Cornfield Meet

Things collide here.

Atari: 40 years old today


I’ve mentioned the role Atari played in my childhood a couple times before –

8-bit time capsule

More games, more fun

– so I love this timeline that Atari created, and which we’ve shared at GeekDad, in honor of the company’s 40th birthday today. (Below is just a peek – click through to see the whole thing, and enjoy some flashback cake.)

Click to visit the full timeline at GeekDad.


June 27, 2012 Posted by | eighties, Games, geek, Uncategorized, video games | , , , | Leave a comment

A Brief Review of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline - a short review

October 8, 2011 Posted by | 1980s, Books, eighties, Fiction, Film, Games, geek, Music, Ohio, science fiction, video games | , , , , | 2 Comments

8-bit time capsule

My brother Nick showed up yesterday to watch The Greatest American Hero (courtesy of our new Netflix Wii disc!) and as if that weren’t flashback enough, he brought this over, too:

If I could save time in a cheap plastic bin...

According to Wikipedia, the 2600 wasn't officially retired until 1992. NINETEEN NINETY FREAKING TWO. (click to embiggen)

Now, that’s not our first Atari, obviously, but it is the cheap second-generation 2600 that Mom and Dad got after we apparently played the first one to death. And let’s see … >countcountcount< I’m positive that 15 of these cartridges are from our family’s original collection. (Others, I’m guessing, are games that belonged to friends which were loaned or traded and just never made it back to their homes.)

I have no explanation for the duplication of E.T. cartridges, although as far as the two RealSports Football games go, I have a hunch one of them might actually contain Combat, because at some point, I got adventurous and thought I’d see if I could switch the boards between cartridges, just for fun. (Because come on, how fun is it to imagine your friend’s face when he goes home and pops that borrowed game into his Atari only to see Combat show up? That’s classic, right?)

Sadly either the console or the power supply is shot, because I couldn’t get the system to fire up, but in my brain, it was like dynamiting an avalanche.

As with things like Star Wars figures and trading cards, there’s a fantastic tactile memory embedded in holding these cartridges and feeling their particular weight and texture. And the label art and the fonts and even the different casing structures that different game companies like Activision and Imagic and Coleco used once they entered the market – all these little things just trigger recollections and sensations, and I can see myself turning to this picture for some throwback writing in the not-too-distant future.

April 16, 2010 Posted by | 1980s, eighties, Games, geek, video games | , , , , , | 3 Comments


Every so often, whether it was while visiting the Aladdin’s Castle arcade at Belden Village, or the Goodtime Pizza place next to Children’s Palace, or even among the two or three periodically-changed video games inthe youth lobby at the YMCA, I’d see something magical on an unattended screen.



A quick look around – just in case someone had put a quarter in and then taken a few steps away to grab their jacket or a Coke or something – and if nobody seemed to be Next In Line, well, then FREE GAME ON!

And it didn’t matter what the game was: If it was free, I gave it a shot, even if it was something I never played or that I sucked at. A free game was a quarter saved, and a few extra minutes of video gaming I couldn’t have bought for myself.

It was its own particular sort of thrill – different, somehow, from finding a quarter or a token, which gave you a free game of your choice, sure, but you still had to turn around and spend that coin.

Twice in the past two weeks, I’ve been reminded of that eye-widening moment of fun: Free game!

The first was at PAX East, in the American Classic Arcade Museum‘s room. I took a quick look into the place on day one, but didn’t get to go back and play until Saturday afternoon when Paul & Wendy and I went up there to spend some time. When we asked one of the staffers just inside the door “Quarters or tokens?” he grinned.

“None. They’re all on free play.”

I froze and looked around. Dragon’s Lair jumped out at me. Ms. Pac Man. Holy crud – a Flash pinball machine. We beelined for the first machine we saw open: a sit-down Buck Rogers: Planet of Doom.

I jumped in, and my blocky little fighter was screaming through space, and then over a dizzyingly-green-striped featureless landscape, where I had to swing back and forth between pylons that looked straight out of a 1950s sci-fi B picture. I don’t remember the game sucking this bad, I thought, but who freaking cares – FREE GAME!!

We hit Atari’s Food Fight next, and then Paul and I teamed up for a go at Joust 2. (Joust was a game I was never really good at but loved like hell to play.) We’re in there mashing buttons, swearing good-naturedly half under our breath – incidentally, my quip of choice when I’ve knocked off a video game enemy, flying bird or otherwise, comes from Die Hard: “Eat it, Harvey!” I find it underappreciated. – there’s eighties music playing, the room is bathed in that dim red-orange glow and the swirled reflected light of the screens.

Joust 2: Survival of the Fittest

"Eat it, Harvey!" (Because "Yippi-ki-yay, motherfucker" is totally overused.)

Wendy took this shot of us playing, and while I could have adjusted the color levels and brightness, this really kind of captures a feel I like, of remembering hours spent in this kind of place, watching over someone’s shoulder, waiting my turn to play.

Then, last weekend, we went down to my mom’s house for an Easter dinner.

A couple years back, my mom inherited a house and a couple actual arcade games therein. The Baby Pac-Man machine has worked since day one, and while we’ve gotten a lot of use out of it, I was always much more hyped about the Black Knight pinball machine.

The first time I remember being really excited about a new pinball machine was when the YMCA in North Canton brought in a Williams’ Flash like the one I just saw at PAX. I remember two things about this game that made it supercool: One, it had all these really bizarre sound effects, not just the bells and buzzers and clatters of a typical pinball machine. (According to the Internet Pinball Machine Database, Flash “was the first game from any manufacturer to have a dynamic background sound during gameplay. It is also the first game from any manufacturer to use Flash Lamps, which provide a temporary burst of flashing light intended primarily for the sake of its visual effect…” So yeah – awesome.)

I also remember that it had a third flipper, way up on the right side of the playing field, which I’d never seen in a pinball game before, and that was cool, too. I remember racing from the locker room after swim lessons hoping to get in a game or two – or even just watch some older kid who was, you know, good – before mom or dad would come pick me up.

And then along came Black Knight. Honestly, I can’t remember where I saw it first – I think it may have been on a family vacation to Florida with my friend Jacob along, but I’m not sure.

This thing was so unlike any pinball game we’d ever seen. It had two levels, with a pair of flippers on each, and tunnels and ramps and these magnets beneath the playing field which I never quite figured out how to use and a thing called “multi-ball” where you could actually have three balls in play at the same time, and did I mention that IT TALKED?!? I mean, it really just blew my whole concept of “pinball machines” out of the water.

And it was gorgeous, all black and red and gold and kind of Dungeons-and-Dragons-esque, and lined up next to other more garish and bright machines, Black Knight just looked like a badass.

Of course, it also cost fifty cents, twice as much as a regular game. And you only got three balls instead of the usual five which I seem to think was the standard at the time. And it seemed really, really hard.

But man was it fun.

Pinball machines got more complex, of course, but I’ve never felt like anything made the quantum leap like this one did, and over the years, no matter where I found an arcade, if this machine was in it, at least two (or three) of my quarters were destined for the Black Knight’s coffers.

So mom’s had this thing in the basement for awhile now,and though I’ve tried to help her with finding a suitable repair technician and all, it’s spent the entire time dormant and silent.

Not anymore. Mom found a guy who did a check, popped in a fuse, and –

Will. You. Challenge. Me. Again?

Will. You. Challenge. Me. Again?


The synthesized speech and the sound effects poured into my ears, struck those chords of memory, and it was on.

Kelsey and my brother and I took turns, re-learned the mechanics of the game, how to get the multi-ball, what targets and lights to watch for, and even how to activate the Magna-Saves which had mystified me as a kid.

It was simply fantastic.

Free game.

April 7, 2010 Posted by | 1980s, eighties, Games, geek, video games | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

More Games, More Fun

As I’m hitting the road for a weekend defined by gaming, it seems appropriate to share this bit of nostalgia found in an empty box.

Without my mom’s wonderfully labeled and sorted volumes of family photos in front of me, I can’t say for sure what Christmas I got this, but I really can remember the feel of the box beneath my hands as I peeled back the wrapping paper and let out a whoop of unparalleled joy upon seeing it:

Model CX-2600

The Original. Click to zoom in and check out the games. THAT'S packaging ART, my friends.

I don’t know why the box got saved – the system is, of course, long since dead or handed down to a cousin or garage saled or something – but holding it and running my gaze over that font and the images take me back almost more effectively than even playing the recreated games themselves on my Atari Flashback.

And check out the back: Combat in all its glory.

A taste of Combat.

A taste of Combat.

There was, in fact, one game cartridge and one controller stuck inside this box in the attic for years -along with the now-ridiculous-looking plastic shell that once served as a “dome” above the plastic-woodgrain case where the console itself sat, revered and protected.

Star Raiders.

Not to be confused with Star Blazers, of course.

Man, it was almost like a real, you know, COMPUTER!

An Atari game was super special if it came in a really fat box, because you knew that meant it had a special controller in it, like the Indy 500 game we got for dad thathad a set of special driving “paddles,” or, in this case, that keypad which at one time had an overlay labeling buttons for warp speed and coordinates and stuff like that. Honestly, I don’t remember the game mechanics so much as I remember really thinking it was kind of like hunting TIEs alongside Red Five and the gang, and if I looked over my shoulder there in the basement, I’d see R2 in his socket, and the starfield receding behind him.

March 25, 2010 Posted by | 1980s, eighties, geek, video games | , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Group 7 Access Restored.

Here’s the intro scene I want:

Jack Palance, looking like he did circa 1989, strolls through a dimly lit, dust-shrouded room cluttered with arcade games, Timex Sinclairs and Atari 2600 consoles and Commodore 64s hooked up to small televisions. A VHS player hums while WarGames silently unfolds. Jack looks into the camera as he walks, fingers brushing the artifacts as he passes. “John Booth,” he says, “was 11 years old in the summer of 1982. He shoveled quarters into video games like coal into a ravenous locomotive engine, wore Atari joystick blisters like badges of honor and dreamed in pixels when he slept. Lasers and lightsabers and robots and spaceships and computers were the ever-whirling sparks in his brain, setting fires that would burn for years to come.”

“And yet he never saw Tron.” (Trademark Jack Palance inhale & pause, then…) “Believe it … or not.

Totally true.

The closest I ever came was in middle school, when my math teacher decided to show it on video during the last week of school – maybe even the last day of the year. It was hard enough to see the TV up at the front of room, because I think he’d invited another class to join us, so kids were all sitting on their desks and stuff, and at any rate, the impending summer vacation had everyone so hyper that I couldn’t hear the movie anyway.

Not seeing the movie, of course, didn’t stop me from plugging countless quarters into the original Tron video game over the next few years, or from buying my little brother “Surround” for our Atari because it was the closest thing I could get to a light-cycle race. (Digression: One of the “Surround” configurations allowed you to hold down the joystick button and, for strategic purposes, stop leaving a destructive trail. My favorite way to play the game was selecting that option,  clamping down on the button for several minutes while the game speed increased to its peak, then letting go and trying to run a full-throttle head-to-head battle, which usually lasted all of 10 seconds.)

Every so often since those years, I’d get the notion into my head to watch Tron, but I never did.

I honestly don’t recall which version of the sequel trailer – the 2008 San Diego Comic Con version teased TR2N while the newer edition last year revealed the title as Tron Legacy – pushed me  once and for all into the “gotta watch the original before the sequel comes out” territory, but I eventually remembered to put in a library request, and the 20th Anniversary DVD edition of Tron finally made its way to my house last week.

Now, while the Tron Legacy trailer really got me excited, a friend of mine warned me when I mentioned last Friday that I was staying up late for my first-ever Tron viewing, “OK:  You REALLY need to put your mind back into its 1982 pre-teen geek mode. Try to imagine NEVER having seen CG before…”

I was already sort of preparing for this, since I’ve had my heart wince more than a few times when I’ve gone back and taken a look at the things of that era I remember enjoying. (Saturday morning Godzilla cartoon, anyone? >shudder, whimper<)

So when I shut off the lights and settled in for 97 minutes of retro, I did so with an attitude of “If nothing else, this will be fun.”

I was utterly unprepared to find myself thinking, “Um, wow: This movie kind of kicks ass.

Maybe it was because Jeff Bridges is ridiculously entertaining and cool as a video gamer while still subtly hinting at the darker side of his character, and David Warner is, well, David Freaking Warner, even in a goofy foam-rubber-looking King Tut-eqsue helmet.

Maybe it was because of Wendy Carlos’ amazing synthesized soundtrack: While I’d never seen this movie, big chunks of the musical score lived in my head courtesy of that arcade game, making it even easier to spend awhile in that still-12-years-old corner of my mind.

Maybe it was because the visuals, which, while obviously dated, hold up remarkably well in terms of mood and aesthetic and which yes, while primitive by today’s standards, fit so cleanly and neatly into that world and that narrative that they don’t feel fake or hokey. (It was only while doing a little research for this that I learned that Tron wasn’t even nominated for Best Visual Effects award in 1982 because the Academy felt that using computers for special effects was cheating. (“Hindsight?” “Yes, John?” “Take the DeLorean and go slap the 1982 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Hard.”)

Yes, Tron‘s concept is a bit goofy: computer programs imagined as tiny “people” and a laser-scanning thing that takes real world objects – and Bridges’ Kevin Flynn, of course – into the virtual world? Of course it’s cheesy. Then again, how about a computer network that becomes sentient and invents time-traveling killer robots, or another one that – get this – farms humans as batteries to survive?

As a script, Tron suffers from nothing unusual, really: Stiff, cartoony dialogue, a bit of clunky storytelling, the old standbys of elderly mentors and life lessons.

But I enjoyed the hell out of this movie in much more than a nostalgic way, which was a wonderful surprise. And I’m glad that over the past decade or so, it seems to have earned the wider appreciation which eluded it for so long.

Also, now I’m just stupid psyched for Tron Legacy. End of line.

February 28, 2010 Posted by | 1980s, eighties, Film, Games, geek, science fiction, video games, Web/Tech | , , , , , | 3 Comments

A Pong ping to the past.

Most of the time, when I talk about the first home video game system we had when I was little, I’m talking about the Atari. (Much like “Star Wars: A New Hope,” I’ll never call this thing either by its full name – “Atari Video Computer System” or its later-popularized numeric designation, the 2600.)

Truth is, though, there was a predecessor in the Booth household: One of these Radio Shack TV Scoreboard games.

I think my dad was itching to get one after seeing something like it at my Uncle John’s house, and it was quite the big deal when we hooked it up to the family room TV.

Looking at that picture on Retro Thing activated some deep-seated tactile and muscle memory: I can feel the heft of the larger “right player” controller, which housed the brains of the thing, and the lightweight “it’s-just-a-plastic-knob” feel of the detachable “left player” controller. My fingertips can recall the resistance and satisfying clicks of the power switch and the selector toggles, and the way the paddles smoothly turned

What our system had, though, that my uncle’s lacked, was that monstrous plastic Dirty Harry hand cannon gun you used to play the two target-shooting games. Seriously: That thing was huge. Yeah, it was hollow and plastic and ridiculously light, and the trigger-pull was a wholly unsatisfying tiny >click!<  but look at the damn thing. Long after we had abandoned this game for the fields of Combat and the march of Space Invaders, we cut the cord off the bottom of this gun and used it for Halloween costumes and stuff like that.

Even after the TV Scoreboard lost its place in our living room, my parents let me hook it up to the old black-and-white Zenith TV we kept in the spare bedroom upstairs. (The one with the power knob missing and which, after shutoff, condensed the whole picture into a brilliant blue-white star which slowly faded from the center of the screen over about five minutes.)

Double-bonus flashback: Years later, when my cousins got their first-generation Nintendo and we all took turns, I totally DESTROYED all those little Mario-talented warriors when it came to Duck Hunt.

I credit the hours spent on “target” and “skeet.”

January 21, 2010 Posted by | 1980s, geek, video games | , , , | 1 Comment

The 10 Things I Had The Most Fun Writing For GeekDad In 2009

Not long after my change in employment earlier this year, I got in touch with GeekDad editor Ken Denmead, who generously ran a couple guest posts I wrote in April and later included me on a very cool invite list, bringing me on board as a full-fledged contributor to the site. I’m incredibly thankful, because a) It’s GeekDad, and How Freaking Awesome; b) I’ve gotten to write pieces I wouldn’t otherwise have had the chance to, which inspired some writing I’m proud of.

It has been tremendously neat playing a small role in the site and watching it grow, and one of my resolutions for 2010 is to write more for GeekDad than I did in 2009.

That said, I had a TON of fun with this year’s entries, and while I truly enjoyed many of my shorter blog entries, there are exactly 10 longer GeekDad pieces about which I was most excited and got the most enjoyment out of writing, so Yay for a Ready-Made End-of-Year List! (Cop out: I’m presenting them in chronological order because it’s easiest.)

1) May 6Hands-on and Close-up Fun: Penguicon 7.0 . That weekend in May was absolutely one of the highlights of the year, and even the decade, for me. (I did a longer, more personal and detailed post here.)

2) May 21 Girls Against Girls – Figuring It Out With Bonnie Burton – It’s incredibly difficult to accurately describe how enjoyable this interview was, and the book’s lessons have come in handy more than once in my daughter’s middle school years.

3) June 11 Nine Video Games Ripe for Rebirth – Not only was this a great trip down video-game memory lane, but ohmyGod ARCHON IS BACK!!!!

4) June 18 Review: Swim Ways’ R/C Cyber Ray – Well, we got to play with a nifty toy that was only fun for a little while, but I like the way the review turned out, and who knows, maybe Swim Ways has ironed out the wrinkles by now.

5) June 27Nature at Its Closest – With several inches of snow outside needing shoveled, summer seems a long way off. But remembering the clutches of baby robins we got to watch hatch and grow on our front porch does warm the heart. (awwww!)

6) July 910 Things Parents Should Know About Warehouse 13 – It was a good excuse to stay in and watch some SyFy channel with Kelsey, but the truth is, though we though the premiere was OK, we never watched another episode.

7) July 26Bubbles, Zubbles, Toys and Troubles – Although at its heart this is another toy review, I had a blast talking to inventor Tim Kehoe about his 15-year journey from the idea for colored bubbles to the final production this summer.

8) Aug. 13 Activision’s Science Papa Will Remind You Of Mama’s Cooking – Reviewing video games means PLAYING video games, so it’s not like I was going out of my way or anything. Plus I got to write this: “To draw a 1980s toy parallel, it’s Mighty Men & Monster Maker vs. Fashion Plates all over again.”

9) Sept. 2110 Things Parents Should Know About Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs – Kelsey and I had gone to see this just for fun, and I was so surprised that I liked it so much that I jumped at the chance to do the GeekDad write-up.

10) October 6Princesses and Mermaids: Who Needs Rescuing Again? – We were introduced to Jim C. Hines and his books at Penguicon, marking yet another reason the trip to Romulus was so memorable.

To circle back to the end of the first paragraph: c) It’s GeekDad, and How Freaking Awesome. Gobs and piles of thanks to Ken, Matt Blum and my fellow contributors and the Wired editors and everyone else I don’t know who makes GeekDad work.

December 31, 2009 Posted by | 1980s, Books, eighties, Film, Games, geek, Ohio, photos, science fiction, Television, video games, Web/Tech, Weblogs, writing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Yars’ Raiding Destruction Road Race USA: The Light and the Dark

LucasArts’  return to its classic Monkey Island video game series got me thinking of all the hours I spent on the family room floor playing Atari, succeeded by the basement setup with our couch and our Commodore 64 and stacks and stacks of floppy disks packed with games from to Agent USA to Zork. I came up with a list of nine I’d love to see reborn for a new generation of consoles and players, and had a ton of fun writing it up for GeekDad: Nine Video Games Ripe for Rebirth.

June 11, 2009 Posted by | 1980s, eighties, Games, geek, video games, Weblogs | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

So … Azrael would be, what, a warg?

If you don’t want to see Gargamel reimagined as the Dark Lord Sauron in today’s Penny Arcade comic, do not click here. Otherwise, feel free, because it’s funny. Also, the observation about “Aragorn’s Quest” in the first panel? Yeah, I can see that.

June 1, 2009 Posted by | 1980s, eighties, Film, Games, geek, video games, Weblogs | , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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