Friday, January 26, 2018

Sometimes nostalgia is what it's cracked up to be

I've spent many years regaling my boys with the Life of Dave, and they more or less humor me.  As youngsters, or course, they ate it up.  As they get older, the stories are replaced by stories of them and my wife and me as our own family makes its little mark on our narrative history.

One thing they love to hear, even now, is how different things were relative to the same things they enjoy today.  That is, what was it like having the first VCR, or seeing Star Wars for the first time, or the first time I saw MTV?  We live at an age where the generation gap has gone in different directions, and is more tech specific than cultural.  Pastimes have merged together, and it's nothing for parents to play video games with their kids, or enjoy hobbies, where when I was growing up there existed a wide chasm between my parents' pastimes and my own.

So as they look at their PS4 or the latest video on YouTube, they often fish to see what it was like the first time I used a personal computer in high school (and old Apple II), or what it was like when I played old Atari Space Invaders.

One thing that emerged with almost fabled status was an old game I once owned from back in what I call the Great Fantasy Renaissance.  Kicked off by the out-of-the-box success of Star Wars, suddenly everything was fantasy, sci-fi, or a combination thereof.  Spaceships and lasers, swords and wizards, monsters and magic were everywhere, peaking in the early years of the 1980s.  From movies to television to toy lines to games - you couldn't move that you didn't see something referencing the fantasy/scifi genre.  And all of this was before the prepacked GenCon culture with fanboydom being a billion dollar on demand industry.

Out of that mix came a new type of game: the electronic game.  Sometimes no more than little hand held football games, sometimes large and cumbersome devices, sometimes mixing board games with electronics, it was an early attempt at a much more creative expression than we eventually got (mostly 1st person shooters and sports video games nowadays).

The king of these, the creme de la creme, the mack daddy of the new electronic forms of entertainment was a board game called Dark Tower.  So impressive was it that they actually got Orson Welles to deliver a memorable monologue for its introductory commercial:

I got it for my birthday in 1980, the year that it was in production.  Everyone was blown away.  Everywhere I went I was asked to bring 'the game.'  Didn't matter who: football players, band members, cheerleaders, geeks, outcasts, class officers - everyone was enamored with it.

And it was fun.  Ruthlessly unfair, it didn't matter what you did.  The play was hilariously brutal. Basically it was just wondering who would get crushed with bad luck while who else would skip along to the Dark Tower and eventually win the game.

The production was first rate, as Milton Bradley was known for.  The playing pieces, the art, but mostly the electronic tower were beyond quality for the day. With each move you waited to find out if doom or fortune was in store, if dragons struck or gold was found, if you were hit with plagues or got lost.  Compared to today it seems quaint and simple.  And yet in many ways, if you consider historical creativity an exponential thing, many modern entertainments fall far behind.

1980: Fantasy was everywhere
So I told my boys about this little gem.  More than anything, it was the fact that I no longer had this that elevated it to legendary status.  You see, MB did a bad thing when it stole the idea for the game from its designer.  Lawsuits ensued, and the courts ruled against MB.  That meant the game was pulled from production and never reissued.  More than that, those electronic towers don't last forever.  So the number of working, active games with all the pieces was so rare that on Ebay or Amazon it would take a good 350.00 to 600.00 or more to get one you hoped would work.

Out of dumb, blind luck, it was the one game of mine that didn't last.  My parents kept every crazy game I had, each in almost in tiptop condition.  Except Dark Tower.  IIRC, one of the problems was that the tower, once opened, never fit in the box right.  It was too big, and the packaging had to be torn up to get it out.  Which is likely why not only my copy, but many others, never made it the distance.

So all I could do was tell them of this near mythical game from the days of yore.  Until this last year when, through a series of events too long and convoluted to tell, I ended up getting my hands on one for what would have been about the price today if inflation from 1980 was calculated.  Apart from the S&H, it would have been no different buying it in a store back in the day.  I jumped at the chance.  It is only missing a couple non-essential pieces.  It is complete with everything, including the owner's manual and original box (save for a couple torn corners).  And it works like a charm.

So that was the "Big" gift for the boys from me this Christmas.  The problem was, I had built it up since they were born, could it live up to the hype?   I mean, as they said, they had heard of this game their entire lives since they were too young to remember.  Would it live up to their expectations?  Could it live up to their expectations?

The quick answer: Yes.  They loved it.  My 17 year old declared it entirely awesome and one of the most enjoyable games he knows.  Oh, it's not up to the more complex and involved board games of today. The graphics are pictures with light bulbs behind them.  It's not of this age.  In it's day it was plenty involved.  They get that. But for a quick 'toss down a board and hit 'on' and play' game, they think it does't get much better.

What's more, they lament that the creative impulses of that age, which saw attempts to fuse electronics and traditional forms of entertainment, never really came to fruition.  They admit to its simplicity, but like the original Star Wars or King Kong, if you imagine it on a scale of creative inflation, there are few games or similar pastimes out there today that hold a candle. Something I've noticed before.

Sometimes I think nostalgia and remembering the past get a bad rap.  There's a sort of 'new is always better, get over the past' mentality.  As if the new has to be good, and if you find fault in the new you're somehow wrong.  Moreover, if you find value in the past there is something wrong, since the past can never be as good as the new.  I can't speak for everything, but when it comes to a 1980 board game long out of production that in our home had more build up than the moon landings, it turns out the past isn't always so bad after all.  Sometimes, it might just have something to say about the present.

PS.  I realize that the game I got is on borrowed time.  Who knows how often it was played?  And like everyone who bought the game in 1980 knows, once it shuffles off its electronic coil, I will be left with a little collectors piece and nothing more.  But a collector's piece that, in only a few games, more than made up for the memories then and now.


  1. I played that game too, and I got the neighborhood kids to join me in playing, we had a ball!

    1. It was the toast of the party circuit for quite a while.


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