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6  |  The 70s Have Returned, Part I
Darryl B. , 5/4/2005 3:57:05 PM
"Everything old is new again."

That certainly fits the description of the re-release of Merlin perfectly, as I can juuuuuust imagine adults my age strolling (or using their walkers) down the toy isle of Walgreens on their way to picking up their pain medication and going "wow, MERLIN! I remember that! I'll have to get it to see if it's still fun when I used to pl--errr, to see what my kid thinks of it, I mean!" Perfect to go right next to that handheld version of Atari 2600 Kaboom! and the mini Rubik's Cube...

Granted, this trip through yesteryear can gather far more attention than the two 80s items that I mentioned: "I AM MERLIN!" the unit shouts in a mechanized voice upon activation, as loud as those damn self-checkout machines at Kroger ("WELCOME, 'KROGER PLUS' MEMBER!", which I really hope the next model [whenever they're going to come out] comes with a mute button, but at least it doesn't yell out what you're about to purchase ["THE PRICE FOR THIS BOX OF CONDOMS IS..."]).

You know, in this day and age, there really is no reason at all why every single portable gaming unit out on the face of the planet can't have (if it doesn't already) a headphone jack (complete with Stereo Sound!) and/or a mute button included (as even the blah Pro Tech Pro 200 unit has four levels of sound/mute), as the on/off switch is on the right side of the unit, which a sound/mute switch could easily be placed on the left side (since the buttons to give Merlin a turn on certain games, start a new game, choose a different game, and Hit Me [for the Blackjack game] take up the entire bottom part of the unit). But then again, this comes from Milton Bradley, who, in the 1980s, helped crush the unique Vectrex portable gaming system by purchasing it from Vectrex creators GCE...who was then, in turn, going to be bought out by Hasbro, who wasn't interested in this fad known as video games. So the Vectrex commercial wasn't aired from that point on, plus Milton Bradley kept on repeatedly slashing the price of the unit to try to compete with other gaming systems at the time, ultimately losing over $30 million. (Granted, this may all be a coincidence, but you have to admit the irony...)

Anyway, without further ado, lets check out what the Merlin can do (other than egotistically yell out his name), eh?

GAME 1 is Tic-Tac-Toe; not much to say here, I'm sure we all know how to play the nine-square game where you try to get three in a row. I would say that this isn't bad to play occasionally, rather than having to whip out an over 100 page instruction manual for a far more complex game on any modern system nowadays that's far more complicated, but even if you let Merlin go first (by pressing the M key at the bottom of the unit), he's not very challenging in this version of Tic-Tac-Toe (which, due to his name, I guess you can say he isn't exactly a "wiz" at this, heh heh), as more was done with this simple concept with the Atari 2600 version of 3-D Tic-Tac-Toe, which I've heard people say that they've NEVER beaten that game in over 20 years of owning the cartridge!

GAME 2 isn't exactly a "game", as this selection (Music Machine) allows you to create a song using the numbered keypad on Merlin (see photo). Even though there's people out there making cds, if not even performing live shows by making music with Atari 2600s and Commodore 64s, this isn't something I've been able to do myself unless I spend a LOT of trial and error on. All of the keyboard is mapped out in the instructions as to what button plays what notes (such as do, re, mi), but that still doesn't really help me personally, as trying to input anything from the death metal of Coroner's "Masked Jackal" to the soothing new age of Cusco isn't something that's really my bag. However, other people should have fun with it, and several well-known songs are included in the instructions as well, such as "Mary Had a Little Lamb" and "London Bridge" (the latter of which I tried out, and it plays back well, especially since the 0 key is used as a pause between notes, as I don't give a rat's butt as to what kind of animal Mary had, unless it was a python or some other huge, scary mammal that decided to turn the tables on her one day and munch her down for lunch).

GAME 3 is Echo, where Merlin plays a song and you must repeat it back to him; you can choose songs from three to nine notes long to try to correctly repeat back, being kind of like Simon, although Merlin goes through the notes fairly quickly, so it's a bit more difficult to follow if a same note is played twice in a row (i. e. if the number 4 key, for example, lights up/beeps twice), however, Merlin's the better buy, since it gives you five more games to play, as opposed to just four levels of the same game for Simon. Two players can also play in this variation, as one player can guess Merlin's song, then hand the unit over to player two, who can press the M button for Merlin to repeat it so he can try his hand at winning the game. Not a bad game, unless someone has a mind like a...uh, what are those things called that you strain rice
through? Um...

GAME 4 is Blackjack 13, which is another game that you can just whip out and play instantly (like Tic-Tac-Toe), and Merlin's actually more fair in this one, since there was some casino-type game for the Sega Master System which, whenever you got close to a blackjack total (I think that version went up to 21, though), the computer would either ALWAYS win, or whenever you asked for another card, you'd always go over 21 and lose if you were at 15 or 16 or so. However, Merlin loses fairly often here though, so that's cool, at least he's a good sport about it (even when we're dealing with the unlucky number of 13).

GAME 5 is Magic Square, which I used to play a lot of when we had the first model of Merlin in the late 70s when I was a kid (which I'll get to that at the end). Here, various keys are lit up, and it's your job to press the correct sequence to form a square (i. e. having all buttons lit except for the 0, middle, and 10 keys). Sometimes you can win this in only a minute, sometimes it's going to take a bit longer than that. You can only win or quit out of frustration, though, as there's no score for how few key presses you made in order to win the game or anything, but oh well.

GAME 6 is Mindbender, where you have to deduct which numbers (from three to nine) constitutes Merlin's mystery code. Unless you have a super memory (what IS that blasted word?), you're going to need pen and paper for this one, since certain numbers that Merlin shows you and how they're displayed indicates your progress (i. e. a solid number means you got a certain number correct, but not in the right order, but a flashing number that Merlin displays on the keypad means you got a certain number correct *and* in the right order). So it's a good idea to write down which ones you got right and all, and deduct from there what numbers are left and what order they're supposed to go (whew!).

The latter two games can be two player as well, as Magic Square can be especially torturous, since one player can mess up the last three keys' worth of presses for the other player on Magic Square, heh heh.

As I mentioned earlier, my family had the original Merlin when it came out in the 70s, and from what I remember, the two units seem to be exactly alike, games-wise (don't recall the voice synthesis though, although it probably had it), although this unit is much more compact, less wide and two to three inches shorter than the original.

This would probably have gotten a much higher rating from myself if I was from a young age group -- it says it's recommended for the ages of six and up -- but this is one of the things that still holds up fairly well, as you could buy it for your kid, but then end up trying it out for a couple of afternoons yourself...if you don't take it out to your car, lest your kid comes wandering in, wondering what all the weird noises are...

Junior: What's THAT, daddy?

Father (stuffing Merlin underneath pillow): Um, a Monster Detector, son. Just make sure you sleep every night until Christmas or else it won't be able to keep the monsters at bay! (from underneath pillow: "I AM MERLIN!") Uh oh, you'd better sleep ESPECIALLY well tonight!

Pleasant dreams, kid.

Oh, a SIEVE! That's what that word is, what you strain rice through! Yeah, I remember now...

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