when life gives you moral dilemmas, make moral dilemmanade!

So… the Superplexus is an amazing 3D maze toy, where you navigate a ball bearing along a plastic track by turning the whole toy in every axis of rotation. It was designed by an art professor named Michael McGinnis, and is a project that he worked on in fits and starts from childhood through adulthood, until he developed the final model, and sold the design to Hasbro. Hasbro added a completely superfluous electronic timer and annoying-music player to it, and proceeded to run the idea into the ground by marketing it to small children who were much too young, clumsy, and videogame-oriented to appreciate it. Right around the time that Hasbro discontinued production of the Superplexus, the kinds of adults who are the proper market for such a thing discovered it, and were overjoyed to find that they were available on clearance for $5 at Toys R Us. Once they snatched them all up, however, they were gone forever.

Earlier this month, ThinkGeek added the 360 Puzzle Sphere to their catalog, which is identical to the Superplexus, minus the extraneous, tacked-on electronics, and with a less elegant seam between the two clear plastic domes of its case. After a few emails from various potential customers (including me) asking if this model had the designer’s approval, ThinkGeek did a little digging, came to the realization that it is a Chinese knockoff, and have stopped selling it. Meanwhile, in the comments of this BoingBoing post about it, someone quotes the designer as saying that he only made 33 cents on each Superplexus sold by Hasbro, but didn’t mind because he was more interested in getting it into peoples’ hands than he was in getting rich off of it.

So, the dilemma is this: knowing that this knock-off exists (it is sold elsewhere as the “Magicel Internect Ball” (sic)), and knowing that the designer was getting peanuts from the “real” version and wasn’t doing it for the money anyway, should you buy one, knowing as you do so that you’re supporting a manufacturer who is ripping-off an artist’s life’s work?

EDIT 4-30-2011: McGinnis is a little hazy on the details, but it looks like he discovered the Magicel Internect Ball, contacted the manufacturers, and they’re now working together to make a licensed version called the Perplexus! Hooray!

relive your glorious wasted youth

There’s a TV show in Japan called “Game Center CX”, in which a comedian named Shinya Arino plays old 8-bit video games while providing a humorous running commentary. Last year a tie-in game called “Game Center CX: Arino’s Challenge” was released for the DS, and unlike the thrown-together drivel that tie-in games usually are, it was absolutely brilliant. The premise of the game is that Arino has somehow become an evil wizard, and he sends you back into your own mid-1980s childhood, and forces you to hang out with himself as a child and play video games. The game’s main screen shows a little room with tatami mats on the floor, a bookshelf in the corner, and you and young Arino plopped in front of the TV playing 8-bit games. There are 8 games in all (well, 7 games and a marketing-tie-in remake), which range from shooters to sidescrollers to racers to an RPG, each of which is an original game that feels like an homage to NES games (but with better controls and other modern improvements), and each of which could easily stand on its own as a 200 point WiiWare or XBLA game.

You’re free to play any game you’ve unlocked as much as you want, but there’s a “meta-game” here; the evil wizard Arino challenges you to perform four specific tasks in each game, like getting to a certain level, or finding a hidden power-up. Once you’ve performed each game’s four tasks, you unlock the next game. The tricky part is that it’s often unclear exactly how to perform a task, and in these situations you have three resources at your disposal. First, you can talk to young Arino, although he primarily just offers encouragement (and exuberant commentary while you’re playing games, like shouting “SUGOII!!” when you get a 1-up, which really never gets old). Second, you can look in the game’s instruction book; each game includes an instruction book, which looks exactly like those “letterboxed” instruction books that came with NES games. And third, you can turn to your bookshelf of game magazines, which not only offer hints and even cheat codes, but also feature interviews with fictitious game designers, and previews of upcoming games.

I played this game earlier this year and enjoyed it immensely, and now I’m happy to see that it’s finally getting a US release in January under the title Retro Game Challenge. I look forward to playing it all over again with English translations of all of the game magazine articles, and I hope that the instruction manuals are filled with authentic NES-era Engrish. So, be sure to check it out when it comes out! It’s just like being 10-years-old again, playing video games in a dark room while all the other kids are outside in the sun, only without your mom shouting at you to go get some exercise. Ahh, youth…