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Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Obscusion B-Side: WoW, the Action Max is 30 Years Old...

In 1987, a team lead by James Riley filmed footage for an interactive movie planned for Hasbro's Control-Vision, originally codenamed NEMO, a video game console that would operate using VHS tapes. In 1989, though, Hasbro would cancel the Control-Vision, and the game that was meant to use the footage would eventually be released on the Sega CD in 1992 via Digital Pictures as Night Trap. Seemingly unbeknownst to everyone involved, though, that same year as the filming saw another game system actually released, and it too utilized VHS... Sort of.

That's right, thirty years ago Worlds of Wonder released the Action Max. Yippee?

Founded in 1980 by former Atari employees, toy company Worlds of Wonder only lasted for a decade before eventually closing in 1990. Still, WoW made a notable name for itself with products like Teddy Ruxpin & Lazer Tag, the latter of which actually helped lead to the company's demise after a child was killed by an officer who mistook it for an actual gun. WoW also had some involvement with video games, as it was the initial distributor for the Nintendo Entertainment System for the console's first few years, but in 1987 the company tried a slightly more direct hand with the Action Max, which retailed for ~$100. While Worlds of Wonder is most synonymous with the system, it was actually the product of Sourcing International, Ltd., and was essentially a light gun shooting gallery. Using the system itself in concert with a CRT television & a red sensor that is attached to the TV's lower right corner, people would play specific Action Max-labeled VHS tapes in their VCRs (as the system itself didn't actually play the games), and would shoot at specific targets when they appeared on the screen. Good hits would result in adding points, & bad hits would result in losing points. In turn, one could never "lose" (or really "win", either) while playing the Action Max, and since it relied on VHS tapes (but without the special tech that a game like Night Trap was going to use), each "game video" would be the same exact experience when replayed; no alternate routes, no randomization, nothing different.

Still, how exactly did the Action Max work in calculating hits? Just like any light gun game of the era, when the trigger was pulled the gun's optical sensor would look to see if the player was aiming at a white flash on the screen, and if it was then a hit would be registered. Since the Action Max wasn't directly controlling the footage, targets would be seen via small flashing circles on screen over portions of the footage when needed. Unlike something like Nintendo's Duck Hunt, though, the Action Max was ever-so-slightly more complex, somewhat because of the aforementioned red sensor. In the corner of each game's footage was a black circle, and this would flash whenever target circles flashed on screen. The twist, though, was that enemy targets (good hits) would flash in sync with the corner circle, while innocent targets (bad hits) would flash out of sync. In other words, when the gun's trigger was pulled, it would look to see if there were two white flashes (target & corner), and if there was only one (target or corner only) then you'd lose a point. The sensor, in turn, would light up if the gun sensed a good hit. Now that we all understand how exactly the Action Max actually worked, let's move on to the main attraction. To "celebrate" the Action Max's 30th Anniversary, I'm going to watch all five games & essentially review their contents. Since the gaming experience itself is so simple, let's see if there's still any enjoyment to be had in the games themselves as short movies.

Prepare for Action!

All five games (that run ~15-17 minutes long) were produced by CCR Video Corporation (Night Court, Growing Pains), with some help from Bruce Cohn Productions, Inc., and while all five games utilize different genres, they all start with a system intro. These have a narrator asking for you to fix your brightness (or "bright level", "black level", "background", or "greyscale") & contrast, teach you how to set the system to a "Reflex Game" for testing purposes (there was also a "Limited Ammunition" mode), and/or "Target Practice" in order to calibrate the light gun (or "game pistol"). With that out of the way, it's time to move on to the "games" themselves, and since this system was only around for a single year, I'll just go in alphabetical order.

.38 Ambush Alley

You're a fresh recruit in the Police Academy, and the officer in charge is challenging you to take on Ambush Alley, a two part shooting gallery to test your reflexes & accuracy. First up is a sunlit range with cardboard cutouts moving around, before quickly moving on to a poorly lit alley on the corner of Pearl & Pepper, filled with both enemy & innocent mannequins, where you work alongside the officer.

I actually did have an Action Max as a child back in the early 90s, though I don't recall ever getting it to properly work, and this was one of two VHS tapes I had with it. Even as a kid, though, I almost never put it in my VCR, and seeing it again all these years later I am reminded why... Because it's absolutely, positively BORING! I get the concept just fine, & I'm sure it's accurate to actual shooting galleries that various police forces use for training purposes, but in execution as a viewer, it becomes intensely soporific (yes, that word is too highfalutin for something like this). It doesn't help that the direction by Ron Brody (who directed all but two of these game videos) & camerawork in general is just so equally poor. The first part with the cardboard cutouts has some fair movement to it, to match the tracks that the figures are carried on, but the majority of this VHS is in the literal alleyway, which is filled with noting but still shots & slow-as-molasses pans. Even taking it into consideration as a game, it's just not fun or engaging in any way.

That being said, I'll give credit to the uncredited actor who played the officer, because he looked to be having a good time, & the music by Ray Neopolitan Studios (which did all but two games videos) is insanely catchy. Still, that's not enough to save .38 Ambush Alley, a bore that dares to call itself a game.

Blue Thunder

You're a new member of the Blue Thunder Patrol, and you're going to protect the World Peace Coalition from terrorists that plan on attacking it when it comes together for a meeting alongside your team leader via two state-of-the-art Blue Thunder helicopters. The day before that, though, you need to practice.

What video game console doesn't have some sort of game based on a licensed property? That's right, the Action Max has a licensed game, and it's based on the 1983 movie (& its short-lived 1984 TV series) of the same name. Admittedly, the timing as a licensed product is a bit off, but I guess beggars couldn't be choosers, right? Regardless, this game video is an okay product, and that's mainly because it utilized a completely different staff than most of the Action Max products. The Blue Thunder game video was co-produced by Coca-Cola Telecommunications (which went out of business & eventually became part of Sony Pictures Television), and because of that has a noticeably better overall production to it. Alongside (apparently) using footage from the original movie itself, the flying camera work is nice, there's a bunch of practical effects (lots of vehicle explosions & the like), and even the acting is generally more polished; the way the fighter jets were overlayed onto the screen was cheap as hell, though. This was directed & produced by Jeffrey White (& his studio), who would go on to be visual effects producer for films like Red Planet, The Last Samurai, & The Italian Job [2003], as well be general producer for documentaries for Peter Jackson's King Kong & The Hobbit. The music by Sylvester Levay (Airwolf, Cobra) is perfect 80s cheese for the genre the footage is in, so no complaints there, either.

Yes, this game challenges you to score over 300 on a system
that can't count higher than 99... What the hell?!

In other interesting bits, it's the only game video to not use circular targets, instead using the helicopter's triangular ones, and the corner circle actually stretches all the way into the edge of the video (so it's not really a "circle", anymore). Also, this was one of the final performances for John Stuart West (the Team Leader), who would retire to be a lawyer for 20 years before returning to acting in 2006. Finally, Blue Thunder was likely the final Action Max VHS tape to come out, and is now much rarer & more expensive than the others, so it's possible that new ideas were being testing with the tech here, but that's just a guess.


You're one of the officers on the Sea Dragon, a submarine led by Captain Jason that has wound up in "The Lost World", a part of the planet filled with "monsters that are half-fish, half-machine", "metallic crabs that are as big as elephants", & "indescribable monsters that launch rays of deadly energy". You have to help fight off these dangerous creatures, both below & above the surface of the ocean, in order to help the Sea Dragon make it out of the Lost World & get back home.

We're back to the productions done without the large budget that Blue Thunder likely had, and at least this one is better than .38 Ambush Alley. At the same time, though, it's also infinitely cheesier, what with the undefined setting (which I guess takes place in the year 2021 [you know, the future]?), the rather lazy web overlay to imitate a gunnery screen, & the use of puppetry for the various creatures that attack the Sea Dragon, which itself is obviously a model. At least this game video is evenly distributed, which the prior two were not. Sadly, both halves showcase the major flaws of how this video was shot. The first half is simply using pre-recorded footage of underwater trekking, with the monster puppets not exactly mixing in well with it visually, while the second half relies on a lot of shots where the camera doesn't move at all, with the web overlay almost acting like it's trying to hide how cheap the model for the Sea Dragon looks. Still, the music by Ray Neopolitan is decent, though nowhere near as intensely catchy as before, & the portrayal of Captain Jason by Jim Sweeney, a member of The Comedy Store Players (best known for the UK version of Whose Line is it Anyway?), is cheesy but enjoyable enough; Sweeney knew not to take it too seriously.

While looking up info on some of the people who worked on these Action Max game videos, I found something interesting. First & foremost, there was a man named Thunder Levin who worked as a production associate for Ron Brody's Action Max productions, & in Hydrosub:2021 even played the voiceless crewman who Captain Jason talks with. Now seeing someone actually having that name is interesting enough, but then I looked up what he went on to do. You see, Thunder Levin has since made his name as being the writer for all five Sharknado films, which I think is just the perfect connection I needed for a product like the Action Max. In fact, I brought this up on Twitter, & he responded with this:
"LOL!  That was like three lifetimes ago!  One of my first jobs in L.A."

Can't tell is that would be a fond memory, but at least he remembers working on them.

Sonic Fury

You are the newest member of the Sonic Fury fighter pilot squadron, comprised of "Alabam" (the leader), "Chief" (the native american), & "Trucker" (the token black guy). After completing your final test, earning the codename "Ace", a mysterious group of jets attack Sonic Fury and, with home base's "Rockin' Robin" being unreachable, Alabam decides to show these sudden foes how dangerous Sonic Fury really is.

Every video game console of the time needed a pack-in title, and for Action Max that would be Sonic Fury. The idea of a pack-in is to best showcase the capabilities of the system in its early days, and (for what it's worth) this actually isn't a bad example of that idea, considering how limited the Action Max was from the get-go. This is a rather straightforward game video, showing a lot of aerial camerawork, with multiple models of fighter jets appearing on screen almost constantly; very rarely is there just one jet on screen. Granted, the models do clash heavily against the footage, even on the blurry VHS footage that we have to go off of, but at least this sticks to being simple but effective. Not just that, but this is easily the most effective use of the flashing circle targets, with them appearing & disappearing very quickly over & over within a single shot, and they are constantly moving. Therefore, even when the footage itself is rather bland & simple, actually trying to play Sonic Fury would be rather challenging due to the constant movement of the targets; it could even hold up slightly on replays.

This is the other game video to not be directed by Ron Brody, with Don Kline instead taking the reigns, & Bruce Cohn's studio had no involvement, either; this is CCR working solo here. Likewise, in place of Ray Neopolitan, the music was done by Andrew Belling (Wizards, Dracula's Dog), but it's actually a bit lackluster, usually sounding more subdued than necessary. Overall, Sonic Fury is rather standard fare for what the Action Max was supposed to do, but at least it does it all well, & may even be the hardest of them in all, in terms of "gameplay".

This guy seriously scared the crap out of me as a kid... I love it.

The Rescue of Pops Ghostly

You follow a young girl & boy who are chasing their dog Arthur into a giant old house, only to find out that it's in fact haunted. That being said, the house has been the home to the innocent Ghostly family, Pops, Moms, & their son Gordy, for generations, but a bunch of wild & rambunctious specters, apparitions, & the like have decided to take residence recently. Pops decides to ask you to help them get rid of the unwanted guests, and hopefully the children & their dog won't be too traumatized by the frightening sights they come across.

Out of the entire catalog of Action Max game videos (all five of them...), this is easily the most well remembered & "iconic" of them all. As I mentioned earlier, I had an Action Max as a kid & had two tapes, and this was the one I would watch multiple times; now, after seeing it again, I fully understand why. Pops Ghostly is, far & away, the most polished overall product for the Action Max; yes, that's still not grand praise, but I'll give credit where it's due. While the camera work & shot framing is more or less the same as the other Bruce Cohn productions, it's the use of non-physical ghosts that makes this honestly fun to watch. The apparitions, of which there are about five or six varieties, appear from all over, and stretch, squash, grow, shrink, spin around, & actually "interact" with the environment in ways that the targets in all of the other game videos just don't. One ghost will spin with a spinster's wheel, for example, while some others swing back & forth like a pendulum when in front of a grandfather's clock. Easily the most memorable part, though, is when the environment changes from the house to what can only be described as a computer-generated 80s space trip. It only lasts for a minute & makes no sense in the grand scheme of things, but it shows some attempt at doing something different.

Once again, we have Ron Brody directing, Ray Neopolitan's music is easily the best of all of the game videos (super catchy & memorable), & even Thunder Levin had some minor involvement here. If the Action Max had more products like The Rescue of Pops Ghostly, then it might have at least had some more notoriety, but considering how Worlds of Wonder died out not long afterwards, it would all be for naught, anyway.

A sixth game called Fright Night (possibly based on the 1985 movie) was planned for release, but never came out, & there's been no indication that it ever actually may have been in production in the first place.

The Action Max was a novel idea in concept, giving children the ability to essentially "play" with the short movies they were watching, but I would argue that it came out much too late to really make an impact. Had this come out in the early-80s or even the 70s, I'd hazard a guess that such a concept would have been considered revolutionary & become a million-seller, but by 1987 video games had come so much farther, even when just taking the idea of FMV games into consideration; Dragon's Lair was more interactive than the Action Max. Not just that, but the idea behind the Action Max would wind up being done arguably better almost at exactly the same time. Running from 1987-1988 was a short-lived TV series named Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future, and that series had toys made by Mattel that operated very much like the Action Max in that viewers could "shoot" at enemies on screen during the episodes at certain times; I reviewed some anime spin-off videos for it back in mid-2012. Not just that, though, but the Captain Power toy could actually receive visual data from the show, i.e. enemies could "shoot" at it, & if it took too much "damage" it would actually fall apart; don't worry, it could be put back together. That alone essentially made the Action Max outdated & not worth getting upon launch.
Still, why bother to bring up the Action Max now? Well, aside from it turning 30 this year, I still find something quaint about it. Maybe it's a small hint of nostalgia for those days when I had it as a child, but I can't outright dismiss the Action Max. Not just that, but I'd love to see what these game videos would look like if they could ever be remastered. I'm sure that the puppetry, models, & the like would look all the more out of place & cheesy, but then again most wondered what point there was in remastering Manos: The Hands of Fate for Blu-Ray. If no other reason than for the sake of posterity, I'd love to see the Action Max game videos be given more than a short-lived & highly limited homebrew compilation of recordings put to DVD; yes, it did indeed exist. At the very least, due to the simplistic nature of the concept, all one would have to do is play it via a CRT TV in order to experience the Action Max in all of its cheesy glory.

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