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Wednesday, February 08, 2012

The Magic a Hand-Me-Down Merlin Brought...

When I was a child – particularly during the first four or five years of my life – the idea of having brand new toys to play with was considered to be a luxury.
The truth of the matter was that I don’t remember my parents being able to buy me a whole whack of brand new toys from Woolco, or Zellers, or whatever department stores existed in my hometown between 1981 and 1986.  The reason being that money at my household was extremely tight.  With all expenses going towards rent, food, laundry, and other basic necessities, it didn’t leave a whole lot of disposable income.  Oh, sure, I would always get brand new boxes of Crayola crayon 8-packs and colouring books.  Back in those days, both of those items cost less than a dollar each.  But, I very rarely ended up getting brand new toys.  Most of my toys back in those days were hand-me-downs from my sisters.
(Let me make one thing perfectly clear though before I go on.  Aside from a couple of stray Barbie dolls that my sisters owned – which I think I buried in the backyard of my childhood home, come to think of it – they mostly played with toys that were considered to be suitable for both boys and girls.)

And although a lot of the toys that I ended up playing with were the hand-me-downs of my sisters (which ranged in age from ten to twenty years old), I really didn’t care.  I loved playing with them.
Now, mind you, I was only five years old at the time.  To me, toys were toys.  It didn’t matter whether the toy was fifteen years old or fifteen minutes old.  As long as they were fun to play with, and as long as they kept me entertained, they were proven winners.

And, let’s also take into account the fact that toys that were made during the sixties and seventies were much better quality than some of the El Cheapo toys that are being mass produced today.
I think some of my fondest childhood memories stemmed from playing with those classic toys.  And, believe me, I had plenty of classic toys to play with.  There were buckets and buckets of Lego and Duplo sets that I spent hours building things with.  There was the classic Fisher-Price schoolhouse set that I think I spent more time decorating with magic markers and crayons than actually playing with it.  Luckily, my sister managed to restore it to its former glory (although it took a lot of scrubbing).  I also had these alphabet blocks that were in green and blue that were actually shaped like the letters themselves.  I couldn’t tell you exactly how old the letter blocks were, but they had to have been manufactured in the 1960s sometime.  And, before it got smashed accidentally, I used to play with an abacus all the time.  It was reportedly my favourite toy back when I was two or three.  Come to think of it, I should try logging onto eBay so I can find a replacement one day.  That would be nice.

Eventually, as I grew older, I ended up getting new toys for birthday and Christmas presents, and certainly I enjoyed and appreciated everything that I received as a gift.  But, here’s the thing.  After a while, I would always go back to the retro toys that I grew up with.  Classic Hot Wheels cars.  Old school board games.  Stuffed animals and action figures that were older than I was.  To me, that’s what my early childhood was all about.  Not who had to have the newest toys.  It was about being happy with what you had and making the best of things.  It’s one life lesson that sadly some adults could benefit from.  I almost wish I could go back to those carefree days in which I played with my retro-style toys because I think that those old toys helped get me through the good and the bad.
Certainly when I was in school, and I saw that a lot of the kids had all sorts of new toys that I knew that I would likely never get, it did make me feel bad...but only for a little while.  Once I got home, and I got right back to playing with the very toys that brought me so much happiness over the years, it was like being reunited with old friends.

The blog subject for this Wednesday is one of these retro toys that I grew up playing with.  This is a toy that I have a lot of fond memories of, even though it was first manufactured three years before I was born.  I honestly have no idea where it came from.  All that I know was that it belonged to my sister (who got it around the time she turned eight), and I saw her playing with it one day.  I asked if I could play with it, she said yes, and somehow I never gave it back.
What a nice little brother I was, eh?

The toy in question was the 1978 electronic game seen above.  It was known simply as Merlin.  Originally made by Parker Brothers, the electronic game (which kind of resembled a 1980s style cell phone) was hugely popular when it hit store shelves.  Reportedly, the game sold almost five million units during its peak in popularity, which was in the late 1970s and early 1980s. 
The game was created by Bob Doyle, a man who held a Ph.D from Harvard University, and who worked at NASA.  It was a simple design...eleven buttons that somewhat resembled a standard touchtone phone design, each button having a red LED light inside.  The original game console contained six mini-games that players could play to their hearts content.  In order to play these games, all one had to do was hit the corresponding number between one and six to launch the game.  The buttons on the bottom of the Merlin game were used to select computer opponents, and whether to start a new game or continue the same game.  These six games were basic games to play, but they could be challenging and fun.

These games – as well as the corresponding buttons – on the original Merlin were...

1 – TIC TAC TOE (X’s were blinking dots, O’s were non-blinking dots)

2 – MUSIC MACHINE – (each button represented a different tone where players could compose their own instrumentals)

3 – ECHO – (similar to Simon, players had to memorize the patterns on the grid and re-create them)

4 – BLACKJACK 13 – (players had to get as close to a total of 13 points without going over)

5 – MAGIC SQUARE – (pattern game similar to ‘Lights Out’)

6 – MINDBENDER – (similar game to Mastermind)

Most of the games included with Merlin were standard games that many people had seen before.  However, the ‘Music Machine’ game was revolutionary at the time.  Not only was the game considered to be one of the earliest electronic sequencers (as Merlin allowed sequences of notes to be recorded and played back), but it also was a game that doubled as a mini-synthesizer.
Needless to say, game #2 was the game that I ended up playing the most!

But really, I loved playing with Merlin.  Some of the best days of my early childhood was spent playing that thing.  When I was sick with the flu, I would play Tic-Tac-Toe while downing gallons of ginger ale down.  When there was nothing on television, I would play Blackjack 13, not even knowing how to play it, but still being happy with it.  When the weather outside was too nasty and dangerous to go out and play, I was content staying inside playing with Merlin.  It was hours of non-stop fun.
Well, that is until the batteries died in it, and I had to beg my parents for new ones. 

I guess playing Merlin helped fuel my love for hand-held video games.  I have a Nintendo 3DS that I play often...and in a throwback to my sister’s old Merlin, I even bought the red one!  If only I could find a DS game that resembled the classic Merlin toy, I’d be set!
I really have no idea whatever happened to the Merlin toy I loved so much.  I think one day when I was in my teen years, the game just ceased to function, and no battery could turn it back on.  It was a sad day when I had to let it go for good, but being reminded of all the good times that I shared with that red plastic toy will remain with me until the day I breathe my last breath.  I don’t think any other toy that I have ever owned could have had such an impact on me.

My Sister’s Merlin - 1980-1997

Although, I have heard that Merlin has since been revamped and re-released recently by Milton Bradley toys.  If that’s the case, I’d like to try and buy one to see if it’s exactly like the classic one that my sister and I used to play with.  It’d be a nice little retro throwback.

Barring all that, I also heard that a version of Merlin called “Merlin: The 10th Quest) was released in 1995, which included nine games instead of six.  Some of the games were the same as the classic Merlin, but some of them were brand new.  And, this Merlin worked along the same lines as a puzzle, or role playing game, where each game that was won would take you closer to a hidden tenth game, that was both challenging and fun. 
I never owned the 1995 version though.  I imagine that I probably would have liked it though.  Hmmm...maybe a trip to eBay for that game is worth checking out too.

Anyway...that’s my Merlin story.  I hope you enjoyed it!
BONUS QUESTION:  Do you have a childhood toy that brought you much love and joy just like my secondhand Merlin toy brought me?  I’d love to hear your tales!

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