Atari 7800 Review: DOUBLE DRAGON (Activision, 1989)

Double Dragon on the Atari 7800? Time to rock!

Look, we need to get one thing straight right up front: I’m a Double Dragon fanatic. If there’s a console with an installment of the series found on it, I want it. I don’t claim to own every release for every system and/or handheld, but Double Dragon and its sequels do take up a relatively significant amount of space in my not-inconsiderable video game collection.

The series should be immediately familiar to anyone that was into video games in the late-1980s and early-1990s; the original 1987 arcade game basically launched the beat-’em-up genre. You know, side-scrolling fighting games in which you fought numerous enemies, typically but not always on a 3-D plane (that is, a foreground and background you can walk between). It was a smash, and naturally sequels followed. The original entries were eventually ported to the Nintendo Entertainment System, though they were only ports in a technical sense; they used the same street fighting motif and general plotlines, but basically did their own thing. Nevertheless, Double Dragon and its sequels, particularly those NES conversions, were seemingly ever-present on the video game scene of the early-1990s, which was when *I* was coming into my own as a young gamer.

Despite popularizing the beat-’em-up genre (though it wasn’t the first such game), looking back, it’s a little surprising how quickly Double Dragon‘s style of walking around and beating up bad guys was superseded by following games in the genre, and not just graphically, either. Only four levels (called “Missions”) and a relatively low number of enemies quickly appeared quaint when compared to longer, all-out fighting extravaganzas like Capcom’s Final Fight some two years later – a template beat-’em-ups largely followed in the early-1990s before the whole idea of a “fightin’ game” was steadily replaced by Street Fighter II and the like.

Actually, despite being wildly unfaithful to the arcade source material, the NES Double Dragon games probably hold up better than other versions nowadays simply because they lengthened and/or added original elements to the ports – additions that help them stand up against the subsequent, more-advanced games in the same genre.

The original Double Dragon arcade machine from 1987. The face that launched a thousand beat-’em-ups!

Still, taken on its own, the original Double Dragon (and at least the first sequel, Double Dragon II: The Revenge) remains a lot of fun today. Aside from some ugly slowdown when too many sprites are onscreen, it’s a fantastic beat-’em-up, though those accustomed to Streets of Rage and such may have a tough time getting into it. Nevertheless, for its time Double Dragon was quite the trendsetter. I mean, simultaneous two-player street fighting action, all in an effort to rescue a kidnapped girlfriend? A bevy of combat moves you could pull off? Colorful, detailed stages to traverse? A variety of enemies to pummel? Of course people would continuously throw quarters at it!

(Even if the period of revolutionary success was relatively short-lived, Double Dragon continued to be a name draw well into the 1990s, eventually spawning, besides the sequels proper, a Battletoads spin-off, a couple one-on-one fighters, an inexplicable board game, those ever-present Tiger handhelds, an animated TV series, and a terrible live-action movie that I, thankfully, only have limited experience with. The brand’s “oomph” sort of tapered off as the second half of the 1990s dawned, but there’s no denying how recognizable the franchise was in the years immediately preceding. A good deal of this popularity can probably be attributed to the series as it appeared on the NES, such was the visibility of both them and it at the time.)

It was also in this late-1980s setting that the 8-bit console wars came about. Perhaps calling it a “war” is a bit of a misnomer since, in the U.S. anyway, it was all about the NES. Seemingly every kid had Nintendo, and growing up, I initially wasn’t aware there even were other 8-bit consoles beyond it. I mean, sure, there were the home computers, but to me, it was basically those and the NES. In actuality, there were three viable 8-bit consoles at the time: besides the NES, there was the Sega Master System, and then there was the Atari 7800. Neither did much comparatively in the States, though the SMS was a force to be reckoned with in much of the rest of the world. (No kidding, the European and Brazilian SMS scene was, and is, fascinating!)

The 7800 was an interesting case; initially intended to right the wrongs that the Atari 5200 had ostensibly committed, the 7800 was meant to come out in 1984, restore Atari’s good name and blow the competition (namely the ColecoVision) out of the water. It was a pretty powerful system for the time, with terrific graphics, a sleek design, and the ability to play Atari 2600 games right out of the box and without an adapter.

It didn’t quite work out as planned though. There was a brief test market in ’84, but the combined effects of the infamous early-1980s video game crash and the sale of Atari Inc. from Time Warner to Jack Tramiel put a halt on an immediate wide release. In the aftermath, Atari Inc. became Atari Corp., and the 7800 was placed on the back burner until 1986 – after the NES had single-handedly revived the industry in America. The 7800 was still a capable console with an enormous amount of potential, but with a library of older titles and a somewhat-damaged reputation to the name “Atari,” not to mention constant cost-cutting measures regarding new titles and peripherals, well, it was an uphill battle against the Super Mario juggernaut. The added competition of the Sega Master System didn’t help matters, either.

Even though the NES and SMS were both originally developed around the same time (1983/1984), due to the specific circumstances surrounding the 7800’s release and subsequent library, it feels like a console caught between two eras of gaming. It’s a system from both the early/mid-80s and late-80s to me, if that makes any sense. ‘Course, that’s one of the reasons I love it so much; no joke, the Atari 7800 is absolutely in my personal top five favorite consoles.

Anyway, fast forward to 1989. Gaming consoles are again big business, revolutionary titles are coming out left and right, and Double Dragon has already swept not only the arcades but also the NES and SMS. It was in this climate that the Atari 7800 port of Double Dragon, released by Activision, arrived.

The fantastic but ill-fated Atari 7800, complete with Double Dragon loaded!

This was amazing for a few reasons. 1) Nintendo’s licensing agreements with software developers meant that it was hard, often impossible, for the same games to come out on more than just the NES. Thanks to legal loopholes however, there were exceptions, and several titles well-known as members of the NES stable also appeared on competing consoles. 2) The 7800 was great at playing classic arcade ports such Asteroids, Centipede, Joust and Ms. Pac-Man, and had it been released in 1984 as intended, the matter would have been less egregious. But by the late-1980s, new names were needed, and the 7800 was woefully lacking in that area. Rampage, Ikari Warriors, Commando and Xenophobe were welcome exceptions, but that’s just what they were, exceptions.

(The issue of original games was another sticking point with the 7800, something Atari only seemed to truly realize within the last few years of the console’s life. By then it was far too late to save it, but we did get the Super Mario Bros.-ish platformer Scrapyard Dog, the intensely-quirky Ninja Golf, and what just may be the best game on the entire system, The Legend of Zelda-esque Midnight Mutants, starring Al “Grampa Munster” Lewis himself!)

The current homebrew scene has expanded the 7800’s library considerably, but where the original run is concerned, there were only some 60+ titles released, and while many of them were/are pretty good, there were few that would have truly raised eyebrows in that late-80s/early-90s video gaming climate.

Enter 1989’s Double Dragon. Simply put, this was the exact type of game the 7800 needed. A modern arcade port, and a hot one at that. The 1988 home version on the NES was a massive hit, and 1989 was also the year a (very loose) port of the sequel arrived for the ol’ toaster. Furthermore, the SMS version of Double Dragon was also an extremely popular title, one which some would say was even better than the NES’.

So yes, in a library that initially only consisted of 60+ games, Double Dragon stood (stands) out big time. They came close, but Commando, Rampage, Ikari Warriors and Xenophobe, while more current than most of the 7800’s offerings, and with some late-80s coin-op clout to boot, just didn’t share quite the same name recognition that Double Dragon had. Could any of them touch Double Dragon as far as popularity went? Thanks mainly to the wildly successful NES port, I’d say “no.” Indeed, this release marked the only time that 7800 owners could truly partake in the same then-modern gaming experience as NES owners could. Some of the same games showed up on both systems, but Double Dragon was one of the gaming properties of the late-1980s, in both the arcades and at home. For once, 7800 owners could bask in the same glow as NES (and SMS) owners!

(A cool example of this “phenomenon”: I have a comic book buried in my collection from either 1989 or 1990, I can’t remember which for sure, and when it comes to the advertisements found throughout the issue, not only is this 7800 game pitched, but so is the NES original and sequel! I’m going to guess that didn’t happen very often!)

A cart with perhaps more fisticuffs than any other 7800 game!

Double Dragon was a Technos Japan innovation, with the NES port released by Tradewest (in the U.S.) and the SMS’ by Sega themselves. Activision, they of River Raid and Pitfall! fame, were still riding the Atari bandwagon in the late-1980s, one of the few third parties to continue do so, and it was they that put out our game on both the Atari 7800 and still-breathing 2600. That’s right, there’s an Atari 2600 port of Double Dragon, too! Given the mega-primitive hardware and one-button limitation of the joystick, it’s actually a pretty impressive piece of programming, featuring some terrific graphics and sound given the console it’s on. It’s not the most playable version of Double Dragon ever released, the difficulty is too high and there are too many moves mapped to the single fire button, but it is recognizable as Double Dragon, and that in and of itself is amazing.

The cart you’re seeing here is, obviously, the 7800 version. The 2600 version looks very similar, with the same plain layout except the colors are reversed (white-on-black instead of black-on-white), and naturally with “for the…” altered accordingly. Considering the 7800 library is littered with dull, black & white cartridge artwork, it’s too bad a more-striking label didn’t show up, but beggars can’t be choosers – I mean, at least the 7800 got Double Dragon!

(Remember, this is an article from a North American perspective; label art and the like varied in other countries.)

The iconic Double Dragon title screen, reproduced on the 7800!

Upon powering up the cartridge, you’re presented with the pleasant surprise that the 7800 received the most arcade-faithful port of all three 8-bit consoles. Indeed, at points it almost looks like someone took the arcade game and “7800-ized” it.

Something is evident on the title screen that’s very, very important. Look down at the bottom of the screen and see what it says: 1 or 2 players.

“Yeah, okay, so what North Video guy? Everyone knows Double Dragon is a two-player game!”

Well sure it is…in the arcade and on most of the home editions. There was one home edition, however, that inexplicably made it two-players alternating. Which one was that? The NES! Yes, in what was perhaps the most visible version of the game out there, the biggest feature of the original coin-op, the meaning of the very title itself, was stripped out! The NES port, for all the tampering with the levels and moves it featured (more on both of those in a bit), was magnificently playable. But, there’s no doubt that removing the ability to simultaneously beat down thugs with a buddy absolutely destroyed some of the magic that made the game so popular in the first place.

Well, that simultaneous two-player action is indeed present here on the Atari 7800!

Mission One’s “city slum.” That’s a whip in Billy’s hand, and a bat on the ground. Dig the “Scoop Moto” billboard – just like the arcade!

The arcade-accuracy continues into the game proper. Even the (in)famous intro, in which your girlfriend is slugged in the stomach and carried away is here – a shocking and wildly uncomfortable bit of violence that I can’t believe flew even back then.

That short sequence upon the start of a new game is about all the exposition you’re going to get, because there’s really no in-game plot to speak of. Not that you necessarily need one; saving a damsel-in-distress wasn’t exactly a new innovation in video game plots by the late-1980s, but it provides sufficient motivation for fisticuffs, methinks.

The plot was expanded upon in supplementary materials, sometimes exponentially so; Japanese releases place the setting at some point in the then-near future, after a nuclear war has devastated the population and caused gang warfare to rise. I don’t like this explanation at all; it adds an added layer of science fiction to the proceedings that, in my opinion, the game just doesn’t need. U.S. story lines were more straightforward in their telling, with a much simpler tale of a rampant street gang, the two brothers that oppose them, and the kidnapping of a girlfriend by said street gang. That’s all you need; background is nice, but it’s not something generally required in a game of this nature.

The gist of the plot, in both Japan and the U.S., is this: The Black Warriors (the bad guys) have taken over the city, and are opposed by relatively few, save for the twin brothers of Billy Lee and Jimmy Lee (the good guys), who are quite proficient in the martial arts. In order to lure them on to their turf and take them out once and for all, The Black Warriors kidnap Billy Lee’s girlfriend Marian. This is unacceptable, and so Billy (and his brother Jimmy as the second-player) set out to beat down some thugs and rescue her.

To get to Marian, the titular characters must traverse four environments: the city slum, the industrial area, the woods, and finally, the enemy base.

These level layouts in 7800 Double Dragon are far closer to the arcade than either the SMS or especially the NES. The SMS mostly followed the stages found in the coin-op (and included simultaneous two-player action as well), though it diverged in a few spots. The NES port was all over the place, with levels that typically started out somewhat faithful to the coin-op and then just went nuts. Platform elements, a trip up a construction site, into some caves, and so on and so forth. It was fun, and it actually did work, but it wasn’t exactly arcade-accurate. Though as I said earlier, the additions served to lengthen the game and make it more suitable for an at-home experience, which means it has held up better in the long run (the same thing applies to the versions of Double Dragon II and Double Dragon III on the console, as well).

In the 7800’s case however, what you saw in the arcade was ported directly over to the Atari, and there’s something to be said for faithfulness to the source material. Unfortunately, Double Dragon wasn’t an especially long game as a coin-op, and that carried over here, too.

Mission Two’s “industrial area.” You certainly CAN climb up that fence!

By the way, if you’re totally bored, you may be asking yourself “hey, where’d y’all get these swell in-game screenshots, North Video Guy?” The answer to that is: I took them myself, with an actual 7800 console, cart and CRT TV. Y’see, I don’t emulate, so if these screenshots lack somewhat in the sharpness department, and I know that they do, that’s thanks to the good ol’ RF signal; no, the 7800 I used hasn’t been modded for AV output. Honestly, I actually think this gives a more accurate picture of how the game is meant to be displayed, closer to how kids playing it upon release first saw it. The harsh sharpness of emulation actually makes the game look uglier than it really is.

And while on that subject, let’s talk about the graphics proper. 7800 Double Dragon isn’t a bad looking game as a whole, but it is a mixed bag.

The arcade-faithful backgrounds generally look pretty nice. The first two stages have sort of a drab color-scheme, but the detail is excellent and the layout is just like the coin-op. The third and fourth levels are terrific, with a richly-detailed forest in the third and foreboding enemy fortress (complete with deadly spike pit) in the fourth.  Modern day homebrew games aside, the graphical-detail in the latter stages of Double Dragon are some of the best graphics seen on the 7800.

As for the sprites in the game, well, they’re another story. Simply put, for the most part they look like something the Atari 5200, a full console generation before, could have pulled off. They’re awfully blocky, and with a minimal amount of detail. Except for Abobo (the big, hulking enemy that has become one of the most popular faces of Double Dragon), the characters don’t really look very good. It’s quite a contrast with the backgrounds!

They may not all look great, but did everyone from the arcade original at least make it over to the 7800? Yes and no. Billy and Jimmy are here, using the same, palette-swapped sprite. The same goes for common thugs Williams and Roper, and 2nd level boss Jeff; they all use the same sprite as Billy and Jimmy, just with different colors. Female thug Linda is here too, but shares the same image as the kidnapped Marian. Head bad guy Big Boss Willy obviously gets his own design, as naturally does Abobo. (Technically, there was Abobo and Bolo in the arcade, both nearly identical save for a few differences, but c’mon, it’s always just been Abobo to the layman).

So yeah, everyone’s here technically, but not without some caveats.

As mentioned, the NES version is one-player only, and can display two enemies at a time, albeit with some graphical break-up. The SMS has two-players simultaneously and up to three enemies, but there’s a lot of flicker throughout. With the 7800 however, one of the strengths built into the system from the get-go was the ability to move a lot of sprites at the same time, without flicker or slowdown.

The richly-detailed forest of Mission Three. Note the number of sprites onscreen, without flicker or graphical break-up! Neato!

This ability is readily apparent in Double Dragon. The game can have up to four bad guys onscreen, plus your one or two players. No graphical break-up, no flicker, and no slowdown either, except for some choppy scrolling when moving to a new screen. This version plays a bit more sluggish as a whole, but it’s not a deal breaker, and the relatively slower, more-deliberate pace of the game actually serves it well.

While on the subject of sprites, one thing about the original coin-op that wore real thin, real fast was its tendency to slow down when the screen became crowded. Yep, the more sprites there were at a given moment, the more the action crawled. Honestly, if you’re able to get beyond the relatively-archaic nature of the game (early beat-’em-up and all), that’s really the only downside to what is otherwise still a terrific game.

The slowdown in the original coin-op often made the use of weapons more of a chore than a pleasure, which is a shame, because the ability to grab a new beat-down implement was another one of the revolutionary aspects of the game. You never saw Thomas appropriate one of those knives from a mindless grunt in Kung-Fu Master, after all!

The arcade featured bats, whips, knives, boulders, barrels, boxes and dynamite, all of which your character could pick up and use in his quest for kidnapped-girlfriend-vengeance. (And of course, they could always be taken from you, as well!) Only the bats, whips and knives made it to the 7800 port. In contrast to the later Streets of Rage, in which a knife could be used repeatedly or thrown at once, in Double Dragon it was always a one-throw deal. The bat and whips can be used repeatedly, though unlike the arcade, they eventually disappear when moving from one section of a level to another (common for home console conversions of the period).

Ah, but it was the attacks, the various combos you could pull off, that really sets Double Dragon apart from other side-scrolling fighters. Not set, sets. Later beat-’em-ups simplified the amount of attacks, sometimes with only a jump and punch button, maybe a special move. Double Dragon was considerably more involved, with a style of game play that more-closely resembled actual martial arts street fighting (I assume; so rarely do I get out to street fight). From the three buttons and joystick, you could pull off punches, kicks, jump kicks, reverse jump kicks, headbutts, elbow smashes, over-the-shoulder throws, the ability to repeatedly knee an enemy in the face, and with a buddy, one player could even grapple a baddie while the other slugged him (which worked the other way around, too). Amazingly, with all of these options at your disposal and relatively few buttons, it worked really, really well.

With only two attack buttons generally available, obviously all these moves didn’t always make it to the home versions intact. The NES port fared better than most; even though you had to continuously “level-up” to earn more of them, in some odd form of RPG-ness, you could amass an impressive range of attacks, including the ability to sit on an enemy and punch them relentlessly in the face. This wasn’t found in the coin-op, but rather in Technos’ prior beat-’em-up Renegade, which was Double Dragon‘s spiritual predecessor in more ways than one.

The SMS version retained a good number of the attacks, though for me, only the punches, kicks, jump kicks and headbutts were consistently easy to pull off. (You can elbow smash and knee-in-the-face, but I could only ever trigger those attacks by mistake!)

Mission Three is lengthy and culminates in a mountainside fight at the entrance of the enemy base…against not one but TWO green Abobos!

The 7800 actually fared pretty well in the translation. The knee-in-the-face and over-the-shoulder-throw options were, disappointingly, excised. (So is the grapple technique, though no home version got that, as far as I know.) But, along with the obvious abilities to punch, kick and jump kick, the reverse jump kick, headbutt, and elbow smash all made it in. Some of the button combos to make these moves happen are a little strange (down + punch to headbutt? What was wrong with double-tapping left or right like the arcade, NES and SMS?), but mostly this all works okay.

However, we now come to the biggest problem with the Atari 7800 version of Double Dragon, and it’s something that’s not the game’s fault: the painful stock U.S. 7800 controller. Here in the States, we got the “ProLine Joystick,” and from start to finish, it was pretty much a holdover from the early-1980s era of controller-design. Basically an elongated grip with a joystick at the top and a fire button on each side (think ColecoVision or Atari 5200), it was a controller not suited to long sessions of any game, never mind one that requires constant movement and button-pressing like Double Dragon.

Overseas, Europeans got the “ProLine Joypad,” and it’s a far, far superior controller. Basically Atari’s answer to the NES control pad, it’s a continual mystery why it never replaced the joystick here in the U.S. It’s not perfect, but considering the alternative, it’s definitely preferable, and it makes all the difference in the world when it comes to Double Dragon.

Y’see, this game has gotten a reputation for being overly difficult, and in many eyes, not very good. Hey, I’ve been on that side of the fence a time or two in the past, too. When I first got the 7800 port many years ago, I was by no means a novice at Double Dragon. And yet, I could barely make any headway before exhausting all my lives (you get three to start, an extra at 50,000 points, and no continues). I was probably convinced it was either the hardest or most poorly-programmed port 8-bit console port there was.

Fast forward several years, when I decided to get myself some of the European Joypads. After all, I loved the 7800, so why not, you know, fully enjoy it? 2600, or even Sega Genesis, controllers were fine for single-button games, but some of the best 7800 titles, like Commando or our subject today, require two. And what a revelation! A whole new appreciation for the 7800 port of Double Dragon was gained, all because I could finally properly play it! Go figure!

I think 7800 Double Dragon gets a bad rap as far as difficulty is concerned. Don’t get me wrong, it’s on the challenging side; the enemies can hound you and get some cheap shots in. But, it’s really not any more difficult than any other 8-bit conversion, and in fact is probably easier as a whole than the NES port, where you can save all of your lives only to blaze through them in a hurry on the last level.

The controller, I think, is one of the issues with that difficulty perception. Seriously, get the European Joypads. Do what you gotta do to play Double Dragon comfortably, because it ain’t gonna happen using the regular ProLine Joystick. I can beat the game using it, but it’s not exactly an ergonomic experience.

The controller used isn’t the game’s fault, but another key to enjoying the beat-down frenzy is: the punch. There’s a very simple method to avoiding frustration with this game, and it’s this: just don’t punch. I know that sounds weird, but hear me out. When animating the attacks, the punch is given a “wind up.” It isn’t instant contact. As such, there’s a moment of hesitation, and this leaves you open to hits. In other words, you end up taking taking cheap shots and trading blows back and forth.

Some players like to spam the elbow smash (just like the arcade!) and jump kicks here, but in my experience, you don’t necessarily need to do that. When using a normal, ground-based attack, just stick with regular kicking. There’s no animation between the button press and the result, so it’s ‘instant,’ and as such, you can hammer away at baddies without taking too many unnecessary hits back.

Mission Four, with some of the best graphics in the entire game!

On top of that, the enemy A.I. is painfully stupid. Yes, they can be tough, but once you learn their patterns, you can counter them without too much trouble. Same goes for most beat-’em-ups, I know, but especially here. Much like the NES version, if you get in ‘close’ to an enemy, especially when coming in from underneath, you should be able to knock them down and eventually out while saving most of your life bar. As such, even the Abobos and Big Boss Willy, traditionally the toughest enemies, can be defeated without too much trouble.

So no, 7800 Double Dragon isn’t too hard. If anything, it might be a little too easy. You just gotta learn the tricks!

Lastly, we come to the music of 7800 Double Dragon. One of the most celebrated aspects of the game, in both its original incarnation and in most of the ports, was the soundtrack. Double Dragon featured an absolute classic score, one that not only fit the scenes you were traversing but also absolutely got you in the mood to beat down some street punks. On the 7800, we got…some of that.

Y’see, the system was originally intended to include a POKEY sound chip, which would have given it the sound quality of the Atari 8-bit computers and 5200, which was pretty good. When it was eventually released however, the POKEY was omitted as a cost-saving measure. The chip could be added to individual carts, though sadly, this was only utilized twice, for Commando and Ballblazer. Both have terrific music, but aside from those exceptions, the 7800 generally features sound identical to what the 2600 could pull off.

Now, it’s beyond old news to rag on the 7800’s sound quality. Compared to the NES and SMS, it sounds particularly bad, we know. It is what it is. It’s funny, I don’t even mind the sound of the 2600, but when it’s paired with the superior visuals of the 7800, well, it just kinda throws you for a loop.

That said, Double Dragon really should have utilized a POKEY sound chip. The soundtrack was so phenomenal that it absolutely, without a doubt deserved the honor. But, it didn’t. As such, we’re left with an incomplete, slightly-shrill score. Two of the mission tunes were omitted completely, meaning there’s some repetition involved. What is included is the famous title-screen track, Mission One’s theme, Mission Three’s theme (in the arcade, anyway), and the boss encounter music, plus the level-ending jingle. You’ll hear the first and third level themes repeated throughout, and not always where they should be.

Incomplete though it may be, at the very least, the music is recognizably Double Dragon.


Does this image practically scream “late-1980s” to you, or is it just me?

So when it comes right down to it, how does the Atari 7800 port of Double Dragon hold up? Better than it doesn’t. The music is a disappointment, and if you’re in the U.S., odds are you’ll have to contend with finding a better controller. Get over those obstacles however, and you’re treated with what I feel is one of the best games in the 7800’s library.

True, it lacks the length and extra features of the famous Nintendo Entertainment Version, but it makes up for that with the arcade-accuracy and simultaneous two-player action. And, while the graphics and sound are markedly inferior, I actually prefer this port over that of the Sega Master System, based solely on the gameplay. The SMS version, don’t get me wrong, I like it, but the control has always seemed too loose for my tastes; you’re basically out there swinging fists wildly – there’s no finesse, in my opinion. The 7800 version runs a bit slower, but you can really get into a groove while playing thanks to that.

Perhaps more importantly than how it stacks up against the rival 8-bit ports is what this Double Dragon represents. Think of it; you’re a kid in the late-1980s, you have an Atari 7800, while most everyone else has an NES. Maybe a few of your friends even have an SMS. Now sure, there’s plenty of great classic arcade ports at your disposal, and the 2600 library, but that stuff isn’t what’s burning up the video game world at the moment. Games have evolved, become more complex, bigger worlds, better graphics.

All of sudden, here comes Double Dragon, the arcade smash, the game that’s tearing up both the NES and SMS. And now it’s available for the 7800! The series would continue to expand via sequels, spin-offs, and so on and so forth, but for this one occasion, 7800 owners could boast the same game as NES and SMS owners could. Not that Double Dragon was the only shared title across the three; Rampage hit all of them as well. But, Double Dragon was a trendsetting name brand that, as I’ve said, was incredibly recognizable in the late-1980s and early-1990s. It showing up on the 7800 seems special to me in a way that, frankly, Rampage doesn’t. That’s just my perception, though.

Furthermore, the beat-’em-up was a genre sorely lacking on the 7800. Kung-Fu Master was fun, but simplistic and old hat by the time it came out on the system in ’89. Ninja Golf and Basketbrawl were quirky Atari originals that combined sports with fighting. And Karateka? We don’t talk about Karateka. None of them could attain quite the same level that Double Dragon achieved – and achieves.

Double Dragon was something special in the Atari 7800 library, and even if it wasn’t a perfect game, that’s still to be celebrated. Even today!

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End of the Year Post: A Fond Final Farewell to WAOH TV-29

And so we come to the the waning hours of 2017. I know this is cliche to say, but this year really did fly by. Another 12 months where I accomplished few things of any lasting importance! These kinds of years are really starting to outnumber the ones where I do accomplish something important…

As ’17 draws to a close, I could certainly take a look at the events we’ve collectively shared as a nation, the celebrities we’ve lost, or the personal achievements I’ve, uh, achieved. On the first two points, others are better suited to that sort of thing, and on the third, I’m wise enough to know that nobody cares.

I won’t completely abandon the idea of a personally-connected post, however. There was an event that took place here in Northeast Ohio this past October that, quite frankly, was like a part of my childhood ending for good. All four of my longtime readers will recall the early, early article in which I paid tribute to WAOH TV-29 in Akron & WAX TV-35 in Cleveland, better known as “The CAT” (Cleveland-Akron Television). Despite my somewhat-erroneously referring to it as “The Cat,” rather than the more-correct “The CAT,” not to mention it being an early effort and therefore not one of my prouder works, the article has become one of the most popular on this site – probably because there’s just not a whole lot of info on the station out there in internet-land.

So, as we say goodbye to 2017, what say we also say goodbye to 29?

(Hunker down, gang; this’ll be a long article. Indeed, I’ve worked on it for much of this month, which is why there was no “Christmas post” proper, though I did get a dash-off day-after update, so you can’t be too mad at me. Or can you?)

I’m not sure when it was first announced, but I became aware that October 25 was to be WAOH TV-29’s swansong on September 9, when an almost-casual bumper stating the fact popped onscreen. It was a shock! What did this mean, exactly? I have Spectrum digital cable; would that mean they would just pick up the Cleveland feed? Or did that mean the station and programming as I/we knew it was done for good? As it turned out, the answer to both of those questions was a big fat “no.”

To be clear, the channel itself is still around, as Cleveland’s W16DO. Even though Spectrum doesn’t currently carry it on digital cable around here (for now?), it can apparently be had with an antenna, which as of yet I have not gotten because I’m almost perpetually broke.

That said, with first the network change from The CAT (largely but not exclusively an America One affiliate) to a Retro TV affiliation in 2009, and then the Cleveland WAX TV-35 affiliate becoming W16DO in 2015, and now Akron’s WAOH TV-29 leaving the air entirely, it really does feel like the last semblance of The CAT has left us; the last outward sign of The CAT anyway, that being the WAOH channel 29 part, is gone. As such, it feels like the book has closed for good on one of Northeast Ohio’s most interesting stations.

Now, don’t think I’m being weird and sulking over the loss of a television affiliate. I mean, yeah, I’m not happy that I can’t (currently) watch it, but I’ve got more important, actual problems to be depressed over. That said, I can honestly say that no local channel was quite as important in shaping my tastes in movies and television growing up as The CAT was. From 1997-2000, it yielded me an untold number of cinematic revelations, and to a somewhat lesser extent, vintage television revelations, too.

So, what I’m going to do now is go through some of my favorite moments and memories from my salad days with the channel. It might give you some insight into not only their programming but also what makes me tick, but quite frankly, this is just something I want to do. Plus, I’m really not happy with that earlier article anymore; an all-new write-up was in order, even though we’ll cover some of the same ground.

(Has my intro been long winded enough? It has? Okay, good.)


Just one of many CAT station I.D. bumpers. (Late-1990s)

I’m not quite sure when it first went on the air, Wikipedia says 1989 for Cleveland, 1995 for Akron, but my first real experience with the channel was in the summer of 1997. I had caught bits and pieces, glimpses really, prior, but on that day, as I was flipping around, I stumbled upon an airing of an ancient, subtitled movie. At 11 years old and going from 4th grade to 5th grade, it may seem weird that a kid as young as I was would care at all about a mega-old foreign flick, but even then I already had a steadily burgeoning interest in cinema. Okay, sure, my wheelhouse was more vintage sci-fi and horror, but the fact is I also took an interest in old cinema in general, and old foreign cinema? It was like I was catching something unique, something not easily accessible to the common man on the street, and while true or not in that instance, that ideal certainly applied to a number of flicks run on 29/35.

Following that fateful day, 29/35 became my go-to movie station, especially around the end of the summer, when my family dropped cable. I can’t exaggerate just how important The CAT was to me; it fostered my love of old movies, especially sci-fi and horror, and in some cases even created my love for certain genres, B-Westerns in particular. Simply put, a large portion of what I love to watch today can be directly attributed to The CAT.

It really was a constant sense of discovery; TV Guide didn’t cover the station, but the local newspapers did, and you have no idea how much I looked forward to getting the channel guide in each Sunday edition of the Akron Beacon Journal, just to see what neato stuff 29/35 had in store for that week. I lived for the days when a silent movie or cool vintage horror flick was on the schedule!

The America One logo, seen endlessly on The CAT in the late-1990s and early-2000s.

Now to be clear, most (but not all; more on that later) of the movies shown on The CAT weren’t owned by The CAT; rather, 29/35 was the local affiliate for the America One Network, and the majority of the films came from their library. As such, a large part of this nostalgia can be attributed to them as well. America One had a lot of fantastic stuff that you couldn’t see anywhere else – then or now. America One eventually morphed into Youtoo America, and up until fairly recently, you could catch a lot of these same movies in their late night slots, though that has diminished quite a bit (entirely?) as of late.

The America One “Western Theater” bumper, seen each weekday afternoon (and some weekend afternoons, too) for years. (1998)

I’m going to guess that the daily movies shown were all at the same time nationwide, time zone differences aside. Maybe not, I don’t know. Either way, here’s how our weekday line-up went: At 10 AM was a 90 minute movie, typically an older flick due to shorter run time. Then at 12:30 PM was “Western Theater,” always a B-Western, which also ran 90 minutes. Needless to say, these two movie slots were easier for me to catch during the summer months than they were during the school year, with holiday breaks being an obvious exception.

Immediately after Western Theater was the 2 PM movie, which went for two hours and ran the gamut of all genres and from all countries, and ranged from the silent era to the 1970s (and sometimes beyond; I seem to recall 1989’s My Mom’s a Werewolf airing in this slot at least once). I liked coming home from school to catch this movie in-progress, especially if it was one that struck my particular interests. Even when it didn’t though, I could be pleasantly surprised; Made For Each Other and Good News were films that I probably wouldn’t have sought out on my own but became fond of just by bumping into them during this slot.

The America One “Hollywood Classics” bumper, seen at 10 AM, 2 PM & 8 PM each weekday. (1998)

Then at 8 PM was another two hour movie, with basically the same set-up as the 2 PM one, though I don’t recall silents popping up as frequently in prime time as they did in the afternoon.

Of course between all of the movies were syndicated TV shows and local programming. The TV shows, I believe, also mainly came from A-1, though it might have been a mix of them and other distributors. For a few years 29/35 really pushed Dobie Gillis reruns with  humorous ads, and in those days of the late-1990s and early-2000s, there were also broadcasts of The Beverly Hillbillies, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Bonanza, and One Step Beyond, also all pushed fairly extensively by The CAT. It was a lot of stuff that was typical of independent stations basically, but looking back,  it would almost seem odd if they weren’t represented there.

This was also around the time that professional wrestling was monumental (again), and The CAT also had a few syndicated examples of that phenomenon. Once, there was some local wrestling out of Nashville or something that somehow got on the schedule one Friday or Saturday night. I never saw it before or since, but since I was never much of a wrestling fan, it might have run 57 years and I just wasn’t paying attention. Or I might be confusing it with something else entirely; it’s been a long time.

There were also some late morning and early afternoon television programs that probably came from A-1. I once caught an episode of the 1950s sci-fi series Captain Z-Ro either soon before or soon after the 10 AM movie, and reruns of The Cisco Kid were numerous for years, airing right before the daily western movie if I recall correctly.

But it was the local programming that really gave The CAT its flavor. Even with all of the America One content, this was such a Northeast Ohio station. When your name is an abbreviation of “Cleveland-Akron Television,” you kinda have to be!

Still from a SOG promo. (1997)

Readers taking even a cursory glance at this blog will know what an influence Son of Ghoul was on me growing up. I’ve written about him numerous times in the past, and most likely will again in the future. The Son of Ghoul Show was probably the flagship program on the station. Because he’s gotten so much spotlight time here already, I’m not going to say too much about SOG in this post. Rest assured though, he was the ‘biggie’ on the channel for me . The show aired on both Friday and Saturday, 8 PM to 10 PM, same episode both nights, and those airings absolutely colored my weekends back then. SOG, more than any other local personality, introduced me to the whole Northeast Ohio horror hosting legend. Sure, Superhost was in his waning days during my formative years (I was waaay too young to understand then), and I had watched Big Chuck & Lil’ John prior, but SOG, SOG was the big one. My love for local TV grew, and grew exponentially, from there.

Handy Randy promo still. (2008)

That was far from the only locally-produced show The CAT had though; there were plenty more. Many, but not all, of these local shows were call-in programs (a natural progression, as 29/35 was the television “arm” of Akron talk radio station WNIR 100 FM), often (always?) produced with only a desk, a host, and Cleveland/Akron phone numbers superimposed on-screen. Dining Out with Steve, in which restaurants were discussed and coupons given out, Steve French Sports Talk, which was exactly what it sounds like, and The Handy Randy Show, about cars and car maintenance, were all mainstays for years. Last I heard, Steve French was still on, and Handy Randy ran for the longest time as well, though as I recall it, the live, call-in aspect was later de-emphasized and it instead became a  prerecorded general car-related program.

Promo still for Smoochie’s program. (1998)

It was obviously a channel suited to any number of topics and shows, and in addition to what I’ve already mentioned, there were programs dedicated to urban communities (Keepin’ it Real), Kent athletics (The Kent Coaches Show), senior living (Senior Talk), even chiropractic health (Back Talk). Local radio personalities Bill “Smoochie” Gordon and Ernie Stadvec also appeared with their own programs over the years, and The CAT even did some quirky stuff,  such as The Big Al Show, which was filmed in a karaoke bar (and near as I can remember, wasn’t on very long). You never knew what you were going to get with The CAT, and because it was all produced “around here,” there seemed to be some leeway; since this wasn’t national material, issues and topics related to the area were prevalent, as you’d naturally expect.

As the 1990s progressed into the 2000s, the nationwide erosion of local TV in favor of syndicated programming and infomercials was only getting worse, and while, yes, 29/35 did have some syndicated shows (The Lighter Side of Sports was a long, long mainstay) and whatnot, the overall local vibes were too strong; you really did get the “Northeast Ohio presence” while watching the station! They absolutely lived up to their name. I wish I had been cognizant of the history behind some of these local shows/personalities back then, especially Smoochie’s program, but hindsight is 20/20. I’m certainly glad I experienced what I did, if nothing else.

When it came to movies and even just general programming on The CAT, late nights were, well, they were sort of a no man’s land. Yes, there were TV listings, but it was often a toss-up if you got what was advertised. Granted, this was sometimes an issue during the day (I remember coming home from school and being so excited to catch 1977’s Snowbeast as the listed 2-4 PM movie…only to instead be treated to 1954’s Carnival Story, which wasn’t quite the same thing), but late nights, you could just never be sure. What was listed in the channel guide might indeed air, or you might get something else entirely, and there was no (discernible) rhyme or reason to any of it.

Furthermore, there was a lot of syndicated programming, programming whose origins you couldn’t be sure of. In other words, where did it come from? Now look, the sad fact of the matter is I’ve been a night owl for years, and the other sad fact of the matter is I’ve also had spotty sleep patterns for years. (Maybe there’s a connection?) At least once that I can recall, I woke up in the middle of the night, stumbled out of bed, and turned on The CAT, only to be greeted with obscure programming produced by who knows who. Not that I ever saw anything weird or disturbing, but looking back, the same feelings that lead David Cronenberg to create Videodrome seemed to be at play with me here. Where did this stuff come from? Keep in my mind, this was all via my skewed, 11/12 year old perception. I probably wouldn’t have the same reaction nowadays.

The AIN station I.D. (1998)

In contrast to the daytime scheduling largely consisting of America One content, late nights (usually?) featured programming from the American Independent Network (AIN). AIN featured some of the same movies as A-1, though the prints themselves were different. For example, the versions of Circus of Fear and The Kansan I saw via A-1 were quite a bit scratchier than what I saw via AIN. Not that it really matters in the long run, but it was a difference I noticed.

AIN could also have some surprising movie selections. Indeed, the very first time I saw 1939’s Stagecoach was through a late night 29/35/AIN airing. I liked it a lot, though there was quite a bit of editing between commercial breaks, which obviously made the film disjointed. (I’m not sure where the editing originated from, us or them.) On the same classic movie front, AIN was the first one to present Fritz Lang’s M to me.

Host of AIN’s Family Film Festival. Anyone know his name for certain?

My first experience (that I can recall) with unique AIN programming on The CAT was a late night airing of 1934’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, or rather, what came right before. Immediately preceding it was 1977’s Wishbone Cutter, a horror film set around the time of the Civil War and starring Joe Don Baker. Wishbone Cutter aired during something AIN had called Family Film Festival, hosted by a guy whose name I think was Tim Brown. I came in for only the last minute or two of the movie, but it was still immediately apparent that it was wildly inappropriate for a program purporting to be aimed at families – which I of course find kinda funny now. (I’ve got a weird sense of humor.)

Outside of the movies and shows featured, The CAT was also a haven for local businesses and their advertising. Because it was an indie station, there were commercials for local establishments that you just wouldn’t, or couldn’t, see on any other channel. This was immensely cool, both then and now.

These ads were, near as I can tell, all produced by 29/35 themselves. That actually ran advertisements spotlighting their free television production services; all you had to do was call. Of course, I imagine you also had to pay for something, sponsorship of a certain program I’d guess, but it seems to me that this still gave affordable commercial opportunities to local businesses that maybe wouldn’t have gone that route otherwise.

To watch The CAT was to tap directly into the atmosphere of the area at the time.


Okay, so I’ve talked a lot about 29/35 as a whole, but what about some of the specific movies and related bits that I found particularly interesting? Some of the stuff that sticks out in my memory? That’s part of my story too, after all!

A few months went by after my summer introduction to the station, and following that, the first really notable movie I caught (and taped!) off The CAT was 1922’s Nosferatu. Nosferatu hit all the bullet points I was looking for at the time: It was silent, it was foreign, and it was a horror film.

It aired at 10 AM on October 31, 1997, which I remember because that was the big Halloween party at my grade school, and we were allowed to go home at lunch time to change into our costumes. I forget what I went as that year, but I do remember eagerly checking the timer-set VHS recording from just a few hours prior; I knew immediately Nosferatu was my kind of movie. An exponentially creepy silent unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula? I loved it. I still love it. Despite purchasing the later definitive tinted & restored releases by Kino, I still have love for the older, ‘regular’ public domain prints of the film thanks to what was aired on The CAT that day (a print that also boasted a fantastically “spooky” score).

(I also remember the afternoon B-Western playing when I got home to change into my costume / check the tape that day; it was the Buster Crabbe oater Devil Riders.)

As I mentioned before, The CAT was one of my main outlets for new old horror and sci-fi, and as such it was responsible for introducing me to far more than just Nosferatu; there was also a lot of the later, more-cornball stuff that crossed my eyes for the first time thanks to them. 1950s science fiction was a particular favorite of mine then, and while I tend to lean towards 1930s & 1940s horror now, I still like 50s sci-fi. Plenty of both showed up on 29/35. Some I loved instantly, some I didn’t, and some I only appreciated years after the fact.

He’s indestructible, and a man, hence…

When it comes to the latter: 1956’s Indestructible Man. The 10 AM CAT showing of the movie back in, I’m pretty sure, late-1997, was my first exposure to it. Oddly enough, neither that viewing nor subsequent viewings did much for me; I found it a dull, slow moving film. Even the Mystery Science Theater 3000 take left me cold.

And yet, a re-watch this past October on TCM found yours truly actually, finally getting into the film. I enjoyed the faux-Dragnet vibes, and at only 70+ minutes, it’s really not that slow moving. Didn’t hurt that TCM ran one of the best prints of the film I’ve ever seen, either. (I’m not sure where I’m going with this. I guess that The CAT introduced me to Indestructible Man, but it took me almost exactly 20 years to ‘get’ it?)

In retrospect, quite a few of the horror & sci-fi movies I grew up with came via the 10 AM CAT movie. King of the Zombies? It wasn’t quite what I was expecting, but check. The Little Shop of Horrors? Check, and I loved it from the start (the print aired on The CAT was one of the few I’ve seen that actually included the end credits, too – even the beautiful copy aired on TCM this past October omitted them). And Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster? Aside from Lugosi, it’s terrible and not in a good way, but check that one, as well.

Two final points regarding the 10 AM movie: 1) Hillbilly Blitzkrieg once ran on it. A wartime Barney Google cheapie, I came into it already in-progress, and it was just wacky enough to make me wish I was taping. Of course I never saw it run again. 2) Something titled Mountain Lady. I briefly flipped to it, saw an outdoor setting and some big, ugly yellow film scratches, but recall little else about the film. I think it was listed as being from 1968. I didn’t watch very long, though maybe I should have. What was this movie? Where did it come from? Like Hillbilly Blitzkrieg, I never saw it on the schedule, 10 AM or otherwise, again.


The 12:30 PM Western Theater was a big one for me, and quite unexpectedly, too. Obviously I liked the horror and science fiction stuff, and the old imported features, and silent movies, but westerns? I don’t think I had paid much attention to westerns beforehand! Especially B-Westerns! It started off with my just being enamored by them; the obscure creakiness, the thought that I was seeing something not everyone else had. But then, the more I watched, the more I fell in love with the genre.

Of course I knew who he was prior, but I was actually properly introduced to John Wayne through these broadcasts. All it took was one airing of Blue Steel to hook me; it was so different from the stereotypical John Wayne image that comes to mind, him being in a 1930s cheapie. And the hype that was the “Lone Star Productions” intro (which really did stand out from other B-Western productions of the time) made the whole thing feel all the more special.

(Some time afterwards, the famed Best Buy $2.99 VHS section yielded me a copy of Blue Steel; I couldn’t have been happier to own the flick! I eagerly threw it in the VCR when I got home and watched the whole thing – an experience that was dampened by the tape being defective and refusing to exit the machine once the film was over. The VCR got through it unscathed, but of course the tape had to be returned, much to my disappointment. ‘Course, since these Wayne Lone Stars are public domain and have his name attached to them, they’ve been released numerous times on home video, so my disappointment wasn’t permanent.)

But by far the most enduring star to be introduced to me by the 12:30 PM western presentations was Ken Maynard. I had no idea who Ken Maynard was prior; what 11/12 year old in the late-1990s would? And yet, through these daily western broadcasts, I became a fan – a fandom which continues to this very day. Maynard was one of the top B-Western stars of the 1930s, and while you don’t hear his name mentioned very often outside of fan circles nowadays, he made some terrifically entertaining films. Fightin’ Thru, Drum Taps, Come On, Tarzan, all were introduced to me via these afternoon showings.

Come ON, Tarzan! Stop foolin’ around!

1932’s Come On, Tarzan became a particular favorite. I’m not sure if it’s my top Ken Maynard western, but it’s dangerously close; in the top five, if nothing else. I remember seeing it listed in the local guide, and wondering what a Tarzan movie was doing placed in the western time slot. Were they trying something new? I soon learned the truth; Tarzan was the name of Ken’s super-smart horse, who appeared in a large number of his pictures. Come On, Tarzan was terrific – I loved it then, and I love it now. It is very possibly one of Ken’s very best films – in my opinion, anyway.

The aforementioned Fightin’ Thru was another big one. I never once saw a silent or 1920s-era talkie in the 12:30 PM slot, so I took a particular interest in the earliest films possible there, which meant 1930. Near the Rainbow’s End, The Apache Kid’s Escape, and most notably, Ken Maynard’s Fightin’ Thru. I haven’t seen it in nearly 20 years now, but it probably holds up for me; even today I find many of Maynard’s westerns to be really, really good. Indeed, 1944’s Harmony Trail was his last starring picture, and while I had heard bad things about it, when I finally saw it many years later, I enjoyed it immensely – somewhat unexpectedly on my part, to be honest.

At the time, many of these westerns, Ken Maynard or otherwise, were unavailable to the general public, which only added to their allure. The only normative way to watch them (that I knew of) was through an America One affiliate. And if you wanted an “official” copy, you had to seek out specialty, mail-order dealers, because 99% of these weren’t gonna show up on brick-and-mortar shelves, not even my beloved $2.99 section at Best Buy. In more recent years, I have been extremely pleased to discover Alpha Video has released many of these on DVD and at really great prices, too.

1934’s The Tonto Kid, a Rex Bell feature, is another B-Western title that particularly stands out in my mind, but I’ll return to that subject a little later in this article.


That brings us to the 2-4 PM movies. As I said, these were the ones I came home to after school. I became acquainted with so, so many other new-to-me movies here. Hitchcock’s early talkie Blackmail? Yep. The silent Sparrows? Uh huh. The dubbed version of France’s Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe? Yessir. Circus of Fear? Right on, mama. The Grand Duel? I dug it! Good News? Yes, and unexpectedly, I liked it! The Curse of Bigfoot? I kinda wish I hadn’t seen it, but yeah, that popped up at 2 PM, too. And although I was already well-familiar with it, even Godzilla vs. Megalon ran in this slot at least once, as well.

Like the western showcase, the afternoon slot was responsible for making me a fan of a genre that previously I had paid little attention to: Sword & Sandal films. You know, Hercules and the various imitators he spawned; Colossus, Goliath and the like. I wound up becoming a huge fan of these movies! Hercules, Hercules Unchained, Hercules Against the Mongols, David & Goliath, The Avenger, all stuff I became fascinated with.

‘Course, it was the entries that featured horror & sci-fi elements that really intrigued me. Many of them didn’t, and that was okay, but the ones that did, those instantly became preferred features in the genre. Hercules in the Haunted World and the ones like that were especially awesome to yours truly.

A movie so cool, it deserves two screencaps! The title, and the titular monster!

One of my top favorites was an entry in the Sons of Hercules series, a U.S. repackaging of various Sword & Sandal flicks that went straight to television in the 1960s. (Most, if not all, probably had nothing to do with Herc in their homeland, but it was standard practice at the time for U.S. distributors to “link them” nevertheless.)

This particular entry was titled Fire Monsters Against the Son of Hercules, and with a name like that, well, was there any way it wouldn’t be cool? Herc’s ostensible son “Maxus” did indeed fight some monsters in the film, including one near the very start (right). The title was somewhat misleading in that the main plot didn’t really concern them, but hey, it drew me in, and probably 1960s audiences, too.

(The Sons of Hercules films also had a catchy theme song that had, and has, the ability to get stuck in your head for 97 years at a stretch.)


The hours between the 2 PM movie and the 8 PM movie were filled with various programming, syndicated and local. Then at 8 came another “Hollywood Classics” feature from America One. (It should be noted that many of these films were neither from Hollywood nor would they generally be considered classics, but the bumpers surrounding them still made them feel special nevertheless.)

As I said earlier, the 8 PM movie was much like the 2 PM movie; same gamut of genres, though with (as I recall it) far fewer silents. Material better suited to prime time, basically. Some movies ran in both slots, while others, like Winners of the West, I only saw at 8. (Winners of the West was the feature version of a 1940s western serial, and while on the surface that may seem like something better suited to 12:30 PM, its length precluded it from being in that 90 minute time slot.)

Lotsa neat stuff ran at 8. I had a burgeoning interest in “Spaghetti Westerns” in the late-1990s, an extension of both my love of westerns and interest in foreign films I’m sure, and a few still stick with me. For a Few Bullets More (which featured a great theme song and starred Edd “Kookie” Byrnes and Gilbert “Cisco Kid” Roland) and It Can Be Done Amigo especially. There are times even nowadays where when something is asked of me, I’ll answer with an affirmative “It can be done, amigo.” I don’t do it often, and it’s a reference absolutely  nobody gets, but it amuses me, and that’s what counts.

Of course there was the horror & sci-fi that was my bread-and-butter. Monster From Green Hell first became known to me there, as did The Creeping Terror. Also, one of the worst movies I have ever seen, 1970’s Dracula vs. Frankenstein (aka Assignment: Terror). This wasn’t the Al Adamson film of the same name, but rather the Paul Naschy opus, and to this day I find it utterly terrible. (While on the subject, I know he has his fans, so I don’t want to rag on him too much, but I just don’t get the love some have for Paul Naschy’s films. Every single one I’ve seen has been essentially unwatchable.)

At this point I would like to relate my most memorable tale of the 8 PM movie on The CAT, because it’s the very definition of the kind of films they (or rather, America One) could run. Stuff that was incredibly unknown, you had never heard of prior, and was in all likelihood not commercially available. This next story is, to me, the ultimate example of that phenomenon.

One summer night in 1998 (I think it was a Wednesday; I recall Whose Line is it Anyway? was airing on ABC), I stumbled upon such a flick. I had noticed that the 29/35 movie listed for that particular night was titled Mark of the Beast, but there was no date, synopsis, stars or rating given for it in the local channel guide. Okay, evidently the film was mega obscure!

Well, I was hanging out at my aunt’s house that evening, and must have forgotten or was otherwise busy to tune in at the start, but eventually I flipped to 29/35 (side note: The CAT was on channel 14 via Time-Warner basic cable then) to see what exactly this film was. I was greeted with a movie that was in blurry, somewhat-faded color and in which fast-moving and/or bright objects and titles left streaks/imprints across the screen, there was a lot of buzzing/clicking on the soundtrack, and there was odd narration of some sort. I wasn’t able to catch the whole thing that night, but I was severely intrigued; it all seemed so mysterious! Like Mountain Lady, what was this film? Where did it come from?! In retrospect (because there was no way I could have found the appropriate words back then), it almost seemed otherworldly, as if the images on the screen weren’t really supposed to be there. Such were the qualities of the film (or rather, the print of the film), that it actually came off dreamlike; streaky and fleeting.

America One, according to their online schedules back then, would run some movies twice-per-day, and Mark of the Beast was set to repeat during the overnight hours. I set my VCR timer in the hopes that this would be one of those times where what was listed locally wouldn’t match up with what was actually run. Unfortunately, the listing was correct, and I instead got the as-promised 1933 Philo Vance mystery The Kennel Murder Case. Not a bad consolation, as I watched the recording and thought it was a pretty good movie, but nevertheless, my curiosity was only further piqued by the denial of whatever I had seen the evening prior.

VideoHound’s Golden Movie Retriever (a still-continuing movie guide book that, while not as famous as Leonard Maltin’s previously-annual tomes, had much more extensive listings despite specifically being limited to films released on home video formats) told me Mark of the Beast was a mid-1980s flick about an assassination caught on tape. Okay, maybe that’s the movie I saw; I mean, it didn’t sound like what I saw, but I didn’t catch enough of the plot to make any real judgements there. As for the date, what I glimpsed seemed far older than the 1980s; I was figuring mid-to-late-1960s! (Considering I was only 12, I actually wasn’t too far off, though nowadays I’ve become better at sight-dating and would most likely conclude it came from some point in the 1970s.) Could it be that this was one of those rare times where VideoHound didn’t have a certain movie listed?

For whatever reason, I couldn’t deduce what the actual title here was, and actually emailed the question to America One direct. The guy that responded shared my fascination with the movie – as well as the answer I somehow couldn’t come up with myself.

As it turned out, yes. Eventually the movie reran, 8 PM again, in March of 1999 (and in following years late at night, as well – albeit infrequently). The reality of the film was this: A science fiction-tinged Evangelical Christian production about Armageddon, set in a high-tech underground bunker and starring Joe “Guy from Blade Runner” Turkel. And the title wasn’t Mark of the Beast, but rather, a severely-cropped Six-Hundred & Sixty Six (left). Same difference.

And yes, the movie was intensely obscure. For the longest time, there was NO IMDb listing for it at all, which left me to only guess as to its release date or origin. As per IMDb, it was released in 1972 and shown at churches, as you’d expect of an Evangelical Christian production.

Obviously, there’s a strong focus on Biblical prophesy in the movie, and there seems to be a few aspects taken from Orwell’s 1984 as well, mainly in the Big Brother-like portraits of “The Man” (a leader who has organized much of the world into a single entity) hanging all over the compound. Set at some point in the future, the U.S.A. is now the “United States of Europe,” the new Roman Empire. (We all know how the old one turned out, right?) A single world religion and complete obedience is professed by “The Man,” and there’s a war with China going on. The complex where the film takes place is situated under a mountain, the purpose of which is to house all of mankind’s art and achievements on computers in the event of massive warfare, which seems to be at hand. Indeed, nuclear destruction takes place above ground, seemingly leaving only the small group of survivors in the complex, with limited air and not much to do. To pass the time until the inevitable occurs, they begin studying Biblical prophesy and correlating it with major events in world history, from the past to the present day.

Now look, I’m super Catholic, and initially I was worried that with this being an Evangelical production, there’d be some raggin’ on us. Early in the film, when warfare that had taken place at some point beforehand is described, it’s mentioned that many great artistic works were lost, including what was in the Vatican when it was destroyed. Upon hearing that, I was like “aw, here we go…” But, as the film played on, it seemed that that brief instance was meant solely to describe the loss of art and without any ulterior motive. Indeed, late in the movie the Sacré-Cœur in Paris and its parishioners are described in a positive light. So, even though this was an Evangelical production, it doesn’t seem to focus on any single group of Christians, but rather on where Christianity as a whole fits in with regards to the events taking place.

This is not a bad movie. In fact, it’s really, really good. As it plays out, there’s a stronger and stronger emphasis on Christianity, but it never comes across heavy-handed or overly preachy, which is quite an achievement given the subject matter. Obviously it’s not a happy good time flick, but it’s consistently interesting, and the ultra-modern design of the underground complex lends the film a neat sci-fi flair. Terrific acting by all involved as well, and with some pretty famous names attached to the production; Turkel of course, and the frequent voiceovers by “The Man” were provided by none other than Malachi Throne!


Okay, that story told, back to our regularly-scheduled program…

In contrast to the structured weekday movie scheduling, the weekends were a bit of a toss-up on 29/35. For awhile, you could count on one or two B-Westerns on Saturday afternoon, and I remember three airing in a row once. Same basic stuff that aired at 12:30 PM throughout the week. I still recall anticipating an airing of 1934’s Lightning Range one Saturday afternoon, wasting away the hours until it was finally airtime. I really did look forward to constantly “discovering” these flicks!

Sundays were more up in the air though. Oftentimes, there was nothing that stuck out to me, which means that it was probably a wasteland of syndicated shows and infomercials, though don’t quote me on that. There were surprises, however. I remember once catching part of an episode of Lucan, the super-short-lived series from the late-1970s. I never saw the show before or since, and how it wound up airing then and there I couldn’t say. I didn’t catch the end of it, as we had to leave for 4:30 PM Mass, but it was a random occurrence for sure.

Somehow I think this is actually a cooler title than the promised Goliath and the Vampires…

And, movies could show up on Sunday afternoons, as well. I don’t recall them being a regular feature, but they did happen from time to time. Maybe it was every Sunday after all, I don’t remember. I *do* remember that Monster From a Prehistoric Planet first crossed me eyes this way. I didn’t, and don’t, really like the film, but if nothing else, kaiju was/is kaiju. The Sunday afternoon movie that really stands out to me though played into my affection for Sword & Sandal films: Goliath and the Vampires (right). Yep, one of those with horror elements in the plot! Cool winnins!

Oh did I look forward to this one, and despite the on-screen title simply reading The Vampires, this was the type of Sword & Sandal flick that was directly up my alley. And, that Sunday afternoon was the only time I saw it broadcast on 29/35.

(Oddly enough, for having grown up catching movies in the afternoon during those years, nowadays I can’t stand the thought of watching a film during the daytime. To me, movies are nighttime endeavors; the daylight hours should be reserved for TV shows, or, you know, doing something productive.)


Now is a good time to point out that the old feature films weren’t the only thing that kept me coming back again and again. It was actually what could come after said films. You see, the movie time slots were standard 90 minutes, 120 minutes, that sort of thing. BUT, even with commercials, often the films didn’t fill those entire slots. So, The CAT (or more likely America One) would play some unscheduled filler. These could be silent or sound short comedies, old cartoons like Popeye and the like, and once in awhile, even some weird foreign import cartoons. (Rapirea, animated fare ostensibly of Romanian origin and concerning a detective protecting a new invention from marauding thieves, was particularly bizarre, despite supposedly being intended for kids.) You just never knew what you’d get, if you got anything at all; the shorts weren’t a given.

Furthermore, you weren’t always guaranteed a whole short; the end could very well be cut off so that the next, scheduled program could start on time.

My favorites were the silent comedies. It’s thanks to these filler bits that I became a Charlie Chaplin fan. Chaplin’s Mutual Films output was commonly found in these “slots,” and thanks to subjects like The Pawnshop and The Rink, it became sort of a game for me to deduce if a movie looked like it was nearing its end early and a short was likely coming. Even better was when the selections got even older, such as Chaplin’s Face on the Bar Room Floor or His Prehistoric Past; I wasn’t cognizant of where they fell in the time line of his filmography then, and while in retrospect they were nowhere near as good as the polished Mutuals, but at the time I was just happy to see more new old Charlie Chaplin.

(Once again, Best Buy’s $2.99 VHS section came to the rescue, as I happily snapped up the few Chaplin tapes they had there.)

Is that Chaplin’s Tramp? Guess again! It’s Billy West as “The Hobo.”

Some really unexpected shorts could show up as filler, and one particularly stands out to me because it wasn’t Chaplin, but it wanted to be. Billy West’s The Hobo was a Chaplin knock-off, featuring a titular character that really, really looked like Charlie’s Tramp. There were times when I wasn’t sure that it wasn’t a Chaplin feature, renamed for whatever reason. But no, it was a legit rip-off; an entertaining rip-off, but a rip-off nonetheless. (Furthermore, the print utilized featured narration added in the talkie era, with a voiceover that was the very definition of “jolly.”)

Offbeat stuff like that absolutely sums up my fascination with the potential post-movie short subjects.


So far, most, if not all, of the movies I’ve talked about were America One sourced, and merely being syndicated on The CAT. There were exceptions though, and they came during the holidays. I’ve talked about these instances before, here and here. For the sake of completeness, we kinda sorta have to hit these points again, however. That’s okay though, cause they mean a lot to me.

You’ve probably heard of this movie, right?

Every Halloween, unless it was Son of Ghoul night, The CAT would cut into whatever America One had scheduled at 8 PM and instead run what, near as I could tell, was one of their own films. Yep, it appeared 29/35 had their very own copy of Night of the Living Dead.

You have no idea (well actually, you probably do) how perfect this was come Halloween time. The print of Night that 29/35 was pretty worn, lotsa scratches and whatnot. I’ve described this before on the blog; a well-used copy of Night of the Living Dead can be just as effective, if not more so, than a pristine one. To me, it feels more nightmarish that way. It fit so nicely with the local vibes the channel projected year-round anyway; truth be told, when it comes to “Halloween movie” memories, catching Night this way on The CAT is one of my favorites. They weren’t unique in this area, just about everyone plays this movie come October, but to have one of the Halloween movies played annually on our channel, you just couldn’t beat it.

Same feelings come December too, though of course modified for the season (duh!). This was an even bigger deal to me than Halloween, and the source of some of my favorite Christmas memories growing up.

Every Christmas Eve, The CAT went all out: 1935’s Scrooge, followed by 1940’s Beyond Tomorrow. Not only was it an appropriate double-feature, but the movies were commercial-free, too. This was not something usually done on the station, so it felt all the more special. (Funny thing is this would have worked even with commercials.)

You’ve probably heard of this guy, right?

I never paid much attention to Beyond Tomorrow, but I was all about Scrooge. This was the ’35 British production starring Seymour Hicks, and while most critics wouldn’t list it as the best film version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, it has always been my go-to adaption. Almost certainly because The CAT played it every year, but for me, that’s all it takes. (Like Night of the Living Dead, the print of Scrooge utilized by The CAT was pretty worn, pretty scratchy, but in my opinion that just added to the “old timey Christmas” feeling the film projected.)

Let me see if I can paint an accurate picture of this. I have this memory of Christmas Eve, the living room dark except for the illumination given off by the lights on the tree, a gentle feeling abounding, and Scrooge playing on the TV in the background. The hustle of Christmas shopping was done, it had all come down to this night, I was still young enough to be jazzed for Christmas morning. A lot has (needless to say) changed since then, but I still carry those mental images with me. I hope I always will.


If you were watching The CAT and/or America One in the late-90s/early-2000s, you knew who Alan Stone was.

We’re, or rather I’m, nearing the end of the journey here, but I can’t finish up my look at The CAT without mentioning the host that was seen so often on the channel: America One’s movie host, Alan Stone. (Allan? Allen? His name was never superimposed on screen!)

Alan was cool, man; not only did he host the 12:30 PM western and 2 & 8 PM movies, but he also gave out some great info regarding a feature. He could also be really funny. America One had a film library you could purchase from direct, and occasionally the service would be pitched at the end of a broadcast. I remember once they ran some terrible vampire film, and at the end, Alan point-blank stated something along the lines of “You probably didn’t enjoy this film, but here’s how you can order movies you will enjoy…” In his Texas drawl and with perfect delivery, it was hilarious!

Speaking of that film library, I did once send away for A-1’s free catalog. I unfortunately never bought anything from them (I now wish I had), but in retrospect, I’m glad I got the catalog.

As you can see to your left here, I recently dug it out – just to take a picture for this post. It’s pretty neat to thumb through, though it appears that it only includes their (not inconsiderable) collection of western titles. Probably because that stuff is pretty much all public domain; most of it was B-Western, though I did spot 1949’s Tulsa included (which is PD, as well). I didn’t notice anything non-western listed, though I guess I could’ve missed it – there was a lot in there!

I actually can’t believe this thing survived all these years. For awhile there, I figured it was long gone, until a relatively-recent dig through my “comic box” turned it up. (The “comic box” is a big huge plastic container I’ve had for decades that became the receptacle for my comic book collection and assorted pieces of memorabilia; lobby cards, autographed photos, and other miscellaneous items…stuff not unlike the A-1 catalog.)

I like my America One catalog, but there was one other catalog from a program on the channel (and thus, 29/35) that, in hindsight, I wish I would have mailed away for…

The classic Enigma Theater set and host… (1999?)

Enigma Theater with Edward St. Pe’ was A-1’s horror host showcase. I’m not sure if the time slot it aired in varied from location to location, but here in Northeast Ohio, it ran late, late Saturday nights – technically Sunday mornings. I can’t recall how long it was on around here; I want to say 1998 to 2000, but I could be all sorts of wrong there.

In sharp contrast to the local horror host offerings I was used to, Enigma Theater was much more straightforward; no wacky skits or the like. St. Pe’ would come out, introduce the film, give some info about it, maybe show a few clips, and then he’d just have brief segments throughout afterwards, sometimes pitching the Enigma Theater catalog and related videos for sale. I don’t know exactly what the catalog contained, because I didn’t have the foresight to get one, but today it sounds like something I’d absolutely love to have in my collection.

Enigma Theater had a pretty far-reaching range of films, too. There was the obvious stuff, like The Corpse Vanishes, but also some real surprises, like The Invisible Dr. Mabuse, Circus of Fear, and The Vampire People. Movies that didn’t always pop up on these types of shows. And at the time, it was one of the few nationally-televised horror hosted programs left. That number has since gone back up some, but still, it was relatively unique in that era. I wonder when it started and how long it ran?

I don’t know when Enigma Theater ended, but I know when my first association with The CAT did…


Everything I’ve talked about so far has been from my preferred era of The CAT, 1997-2000. Of course it’s my preferred era though; that’s when I grew up watching it! Unfortunately, that era ended for me at a later point in 2000. You see, to satisfactorily get the channel around here, you had to pay for basic channels. Not even specifically cable, just the ‘regular’ channels. After awhile, that gets pricey, especially since it wasn’t really necessary; all the local channels were free over-the-air. Eventually that was the route dad decided to take, the rabbit ears route. This was all well and good; we still got most of the stations I watched, and while the reception varied, most of it was watchable…

…Except The CAT. The sad fact of the matter was that 29/35 barely came through with rabbit ears. It was a sea of static, with only the vaguest of images in the background and no sound beyond said static. In other words, unwatchable in my neck of the woods via rabbit ear antennas. I was not particularly happy with this situation, but having even less money than I do now (and that’s really saying something), I didn’t have much choice in the matter.

All of sudden, The Son of Ghoul Show, the B-Westerns, and all of the old movies that had made up a large, large chunk of my entertainment at the time were barred to me, and that wasn’t good. On the bright side, this did give me a chance to further explore the other channels available to me, and thus over the following years I was able to more-fully appreciate Big Chuck & Lil’ John, David Letterman, and Saturday Night Live. I even discovered M*A*S*H in this era, which in very short order became one of my absolute top favorite shows of all-time.

Still, I obviously missed, and missed out on, a lot of what was happening on The CAT. Son of Ghoul got his own live call-in game show that ran for several years – and which I missed almost entirely. In fact, I saw little more than scattered glimpses and a promo. How’d I even see that promo? It’s a tale that actually goes back to around 1998…

One weekend afternoon, 29/35/America One ran the 1934 B-Western The Tonto Kid. I caught the film then, and kept waiting for it to show back up afterwards, but it never did – until late 2001.

I must have still kept regular tabs on what was running locally then, because when I saw The Tonto Kid finally pop back up on the schedule, I had to see it. It wasn’t a hand I wanted to play too often, but this was a (personal) big one, so on a weekday afternoon, I went to grandma’s house to catch it. The reception was still pretty fuzzy, but unlike home, the channel was watchable.

First off, The Tonto Kid is a great B-Western, a Rex Bell vehicle that is pretty unknown but a lot of fun. And, it’s lapsed into the public domain, which means that copies nowadays are fairly easy to find. But back then, for 99% of people, the rare television airing was the only viable option to see it.

All was not perfect with the occasion however, and I’m not just talkin’ about the reception, either. In the year or so since I had last watched The CAT, a lot had changed. The Tonto Kid was part of some new western theater presentation – gone was Alan Stone from at least this program, and maybe altogether. In his place was Red Steagall. Even all of the America One graphics and bumpers were new compared to what I had last seen. It was all just such a gearshift. None of it was bad at all, it’s just that I’ve never liked being taken out of my comfort zone, and for me, this was all so sudden.


Over the next few years, I caught other scattered bits of the channel, usually at grandma’s after school, and then in 2006 we finally took the cable plunge again. Son of Ghoul’s time had been shifted around some, at one point airing on Thursday afternoons (in addition to the normal Friday evening broadcast), which was a shocker, though it was alleviated somewhat by a selection of old television programs that were new to me; Meet Corliss Archer and Love That Bob were, are, awesome, shows.

Yes, Magnum was part of RTV’s line-up, and it was AWESOME, especially when we got local ads for it featuring the modified 29/35 logo! (2011)

And then, things really got shaken up, when “The CAT” became “RTV.” That is, Retro Television, a national channel specializing in classic TV. 29/35 became our local affiliate, and while a lot of the local flavor of the station ended with the switch, I gotta say, it was pretty cool. Magnum, P.I., Quincy, M.E., Knight Rider, Airwolf, The Incredible Hulk, Emergency!, and even horror hosting via Wolfman Mac’s Chiller Drive-In and Off Beat Cinema got airtime on RTV. And as we saw a few years ago, RTV became the-then sole place to catch reruns of Mystery Science Theater 3000 on real television. So, it wasn’t The CAT anymore, but RTV was pretty derned good to viewers, too. I just wish I could still watch it, man! (No joke; I’m missing the 1970s Soupy Sales Show they were rerunning when they left local airwaves.)


Goofball (me) on the left, the famous Brett Van Wagner on the right.

At this point, I’d like to turn things over to our good friend Brett Van Wagner, who helped out enormously with his contribution to the big Son of Ghoul 30th anniversary post. Just like me, Brett grew up with all this stuff – one of the few people I know who did! We didn’t know each other back then, but we had similar childhoods, and believe it or not, we were born only two days apart! A few years ago, we met entirely through the blog here, and quickly became friends. Brett doesn’t live in Ohio anymore, but he makes occasional trips back, and on his latest visit, we finally met up in person; we chatted so often, it almost felt like a formality! Brett is indeed a cool cat, and it’s an honor and a privilege to let him tell his story now:

My memories of THE CAT stretch back to 1997. That was the year I discovered Son of Ghoul, as well as this little local TV station that I quickly discovered was owned by the same folks that owned local talk radio station WNIR. Looking back, it is so cool that we had such a gem of a local television station on two different frequencies to cover so much of Northeast Ohio. It was definitely low power and low budget, but it featured a great mix of local content and some cool retro stuff that you couldn’t really find anywhere else.
I remember the bumpers between shows… the still shot of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I remember seeing the ads for “Beats 2 The Rhyme,” which would air “Friday nights at 12:30,” and the literal side of my brain always wanted to correct it to “Saturday mornings at 12:30”
Of course, huge props to THE CAT for giving Son of Ghoul a home for more than half of his career, as well as trying new stuff like the Son of Ghoul’s House of Fun and Games. Without SOG, I would never have followed such a cool and unique local TV station. I know it’s still around as a Retro TV affiliate these days, but where else could you find shows such as Dining Out With Steve programmed alongside Dobie Gillis reruns, a knockoff of Baywatch, a local horror host, and plenty of classic movies. It is always nice to share memories of THE CAT with my friend the Video Hunter – and to know I wasn’t the only one that followed the station so closely!

And with that, our big huge retrospective on WAOH TV-29 in Akron, WAX TV-35 in Cleveland nears an end. What a long journey it has been, and not just in the length of this monster article, either. Few channels and their content have been as important to me. Even though the station still exists in an altered form, the last piece The CAT has exited the arena. TV-29 has split, and with it, an indelible piece of my childhood.

I certainly hope one day Spectrum adds W16DO to their Akron line-up. For some time after 29 left, the screen you’re seeing right here is all I got when I flipped to the channel. Seems like wasted space to me, but then, I have no say or knowledge of the inner workings of cable line-ups; maybe it’s not an easy thing to make happen, I don’t know.

But then, even if it did come back around here, it still wouldn’t be The CAT of my youth. The CAT as I knew it, The CAT that fanned the flames of my cinematic fascination, The CAT that truly lead me to a genuine understanding and appreciation of local broadcasting, that CAT was basically gone in 2009 when it became RTV.

But then, things change. Heck, I’ve obviously changed over the years, too. That’s just the way it goes. Maybe some kid that discovered the station in 2002 or whenever holds the same nostalgic memories as I do for 1997-2000; I know this article is heavily based on my perception, but then, I don’t have a whole lot else to go on.

But it’s those memories, I think more than anything else, that’s so important here. If nothing else, I’ve got those.

Fare thee well, WAOH TV-29!

(Have a happy and safe New Year, gang! See you in 2018!)

A Brief Look at Christmas 1997

I’m working on a big huge end-of-year post, so this won’t be a long one. Even though it’s now the day after Christmas (Boxing Day for some of yous), two events occurred recently that made me think “hey, I can get a post out of this!” 1) I was digging through old family photos, admittedly with the purpose of an update in mind, and of which I had several prospects up for consideration. Of course I didn’t find the pic I had set out for, but this one here actually works better. 2) My brother went and picked himself up a brand new Nintendo Switch earlier today, and as he hooked it up for the first time, I was reminded of the same sort of feelings from Christmas 20 years ago. I had waffled back and forth on doing this post beforehand, and had finally decided to can it, but that event earlier today changed my mind.

And so here we are, with an absolute blast from my childhood’s past. Behold!

First off, that’s not quite everything received that day. The stuff to the left, with the exception of the TV, was mine. Everything to the right, which in actuality was in the middle of the floor, was “share.” (The TV was share as well.) I cropped out everything beyond, because those were my brother’s gifts and consequently I had little to say about them. He got a bunch of Beast Wars stuff, okay?

Why even bother with this post? Well, it felt a little strange not getting a ‘proper’ Christmas article up this year, but more importantly, I’m forever nostalgic and Christmas 1997 was one of the biggies for me personally. When I found this old photograph the other night, well, it fired the memory machine up – the very purpose of old photographs, I suppose.

While digging, I also found some pictures from Christmas 1998 and beyond, and there were some other good memories attached, to the point that I set a bunch aside and thought about giving each one a spotlight, but meh, I’ll just stick with this.

Here’s “my stuff.” Yes, I know it’s a little blurry; look, digital cameras wouldn’t be on our radar yet for a few more years. Plus, I obviously did some cropping.

So what are you seeing here? Starting from bottom-left, you’ll note that I too fell victim to the Giga Pet/Tamagotchi craze of the late-1990s. Yes, I got my very own Giga Pet! For those “not in the know” (do people still use that phrase?), these were little devices with an LCD screen that presented an animal of some sort. You were charged with taking care of said animal, with feedings and walks and so on and so forth. If you didn’t properly maintain your pet, it would up and die on you. No kidding, these things might seem pretty quaint today, but they were a big fad at the time. I don’t think I ever used mine much, and as such, my Giga Pet was probably constantly dead.

I’ve got no idea what the thing behind the Giga Pet is. I *think* it might have been a Tamagotchi carrying case of some sort. Don’t quote me on that, though.

Ah, but behind that are three VHS tapes that I still own to this day. From front-to-back, I received Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, Godzilla vs. Megalon, and Creature From the Black Lagoon. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I was very much into old horror and sci-fi films at the time (still am, too), and while it’s hard to fathom today, there was a time when a lot of these eventual-standards were still new and unknown to me, as these three movies were. I was (am) a big, big Godzilla fan, devouring any new old entry I could, so Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster and Godzilla vs. Megalon, I just loved it. And Creature From the Black Lagoon? You just can’t fault that flick! Like Godzilla, it was so great seeing new old Universal monster movies; I couldn’t get enough of ’em! (I know you can’t see Creature‘s cover, but trust me, that’s what it is.)

Next, I’m not sure what exactly the big Star Wars thing is, but look closely at what’s sitting in front of it: The Special Edition trilogy VHS boxset! Okay, even back then I wasn’t big on George Lucas tampering with the original films, but that did get them back in theaters, allowing me to see A New Hope on the big screen. So altered or not, that was cool. And besides, while in retrospect the Special Editions were the first indication that the Star Wars series could do wrong, the massive hype surrounding them in those pre-prequel days was certainly a lot of fun to live through. An extreme late-1990s throwback? Sure, but nostalgia can go a long way towards overlooking whatever problems a property may have had, and that’s the mindset I’m going with there.

Beside the Star Wars stuff: A pewter Superman statue, honoring the cover of the first issue of Superman proper. Next to that, a big two-in-one book, featuring the complete Frankenstein and Dracula novels back-to-back. I was (and am) an avid reader, and I did indeed read the Frankenstein portion, though I  never did much with ol’ Drac.

Finally, on the floor: I’ve loved praying mantis’ for years, so there’s some kind of wooden mantis kit there. Also, an Archie book of some sort. More importantly though, and I know you can barely see it, is what’s beneath both of those things: It’s the Mystery Science Theater 3000 Amazing Colossal Episode Guide! I was a massive MSTie even then, but having discovered the show on the Sci-Fi Channel, the Comedy Central years were almost entirely a blank slate to me, save for the few VHS releases out there. The episode guide did much to fill me in. Not only was in ridiculously informative, but it was also (of course) very, very funny. I loved learning about the different MST’d movies featured on the show over the years, some of which I had seen unMST’d and some of which I would specifically check out later. It’s wild to realize that at that time there were only a few episodes released officially on VHS, and now we’ve gotten very nearly the entire series!

So, that was “my stuff,” which means we’ve come to the “share pile…”

Look, I’ve got severe memories tied to all of this, but man, this is where the nostalgia goes into hyper drive.

In the very back was one of those tabletop pinball machines, this one for Donkey Kong Country. Neat, but impossible to not be overshadowed by what’s right in front of it: A brand new Nintendo 64 console! I don’t even remember asking for a ‘next gen’ system, but man, N64 was just such a leap forward compared to the 16-bit era I had been stuck in. In fact, in the very front of this pile is a brand new Super Nintendo power supply (the old one had bit the dust) and Super Star Wars, which, 1997 or not, was and is timeless. But really, it was all about the N64 here.

Obviously a spare controller is present, and behind Super Star Wars is Super Mario 64 – I may not be able to find the words to properly describe Super Mario 64. The game was just so unbelievably great! The hours my brother and I spent on that during Christmas break and beyond, I’m not sure I want to know. There was so much to see and do in the game, and aside from a sometimes-wonky camera (hey, this was basically uncharted territory), it played fantastic. Heck, I think it still plays fantastic! Indeed, Super Mario 64 would absolutely find its way into my top ten favorite games list, should I ever be required to make one.

Even though the N64 would lose that respective console war, and there are any number of complaints gamers can (and will) lobby against it, you won’t find me among their ranks. Simply put, very rarely have I been blown away by gaming the way I was that Christmas 20 years ago, taking that first true plunge into the 32/64-bit era. The original PlayStation may have been better, but for as much as I love it, I could never love it more than the Nintendo 64.

(Oh, that Daewoo TV seen to the far left in the first picture up above? That was for the N64, so we could have our own TV to play it on without tying up the main one in the living room.)

So anyway, as my brother hooked up the Nintendo Switch earlier today and we played Super Mario Odyssey, to me the whole event recalled our first experience with Super Mario 64 (the similar controls didn’t hurt, either). As I said, that was the final thing that spurred me into writing this post. I wasn’t trying to break any new ground here, just trying to share some personal memories of one of my favorite Christmases. And 1997 was absolutely near the top for yours truly.

I hope everyone had a great Christmas yesterday. I’ll see you again before the year is out!

Toy Review: Super Ninja Action Figures!

Look, I’m not really a “toy guy.” Not a full-fledged one, anyway. Sure, I like a lot of the vintage stuff, early-1990s or before, but I really only buy when I come across them cheap at thrift stores and the like. And as for new toys, very rarely do I pick any of those up. The figures related to the Adam West Batman series were the last ones to really strike my fancy, producing in me a fervor that was quite unprecedented for an (ostensible) adult. Still, even then I didn’t wind up getting the entire line, and now I’m too far behind to ever catch up. At least I have my official Surf’s Up Batman action figure to ease the pain.

So yeah, when it comes to action figures and whatnot, it’s a somewhat limited range for yours truly. There’s an exception, however: The budget toy aisle. Whenever I find myself at a store that features toys, I simply have to check these things out. There’s something alluring about those oftentimes cheesy, fragile, poorly-painted pieces of plastic sold for low, low bargain prices that I just can’t resist. I think it all comes down to charm. These things frequently have charm to spare, and it usually works out for the better anyway, since I so rarely have money anymore. It’s the best of both worlds!

Which leads me to my latest acquisition. You want charm? You got it! Behold!

It’s the incredible Super Ninja action figure set!

The merits of this should be immediately, brick-in-the-face obvious to anyone. You know those common masked wrestler/ninja/whatever figures that have been repainted endlessly and sold in various forms in dollar stores all across the U.S.? I don’t know how, when or where the molds originated from, but they must give them out free with each tank of gas in China, because countless manufacturers have tried their hand at figures cut from the cloth, so to speak.

Well, that’s what these guys are, those common ninja figures, but with paint jobs approximating the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles! Now that’s cool!

Also included is a mask I’m not about to wear, for approximately six thousand reasons.

It’s important to note that these aren’t bootlegged or pirated action figures, and if they’re considered knock-offs, it has to be only technically so; these aren’t turtles, and no reasonable consumer would confuse them as such. Sure, thanks to the paint jobs it’s clear who these guys are aping, but at the same time, they’re so different that the manufacturer apparently skirted any legal issues. Or so I hope, anyway!

I think of these as “gravy train figures.” We’ve had stuff like this for years, and not only with toys; whenever there’s a popular TV series, movie, or what have you, companies come from near and far with products that hope to ride on the same wave as whatever the current phenom is. It’s actually part of the fun; sure, you naturally want all of the legit, officially licensed products of your favorite whatever, but at the same time, it’s a blast to see what “supplemental” releases are out there. To me, Super Ninja nails that latter ideal.

These guys have seemingly been around for a few years now, and not at hole-in-the-wall shops or sold under the counter, either; these figures are evidently sold in discount stores all across the U.S., as well as from major online retailers. Not sure why I didn’t become aware of them until only a few months ago, but better late than never, chief.

Before I release my ninja guys from the plastic prison in which they are, as of this picture, still ensconced, here they are unsullied. We’ve got ninjas mimicking the colors of Leonardo, Raphael and Michelangelo, plus a mask that couldn’t decide if it wanted to be red or orange so it went burgundy. I still refuse to wear it.

There are a couple different variations on this set. There’s another one with the same digs as mine, except the mask is blue and the figure approximating Mikey is subbed out for one that apes Donatello. Needless to say I went for the “Mikey” variant, but to be frank, as long as there was a red one included, I didn’t really care. Raph was always, and still is, my favorite turtle.

But those aren’t the only two sets out there. There’s also one that includes all four characters at once plus a plastic, kid-sized play sword, and one that includes only one figure, a rockin’ motorcycle for said figure, the wearable mask and the plastic sword to go with it.

Online searches say these are made by “OKK Toys.” There’s a small blurb (and UPC) on the otherwise-blank back of the card mentioning them as OKK Trading, along with JPW International Commerce of California. Apparently this all originates from Zhongshan City, Guangdong, China, which sounds about right. Other than that, there’s no company info to be found on the packaging.

They’ve been unleashed! And boy, they don’t have much weight to ’em!

No kidding, these things are incredibly light. A strong fart could probably blow these guys across the room. It’s the kind of fragile plastic that has you second-guessing whether or not you should make use of their points of articulation, though you don’t have many options there (more on that momentarily).

Aside from the color schemes, there’s no difference between the figures, but then, did you expect there to be? As such, it’s all about the weapons here. OKK was kind enough to include several fightin’ choices for your fightin’ guys. My picks? Red Ninja got the sais. Blue Ninja got the sword and, I don’t know what they are, wrist-mounted claws I guess. And Orange Ninja got some kind of scythe, presumably so he can go and work the wheat fields when he’s done combating crime. ‘Course, it’s totally up to you which figure gets which, if any, weapons; the possibilities are endless!

Because you’d have little hope of keeping them in place otherwise, little pegs in which to attach your weapon or weapons of choice are graciously provided. Because these figures were made with a combined total of approximately two ounces of plastic, this at first seems to keep your Super Ninja’s hands from needless wear and tear, except that the little pegs don’t really inspire much confidence, either. Look closely to your left and you’ll see that Orange Ninja’s peg is already showing the tell-tale signs of bending; I was handling these things pretty gingerly, but even so, I’m not sure how many trips across that bridge I can take before I’m the victim of heartache. I couldn’t even get Blue Ninja’s sword in place at first because one side of the hole in the sword was too small, though victory was eventually mine. Guess what, Blue Ninja; that’s staying in your hand for life now. However, I had relatively few problems with Red Ninja, which is only understandable, since he’s aping Raph and Raph was always the best Ninja Turtle. (That’s a scientific fact, man.)

Despite implications made on the packaging that the figures would have articulated arms, elbows, heads and legs, they, uh, don’t. The actual figures only have articulated arms. Since you can’t adjust the legs, this means they often have trouble standing under their own power when weapons are placed in their hands. And good luck keeping them upright should you decide to have them raise their arms in victory whilst holding said weapons; ain’t gonna happen, chuckles!

I didn’t test this theory to be sure, but something tells me that if you were to, against all reasonable appearances, attempt turning a figure’s head or bending its leg anyway, you’re in for a world of plastic shards.

The “Action Ninja” motorcycle pictured on the card is pretty rad. I’m not sure how these guys are supposed to ride it, but it’s a nice thought. Me want!

On the “Leo but not really” figure’s incredibly-chiseled back is this convenient sticker, reiterating its OKK Trading / Zhongshan City birthplace. That’s as close to copyright info as you’re going to get with these guys, and frankly, I’m amazed it has managed to stay affixed to the fig since leaving its Guangdong, China homeland.

(I’m not convinced “Zhongshan” and “Guangdong” are actual places found on this planet, but since plastic action figures have never lied to me before, I guess I’ll take their word for it.)

For the sake of scale comparison, Super Ninja(s) are taller than Honky Tonk Man, and quite a bit taller than the Noid, but are still dwarfed by an inexplicably-bearded Dwight Schultz action figure. This picture is important because it not only gives you, the reader, an idea of Super Ninja height when compared to more well-known figures, but also because it gives me, supposedly an adult, the chance to play around with toys while under the facade of providing informational information. My life is empty and I do what I can to fill it.

Just for fun, here’s our heroes in a half-shell being accosted by a cop out walking his beat. I have deemed this cop O’Malley, and he suffers no shenanigans; Super Ninjas look like a bunch of hooligans, and this is a safe street!

(The police officer comes from a line of solidly-colored yet impressively-detailed actions figures I found at the dollar store several years back. There were several different related figs to a bag, with police, firefighter and army varieties available. They totally had a leg up on the Super Ninja team, as they all featured five full points of articulation. The police and firefighters were my favorites, because they gave me the potential to reenact Adam-12 and Emergency! scenes on my living room floor.)

Aw, why not…

There, I put the mask on. I put it on for YOU. It’s more comfortable than I thought it would be. Kinda bothers the bridge of my nose a little, but then, it probably wasn’t made for people of my size and/or age. I could wear it around in public easily enough, provided I wanted to confuse passerby (which I do). I look more ashamed in the pic than I intended to; selfies are tricky, yo.

And so there you have it, the incredible, unbelievable Super Ninja action figure set. Three figures that kinda sorta recall Ninja Turtles, and a mask that kinda sorta does, too.

So, in summation, what has this article proven? That Super Ninja action figures are cool, all-blue street cop action figures are cool, and that I’ve got far too much time on my hands.

Return of the 1975 RCA AU-097Y Portable TV! (Plus a Look at XENOPHOBE for the Atari 2600!)

Sometimes I have a problem where I’ve got more than enough stuff that I could write about, but, frankly, can’t really decide on any one subject. Such was my problem recently, as I looked at the boxes of VHS tapes, stacks of DVDs and mounds of old electronics around me, yet continued to be at a loss. I couldn’t get fired up over anything. Then, my eyes fell upon my beloved RCA AU-097Y portable TV from 1975, which I wrote about waaaay back in 2013 – in the early months of this very site! I have always loved the extreme 1970s-ness of this TV, but even so, that alone wasn’t enough to bring it back for a return-appearance on my stupid dumb blog. So what warranted a quick picture-taking session?

The latter years of the Atari 2600, that’s what! (This post is more for fun than anything. Plus, I haven’t written anything for November yet and constantly fear that y’all will abandon me.)

Now, I can play Atari 2600 (or if you want to get technical, Atari 7800) pretty much any time I please. I have one constantly at the ready in my “office” (ha!), and while I don’t play video games a whole lot, I do occasionally need to, as the ads used to say, reach reach reach for Atari. This doesn’t normally require usage of a 42 (!) year old TV, however. So, why did it now? Xenophobe, that’s why!

The picture to the right says it all: Midway’s 1987 split-screen arcade game was given the 2600 treatment, the title-screen of which you’re seeing right here. Xenophobe has long been one of my favorites on the console, which is funny, since I’m not big on the arcade version or most of the higher-end ports (the Lynx adaption wasn’t bad). I guess in the 2600’s case, “less is more,” though. While the more advanced versions retained much of the comical, cartoon-like atmosphere of the coin-op, the 2600’s weaker graphic and sonic capabilities meant only the ‘meat’ of Xenophobe was retained. It comes off quieter, more desolate, which for a game originally inspired by the Alien films, I think serves the 2600 port well. Plus, the fact a game this advanced even made it to the 2600 at all, in an extremely playable form no less, is purty derned impressive.

Here’s the deal: This 2600 port was indeed released in the U.S., at the insanely late date of 1990 (actually, this AtariAge thread says it didn’t ship until Spring 1991!!), which means there were/are NTSC copies out there, but for the longest time, they were pretty rare. I mean, by 1990/1991, the 16-bit era of video games had dawned; who would have thought they’d still be releasing games for a console introduced in 1977 in an age where the Sega Genesis had been unleashed?! It’s true – the Atari 2600 wasn’t officially discontinued until January 1, 1992. This wasn’t a one-off release, either; there were a slew of new 2600 games released in the wake of the infamous 1983 video game crash, after Nintendo totally revived the industry. Many of these newer 2600 titles were, and are, super-impressive, featuring NES-like formats and gameplay and graphics that many just wouldn’t think possible on the 2600.

Xenophobe is one such game, but by the time it saw release in the U.S., the market for the 2600 was all but dead. Overseas though, there was still some life left in the beast, the result being that you could find PAL copies of many of these hard-to-find US titles for a fraction of the cost. And that’s where my RCA TV comes in.

As you may imagine, games in the PAL format from that era aren’t generally known to run correctly in the U.S. Colors will be off, and more drastically, the screen can roll, rendering the game unplayable. However, by using an old school CRT TV with the capability to adjust the vertical hold, you can stabilize the screen to normal, and if you’re using a black & white set, as I did here, why, the mismatched colors don’t even matter! Cool winnins!

I own a (as I was assured by the seller) sealed NTSC copy of Xenophobe, which I had to pay real money for back in 2001 or 2002, but my loose copy is PAL. I’ve had a hankerin’ for some 2600 Xenophobe lately, so, well, you can deduce how we got where we are right now.

(By the way, the prices for NTSC Xenophobe, as well as other late-era releases, have fallen drastically in the years since I nabbed my sealed one; a ton of new old stock U.S. copies were uncovered in Venezuela some years back and made available to the masses, which means that what once were mega-rare titles are now surprisingly common, and affordable, via online sales. I’ve got several of these, another Xenophobe included, winging their way towards me as we speak.)

To make Atari happen on the RCA, I had to kick things way old school. Yep, via screws and an ancient RF switchbox – the kind you had to slide a switch to TV or game when you wanted to enjoy either. That’s what you’re seeing to your left here. Nothing unusual about it; this is how video game consoles were hooked up back in the day! On the RCA, there’s no other way.

Actually, it’s kind of a kick to hook a system up to a TV this way. You know, I grew up plugging things into the RF port, or via AVs, so it’s sorta neat to attach a console in such a wildly obsolete fashion. It feels very late-1970s/early-1980s appropriate, even if the Atari 7800 (which also plays 2600 games is thus my normative choice of Atari console) didn’t come out (nationally) until 1986, when this method had almost-certainly been widely-superseded by the RF/AV thing I just mentioned.

There are a bunch of contrasting eras at play here. You’ve got a black & white TV from 1975, displaying a game copyrighted 1990 and apparently released in 1991 and made for a console introduced in 1977, which in turn was being played on a console released in 1986 but included native backward-compatibility with that console introduced in 1977. Why, it’s enough to make your head swim!

So, back to Xenophobe. If for some reason you thought I had some kind of authority in the world of Atari (Hint: I don’t) and asked me to name my top 20 games for the 2600, Xenophobe would absolutely be on that list. Actually, it’d make my top 10. I love the game!

To your right is the opening scene of game play (I’d venture to guess that this is the only pic of the game being played on a black & white TV from 1975 on the internet – for the time being). Now, most people probably think of 2600 games as simple affairs, but Xenophobe is actually pretty expansive, comparable to many then-modern games. There are eight stations to visit throughout the game (though there’s no ending; it loops after the eighth), and stations that include different rooms, with some having multiple levels accessed via elevator. And as we saw above, it even features a legit title screen!

Graphically, the game really wows. Like any console, the longer it’s around, the more the programmers can get out of it.  Okay, sure, compared to the NES or 7800 (both of which had ports of Xenophobe), never mind the Sega Genesis (which didn’t), the graphics are extremely blocky, and gamers nowadays would probably laugh so hard at them that they’d spill whatever hyper-powered soft drink they had chosen for their all-night online gaming session. But given the system it’s on, Xenophobe is definitely impressive. Your character is rendered in multiple colors, the animation is (mostly) smooth, there are a variety of aliens to combat, and from outside appearances at least, the space stations are varied; I really liked all the gadgets and junk that adorned the walls of the areas you traversed, too. There’s even separate cut-scenes featuring your mother ship coming upon an infested station! Neato!

Musically, there’s some bits adapted from the arcade that don’t sound bad at all, and the sound effects are serviceable; there were certainly far worse to be found on the 2600.

The plot of the game involves several space stations that have been infested by alien beings (“Xenophobes,” as per the manual), and it’s up to you to clean ’em out! Yep, you beam on board each station, alone, and must systematically clear out a required number of aliens before you can be beamed back to your mother ship. (If you take too long, you’re beamed back aboard while the infested station self-destructs.) The aliens range from pods to tentacles to gigantic, dangerous beasts, and you’ve got several weapon choices scattered throughout the ships to help exterminate them.

Xenophobe‘s gimmick in the arcades was that the screen was split into three sections, allowing for three players going at the game simultaneously. For obvious reasons, the home editions generally cut that down to two, and as you can see, the 2600 followed suit; that bottom half is reserved for the second player – but not simultaneously! Yep, despite the split-screen, players must take turns, even though it’s still player one on the top, player two on the bottom. I get that having simultaneous game play like that might be too much for the ol’ 2600 to handle, but then why have the split-screen at all?

That bit of irritation aside, Xenophobe is pretty solid. The difficulty may be a little uneven; get the powerful “Poofer Gun” and you can basically cruise through what would otherwise be some pretty tough stages, stages that are a little insurmountable without it or a plentiful supply of grenades. Still, the mark of any good game is how often you (or at least I) keep coming back to it. Despite having not played the game in years, I indeed kept coming back for another round.

(By the way, it’s worth noting that the 2600 wasn’t the only “early” video game console to last as long as it did; the Intellivision, initially the 2600’s main rival, also enjoyed a revival and ultimate lifespan stretching into the late-1980s/early-1990s. However, the Inty never got Xenophobe, and thus Atari won yet again.)

So, aside from using an ancient CRT TV to get around the rolling screen issues, what did I learn playing Xenophobe this way? 1) I don’t mind playing in black & white. 2) There’s an odd sense of “coolness” playing the 2600/7800 in this fashion. It just looks neat. I hesitate to use the word “authenticity,” but there’s probably some of that in there, too. 3) TVs this old emit a smell that’s not particularly pleasant. I looked the phenomenon up, and while I forget the technical term now, it’s apparently normal. Doesn’t change the fact that I have a hypersensitive nose and that first night of play gave me, no joke, an ill-feeling. Subsequent plays were better; maybe the smell dissipated? Or maybe my nose just got used to it? I dunno.

Because this is just sort of a fun, dash-off post, I’m not sure how to end it. I played the Atari 2600 port of Xenophobe on an RCA TV from 1975, okay?

Actually, I do know how to end this post; I didn’t spend a long time playing it, because honestly I just wanted the picture seen here, but I did fire up another 2600 favorite, and this one was more period-appropriate: 1978’s Basketball!

When it comes to sports games, I’m not sure it gets more primitive than Basketball (that it’s right here, duh!), but man is it fun. It’s a one-on-one game, and you can play either the computer or another person. I didn’t this time around, but the two-player mode is where it’s at. Competitive in all the best ways. The graphics and sound are probably more in line with what people think when it comes to Atari, but the play is what counts, and Basketball has it to spare! Get it? “Spare!” Cause it’s…oh wait, I’m thinking of Bowling. That’s a favorite too, though.

So there you have it. I busted out the beloved 1975 RCA AU-097Y portable TV for a picture-taking session, and more importantly, several Xenophobe sessions. Nowadays, people like to mod their 2600’s for AV, HDMI, and so on and so forth. Play ’em on flatscreens and whatnot. Hey, nothing wrong with that. If I had the skills and the spare consoles, I’d take that plunge too. (Actually, I do have the spare consoles…but not the skills.) Still, sometimes you gotta kick it really old school, and I feel I have accomplished that arbitrary task exceedingly well.

Also, playing Xenophobe without the screen rolling like a madman is nice.

VHS Review: Frankenstein (1931; MCA Videocassette Inc., 1980)

Happy Halloween!

Once again we come to the big day! This entire month (well, most of it), I’ve tried to keep things adequately “spooky,” and it has all been leading up to this showstopper. We’re gonna throw things waaay back with what is quite possibly the very first home video release of what is also quite possibly the greatest horror film ever made: 1931’s Frankenstein! If it’s not the first release, it’s at least certainly among the earliest, not counting home super 8mm copies and whatnot. (I’m talkin’ VHS and Betamax here, man.)

In the realm of horror movie royalty, Frankenstein resides way, way near the top; if it’s not #1, it’s at least a top ten’r, maybe five’r. And even if its ability to scare has almost-certainly diminished in this more-jaded movie-going age, it still easily and aptly holds up as a genuinely great, great film, one that supports more than a few iconic moments and has basically become the veritable symbol of Halloween (you know, today).

This was put out my MCA Home Video (then billed as MCA Videocassette Inc.) in 1980, and while Frankenstein was by no means a ‘new’ film even then, it’s wild to realize it hadn’t even hit 50 years old by that point. It’s now 86 years old, and this tape itself is closer to 40 than it isn’t. I’m not sure where I’m going with all this. It’s an old VHS of an old movie that wasn’t quite as old 37 years ago as it is today, okay? There, wrap your mind around that!

When this was released, home video was still very much in its infancy. These tapes weren’t exactly cheap, never mind the VCRs required to play them. As such, rentals were the main order of the day, but even so, don’t underestimate what a revolution in movie-viewin’-at-home this was. No longer did someone have to wait for their favorite flick to show up on TV, if or when it ever did; nope, all it took was a quick trip to the video store to net them a rental, or ownership if they felt like really prying open the wallet. (Full disclosure: I have no idea how much this tape originally retailed for.)

Although they’re a more-protected species nowadays, at the time these Universal classics were still widely seen on local stations, regional horror hosted programs, and so on and so forth. But to actually own an official copy of the film, to pull it off the shelf whenever you darn well felt like it? That’s something we totally take for granted nowadays, but for classic horror fans in the early years of home video, I’m just not sure it got much cooler than that!

‘Course, while there are some differences in the print here, which we’ll get to, it’s not like this movie was unique to one specific era of home video; nowadays, you can get the film itself or the entire series on DVD or Blu-ray. I find it hard to believe that anyone reading this post hasn’t seen Frankenstein, but if by some chance you haven’t, you really owe it to yourself to pick up a minty fresh new copy right quick.

Anyway, this tape. Anyone familiar with the later video releases of not only this movie but the other Universal classics will recall how elaborate and striking their covers often were, sometimes even utilizing original poster art. Gene Shalit could even show up, too. As such, the relative sparseness of this release is a little striking; it’s the kind of tape that really could have only come out in those first few years of home video.

Not that it’s bad, mind you. The mostly-purple & black color scheme is attractive and gives off the appropriate vibes one would associate with a movie of this nature. Ditto for the tinted close-up of Frank’s mug. I like the semi-Gothic (?) font used for the title, and I’m by no means a “font guy.” It’s just, like I said, the whole thing feels a little sparse compared to what was to come, though that’s no one’s fault; video covers would soon become increasingly eye-catching – the simpler, earlier days of the format soon gave way to big ol’ boxes and legitimately striking artwork, all in an effort to entice prospective buyers/renters (obviously). I guess what I’m saying is that this release could have only come out in those first few years of video. Wait, I already said that! Well, it still holds true.

If not the film as a whole, then at least the actual character of Frankenstein (or “Frankenstein’s Monster,” for all you technical types) has become, arguably, the most famous of Universal’s many many monster movie (alliteration) creations. It stands to reason this original flick (along with fellow-perennial-favorite Dracula) was among the first released on home video by MCA. Frankenstein‘s sequels had to wait a bit longer to come to VHS, however; for example, The Ghost of Frankenstein didn’t show up until 1993!

The back cover continues the color scheme, along with two shots from the movie and the expected description. Be happy there even was a description; some early video releases used the back cover primarily to hawk other titles from the company. The description here is pretty good, giving just enough exposition to draw the buyer-renter/whoever in and nailing the hype without ruining the movie. And look! Says right there: “The greatest horror film of all time!” Told ya!

Here’s what the back cover doesn’t tell you, though its not at fault by any means: Frankenstein is a movie that has been released numerous times on numerous formats – but not quite this version. I’m a little unclear whether certain scenes were excised before the original theatrical release or upon a subsequent re-release (I’ve heard both), but either way, Frankenstein was seen for years in a (slightly) truncated form. Perhaps the most famous example of this was Frank’s inadvertent drowning of little Maria; an edit to the print made the monster seem much more sinister than the original cut intended, and that’s all viewers knew for decades. The missing scene was rediscovered and rightfully added back to the film in the mid-1980s (video releases from the time notated this fact right on the front cover), and that ‘fixed’ Frankenstein is what we’ve had on home video for years. (There were a few other fixes, but unlike the King Kong I linked to a bit ago, the film wasn’t extensively chopped up.)

HOWEVER, since the footage hadn’t been rediscovered (or at least added back in) yet, of course the first few video releases were of the older, non-restored print, and needless to say, that’s what we have here. Now, naturally I’d never argue that Frankenstein should definitively be seen in this form, but it’s absolutely fascinating to see the version that was it for decades, and which is now, you know, not.

While on the subject of the print, Frankenstein has been restored and remastered over the years, and the result is that the version we have today looks pretty stunning; Universal has treated these films well! Even if you just watch one of them on Svengoolie, you’ll usually see something pretty crisp and clean – Universal does good work, and as far as Sven goes, they often provide upgraded prints as they come along, too.

But for a 1980 VHS release of Frankenstein, well, what could you really expect? The print is good, it’s certainly watchable, and probably better than what would have been airing on TV around that time. But, there’s an amount wear, dust, etc. to the print that just wouldn’t fly nowadays. Maybe it’s not that surprising; it is an early video release of a movie from 1931, after all. Don’t get me wrong; this Frankenstein doesn’t look ‘bad’ by any stretch of the imagination (I mean, you can’t even tell from the title screen screencap there), It’s just that, frankly, I’m so used to these Universal horror films looking so…so clean. But hey, you gotta start somewhere, huh? And yes, I know the remastering technology wasn’t then what it is now. (By the way, for a VHS tape that’s closing in on 40 years old, it looks and plays quite well on that particular front.)

So, do I really even need to describe Frankenstein? Even if someone hasn’t seen it (yeah, uh huh), they know the basic storyline. Even though this film was adapted from Mary Shelley’s 1818 book, this Universal adaptation, which deviates wildly from the source, has become the iteration burned into the synapses of the public. When people think “Frankenstein,” 99.9% of them think of Boris Karloff’s immortal portrayal here. And the plot? The story has become a horror staple; people know the background and the monster even if they haven’t seen this 1931 masterpiece.

The plot concerns one Henry Frankenstein, a scientist who believes he has discovered the secret to reanimating life. As such, he, along with his hunchbacked assistant, go about stealing dead bodies and piecing them together. You know, an arm here, a leg there. (As I said before, we live in a more-jaded age, but worded like that, it still sounds pretty grisly.) Things take a wrong turn when, as the final piece of the puzzle, the assistant steals an abnormal brain. (You’re thinking of the Young Frankenstein gag right now, aren’t you?) Henry, via lightning storm, succeeds in giving the mass of body parts life, bad brain and all. If there’s one image from this movie that can be considered the most iconic in a film full of iconic moments, it has to be Henry’s exclaiming “IT’S ALIVE!” when the creature begins to stir. Trouble, of course, soon follows.

And that brings us…Boris Karloff. His portrayal of the monster is an absolute marvel; a creature capable of death, destruction and vengeance, but at the same time, also humanity. The fact he does this with no real dialogue is amazing. Yes, the monster has a deranged mind, he kills, but there’s also a real gentleness about him; watch early on, soon after he’s first reanimated, and sunlight is let in through the roof – the creature futilely reaches up towards it, and it’s just an incredible moment. Indeed, one of the great tragedies of this older print is that some of that humanity is obscured – the scene where he accidentally drowns Maria is a chief example, and though only a very small moment in the overall film, it’s a very important one, which is why the later, restored versions of Frankenstein are such a triumph.

And how about that make-up! There have been numerous depictions of Frankenstein’s monster over the years, but only one that continually sticks in the mind of the people, and that’s Karloff’s portrayal here. Sunken cheeks, flat head, bolts in the neck, the whole shtick; c’mon, you already know how he goes!

Many people point to 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein as topping the original. I can understand that thought, but I still gravitate to this first film, though the monster’s newfound power of speech in Bride makes for some iconic screen moments. At any rate, the first three movies in the series (this, Bride, and 1939’s Son of Frankenstein) feature Karloff as the monster, and he’s fantastic in each one. Those are terrific movies in general, though I love this series as a whole (and have a particular soft spot for 1942’s The Ghost of Frankenstein).

Still, it all comes down to this original Frankenstein. This is the kind of movie horror films are built upon. No joke, it’s quite possibly the perfect Halloween movie, rivaled only by Night of the Living Dead. But whereas Dead is a gritty, nihilistic late-1960s social commentary, Frankenstein is, in my mind, the definitive horror film of Hollywood’s golden age. Both are great, but for pretty different reasons, even if they do both share the whole “reanimated corpse” theme.

Frankenstein, to me, is the horror film of that era in Hollywood; evocative sets, a fantastic storyline, unforgettable acting, a budget. Everything about it is just right. It draws you in from the first scene and never lets you go. How can anyone not love it?

So, to have the movie here in what is probably the first edition released on VHS, it’s not just a cool collectible, nor is it just a cool relic of home video’s past. I mean, it is all that, but it’s also a piece of horror movie history; the first time consumers could own the movie for home use, authorized and officially. As I said before, I’m not sure it got much cooler than that!

And with that, our big Halloween update comes to a close. Have a happy and safe holiday, everybody! And hey, why not throw 1931’s Frankenstein on at some point, whatever version you may have?

VHS Review: The Little Shop of Horrors (1960; Video Treasures’ 1990 Colorized Version Release)

We’re coming to the home stretch gang; Halloween is next week! By now it should be obvious that when it comes to seasonally-appropriate movies, I prefer the old stuff: The classics of the 1930s, the poverty row works of the 1940s, and the cornball drive-in fare of the 1950s and 1960s. Some of the flicks I dig are generally perceived as less-than-great, while others are widely considered legitimate classics. Today, we’re looking at something from the latter end of that spectrum.

1960’s Roger Corman opus The Little Shop of Horrors is somewhat of an anomaly. Based on the plot and production values (it was filmed for figurative peanuts in only two days!), by all means this should have been little more than a cheap and cheesy horror quickie; fun and entertaining perhaps, but not something particularly good. That’s not how it turned out though. Everything lined up perfectly for Shop, the result being a genuine classic. It’s fast-paced, well-written, and thanks to some terrific dark humor, pretty funny. It may very well be Corman’s best movie. I certainly consider it to be.

As it turned out, a fate that befell other ‘big’ horror films also happened to befall Shop: It lapsed into the public domain, and that, coupled with its status as a “cult classic” ensured that the movie would be readily available at pretty much any given moment. No joke; you’d almost have to be trying to avoid The Little Shop of Horrors in order to not see it!

Enter the mid/late-1980s, the booming home video market, and the then-new (and then-controversial) process of colorizing black & white films. It stands to reason that some of the more legendary grayscale movies would be prime candidates for colorization, and that’s where our subject today comes in: The Little Shop of Horrors was given the color treatment in 1987 and released by the much-missed Vestron Video.

The tape we’re looking at now, however, is not that Vestron release, but rather a 1990 re-release by the industrious Video Treasures. Video Treasures put out a lot of tapes around that time, and there’s some legendary titles amongst its ranks. I’m not sure how they came to own the rights to the colorized version of Shop, but as far as I’m aware it’s the exact same print as Vestron’s. And so here we are.

First off, look at that cover art! Just look at it! Yes, for those unaware (all three of you), Jack Nicholson is indeed in The Little Shop of Horrors, though it apparently wasn’t his very first appearance in a motion picture. Still, it’s certainly one of his earliest, and the acclaim garnered by the film as a whole means that everyone involved was/is for the better, Jack included.

Though, the cover art points to a popular trend among releases of Shop: They like to play up the Nicholson angle, even though he’s not in it for very long. I mean, it’s understandable; he’s a name draw, an uber-recognizable face, so of course you gotta take advantage of him. But in reality, Jack isn’t even close to the star of the film (he was still a few years away from Batman, man).

The cover art used here is some of the more-famous artwork to be found gracing the front sleeve of a Shop release; it was used on no less than four separate VHS releases of the movie. Maybe even more, I don’t know. Three of those were for this colorized version: The 1987 Vestron release, this 1990 Video Treasures version, and one by Avid Home Video in 1992. The fourth one was United American Video’s 1987 VHS of the original black & white print, and that’s the one I had back in the day (still do, actually). Found in Best Buy’s fabled $2.99 VHS section, I was immediately drawn to that cover art, and actually picked up two copies: One to watch, and one to keep minty sealed fresh. That well-drawn picture of Jack, dressed to the nines and happily pointing at a presumably-killer plant, was and is immediately eye-catching, and as far as I’m concerned, some of the coolest cover art of the late-1980s/early-1990s VHS era.

The synopsis on the back cover is word-for-word the same as what appeared on the Vestron release. Actually, it was the same on the 1992 Avid VHS release, too. It seems that whoever gained the copyrights kept the particulars and only changed up the formatting and appropriate criteria (i.e., manufacturer etc.) somewhat.

That’s okay though, because the description does a pretty good job of selling the movie. Why fix what ain’t broken? I do take a few issues with it, however: 1) Calling it a “trash masterpiece” doesn’t work for me. It’s a cheap comedy-horror film, yes, but I’ve never thought of it as “trashy.” 2) Audrey wasn’t the daughter of the flower shop owner, was she? 3) That final line kinda gives away the conclusion of the film, though not definitively, and I suppose it could be taken either literally or figuratively. Still, I would have left that part out.

(Also: Hey, Video Treasures was situated in Ohio! Cool winnins!)

Needless to say, the fact that this is the (then) newly colorized version of the film is touted more that once, and why wouldn’t it be? You could get a regular ol’ black & white version anywhere! And speaking of the colorization…

Wikipedia says the movie has been colorized twice: This one, and a 2006 version by Legend Films. That Legend version was well-received, but this one less so. First off, Legend does good work, so that part doesn’t surprise me. As for the reception of this initial colorized version, I get that was released relatively early in the colorizin’ game, but even so, I actually didn’t mind it. Don’t get me wrong, I prefer that movies filmed in black & white stay in black & white, but as a relic of a time when the coloring process was still quite controversial, I can’t help getting a small nostalgic kick out of the proceedings.

And I’ve certainly seen worse colorized films. A trained eye will certainly be able to tell this wasn’t originally filmed in color, but to me, it’s less jarring and “in your face” than it could have been. Actually, some of the colors looked a little muted to me, though that may have been a combination of the tape’s age, the LP recording speed, my cheap beater VCR, and/or my eyes playing mind games with me. I don’t have any real complaints concerning the colorization process, but then again, it’s not like I don’t have the original version readily available to me at any and all times; maybe it would have been a different story if this was the only print accessible, which of course was one of the fears regarding colorization as a whole in the first place, but it’s not so it isn’t. (IMDb says this colorization was authorized by Roger Corman himself, but it also mentions there were several continuity errors in the coloring process, so I’m guessing that was probably more a reason for the poor reception than anything.)

I will say that the movie’s intro was a cause for concern, however. Look at that title screen above; see those “colored boxes,” for lack of a better descriptive term? As the opening scrolls to the right, those boxes just sort of remain stationary (for the most part), and it’s not a great effect. It reminds me of those old school color “screens” people used to place on their black & white TVs. Methinks they would have been better off giving the opening credits a single, solid color, but things settle down once the movie proper starts.

So, The Little Shop of Horrors. Is there anyone here that hasn’t seen this movie? Raise your hands as if I could possibly see you please. No? No one? Thas what I thought. The critical acclaim and public domain status have both ensured that this is one of the most widely-seen classic horror films going. It doesn’t top Night of the Living Dead in availability, but then, what movie does? Shop can still be mentioned in the same “ain’t no copyright on dis flick” breath though, and that’s pretty impressive nevertheless.

The plot, for all six of you who haven’t seen this, concerns one Seymour Krelboyne, a lowly worker at a skid row florist. Seymour is a screw up, and at the threat of being fired, Seymour saves his job by presenting an odd plant he has grown as an attraction for the shop, named “Audrey Jr.” (after fellow florist Audrey, who Seymour is in love with). The plant is unusual; it’s a hybrid with some venus flytrap genes in it. Unfortunately, Audrey Jr. doesn’t like to eat; attempts at ‘normal’ plant nourishment don’t do anything for it. It’s only after it accidentally gets a taste of Seymour’s blood that the truth is revealed: This thing craves humans! After pricking his fingers dry, Seymour knows that more is needed to keep the thing alive. Soon after, Seymour accidentally, and fortuitously (ha!), causes the death of a stranger. In order to cover his tracks, he scrapes up the body and feeds it to Audrey Jr. (above), and from there on, well, you can see where this is going. Seymour must satisfy the plant’s cravings with more and more human morsels.

There’s a healthy dose of humor in The Little Shop of Horrors. Jewish humor, to be specific. Jewish names and lingo are thrown about liberally. Further laughs are found in Seymour’s constant unwitting acts of murder; he never means to kill, it just sort of happens, though of course the curiosity of the cops is aroused nevertheless. Indeed, the film plays out somewhat like a morbid spoof of Dragnet, with Joe Friday and Frank Smith parodies found in Sgt. Joe Fink and Officer Frank Stoolie, who are on the case of the missing persons. (On a side note, the Dragnet-ish feel is something I really appreciate about the film, being a big fan of the actual TV series, and totally adds to the charm of the movie. It’s not unique to Shop, though; the 1956 Lon Chaney Jr. “epic” Indestructible Man used the same device, and even though for years I gave that movie short-shrift, a recent viewing found me reappraising it, not just due to the general entertainment factor but also thanks to the Dragnet-esque framing used.)

So what about Jack Nicholson’s role in the flick? As I said, he’s not in the movie very long, but his sequence is very funny. Jack plays masochistic dental patient Wilbur Force, who Seymour works on while posing as a dentist (after killing the real dentist – in self-defense, mind you). Jack doesn’t become a meal for Audrey Jr., but he gets one of the funniest moments in the whole film. As a masochist, he actually enjoys the visit to the office, with the final gag being him happily walking out and displaying his new trainwreck of a smile. Funny stuff! Jack would later get bigger roles (duh!), and even starred in Corman’s The Terror alongside Boris Karloff some three years later, but when it comes to his uber-early work, well, it’s tough to top his small bit here.

The Little Shop of Horrors is a movie that really holds up. Unlike a lot of horror/sci-fi films that have lapsed into the public domain, Shop is genuinely good. Sure, it was cheap and quickly filmed, but in my opinion that just adds to the charm. The horror elements are legit, but the film is largely a goof, and it all comes together perfectly as a whole because of it. Clearly it did something right; besides the unending fandom attributed to it, the flick also served as the basis for a popular musical, which in turn became the 1986 theatrical adaption/remake.

Like any colorized movie, I’m not sure I could ever recommend the altered version over an original black & white print, but as a supplement to the real deal, I’m fine with it. Colorization has obviously advanced in the years since, but there’s something about taking a trip back in time and watching a work from the earlier years of the process that’s a lot of fun. It’s not always perfect, but as a late-1980s/early-1990s throwback, it’s worth a watch. It makes for good, fairly-harmless Halloween viewing, if nothing else.

(By the way, for a print apparently authorized by Corman, I was a bit surprised to see that this particular version did not include the original ending credits. Many black & white copies lack them as well. My very first viewing of the movie, off of good ol’ 29/35 way back in like 1997, featured them, but few, if any, I’ve seen since have.

Speaking of 29/35, last night channel 29 said goodbye. The station will live on, without any line-up changes, as Cleveland’s channel 16, though unfortunately Spectrum doesn’t currently carry that feed. This means yours truly is going to need a real antenna to pick it up. Even though the channel isn’t really gone, to me this truly feels like the end of “The Cat.” No other station, local or otherwise, was quite as important to me while growing up than The Cat, and as such, it feels like another piece of my childhood is lost forever. Such is the way with life, however. The memories will live on, and I suppose that’s the best any of us can hope for.)