When I was a kid back in the 1960s, anything that ran on electricity was considered a high-tech toy. That included a football game whose most dynamic feature was a 25-watt lightbulb concealed under a translucent sheet of something that looked suspiciously like wax paper.
Which brings us to today’s topic – the weird, wonderful world of my favorite grade-school Christmas gifts from the age of commercials “in living color” and pitches that began “Hey, kids! …”
I’ve chosen four which not only were great because they were almost totally human-powered and hilariously analog but also because they illustrate just how far we’ve come in game technology in half a century. These games make NBA Live look state-of-the-art. They are lovably archaic now.
And the crazy part is, in searching online for them, I realized they’ve become collectables. The thought of some antique dealer marketing these to somebody who would sit and look at them makes me laugh. That’s when I’d be like: No, man, we gotta try these out right now.
Anyway, here are my top four favorite Christmas gift sports games from the ‘60s:
4. Tudor Electric Football
It seemed like a great idea. It looked great with a giant board field striped out with yard lines and 22 molded plastic players that moved when you switched on the vibrating field. Cool!
Some were posed like offensive linemen from a bygone era, fists clenched against chests. Others were frozen in mid-stride like receivers. Others with knees bent and hands outstretched like linebackers.
And you could set up formations yourself and tuck the tiny felt football under your running back’s arm and design realistic looking plays you saw on TV.
Yeah, except you had absolutely no control after that. And it didn’t play like real football. The running back could be turned by his own lineman and begin vibrating the wrong way. Linebackers could get hooked and begin do-si-doing like square dancers.
And passing? That took a total suspension of disbelief. The quarterback wasn’t like the other guys; he was about twice as big and made of tin. And you were supposed to bend his arm back and slingshot the football to a receiver. If it hit the guy, the pass was complete and he “had” the ball. Even though he didn’t. And a lot of times, the QB flicked the ball so fast that nobody could tell for sure if he hit the receiver or not. Arguments invariably ensued.
I got my particular game about 1965 and the playing surface wasn’t made of metal, as were later developed. Instead, my field was Masonite board with a paper covering, printed with yard lines, glued on top. And when water (or Fresca or Tab) spilled on it, the paper eventually came unglued and bubbled up. Which unintentionally foreshadowed the artificial turf seams at the Vet by a good six years. So that part was realistic.
In the end, electric football in all its mutations was a game of promises ultimately left unfulfilled. The best part for me was that my brother painted the players with his Testors airplane model enamels and I had customized Browns and Colts with Jimmy Brown and Johnny Unitas. If only it played as good as it looked.
3. Cadaco Foto-Electric Football
This is about as low-tech as they come. There was no action whatsoever or even anything intended to resemble simulation of the action of football. It was all tactical. Which I guess approximates the attraction of Strat-O-Matic Baseball. Which I was never into, so I’m not even sure.
The game was built around thin cardboard sheets printed with diagrams of offensive plays (green) and defensive sets (white), about a dozen for each side of the ball. They were placed atop a lightbox frame.
On both sides, the plays ranged from conservative to risky. Both players made decisions for each down, just like coordinators. The defense chose its set card and placed it face-down on the unlit lightbox window. The offense then placed its card on top. Then a sliding piece of thick cardboard was pulled back to allow light to shine through from – I kid you not – a 25-watt bulb inside the box controlled by a switch on an electrical cord you plugged into the wall. If kids saw this today, they’d bust out laughing.
But here’s the thing: Strategically, the game worked! The illuminated combination of offensive and defensive cards revealed the result of the play. The gain or loss was determined by a defender symbol overlapping the path of a solid-line run (tackle) or a dotted-line pass (pbu or interception).
If you got too crazy too often with long passes, and especially if your opponent guessed your intent, you’d get intercepted. If you stayed too conservative, you’d have to punt or turn it over on downs. The trick was to read your opponent’s mind like a good intuitive card player – or coordinator.
This was an underrated game that played pretty true to real football. It was the one game I could get my older cousin Kevin to play when he was 13 and I was 9 and they came for Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. That was before he got bored and took off with my 15-year-old brother to go sneak cigarettes and shots of my dad’s whiskey.
2. Cadaco BAS-KET Basketball
This game looked simple. Hell, what’s simpler than spring-loaded metal levers popping a ping-pong ball into a plastic ring? But it was ingenious in the way it rewarded subtle dexterity, just like the real shooting of a basketball. If you mastered the tension on the lever and how to laterally manipulate the corresponding flippers, you could consistently hit shots from all over the cardboard floor, even bank shots.
The true test of any game was, if none of your friends were available, would you play it by yourself? And I played this thing a lot by myself just because it involved learned dexterous skill. The more you did it, the better you got, just like videogames today.
I had the exact edition shown in this video in which some game-collector guy details more than you need to know. (Did I emphasize that I’m not interested in ever starting my own vintage game collection? And if I begin telling you about sad clown figurines, just call the authorities, OK?)
1. Eagle and Munro NHL Table Hockey
It’s funny that an American kid who grew up watching football and basketball and baseball, and never saw hockey on television until CBS began broadcasting the NHL in 1967, would love a Canadian table game best. But this game was the greatest. I got it for Christmas in 1968 when I was 11 and we played it to death into my teens. We played it so hard that one of the wingers’ rods got bent. But every other part was durable as hell.
I can’t find online the exact old Canadian-made set I had. It had a heavy fiberboard ice surface and a metal frame with plastic nets and red goal lamps that lit when you scored. It came with two different pucks: a plain black wooden disc that was light, really flew when you wrist-shot it and made a nice thwack on the boards; and a weird yellow plastic one with a ball bearing embedded in it that was heavy and cumbersome. We rarely used it.
But an image search did turn up the tin replacement players. My set came with the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs, then simply labeled MONTREAL and TORONTO, I believe because Eagle (and its competitor Munro) had not yet struck an exclusive merchandising deal with the National Hockey League or the individual NHL franchises and couldn’t use the team logos without trademark infringement. (That came the next year when the company was sold to American manufacturer Coleco.)
My friends and I played this game so much that I sent away for the 1967-68 NHL expansion teams through the mail. Back came tin expansion players in the green and gold of the Minnesota North Stars (which I claimed), the Oakland Seals (blue/green), Philadelphia Flyers (black/orange), St. Louis Blues (blue/yellow), Los Angeles Kings (purple/gold) and Pittsburgh Penguins (light blue/black). They all were helmet-less, which was the way most NHL players were back then. All they wore were identically cheerful expressions, which never ceased to crack us up.
We customized the game in all sorts of ways. My AM radio alarm clock set for 5 minutes was the end of each period. I cut out the plastic netting and my mom knitted cotton string with knots and I attached it to the plastic ribs of the goals so they looked real, then painted the posts red. We detached a Luxo desk lamp and rigged it onto the overhead scoreboard, then turned out all the room lights to play night games. And when puck found net and that tiny red bulb flashed, it was like a beacon.
We did imitations of CBS’ Dan Kelly and Bill Mazer to taunt our opponents while we played: “Mahovolich with a cannonading blast, and that went wide! Canadiens are buzzing around the net now! Centering pass to Beliveau and he scooorres!” This was before Hershey-native Doc Emrick, mind you. But, hell, he probably did Dan Kelly impressions as a kid, too.
The first time I saw the natural evolution of this game into standup bubble hockey at the arcade sometime in the mid-’80s, I became addicted. I am borderline unbeatable on it to this day. The only time I can remember anyone defeating me more than once was some teenager at the Colonial Park Mall in about 1991. He had this system where he took about a minute to meticulously inch the puck with the end of his defenseman’s stick to his center through the narrow dead slot where the opponent’s defenseman and center couldn’t reach.
I considered it unsportsmanlike. But, well, the kid played the Soviets. He beat me back-to-back by identical scores of 2-1. Not that I haven’t gotten over it or anything.
So, that’s my list. I get that kids’ Christmas lists now always include the latest in realistic videogame graphics and ways to make the gaming experience more intuitive. It’s all about turning the virtual into an approximation of reality.
But when you get right down to it, realism is sort of what we were after, too. We just had to employ somewhat cruder tools in our quest to simulate it. I guess doing that simulation ourselves was part of the fun.
All right. Don’t make anyone younger read this. Don’t go online and buy one of these with somebody else’s half-century-old oily fingerprints all over it for four times the 1969 price. This was just a little time travel.
But if you have one up in the attic or something like it, sure, pull the plastic sheet off and bring it down. The teenagers will stare at it like a rotary phone and laugh, which is fun for everyone. Their grandkids will be doing the same thing someday with Forza 5 and GTA 6. They don’t know that yet.
Merry Christmas, everyone.
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