Games people play

For my birthday, my brother likes to give me throwback gifts of one kind or another. One year, it was Sea Monkeys.  One year, a chia pet. One year, it was a compilation CD of songs we listened to as kids: Flashlight, Groove Line, Rubberband Man — ’70s classics that still sound surprisingly fresh. Last year, he gave me two games: Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots and Gnip Gnop.

Classic! The Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots came first, and RB and I hurriedly snapped the all the plastic pieces in place so we could commence a frenetic round of boxing.


We quickly realized there was no correlation between skill and victory. You just pound those thumb buttons as fast as possible and wrench them around, and eventually someone’s head pops off.

It reminded me of another old game we used to play that also involved no skill but provided hours of fun: electric football!


This game was ridiculous: You line up a bunch of little plastic players, then flip a switch on the side and the whole field starts vibrating. The players start meandering, herky-jerky, across the field, and eventually when a defense guy touches the guy with the ball, he’s been “tackled.” More planning went into field formations than went into the D-Day invasion, yet there was no appreciable relationship between that planning and how well a team did.

The opposite was true of our other favorite football game, the digital handheld:


My god, the hours we spent, thumbs flying, desperately trying to score touchdowns with those little blinking lights! This was a big car game, carried along on endless journeys, fought over, wept over. Even looking at this photo, I feel my thumbs starting to twitch with anticipation.

Similarly, we played the digital baseball game:


As with real baseball, it was slower and more deliberate than the football game. But no less fun! There was something about that little red light moving around the basepaths that was deeply satisfying, almost primally so.

These were mere predecessors, of course, to the mother of all digital games: Atari.


When we first got ours, in 1981 or so, we quickly became obsessed with Pong, Asteroids, football, and of course, Breakout:


Once we’d moved fully into this digital realm, we more or less forgot about the old analog favorites:



Hairy Gary:


Mille Bornes:


Even the pachinko machine our dad had brought back from Japan after a tour of duty in the Pacific:


Yet it’s those analog games that haved recaptured my imagination, all these years later. The Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots have pride of place in our living room, and the Gnip Gnop is ready for a match whenever you are. Anyone? Anyone?


13 responses to “Games people play”

  1. Yet it’s those analog games that have recaptured my imagination

    You know what I love? Skee-Ball, is what. Also Pinball. Just lately I’ve started to be interested in video games again, thanks in large part to links from TGW. But the geometry of rolling balls on a board is a whole lot of fun.

    When I was young we bought an Apple II. We never had an Atari (or for a long time, a TV) so most of the video games I got to play were on the computer — I remember fondly Wavy Navy, Galaxians, Castle Wolfenstein, the knockoff version of Caterpillar called maybe Millipede?, Q*Bert,… I think Tetris came out just before or just after I left home.

  2. We owned, or had access to (via a neighbor with a full bar in his basement including a pachinko machine) all of those games with the exception of Rock em Sock em and Vibrating Football. I have to agree that the little football game with the blinking red LED lights was a family favorite. That game was totally freaking sweet.

    Our family also took the video game detour, which was mostly forgettable on the Atari, though Pitfall stands out as a memorable exception (the neighbor’s Intellivision version of Pitfall was better than ours). Things really got rolling with the arrival of an Apple ][e. That brought us such greats as Zork, Oregon Trail (which probably alone justified billions of dollars spent on school computer labs), Castle Wolfenstein (the original 2D one where the Nazis scream ‘ACHTUNG!’ when they think you are there, and ‘HALT!’ when they start to chase you, and ‘Mein Leben!’ when you shoot them dead.) There was also Karateka, Archon, Miner 49’er, and Dr. J vs Larry Bird. Later we bought an Amiga computer for which I remember: Marble Madness and Defender of the Crown. A mormon friend who owned a PC would invite me over to play King’s Quest and Space Quest. A non-Mormon friend would invite me over to play Leisure Suit Larry and Strip Poker. When a neighbor bought the first Mac on the block I remember Dark Castle was the bomb. Those were some heady days at the inception of video game culture!

  3. Dave says:

    The all-time best analog game is Hungry Hungry Hippos. No reasonable person could disagree.

  4. 3. I remember enjoying the Hungry Hungry Hippos television commercials even more than the game. It was their jingle, which I still remember to this day. If anyone in the family ate more than their share of a family meal they risked being the subject of a family chorus of the Hungry Hungry Hippo jingle, with dancing and pointing fingers.

  5. Cannon says:

    Connect Four, anyone? Even though my brother consistently beat me at it, it still brings fond memories of hanging out at my grandpa’s on the weekends (to my credit, my brother is 5 years older than I…).

    I’m afraid that I’m a bit too young for most of these, however, my brother did own Electric Football. I can honestly say that I don’t remember screwing with that thing for more than 5 minutes before thinking “This is no fun and the vibrating racket is killing me. Let’s do something else.”

    I recall owning one of the most basic analog baseball games in existence. It was more pinball with a baseball twist, consisting of a piece of card stock with baseball field art and a plastic covering (it was smaller than an 8-1/2×11″ piece of paper). The ball was loaded into the chamber and sat on a spring loaded lever. After releasing the lever, the ball would take its parabolic path and, hopefully, land in the “Home Run” cup. I’ll have to say that this and electronic black jack were my favorite car ride games.

    Honorable mention goes to Jenga and Uno.

  6. car games says:

    You know what I love? Skee-Ball,

  7. j-man says:

    At various times during my childhood we had a pinball machine, a pachinko machine, pong, and the classic football. My tastes never really graduated to digital – I’m an analog girl all the way. (man, were we spoiled or what?) In college there was a pinball machine called “Xenon” whose theme was a sexy female robot that would make groaning noises everytime the ball went in the, um, hole. It would even beckon to you as you walked by.

    Apparently there’s a pinball museum in Vegas – this guy has devoted his life to collecting and restoring old pinball machines, and he supposedly has every one ever made. The best part is you can actually go in and play them! He charges whatever the original price was – so if it’s a nickel game, you can still play it for a nickel. Road trip, anyone?

  8. Jane says:

    2: I LOVE Oregon Trail!! My poor friend, Amanda, always came down with scurvy in that game, no matter what order I typed in her name…

  9. LP says:

    1: “geometry of rolling balls on a board” reminded me of this, another childhood favorite. Also: Q-Bert! Q-Bert!

    8: Pinball museum! I loved pinball growing up, and still do. My grandparents put a pinball machine in their living room for the grandkids in 1974, and even though it wasn’t a real, 200-pound, flashing-lights barmonster, it was fun nonetheless. We couldn’t believe they’d actually bought it. A couple of years later, it was gone to make room for the big screen TV.

  10. ks says:

    OMG, what a totally fun trip down memory lane this was! If only I could have back all the hours I spent playing Atari. My favorite game was ADVENTURE–slaying dragons in labyrinths on the way to collect the hidden chalice. Priceless.

    #3, I’m so glad someone else remembers “hungry hungry hippos.” I was singing the diddy for it mere weeks ago and my (Canuck) husband thought I’d flipped a lid. He’d never heard of it, and thought maybe it was a flashback I was having, or something!? Now I have proof of its existence! So thank you.

    Connect Four, Mousetrap, and Battleship surely have to figure in this mix, no?

  11. ks says:

    P.S. LP, you have the coolest family on earth!

  12. LP says:

    KS – I do have a pretty awesome family, it is true. Despite the fact that we have polar opposite beliefs on nearly all political matters.