Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Charles Owens

December 26, 2012

Simon Says the Big Trak was the Death Star of troublesome childhood toys

The magic of that wonderful day is slowly starting to subside. The gifts have now all been unwrapped, the great anticipation of the day has passed, and suddenly beloved holiday songs are no longer playing on the local radio station.

It’s the morning after Christmas. Things are slowly returning to normal — for better or worse. But for a small child, the joy of the magical moment continues, as he or she still has all of their new holiday toys to enjoy.

And the Christmas tree — at least in most households — will be staying up for a few more days as a gentle reminder of the splendid holiday that has now passed. After weeks of anticipation and build up, the big day is over. For some this is a welcomed relief, but for others the realization that Christmas has come and gone so quickly is disappointing.

But the memories of the magnificent day— and the photographs and video recordings captured of family members and their children — will live on forever. A good toy will please a small child for months, if not years to come. I still remember several from my own childhood that certainly stand out. The best had to be the Death Star, the elaborate three-story toy version of the evil empire’s ultimate weapon from the original “Star Wars” trilogy. It even included the trash compactor room complete with the snake-like monster at the bottom of the trash pile.

But the most heartbreaking of those early toys had to be the Big Trak, an incredible toy from the late 1970s that was years ahead of its time. The tank-shaped rover created by the Milton Bradley company included what looked like a small computer keypad on its top. The little tank that could was able to remember up to 16 different commands that could be programmed into the Big Trak. For example, you could tell the little tank to drive five steps forward, or six steps backward, to turn left or right and to fire its laser gun, which was complete with a glowing red light and a very plausible noise. It was essentially a high-tech toy that included its own computer chip before computers had reached the masses.

But as anyone in the newsroom who has experienced a computer crash — often losing an entire page created by Quark — will tell you that computers can often experience glitches, crashes and unexpected failures. And perhaps that’s another reason why the Big Trak was so many years ahead of its time. I must have had this little tank for all of two weeks before it quit working.

In fact, it would no longer do anything I told it to do through the keyboard command sequences. Soon, it wouldn’t even fire its laser gun anymore. I was devastated, and so was Mom. This was after all a pretty expensive toy for the time. We never returned it to the store. I don’t even know which store Mom bought it at. And I never had any luck getting it to work again. So my Christmas dreams were shattered — at least for one year — courtesy of the Big Trak.

And although it can still be purchased in stores to this very day, who could forget the vintage 1978 Simon Says electronic game that also came to us from the wizards at Milton Bradley. Back then — the simple joy of repeating the same four color patterns and sounds over and over and over again — seemed almost revolutionary.

And it was a game the whole family could play. The real challenge of course was trying to remember the different color patterns and sounds as they slowly but surely increased in speed. At some point, even the best of us would end up losing. My Simon Says electronic game lasted for years, and brought enjoyment to the family, for even more years. Even when the Atari 2600 arrived — ushering in a bold new era of gaming — Simon Says was still a beloved favorite of the family.

So the right toy can certainly bring continued enjoyment to youngsters, and their families, long after the holiday has passed. I can only hope that children across the region were lucky enough to receive such toys this year. Granted, today’s toys are a lot more high-tech, and most kids are asking for Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and Wii U games as opposed to a modern version of Simon Says. But maybe there are still a few kids out there who would enjoy something a little simpler — like a programmable Big Trak or a Simons Says. But then again I guess a lot of kids are probably playing “Halo 4,” “Assassin’s Creed III” and “Madden 13” this morning instead.

Simon Says so much for the days of simpler, but timeless toys.

Charles Owens is the Daily Telegraph’s assistant managing editor. Contact him at Follow him @BDTOwens.

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