Thursday, February 23, 2006

Justice League Unlimited 2006!

It looks like the JLU line is alive and well in 2006, hooray! My only complaint is that there are too many Green Latern Corps guys, but beggers can't be choosers, right?

Fireball Island!

I don't like board games. It's not that I have anything against them personally, and it's not that I don't understand their appeal. My dislike of board games stems from growing up with Summerisle. You see, Summerisle doesn't just like board games, he LIVES them! That's right, when Summerisle partakes in a board game, his normally mellow demeanor transforms into that of the Exorcist. Summerisle must win at all costs and when it appears that he's losing, he becomes something from Middle Earth. To this day when someone says, "Hey, why don't we play such and such", my heart drops into my chest and my genitals disappear like a frightened turtle. This activation of my sympathetic nervous system stems from years of the evil Summerisle, who would stop at nothing to win, win, WIN! This conditioning, coupled with my non-competitive nature (e.g., why I have no interest in sports), makes board games as attractive to me as pulling the lid off of Tupperware in your fridge and discovering a fluffy white puff of mold. As I was surfing the net I discovered this little gem about Fireball Island. Summerisle has always raved about this game but I've never actually seen it. Reading the description makes me want to play it. My genitals just disappeared.

From X-entertainment, "Some board games are so incomprehensibly good that we the public have no choice but to abandon them out of sheer confusion over how to handle anything that awesome. The version of Trouble with two Pop-O-Matic bubbles was one, but even more so, there's Milton Bradley's Fireball Island, a 2-4 player adventure currently being enjoyed up in heaven more than every video game, pinball machine and only-in-heaven-could-you-make-that-shot billiards table combined. It is majesty molded in plastic, and it comes with a Tiki God.

When I first received Fireball Island on some long ago me-day, I wasn't sure what to think. Board game birthday gifts are historically for the pile of shit to make fun of later with people who know you better than loopy Aunt Trudy. I knew of the game, I saw the ads, yadda yadda, but still, it wasn't really a toy, and it definitely wasn't going to fit inside the Nintendo. For a while, it remained sealed up inside my closet, rarely thought of but happily complete. Eventually it became the playground for my action figures, figures whose war tones made them welcome a plastic jungle way more than a completely non-warlike carpet. Fireball Island existed as such for months, hosting battles for everyone from Lion-O to that one dude from C.O.P.S. who I could never name, but had an exposed brain popping out of his head, and thus was a prominent fixture of my hand. I should've written this article tomorrow.

Finally, finally, I actually played the game. It wasn't the one in my closet, nor was the experience even at my house. At a friend's, over iced tea and cold sausage rolls, three young chums busted out the marbles and plastic idol for the kind of good times worth talking about over a decade later. How could I let so many months pass without playing this thing the "real" way? Once you lose your fear of the enormous rule book and digest its many pages, Fireball Island was like the (game of) Life if Life was dipped into a barrel of testosterone and used to wipe Indiana Jones' shitty ass. Between the fireballs and the jungle themes and the jewels and the tiny little safari hats on all of the tiny little player pieces, this was boy heaven in a box.

Your goal only became important if you let it. Fireball Island was more about losing yourself in the insanely detailed 3-D game "board," riddled with trails, rivers and peaks, covered with danger and smeared with marbles that, under this instance and this instance alone, seemed like so much fucking more than just marbles. It was the kind of game that could be over in ten minutes or last hours, depending on how bastardy the players were or how many times they sidebarred for freeze tag. Playing into every child's possible secret fetish, Fireball Island provided opportunities for strategic success, dumb luck, yanked emotions and knocking your opponents' little explorer figurines clear off the god damned kitchen table.

Though not an immensely popular textbook classic, Fireball Island can rest knowing that everyone who had it, loved it. Everyone. I cannot pinpoint what we should attribute this to. It's fun, but for the level of insane flashbacked happy memories I've heard from people here and there through the years, there's no way to explain how the game did what it did and does what it does. It's an intangible. Actually, no it's not. It's the plastic, fireball-spitting idol. But there's other points too -- more poignant ones -- and those are intangibles.

By tiny little kid standards, the board is absolutely huge. By my standards, it's still almost big enough to hide under when someone approaches with ill intent. With all kinds of wacky hills, wobbly bridges and wetty rivers, it takes several rounds to fully explore the jungle. Though many of the obstacles and shortcuts are built right into the board, Dr. Milton Bradley saw fit to include at least a couple of things-in-a-baggie to make the whole ordeal feel all the more incredible. Fireball Island was bursting with just enough bullshit to feel as gloriously involved as Mouse Trap, but wasn't so boggled down with snap-together plastic and tie-this-there shit that it fell apart the second you played. Like Mouse Trap. It was a perfect balance, and the fact that it led to visions of people being incinerated by Kraken testicle-sized fireballs was just the gold gravy.

Basically, the players' objective was to run all the way up to a plastic jewel, seize it, and then run to a little graphic of a boat at the far west of the board. Various traps and torture devices made this almost impossible at times, but with any luck and kids' associations between losing a game of Fireball Island and not wanting to be alive anymore, most contenders stuck with it until the end. This wasn't like Monopoly -- never did anyone broach the subject of calling a "tie" midway through. Noooo way. Not in this game.

Four brazen explorers were the playing pieces, and according to law, whomever owned the particular game had the God given right to pick the red one. The lavender fellow was usually reserved for some asshole's tagalong cousin who nobody wanted there. Though acceptable in two player format, Fireball Island had a charm that could only be fully realized with a complete four player effect.

My magic psychic abilities serving as informant, it's clear that most rounds of Fireball Island were played that way -- with four players. Oh, how wonderful those games were. You'd have people coming at you with jerkheaded card functions from all sides, and in turn, you could be an equivalently large dickhead right back at them. In theory, the game could go on forever and ever, but it usually didn't, because the four players always seemed to abide by the tried and true rule of all four-player-played games: you have two vying for first at the top, a fleeting dark horse in third, and a completely inconsequential moron in dead last. In Fireball Island, the moron was usually the lavender guy.

The game wouldn't have been as interesting if it was just a matter of "rolling around" until someone reached all the necessary targets. No, in Fireball Island, you're only as good as the cards in your hand. You start with one and go through 'em like water, but landing on many certain spots on the board will let you refill your paper weapons -- you're allowed to hold four at once. Some cards let you move ahead spaces, others let you shoot your opponents back a few. With the right combination in your hand, you can literally take three or four turns in a row while everyone else sits around looking disenfranchised. It's a double-edged thing, though -- just when you think you're on the clear road to victory, another explorer can easily bust out a card that'll muck up your entire journey. Then you'll hate cards forever, even regular cards with one-eyed jacks.

Certain spots on the board are much safer than others, and while it's always a matter of joy to cross the two small bridges, it's also one of the most dangerous areas of Fireball Island. Those red marbles are fireballs, of course, and with a well placed shot, any opponent capable of firing one (either by having the right card or by simply rolling a "1") can knock you into the river, or worse, knock you into the river and take away your fairly-and-squarely stolen jewel. To avoid such atrocities, there are six secret caves littered throughout the board, which on top of protecting you from fireballs and greasy opponent paws also serve as warp zones. No, really! From one of the caves stationed just at the start of the journey, you could conceivably hop three turns away from victory. Facts like these explain why so many people sweat balls while playing Fireball Island. The warp zones/caves/secret passages can either be your best friends or arch-enemies during the game, so it's better to maintain a neutral position regarding whether you love them or want to see them dead. Never say "yay, a cave," because you never know when said cave is gonna be your fairy godalcove or the piece of slimy shit that sends you all the way back to the beginning. Be wary, and play smart.

A fun game regardless, the reason Fireball Island still maintains its cult favorite status is, inarguably, the plastic, fireball-spitting idol resting in the center of the board. It's the stuff of dreams and nightmares, and that combined with a thousand other reasons justify providing it the largest picture in this entire giant article. Meet...the idol!

In the center of it all was "Vul-Kar," a rude jungle idol that held one flip-shooting fireball marble that could go in any number of coming-your-way directions. Getting hit with one of the "normal" fireballs sucked, but even those with the most competitive spirit had to admit...getting knocked over by one of Vul-Kar's flaming loogies was almost cool. And if we're talking about knocking over someone else's explorer using Vul-Kar...hell, that's like Christmas and ice cream mixed together, liquefied, thrown into a gel capsule and shoved in our eyeballs. Nothing beat it, and nothing ever will.

Despite his regality, Vul-Kar really wasn't any more important to the game than any of the regular fireball posts. In some ways, his existence was purely for decoration, and so Milton Bradley could find justification in formulating an ad campaign around a big flaming Tiki God with fire in his mouth. He also had a habit of transcending the board game and becoming part of every boy's "action figure crowd." Vul-Kar was defined just enough to work it with the Joes and Decepticons, and what he lacked in stature was more than made up for by the fact that all of your other toys were afraid of his voodoo genetics.

Vul-Kar's other strong point was his location. Being stationed dead center on the board, the idol was also the keeper of the crappy plastic jewel. If you're playing Fireball Island, you want that jewel. It's not too hard to catch, but once you do, you've gotta head back out onto the open trail and cross your fingers that none of the other players have that one little card that could do you in...

Yes, the bath. The bath of fire. The fireball bath. Whether by rolling a "1" or by yanking out the card shown above, opposing players can climb down your throat and fork-prick your heart until you bleed all over a Milton Bradley board game. Example:

You've found your groove. You're on the way to victory. With the right rolls, you'll be pushing a plastic bingo piece Milton Bradley considers a "jewel" in no time. There's just one problem -- you've entered the direct path of a FIREBALL, and one of those other exploring louses just happens to have a fireball card. With a flick of the opposing player's filthy finger, the marble escapes its post and rolls your motherfucker right into the ground. Unless you're doing this to somebody else, it's not pretty.

After being knocked around by the fiery marble, you've gotta lay your playing piece down in one of several pit areas, where no turns are had and no good comes of anything. The only plus -- and this is a mild one -- is that you can't be nailed in the face with any more fireballs till you wait out a round and escape the Pit of Boredom. And for the record, the instructions actually do state that you're supposed to lay your playing piece down in the pit. No standing. It's really just for added effect, but man, Milton Bradley's keeping some seriously spiteful doofs in their underground game-making dungeon lair.

Course, when you're the one dishing out the fireballs, there ain't nothing better in the world. Though it only happens rarely, you may even be blessed by what my friends and I used to call the "Ultimate Fireball," a not-so-clever name for whenever you manage to knock all of the opposing players down with a single red hot launch. Everyone will hate you for it, but deep down, it's really admiration. Ultimate Fireballs take careful planning, top drawer strategies and golden ticket-level luck to pull off. Nobody likes sharing a third of this terrible humiliation, but it's hard not to respect the starchild who makes it happen.

Finally, a player reaches the end, and Fireball Island renders itself dormant until another day. To win, you've gotta snatch the jewel near Vul-Kar and transport it on this insanely twisted path that forces you to go in all kinds of not-correct directions, riddled with risks of fireballs and other pitfalls of doom. If you survive that, you'll have to make an exact die roll to land at the boating dock, represented as a screenprinted boat roughly the size of the explorer's ass, a fact even more incredible when you remember that the explorers themselves are negative inches tall.

Just an absolutely awesome game. It's not that the gimmicks involved here were so unique, but pretty much every other game that went down similar avenues either overdid this or didn't have enough that. Fireball Island was the perfect mix of gaudy aesthetics and a truly competitive activity. Other games might've looked as good, but most of them were pretty sucky to play -- and games that were arguably more fun to play probably didn't have kickass Tiki God statues that spit fireballs incorporated into them. Fireball Island opened our imagination, our creativity, our private dreams of throwing fireballs at our friends and stealing their jewels. In tribute to you, Fireball Island, I've drawn this picture:

I don't know what I'm trying to say with it, but I like how the jewel-holding blue explorer looks rushed. He should look rushed."

Midnight Madness: A Fond Look Back

God I love the nerds! Here's an excerpt of a MUCH longer article on the Star Wars "Midnight Madness" celebration that took place at Toys R Us in NYC last May. I had two midnight madness experiences (i.e., AOTC and ROTS), however I'm sure Dedham and North Attleboro, MA didn't match the excitement of the NYC event. Summerisle went along for the ROTS one - I think just to make fun of me.

"Only minutes were left before the doors would fly open. Brian interviewed the guy who'd been waiting the longest -- seven hours on line, all to guarantee that he could go to sleep that night next to a Clone Trooper figure. Not very many waited out this long, but it wasn't uncommon to find people who'd been standing there for three or four hours. You know what happens when you wait for something that long? You get paranoid. You begin to think that everyone is trying to "cut" you. You demand security protection. You generally become a nuisance. The guy above seemed pretty cool about everything, though he definitely didn't seem like the type of person who'd wait outside all day for Star Wars toys. Put it this way: He took out his keys, and I didn't notice any Yoda ornaments attached to the ring. Not a single Yoda keychain.

The setup inside was just awesome. They'd devoted a special section of the store to Sith-related merchandise, topping it off with all kinds of giant promo signs, wild decorations and at least one Darth Vader mask big enough to kill a man if it fell from its hanger string. They had everything. Action figures! Dolls! Guns! Trivial Pursuit games! Puzzles! Books! T-shirts! Darth Taters! Just as I began to grow misty at the Imperial March theme playing over the speakers, the countdown to midnight began.

It was 11:59:50. It was 11:59:53. Seven seconds later, everything went boom.

Midnight Madness!!!
My God. Holy shit. Nothing could've prepared any of us for what went down at midnight. You know those classic montages from virtually any Christmas movie -- the ones where a well-known holiday song scores scenes of various items flying off retail store shelves? This was exactly like that. People were not looking at what they were filling their bags with -- they were just filling them. They had a seven foot wall of 12" dolls that had been completely emptied by 12:02. If Gorilla Monsoon was a ghost in Toys 'R' Us that night, the walls would've been shouting "Pandemonium!"

Usually, toy collectors are a slow-picking bunch. We'll go to the store and easily spend close to an hour deciding what to blow our cash on, even if we really know what we're getting five minutes in. There wasn't time for that tonight. There were...too many of them. If you saw an item, turned away and turned back was gone. No room for purchasing doubts, and certainly no room to stop and chat. It was complete and utter madness. A pack of starving wolves on an antelope. Fortunately, there weren't many actual children there -- this was more for us geeky adults. I just can't imagine many three-footers surviving the twist-and-shout collective glacier push of a thousand Star Wars maniacs thrusting their bodies and souls into the heart of Toys 'R' Us. This probably explains why Warwick Davis canceled his scheduled appearance as special event host.

Eventually, even the hired costumed characters dropped everything to buy lots and lots of burnt-face Anakin Skywalker toys. Now that was seriously fun. Look, I'm not trying to overplay the significance of buying Star Wars toys, because I was born to usher in a higher understanding of social grace. Still, it's pretty fucking awesome to buy Stormtrooper figures next to real Stormtroopers.

Besides, the stuff on sale was really good. I'd managed to keep myself from falling back into the Star Wars trap in recent years, but the combined might of how cool the toys were and how special the night felt made me drop everything to buy about 200 dollars worth of stuff I won't give a shit about in a month's time. I couldn't begin to guess how much this one Toys 'R' Us store made in a night, but if you're counting all of the TRUs across the country who participated in Midnight Madness, I'm pretty sure the company can afford to buy all of your wives and mothers. Geoffrey's gonna be shitting caviar all week.

I can't tell you how proud I am to have seen what's above in person. How many will get to?

Even the guys dressed as Vader ultimately caved info their toy-wanting hearts, and that was an especially strange sight. The guys inside the costumes never switch off the "ober" voice boxes while in public, so you'd have Vader standing there flipping through piles of action figures trying to find himself, making the same "ober" Vader noise throughout the entire process. I guess it serves some purpose, since I didn't notice anyone stepping in front of Vader to grab something before he could -- and that happened to pretty much everyone else, including Boba.

Up above, Vader's looking at an "Anakin Vs. Dooku" two-pack, which brings up an interesting point. Many of the toys actually spoil parts of the movie. Not just the big stuff that everyone knows about, but lots of little things. Some fans were actually complaining about it. Those are the fans most likely to get punched by non-fans. It's still a bit odd, though -- of the three "new" movies, Revenge of the Sith has had the most leaked out about it. Either George's people let their guards down, or an exponentially larger group of people grew interested in spoiling bits of upcoming movies between 2002 and now.

Brian interviewed this guy, who almost literally bought three of every Sith-related toy in stock. He had like eighty people with him to help carry the stuff out. During the interview, the kid ran off his reasons for wanting each figure, citing how it was the first C-3P0 figure to be chrome-painted since 1995, amongst other weird trivia bits that made me want to shake him and say "I was you and you were me." Not that I've changed much...I just have more violent debts now.

But three of everything? Two is almost justifiable -- plays into the big "one to open and one to keep" theory. Three is overkill! From now on, it's only acceptable to buy two of every Star Wars item a store carries. Only two. Two is perfectly everyday and not in any way fanatical. Leave that for the crazy and ostracized three'ers.

The Darth Tater Files:
I love Darth Tater. I've loved him for months. The press coverage for the first Star Wars-themed "Mr. Potato Head" toy was incredible -- everyone heard about it, even if they didn't give a shit about toys and/or Star Wars. What really sealed the deal was the name itself: "Darth Tater." Lucasfilm had to have extreme faith in the product to let 'em get all cutesy with the name. This wasn't going to be just another Star Wars toy...this was gonna be one of the toys that bridged the gap. The one that turned people from casual to insane. The one that got everyone talking.

Only recently did a costumed character representing the toy hit the scene, and that was the moment that everyone went from just knowing about Darth Tater to tossing aside all of life's many responsibilities until they had one. When I caught Darth Tater strolling around outside, I think I felt something move. Couldn't get close enough for anything but an obscured photo, because everyone out there was just as much in love with him. We flocked like gulls. We asked Darth Tater to heal our sick. We offered everything, and I do mean just that.

Only after the crowd was sucked into all of their toy-buying craziness after midnight was I able to get a decent picture of the beast. The surrounding staff assured the guy inside that he would only have to do this for just a little while longer, either meaning he was really hot and sweaty inside or that he just outright hated us all. How effective was this character appearance? I don't think anyone left Toys 'R' Us without a "Darth Tater." Even the people who already had him, even the people who were only there to provide armed protection in case any villainous foreigners tried anything stupid. Once you saw the giant, living Darth Tater, you were one of his.

Midnight Madness was a blast. In some ways, it's even better than waiting around on the night of the movie debut with the craziest of fans, because when the night is over, we still had more to look forward to -- you know, like the movie debut. This was just the juiced up preamble for all of the insanity yet to come. We may be obsessive, but even we know that Star Wars ain't cool anymore. Hasn't been for a looong time. It's nice to have a night where that really doesn't matter. It's nice to have a night starring giant M&M's and even bigger potatoes. In short, an awesome experience. I didn't go home empty handed, of course, so check out the next and last page for a quick look at some of the goods I blew Paw's medicine money on.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Toy Fair wrap-up: Alien

I don't know what it is. The Alien flicks created some of the coolest monsters this side of the galaxy yet they always end up sucking as a toy. I like these ships a lot though. I mean, can't you just feel the coolness? I'm certain that like every cool Alien ship toy, they'll be impossible to locate in your friendly neighborhood toy store.

Instead we'll find these peg-warmers.

Toy Fair wrap-up

Below are some of the final images taken from this year's Toy Fair. These coupled with previous postings suggest that 2006 is a grim time for the toy industry. The Star Wars toys are all retreads made of cheap plastic, and the below Star Trek toys are a big yawn.

All I know is that Toy Vault has virtually every single Playmates Star Trek figure on the card for about $4/piece. I can't imagine that there's a market out there for a "new" series of Trek figures. Even I'm bored with them.

Ships are cool!

Yes, you too will be able to own these cardboard renderings of your favorite crew members in the near future. Sheesh, they have all year to prepare for this, you'd think that they'd be able to get their act together in time for arguably the most important showcase for their wares.

Look, it's the crew of the Enterprise, again. Sigh.

Oh sorry, I was yawning.

Again, boring. How can we get excited by this stuff when Playmates has already given us 100s of similar (better) figures in the 90s?

If you tilt your computer you'll see a very cool looking toy. What? I can just tilt my head?