Yesterday, at my mom's house, I opened up a cupboard randomly and some video tapes spilled out. Two of them were Action Max games. I was overcome with"total recall" about the Christmas I gave my brother an Action Max.
I've written a few articles on my blog 8bitrocket.com filled with histrionics about the 'best' and 'greatest' Christmas mornings from my childhood, but until now I have avoided the talking about the some of the worst: The Coleco Shooting Gallery, Atari Jaguar, and Action Max stand out as some of the worst Christmas presents I've ever given or received.
1980: Coleco Rifle Shooting Gallery
OK, the first story here is about Christmas 1980, and the Coleco Shooting Gallery (I'm not sure what the actual name of this piece of crap was, but this is close enough). This was not technically, a video game, but more like a shooting gallery coin-op from 70's. The toy consisted of a realistic looking rifle connected by a 15' (or so) wire to a set of plastic 'cans' on rack. The tops of the cans would open and close at random. By aiming the rifle at an open can, and shooting at the right time, you would knock it over. The toy advertised itself as a 'light gun', just like the arcade. My borther Jeff and I saw this in the Sears Wish Book, and wanted it badly. It was the closest thing to a video game that we thought our parents would ever buy us. Our dad was a gun nut, and loved to take us to the shooting gallery at Disneyland, Knott's Berry Farm, and the Old Towne Mall, so this seemed like a perfect choice. We were right, he bought it for us and for the first couple hours of Christmas, it seemed like a fun toy. We took turns shooting cans, and pretending that we were in an actual arcade. The light gun seemed to work really well. The aiming seemed very precise. If you shot an open can, it would fall down, no matter how close of far you were from the target
However, after Christmas dinner, I turned the game on and, by accident shot the light gun away from the cans. Curiously, one of the cans fell over as if I had aimed directly at it. I tried this again, and another can fell over. I got my dad and brother, and showed them. Since there was a light that emitted from the gun when you pulled the trigger, we all guessed that this phenomenon happened because the light was 'bouncing' back and hitting the cans (we had no idea how an actual light-gun worked at the time). After much experimenting though, we discovered that this was not the case at all. In reality, the gun did not care where you aimed, the light did not matter, nor did anything else that has do with aiming or skill. The only thing mattered was timing. If you pulled the trigger on the gun at the time that ANY of the cans were open, it would fall over. We were crushed. The Coleco Shooting Gallery was nothing more than a simple timer and switch, and it was nothing like any arcade game we ever played. My dad returned it (to Toys R Us), and vowed never to buy anything with the name 'Coleco' ever again. It's one of the main reasons we ended-up with a Vectrex in the summer 1983 instead of Colecovision, but that's a story for another day.
1996: Atari Jaguar
In 1996 Atari Corp was officially gone for good, and Atari Jaguar systems and games, if they were still on store shelves, were drastically reduced in price. For Christmas that year I decided to buy my brother Jeff a Jaguar and as many games as I could find. I had never played a Jaguar prior, but there was suspicion in my mind that Atari's video game system never got a fair shake with reviewers or the public. At closeout prices, it would be a great time to see what we had missed. The Jaguar system itself cost $50, and the games were $5-$10 each. While I wanted to find the game Tempest 2000, it proved elusive, but I did mange to score Checkered Flag, Super Burnout and Zool 2 plus and extra controller.
Jeff was very happy to get his Jaguar. We set it up at our parents house on Christmas afternoon, (by then we had both moved out, but still exchanged gifts at our parents house) and put in the first game Cybermorph. As the pack-in game, we did not expect much, but what we saw was still shockingly terrible.
The sound in the game (and in most Jaguar games) was simply not up to par with modern video games (like the PSX I bought in October 1996). Even though the game made use of 3D polygons and digitized voices, the actual FX and game play did even match similar games like Starglider released for the Atari ST computer in 1987. I don't think this game ever made it back into the cartridge slot of the Jaguar for the next 11 years.
The next game, Checked Flag was a 3D polygonal racing game. However, it too suffered from what was fast becoming a theme with these Jaguar games: graphics and audio that looked and sounded like ass.
The other two games, Super Burnout and Zool 2 were 2D games that were no better than Sega Genesis games from the end of the 80's. They were fine games, but not especially interesting. In the end, the Jaguar, even for the $75 or so I paid, was a Christmas bust. I tried to make-it-up to Jeff for our Birthday in January by getting him Wolfenstein 3D and Tempest 2000, but it was too little too late. His wife had bought him a PSX. In the end, the final video game system to display the Atari name and logo, proved itself to be worth all the non-success and non-praise it actually saw when it was an going concern.
1988: Action Max
The final worst video game Christmas present stands out the loudest because it was something not only I bought for my brother, it was something that I convinced (yes convinced) my friend Ian to buy for his brothers as a gift Christmas too. In last days December 1988 leading up to Christmas, Ian and I went to the Kay Bee Toys in the Manhattan Village Mall to looks for cool stuff for Christmas. Kay Bee was always a great store for video games because they sold mostly closed-out, cheap cartridges. This time though, we saw a full video game system up on an upper-shelf for $20. It was named the Action Max from World's of Wonder Toys.
The system was composed of a light gun, a base unit, TV connection, and a red light. It included a game on video tape named Sonic Fury. As well as the system, they had several other 'games' for Action Max each costing $2.99. I showed it to Ian, and he was initially concerned about the video tapes that were being sold as games. It did look odd to me. I thought to myself, 'Does the system load any information from the tapes ?' 'How does the light-gun work?' 'What is the 'red light' used for?' Instead of asking these question aloud though, I told Ian about the Supercharger Jeff and I once had for the Atari VCS. The Supercharger was an add-on cartridge that loaded games from audio-tape. The Supercharger was awesome, and some of the best VCS games were made for it (i.e. Dragonstomper). I told him that if the Action Max was even close to the Supercharger, it would be really cool. Ian seemed convinced. To make a long story short, we both left the store with an Action Max system and an arm load of tapes including .38 Ambush Alley, Rescue At Pops Ghostly, and Hydrosub: 2021.
When my borther Jeff opened his Action Max, he was initially excited about it. I told him about the video tapes, and that I thought worked like the Supercharger. After all the presents were opened, we unpacked the Action Max, anticipating some really cool video game action. The first sign of a problem was the base unit itself. While it looked large, it was very light. The second thing we noticed was that there only seemed to be an output to the TV, but no input from the VCR. This was troubling because it meant that no data was being loaded from the video tapes back to the unit. Still, we thought it could not be that bad. The system billed itself as the first 'Real Action Game System', so something cool had to be in-store for us.
The system worked like this: You put the video tape into your VCS, pressed play, reset the score counter on the base-unit, and started firing at things on the TV screen with the light gun. We put Pops Ghostly in First, and what we saw was this: a cheap haunted house with props popping up to shoot at.
You fired the gun at white circles on the screen. If you hit one, the red light would light-up, and score counter on the base-unit would update. That was it. That was 100% of the functionality. Even though the ghosts, bad guys, etc 'shot back' at you, it did not matter. How could it? There was no real connection from the VCR to the base unit. The light gun simply 'read' the light on the screen and registered a 'hit'. Each 'game' (tape) played the same. They were roughly 15 minutes long, and they had to be some of the longest 15 minutes of my entire life. I believe Jeff made it all the way through Pops Ghostly, and 1/2 way through Ambush Alley before he simply gave up, never to try the Action Max again. It was worse than the Coleco Shooting Gallery from 1980, because we could not return the system. It was bought on close-out, and all sales were final. When I saw Ian the next day, he wove the same woeful tale of Christmas Day disappointment from his own brothers. I apologized, but I don't think he ever forgave me.
The Action Max sat unused on-top of our family VCR for the next 6 years until Jeff and I moved-out of the house in 1994. I'm not sure why Jeff never removed it, but I know why I didn't. It was my own personal albatross of video game shame. It sat as a warning to not waste money on crappy, closed-out video game systems.