Friday, May 27, 2016

The Secret of Sigma Seven (#110)

The Secret of Sigma Seven coverThe title for #110 is The Secret of Sigma Seven, which in the book is also the title of a movie stolen from a Hollywood director. But the story might as well be Frank and Joe Go to a Science Fiction Convention.

After Frank and Joe mock Chet’s attempts at cosplay (although they don’t call it that — the term hadn't been popularized in America yet), the boys meet Brian Amchick, a guy from Frank’s trigonometry class. Frank deigns to remember one of the little guys who flit through his life, and Brian agrees to introduce Frank, Joe, and Chet to the ins-and-outs of science fiction conventions and their terminology.

BayCon is being held at the Bayport Inn, which has showed up when Chet worked there in Spark of Suspicion (#98). No one brings up Chet’s previous employment in this book, though. Chet is excited about BayCon’s costume party because the prize for the best costume is “a trip to Florida to watch a space shuttle launch” (2). That’s a nice prize, but it shouldn’t be that big of a deal to Chet since he HAS BEEN TO SPACE in a space shuttle.

Let me repeat that: he, along with Frank and Joe, have been in space. They were able to go in The Skyfire Puzzle (#85), the last digest before the year-long hiatus of 1986. But no one mentions this; no one even remembers it either. Joe even says, “Maybe the shuttle will take you along. Then you can become a real space cadet” (3).

Putting aside the undeserved nature of Joe’s putdown, why does no one remember the chums going into space? If I had gone into space, I would never stop talking about it. I’m loathe to hold up The Big Bang Theory as any indication of reality, but after engineer Howard Wolowitz traveled to the International Space Station in that series, he hasn’t shut up about it. Chet should be like that.

Frank and Joe aren’t there for the costume party, though. They have come to BayCon to see The Secret of Sigma Seven, the fifth movie in a sci-fi epic. Sigma Seven is scheduled to make its debut at the convention, and the movie’s director, Simon Devoreaux, has even come with the movie, to give it a brief introduction and serve on a few panels. Frank, Joe, and Chet have enjoyed the previous four installments of the film franchise, and they can’t wait for #5. They end up disappointed, however, as the print of the film that was to be shown at BayCon is stolen before it can be screened.

Frank and Joe decide they aren’t going to investigate unless Devoreaux asks them to, and he’s not interested in talking to them at all. Fortunately for Frank and Joe, Linda Klein, the convention’s organizer, wants them to find the film, so they agree —

Wait. Why is it fortunate for them? They aren’t getting paid, and the person who would benefit the most has no interest in them. Before Klein asks for their help, Frank says, “Maybe we’d better leave this for the Bayport police” (15). He’s right! Well, he would be right, if the Bayport Police could be bothered to do anything, but they don’t appear in the book. In the 21st century, the FBI would probably be called in, either because of the movie studio’s clout or because of copyright infringement concerns, but we don’t see them either. The field is clear for Frank and Joe!

They get their first suspect: someone roaming around Bi-Mon-Sci-Fi-Con wearing different costumes and a green medallion. (Why keep wearing something that identifies him, when he’s in disguise? The answer: He didn’t think it would matter.) The suspect tries to kill Devereaux by giving a real but fake-looking gun to a con-goer and telling him to shoot at Devereaux; he almost tricks Joe into falling down an elevator shaft as well. The suspect seemingly aims a driverless hovercar at Sigma Seven’s special effects director, Jack Gillis. (Gillis tells Chet he has no plans to mass produce the hovercars because he’s “already rich” [39]. If that’s not a reason to suspect him of something, I don’t know what is.)

Frank and Joe wend their way through the convention, accumulating a meager pile of suspects. Acerbic writer Richard Feinbetter hates Devoreaux because he believes Devoreaux’s movies ripped off one of his stories. Feinbetter’s friend, fellow author Arlen Hennessey, hates Devoreaux’s movies in an artistic sense, but he too believes Devoreaux ripped off Feinbetter. The brothers also suspect George Morwood, a “huckster,” as Brian says, who sells video cassettes of movies at the con. He seems shady, and since the Hardys suspect the movie was stolen for the bootleg market, they keep an eye on him. (The author does nail how surly dealers at cons can be, almost like they are reluctant to sell stuff to you.)

I don’t have a suspect for who Hennessey is supposed to represent, but Feinbetter sounds like Harlan Ellison, a cantankerous sci-fi writer who has a propensity for suing those he thinks have wronged him or stolen his intellectual property. (Ellison has claimed the TV show Future Cop and the movie The Terminator were based on his works, and he won damages in those suits. He sued over the movie In Time but later withdrew the suit. He has been involved in numerous other lawsuits and has been extremely critical of how others, like Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, have treated his scripts.)

The fit isn’t exact, though; Feinbetter is a writer from the Golden Age, back in the ‘40s and ‘50s, while Ellison is recognized as part of the vanguard of the ‘60s New Wave. Also, the story Devoreaux is alleged to have stolen from him involves “the Federation of Worlds series of novels”; Ellison has written few novels, and the Foundation / Empire series of Isaac Asimov seems more likely what was being referred to. Of course, “Federation” also calls to mind Star Trek, but that existed as a TV show before it engulfed all media forms.

Also: Feinbetter shoots Frank, Joe, and Brian with a gag gun with a flag that says, “ZAP! You’re star dust!” (55), which I bet Ellison would not do.

Frank and Joe’s detective ethic is less than sterling. They go to lunch without Chet after agreeing to rendezvous with him before the meal, and they don’t even remember him until after they pay the check. Fortunately, Chet’s not in danger; he’s just buying a new costume. After lunch and a panel session, they decide to “take a few minutes off” (65) and visit a sci-fi prop exhibit. When they break into Morwood’s hotel room, they don’t even use their lockpicks: they use a Swiss army knife. In an attempt to get more investigation opportunities, they stay at the Bayport Inn overnight and are introduced to another con tradition by Brian: sleeping on a hotel room floor. (Brian also says staying awake for the con’s full 72 hours is also a tradition; he’s right about both.) Frank and Joe, who are apparently middle-aged, have a rough time sleeping on the floor; Joe even falls asleep during surveillance the next day. (And almost gets stepped on by an elephant, but that’s not important.) With time running out to find the film on the last day of the con, Frank and Joe decide to take a break and watch a movie.

Still, the boys have a high opinion of themselves; Frank says they can perform miracles, although perhaps not on schedule.

After a spear is tossed at Frank, both boys are threatened by a motorcycle gang (not the Flying Skulls from Fear on Wheels, though), and two attempts on Devoreaux’s life, the brothers figure out who did it: Gillis. They aren’t sure why until the FX man tells them he resented Devoreaux; the idea for the movie series was Gillis’s, but Devoreaux relegated him to special-effects director. Gillis paintballs Frank and Joe in the face, which is hilarious to me but should have been painful to Frank and Joe, before fleeing in a hovercar. They recover quickly and pursue Gillis on a low-speed chase in a hovercraft of their own; both vehicles eventually go over the Barmet Cliffs. Somehow, the hovercrafts’ fans take them from terminal velocity to floating on water, and the chase ends when Gillis’s hovercraft is run over by a motorboat.

Brian is impressed by Frank and Joe’s detective work, which Joe claims was, like usual, fueled by “logical thinking and a few brilliant deductions”; Chet cuts him down by saying, “I thought it was usually dumb luck” (147). Joe gets him back on the book’s exit line, though, when Klein insinuates Chet’s about to eat the convention into a financial loss. “‘Chet cut down on his eating?” Joe said with a grin. ‘Now, that’s science fiction!’” (149). I admit: I laughed.

Friday, May 20, 2016

The Prime-Time Crime (#109)

The Prime-Time Crime coverLike Smoke Screen Mystery, I read The Prime-Time Crime more than a decade ago, and I barely recall it at all. However, like the previous book (Fear on Wheels), Crime is a pretty good Hardy Boys book.

One of the reasons I like it is that it shows Frank on a scholastic / scholar / quiz (whatever you want to call it, but the right term is “scholastic”) bowl team. He and two teammates play against Littonville High on Four O’Clock Scholar, which is a great name for the show. Frank is the game’s MVP, answering more questions than anyone else and leading Bayport to a victory. Frank certainly seems to enjoy the experience, contracting a severe case of quiz fever: “During the first commercial, Frank leaned back in his seat. His heart was racing. He was exhilarated over how well he had done” (16).

I too know that feeling of excitement and nervousness, that adrenaline that emerges despite doing something so non-life threatening and relatively inconsequential. I played scholastic bowl in high school, and I too participated in a regional scholastic bowl TV show, Scholastic Hi-Q. That sort of success, that show of mental superiority: It gets to you; you keep wanting to play … well, Frank doesn’t, but Frank’s weird.

So is Four O’Clock Scholar, which doesn’t have much going for it other than its name. The rules are weird: if a player rings in to answer a question but is wrong or can’t come up with an answer, his or her teammates get a chance to respond. This has to be a way to give Frank chances to answer questions correctly and make his teammates look foolish, but it’s a horrible rule: it just encourages teams to ring in early rather than when they know the answer. (If a player has confidence in their teammates, she knows they’ll have time to think while she makes a mistake.) The show is broadcast live, which is ill-advised, given the studio audience made up of students from each school; a delay would be advised, given high schoolers’ lack of self-control and tendencies toward crudity.

The station manager says Four O’Clock Scholar is in danger of cancellation, as parents are the ones watching rather than students. Given the way Jeopardy!’s ratings skew, it’s more likely the students’ grandparents watch than anyone else. (Frank, ever the weird one, says he and his friends watch the show every day. The station manager says he and his friends are “an unusual crowd.”) Low ratings — or at least low ratings in key demographics — isn’t surprising given the dog of a time slot, 4 p.m. … every so often? And how often can adults watch a 4 p.m. TV show? WBPT broadcasts one show on Sunday, then tries to broadcast another on Tuesday. It’s unclear whether other shows are broadcast in between; even more unclear is what time of year it is because Frank and Joe are not going to school on weekdays.

Perhaps the show’s problem is with terminology: when Bayport wins their game, they are told they are in the championship tournament. But the “tournament” seems to be one game rather than, you know, a series of games. I don’t know, man.

The real treats of the book are Steve Burke and Debbie Hertzberg, Frank’s teammates. When Four O’Clock Scholar’s host, Clarence Kellerman, is kidnapped before their game, they decide they will find him because obviously this amateur detecting thing isn’t so hard; Steve’s going to be a scientist, after all, and Debbie’s read tons of mysteries. Given Frank and Joe’s reputations, the two have to be trolling the brothers. Frank doesn’t fear them initially, saying, “I don’t think they can harm anything” (26). Within twenty pages, he’s backpeddling: “I knew it was a mistake to let that pair help search for Clarence” (45). We were always at war with Steve and Debbie, Joe.

How are we supposed to feel about the two amateur amateurs? On one hand, we could be expected to look at them and see how difficult this detecting business is. We might identify with Frank and Joe as readers, but we probably couldn’t do what the Hardys Boys do. Solving mysteries is hard, and it takes more than being “smart” and reading books. You have to know how to investigate and put the pieces together. Steve and Debbie can’t do that.

On the other hand … I chose to look at Steve and Debbie as a parody of Frank and Joe’s behavior in most books. The newbs seize upon station manager Ted Whalen as their chief suspect, and they don’t let anything deter them. Even Joe — Joe! — points out they are jumping to conclusions, but Steve and Debbie are hearing none of that. They plan how to break into Whalen’s home, a suggestion that makes Frank expressly come out against breaking and entering. A Hardy! Speaking out against a little investigatory B&E! Debbie and Steve sneak into the station against Whalen’s express orders, although to be fair, so do Frank and Joe. For a few minutes, Debbie forgets she has the key that will allow them to escape a deathtrap. (Well, that’s more Chet-like, but you get what I’m saying.) Debbie almost falls from a roof as she’s trying to spy on Whalen. They jury-rig a camera to keep tabs on Whalen, only to broadcast the executive eating a sandwich over the air. Even when people try to kill Debbie and Steve, they don’t give up, despite having no real reason to try. When they search for Clarence in the WBPT’s basement, they are clubbed over the head and stuffed into boxes.

All of those things seem like things Frank and (particularly) Joe would do, especially that last one. Debbie and Steve’s presence keeps Frank and Joe honest: they have to actually investigate rather than accuse people and run around aimlessly. When Joe asks a stupidly accusatory question of a suspect, Frank chastises him, and Joe apologizes: “It just slipped out. Maybe I’ve been hanging around Steve and Debbie too long” (83). But the question he asked would have been unremarkable in dozens of other books, which is why I come down on the side of Steve and Debbie being a parody.

When it comes to investigating, though, I have a question: where are the police? The woman at WBPT who hires the brothers says, “The police seem to be losing interest … most of the investigations end up going nowhere, or the people return on their own” (81). For most missing people, yeah, that sounds right, but Clarence is a local celebrity who hadn't missed a Four O’Clock Scholar in fourteen years. It seems the police should be interested. But we don’t see the cops at all, so I guess we have to fall back on BPD incompetence as the explanation. Or maybe Bayport is such a crime-ridden burg that they are so swamped with other crimes that they cut bait on a disappearance that could be a publicity stunt.

I also appreciate Prime-Time Crime because Chet gets in a couple of zingers instead of being exclusively the butt of Joe’s jokes. And he not only mocks Joe’s intelligence, but he also mocks Iola (or Iola and Joe’s relationship; either is fine with me): When Iola threatens at dinner at Mr. Pizza not to talk to the Hardys if they don’t tell her about their case, Chet warns, “If you keep making promises like that, they may never tell you about the case” (45). Even the villains get some snappy patter when they capture Joe, who figures the mystery out first.

Oh! That’s right: there was a mystery. Well, it turns out Clarence was kidnapped after he realized the two brothers who run WBPT’s home-shopping show were fences, reselling stolen goods on air. Their sales were rather indiscriminate, as it turns out; Clarence recognized his ex-wife’s wedding ring, which still had her initials engraved inside. After Joe figures things out, they kidnap him as well, but Frank frees them, and with an assist from Steve and Debbie, they catch the villains.

In the end, love is triumphant. Steve and Debbie start dating (but never stop bickering). Frank tells Joe they’re going to get “dressed up” and take their girlfriends for a “night on the town” (150) because they didn’t tell Callie and Iola about the case before the Bayport Times broke the case. Frank admits Chet might tag along as well, which isn’t romantic, but there’s going to be food, and who wants the hassle of trying to keep him away from grub? Frank and Joe will almost certainly have time to be as romantic as they want to be (which isn’t very) while Chet has his head in the food trough.

But much like love, Frank and Joe’s services are free: WBPT pays them both jack and squat for their services.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Fear on Wheels (#108)

Fear on Wheels coverFear on Wheels is a very good digest, which I wasn’t expecting. I admit: I don’t see the appeal of automobile stunt shows, and I didn’t relish the thought of reading about the late 20th century’s equivalent of the traveling circus. Still, I ended up enjoying the book.

Grant Tucker’s Hot Rod, 4x4 and Motorcycle Show is being threatened by an extortionist. The show has been afflicted with minor accidents recently, and Tucker shows Frank and Joe a letter demanding a quarter-million dollar payoff to prevent further problems. Joe helpfully identifies it as an extortion note. Heartened by Joe’s obvious skills, Tucker sends the Hardy brothers out undercover (posing as PR interns) to find the extortionist. When Frank asks what Tucker wants the boys to do when they find the culprit, Tucker tells them, “You do what you have to do” (7), which tells me Tucker might have a more informal relation to justice than the Hardys.

Given the number of accidents that have happened already, Frank and Joe suspect it’s an inside job. So: On your marks, get set, suspects!

  • Tucker himself. A cop Fenton knows investigated a complaint by two investors against Tucker but found nothing; he couldn’t tell whether Tucker was “too clever or too honest” (36). Tucker is vague about the details of the extortion note — how it was delivered, what kind of envelope it came in, where the envelope is now. (Also, he hires Frank and Joe instead of real detectives, although Frank and Joe don’t consider that.) Frank suggests Tucker might have faked the extortion note to embezzle the money.
  • Fat Dave and the Skulls. The Skulls, who are more a bunch of brawlers than the criminal cartel you might have seen on Sons of Anarchy, seem determined to disturb Tucker’s show. The obvious argument against them is that a member of the biker gang would be easily spotted walking backstage at the show; Frank and Joe suspect the Skulls might have an inside man.
  • Jessica Derey, a motorcycle stunt rider. Frank and Joe spot someone dressed like her riding with the Skulls, and they think they see her helmet at the Skulls’ clubhouse. Rumors say she wants a large sum of money to film a TV pilot featuring motorcycles. During one of her practices, she takes a spill as she avoids a ramp coated with oil, but Frank is skeptical she could have seen the oil at the distance she claims.
  • Matt Nazer, the chief mechanic. A former stunt rider himself, he became part of the crew after an accident reduced the range of motion on his knee. Frank and Joe catch him in the garage with a crowbar at night. Plus, he has a suspicious last name. Frank and Joe don’t mention this, but that’s probably because they live in a pre-9/11 world.
  • Bruce Sears. Bruce had a stunt show with Keith that folded. Once great friends with Keith, Bruce seems to hate him now and pulls pranks on him. (Keith returns the favor.) Frank, Joe, and Matt find him putting a firecracker in Keith’s dragster one night after everyone else has left. On the other, the wheel flies off his deuce coupe during a practice, and he barely manages to keep the car under control.
  • Keith Helm, “the Dragging King of the Quarter Mile.” Why isn’t he just the “King of the Quarter Mile”? Anyone who knows about drag racing understands what the “quarter mile” means. Anyway, his dangerous prank rivalry with Bruce makes him a suspect, and Frank and Joe are attacked while on an errand Keith allegedly summoned them for. Also, he has a Flying Skulls tattoo on his shoulder.

The most obvious suspects are the Flying Skulls, a motorcycle gang headed by Fat Dave. They’ve caused trouble for Tucker before, and the day before Tucker’s first show at the Bayport Arena, the gang shows up, looking for trouble. But Frank thinks quickly, and he offers the Skulls free tickets to the first show (the non-televised one). Mollified, Fat Dave and the Skulls drive away.

That’s the first of many good decisions Frank and Joe make in Fear. In addition to actually investigating — questioning suspects, trailing them, sitting on stake outs — Frank and Joe consult Fenton. Good heavens! He fills them in on the Flying Skulls and Tucker, but he forces them to do their own work by not giving them too much information. Later, they do the unthinkable: they accelerate through a yellow light while pursuing a suspect.

Frank and Joe also use their basement lab! The first time their lab was placed in the basement was in The Twisted Claw (#18), when it was specifically designated a fingerprint lab. The basement lab showed up numerous times, with more equipment added: a darkroom, a two-way radio, a tool shop. In The Mystery of the Chinese Junk (#39), the basement was part lab, part rec room, and after that, the lab was moved above the garage. The basement became solely a rec room until The Sting of the Scorpion (#58), when it was used for fingerprinting once again. But the lab went back to the loft above the garage after that.

Later in the case, Frank and Joe are sent out to pick up Keith, who allegedly needs a tow. But when they get to their destination, they are confronted by a bunch of Skulls. Frank and Joe are restrained by some of the gang while one of them walks up to Frank and Joe with a wrench. The head thug says he’s going to give Frank and Joe a “free sample” of what Skulls plan to give Tucker if he doesn’t play ball with the Skulls. It’s a frightening moment; even though it’s obvious Frank and Joe aren’t going to get wrenched, the narration sells the possibility, in part by not giving readers long enough to think about how Frank and Joe are going to escape. Instead of clobbering the Hardys, though, the Skull smashes the tow truck’s windows.

This doesn’t improve Frank and Joe’s opinion of the Skulls, but Tucker appeases the motorcycle gang by hiring them as security at the Saturday-night, live-on-TV show. This immediately makes me think of the Hell’s Angels providing security for the Rolling Stones at Altamont, but thankfully, events don’t spiral out of control. As it turns out, the Flaming Skulls seem to be competent at keeping people in line. The Skulls also have another power, one they share with the Hardy boys: They can have conversations over the roar of motorcycles, which they use to taunt stunt riders at the Bayport Arena. This causes Frank to give Joe a “disgusted” look (61), although it’s unclear whether his disgust is because of the insults or the Skulls appropriating the boys’ abilities.

Chet blows their cover when he runs into them at a diner, although there’s no way he could have known the Hardys were undercover. (Lesson: Always tell Chet when you’re undercover.) Someone attacks their van, giving them a flat tire. Frank and Joe manage to prevent more flat tires because of the warning given by the weakest car alarm ever, which gives off a “faint peep! peep!” (110), presumably from a key fob. Later, a driverless truck is aimed at them, Tucker, and Jessica, and they manage to escape, with Joe performing a ridiculous stunt to stop the truck.

After following a man who had a mysterious meeting with Keith and Bruce and asking clever questions at the man’s hotel, Frank and Joe discover what Keith and Bruce’s deal is: they’re still friends, but they are pretending to have a rivalry to provide some juice when they jump to another show. All their little “accidents” — even Bruce losing his wheel — were in service of this fake rivalry. Tucker is more amused than dismayed by their plan.

The extortion payoff is scheduled to happen during the big TV show. Frank makes the drop while Joe hides in a nearby truck bed. When he sees someone approach the drop point, he jumps out, surprising Jessica, who heard about the drop and wanted to help. Unfortunately, they are surprised by the extortionist, who clubs them both and locks them in a car truck. Even worse, the car is scheduled to be crushed by the monster truck Bigfoot. Frank rescues the two, but not before the money is taken and a Flying Skull bracelet left nearby. With the help of the Flying Skulls and crew, the backstage is searched and sealed, allowing Frank and Joe to reveal Matt, who stopped performing not because of his injury but because he lost his nerve, as the culprit. Matt is arrested, although Tucker promises to pay for his lawyer.

On the way home, Frank and Joe are given an escort by the Flaming Skulls, showing their thanks for finding the real culprit after Matt tried to frame them. As far as rewards go, the gratitude of a motorcycle gang is pretty good one. (Given the trouble the brothers had with motorcycle gangs in The Shattered Helmet (#52) and The Mystery of the Samurai Sword (#60), having some influence with bikers might help them avoid some pain.)

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Panic / chronology / Hack Attack

The next book in the sequence is Panic on Gull Island (#107), in which Iola goes missing on Spring Break, and no one in the media or law enforcement can muster any interest in a vanished pretty white girl. The Hardy Boys books have some pretty unbelievable plot twists, but that might be the most unbelievable.


The Smoke Screen Mystery (#105) is set during Winter Break, while Panic on Gull Island takes place during Spring Break. This gives us a definite and plausible time frame for the intervening book, Attack of the Video Villains: somewhere in the first quarter of the year. Video Villains even mentions Smoke Screen, strengthening the chronological ties.

This demonstrates a slow tightening of chronological continuity in the digests. The Secret of the Island Treasure (#100) is set during the summer, and The Money Hunt (#101) falls during Bayport High’s fall break. Terminal Shock (#102) is set during Spring Break, and Million-Dollar Nightmare (#103) takes place during a San Francisco summer. Tricks of the Trade obviously occurs between Nightmare and Smoke Screen, but that’s not much help, as Smoke Screen takes place at the end of the year. There’s a lot of months between those two points, and we don’t even know what part of the summer Nightmare is set during.

So for the characters, those eight books (#100 to #107) take place over about 21 months. Logically, Frank and Joe would have gone up a grade during that time, and they might even have graduated. (Although if they did, they would have to be in college: you don’t get Spring Break when you’re out of school.) Frank and Joe are never in classes, so it’s impossible to tell. For readers, those books were released over about 14 months (#100 was the first digest released in 1990, while Gull Island was the second for 1991). As I’ve said in other posts, I really appreciate this sort of chronological care, even if it makes no sense in the long run.


As I mentioned in Attack of the Video Villains (#106), the video game Hack Attack comes up again in Mystery with a Dangerous Beat (#124). I have to imagine the probability that both books were written by the same ghostwriter is high; why else would the same fictional video game appear in both books? I suppose an observant editor could have realized Dangerous Beat’s arcade scene was a great place to insert a reference to a previous book, and editorial tinkering would explain why Joe is playing the game despite claiming he never wanted to play it again in Video Villains.

On the other hand, maybe Joe is just a teenager and prone to hyperbole.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Attack of the Video Villains (#106)

Attack of the Video Villains coverSo, you know how Frank and Joe are amazing at everything, right? At detecting — of course, otherwise there wouldn’t be a series — but also all sorts of athletic competitions and at knowing little facts and at shrugging off concussions and other injuries (but mainly concussions) and at somehow knowing where the universe needs them to be at any particular time so they can solve mysteries? Of course you do. Well, in Attack of the Video Villains, Joe adds something new to the things he’s absolutely great at …

(No, not at romancing the ladies. The opposite of that.)

Video games! Particularly one called Hack Attack. After Joe wins a regional competition, Frank and Chet accompany him to the national Hack Attack tournament in New York, where he’s one of 25 contestants. It’s difficult to believe that between detecting, school, athletics, and the firefighting training / firefighting in The Smoke Screen Mystery (#105) that Joe would have been able to get good at any particular video game. (I would be willing to overlook Smoke Screen, but the author specifically says Joe had hoped the video-game tournament would give them a rest after Smoke Screen.) But I suppose Joe has to do something in his down time … I mean, it’s not like he’s going to be spending any late nights with Iola.

Evidently, by 1991, when Video Villains came out, someone at Simon & Schuster had heard of this “Nintendo” thing that was going around, and she or he wanted to get in on some of that sweet action by making one of the boys a champion player. By the time Video Villains was published, the Nintendo Entertainment System had been released nationwide in American for about five years, long enough for the entire Hardy Boys target audience to have known the NES and its games intimately.

Hack Attack is played on the Videomundo platform, which is presumably similar to Nintendo. (Note the similar ending to their names.) Videomundo has been sold in America for three years, according to Video Villians; that’s not as many years as the NES had been in the US, but it’s longer than Videomundo’s main competitor, Omega. (Omega is probably a reference to Sega, which had been selling games and game systems in America for much longer than Nintendo had been selling the NES and NES games, but the Sega Genesis, Sega’s first success in America after the video game crash of 1983, had been released only in 1989.) Like the NES controllers, the Videomundo controllers have A and B buttons. One of the players says Videomundo cartridges are much larger than Omega cartridges; NES cartridges were about twice as tall as a Genesis cartridge, about the same width, but not quite as thick.

This isn’t the only time Hack Attack appears in the Hardy Boys series. In Mystery with a Dangerous Beat (#124), Joe plays Hack Attack in an arcade. I made fun of the taxi-based video game, which I claimed “has never been a thing.” This is not exactly true: in 2000, the game Crazy Taxi was released for the Sega Dreamcast, and the game was successful enough to spawn a few sequels. Hack Attack is a strange game, in some ways; the missions are random, and it doesn’t seem to have a standard opening stage. In other ways, it feels like a classic NES game. The player is a taxi driver who delivers his passenger from one city to another, with outlandish and stereotypical obstacles in between (tornadoes in Kansas, for instance). The game frequently sounds goofy but not atypically for games at the time. The author sounds like such an adult when he has the kids discuss it, though.

Anyway, Joe is trying to win the contest and the $50,000 grand prize. He’s up against Jason Tanaka, a Japanese-American who is of course good at video games; Nick Phillips, a nervous guy; Bill Longworth, the previous year’s champion; and 21 other mooks we never see or care about. Unfortunately for Joe’s peace of mind, thieves are stealing Videomundo cartridges from tournament participants, although the criminals eventually focus on a copy of Hack Attack that Chet acquired at a game swap. Although Joe was outraged at the hotel’s lack of action to find the thieves in Tricks of the Trade (#104), he lets the hotel’s lack of action in Video Villains slide. (Maybe he has gained a sense of proportion and realizes video games aren’t as valuable as jewelry!)

The thief has trouble figuring out who has the game, although this advantage doesn’t help the Hardys apprehend him. Joe is particularly frustrated by the thief, a small, wiry guy who regularly outfights and outruns Joe. Evidently Joe’s video gaming skills have caused his physical skills to atrophy. Ha, ha — Joe’s a nerd now!

One interesting thing: the Bayporters have never heard of the Konami Code. Jason shows them how a series of buttons pressed at certain games’ start screens can unlock various upgrades — more lives, better equipment, etc. Jason doesn’t use the exact Konami Code (up up down down left right left right B A), but the first code he uses is the Konami Code with the ups and downs deleted. As Jason says, such codes are used by developers to test the games. No known codes have been discovered for Hack Attack, although Joe says one “might come in handy at the tournament” (35). Jason, suspecting Joe of being a cheater (or willing to be a cheater), gives “him a dirty look.”

Frank and Joe — mostly Joe — spend most of their investigation accusing Omega of the video game thefts. Why would they want to steal games they could legally buy? Who knows! Omega handles the accusations about as well as you might imagine, with one exec pointing an Omega light gun at Frank to freak Frank out when he’s found snooping around Omega’s offices. Frank and Joe’s ineffectiveness continues when they stand by helplessly as Chet gets bundled into a car, but with the help of an NYC stoplight, they manage to recover their friend. The two men are quickly released on bail, which is possible, but getting released so quickly for kidnapping seems unlikely (and expensive).

Joe finishes in third place in the first round, after which the competition is reduced to only the top four. Between rounds, the boys find a weird note dropped by Nick Phillips: “SING EVERY NICE SONG WITH EASY NOTES” (94). Obviously this is a mnemonic; since the letters used are the same as the first letters of the cardinal directions, I thought this might be the pattern to get through a maze. But given what the Hardys learned about video-game codes and Videomundo’s contest coordinator’s ignorance of such codes, everything should come together. Unfortunately, the Hardys are completely oblivious, and Jason gets arrested for the video game thefts.

On the day of the finals, Chet urges Joe to have “a breakfast of champions” (109), which I thought was bourbon and cornflakes but turns out to be pancakes dripping with syrup. Live and learn! With the sound of chiptune jazz in his ears, Joe plays his heart out, but the competition is interrupted by a power outage. The video game thief gropes Joe in the darkness, looking for the elusive Hack Attack cartridge, but he’s disappointed — as is Joe, for that matter, since the guy didn’t even buy him dinner first.

Frank and Joe finally figure out Nick’s mnemonic works only with the cartridge everyone wants; when they input the code, the game plays itself. They realize Nick was going to use it to cheat, but they don’t figure out the rest: that someone behind the scenes at the tournament has to have been involved to put the cartridge in Nick’s machine. When the kids inform the contest director of everything they have learned, he turns on them immediately. He and Chet’s kidnappers threaten the boys and tell them the criminal plot (Nick was going to cheat in return for a lifetime of games, while the contest coordinator would pocket the $50 Gs.)

The kids escape to the New York subway system, destroying the rigged cartridge on the way. They lead the thugs into the tunnels, and all of them almost get hit by a train. The boys manage to leap onto the back of the train as it goes by, pulling the ringleader with them, and then dump the guy off at the police station.

In the finals, Joe plays the game of his life, but he loses to the freed Jason. (Bill comes in third; Nick is DQed.) In return for his phenomenal playing, Joe gets “a ton of Videomundo game cartridges” (147) that we will never, ever see anyone play. Perhaps that has something to do with how Joe feels; he ends the book by saying, “I don’t want to have anything to do with Hack Attack ever again” (148). He gets over this, of course, since he plays again in Dangerous Beat. Or maybe he just forgets! Memory loss seems a likely consequence of the number of blows to the head Joe has taken.