Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Two Stupid Board Games (Starring Superman and TMNT)

A Lot of Great Board Games Were Released in the 1980s - Here's a Look At Two That Definitely Weren't 

The key to a great game - be it a team sport, or a video game, or especially a board game - is in its simplicity. The general rule of thumb is, the less amount of time it takes someone to explain to you how a game works, the better - which is exactly why more Americans prefer Ultimate Fighting to cricket, or why “Pac-Man” and “Paperboy” are still really fun titles a good 30 years after they were originally released (while stuff from just four years ago, like “Spore” and “Crysis,” have already gone the way of “Redneck Rampage.”)

If you take a look at all of the great board games from our youth - you know, the ones that have had staying power - you will be quick to note that their common attribute is a distinct lack of complication. From “Othello” and “Battleship” to “Mouse Trap” and “Kerplunk!,” all of the truly memorable games from yesteryear remain pretty fun and alluring largely due to their simplistic rule set. Granted, it might be a real bitch setting up a game like “Grape Escape,” but there really aren’t any infrastructural questions about what the intent of the game is, and what you, as a player, are supposed to do.

The problem there, obviously, is that it’s kind of hard to come up with a new, original and simplistic idea for a board game. Sure, there are the occasional glimmers of genius manifest in titles like “Don’t Wake Daddy!” and “Crossfire,” but for the most part, there’s really only so much you can work with when your entire toolkit consists of cardboard, pieces of paper, and a couple sets of die.

Back in the 1980s, toy manufacturers had to face this problem a lot, as just about every major license you can think of - from the “A-Team” to the “Real Ghostbusters” - had multiple board games released as merchandising tie-ins. Since manufacturers paid outlandish sums of money to score such primo trademarks, those poor, unheralded board game designers were forced to churn out variation after variation of the same old thing - which, of course, led to licensed products that were so convoluted and needlessly complex that you wonder how ANY five-year-old from two and a half decades ago found the patience to play them.

Today, we will be examining the failings of two board games from yesteryear, each starring two incredibly popular (and highly lucrative) licenses from way-back-when, Superman and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. So, how exactly do the Man of Steel and the Heroes on a Half-shell fare in the domain of 30-year-old board games? Well, not surprisingly, not all that well. 

First up, we have this board game, produced by Parker Brothers in 1982 (so, yeah, for all you kids that originally saw this one in theaters, you are OFFICIALLY allowed to feel old as dirt now.)

Pending you’re not cross-eyed or something, you can see that the board game is modeled after the notoriously awful (but nowadays considered a camp classic) “Superman III.” You know, I have really been meaning to do a review of that one for this blog for awhile now, so who knows? Maybe this stupid piece of junk will inspire me enough to do a full-fledged cinematic recap sometime soon-ish (but, yeah, probably not.) 

I suppose the best thing you can say about the game, as a whole, is that the board artwork is pretty interesting, and somewhat faithful to the source material. As you can see, a lot of references from the movie - from the (anti)climactic junkyard throwdown between Supes and the evil-ized Clark Kent to that spooky super computer that turned that one chick into a robot zombie - are represented in full color here. Hell, there’s even a few allusions to the opening scene, where a Mr. Magoo clone causes all sorts of mayhem due to his reckless, irresponsible blindness. Oh, you people with disabilities, always messing it up for everybody else. The one glaring omission, however, is that there aren’t ANY mentions of Richard Pryor’s character ANYWHERE to be found on the board game, the puzzle pieces, the rule set or even on the back of the box. I suppose that means Parker Bros. were too cheap to pay for his likeness, or they were just trying to save up the moolah for that one “Brewster’s Millions” board game that, much to humanity’s dismay, never came to fruition. 

Before you even read the rules of the game, you know this shit is going to be extraordinarily complex just by gawping at the player pieces. There are four “character” pieces - represented by multicolored, reversible Clark Kent / Superman pictographs - in addition to several cards representing Superman’s iconic superpowers. There are also a large number of red dots that comes packaged with the title, with a few scant green ones thrown in, to add a little intrigue to the experience, I imagine. Now, that’s a lot of material to throw into one game, but really, how complex COULD they have made the experience, right? 

Well, as it turns out, pretty goddamn complex. “The Communist Manifesto”-length board game rules herein entail a needlessly complicated experience in which players have to alternate between playing as Clark Kent and Supes, all the while collecting the aforementioned dots in a game that’s so laborious and stilted that it would probably take you a couple of hours for anyone to declare him or herself the victor. As a party game, I reckon you would be better off opening up a 30-year-old can of Superman III peanut butter and passing it around, seeing if the fermented gunk was strong enough to make everyone high when they whiff it.

As a product of the pre-GHW Bush years, I suppose it really shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that the “Superman III” board game was pretty shit-tastic. Well, with that in mind, a mildly more recent pop cultural phenomenon ala the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” has to result in a better overall board game, right? RIGHT??? 

I think it goes without saying that the absolute best thing about “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Pizza Power Game” is the box-art. Between April O’Neal’s outlandish measurements (seriously, her neck is thicker than her waistline) and the no-shit-Sherlock message of “see back of box for details” printed in the lower right hand corner, this thing just SCREAMS all-out, “we don’t have an Internet yet and there are still Communists roaming around” 1980s cheese to the extreme.

One of the things I really like about the game (published by, of all people, Random House), is that the art designers went WAY beyond the call of duty in establishing the Ninja Turtles as individual characters. Apparently, having those blue, purple, red and orange bandanas and monogrammed utility belts wasn’t distinguished enough, so each Turtle here (as well as on the board game, and on the board pieces) is differently hued, with Michelangelo apparently developing a George-Hamilton quality tanning bed addiction just prior to having his portrait drawn. 

All in all, the actual board game art itself is pretty disappointing. Granted, it’s a little more intricate than the “Superman III” game, but it’s still pretty underwhelming. I really like how the visuals here clearly establish that the Ninja Turtles do not give one inkling of a damn about remaining “secret” vigilantes, as engaging in car chases with Mohawk-ed hoodlums - in a custom-made van SHAPED like a tortoise, no less - while waltzing out of pizza parlors in BROAD DAYLIGHT, WHILE A LIVE CAMERA CREW RECORDS THEM - obviously demonstrates. And if you’re wondering who that one guy is with the Zorro mask and the ridiculously over-sized katana - yeah, I’m in the same boat.

As with the “Superman III” game, you just know you’re in store for a needlessly complicated game as soon as you quantify how many damn puzzle pieces there are. In addition to the four cardboard character pieces, there are ten different “challenge cards,” each modeled after a recurring character from the cartoon. Oddly enough, both Bebop and Rocksteady are only referred to as “punks” on their cards, which, as we all no doubt know, means their proper monikers were probably kept out of the game by those damn super villain union contracts. As with “Superman III,” the game is littered with little cutout dots, only in this one, the pieces are shaped like sewer holes. Well, if nothing else, we can admire them for putting in a little bit more effort than just giving us random, nondescript red and green things to play with.

Additionally, the game comes with two more pieces, a spinner that players have to flick upon reaching certain spaces on the board, and this weird, blue-see-saw looking thing, which is actually a “dice flipper” used to determine who moves where and by how many spaces. Because, you know, just rolling the damn things by hand is too tricky, I imagine. 

As expected, the rule set for the game is ridiculously lengthy and intricate, and probably longer than most Tolstoy novels. The saving grace, I suppose, is that the manual is illustrated with some mini-cartoons, which give the game it’s biggest WTF factor, by far. For example, there’s a little doodle of Donatello spinning his staff, yelling “EAT HOT LEAD, TURKEY!”, which I guess means the TMNT advocate shooting people and/or utilizing Blaxploitation dialogue to uphold the justice of society.

This little cartoon here is particularly worth mentioning. As you can’t read the dialogue (I’m telling you, one of these days, I’m moving on up to a snazzy EIGHT mega-pixel still cam), I’ll lovingly reproduce it here:

APRIL: “Is there anything you Turtles won’t eat for breakfast?”

RAPHAEL: “Yeah, lunch and dinner!”

GET IT! Because “breakfast” refers to a specific time in the morning, whereas the other two refer to meal times at later points in the day! Holy shit, this game is funnier than Sinbad. No, really, it is, actually.

Just to give you an idea of how convoluted this thing is, there’s actually supplemental instructions underneath the rule set printed on the interior cardboard of the game, detailing how that aforementioned dice flipper operates. Needless to say, unless one of your parents is a MIT grade or something, you’re better off just tossing the shit against the wall, because sans a background in aerodynamics, there’s no way ANYBODY is going to have the time and patience to figure out how this thing works. I mean, ever.

Of course, there are TONS more where these two came from, and I’m pretty sure there are scores more brain-breakingly intricate board games based on obscurer pop cultural franchises out there. Periodically, I’ll take a glance at the board games in toy store aisles today (where I’m “mulling” purchases for my non-existent nieces and nephews, of course), and it seems to me that crappy, license-based products of the like APPEAR to be dying out. Granted, that doesn’t mean cheap tie-ins of the sort are wholly extinct (good lord, the “Twilight” branded crap you will find at the local Target), its just that they seem to be migrating away from board games and more towards “interactive” games, alike Scene It and all of this post-cardboard, electro-magnetic-plastic junk that I can’t figure out because I’m out of high school, and therefore unable to comprehend whatever modernity is supposed to resemble.

That’s really the troubling thing I’m noticing here - the slow demise of the CARDBOARD-based board game. Hell, even the old standards like “Operation!” and “Clue” are being repackaged as more technologically-centered experiences, and that, obviously, should be a cause for concern for all aficionados of antiquated consumer goods. With a good thirty years of substandard, tie-in hogwash a la the two aforementioned games glutting the aisles, I suppose it makes sense as to why the art form is on its way to joining the VCR and the satellite dish as displaced technologies, but that doesn’t make the transition/elimination any easier to stomach, either.

So here’s to the old guard of crappy, licensed board games! You’re outdated, you suck and you have no place in modern culture…and dabnabbit, do I miss both of you.

1 comment:

  1. I have the Superman game but no rules. I am sure my grandchildren would love to now how to play it so i would appreciate it if I could get a copy of these rules.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.