Video Killed The Video Star

I just spent a couple of hours on YouTube watching old pre-MTV era videos, and it got me wondering: What TV venues existed for playing these videos before MTV? There were only three networks, and somehow I just can't imagine any of them playing these things unless they did it at 3 a.m., which is likewise impossible since they tended be off the air at that time of night. And they pre-date VCRs as well, so there weren't video collections available to rent or buy. Who were these videos made for?

Jason Tucker

Noel Murray recalls living in a pre-MTV world:

Jason, the first time my brother and I saw MTV—at our grandparents' house, as I recall—we immediately recognized what we were seeing, because we used to stay up to watch The Midnight Special and Don Kirshner's Rock Concert, or go over to friends' houses and watch Video Concert Hall or Night Flight on USA Network. The history of music videos arguably dates back to motion-picture short subjects in the early sound era, but the cache of videos that MTV had to pick from when they debuted largely came from the "promotional clips" that bands started making in the mid-'60s, as a substitute for performing live on variety shows. Simple lip-synched performance clips gradually gave way to trippy epics like Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" or David Bowie's "Ashes To Ashes," and while those proto-videos couldn't find as many outlets on primetime TV, they were just right for the burgeoning post-Saturday Night Live late-night market. (Some of them actually aired on SNL, too.) Labels made these videos essentially as advertising for the albums, because it was cheaper to send a film of ABBA around than to send them on a talk-show tour. Which is why when MTV debuted, it was criticized in some rock-crit corners for basically showing commercials all day.

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And now, just because it's awesome, here's "Ashes To Ashes":

Like A Yellow Leaf In Autumn

My question is about a short movie that teachers used to show in my elementary-school classrooms (early '80s), usually on rainy days or Friday afternoons. The movie depicts the journey of a small, hand-carved boat. The boat, I think, is carved as one piece and is hand-painted, with a Native American figure sitting in it. If I remember right, there is no narration and there are no speaking parts. I seem to remember that, at the beginning, whoever has carved the boat drops it in the water at the source of a river. It continues down the river, and the remainder of the movie shows what happens to the boat over several weeks or months of traveling the currents and various bodies of water.

I don't remember many images from the journey, but do seem to remember that it comes across a forest fire and some polluted water. As the journey goes on, the boat becomes weathered and loses its paint. At some point, someone takes it out of the water and repaints and repairs it, before putting it back in the water. I've Googled this movie several times with no luck. Any help?

Chris

Donna Bowman waxes nostalgic on your behalf:

Elementary school, you are a fickle mistress. Sometimes you assault us with Straight Up!, sometimes you inspire us with gorgeous pieces of film art like Paddle To The Sea, the movie Chris has stuck in his head. It gives me hope that elementary school kids 10 years after my own time (self-evidently the golden age of educational-film screenings) were still watching some of the good ones.

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Based on Holling C. Holling's 1941 picture book (which was honored with the Caldecott Medal) the 28-minute National Film Board of Canada production (nominated for an Oscar in 1968) portrays the hand-carved toy's odyssey mostly through images. A native boy engraves a message on the bottom of his creation: "I am Paddle-To-The-Sea. Please put me back in the water." As the snow of northern Canada thaws, the canoe makes its way down rivulets and streams, eventually reaching the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence river. As Paddle floats, he passes boats, animals, industry, and of course, people, some of whom fish him out and take his message to heart. As you recalled, Chris, after months of wear, Paddle is given a fresh coat of paint by one of his human helpers before being returned to his journey.

While Holling gives readers a detailed lesson in natural and human geography in his classic book, director Bill Mason focuses on the sights and sounds Paddle encounters. It's that sense of being dropped down into a wondrous, arduous, even somewhat inexplicable quest from the small to the immense that the film conveys with such sensitivity. Paddle To The Sea is about the dreams of a child who can't escape his home, brought to fulfillment by a surrogate that he launches with nothing but hope and a fresh current. The short (on VHS tape) is held in many public libraries and school audiovisual collections; the beautiful book is in print in a 60th-anniversary edition. Seek both of them out, and be inspired to send a piece of yourself on wind or water to God-knows-where.

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Always Keep Your Hat Lit

There's an animated movie (or possibly miniseries, although I think it was a movie) that I remember seeing as a child during the early-to-mid-'80s or possibly late '70s, when, if my memory is to be trusted, it seemed like the networks were constantly showing one bizarre "special" aimed at children after another. (Remember that spinning "Special" logo you'd see before the at-the-time-it-seemed-like-thousands of animated Halloween and Christmas specials?) I only remember two scenes, which may actually be from two completely different products of the "one special after another" era, but I think they're both the same one.

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It was set in a fantasy world, and I believe the main character was the sort of generic vaguely teenagerish boy the kids in the audience were supposed to relate to—I can't remember whether he was a kid from the real world transported to a fantasy world à la Chronicles Of Narnia, or a native of the fantasy world. The first scene I remember features the main character (and possibly his friends) standing on a road at night and realizing that a group of monsters is coming, and hiding off the side of the road. (Probably a direct rip-off of the similar scene in The Fellowship Of The Ring, but at the time, I wouldn't have known that.) The thing I distinctly remember is that the monsters go by in a procession (I think it was an actual parade, with instruments and banners and such), and after the group passes, one last monster with only one leg comes hopping along, lagging behind the group, and either spots or almost spots the main character. This happens fairly early in the movie.

The other part I remember is the climax, where the heroes confront the head villain, who turns out to be a living shadow. The main character is getting his butt kicked (I believe the shadow fought by slashing the hero's shadow with its claws, causing wounds to appear on his body) until he's saved by his sidekick, a little hobbity guy who wore a hat with a candle on it. The candle is the key to beating the shadow—its light either weakens the evil shadow or makes the hero's shadow big enough to fight it effectively, I forget which. (I think the sidekick had either betrayed or deserted the hero at some point, and saving his bacon was a redemption moment for him.) One other thing I remember is that at the end, the hero leaves (possibly going back to the real world, if it was a Narnia-type situation) and his various sidekicks call pieces of advice to him as he goes, and the guy with the candle hat says something like "Always keep your hat lit."

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Luk

Tasha Robinson remembers that spinning logo and what came after:

Wow, Luk, if there was an award for longest question, you'd have it locked up so far. Your recall for detail is pretty keen. Both scenes you remember in detail do come from the same special, and both are about how you described them. You even remember the spinning CBS "special" bumper logo you would have seen before this cartoon. You can revisit that logo here, on YouTube—it's amazing to me how eagerly my inner 8-year-old still responds to that drumbeat, indicating that one of those many, many animated specials you recall is about to come on. Though actually, there weren't as many as you think. The TV networks just tended to replay the ones they had as often as possible. I know I saw the one you're thinking of in particular at least three times on prime-time TV, back in the days before VCRs, when we could actually revisit such programming on our own time.

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You're remembering a nifty little 1981 animated special called Faeries, which was based on characters depicted in an artbook by The Dark Crystal / Labyrinth designer Brian Froud. In 1976, Dutch artist Wil Huygen had a surprise international bestseller with Gnomes, a quaint fictional taxonomy of the titular little red-hatted creatures. In 1980, CBS aired an animated half-hour prime-time special based on Huygen's work, and it was an Emmy-nominated critical hit. So the network (and the same production crew) followed up with Faeries, another odd little fable, this time based on Froud's work. It, too, wound up nominated for an Emmy, in spite of its unusually violent (though still mild by today's standards) content.

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The hero, Oisin, is drawn from the mundane world during a hunt by a bunch of Froudian faeries, who take him to their king. Their magical land is in the process of being overtaken by an evil that turns out to be the king's shadow, which he magically separated from himself on a lark, but which then developed into a monstrous evil. The animated short follows Oisin as he journeys to confront the shadow, voiced (like the king) by the ever-reliable, ever-spooky Hans Conried. (Faithful prime-time-animated-special viewers would probably know him best as the voice of the Grinch in Halloween Is Grinch Night, as well as many other Dr. Seuss animated-special creatures. Though he was a live-action movie star—generally a movie villain—in his own right.) Along the way, Oisin befriends the shape-changer Puck (cartoon reliable Frank Welker) and saves Kobold, the little candle-hatted guy, from being cooked and eaten, in another scene with heavy J.R.R. Tolkien inspirations. (Actually, the whole thing feels more than a little like The Lord Of The Rings' journey into Mordor.)

As you recall, Oisin and company hide from a parade of baddies, who if I recall correctly get little descriptions out of the Froud book, with the one-legged hopping creature getting its own odd little descriptive couplet. Eventually, Oisin fights the shadow and is in dire straits—as you recall, the shadow claws his shadow, which wounds him too—before the cowardly Kobold, who refused to enter the shadow's domain, panics and runs into the room, lighting it up so Oisin's shadow is as big as the King's, and can fight and defeat it. Hooray! Then flowers grow everywhere, there are happy faerie dances, and Oisin gets dumped back among his people, with a huge heap of dead animals that make everyone praise his hunting prowess.

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Alas, I couldn't find any video samples online, it doesn't seem to have gotten a DVD release, and the VHS is long out of print. So unfortunately, it looks like you're just going to have to rely on your detailed memories to give you the nostalgia fix on this one. Just don't confuse it with the 1999 Kate Winslet animated feature film of the same name.

Ask A Departing Video-Game Historian

As summer draws to a close, so does our stint with intern Rowan Kaiser, who's been tackling some of our "ID this lost video-game" questions over the past few months. On the way out the door, he dropped off a last group of Q&As, starting with one from another contender for Longest Question Asked In This Column:

I'm trying to remember a PC game that I don't think anyone else ever played… My friends certainly thought it sucked. It's a space-shooter, and God, I used to love flying around, finding ships (far too many of which were cargo ships), and shooting them with lasers and some kind of space torpedoes. A lot of these details sound like Wing Commander, but I'm pretty sure that wasn't it. In fact, I can remember there was a copy of Wing Commander that came with my "Multimedia Upgrade Pack," and I used to compare the two games, so there had to be two!

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Here are some details I can remember:

— I keep thinking it's called Star Commander, but Googling that does nothing. Still, I'm pretty certain. Which probably means I'm wrong.

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— It was probably released around 1995, because our family didn't have a computer until 1994 at the very earliest.

— I think it was a Windows 3.11 game, back when you still had to run stuff from a DOS prompt.

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— There would be taunts from the bad guys over some kind of intercom-and-a-headshot as they entered your airspace (spacespace?), and I think some of the alien races had animal-like characteristics. I think one was a lion-type (but I'm pretty sure it wasn't Wing Commander) and there was a lizard type as well, maybe.

— It had a morality element, where halfway through an alien emissary or something revealed that maybe your side wasn't really the good guys. You could choose to join the alien fight for freedom, or just blow him to hell.

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— If you blew him to hell, the final mission was, of course, an assault on the big bad human space station. You could blow it up from a mile away with the torpedoes, way before you were in range of its weapons, which was kind of a bummer ending, but it was a great game.

— One of the recurring alien target ships was a "Paladin" class ship; I remember never having heard that word before, since mine was a D&D-free existence.

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That's what I got, some old CD-ROM that I'll never remember and may never hear of again. Any ideas?

Chris

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The game you're describing certainly sounds like Wing Commander, it's true, though the space-sim genre exploded in the early-to-mid-'90s, thanks in large part to Wing Commander's popularity. However, there was a Paladin character, but not a Paladin-class ship, either in Wing Commander or in its free-flowing spin-off, Privateer. So digging through the pile of space sims from that era, I find Frontier: Elite 2, Retribution, and something called Star Crusader.

Digging up further into on Star Crusader, whose religious-themed name suggested a potential for a Paladin-class ship, I found a review that claimed it had branching mission paths (another Wing Commander-style innovation), including a major moral choice halfway through the game. Sounds like we've got a winner.

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One of the first games I ever played as a child was an Olympics game for the Apple IIc. It was about as rudimentary as they come. My memory is that the hurdles event was nothing more than a bright green stick figure in a running posture, with short bright green vertical lines occasionally approaching from the right. The javelin was merely a green line that "flew" by first pointing up, then flat, then down. Most of the events were won by mashing one or two keys as fast as possible. Anyhow, I adored this game until the fateful day that my dad inadvertently erased the floppy disk it was stored on. I was crushed, and never saw the game again. What was it? I've found on the net that there was an Epyx 1984 Olympics game, as well as a Microsoft 1981 game. After seeing screenshots of the Epyx graphics I know that wasn't it, and though I haven't found shots of the Microsoft game, the descriptions make me think that wasn't it either, though I can't be sure. I'm at a loss. Please help.

Alex

Checking the Mobygames sorting index for the Apple II, there are nine "Olympiad" games, eight of which are Epyx from '84 or later. The ninth is the Microsoft game… and it does have screenshots, plus reviews that specifically mention the keyboard button-mashing you describe. This looks like your game.

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I remember playing a game in what must have been the early '90s on my brand-new Sega Genesis, and I've been trying to track it down lately. It was a beat-'em-up, Streets Of Rage style. You had a plane that you moved up/down/left/right and fought generic enemies on, the screen scrolling to the right, etc. What made this game unique was that you were a mech-style robot in a future-tech world. I believe you were about the size of a normal man. What I remember loving the most about the game, and what makes it stick out in my mind, was the modular arm the mech had. One of your arms could be switched out for any number of different nasty appendages, from circular blades to hammers to "rocket arms" that you could shoot at other mechs. You could pick up different arms and use them.

John

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I remember that game. I had it on the Sega Channel, and it always looked really cool, but I could never figure out how to have the robots fight effectively enough for it to be any fun. I didn't remember anything further than you did, so tracking it down was fun. It seems to have been somewhat under the radar, possibly because it just wasn't that good. But it was memorable for its interesting ideas and potential. The name of the game is Cyborg Justice.

I have a very vague recollection of an educational computer game about Disney characters going to space from when I was in second or third grade. It was obviously very simple, with commands like "Press Spacebar to pull throttle" and such. I recall images of Mickey and Pluto and an orange sidebar, but that's about all I can recall. I think it was designed for teaching kids to use computers. (I'm pretty sure it was an old Mac). It has become the game I always nostalgically think about when I'm playing any impressive new generation console game. By the way, I'm in Australia, if that might make a difference.

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Anthony

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Tracking down games when you know the publisher turns out to be relatively easy, and knowing that it's a Disney game can lead you down the right track. Home Of The Underdogs has a list of publishers, and this one is clearly a Disney game. Sort by year, and you find Mickey's Space Adventure, an apparently high-quality collaboration between Disney and Sierra, one of the great game companies of the '80s and early '90s.

My girlfriend has been going nuts trying to think of the name of this game she played a few years back. We have tried asking around the 'net, and we can't find anything. The best piece of info we've gotten so far is that is was a PlayStation game, but she thinks she might have played it on GameCube. It had a gameplay style somewhere between Pikmin and Bomberman, she says, with four or five big-headed, round-bodied competitors dressed in bright primary colors fighting in an arena with missiles and fart bombs. She also believes the game is Japanese. Any help you could offer would be appreciated.

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Daniel

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Hey, Daniel, did your girlfriend have a Dreamcast? Many hours of my relative youth were spent on the manic arena battles of Power Stone 2. Four people in a dynamic environment with props, weapons, and special moves. I don't remember fart bombs specifically, but it's entirely possible they were there. The reason I think it's Power Stone 2, even though you didn't mention the Dreamcast, is the "primary colors" line. The thing that most impressed me about the Dreamcast's graphics was how well-defined and bright the colors always were. This particular game is a perfect example of that, as you might be able to tell from the screenshot. Gameplay was roughly similar to a three-dimensional Super Smash Brothers. That said, it isn't a perfect match for your girlfriend's memories, if any commenters have a better suggestion, take it away.

Editor's note: Thanks, Rowan, and best of luck to you out there. We hope you achieve all your video-game historian dreams.

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Next week: Two lost TV pilots, movies we haven't seen, and more. Send your questions to asktheavclub@theonion.com.