Thursday, March 29, 2012

Dreams (M*A*S*H, 1979)

I never really was a watcher of the classic show M*A*S*H, especially when I was a kid. It took me all of 5 minutes of viewing to understand that this supposed sitcom was actually a serious drama, dealing with grown-up emotions that had little relevance to me at the time. Plus, I had no interest in war. I was into Star Wars, not real wars.

Even the kid-aimed M*A*S*H videogame, which had you fishing for bullets out of a patient's innards, kind of like a virtual version of the classic electronic game Operation, couldn't lure me into watching the actual show.

Sorry, marketing wizards!

That said, the show still managed to occupy the family TV screen quite a bit. Syndicated reruns seemed to be on at least twice a day, so I'd end up being exposed to episodes here and there, while waiting for some other show to come on afterwards (yep, in the pre-cable days, with only a few channels to choose from, you sometimes just had to squat and wait it out.)

One of the more unusual episodes of M*A*S*H occurred in the 8th season. Titled "Dreams", it takes us into the minds of several characters as they nod off briefly during an extended 30-hour operating room session.

The dreams were surreal and unsettling, nightmarish enough to force this young non-fan to sit up and pay attention (and to still remember them 30 years later).


Head nurse Major Margaret Houlihan barely makes it back to her barracks in time to pass out in her bunk...

...only to sit up seconds later, dressed as a bride.

There are no glistening harps, slow dissolves, or soft-focus photography to transition us between the real world and the dream. The dream starts happening as though occurring in reality--just as it would seem to the dreamer. Houlihan finds herself running through a field, into the embrace and bed of a well-dressed groom.

A patrol of soldiers marches by, taking the groom with him, who steps robotically in line.

Houlihan is kept from following her groom when a dirtied hand grabs her shoulder. She turns to find the bed now piled with wounded soldiers.

She suddenly finds herself standing alone, covered in blood.


Major Charles Winchester "the Third" grabs a quick nap on a cot, only to awake seconds later dressed as a magician.

Giving dual meaning to the term "operating theater", Winchester begins performing traditional magic tricks for an audience of adoring surgeons.

But the show is interrupted when a stretcher bearing a wounded soldier rolls through the crowd and positions the dying man in the front row.

The soldier agonizes for several minutes before finally expiring...

...leaving the desperate-faced Winchester doing an impotent tap dance as his final act.


The reverend Father Francis Mulcahey is hearing an impromptu confessions from a soldier when he dozes off...

...and finds himself apparently elected Pope, being hoisted by an enthusiastic crowd.

He is about to read a passage from the Bible when drops of blood begin splattering down on the pages from above.

He looks up to find the statue of Jesus has become the corpse of a solder.


For me, Capt. Benjamin "Hawkeye" Pierce's dream was the most disturbing. He puts his head down for a quick cat nap in the mess hall...

...and is awakened by an instructor in some kind of medical class, who orders Hawkeye to remove his own left arm as punishment for sleeping during the lecture.

Confused, Hawkeye grabs his left arm and twists it out of place. It has turned into the lifeless arm of a mannequin.

The instructor intends to demonstrate how to reattach it, using a live model who is already missing his arm.

When Hawkeye admits he doesn't know the procedure, he loses his other arm.

The instructor tosses the arm off-camera where it lands incongruously with a splash into a lake. An armless Hawkeye is now drifting helplessly among floating limbs.

A bloodied Korean child beckons him from the bank.

Hawkeye finds himself standing over a would-be patient, unable to reach for the offered scalpel...

...and screams as the sound of choppers approaching indicate the arrival of more wounded.

The "Dreams" episode of M*A*S*H can be found on DVD here.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Ace of Aces (1980, Nova Game Designs)

Gather 'round, Gen-Yers, and I'll spin you a tale, of a time long ago when the personal computer was not the ubiquitous and indispensable tool found in every home, office and school across America.

(Puffs pipe, leans back in chair)
They called it "1980", dontcha know. I was in grade school in those ancient times, and my school owned exactly one personal computer. It was kept in a special room as if it were some rare piece of science equipment borrowed from NASA. To get access to it, you had to be enrolled in an advanced placement class, and even then, your actual hands-on time with the precious device was carefully metered.

Here's a picture of the old girl... TWO disc drives. Whew! There goes the school's budget!

Of course that little joystick to the right is for display purposes only. You won't be playing any games in The Computer Room, as this is a serious education tool, not a video arcade.

BUT... you were allowed to type BASIC code into the computer to make games, transcribing them from books like this one...

...or this one, "Basic Computer Games", featuring page after page of code, just waiting for you to key in a line at a time. Yes, I actually used to sit down for hours at a time to do this. Can you smell the fun?

Here's just a sample page of code, one of many required to create a text-based "Star Trek" inspired statistics game. Better hope you don't make a typo!

This particular book is interesting because it contains a wide range of gaming experiences, including this one that would surely be considered inappropriate (if not outright criminal) on a grade-school campus today: a "Russian Roulette" simulation!

Russian Roulette is the "game" where you take turns firing a revolver, loaded with only one bullet, to your head. The loser is the one unlucky enough to pull the trigger on the chamber with the bullet in it. Of course, being 1980, this electronic adaptation is all text-based and, well, rather dull. But what a devious concept! Sample gameplay text below.

Here's the actual program code (and looking it over, it appears this version of the game has you spinning the chamber before every trigger pull, instead of just working your way sequentially through the chambers, so this game could drag on for hours. Boo!)

What is the point of this autobiographical detour? Just setting the stage. You see, a lot of the casual entertainment afforded by today's powerful, networked PCs just wasn't available back in those early days of computing.

Of course the type-your-own games from the Basic primers were hardly representative of the state of the art. But even professionally produced software sold in stores was severely limited compared to today's fully rendered, three-dimensional virtual worlds just waiting to be explored and conquered at the nearest computer monitor, smart phone or I-pod. Back in 1980, computers just didn't have the horsepower to deliver those kinds of experiences. Games were crude, simple, and flat.

There were a few attempts at "first-person" type immersive graphics. But the limited computing power of the day meant you were reduced to exploring almost abstract grids and monochrome shapes.

From 1980, Akalabeth: World of Doom (home computer) and Battlezone (arcade):

So gamers who wanted a deeper, more immersive experience, still had to rely on their imagination, and innovative, genre-pushing games from the non-electronic realm... role-playing games, statistic-based wargaming simulations, Choose Your Own Adventure type interactive fiction, and ...Ace of Aces.

Ace of Aces, published by Nova Game Designs originally in 1980 (with a few later editions) is a one-on-one World War I bi-plane dogfighting game that did something videogames of the day couldn't yet achieve--provided a first-person perspective for each player.

The game is packed with two thick books, one for the German player, the other for his opponent.

Each book is filled with illustrations depicting a first-person point of view from your plane (the German's perspective from within a Fokker Dr I, the Allied seated in a Sopwith Camel). A virtual control panel of possible maneuvers to select from appears at the bottom of each page, as well as the page number for the other pilot to turn to in order to update their view.

Each player announces their desired maneuvers (and its corresponding page number) to the other, pages are flipped to orient the other player's plane correctly to yours, then flipped once again to complete your maneuvers and end the turn. The end result is a person-to-person dog fight game that kind of plays out like a series of decompression chart calculations.

But you can actually see your enemy's plane in the correct scale and perspective, and it changes realistically as you both maneuvers in and out of each other's airspace, something no personal computer of the day could yet accomplish.

The basic game assumes both planes stay at the same approximate altitude, but you can still lose sight of one another, which lands you on dreaded page 223, the "lost" page:

You have the option to either disengage and end the round, or pursue your opponent and battle on. Optional "advanced" rules force you to monitor altitude, speed, ammunition usage and plane damage. I was getting a headache just browsing this section.

Nova promised several expansion packs for Ace of Aces, as well as games in other genres using a similar play mechanic (how about a wild west shoot out?), but many of these went unrealised.

However, in 1989, in the middle of that Star Wars fandom desert between the opening of Star Tours in Disneyland and the relaunching of the canon with the Timothy Zahn novels, fans were thrown a bone... the Starfighter Battle Book (West End Games), an Ace of Aces style game pitting an X-Wing fighter against an Imperial TIE-Interceptor.

Official Ace of Aces website found here.