Could It Be Magic?

Rubik's Magic (Matchbox, 1986).

Weird Science is not exactly a stellar example of a big eighties comedy movie that has adapted to changing tastes and attitudes with flying colours, but unlike most of its contemporaries, at least John Hughes and John Silver didn’t attempt to cash in on its fleeting success with a hastily conceived and poorly thought through sequel. In fact, if one particular exchange in the movie itself is anything to go by, they had possibly decided from the outset that one was not in the offing; reflecting on Gary and Wyatt’s catastrophic repeat of their hardly exactly advisable initial experiment, Lisa frowns that “You had to be big shots, didn’t you? You had to show off… when are you going to learn that people will like you for who you are, not for what you can give them?”. This of course is a sentiment that few in the creative industries ever seem to learn from, and given that the repeated experiment was conducted at the behest of Robert Downey Jr., it’s worth reflecting on the fact that his arch-nemesis Thanos destroyed the Infinity Stones because while they remained, the temptation would always be there to use them again. That said, they ended up breaking time and reality as a consequence, so maybe it would have been better to give one to Pip The Troll on the assumption that he stank so badly nobody would actually be able to take it from him after all.

Common sense would suggest that more people really ought to follow Lisa and Thanos’ example – what a team-up movie that would be – but the lack of common sense that results in ridiculous follow-ons nobody asked for is often more fascinating than the actual big successes that everybody actually liked, and nowhere was this common sense in shorter supply than in that decade famed for its modesty and restraint, the eighties. In fact, you can hear me and Lucy Pope chatting about the genuinely jaw-dropping Teen Witch – yes, they tried again after Teen Wolf Too – in Looks Unfamiliar here, but this feature was an affectionate look at something even more bewildering than an attempt to extend a movie franchise – an attempt to expand a puzzle franchise. Rubik’s Magic was launched in a blaze of conspicuously highbrow and sophisticated publicity in 1986, but while it was evidently a more intellectually challenging puzzle than Rubik’s Cube, and indeed a more stylish one too, the public simply did not want a stylish intellectual challenge. They wanted a brightly coloured cube that they could fiddle with, potentially even without any intention of actually solving it – even though the phenomenon was so globe-straddlingly unstoppable that there were actually best-selling books on how to ‘do’ the Rubik’s Cube, as highlighted in Looks Unfamiliar with Stephen O’Brien here – and Rubik’s Magic involved far too much admin. Not least on account of the fact that idle fiddling could very easily result in breakage. Astonishingly, they had another go in 1988 with Rubik’s Clock; the fact that Darrell Maclaine described it on Looks Unfamiliar here as “a piece of plastic that bullied me” (and you can hear more about that here) is probably measure enough of how well received it was.

You can find an expanded version of Could It Be Magic? – with much more on ill-advised sequels and explanations of what C.A.B., The Dirtwater Dynasty and The Sinclair QL actually were – in Can’t Help Thinking About Me, available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.

Relax had Two TribesThe Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4 had The Growing Pains Of Adrian MoleRockliffe’s Babies had Rockliffe’s Folly. Even C.A.B. had C.A.B. 2.

Rubik’s Cube, however, is one unexpected runaway eighties success story that never actually inspired a sequel. Or so you’d think, given how it’s now pretty much uniformly used as a textbook example of a one-off here-today-gone-tomorrow short-lived global sensation to rank with The Dirtwater Dynasty and It Bites. Whether or not the millions upon millions upon millions addicted to attempting to master the art of flipping edges and twirling corners before flinging it at the wall in frustration with a copy of a You Can Do The Cube by Patrick Bossert in hot pursuit – in numbers and with an intensity that made Flappy Birds look like Atlantis Is Calling (S.O.S. For Love) by Modern Talking – would actually have wanted a follow-up puzzle is something that doesn’t appear to have been anything that anyone actually took into consideration, but Professor Erno Rubik and Matchbox couldn’t resist the temptation to try and extend the franchise, so they essentially had no say in the matter..

Once the original multicoloured plastic mind-and-wrist-hurter first caught on, a legion of cube-infringing imitators sprang up like third division Britpop bands singing about eating some loverley fish and chips, each of them hoping to cash in on the ‘puzzle craze’ that the newspapers kept telling us was happening by persuading an even-breaking volume of punters to fork out for market stall-proffered Rubik-alikes in all sizes and shapes from barrel to tennis ball. Meanwhile, like a first division Britpop band, Professor Rubik responded to this poorly catered-for surge in demand by changing direction entirely, promptly releasing Rubik’s Snake, a twisty turny angular shape-making whatnot that was pretty much that thing from that episode of The Monkees set in a toy factory made reality, which he had already developed before the full Cube craze took hold and which sneaked out while it was still the international top-selling toy. Actually, Oasis do make something of a nonsense of that analogy, but the point that hasn’t actually been made yet still stands – that underneath all the branding and minimal promotional fanfare, Rubik’s Snake was really just a fun diversion verging on a literal novelty, and what everyone really wanted – or at least what they had unilaterally decided everyone really wanted was another fully certified Rubik-branded brainteaser and mindbender. As Christmas approached in 1986, that was exactly what they got.

Rubik's Magic (Matchbox, 1986).

Rubik’s Magic consisted of a set of eight elaborately-hinged plastic squares each bearing a portion of two of three Olympic-esque multicoloured rings; or twelve with five rings if you had the swanky ‘Master Edition’. The primary aim was to rearrange them into one of several interlocked iterations of ascending difficulty, and it was apparently set to become the brand new puzzle sensation with more than a hint of mid-eighties designer sophistication; literally the next Rubik’s Cube. On Christmas Day in 1986, youngsters set aside their Citrus Spring selection boxed and copies of Cool’s Out and attempted to get to grips with the foldy-flipboard-interlinked-circles thing… and attempted… and attempted… and… gave up.

Much like the Sinclair QL was to the ZX Spectrum, or if you prefer like Dramarama: The Young Person’s Guide To Going Backwards In The World was to Dramarama: The Young Person’s Guide To Getting Their Ball Back, this wasn’t even so much an attempt to reinvent the wheel as it was to reinvent an individual spoke. Nobody could accuse Rubik’s Magic of skimping on the need for dexterity, logic or flashy displays of lateral thinking, but the important element it left out of the equation was fun. It didn’t look as appealing as the Rubik’s Cube, it lacked the vital fiddlability factor – in fact, fiddle too idly with Rubik’s Magic and you ran the risk of twisting one of the interconnecting wires unusably in the wrong direction – and played straight into the hands literally and metaphorically of people who would solve it and then go ‘ahhhhhhhhhhhh!’ at you. Where the Rubik’s Cube had been enough of a phenomenon to inspire its own cartoon series, Rubik’s Magic could barely even scrape a mention on BBC2’s ‘popular science’ shows. Patrick Bossert’s You Can Do The Magic would sadly never see print. He may as well have invented Rubik’s Shark and jumped over it.

Within a couple of years, Rubik’s Magic was a regular trestle table sight at church bazaars. Yet for all its shortfall in terms of hands-on puzzling thrills, it at least had and indeed retains a charming air of mid-eighties highbrow high-concept folly, and we can only guess at what might be found on a Fantastic Eighties! compilation with the Magic rather than the Cube on the front; the smart money is on Atlantis Is Calling (S.O.S For Love) by Modern Talking though. There was an attempt at making amends with Rubik’s Clock in 1988, which presented the hapless puzzle-solver with nine chronologically-skewed clockfaces in the style of one of Peter Petrelli’s hallucinations from Heroes, and challenged them to reset the mechanically-interlocking dials to all show the same time, but proved more infuriating than entertaining and caused many a frustrated youngster to conclude that it was actually sentient and wilfully tormenting them. Rubik’s Magic, however, still retains a sense of a degree of likeable ambition and invention. It was, in to many ways, The Beautiful South to Rubik’s Cube’s Housemartins.

Rubik's Magic (Matchbox, 1986).

Buy A Book!

You can find an extended version of Could It Be Magic?, with much more about many further ill-advised cash-in eighties sequels, in Can’t Help Thinking About Me, a collection of columns and features with a personal twist. Can’t Help Thinking About Me is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.

Alternately, if you’re just feeling generous, you can buy me a coffee here. Just not in some sort of puzzle thing you have to twist into the shape of a mug first please.

Further Reading

Pop compilation Hits 5 was another prominent fixture on the average Christmas list in 1986; you can find a track by track look back at it in Hits 5 Revisited here. If you want to know what else was on that year’s Christmas list, have a look at Dear Father Christmas, I Would Like The Following (In 1986) here.

Further Listening

You can hear Stephen O’Brien talking about his hatred of Rubik’s Cube-solving paperback bestseller You Can Do The Cube on Looks Unfamiliar here, and Darrell Maclaine on his struggle to complete – or even enjoy playing with – Rubik’s Clock here.

© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.