mercedes Benz 280SL and the Ford MK IV. The first models from the ‘Classic’ range were also introduced during this year; the 31 Ford Woody, the 32 Ford Vicky, the 36 Ford Coupe and the 57 Bird. There were only another 21 cars produced from this range therefore became admired collectors items.” – ToyReview.com

Since 1968, over 10,000 models have been produced, pointing to a large collectors market for Hot Wheels cars. Mattel hosts several annual collectors events, along with independent organizations devoted to displaying and trading rarities of the line.

Mattel has slated 240 new models for production in 2010. On the official collector’s website, the manufacturers provide a detailed Hot Wheels search engine, collector’s list, upcoming collector’s events, and forums for enthusiasts to meet and share. On a competitive front, they also offer spotlights to serious collectors, and hold contests for inventive stunt tracks. These tracks are themed and designed for racing Hot Wheels cars through any number of absurdly awesome scenarios.

Hot Wheel Vehicles are authorized by the car makers General Motors, Ford Motor Company, and Chrysler Motors. Other car makers like Ferrari, Mazda, and Toyota have licensed Hot Wheels to make a scale model of their cars.

Internationally, the expansion of the brand and its products has brought people together from all continents. A few years ao, the Guinness Book of World Records recognized Eugenio Alanis of Mexico and his submission for the world’s longest Hot Wheels track.

Here’s a video submission I found for one of Hotwheels.com‘s contests last year. This required some serious editing skills.

If you missed out on the Hot Wheels movement, you are officially forgiven. It doesn’t look like Mattel will be stopping production anytime soon. The automotive industry may be in decline, but these boys have serious staying power. Go beg your parents for some.

BONUS VIDEO:

Awesome Jumpzzzz to Melt your Matchbox Face!!!!! LOLLZZZ!!!!

(edit: Mattel bought Matchbox out in 1996. Sry sry! lolzzz)

25
Jan
10

Powerline. Live.

For all of the times that Disney and its counterparts attempted to ruin our childhood, we were still blessed with gems like this to keep us hooked.

Happy Monday

25
Jan
10

Scared Straight

So here’s another random post for you to chew on. I promise that once I get these out of my system that there will be a rhyme and reason to all of this. But until then… let’s discuss something that’s been weighing on my mind since I caught the end of the animated film, 9 the other night. First of all, having not even seen the rest of the movie, it was still obvious by the time the credits rolled that its subject matter was no lighthearted affair. Judging by the apocalyptic-themed previews and PG-13 rating, I also wasn’t surprised.

But it got me thinking.

The MPAA’s rating system has come a long way since its primitive beginnings as a 4-category scale in 1930. Today, movie ratings are much more in tune with what the average person would understand or even agree with. Film content descriptions even assist in tipping viewers off to exactly what they should prepare to see on-screen.

“Rated PG for sexual innuendo and cartoonish violence”

So improvements in the system have greatly empowered parents in controlling a little better what their kids are watching on today’s big screen. But what about us 80’s babies who were born right as the PG-13 label came into existence? What about us kids who were virtual guinea pigs to a new rating system that had not had time to be thoroughly tried by the film industry? I’m convinced that growing up, my generation may have witnessed a good number of scenes from children’s movies with content that slipped through the cracks of  critical judgment!

I mean…I at least speak for myself in saying that to this day, I still can’t erase some of these images from my mind.

God help me, let’s revisit them.

My top picks for scariest moments from children’s films:

  • The Brave Little Toaster (1987) –  “Imagine if Your Toaster Went on a Journey of its Own!”

Right. A great film about forgotten appliances who band together to track their college-bound master down. Faced with obstacles like self-doubt, steep rockface climbs, and violently pessimistic air conditioning units, the brave little toaster and his friends stop at nothing until they are claimed by their rightful owner once again.

Remember when I mentioned the violently pessimistic air conditioner?! Who wrote this character’s lines? Absolutely terrifying.

This scene includes one of my favorite musical numbers from an animated film… but it really was overwhelmingly depressing. That compactor is so relentless… those cars so defeated…

  • Watership Down (1978) – “All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and when they catch you, they will kill you… but first they must catch you.”

To be fair, this isn’t really a “children’s movie” at heart–although it was originally given a PG rating. Plus, it’s about a family of lovable bunnies who are escaping their doomed countryside warren to take refuge in Watership Down. But in its defense, the book  that it is based on was received almost universally as an allegory. Critics praised the film because it dealt with issues like “tyranny and freedom, reason and blind emotion, and the individual and the corporate state.”

The scary part about this film is everything. From the gruesomely animated violence to the artistic detail given to each woodland creature…

  • Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971) – “It’s everybody’s non-pollutionary, anti-institutionary, pro-confectionery factory of fun!”

And horror. You know the story. A poor young boy with a golden heart wins a golden ticket and also a tour of Willy Wonka’s wonder-filled chocolate factory. He impresses Wonka with his honesty and humility and is granted ownership of the factory, where he is also able to house his entire family.

A lot of people have seemed to agree in their later years that this movie was a little bit creepier than it “should” have been. The 2005 adaptation seemed to capitalize on some of the creep factors, but nothing, in my opinion can shake the memory of seeing Willy Wonka’s rage towards the end of the film for the first time as a child.

And not to mention this boat ride through Hell.

  • The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1974) – “Chubby Little Cubby all Stuffed with Fluff”

This is a collection of animated shorts about Pooh, a dimwitted but lovable little bear, and his friends from the Hundred Acre Wood as they tackle life’s many mysteries–like how to play pooh sticks, find honey, and bounce. Or hallucinate.

Hallucinations are never pleasant. This scene, featuring an unconscious Pooh’s trip through his own imagination get me every time. Heffalumps and Woozles. Scary and scarier.

  • Neverending Story (1984) – “A boy who needs a friend finds a world that needs a hero in a land beyond imagination!”

And beyond anything I would have liked to imagine. This movie is based on a Germany fantasy novel about a troubled young boy who finds an escape from his daily persecution by bullies in a book called “The Neverending Story.” Along his quest to save the world of Fantasia, he encounters both dangerous and magical creatures that lead him down a heroic path.

The horror here lies in the existence of a flying dog-snake called Falkor the luckdragon. He is friendly and helpful, but far from fun to look at. This monster took my breath away every time I saw it.

Bonus Clip: Somebody created a montage of scenes from Watership Down with Marylin Manson’s Sweet Dreams playing in the background. Don’t worry, the music is the least disturbing part of this video.

Are there any scenes from movies that haunted your childhood? Comment. Comment. Comment.

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