The 60s were good to these game designers

One of the games that came with the lad’s Wii video gaming console was Mario Bros. Wii, one of many Mario Bros. games Nintendo has produced during the past three decades. During all those years – even when playing the original version on the Nintendo Entertainment System – I never paused to reflect on the imagery of these games, most of which involve rescuing a princess from a magic castle, where she is imprisoned by a giant turtle and his walking mushroom minions.

Watching my son play the game as a disinterested third party this week, it struck me that the 60s were very good to the team that performed the concepting for this game. Not that there is anything wrong with the game – it has its own internal logic, it’s easy enough for a child to play with some success, and it’s graphically fun to watch – it’s just that many of the game elements appear to have been designed by people who were using marijuana or LSD on company time.

To give readers an idea of what I’m talking about, here is a YouTube video displaying the first three levels of play in the Mario Wii (it starts after a 30-second advertisement):

Mario Wii: first three levels of play

Thus, we see that the princess is abducted in a giant birthday cake by a turtle who walks upright, who throws the princess into a helicopter pirate ship and whisks her away to a magic castle. Mario, then, is forced to pursue them on foot across hazardous terrain crawling with the enemy’s walking mushroom and turtle minions. Fortunately, Mario has learned that punching bricks is beneficial, as all manner of power-ups emerge from hitting them. These include mushrooms that grow Mario to triple his starting size, helicopter suits that enable limited flight from a propeller on top of his head, flashing stars that grant invulnerability, flowers that grant the ability to throw fire or ice balls at enemies and a penguin suit that grants ice ball power, traction on ice and superior swimming ability. It is even possible to extract a Yoshi – a dinosaur that Mario can ride – from a brick. Mario can also get new leases on life by collecting magic coins that are suspended in midair – for every 100 coins he collects, the player earns an extra life for Mario.

R&D or LSD? I’ll leave that for you to decide. either way, it’s still a fun game.


Free slot car racing, wargaming events slated at Niagara Hobby

Just a quick note: Niagara Hobby in Cheektowaga is having several free slot car racing events, and they’re holding Games Workshop Warhammer Tournaments as well. Here is the date schedule:

Warhammer 40,000 Tournament - Saturday, Feb. 18

“Raging Randy’s Race Day” - Saturdays, Feb. 18 and 25

“Tumbuktu’s Digital Slot Car Race – Saturday, March 3

St. Patrick’s Day Children’s Craft Workshop - Saturday, March 10

Carrera Race Day - Saturday, March 24

Warmachine Tourament, Saturday, March 17

“Thomas & Friends” Play Day – Saturday, March 24

For more information about these free events, visit


Sometimes, it’s better to buy obsolesence

The lad turned the big 0-7 this week, and listed among his birthday wishes was a console video game, a Wii system in particular. The wife and I were deciding on timing – after all, there has been a great deal of speculation about plummeting sales for Wii manufacturer Nintendo, and about the next generation of the system being launched during the next few months. The question, then, was whether to buy a game that will be obsolete by Easter Sunday, or wait until the new system is released so that our system might be supported for at least a couple of years.

We decided to get the current Wii version, for several reasons:

  • With the new system on the way, demand for the current Wii has practically disappeared – and current prices reflect that, with new units retailing at about 2/3 of last year’s sticker price. We were able to buy the system and a couple of games (including a monster truck racing game with steering wheel controller) for what we would have spent on just the console itself a few months ago.
  • Practically speaking, the kid is 7 years old. Not a ton of hand-eye coordination yet and, for all we know, his interest may migrate away from console gaming to something else pretty quickly (like it did for the Carrerra slot car racing track he had to have for Christmas – anybody know someone who needs a track like that?). There’s no point in spending more for the new system until we know that he’ll stay interested.
  • We were also concerned about the prices of some of the games – current Wii titles retail for $40 to $50, which is a rather pricey experiment to see if the lad will like a particular game, and prices for used games aren’t much better. After the new Wii system is launched, though, we can expect many titles from the old system to quickly land in bargain bins.
  • Lastly, the lad doesn’t know any different; many of his friends have the current system, so he thinks it’s great. We can always upgrade if we think it’s worth the investment.


Nature walk slated for Penn-Dixie site this Saturday

Just a quick note about a cool activity for this Saturday: The Penn-Dixie Paleontoloogical and Outdoor Education Center is having a cross-country skiing, snowshoeing or nature walk (depending on the weather) at 10 a.m. this Saturday, Feb. 18. Here’s the news blurb:


Experience Penn Dixie in the winter months by cross-country skiing, snowshoeing or a nature walk on Saturday, February 18, 2012 at 10 AM.  You must supply your own skis or snow shoes.  If there is no snow, a nature walk around Penn Dixie will be led by naturalist for those interested in visiting the site.  Pre-registration is requested.  Penn Dixie members are free, non-members are $3 each.  Call (716) 627-4560 to register and for information.  Cross-country skis and snowshoes may be rented from Gear for Adventure at 1 Buffalo St. in the village of Hamburg.  

That pre-registration part is important – call ahead if you plan on going.


An outing at the fire hall

Last Saturday was a banner day for the Cub Scouts, as they had the opportunity to tour an area volunteer fire department. One of the dads, Firefighter Paul, was kind enough to show the kids (and attending parents) around.

Many of the cubs had visited that same fire hall last year as part of a Kindergarten field trip; during that outing, the kids were taught the basics of fire safety: crawling out of a burning building instead of walking out, putting a hand against a door before opening it to make sure that a fire isn’t burning on the other side, that sort of thing.

Knowing that the cubs had already seen the standard presentation, Firefighter Paul made his presentation more about the working life of a first responder, with plenty of hands-on engagement for the cubs. He started with an overview of a firefighter’s equipment, which the scouts learned was collectively called “turnout gear,” engaging the kids’ minds by having them guess what each item of equipment was for. The kids really enjoyed seeing how heavy the equipment was, what it was like looking through the mask of a firefighter’s breathing apparatus, and trying on Paul’s helmet.

The cubs also got a rare treat. The fire chief agreed to start up both pumper trucks, and give the kids a ride around the block in a real fire truck. Unfortunately, I couldn’t go on the ride – too many of the cub parents wanted to ride instead!

After the ride, the cubs returned to the station, where they were given booklets about home fire safety, a glow-in-the-dark plastic cup, pencils treated with heat-sensitive paint that changed color when held, molded fire hydrant erasers and candy.

The outing was a smash success.


Keeping a six-year-old busy for an evening – for $8

Anyone finding themselves in Western New York this weekend knows that the weather turned badly today; or, rather, that the weather suddenly became what it normally is this time of year, which is cold, windy and snowy. With it being too inclement for outdoor fun, the lad and I resorted to keeping busy indoors, but we also wanted to do something new – and something on a budget, since I only had about $10 in my wallet.

At $5, this SpongeBob edition of Monopoly was a tycoon-level deal.

We decided to patronize area thrift and consignment shops, to see what toys or games were available. Since games tend to get beaten up pretty badly when used by first graders, new games end up looking just as badly as used ones in about a week or so. When I told the lad that, in light of that fact, we could probably get more games for the same money by hitting the thrift shops, he enthusiastically agreed.

It’s important to note that not every such outing results in success. In those cases, you’ve at least had the opportunity to spend some time together doing something a little different, and then figure out some other low-budget way to keep busy.

Today’s effort, though, was certainly frutiful. We found two board games: A SpongeBob Squarepants edition of Monopoly, and an old Parker Brothers wargame called Lionheart. Both are used games in good condition, and we only spent $8 between them.

Not sure yet if the lad will have the wherewithal to play this one just yet, but at $3, this copy of Lionheart was worth the risk.

We ended up spenidng about an hour just taking inventory of the pieces in the boxes, and performing the follow-up task of making our own substitutes for whatever was missing. We were blessed to find that pretty much everything was included in the SpongeBob game; the war game was missing a handful of figures (which could easily be replaced with figures from my miniature wargaming collection), and two were damaged, although they could be repaired with super glue or plastic modeling cement.

The next part was easy – actually playing the games, an activity that lasted a bit past bedtime, but was well worth it, especially since it didn’t involve video games or watching movies, which I feel are second-class entertainments when real people are around to interact with.

If the weather doesn’t break, we’ll be gaming again tomorrow.


For the to-do list: kids’ programs at home improvement stores

We’ve seen Mr. Lee at Lowe’s about two dozen times in the past year. our most recent project was a wooden castle.

Like most parents, I’m always seeking reasonably-priced or free activities for my son and I, especially those that will teach him new skills or bring him into contact with new ideas. One activity we’ve been doing for a couple of years now is taking part in children’s programming at regional home improvement stores. These free programs teach children basic skills of assembly and woodworking, and help kids gain conficence when they complete projects.

Sadly, most stores don’t market these programs very aggressively – which is why they’re being discussed here.

Lowe’s Build and Grow Clinics

Of all the kid building programs offered locally, Lowe’s hosts these programs the most often. Their Build and Grow program allows the first 50 kids to register the opportunity to build a free wooden toy from a kit supplied by Lowe’s. The kids are given aprons they can keep, along with patches for each completed project and a certificate bearing their name commemorating their accomplishments. The store also lends safety goggles and hammers, which is all of the tools these kits require.

Typically, Lowe’s holds two of these clinics per month, for kids of ages 6 to 11. The most recent kit was a wooden castle with kinghts, princesses and dragons punched out of card stock. The next scheduled kits will be a dinosaur (the Buildasaurus) and a Valentine’s Day card creator.

Since the clinics are restricted to 50 kids, registration is required; to register, visit the Lowe’s Build and Grow Web site. You’ll need to enter your name, address and phone number, along with the names and ages of kids attending. You’ll also need to provide your postal code, so that the site can locate the nearest Lowe’s store with available registration slots. A couple of days before the scheduled clinic, Lowe’s will send you a reminder about the project and provide a link for printing a waiver you’ll need to print, sign and bring with you. The clinics start promptly at 10 a.m.

The kits are generally easy to assemble, as they are provided with printed directions showing how the pieces are put together, and color codes indicate what size nails to use at which points during assembly. We have had some occasions, though, when having a largely featureless piece turned or facing the wrong direction before nailing it made completion of a kit more difficult or even impossible, so try to dry fit all of the pieces first, just to get an idea of how they all fit together and to make sure all the pre-drilled holes line up.

Home Depot Kids’ Workshops

Home depot offers a similar program, held from 9 a.m. until noon on the first Saturday of each month for kids ages 5 to 12. Registration is not required, and parents can bring their children to the store at any convenient time within that three-hour block. by visiting the Kids’ Workshop portion of the Home Depot Web site, you can see in advance what the next project is (at the time of this writing, the site doesn’t yet have the February offering posted; last year, it was a heart-shaped, wooden shelf for Valentine’s Day).

Participating kids receive a free apron and a commemorative pin they can put on their aprons with each finished project.

Generally, the kits at Home Depot are simpler in concept and assembly than those from Lowe’s, but the kits are usually made of solid wood (instead of soft plywood, like the kits at Lowe’s) and the finished projects are correspondingly more durable. We have a wooden pencil case the Lad built before starting Kindergarten 18 months ago that is still in service.

Another aspect of the Home Depot kits I rather like is that they make use of wood glue. It does make the assembly process a bit slower and messier, but using glue accomplishes two things I think are important: woodworkers use glue all the time, sometimes to the exclusion of metal fasteners, and using glue helps make the finished project sturdier.

Do you know of any other stores offering free services like these? If you do, please consider sharing them with other readers by replying to this post.






Cub Scout Pinewood Derby results, or how we learned to lose

While the Batmobile didn’t place, my son and I learned a great deal.

The long-anticipated Pinewood Derby was held this morning, and it was a smash success. About 75 people attended.

The pack had 24 cars entered – a 50 percent increase over last year – and the competition was tough. Our Batmobile – while it looked really cool – was definitely not the fastest car out there. I didn’t get to see the exact placement numbers, but we finished fourth in pretty much every heat we ran in, so that put us ahead of about a third of the cars, and behind about two thirds.

Hardly a fitting end for a superhero, but there’s always next year.

While the lad and I were disappointed about the performance of our car, we both took comfort in very different things. For him, it was about watching his friends succeed, since one of our fellow Tiger Cubs won the whole competition – which included everybody from grade 1 (us Tigers) to grade 5. For me, it was seeing that at least one organization allows kids to actually lose, even when we were the losers.

This topic touches on something that particularly annoys me about our public education system. At some point, we as a nation seem to have become more concerned about bruising a child’s ego than about teaching the real-life lesson that not everybody wins. In an environment where everybody gets an award for participating, awards lose their meanings. Even the Boy Scouts of America seem apologetic when giving guidlines for holding a Pinewood Derby. On the Web site, you’ll read the following:

In general, the Scouting program tries to avoid events with a single winner or even class winners. The Cub Scout standard is, after all, that a boy should do his best. We do not, for example, tie advancement to whether a Cub Scout beats the other members of his den in a foot race, but rather to whether he betters his previous standards. The primary methods of the Cub Scouting program—including the goal of personal achievement—are based on individual achievement and accomplishment rather than individual victory at the expense of another’s defeat.

So then, how exactly does BSA arrive at endorsing an event with clear winners and losers? The site continues by saying…

It is very clear that any boy who can cheer on a friend in a derby race, when his own car has been previously eliminated, must be said to have had his character developed, if not his car-building skills. But finally, and probably most convincingly, participating in the derby is fun. This is especially true if participation is stressed, and personal achievement is very broadly defined and rewarded.

Please understand that I’ve no quarrel with BSA. I’m a Cub Scout leader because I believe in what BSA can accomplish and will accomplish for my son. I see no merit in belittling a kid for losing, and as a leader I’ll provide acitivities that mesh with BSA standards on that point. And I agree with almost everything in that second excerpt.

What I don’t agree with is the “personal achievement is very broadly defined and rewarded” phrase. While I wouldn’t want every activity my son does in scouting to be a cutthroat competition, as a parent, I want to see kids fail from time to time, so that they’ll know how to handle more serious disappointment later in life. I don’t want my son to walk away with a trophy he didn’t earn – or he’ll end up expecting trophies he didn’t earn later in life.

Any adult will tell you that life won’t even be fair, let alone give a trophy to everyone who shows up, but our educational system – and, for many of us, our own parenting styles - isn’t teaching kids that anymore. It is for that reason that I’m pleased that the Pinewood Derby is structured the way it is, and that the lad and I had the opportunity to lose.



Free slot car racing event this Saturday

While the lad and I won’t be able to attend this event – we’ll be will be busy at our Cub Scout Pinewood Derby this Saturday – Niagara Hobby in Cheektowaga is having a free Carrera  slot car racing event starting at 10:30 a.m. this Saturday, Jan. 14 at their store, which is located at 3366 Union Road near Walden Avenue.

If you’ve got a slot car souped up and ready to go, this event follows the rules; if you don’t have a car and would like to try it out, the staff has a supply of cars on hand for visitors to use.

The shop’s online news bulletin outlined the following time  slots:

  • 5 years to 9 years (Carrera Vehicles; Stock Engines; Stock Tires)- 10:30 a.m. to noon
  • 10 years to 16 years (Carrera Vehicles; Stock Engines; Stock Tires)- 12:15 to 1:30 p.m.
  • Adult (Carrera Vehicles- Stock Engines; Stock Tires) - 1:45 to 3:15 p.m.
  • Adult with any Vehicle; Any Engine; Tires not treated in any manner with chemicals- 3:30 to 5 p.m.
  • All Age with any Vehicle; Any Engine; Tires not treated in any manner with chemicals- 5 to 9 p.m.

The bulletin goes on to explain:

We will operate on the following schedule and then repeat it until all participants in each age group have an opportunity to race; then the winners of each heat from each group will race until we have an overall winner from each category (5-9; 10-16; and Adults).  Race (10 laps; 15 laps; 20 laps).

Carrera Digital 132 Demonstration.  Modified Vehicle Demonstration (view what can be done to make a vehicle faster)

Each registrant receives a gift from Carrera.  A prize for the winner of each race (5 years to 9 years; 10 years to 16 years; Adult).  A prize for the winner of each group (5 years to 9 years; 10 years to 16 years; Adult).  Each participant receives a discount for Carrera products purchased on the day of the event.  A Carrera slot car set is presented to the winner of a raffle (no purchase required).

We have the largest hybrid (Digital/Analog) Carrera slot car track in the United States!  55.7 foot (16.96 meters) backstretch and… DS Timing System, DS Dragstrip Timing System, Electronic lap counter, Single lane change sections, Double lane change sections, Raised sections, Pit Stop Lane, Narrow Section, High banked curve, Digital Startlight, Position Tower, Driver Display, Chicane, Wireless operation, Buildings, Figures and more.  The approximate lane lengths: Digital Lane 1 (outer) is 151.4 feet; Digital Lane 2 (inner) is 149.2 feet; Analog Lane Yellow Lane is 148.7 feet; Analog Lane White Lane is 146.9 feet; Analog Lane Blue is 144.7 feet; and Analog lane Red is 142.8 feet.

How to Register: Although advance registration is not required, confirmation would be appreciated.  Please contact us by telephone at (716) 681-1666; or send us an e-mail to [email protected]  Please provide the Name, Address, Telephone number, e-mail address, and age(s) of participants.

If you do attend this event, please consider replying to this post and letting us know how the races went.

We’ll post again this weekend, with results about how the Batmobile fared in the Pinewood Derby.


Cub Scout Pinewood Derby: Building the Batmobile, Part III

This is the third and final post in a series about building a Cub Scout Pinewood Derby car that takes style cues from the Batmobile.

The first post in this series can be found here, while the second can be found by clicking here.

We left off with the chassis structurally complete, sanded, primed and painted black. The next step was to apply the decals that came with the kit; these are pretty standard dry rub decals, and were easily applied with teh blunt end of a clay shaper we had on hand. Of course, almost any blunt object will work for this purpose, ranging from a hobbyist’s burnisher to a humble, dull pencil. The kid was able to put these on with ease.

After the decals are rubbed on, they are still pretty fragile, so the next step is to take a piece of treated paper that came with the decals, and rub that paper over the decals to help prevent them from tearing or being rubbed off during handling.

The next step is applying multiple coats of gloss varnish, for two reasons: first, the varnish will seal and protect the paint and decals, and second, a gloss finish is smoother than paint, so there will be less wind resistance on the car as it travels down the track. Since placing the car on newspaper and then spraying gloss varnish wasn’t an option – the car will end up sticking to the paper, and it’s almost impossible to clean up – we improvised a pretty crude method of suspending the car in the air while we sprayed the varnish. We took a scrap of wood we were using for spraypainting and hammered a few roofing nails into it, so that all of the nail heads were about level. We placed the car on top of it and sprayed away.

After spraying multiple coats – and sanding across the woodgrain between coats  to help reduce the ridges between the woodgrains – we had a fully varnished Batmobile:

We were very pleased with the results thus far, but we did notice that our Batmobile still doesn’t have wheels. Since one of my hobbies is miniature wargaming, I decided to embark on a totally unnecessary but fun task for the wheels while I was waiting for the mutliple coats of varnish to dry. I broke out the highly-pigmented paints formulated for miniatures and the fine brushes I normally use for painting eyeballs and coat buttons on miniature soldiers, did a quick metallic drybrush on the rims to make them appear like brushed aluminum and, using some magnification, painted the raised white letters on the tire walls. While this step won’t make the car go faster, it did make it look cooler.

The next step involves tacking the wheels in place. We used a medium-sized tack hammer for the job, being careful not to mar the paint anywhere.

Now that the wheels are tacked on, it is necessary to align them so that the car will roll in a straight line for 10 feet. If a car pulls to one side or the other when it rolls, it will be grinding along the track guides as it rolls downhill on race day – something we clearly don’t want. fortunately, there is a great how-to video on the Pine Car Web site on this very topic.

One we followed the instructions in the video and had the wheels relatively aligned (we still have a slight pull to the left, but we got to a point where we just had to say it was close enough), the axles were glued in place.

Once the glue was dry, the Batmobile is basically finished. We’ll still need to add weight on race day to get it up to 5 ounces, but the car is done for all practical purposes.


The Derby is next Saturday, Jan. 14; we’ll let everyone know how the Batmobile fared in the race in next week’s posting.

Update, 11 January 2012: in case anyone was wondering, the second car we made as we were working on the Batmobile – the white Trans Am we dubbed “The Screaming Eagle” – turned out pretty well, too:

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