Sunday Funday and the Philistine Cart



menacetitleBack in the 1990’s, game developer Color Dreams produced a dozen or so unlicensed games for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Let me restate that: In a darker, more primitive time, some monsters formed a development company and created awful “games” for the NES, which they inflicted on poorly-informed parents who wanted cheap games. These games were of such low quality that Nintendo refused to grant them license to publish games for their system. Color Dreams reverse engineered the lockout chip present on every NES cartridge and made their games anyway.


One of these abominations was their 1990 game Menace Beach, in which you must guide the skateboarding protagonist against an army of ninjas and Elvis impersonators to rescue your kidnapped girlfriend from Demon Dan. Between levels your girlfriend alternates between pleading with and taunting you, as her clothing becomes torn and tattered, eventually falling away.


Hey, is that… slatwall? Oh, man. I have this… thing… for retail fixtures.

The game itself, despite some interesting mechanical innovations, was mostly a cludgy, mediocre platformer. Your character could punch, jump, and execute a spinning skateboard attack by jumping and then attacking in mid-air. The character sprites had poor hit detection but were thoughtfully animated, with the ninjas moving through a variety of stances and the Elvis impersonators gyrating their pixelated hips.

The game was not very good, and even the inclusion of the weird fetish cutscenes wouldn’t have been enough to make it memorable. What the game became is more interesting.


You see, Color Dreams had a problem: Retailers who carried unlicensed game cartridges for Nintendo systems risked the wrath of Nintendo of America, who could revoke a distribution agreement if they found out that the retailer was selling these sub-par games. If you were a buyer for Wal-Mart or Electronics Boutique, you wouldn’t risk killing the cash cow of NES games to bring in a bunch of mediocre wanna-be games. It would be like a tabletop game store risking their status with Wizards of the Coast by breaking street date on a Magic: The Gathering release, or by selling the promotional give-away cards. Oh, wait. They do that regularly. Sigh. Moving on.

Somewhere in what I can only assume were the very sticky offices at Color Dreams, a solution was found: Market the games in Christian bookstores. These bookstores weren’t interested in mainstream video games, anyway, so they had nothing to lose. Color Dreams created a new label called Wisdom Tree and started rehashing their secular games with a Christian theme. One of these games was a hack of Menace Beach called Sunday Funday.


The player’s character was redrawn to be carrying a Bible. The punch attack was removed, with both ground and air attacks being that skateboard spin move. The ninjas and Elvis impersonators were replaced with generic white dudes and gourmet chefs. And Taunting Bondage Damsel? Replaced with a fully-clothed Sunday School teacher who berated you for being late and urged you to make best possible speed to church.


Not quite as much care appears to have gone into this particular piece of artwork.

Sunday Funday also shipped with a fairly uninspired MIDI Karaoke rendition of 4Him‘s song The Ride. Now, having grown up in a Christian household and exposed to/afflicted by Contemporary Christian Music, I can tell you that 4Him wasn’t the worst Christian music ever, and The Ride was a fairly popular song on an album that sold pretty well. I have to wonder if Benson Records knew the kind of people they were dealing with. I’d very much like to talk to whatever label employee agreed to have the song included with the game, but I fear that I may never get the answers I desire.

the ride

Extra credit: Click here for an extra little slice of weirdness. I got nothing.

In high school, our youth group sang a version of Amazing Grace set to the tune of Peaceful Easy Feeling, with the verses being from John Newton’s hymn and the chorus coming from the song by the Eagles:

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now I’m found
Was blind but now I see

And I’ve got a peaceful easy feeling
And I know you won’t let me down
‘Cause I’m already standing on the ground

Catchy, but hardly theologically correct in a church that preached total depravity. I scribbled down what I thought was a more appropriate chorus, and we tried it:

And I’ve got a broken, humbled spirit
‘Cause I know that I’ve let you down
But Father you have placed me on solid ground

It was a terrible flop. We put the new words on the overhead, but nobody cared, and everyone sang the version from The Eagles in defiance. Our pastor would later express regret for having approved either version of the song, calling it a “Philistine cart”. We all got the reference: Israel, having gotten possession of the Ark of the Covenant back from the Philistines, were given special instructions for how to return the Ark, including a new cart. They disregarded some of these instructions since it appeared that the cart the Philistines had used for their half of the trip seemed perfectly serviceable. When an ox pulling the cart stumbled, a man named Uzzah reached out to keep the Ark from falling, and, being in violation of the God-given instruction not to touch the Ark, promptly snuffed it.

The lesson given by preachers is that we should take care when mixing the mundane and the divine, but even if you’re not a believer, you can see the point. As Hank Hill would have said, Christian video games don’t make video games better, they just make Christianity worse. While it’s unclear whether the publishers of Menace Beach and Sunday Funday experienced any smiting as a result of their terrible Christian video game, they certainly didn’t receiving any temporal blessing from it, either: The company continued to be hounded in court by Nintendo, and both games were produced in such low quantities that they are now collector’s items worth well in excess of $100.

And now you know the story of Sunday Funday and the Philistine Cart.

Seeking Bad Examples (There but for the Grace of God)

My wife and I honeymooned in this town, and we revisit it frequently when we want to get away from the shop. This week we’re out here with another couple, which is fun. Tonight the other three in our group are doing an Escape Room. Since I’ve got an aversion to being locked in a room, even for play, I decided to sit it out and spend the evening downtown, visiting businesses.

A local game store was recommended to me by another retailer, so I went to have a look-see. As I walked in, two occupants briefly suspended their conversation to say “Hi” to me, then went right back to talking. The store was probably 2,500 square feet or so, and mostly consumed with tables. There was a calendar of events poster from Wizards of the Coast that went out of date two months ago. The merchandise section was about 150 square feet of sloppily-piled, but at least mostly current, merchandise. I looked around for 90 seconds, then turned around and left. A hasty shout of “Was it not what you expected?” hit my back before the door closed.

Sadly, from the sub-prime location and $150 unlit sign, it was exactly what I expected. I didn’t introduce myself because I didn’t want to offend the clerk. Besides, he seemed busy. I asked my friend about it and found out that he’d confused this store for another, less terrible, one.chair

Later, I visited a used book store. It’s run by one elderly lady and her tiny dog, and she spends all her time making yarn in the center of the store. I visit it every time we come to town, just out of disbelief that it’s still around. Is she living on a big life insurance payout? Does she have a reverse-mortgage arrangement for the very valuable real estate? Is it a front for a government safe house? I’m not sure, but she’s still there after at least eleven years.

As always, I was confronted first by a small, angry dog. The owner advised me not to be friendly, but just keep moving. I stepped around chewed-on chicken bones that were piled in the floor and walked on.

“Hi! Where is your science fiction section?” I asked, looking as always for more copies of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress to give away.

“We don’t have much, but come here, I’ll show you.”

“Oh, I don’t want to interrupt your work.” I said.

She looked up at me with annoyance. “I wasn’t going to get up. I was going to tell you where to go, if you’ll listen.” She pointed with her nod, since her hands were busy with the spinning wheel. “Go down until you see the hat rack, and turn left, then take the aisle on your right.”

I thanked her and walked back into the store, stepping around loose boxes and piles of yarn. I wasn’t seeing any hat racks.

“Didn’t listen, did’ya? Turn around and come back, then turn at the hat rack, then it’s the first aisle on your right.”

I turned around and, sure enough, there was a crocheted hat sitting loose on one of the bookshelves. I turned right, then right again, finding the section.

“Life is better when you listen, isn’t it? I can never get anybody to listen.”

Biting my lip, I examined the shelves. No Heinlein at all, save two copies of The Cat Who Walks Through Walls. I poked around for a bit but, fearing that she was becoming grumpier with me by the minute, soon wished her a pleasant evening and left. She asked me not to bring a messenger bag with me, next time.

I’ll be back without the bag next time. This has become a tradition.

My dad used to say something about businesses he saw being run poorly. “Whatever it is that the owner wants out of that business, I guess they’re getting it.”

I never asked him what he meant, but I think I can give it a shot. In our industry, retailers are constantly fretting about the Big Bad of Amazon, Books-A-Million, and digital delivery. The response is frequently that we should endeavor to beat them with superior customer service and attention to detail. Everyone says that they care about making a great customer experience, but we’re all hypocrites on one level or another. Maybe it’s poorly-merchandised shelves, or dirty bathrooms, or employees that don’t greet and engage every customer. My shop could use some cord-hiding, a coat of paint in the bathrooms, and a fresh wax job.

On some level we all have things that we give up on, or at least tolerate with no definite plan for improvement. Visiting businesses like these helps remind me that, much as every person is the protagonist in their own story, every owner of a terrible business has perfectly rational-sounding excuses that allowed their business to decay to this point.

After looking at these pictures? I’m going to buy some paint when I get back to the store.

Tolerating Imperfect Business Relationships (Dancing with Dirtbags)

2016-04-08 11.46.34If you are in business for more than a day or two, you’ll run into vendors that consistently fail to deliver on their promises. Maybe it’s a tabletop games supplier who frequently gets your orders wrong, never has what you want in stock, and doesn’t return your calls, anyway. Maybe it’s a comic book vendor who frequently damages your books, or charges you to ship a quarter-inch catalog in a medium flat-rate box. Maybe it’s a parts supplier who takes forever processing returns and then hoses you on half of them.

Your options in these situations always fall into one of these categories:

  1. Scream and cry on the phone to a customer service representative. Write long, public Facebook posts about how awful this vendor is. Concoct Machiavellian schemes to play your bad vendors against each other. Travel to your vendor’s offices and key some cars.
  2. Make reasonable requests of your vendor, complain when standards aren’t being met, and move your business elsewhere when you find that you no longer want to do business with them.
  3. Accept the mistreatment.

#1 is right out, of course. We’re professionals, right? Except that, uh, I may have flown off the handle at vendors one or eight times when I was just starting out. Every slight was a personal offense. Long emails were written. Empty legal threats were made. The light of those burning bridges lit my path for years and can still be spotted in the distance when conditions are just right. There are vendors with whom it would be mighty convenient to trade with now, but who will likely never return my emails again, because I was a jerk.

#2 is how it’s supposed to work. I address a behavior that I find unacceptable, and the vendor either shapes up or gets replaced.

But what happens when that vendor is the only place to go for what your business needs? What do you do if eliminating that vendor will result in a significant loss of income?

You go for #3. You accept the mistreatment. Oh, sure, you should find ways to mitigate the damage it causes, but ultimately you’re making this decision because it’s a win for you.

That win for you can frequently be assigned a number, and I call that number the Dirtbag Dividend.

I have game suppliers who didn’t treat me the way I want to be treated. I asked that they change the behavior. The behavior didn’t change, so I don’t do business with them, uh, except when I need to get something only they carry. I’d rather swallow my pride and accept the fact that I’m going to have to carefully check everything I get from them. My reward, my Dirtbag Dividend, is the money I’ll make on that item that I couldn’t get elsewhere.

The dominant comic book distributor has a nasty reputation among store owners for being difficult to deal with, for frequently shipping damaged items or shipping undamaged items in silly ways. This is frequently the FIRST thing that comes up when someone asks about comic books. Many store owners will tell you that they stopped carrying comics rather than deal with this distributor. And yet, many comic stores continue to exist, and many hybrid stores make comics a part of their mix and make good money doing it. I’ve seen their numbers, and the profit is real. That profit is their Dirtbag Dividend, though calling it that may be unfair. I’m beginning to suspect that this particular distributor does the things it does because it deals with thousands of unique SKUs that change every single month and have strict release schedules.

We deal with phone parts suppliers in China. The defect rate is about 12%, and they hose you on about half the returns. Between getting hosed on rejected returns and pulling teeth to get the good returns pushed through over months, I figure it adds 10% to the cost of the parts. I could deal with American resellers of the same parts and have them deal with all the hassle, but it would cost 30% more on the front end. That 20% gap, even at my low volume, is enough to make the difference between driving an old Chevy and a new Lexus, or maybe the difference between toiling to make one store work and rolling toward expansion to multiple stores. To earn it, I have to go to sleep at night trying not to think about the fact that my rep lied about the condition of the parts I returned. It hurts, but the Dirtbag Dividend makes it all work out in the end.

I recently heard a theory that a guy who runs a restaurant is angry sometimes. A guy who runs two restaurants reaches peak anger: He is ALWAYS angry about something. The guy who runs six restaurants isn’t angry about anything anymore. That old cliche about having the serenity to accept the things you cannot change? There’s money to be made wading through that serenity. Money that your peers might be leaving on the table. Take that money and serenely live better than your peers with it.