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VHS REVIEW: Popeye in “Ancient Fistory” (Amvest Video, 1989)

Hey, do you remember when I wrote about that Amvest/Kid Pics Alice in Wonderland VHS tape, and I expressed my desire to find one of their offerings with the “Happy Hamster” intro and outro host segments included? Well, this review comes courtesy of that ongoing quest.

They don’t show up at thrift stores and the like very often, but in the time since I wrote that review, I’ve picked up several additional titles in that bygone line of budget videos. These tapes were your standard kids fare of the time, focusing on public domain cartoons and such (no small field back in the 1980s & 1990s, granted). Think Parent’s Approved Video, except harder to find nowadays.

Anyway, none of those subsequent finds yielded the ‘Ster (and two of them had the wrong tape inside; I still picked ’em up for the sleeves if nothing else, but it’s irritating because I generally don’t find mismatched tapes that often), so it was with that continuing failure that I picked up this Ancient Fistory, starring Popeye. This wasn’t a thrift purchase though; nah, I resorted to online buyin’ for this one. I thought the relatively-later date of 1989 would prove promising (I had been hovering around the 1986/1987 mark, and while you never know with this company and re-releases and whatnot, apparently the Happy Hamster waltzed on the scene around the 1988/1989 mark).

Look, it was $10, the shipping was free, and it came with three other Popeye tapes that I didn’t really need, so I pushed aside the nagging thought that I’ll eventually find it at a thrift somewhere and just bought it.

Of course, it figures the Happy Hamster isn’t on this one either, but I blew $10 on the tape so I’m getting a post out of the thing anyway.

(Actually, truth be told, awhile back I did pick up one of the Amvest releases with the Happy Hamster, a three-tape set of old Disney cartoons. Even though the shorts presented are all presumably public domain, I don’t want to taunt Mickey’s crew, so no-go on the update front where that one is concerned.)

My reference to Parent’s Approved Video (PAV from here on out) a bit ago was intentional; a lot of the earlier Kid Pics tapes featured artwork and fonts similar to PAV’s, so much so that at first glance it’s easy to think a certain one is a PAV title. But, as the years rolled by, the artwork started becoming a bit more sophisticated, relatively speaking. The tape we’re talking about today is a good example; just look at it here! The artwork isn’t just competent, it’s actually pretty good! Seriously, this is no small feat; there were some seriously-lacking budget Popeye tapes out there back in the day. Getting Popeye to, you know, look like Popeye, that didn’t always happen. But it happened here and that means Amvest won that round.

As per the back cover, here’s our line-up: Ancient Fistory, Greek Mirthology, A Haul in One, and Insect to Injury. These are all Famous Studios-era entries in Popeye’s oeuvre; while there are several cartoons from my preferred Fleischer-era Popeye that have lapsed, most of the public domain Popeye shorts are from the later Famous Studios years, and as such make up the majority of budget VHS (and now DVD) releases.

While I feel the Famous shorts pale in comparison to the Fleischer series (particularly the Fleischer series prior to them moving the studios from New York to Florida in 1938, after which they cutesy-upped and watered-down our one-eyed sailor), the Famous cartoons are still pretty solid, consistently good-not-great in my opinion.

Four cartoons on this tape may not sound like a whole lot, but considering that some budget releases around that time got away with three or even only two entries (sometimes with additional PD cartoon filler, sometimes not), four entries is practically a smorgasbord of animated fisticuffs! Even though they omitted my personal favorite Famous Studios Popeye, 1957’s Spree Lunch (the penultimate cartoon in the original Popeye theatrical series), this is still a solid bunch of cartoons, and had they flipped the last two entries, they’d even be in chronological order!

Let’s check ’em out, one by one…

The tape’s namesake comes from the very first cartoon presented (gee, you don’t say!), and it’s one of those ‘fantasy’ Popeye entries that I tend to be ambivalent towards. It’s not bad though, with some pretty funny sight gags (including a literal bullseye) and even an appearance by Poopdeck Pappy!

1953’s (ignore that copyright credit here; Wikipedia says it dropped on 1-30-53) Ancient Fistory is a play on the old Cinderella tale. Here, Olive Oyl plays a princess who is hosting a ball in order to net a hubby find a suitable prince. The kingdom isn’t stated, but considering all the “ye” declarations and “-eth” suffixes, old timey England is the implication.

Popeye works in the kitchen of “Bluto’s Beanery,” in the servile, dressed-in-rags role (it’s a pretty miserable existence, apparently), though Bluto must be doing pretty well with the venture; he’s spiffily dressed and headed to the ball. Enter Popeye’s “Fairy Godfather,” as portrayed by Poopdeck Pappy. Pappy turns a can on spinach into a slick automobile (anachronism?) and gives Popeye some swanky duds, with the expected caveat that it all goes away at midnight.

Like so many of these shorts, Olive falls for both Popeye and Bluto, which sets in motion a series of feats of strength. Popeye doesn’t win before midnight, but then the car turns back into the can of spinach, Popeye consumes said can of spinach, and, well, you know how things turn out.

The second short presented continues the “ancient history” theme. 1954’s Greek Mirthology always seemed to me like Famous’ attempt at getting in on the vibes of those two-reeler cartoons from the Fleischer reign that placed the ‘Eye in situations featuring historical characters (Sinbad Sindbad, Aladdin, Ali Baba) but without recycling footage from those cartoons (which Famous also did).

‘Course, it’s not like these cartoons in general were always strictly “real time,” and this isn’t a two-reeler, so I’m probably all kinds of off-base here. Still, that’s how I’ve thought of Greek Mirthology in the past and how I will continue to do so in the future. And you can’t stop me.

Here, Popeye recounts the tale of great-ancestor Hercules to his nephews Pip-Eye, Peep-Eye, Pup-Eye and Poop-Eye in an effort to get them to eat spinach. (It’s important to note that not only was Popeye given actual teeth by this point in his run, but his one eye is just squinty rather than straight-up missing, which is good, because his nephews all exhibit the same trait.) According to Popeye, Herc had been getting his strength from sniffing strong garlic (glad he wasn’t eating it!), until a marauding bully (Bluto, of course) shows and discovers the weakness in that method. A chance-landing in a spinach patch (naturally from a Bluto punch) produces superior results, and the rest is, erm, history.

Popeye’s nephews naturally remain unconvinced and head outside to get some ice cream from a vendor who turns out to be…Bluto! In a sad turn of events, Popeye doesn’t deliver a beat down upon him as the short concludes.

The third cartoon takes place solely in the present time (I presume), but it’s still more-or-less the same as what we’ve just seen twice-over: Popeye and Bluto competing with each other until Popeye ends it all by downing some spinach. Olive is back as the object of desire again, as opposed to the attempt to gain love for spinach from the nephews in the previous installment. Look, the general plots of these were pretty durable, okay? (Similar or not, they were all pretty entertaining, to the endless credit of the people behind these cartoons.)

1956’s A Haul in One is one of those Popeye cartoons in which he and Bluto are actually pals at the start, before Olive enters the picture and provides the catalyst for punchin’. Here, the two former (?) sailors have their own moving company, an apparently harmonious affair until they stop by Olive’s. It’s never explained why she’s moving, but I’m going to assume it’s due to unpaid rent. (Good luck gettin’ your deposit back, Olive!) Anyway, as you may have guessed, Popeye prevails in the end.

Now is as good a time as any to talk about the print quality of all this. Technically, Amvest didn’t get terrible copies of these shorts; there’s some dust and whatnot, but compared to how they could have looked, these really aren’t that bad. Far uglier things have shown up on budget videos!

The main problem is the VHS duplication. Boy are these blurry! Sure, the prints were probably a few generations removed anyway, but there should still be more sharpness than there actually is. It all just looks like a budget VHS tape. (Go figure!) And I was playing all this on my right sporty RCA SVHS deck, too!

Still, this wasn’t meant to be an archival release. This was for the kids, and on that front, hey, they’re more than watchable, they’re entertaining, they’ve got their opening cred—

Aw c’mon!

Yes, this is how our fourth and final feature commences. Obviously there was some VHS-to-VHS duplication going on at some point! 1956’s Insect to Injury, on my copy here anyway, starts at the beginning, but not the very beginning. Not only were the opening credits MIA, but you’ve got that on-screen VCR info up in the upper-right hand corner!

I’m going to guess this took place when they were creating their “master,” I doubt they made each and every copy from VHS-to-VHS. Unless they were, I dunno. It’s kind of a funny reminder of how laid back things could be in that era of budget video, if nothing else.

As for the short itself, Popeye’s house is besieged by termites. They eatin’ up everything, man! No Bluto or Olive in this one, it’s strictly Popeye vs. bugs. It ends the same though: Popeye fails in his quest to stop the creatures, so he slams some spinach and builds a house out of metal. The termites aren’t destroyed by this, but they are defeated.

You know, I realize Popeye’s famous “I takes all I can stands…” line implies a certain amount of patience, but really, shouldn’t he have realized at some point that his natural strength can only take him so far? Just stay powered up on spinach all the time, man!

Anyway, there you have it, four Famous Studios Popeye adventures courtesy of Amvest Video’s Kid Pics division. These tapes aren’t very common, and since Popeye (and Superman, while we’re at it) are top-tier PD cartoon properties in my eyes, I had to nab this one online. It’s fun, it’s entertaining, and it’s a good example of budget cartoon compilations from that era. If nothing else, I got a post out of it, so I’m saying I got ten bucks worth out of the whole thing.

I just wish the Happy Hamster had been included.

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A Ghoul Power Journey, 20 Years On…

CAUTION: Long, drawn out personal memories forthcoming! (Also, it will probably help if you have at least some working knowledge of The Ghoul beforehand.)

The man himself, during a 1999 book signing.

July 10th marked the 20th anniversary of The Ghoul’s return to Cleveland airwaves, courtesy of our WBNX TV-55. (Yes, I’m well aware the majority of August is now over.) 20 years?! It’s almost shocking how quickly time has passed; it (figuratively) seems like only yesterday that I was writing about the 15th anniversary of the occurrence. I don’t know what troubles me more: the fact I’ve kept my silly blog going for five years now, or that I’ve let 20 years slip by without accomplishing anything of lasting importance.

Nevertheless, allow me now to do some reminiscin’ of Ron Sweed’s legendary late night horror host. The time is right, and besides, while I’ve related some of these tales before, it’ll be nice to present them again in an updated (i.e., better written) manner. Bear with me here group, this’ll be a long one…

Backstory:

Ron Sweed was a young associate of the legendary Ernie “Ghoulardi” Anderson (he of Cleveland horror hosting legend) in the 1960s, and it was by Anderson’s permission that Sweed resurrected the character in the 1970s, albeit with a change in name. Sure, with the fright wig, one-lens sunglasses, fake beard and mustache, and button-adorned lab coat, they looked the same. And yes, with declarations of “Stay Sick,” “Turn Blue” and “Ova Dey” and a similar penchant for blowing things up with firecrackers and adding various drops-in, video and audio, to the (admittedly) terrible movies he ran, they even shared some of the same traits. BUT, The Ghoul developed his own manic persona. His was wild, he was wacky, he was destructive, and his sense of humor was decidedly warped. With his declarations of “Ghoul Power!” he was hero to kids and the hip and enemy to those with supposedly “good taste.” The Ghoul was something special.

He first started hosting horror movies in Cleveland in 1971, on the independent WKBF TV-61, and through the magic of syndication also hit in other markets around the country. Indeed, he was just as big in Detroit as he was in Northeast Ohio. Thanks to viewer complaints and a station on the brink, his first run here came to an end in 1975, though he came back on 61’s successor, WCLQ, in 1982 and enjoyed a few more years in the Cleveland market. Add to that various runs outside of Ohio, and you had a host that really got around across the decades.

That was all before my time, however.

Despite having a vague knowledge of Ghoulardi, knowing of Superhost in my formative years, and having occasionally watched Big Chuck & Lil’ John prior, I was really just learning about the fine art of horror hosting in full in 1997, when I was 11 years old. It was actually a nationally broadcast show out of Minneapolis, Mystery Science Theater 3000 on the Sci-Fi Channel, that introduced me proper to the concept of bad-movie-mockin’, and which in turn led me to The Son of Ghoul Show on The CAT 29/35.

Now, the internet was around then, and we had it (ah, the days of slow, clunky, will-it-or-won’t-it-connect dial-up!), but it wasn’t nearly what it is now. As such, I was very much discovering all of this stuff for myself first-hand, as it beamed from the cathode ray tubes of our television and directly into my brain. In other words, if I didn’t see it aired, I may have had, at best, only the most passing knowledge on a given local subject. To think, there was a time when I wasn’t aware of The Ghoul!

Fast forward to the summer of 1998, when a relative passed along a newspaper clipping that she thought I might find interesting…

The Discovery:

My first glimpse, indeed my first knowledge, of The Ghoul came from an Akron Beacon Journal article covering his return to Northeast Ohio TV. This was fascinating stuff! A new (but not really) host for me to check out! As a 12 year old heavily into this sort of thing by then, this was exciting news! I was also curious; obviously I didn’t know what to expect. How could I? Like I said, this was all new to me.

The fateful newspaper article that led me to Ghoul Power…

You know, one of my favorite things in my entire horror host collection is actually that old Akron Beacon article. As you can see here, it’s yellowed a bit; that’s because it hung on the fridge for awhile. And the picture used wasn’t originally in color; I did that myself some time later prior to, obviously, having him sign it at a personal appearance somewhere (more on those later).

No, it’s not in “mint condition,” and it’s not archival quality in the slightest. I tend to be a perfectionist when it comes to collecting this stuff, but here, none of that matters. Why? Because this article and the history that goes with it, that’s all part of my personal Ghoul Power story, that’s why! Today, it proudly resides in a scrapbook I have dedicated to these sorts of things, and there it shall remain.

ANYWAY, thanks to that article I now had some background knowledge on the man, but I still didn’t know how this was going to play out. I was used to a certain way of local horror hosting, so how exactly was this going to work? It was a curious anticipation, to be sure.

A still from WBNX’s original promo spotlighting The Ghoul’s return.

In the days (weeks?) leading up to the July 10 debut, WBNX began running a promo for the return, and this was my first glimpse of The Ghoul “in action.” There he was, hopping down the street on a bouncy ball, waving at cars, all while the expected “I’m back!” type voiceover gave the pertinent details. Okay, this was different!

So Friday, July 10, 11:30 PM rolls around, and I was…well, actually, I can’t remember if I was there watching it live or if, thanks to the magic of VHS, I first checked it all out the next day. Honestly, I’m remembering it both ways, and I’m not sure which scenario is the truth and which is just my mind playing tricks on itself. And I’ve got a pretty good memory, too!

The first episode was 1993’s Ghost in the Machine, not really my kinda movie but a bit of “B” movie fare typical of WBNX’s offerings at the time. The Ghoul’s segments were a mix of old and new material, mainly his new segments introducing old ones. The following week (1983’s Up From the Depths) continued the trend.

Annnnnd that’s kinda where I dropped off. Over the following months, I’d check in occasionally, but the sad fact of the matter is I wasn’t an instant fan of The Ghoul. It was more of a progressive fandom; the more I watched, the more I appreciated. The good news is, when I finally ‘got’ it, man, I really got it!

The Fandom:

It was in the waning months of 1998 that I really started finding my Ghoul Power voice (I even went as him for my grade school’s Halloween party that year), and by early ’99, I was a young-but-dedicated “Ten Star General in the Ghoul Power Army.”

At a time when I was still very much developing my own sense of humor, The Ghoul displayed to me a “chaotic absurdity.” The destructive tendencies, firecracker-induced or otherwise, humor that was often positively non-sequitur-ish, it was all incredibly appealing to a 12/13 year old kid. (More than a few G.I. Joes met their demise in my backyard thanks to the influence of The Ghoul, by the way.) There was a warped sense of humor running throughout the entire show; even something as simple as using a toilet as a regular seat on his set was, to me, fantastic. Still is!

The man himself, staying sick and turning blue on set!

Like Ghoulardi before him, The Ghoul would often mock fellow local television personalities. News anchorwomen Denise Dufala (and her then-recent CD) and Wilma Smith were regular targets, as were Big Chuck & Lil’ John, who were running directly against The Ghoul over on WJW TV-8 at the time. It’s important to note that this was all in good fun; there was no real animosity there.

Some of my favorite moments were the simple ones, when he was merely sitting on the set, ostensibly talking about something but really just goofing around and cracking the crew up. Like Soupy Sales used to do, when The Ghoul had the crew laughing at something he said or did, it just made things all the funnier. And add an almost “familial” touch to the proceedings, too!

Indeed, one of my absolute favorite examples of this was “egg in a bottle,” from March 1999.

Some weeks prior, The Ghoul had demonstrated a trick in which an egg was sucked into a milk bottle by lighting a piece of paper and setting the egg over the opening – and it worked! Well, a few shows later, he revisited the bit, this time with the goal of not only getting the egg in the bottle, but then getting it out as well.

The problem was that nothing went correctly that second time around. The lit paper would be dropped in, and the egg would start to ‘go’ but then stall. Multiple failed attempts soon devolved into throwing the eggs around between him and the crew and lotsa ad-libbing. After several minutes of failing to achieve the first part of the goal, The Ghoul coolly stated “I don’t care if we don’t show the rest of the movie…” which caused the crew to crack up. And when the paper wouldn’t stay lit afterwards, he wondered aloud if they had any lighter fluid, which got another boisterous response.

Finally, he just pushed the egg down into the bottle and then sucked it back out with a straw, which was the purpose of the bit in the first place. It wasn’t so much the activity itself that was funny, but the interplay and goofing around between The Ghoul and his crew that summed up exactly how much fun this show could be. Even today, the whole segment is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.

Froggy being bombarded with some “raven residue.”

Oh, and how could I forget The Ghoul’s nemesis, Froggy! A small frog doll with a red coat and bow tie, Froggy was originally a 1940s & 1950s children show character, and who was later appropriated by The Ghoul for any number of destructive purposes. Summoned by being implored to “plunk you magic twanger, ova dey” and continuously spouting “hiya hiya hiya,” over the years Froggy was subject to being fried, chopped, blown up, immolated, thrown, kicked, stomped, and any other number of indignities The Ghoul reveled in bestowing upon him.

(There was also a full-sized Froggy, as in costumed adult, that appeared frequently on the show.)

It’s also to The Ghoul’s credit that, in the more-jaded late-90s/early-2000s, a lot of the stuff that would have raised eyebrows in the 1970s and even 1980s but would seem tame in the 1990s (especially when compared to, say, professional wrestling or whatever was airing on MTV or Comedy Central) still managed to work. Of course, the guy had been doing this sort of thing since 1971, it was probably all second-nature by that point, and The Ghoul went about it all with such a zeal that even some bits that didn’t quite work were still worth watching.

But you know, I fully realize that The Ghoul was/is a phenomenon that not everyone would get. (Same goes for Ghoulardi, Chuck & John, etc. etc. etc.) Unless you’re from Northeast Ohio or one of those areas that ‘got’ the humor (as Detroit wisely did), there’s a chance that if I were to show you an old episode right this moment, you’d watch and then say “okay…?” The declarations of “Boffo Socko,” “Zowie Scowie,” “Turn Blue,” and constant jabs at news anchorwoman Denise Dufala (“The secret word is DUFALA!”) probably would have left most outsiders scratching their heads.

That was the beauty of regional horror hosts though; their humor was aimed at a specific target audience. Someone in L.A. most likely wouldn’t get it, but they weren’t supposed to. This type of programming instilled a connection, and dare I say local pride, with the audience that, outside of nightly newscasts, seems to be a dying art form nowadays. The Ghoul excelled at it though.

And he fit so well into the vibes of late-90s Northeast Ohio, at least from the perspective of a 12/13 year old. Ernie Anderson’s passing in 1997 and The Drew Carey Show being a comedic force on a national scale, there seemed to be a renewed local interest in all of this stuff that made us, well, us. That feeling seemed to subside as the 2000s dawned and television in general went through increasingly radical changes (even Drew, for his last two seasons, was first moved to a terrible Monday night time slot and then burned off during the summers), but it was a wonderful ride while it lasted.

Over my years with The Ghoul, there were lotsa memorable moments. Beyond the surface stuff of anticipating a new old bad movie and seeing what he had in store for a given week, there are particular high points that stick out in my mind, both from back in the day and in retrospect.

When it began, The Ghoul Show had new host bits with the main maniac, but much of the focus was on the old material from the 70s and 80s. The Ghoul would come on in newly-filmed segments, and then introduce a clip from the past. I was entranced by these moments, and my early reluctance towards the show was almost-certainly due to the fact that the new stuff didn’t look like the old stuff. The material from the 1970s and 1980s, to me, it just looked like how a horror host show should look. The new Ghoul stuff (obviously) had a more modern look, with computerized titles and graphics. These graphics have aged well for the most part, but I wasn’t thinking of that at the time. Anyway, luckily, I came to my senses and realized that all Ghoul Power was good Ghoul Power. That’s why we’re here right now!

When new material took precedence, the 1970s & 1980s sketches were relegated to (usually) a single moment during the show: The Ghoul’s Vault of Golden Garbage. The Vault was a feature going back decades, and given its possibility to introduce me to old bits I wasn’t around for the first time, it quickly became one of my most-anticipated moments each week. (As the years went by, newer 1990s/2000s segments could occasionally show up in the Vault feature; that was always disappointing to me, because, hey, I was probably around for them the first time!)

The Vault, both in that early going and later when it was a separate segment, introduced me to the original usage of the “Ghoulzooka,” Chef Curdle, C. Miller, Froggy destruction, The Ghoul’s MDA telethon Jell-O jump, and other assorted bits of wackiness. I loved so much of it. But, being a Japanese giant monster movie fan, I think my favorite examples were the ones in which The Ghoul interacted with Gamera.

The Ghoul with Gamera, on two separate occasions…

Gamera movies were evidently well-known entities on The Ghoul Show in the 1970s, and The Ghoul took it upon himself to give them some extra-skewerin’ at least twice. The first known to me was the top image to your right: some fans sent in a “rocket powered” Gamera model, which The Ghoul and crew then launched across the studio. It was a very funny bit, mainly because it involved more joking around than anything, including The Ghoul losing it when Gamera’s head fell off during a demonstration of what was going to happen prior to launch.

The second occurrence known to me (but apparently happened first, given The Ghoul’s early set) was even ‘bigger’ and is what you’re seeing in the bottom-right shot: The Ghoul “interviewed” Gamera himself! Another very funny moment, mainly because The Ghoul had to tell Gamera how bad his movies were, much to Gamera’s embarrassment. The segment then ended with The Ghoul pulling Gamera around the set on a dolly, as if to mimic his flying. Simple, goofy, and irresistible. I loved (and love) stuff like that.

Ah, but probably the most memorable moment for me was a then-new one. Understandably, it was the time he opened a package I sent him on the air. I later wrote him emails that made it on, but the first was definitely the biggest and best.

The setting was July 23, 1999, the movie Bride of the Gorilla (a new one to me at the time; bonus!), and following one commercial break, I got probably the biggest thrill I ever got watching the show.

This particular life goal? ACHIEVED.

I had loaded this package up. First was what I deemed a “Parma Yo-Yo,” which was just a cut-out from a box of pierogies with a string taped to it, and which you were supposed to lamely bounce up and down. The Ghoul cracked up, seemed to get a big kick out of it (“And if it don’t do that, you got a bad one!”), but surprisingly I never saw it on the show again.

Then, there was a big “Ghoul Power” banner. I found a huge piece of paper somewhere and had decorated it with a whole bunch of phrases from the show. I think my hope was that it would make it onto the permanent set, and while The Ghoul seemed to like it too, I never saw it again, either.

BUT, the piece de resistance came at the end: I had gotten a cheap, terrible Jackie Chan movie from Best Buy’s fabled $2.99 VHS section, and despite two attempts at enjoying it, it was just too awful. So, what better way to dispose of it than by asking the main maniac to blow it up?

The Ghoul happily obliged, and in spectacular fashion.

I was positively flipping out during all of this. I was cracking up, literally jumping and down, I was so excited. (Hey, I was 13.) It, along with the time Letterman read one of my letters on the air, was probably one of my biggest “TV moments,” even if the two aren’t comparable on a viewership scale. It was, and is, certainly among my top favorites anyway.

Lotsa Time Slots:

As noted, The Ghoul debuted on Friday, July 10, 1998 at 11:30 PM, in what was a 2 1/2 hour time slot. For a good part of that first year, that was how long he ran, and let me tell you, by the time the show ended in the wee hours, it almost felt like you had finished running a marathon or something. It was like a bit that had happened at the top of the show felt like it had taken place eons ago by the time it was all over. It was pretty great.

At some point in 1999, I want to say slightly before the 1st anniversary but maybe slightly after, the time slot was shortened to a straight 2 hours (I recall the 1st anniversary special being 2 1/2 hours and thinking that it was a nice throwback). While this sort of took away the aforementioned “marathon” aspect, the truth is it didn’t hurt the program all that much at all. The Ghoul still packed a ton into those 2 hours, and you know, probably the only real difference was more editing to the movies!

The number of running gags, recurring jokes, and general momentum was a lot of fun to watch build and grow week after week, and by September 2000, the amount of things that had been built upon, expanded, and so on was not inconsiderable. But it was all about to take a serious hit.

Announced on September 15, 2000 (the movie was Karloff’s The Ape) and commencing on September 24, WBNX moved The Ghoul to Sunday nights at 12 AM (technically Monday morning). I had lived for those Friday nights, The Ghoul was such a great way to kick off the weekend, and now, it was being taken away from me! Summer and holidays were one thing, but during the school year (when you needed that dose of Ghoul Power the most!), my staying up for the show just wasn’t feasible. I had a hard enough time getting up in the morning as it was! Still, that’s why they invented VCRs. I was unhappy with the situation, but this was livable – I guess.

Until I saw that first Sunday show, anyway. The movie was 1993’s direct-to-video comedy Remote. There were no sound effects, no drop-ins, and The Ghoul’s host segments were severely scaled back. I was crushed. All that momentum, seemingly gone in one fell swoop. I still remember the day I discovered this; I had to run out to the garage for something, and I have this memory of being in there, sun streaming through the windows, and just feeling totally deflated.

An example of The Ghoul’s changing movie fare and time slot when he was moved out of Friday nights.

If you’ve read this old article (and if you haven’t, don’t bother; it sucks), you’d recall I was pretty down on the “Sunday era.” Now of course it wasn’t like it was when The Ghoul was on at 11:30 PM Fridays, but in retrospect, it wasn’t all bad. While a wider-range of movies was the norm (cheapo action flicks, comedies, dramas, more-modern horror and sci-fi, even the occasional animated fare, most of it without his famous during-movie-drop-ins), some of these actually worked pretty well on the show, especially the “B” action flicks from the likes of PM Entertainment and such. And when The Ghoul got a healthy amount of host segments throughout, it was all the better.

And, once in awhile, he’d do an “old style” show. That is, an old cheapie ‘classic’ loaded with drop-ins and plenty of Ghoul segments. Despite the lack of this happening on a regular basis, when it did occur, The Ghoul hadn’t lost a step.

It was in the midst of that Sunday night/Monday morning era that the world forever changed. I very much tend to look at many things as pre-9/11 and post-9/11, especially things (in this case, television) from the few years both immediately preceding and immediately following the travesty. It seems that pre-9/11, there was an undefinable air of innocence, I suppose, that was taken away afterwards. It was in that darkest of times that comfort was found in those aspects of our life that had become, well, almost a part of us, I guess you could say. I wish The Ghoul hadn’t been so inaccessible to me, a freshman in high school, at the time, because it was shows like his that helped bring a temporary comfort to a world gone mad.

I actually dug out one of my old Ghoul tapes recently, and it featured the episode right before 9/11, and what appeared to be the first one after. The first one was normal enough, but then the one after, where there’s the appropriate tributes and shows of solidarity during the commercials, it was and is heartbreaking. How quickly things can change.

The Ghoul on his “Breakfast Club” set.

It was in that post-9/11 world that the “Ghoul Power Good Morning Breakfast Club” experiment began. On October 8, 2001 to be exact, when the show was moved to 1 AM Monday mornings. Technically a worse slot, though my circumstances didn’t really change one way or the other; I still couldn’t stay up to watch it. The movie was Street Crimes, a low budget action flick from PM Entertainment and starring Dennis Farina that was a good example of what made up a good chunk of The Ghoul’s fare during that time period. It actually worked pretty well with the show – though I suppose your viewpoint on that would largely depend on how tolerant you are of “B” action flicks in the first place.

The gag of the “Breakfast Club” was that at 1 AM, it was Cleveland’s earliest morning show, thus starting your day off right before anyone else. Filmed on a different set and with humorous looks at traffic and weather and guests sharing coffee (typically associates and characters that tended to be on anyway), it was an interesting idea that worked far better than it had any right to, but it only lasted for maybe 6-8 months; by the summer of ’02, the show was back to its normal set and structure.

In September of ’02, the show was finally moved out of the Sunday/Monday hole and back to Friday nights/Saturday mornings…early Saturday mornings; it was slotted at 3:30 AM! I can’t decide if this was more or less accessible than before. On one hand, it didn’t coincide with a weekday, but man, depending on the movie, you’d be finishing up at around 5:30/6:00 AM. Look, I’m a habitual night owl, but even that goes a little too far for me.

(The final “Sunday era” broadcast was on September 2, 2002 with House on Haunted Hill; one of those “old style” Ghoul shows, loaded up with drop-ins and host segments. When he resurfaced in this new, uber-late time slot, the movie was 1996’s Yesterday’s Target.)

I really have no idea why WBNX moved The Ghoul out of Friday nights 11:30 PM or why his movie choices were, to a large degree, altered. Was it a ratings-issue, an attempt at giving him the all-around of Big Chuck & Lil’ John, or…? I just don’t know.

Sadly, and I hate to admit this, it was around that time (fall 2002) that I fell away from watching. Well, taping; the sad fact of the matter was that I kept recording for years, but rarely got around to watching the shows. Heck, I rarely got around to even checking/labeling the tapes! They just kept piling up! Teenagers do dumb things, and in hindsight, I’d have stuck with the program till the end (2003 or 2004, depending on the source), but at 16 years old, I guess you’re not that forward-thinking.

I never stopped liking The Ghoul though. Some of my happiest TV-viewin’ memories are of those Friday nights at 11:30 PM, watching him fool around against that black backdrop with the hazy border or goofing off on that junk-laden set. Indeed, I still have this very clear memory: summer of ’99, relaxing to The Ghoul on a Friday night, all alone, the window behind me open, cool breeze filling my nostrils with the scent of nearby bonfires. It was such a great feeling.

I have memories of tuning in on Sunday nights as well, but they’re not as numerous or as, erm, memorable, for obvious reasons.

The Ghoul in a local Norton Furniture ad.

A fun addendum to The Ghoul’s 1990s/2000s Cleveland revival: in the mid-00s, he appeared in a few local commercials for Norton Furniture, an establishment that specialized (specializes?) in late night advertising. Often of a surreal nature anyway, the two (I think there were only two) spots featuring The Ghoul had him chasing around store owner Marc with the intent of cutting off his ponytail for a new phony beard. (The second spot featured a cameo by Froggy, too!)

Airing around 2004/2005, these Norton Furniture ads were some of the last times, to the best of my knowledge, that The Ghoul appeared on Northeast Ohio television in a regular capacity. (And lest you think commercials shouldn’t qualify as “regular capacity,” bear in mind Norton Furniture ads were all over late night TV in these parts at the time; if you liked staying up late as I did/do, you’d almost have to be trying to not see one!)

The Movies:

Because The Ghoul was on a channel that regularly picked up movie packages (and was affiliated with the WB Network to boot), his movie choices could really run the gamut. Sure, the usual public domain cheapies from the 1930s through the 1970s showed up, as is typical of horror hosted shows, but ‘real’ movies were also part of the regular rotation. A lot of newer, “B” grade flicks popped up on the station, even outside of The Ghoul. Because I was (am) a movie fan as much as I was (am) of the show itself, it was a real trip seeing so many new-to-me flicks week after week, and the announcement of the next week’s movie was a moment of high anticipation for yours truly. The possibilities were (seemingly) endless!

Of course, you didn’t really tune into this show to see a full-fledged movie; the film was just part of the experience. Because The Ghoul would pack so much material into a show, there were times when a movie would be edited beyond comprehension, and indeed, there was so much insanity going on, the movie sometimes seemed almost like an afterthought. Make no mistake though, that was all part of the fun! For 2-2 1/2 hours, it was like you were tuned into an incredibly weird televised circus – and I mean that in the best way possible.

And naturally, one of the main draws as far as the movies were concerned were the various audio and video drop-ins. Inappropriate and/or nonsensical music, sounds effects (who could forget “OW OW OW! when someone got hurt, or the loud BURP whenever a character took a drink?), silly old film clips inserted into the film, and funny “facts” that would pop-up not unlike VH1’s then-popular Pop-Up Video, all were regularly featured throughout a given movie during the earlier years of the show.

My tastes in movies were all over the place around that time. I liked the pioneering silent films in the horror and sci-fi genres (some of them, anyway), the classics and poverty row flicks of the 1930s and 1940s, and the cheesy sci-fi of the 1950s and 1960s; that’s the stuff I ‘started’ with. By the time of The Ghoul, those tastes were expanding to also include the grindhouse and Eurotrash junk of the late-1960s, 1970s and beyond, and even though it wouldn’t peak until the mid-2000s, looking back I guess I had a slight inclination towards the slashers, too. The Ghoul covered them all, in varying degrees of visibility; only one silent I can think of (Metropolis, appropriately the first show of 2000), a healthy dose of 1940s through 1960s stuff, lots of obscure 1970s garbage, and plenty of low-rent 1980s & 1990s fare.

An example of the type of film The Ghoul would show during his stay at 11:30 PM, Fridays…

Nowadays, I pretty much like what I did in the first place: some silents, the classics and the poverty row offerings of the 1930s and 1940s, cornball 1950s/1960s sci-fi and horror, the giant monster flicks out of Japan. My interests wane considerably after Night of the Living Dead, both because NOTLD is a masterpiece and legitimate contender for greatest horror film of all-time (in other words, how y’all gon’ top it?), and more importantly because later, more ‘extreme’ horror films may have been bloodier, nastier, but they didn’t have the brains or heart behind them, barring some exceptions, such as the original Dawn of the Dead (though I still prefer Night…)

Yep, The Ghoul’s movie selections of the late-90s/early-00s were certainly wide-ranging, and I have plenty of favorites from those years. The 1930s and 1940s flicks featured (alliteration), some being staples of these types of shows, are movies I particularly enjoy. Three Bela Lugosi films come to mind: The Devil Bat, Invisible Ghost, and White Zombie. Also, Boris Karloff’s The Ape (a movie I didn’t much care for at the time but have really warmed up to in recent years) and the 1941 Monogram wartime poverty row opus King of the Zombies. 1950s cornball drive-in fare like Indestructible Man, The Screaming Skull and The Giant Gila Monster and ultra-cheap trash like 1966’s Curse of the Swamp Creature also get high marks from yours truly. (And of course, Night of the Living Dead, which ran for Halloween ’98, though oddly enough, that’s the only time I recall it running…)

There weren’t many Japanese monster movies shown, and those were/are a favorite genre of mine. But, Attack of the Mushroom People made it on, and that was a big, big one (a far darker film than that American title implies). The 1956 Daiei opus Warning From Space (the second anniversary show movie) also stands out.

From later years, Best of the Best 3, Ring of Fire III, and Street Crimes stick out as favorite low budget action flicks; I genuinely enjoyed all three. And, my first full viewings of Deliverance, Cocoon and Poltergeist came via The Ghoul. Even with the appropriate editing-for-television, they made for great Ghoul Power features.

And when it came to Christmas, The Ghoul went all out, especially in 1999, when the entire month of December was dedicated to the holiday. 1964’s Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is my go-to “bad Christmas movie” flick, and that’s the only time I saw him run it. Also, 1935’s Scrooge, my personal favorite movie version of A Christmas Carol.

Oh, my least favorite films featured (alliteration) on the show? Of the “classics,” try as I might, I could never really get into Gorgo, which was the subject of his first anniversary show. The special effects are terrific, granted, but as a whole it’s nowhere near as fun as a comparative Japanese release. Frankly, Gorgo bores me. Also, and this may be anathema to admit, but House on Haunted Hill (which I believe The Ghoul ran at least three times over the course of his run) is a movie that has just never done much for me. I don’t actively dislike it, but I don’t really like it, either. Even when I first saw it at 12/13 years old (after much hype from family members and when I was an easy audience for this sort of movie), I was left severely neutral on the subject. If it wasn’t for Vincent Price, well…

Nowadays, I don’t like slasher movies at all, so the Leprechaun flicks (if they’re even considered slashers; I think of them in the same territory, if nothing else) are in retrospect not to my personal tastes – though I kinda liked them back then. (The Ghoul ran several entries over the course of his run.) And a lot of the newer movies that made it onto the show such as Pumpkinhead II, Hellraiser IV, Pinocchio’s Revenge, Doppelganger, Ghoulies, the 1989 Phantom of the Opera, my views on those range from severe disinterest to outright dislike. 1985’s Eternal Evil is also a terrible, terrible movie – and not in a fun, Ghoul Power way, either.

A lot of 1970s stuff hasn’t worn well for me, though I took an interest in them then. Mainly the European films; Lots of people love ’em, but I’m not one of them, not anymore. Flicks like Lady Frankenstein were/are so covered in depressive grime, forget wanting to take a shower; I feel like I should go soak in some 91% isopropyl for 17 hours after watching that one.

Also, I know he has his fans, but from a strictly personal standpoint, I just don’t get the love for Paul Naschy movies; every one I’ve seen has been essentially unwatchable. The Ghoul ran Werewolf vs. the Vampire Woman, and even he couldn’t save it! And isn’t that considered a top-tier Naschy film? *shudder*

Personal Appearances:

I had the great benefit to meet The Ghoul in person not once but several times. I can tell you, each and every time, he was absolutely phenomenal with the fans. Not only was he energetic and ‘on’ the entire time, but he really spent time with his admirers; he’d talk, he’d joke, he was everything you hope for when you meet a celebrity.

There’s yours truly with the main maniac in 1999; evidently I wasn’t always the suave hepcat I like to imagine myself to be.

My first meeting with him was in 1999, at the Chapel Hill Borders Books where he and Mike Olszewski were signing copies of The Ghoul (S)crapbook, a terrific collection of old photos, information, hate mail and general wackiness. As you’d expect of The Ghoul, basically. (While very informative, it also came off as the warped counterpart to the 1997 Ghoulardi: Inside Cleveland TV’s Wildest Ride book – again, as you’d expect of The Ghoul.)

There was quite a line to meet him that night, and while it wasn’t like I had to stand in it for 8 hours or anything, there was a bit of a wait. When I finally got to meet him, it was obvious why: The Ghoul really gave you his attention, spoke with you, all while staying in character. And you know what? The saying “you can be anything you want to be” is endlessly repeated to us in grade school, but I can tell you from experience that it means so much more when it comes from The Ghoul.

Truth be told, I can’t remember how many times I met The Ghoul. It feels like more than what I’m writing about here, but that might be my memory playing tricks on me – or maybe I really am forgetting an appearance or two. Anyway, the next one that comes to mind is his appearance at B-Ware Video in Lakewood, OH, on April 14, 2000. B-Ware was run by “Sick” Eddie and his wife, both of whom worked on The Ghoul’s show. Man, in those days before anything and everything had been issued (or reissued) on DVD, B-Ware was a haven of weird, out-of-print, obscure horror and science fiction titles on VHS, some for sale, some for rent. Seriously, the only place to get some of this stuff was eBay – and certain titles were selling for mighty dollars at the time. Even though I was only there once, B-Ware was amazing.

In addition to Mike Olszewski, there were even more of The Ghoul’s crew there at this appearance. Froggy, Jungle Bob, Jeff “The Sickie,” even Dinky, the big pink flamingo mascot of Destination, the heavy metal band who did The Ghoul’s opening music at the time (he even gave me a free CD of theirs!). Aside from The Ghoul and Olszewski, it was my first time meeting all these people, and everyone was ridiculously friendly. And The Ghoul, who as I recall it had had not one, not two, but three personal appearances that day, of which this was the third, showed no signs of running out of gas.

I’ll never forget this: he didn’t know me in the least, but when they brought the camera in to film for the show, Olszewski implored me to get up front and get on. I’ll never forget how nice that was of him, and thanks to his insistence, I showed up in the crowd when the bits aired a few weeks later during Indestructible Man (and one of them repeated during the second anniversary special that summer, as well). You don’t get to see a screenshot because I was a goofy lookin’ 14 year old (even goofier than the pic you just saw of me a bit ago), but nevertheless, it was a thrill.

Next: the grand opening of High Point Furniture in the Midway Plaza in Akron, where I met him one night, and then again the next. I could be wrong, but I think it was the fall of 2000; I’m pretty sure this was where I asked him about the whole move to Sunday nights. (His suggestion was a VCR, which, you know, what else could he say?)

This isn’t a pic from that grand opening; I went and snapped it specifically for this article. This Midway Plaza location still stands, but has been closed for a number of years now.

I don’t remember a whole lot about that first night, other than they had free Domino’s Pizza, pop, and a KISS tribute band in the parking lot. I sure remember the second night though, when I went back. (This wasn’t exactly a four hour round trip; Midway Plaza was pretty close by.)

I had a box of stuff for the show that would have been prohibitively expensive to ship (and I had even less money then than I do now), so I brought it all direct to The Ghoul. It really was a bunch of junk, I don’t think any of it made on the show (I wouldn’t blame him if none of it made it beyond the dumpster that night!), although methinks the replica of Rodin’s “The Thinker” mocked up to sorta look like The Ghoul was at least semi-clever.

I wasn’t expecting him to open the box there, but he did, and when he was done sifting through it, he stood up and presented me to the sizable line of people waiting to meet him. Right then and there, he declared me to the crowd as a Ten Star General in the Ghoul Power Army – and they cheered for me! It was an incredible surprise, and to me it sums up just how fantastic The Ghoul was with his fans. He didn’t have to go that extra mile, but he did, and I will always be grateful for it.

The Ghoul promoting Frightvision 2001 on his show.

Finally, there was Frightvision 2001. Now, truth be told, I don’t know if I met him there, I don’t recall doing so, but having been to the previous two Frightvision conventions held in Akron, it was still pretty cool when The Ghoul was announced as host of the third (in Cleveland). Frightvision was my first horror & sci-fi convention in 1999, and by 2001 I had long realized what a bastion of collectibles it was. If I didn’t take advantage of the numerous celebrities in attendance that year (and I didn’t; I don’t think I met any of them at the show), it’s only because I was so focused on netting me some cool winnins from the dealers there.

Speaking of cool winnins…

Memorabilia:

I’m a collector of pop culture, especially as it pertains to broadcasting, television broadcasting specifically. Mugs, glasses, shirts, keychains, assorted promotional memorabilia related to this sort of thing, I’m almost always interested in that – especially when it hails from the 1960s through the 1980s.

While I take an interest in television in general, local broadcasting is a facet that really perks up my ears. I don’t necessarily mean local to me; local TV from across the U.S. is something I find endlessly fascinating. BUT it goes without saying that the area of my greatest interest lies in Northeast Ohio’s television history. And since I’m a big fan of horror movie hosts, that’s the sort of memorabilia I’m always, always after.

That was my long-winded way of saying I’ve amassed a sizable Ghoul collection over the years, both first-hand and online. T-shirts, autographed photos promo flyers, articles, assorted things like that are littered throughout my collection. Here now are just a few of the items that help keep the Ghoul Power burnin’.

Endlessly pushed on the show for much (all?) of his WBNX run, Turn Blue Ghoul Brew was The Ghoul’s very own beverage, and it really turned you blue! Well, your tongue anyway. I got this bottle during the Borders Book appearance, and since he signed it to me, I never had the heart to open and drink it. I did try the stuff though; it was basically blue root beer. Non-alcoholic and pretty tasty, I wish they still made it. They later came out with “Froggy Squeezins,” a green lemon-lime drink. Besides personal appearances, you could only get these at select locations in Northeast Ohio.

Luckily, one of those locations was mere minutes away from me: DeVitis & Sons Italian Market. In fact, during our 8th grade fundraiser for a trip to Washington DC, one of my grade school’s stops was the Acme that was next to DeVitis at the time (it’s a Save-a-Lot now). Ostensibly we were supposed to be selling hots dogs and hamburgers, but I don’t remember really having all that much to do. At one point, I broke away to DeVitis, where I purchased my first bottle of Froggy Squeezins. It was pretty good, but I unfortunately never got another, and I stupidly didn’t keep the bottle. Mistake! I didn’t really like that trip to Washington, but at least I got a bottle of Froggy Squeezins out of the deal.

Turn Blue Ghoul Brew’s bottle went through a couple label variations. Originally it had a simpler label and was in a brown bottle (it looked like a beer), which was then switched to the variant you’re seeing here. (They occasionally sold old “brown bottle” variants, as collectors items, at personal appearances; I’m this sure I got one at Frightvision 2001, but if I did, I can’t find it. EDIT: Of course I found it after this article had been published!) The third label variant (that I know of) switched up the font and added a hypnotic swirl behind the Ghoul caricature.

I really wish they still made this stuff.

Hey, remember how I told you I loved the Vault of Golden Garbage segment on the show? Well, in the late-1990s, The Ghoul released a VHS tape that was nothing but the Vault of Golden Garbage! I had to have it, and as you can see, I did.

I haven’t watched this since probably 2000 and I can’t remember if it was all 1970s material or a mix of 1970s and 1980s, but I do remember it as being terrific. My only complaint? I don’t recall there being any Froggy skits included! I guess I could play it, but knowing my luck, that would be the exact moment my VCR decides to start eating tapes, despite having never shown an inclination for such things prior.

As you can see, I got this signed by the man himself at a personal appearance somewhere. I don’t remember which one, but I’m positive it wasn’t Borders or Frightvision. It might have been B-Ware Video, I know had some stuff with me to get signed, but I’m guessing this was the first night at High Point Furniture. (I take solace in the fact none of this really matters to anyone but me.)

Hey, dig this: an original program and wristband for Frightvision 2001! Yes, as proof that I always saved everything pertaining to this sort of thing (except that Froggy Squeezins bottle apparently), I still have the wristband from this show. Call it hoarder-ish if you like, but since there’s a real possibility that the number of people who still own these number in the single digits and I’m one of them, that means I win. Right?

I’m not going to go through it page-by-page, I don’t think anyone that has stayed with me this whole time (yeah, sure) will care, but I will say they had a pretty great line-up of guests that year. I wish I had taken advantage of that, but I didn’t, and now I have to live with it.

“Hiya gang! Hiya hiya hiya!”

This little (4 or 5 inches in height) Froggy doll isn’t an official Ghoul product, but rather something hailing from 1948! A whopping 70 years old! Yes, this is an original Froggy, made of rubber and fittingly manufactured in (where else?) Akron. Rempel put these out in conjunction with Smilin’ Ed McConnell’s Buster Brown Show, which is what Froggy is originally from. There were two versions of this doll that I know of: this smaller one, and a larger 9″ model. Both were made of rubber and squeaked when you squeezed them, though the squeaky feature of mine is long gone. Not that I really care about that; I just want my own Froggy to plunk his magic twanger whenever I come calling.

My brother actually bought this for himself years ago, and knowing what a Ghoul fan I am, gave it to me for Christmas sometime later. In the years since he first purchased it (it wasn’t cheap, but it wasn’t unreasonable either), these things have really gone up in price, especially if they still squeak and are in decent shape. And if you’ve got the original box, the pricey meal is on you tonight! The larger 9″ one is my new personal chaser; I could pathetically reenact Ghoul skits all by my lonesome with it if I so desired! (Minus the destruction, of course; these guys cost too much!)

This item is something I myself found in an antique store several years ago. They had gotten a load of old magazines, newspapers, and the like. Man, I cleaned up. Music mags with Springsteen on the cover, M*A*S*H final episode tributes, and the big find, this: a 1983 Scene Magazine featuring The Ghoul! This was one of those cases where you find something, and you’re so excited that you immediately become overly-protective of it, as if someone is gonna take it away from you. At least, I tend to get that way. (Is it just me?)

Oddly enough, I still haven’t read the Ghoul article in it; I’ve spent all my time finding a safe, flat place for the issue, with an eye towards getting it framed at some point in the future. Plus, with old newsprint, especially large-sized as in this case, I like to handle with the figurative kid gloves.

I have old promo cards from the WKBF days, but this artifact that popped up on eBay about two years ago is interesting enough to share here. I’ve never seen one before or since, so I had to snap it up. According to the seller, this flyer hails from the Halloween season and the gimmick was for kids to pin them to their costumes while trick-or-treating so they’d be more visible in the dark. Not a bad idea, and since it was The Ghoul, you know, it just fit with the season!

And dig that: “Courtesy of Clarkins.” Talk about a blast from Northeast Ohio’s past! I have no idea what year this flyer is from or how many times The Ghoul appeared at Clarkins (that or any other location), but the WKBF-TV notation is obvious proof it hails from somewhere in the 1970s.

And finally, a small piece of memorabilia, but one that gets more ‘use’ than anything else I’ve just shown you: a 35th anniversary Ghoul keychain, which proudly hangs with my keys. (As you’d expect of a, uh, keychain.) It’s about the size of a quarter, maybe a little larger, and man is it snazzy! (Of course, I have two of them; this one, and one still sealed brand new in its cute lil’ baggie.)

My pic makes it a little hard to see, but these were released in 2006, in conjunction with The Ghoul’s (say it with me) 35th anniversary. He was unfortunately no longer on local airwaves by that point, but nevertheless, he certainly came out with a boffo socko keepsake!

Looking Back:

The Ghoul really exemplified what I like to call “Cleveland Style Horror Hosting.” Sure, there was a general ‘spooky’ look and feel to the proceedings, but unlike many other hosts nationwide who tried to play into the vibes of their look and/or movies they were presenting, here it was all just a vehicle for wacky comedy. Not that comedy was anything new to horror hosting, it goes back to its earliest days, but just like there was a style of Polka music commonly deemed “Cleveland Style” (yes there was), around these parts there was a specific set of ingredients. Yes, there were the sets and the films presented, but underneath it all was a cacophony of (innocent) ethnic jokes, wild behavior and homemade lingo that gave our guys a specific “flavor.”

Sure, that can be leveled at other hosts outside of Ohio, but you know what? We’ve had such a preponderance of them, going back to the revolutionary Ghoulardi, that I’m calling it our own. Your mileage may vary, naturally.

Even though he’s out of Chicago, Rich Koz’s Svengoolie actually does a good job of presenting to a nationwide audience what I’m talking about. Sure, he has the look and movies down (better movies than anyone else, in fact), but comedy is the ultimate goal. It makes sense though; there’s a very real Ghoulardi/Cleveland connection with Sven. The original Svengoolie, Jerry G. Bishop, was a Cleveland disc jockey when Ghoualrdi ruled the town, and when Bishop started Svengoolie in Chicago in the early-1970s, the influence was apparent. He wasn’t a beatnik vampire, he was a hippie vampire. Instead of “Parma,” it was “Berwyn.” And so on and so forth. (I don’t mean to claim Bishop was a copy or rip-off of Ghoulardi in the least, just that Ghoulardi’s influence reached wider than the Northeast Ohio area.)

In fact, while I don’t find much of the current Svengoolie’s humor to my personal tastes, I appreciate that he keeps these ideals in play. Underneath that horrific exterior is a mostly-comedic interior. Also, the fact he keeps things relatively-light (whereas many current internet hosts go for an ‘extreme’ look and feel) recalls the “classic era” of horror hosting, of which he hails from anyway, and that I certainly like.

Anyway, The Ghoul, perhaps more than any other save for Ghoulardi, was a “Cleveland Style” host. At first glance, you’ve got this guy in an appropriately ghoulish get-up, but then you start really watching; he’s wild, he’s wacky, he’s got his own language, his own madcap style, and you realize there’s so much more to him than a “mere horror host.”

I would have loved to have grown up with him in the 1970s and 1980s, when his style of humor wasn’t only hip and dare I say subversive, but also capable of eliciting complaints from certain viewers in that more-staunch time period. When I began watching in the 1990s, no one was going to pitch a fit over blowing up a model car with a firecracker or making a gigantic mess of food as Chef Curdle.

What he instead attained was a level of, as I like to call it, “comforting mania.” It was a welcome respite from the real world, from school life, from more conventional comedy. Tuning in each week was a carnival of fireworks, wacky catchphrases, and terrible movies, and it was irresistible.

I couldn’t be there beforehand, but I’m appreciative of the years I did spend with The Ghoul. He mangled my medulla on a regular basis, and as a Ten Star General in the Ghoul Power Army, I’m grateful for that.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some glass to scratch and walls to climb…

Vintage WTRF TV-7 Matchbook Covers

“W-where ya been, North Video Guy?”

Yes, I’m still around. The long (well, long-ish) absence has been due to my Wi-Fi at home being extremely spotty. Like, only working 1/4 of the time spotty, and when it does go, it’s generally only at night when I just don’t feel like assembling anything resembling a cohesive article to my eight loyal readers. Plus, I’ve been busy with other idiotic projects and whims and so ons and so forths. You know how it goes.

But, the Wi-Fi, as of this moment, seems to be working adequately enough to try for a quick update. Don’t expect an incredibly long article here gang, but luckily, there’s only so much I can say about the subject(s) at hand, so it’s unintentionally kinda fortuitous.

As is evident from my last post 17,000 years ago, I love promotional television memorabilia. I’d say the older the better, but frankly, things from the 1960s to 1980s time span are what I prefer to search for. (Not that I’d turn away anything older or newer, mind you.) And on that front, I recently, as in just last week, obtained some incredibly cool pieces. Did you look at the title of this article? Look at the title.

A recent trip to a nearby thrift store presented me with a big honkin’ bag of old matchbooks, most from long gone local locations, but also plenty from vacation destinations around the U.S. Assuming they all came from the same person originally (as opposed to the store merely throwing a bunch together to entice suckers like me), this party apparently enjoyed traveling and had a burning desire to get a unique matchbook from every square inch of their journey. This was ultimately to my benefit, because even though the bag was sealed up tight, I could see several matchbooks just on the outside that told me this was worth the purchase, including one featuring the logo of WTRF TV-7. And so, here we are.

WTRF is the CBS affiliate for the Steubenville, Ohio / Wheeling, West Virginia area, and while my personal location in this country of ours means that I’m infinitely more familiar with the Cleveland/Akron television market, I do have some experience with WTRF. Enough to get me fired up when I saw the matchbook, anyway. (Read all about WTRF on Wikipedia.)

I found lotsa good stuff in the bag, and there were actually two WTRF matchbooks included, both of which we will now take a look at. Both also featured advertising info for Elby’s Restaurants, which either was or eventually became part of the Big Boy chain, on the opposite sides. Because I’m on a time limit of unknown duration (Wi-Fi, you know) and because I couldn’t get acceptable pictures of those sides on my phone (flash, you know), I’m going to forego those aspects of the matchbooks and keep the focus on the TV-stuff. They’re more conducive to the purposes of this blog as a whole, anyway.

This book here was the second I found in the lot, buried deep within its confines and thus not visible from the outside. According to the WTRF page on Logopedia, it’s the older of the two, and as such, is also my favorite of the two. Logopedia sez this exact style of logo was only used from 1972 to 1976, though a similar one was present from 1967 to 1972. It’s either old or older, and either way that’s mega cool winnins for yours truly.

I really like the “7” in the TV-like border, but you know what makes this one? It’s the slogan: “The colorful TV station.” That’s just such a cool reminder of the time in which it hails; when stations could still play up the whole “we’re in color!” aspect. I don’t know how much longer channels could get away with that (wasn’t color the de facto norm by the 1970s?), but its presence here instantly marks this matchbook as a true product of a bygone era in television broadcasting. I dig it!

Now, this second matchbook is actually the first one I found; it was the one visible from the outside of the bag in which the entire lot was housed. Seriously, I pretty much bought a hundred or more matchbooks for this one alone. (Well, this one and the promise of more neato finds to be had – a promise that was eventually fulfilled!)

When it comes to WTRF, this was the logo I was most familiar with. (Remember, my familiarity with channel is relatively limited in scope.) That “7” featuring the Ohio-West Virginia-Pennsylvania borders within is ridiculously clever, and the “Call it home” slogan apropo; lotsa people from different territories finding common ground in one aspect of life. Or something like that (it plays out more articulately in my head).

Logopedia sez this particular style of identification was long-lived, lasting from 1980 to 1999. As such, this one is a bit harder to date than the other matchbook. But, compared to the other covers in the lot, I’m inclined to say this one hails from earlier in the 1980s than from later. But heck, even if it came from the extreme of 1999 (highly unlikely), it’s still promotional television advertising, and thus worthy of inclusion in my collection of…stuff.

So there you have it. Not a long update, but an update nonetheless, and one featuring some very cool TV-related pieces to boot! Like I said before, most of my expertise (ha!) resides in the Cleveland-Akron television markets (and to an extent, Canton, too). As such, stations that also reside (or at least air) in Ohio but are out of my reach tend to have an almost “exotic” feel to me, and I mean that in absolutely the most complimentary way possible. These matchbooks certainly qualify, and I count myself fortunate to have stumbled upon them.

There! Maybe I’ll update again sometime within the next 20 decades! We’ll see!

Video Rental Artifact: ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES (1991; 1992 Blockbuster-Branded VHS)

Sometimes when I’m out hunting for this or that and I find a VHS tape that strikes my stupid dumb fancy, it’s not always just about the tape itself. I mean, yeah, it helps when I have at least some vested interest in the release proper, but oftentimes there are ‘supplemental’ features that will take a a tape from “well, alright, I guess” to “must must must buy and you can’t stop me and if you try I’ll throw down legit.” Today’s subject is a definite example of the latter.

(HINT: I’ve been down this route before.)

Before we get to that, let me provide a little backstory first: It’s 1991, I’m five, and the big budget Kevin Costner film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is seemingly aimed directly at me and my kind. Kenner put out a neato toy line that, unbeknownst to me then, was chock full of re-purposed molds. (Y’all get genuine props for reusing the Ewok village as Robin’s forest fortress, Kenner!) There was even a Nintendo game that, I discovered years later, was actually pretty good (a rarity in the world of NES movie-based carts).

The marketing worked, and just like a year earlier when I jumped on the Dick Tracy bandwagon hardcore (or at least as hardcore as is possible for a four-year old), little me was all about the Hood. Erm, Robin Hood, I mean. Dad took me to see the film in theaters, and frankly, I don’t remember much about it, but it was probably a bit too dark for a five-year old.

Nevertheless, there’s some definite nostalgia on my part now when I look back at Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. It’s not a film I’ve revisited in the 27 years that have elapsed, but yeah, nostalgia. Plus, it’s a film I can conceivably see myself revisiting nowadays, which is no small feather in its cap, or arrow, or [insert further Robin Hood-themed pun here].

The VHS release of this movie is not even remotely hard to find. Lately, I’ve noticed that a lot of movies from that era, which for the longest time were seemingly ever-present used, are not as commonly found nowadays. I’m not saying they’re rare, not at all, but unless it’s ’89 Batman, Jurassic Park or (looking ahead a bit) Titanic, you’re not always guaranteed a quick find while out hitting up the thrift stores and whatnot for VHS. (It’s not a dead format thing – yet – either, because I still come across a lot of VHS during my travels.)

No kidding, it took far longer than I care to admit to stumble across Cop and a Half, another one I saw in the theater back in the day, until I finally, finally did, several weeks back. It was a moment of triumph, flourish, and bravado that, quite frankly, I probably shouldn’t be so ready to admit. Of course, once I finally found that copy, some two weeks later I came across another one; I picked that one up too, on principle alone.

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is, in my mostly-useless experience, not one such release. Hardly a thrift run goes by that I don’t come across one or more copies of the flick on VHS. As such, nostalgia notwithstanding, I’ve never felt much need to throw one in the cart when I’m out and about and picking up too much crap I don’t really need, because it’s pretty much always available.

But then, this copy came into my life, and that all changed.

Several weeks back, during a fairly impromptu thrift trip, the location of choice had somewhat refreshed their home video shelves, which meant there was a decent selection of obsolete media for yours truly to gawk at. I didn’t see much worth buying at first glance, but then I happened to take a closer look at the copy of Robin Hood that was laying there, of which I had previously paid little attention. This was fortuitous because, man, I had inadvertently stumbled upon not only something that tied into my formative years, but was also a legitimate artifact of the video rental-era – an era that was also a part of my formative years!

Behold! It’s a vintage Blockbuster Video-branded copy of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves! Cool winnins!

I’m always on the lookout for tapes like this, and while Blockbuster-emblazoned stuff isn’t very hard to find, in my (again, mostly-useless) experience, tapes prior to 1995 or so show up much less frequently. (This is from 1992; hold your water, you’ll see proof in a moment.)

Of course, as far as the sleeve goes, this branding extends only to the shrinkwrap; the jacket itself is your common, garden-variety Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves VHS sleeve, what with the title and Kevin Costner with his flamin’ arrow and whatnot. If I were to be foolish enough to remove said shrinkwrap, outside appearances would belie the real history of the tape.

And that history, the very fact this is such a relic of the video rental-era (at or very near its height, no less), when Blockbuster was veritable king of the VHS world, that alone makes this tape worth the 60 cents the thrift store was asking for it. You could claim that I’m flippin’ my beans over that swanky old school “previously viewed” sticker, and I am weird enough to buy a tape just for something like that, but it’s really the whole package with this one. Like I said, this is a legitimate artifact of early-1990s home video! The fact I have real history with the movie just makes it all the better; I wouldn’t be as happy if this were a copy of Curly Sue, for example. (Sorry, Jim Belushi.)

That particular “special price sticker” on the front isn’t something I come across often at all when it comes to used VHS buying; usually, it’s those square yellow stickers from the mid-90s or circular red ones of later years that I find affixed to my obsolete video formats.

But it’s the sticker on the back of the sleeve (well, shrinkwrap) that puts this one over the top, though. Dig this: this copy of the movie was placed out for sale on February 9, 1992! And look, it was only $9.95! This was a time when you could get away with charging that much for a used VHS tape! (Though, granted, wasn’t $9.95 like $600 in 1992 dollars?)

In a nice turn of events, there was no description on the back of the sleeve for the sticker to obscure, though the fine technical print wasn’t so fortunate. Still, you get the typical ballyhoo of quotes and taglines and whatnot. And look, recorded on BASF tape!

I’m not sure when Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves debuted on home video. In the U.S., it hit theaters on June 14, 1991, and while home video releases didn’t move as quickly then as they do now (or so it seems to me), I would assume it was out in time for the Christmas season. At any rate, by early ’92, this particular Blockbuster location had a used copy out for sale. I’m going to guess that this was a holdover from an initial “rental push,” after it first debuted on VHS. That’s my theory, anyway; early-92 seems pretty close to when this would have initially hit rental shelves. Or not; what do I know?

As I said, remove the shrinkwrap (not that I ever will), and that video rental lineage mostly goes away, but slide the tape out of the sleeve, and there’s a piece of evidence a bit more solid…

Ah, the famous “y’all betta rewind” reminder! As per the norm, slapped right over the left window of the tape! Thas adorable. And look, the previous owner did NOT rewind all the way to the start! Despite that being the benefit of owning a tape yourself, I still demand restitution. But from whom?!

I’m not sure why the title “label” on the tape, which is actually just printed right on the casing itself, is upside down though. Was this normal, or a mistake? I come across plenty of Robin Hood tapes, so I really should know this, but I, uh, don’t.

Actually, during a thrift trip just two nights ago, one store had not one but two copies of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves on VHS for sale. Well, technically, one plus a sleeve; the first copy was legit, but the other one had what appeared to be a blank tape mistakenly (?) housed in the sleeve, and severely molded to boot. The ‘real’ one, however, I checked, and it had an actual label on the tape, placed right side up. Maybe a later pressing? I don’t know, but my attempts at sleep later were relatively tortured, and there’s the slight possibility that it was a subconscious reaction to this Robin Hood conundrum.

None of this really matters and I’m clearly just babbling now.

(EDIT: The label as seen here is normal; I’ve since verified it with yet another stumbled-across copy while out thrifting. I didn’t buy it, but maybe I should have…)

Anyway, I’m not going to play this; what would the point be? I can get a “watching copy” at essentially any time I please; heck, I had yet another chance just the other evening! And probably another one later today! And besides, for the purpose of this article, what could I really say? “It’s Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood, on, uh, VHS…” The quality will be fine, SP, not up to the standards of DVD, but then, would you expect it to be?

No no, this particular copy hath been deemed my “collector’s copy,” and as such deserves a place of honor. Like a shiny display case or something, maybe with a rotating stand. You know, like how they show off rotisserie chickens at the grocery store. No, wait, that might end badly…

Really, I get a big kick out of this find. As mentioned, I have childhood memories of not only the movie Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, but also the associated merchandising hype that went along with it. Add to that definitive evidence of Blockbuster Video’s heyday, which lends an even more decidedly early-90s ambiance to the proceedings, and you’ve got something that could really be considered special. If you’re into old home video, anyway.

On a final, related note: you can almost be guaranteed that if I ever come across a copy of 1989’s Batman, or even 1992’s Batman Returns, with similar Blockbuster-branding all over it, there’s a good possibility you’ll hear my giddy exclamations from wherever you may currently be situated.

VHS Review: TEXAS TERROR (1935; 1985 Vintage Video Release)

“Say, that cover looks kinda sorta familiar!”

If you’re saying a variation of that phrase to yourself right now, it means you’ve read this article. And if that’s the case, it also means you’ve probably got too much time on your hands. That’s okay though; so do I.

Yes, Vintage Video makes a return to my stupid dumb blog, and while the subject this time around is admittedly less eye-popping than Al “Grampa” Lewis hosting Night of the Living Dead, it’s no less rare; old school Goodtimes/Congress/UAV/ etc. budget VHS releases of certain titles are (relatively speaking) a dime-a-dozen, but Vintage Video? These tapes show up far less often, though there doesn’t seem to be a huge difference in value –  it takes someone with the same arbitrary whims as I to go after them, and fortunately for me, I appear to stand alone on that front. (I.e., no one else seems to care as much as I do.)

No joke, more than once I’ve gone out of my way to pick these videos up, regardless of title. I’m not sure if the company was always a subsidiary of Amvest Video, or merely became one later, but either way, I’ve become incredibly fond of their releases. Sure, most (all?) of them were just the public domain staples that nearly every company took a shot at releasing, but there’s a quirky aura about these Vintage Video tapes that I can’t resist. Or maybe it’s just that whole eventual Grampa thing, I don’t know. (If none of this is making sense to you, and there’s a good chance that it isn’t, go read the some 900,000 words I wrote about the subject in the article linked above.)

Anyway, I’m excited for today’s subject for three specific reasons: 1) It’s a pre-fame John Wayne B-Western, his 1935 Lone Star (aka Monogram) entry, Texas Terror, as you can plainly see above. Let it be clearly stated: I love these Lone Stars. You ask me to put together a list of my favorite Wayne flicks, guess what? Blue Steel is going right up there with Stagecoach – a statement I make without hesitation despite the probable destruction of my street cred. I’m a B-Western junkie, and a Wayne fan, so these Lone Stars are directly up my alley.

2) I grew up watching B-Westerns. I talked about this recently; in the late-1990s, our local independent station WAOH TV-29/WAX TV-35 regularly ran syndicated content from the America One Network, and each weekday (and often on weekends, too) they’d play an afternoon “Western Theater.” You wouldn’t be seeing things like The Searchers on the program; oh no, it was the B-Westerns of the 1930s and 1940s that they presented, and at 11/12-years old, I quickly grew to love them – a love I carry with me to this day. America One often seemed to have unique prints of their films, too; not necessarily wildly different prints as far as the actual content of the movie went, but the picture and sound quality of their features could vary quite a bit from more ‘common’ versions found on other networks and/or home video. Coincidentally, and fittingly, the same often goes with these Vintage Video/Amvest releases!

3) I didn’t know this company (these companies?) ever even released any westerns. I mean, it was a safe guess that they did, but listen, I’ve spent far too much time researching these titles, and in the course of that research I’ve seen comedies (Movie Struck), dramas (The Blue Angel), silents (The Gold Rush), mysteries (The Woman in Green), sports biopics (The Joe Louis Story), even action (Fists of Fury), and of course the sci-fi and horror of the Grampa series. But until Texas Terror, never a western. I mean, I assume they put out The Outlaw and/or Angel and the Badman, because nearly every budget VHS manufacturer did, but if so, *I’ve* never seen them. So, when I discovered they not only released a western, but a B-Western, and that B-Western was a John Wayne Lone Star, I got far more excited than an ostensibly-reasonable adult should have. I mean, we’re talking unacceptably giddy here. Needless to say, it had to become mine, and as you may have surmised by now, it did.

In relation to the other Vintage Video titles, this one is a little unique: usually (but not always) for their covers, they’d go with the original poster art, merely flanked with the “Vintage Video” border you’re seeing above (they eventually dropped the border). But here, it’s an original composition; a stock (I guess) shot of Wayne, made to look appropriately old-timey. I dig the ‘western’ font of the front cover cast-credits, though I feel the graphic used for the actual film title is wildly inappropriate; to me, that’s more befitting an 80s horror movie or something. Totally belies the comparatively-quaint creaker (alliteration?) contained within the video, man. But then, that’s that quirky aura I was talking about earlier!

As for the back cover, it follows the general layout of the other Vintage Video products of the period. Sometimes, some of the pertinent information demonstrated the era from which it came; that is, hey, the internet wasn’t around yet! Texas Terror was not made in 1940; it’s absolutely from 1935. Doesn’t sound like that big a deal, I know, but there’s a world of difference between the John Wayne of 1935 and the John Wayne of 1940. (In the same vein, my VV copy of Black Dragons lists the release date as 1949, when in actuality it’s definitively a poverty row product of 1942.)

Also, some of their descriptions could be a little…off. Not bad, just…off. I made the same point in that Night of the Living Dead post. Here, there’s a mention of Wayne’s “great style,” but what exactly that style is is never specified, so it just comes off random. The synopsis would have flowed better had they dropped that part entirely. The “of course” near the end kinda stops the rest of the summary dead, too; the whole thing would run smoother had those two instances been cut. Still, they got the point across, so mission accomplished anyway I guess.

Also, I just realized that the entire description is only two sentences long.

Also also, they spelled “thieves” incorrectly.

Bear in mind, I’m not intending to come off negative here; this tape, and others in the same line, positively exude a budget label charm. Indeed, as the video industry progressed from the 1980s to the 1990s, you saw the major studios evolve, but the budget labels? That quirky charm never really left, and to an extent it continues today with cheapo DVDs, though to me those feel inherently less special; pressing a disc just ain’t the same, bro.

I guess what I’m getting at is collecting these public domain titles on old school budget video labels is endlessly fun. You get a peak at that early (or at least earlier) era of home video, and you often get fairly unique sleeve art, front and back, which is the case here.

(Also, if I ever find out Vintage Video/Amvest/whoever released a version of Blue Steel, I will legit flip my beans.)

So, on to the movie itself…

Lone Star Productions was, from how I understand it, a division of Monogram Pictures. Or was it merely Monogram under a secret name, not unlike Konami with their Ultra Games label? (I’m reasonably sure I’m the only person on the internet to make that reference in regards to a Monogram/Lone Star movie, and if you don’t get it, that’s because there’s not much of a comparison between the two entities at all.) Monogram was, for those not in “the know,” a poverty row purveyor of cheap theatrical entertainment, in pretty much any genre you could think of. Westerns were big business at the time, so needless to say, their output in that field was not inconsiderable.

From my first glimpse of Blue Steel so, so long ago, the thing I found immediately striking about these Lone Star pictures was their introductory sequence; a gigantic sheriff’s star, stampeding towards the viewer, the company’s name boldly emblazoned in the center of it. All of sudden, the thing stops, then transitions to the respective title and credits of the feature, all still contained within the star. And of course, this was always accompanied by a heroic, appropriately-western score.

If you’re wondering just why I find/found these intros so fascinating, it’s because, quite frankly, you didn’t always get such hype at the start of these poverty row westerns. For films that were, more often than not, pretty chintzy (in a good way), the opening fanfare exhibited by the Lone Stars was really pretty unique in the field.

While on the subject, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a non-John Wayne Lone Star western. Maybe that’s because these are so widely available today due to the star power involved. At any rate, did Monogram give Lone Star flicks to other actors? Yes? No? I dunno.

Actually, it’s the John Wayne factor that makes these Lone Stars so (relatively) well-known nowadays. Just like our tape today, budget releases on VHS were myriad, and that continues with DVD releases from every manufacturer under the western skies. (See what I did there?) I mean, when you’ve got American film icon John Wayne in a bunch of public domain movies, that’s the sort of thing a company looking to get cheap-but-eye-catching product on store shelves has to take advantage of.

Indeed, some of my favorite budget movie releases, on both VHS and DVD, are those of these John Wayne B-Westerns; not necessarily all of them, but rather the ones that use later-era shots of Wayne and/or appropriately ‘epic’ or ‘majestic’ backdrops for their cover art. The intent with these is clear: to make the unsuspecting consumer think these are “real” Wayne movies, and not the creakers they actually are. Oh don’t get me wrong, I love these Lone Stars, and I’m such a B-Western junkie that truth be told I’d head for them over some of Wayne’s later, big time stuff. Still, aside from the fact they feature the same star and are technically moving pictures, there’s just no real comparison between the two. Therefore, the more misleading the cover art for a release of one of these cheapies is (or was), the more appealing it is to yours truly. Go figure!

So anyway, Texas Terror. Through various compilations, I undoubtedly own it approximately 97,000 times over – give or take a couple thousand. Still, until I picked up this neato Vintage Video release, I wasn’t all that familiar with the movie. Blue Steel I know backwards and forwards, and I’ve at least seen a chunk of the others, but Texas Terror? For all intents and purposes, this was a new one on me.

Going in, don’t expect an early prototype of Stagecoach, okay? This is John Wayne, but also sort of, uh, isn’t. Frankly, it’s kinda fun seeing him outside of Hollywood and, I don’t know, ‘raw’ I guess would be the best term for it. The actor is the same, but the acting isn’t. Does that make any sense?

Soooo, all that said, ignoring the young John Wayne factor, and my love of B-Westerns and Lone Stars in general, I gotta admit, after watching it, Texas Terror really isn’t all that good of a movie. I mean, as a B-Western, I guess it’s alright, but as far as these Lone Stars go, there were much, much better flicks. If you’re looking at B-Westerns in general, Texas Terror ranks somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. “Mediocre” seems to sum it up pretty succinctly.

The plot centers around John Higgins (Wayne), the local sheriff, who mistakenly believes he’s killed his best friend Dan Matthews. During a shootout between Higgins and some robbers, Dan is killed by one of the hoodlums; upon discovery, Higgins thinks he plugged him (right screenshot), and subsequently resigns as sheriff and goes to live in the wilderness.

A year later, Dan’s daughter is heading into town to take over her late father’s ranch, when she is, naturally, beset by outlaws (it must run in the family). Higgins, now quite a bit scragglier, rescues her. Despite his heroism, she thinks he was one of the outlaws. Eventually, Higgins cleans himself up and comes back to town, his goal being to take down the gang once and for all. In the course of doing so, there’s a blossoming romance, a huge misunderstanding, and perhaps improbably, a square dance that devolves into a cow-milking-contest.

Oh, and George Hayes is also in this, minus the whole “Gabby” persona. Can’t forget to mention that!

Texas Terror, as previously stated, it isn’t all that good, but there are some interesting aspects to it that help set it apart. First of all, Wayne’s Higgins (I can’t type that without thinking of Magnum, P.I.) grows a beard during his exile period, and this is the only film I can think of where Wayne’s character features full facial fiber (alliteration). Sure, he had a mustache (and quasi-soul patch) in The Shootist, but this is the only instance I can think of where he had a legit beard. (I’m not saying it is the only instance, I don’t claim to have seen every single John Wayne movie ever, but this is certainly the only instance that comes to mind).

Random Thought: is it just me, or does Wayne kinda look like Kevin Love in this screencap?

Also, I appreciate the usage of Native Americans as heroic characters. Here, they’re friends with Higgins, and come to his aid in grand fashion during the film’s climax. Sure, their ‘accents’ may not be politically correct now, but Texas Terror bucks the frequent western trend of treating Native Americans as antagonists. I like that.

These Lone Star westerns often featured cool, though slightly generic, titles, and Texas Terror is no exception. Is the title an indication of Wayne’s character, the outlaws, or the plot in general? Blue Steel was the same way; no in-film reference ever related to the title, but it sure sounded neat.

As for the print and tape quality of Vintage Video’s presentation, this copy is in SP, which is always welcome, though it’s kind of a wash since the source material is so battered. I’m not saying this is the worst Texas Terror has ever looked, but this particular print certainly saw better days prior to VHS release. Besides the not-inconsiderable amount of dust, dirt and scratches, accumulated via untold trips through the projector and who knows how many generations removed, the bigger issue is that this version is pretty blasted. No joke, some of the images are far, far too bright. Look at the screenshots to the right here; the upper-image features a positively ghostly John Wayne, whose face seems to be a part of the wall behind him. And the lower-image? You’d be forgiven for not immediately realizing our heroine is even in the scene!

Still, like the sleeves these sorts of tapes were housed in, seeing the varying picture quality of these budget releases was/is part of the fun with collecting them. No, a major studio probably wouldn’t have put a print in this condition out (unless, say, there was only one known extant copy existing; definitely not the case with Texas Terror), but that’s why there were budget VHS tapes back then. The old adage of “you get what you pay for” could and often did come into play here, but I prefer to think of it more like, hey, the company got their hands on the only print they could, so let the chips fall where they may. Or something like that. Look, it was a different time in home video, and better sources might not have been available, or at least easily accessible. Especially if the manufacturer was a relatively minor player in the game.

So, there you have it: Texas Terror, as presented by Vintage Video, the (eventual?) alter-ego of Amvest Video, from 1985. I still haven’t seen another western put out by either company, and while I can’t really recommend the movie for B-Western and/or John Wayne fans (seriously, Blue Steel is pretty good; go with that one instead), it’s certainly an interesting, and for now, unique, addition to my collection. I’ve got more than a few cheapo John Wayne tapes littering my “archives” (ha!), but this one has automatically become one of the more-notable entries. I don’t say that lightly, either.

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. 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 that the NES became as the 1980s wore on. The added competition of the Sega Master System didn’t help matters, either.

Even though the NES, SMS and 7800 were all originally developed around the same 1983/1984 time frame, and all eventually wide released in the U.S. in 1986, due to the specific circumstances surrounding the 7800’s debut and subsequent library, it feels like a console caught between two eras of gaming. To me, it’s like a system from both the early/mid-80s and late-80s, 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!

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.