Of all the toy disappointments in my 1980s childhood, perhaps nothing still haunts me as much as Domino Rally. It began like it always did—an awesome commercial that made the toy look ridiculously, mind-blowingly fun. I promptly penned it in at the top of my Christmas list. And it’s not like I took my Christmas list casually. This was serious, laborious stuff. This was desire. I wanted Domino Rally, bad.
The sets consisted of plastic neon-colored dominoes and various tracks with elaborate set-ups, each with a special gimmick like a rocket launcher, a hang glider or a flying helicopter.
It’s no surprise why I wanted it. Colorful and full of novelty, it was one of the most popular toys of the decade. Manufactured by Pressman Toys, it took the relatively mundane game of setting up dominoes and turned it into a craze by adding Hot-Wheels-like stunt tracks. Copy-cat sets like Chain Lighting quickly popped up.
The commercial rapidly panned over the cascading dominoes and cut to the kids’ faces showing them having the times of their lives. They gasped and pumped their fists as the dominoes fell though loop-de-loops, elevators, bridges, and curved tracks. Then at the end, a rocket shot off.
DOMINO RALLY, the Monster-truck-style announcer said. And nothing else needed to be said. I was sold.
As I said, it began like it always did. And what happened next is what always happened next. Christmas morning. My hands shaking in anticipation, I tore into the box, ready for some epic domino action. And what I found was a lot of plastic crap. It was cheap and lightweight. They cut every cost-savings corner, down to applying your own stickers. Not even the launching rocket could salvage this set. It was barely a rocket and instead a plain chunk of Styrofoam.
Horrifically, each of the stunts were some assembly required—three words to strike fear in the hearts in anyone. And because the plastic was so cheap, the stunts were agonizing to put together, the instructions resembling an IKEA manual.
Even the dominoes — the very thing you think the set would have gotten right — were poorly designed and difficult to stand up. Worst of all, the commercials came under fire from watch groups for deceptive advertisements that showed three combined sets of dominoes set up. In reality, a set only came with around two hundred dominoes, making for a thin experience.
But really, none of this matters. The main problem was that I barely had the attention span to feed myself with a fork, let alone set up Mousetrap-on-steroids-in-Hell. When I opened the box and saw approximately 35569659769 crappy plastic pieces that needed to be snapped together, I gave up instantly. I gave up a little bit on life that day.
And yet, this isn’t the end of my story, and perhaps it doesn’t have to end the way it always ends. I’m about to have a reckoning with Domino Rally. I found a set, complete in the box and never opened for five bucks at the thrift store. You might be surprised that a set was left unopened for the last twenty-odd years, but I’m not. Because I know some kid once opened this box, took a single look at it, and said “nope.”
So I decided it was time. I was finally going to finish what I started twenty-five years earlier. I was going to set up Domino Rally once and for all. I opened the box to face the same horror I’d seen so many years ago.
Take a look at that diagram. I don’t how they expect kids “ages six and over” to put this crap together. Six-year-olds are just learning how to balance on one foot. You’d think this stuff would just snap together, but no. There are various levers and pins and slide pieces that first have to be connected inside.
But that’s not the hard part. The hard part is identifying what is what among the dozens of generic-looking hunks of plastic:
I really wanted to give up before I even started. I wanted to say “here’s the pictures of this stuff, but LOL NO.” I had an opportunity to sell this thing 100% sealed on eBay to some sucker for at least thirty bucks. But instead, I trudged forward.
It took me about forty-five minutes to build this:
You’re thinking, okay, that doesn’t look that hard. But it takes ten minutes at a time just staring at the directions trying to figure out what each step is asking you to do. And when you think it should finally just easily snap together, instead it takes another ten minutes of fidgeting with the cheap plastic that’s barely aligned.
The wife was curious about the Domino Rally project, so I enlisted her to build the elevator stunt.
It also took her about half an hour. It has a complicated weighted pulley system that you basically need a degree in engineering to build. The wife started lining dominoes down the staircase — an excruciating, time-consuming process. After about six failed attempts where they collapsed each time, she quit and considered calling the mobile crisis unit because she wanted to kill herself. Normally patient beyond that of saints, it was very out of character for her.
Another problem with the stunts is that once you build them, you can’t unbuild them. They are like that FOR LIFE. Trying to disassemble a piece will cause the plastic to snap. I learned that with the particular dominoes that snap into the tracks. If you put one in backwards, it is wasted. It’s dead. The only way to get it out of track is to break it and render it useless. And Domino Rally cruelly gives you no spare dominoes. There is no room for error. But this is only training you for later when you accidentally knock over an entire row that you just spent forty minutes working on.
Yet another problem with the stunts is that the plastic is barely level. And it’s so lightweight that someone could creak a floorboard across the room and it risks knocking over thirty minutes of work. That’s what happened right before the wife and I nearly divorced over Domino Rally.
About two hours into Domino Rally, something changed in me. Even though I generally have a low tolerance for frustration, little patience, and a short-attention span, I can also have the complete opposite problem. I became hyper-focused, obsessed. I needed to set this thing up, involving every stunt.
Four hours. I’m not kidding. Four hours, two dominoes thrown across the room, three dominoes broken, twenty attempts at lining them up on the elevator staircase, about fifty attempts at getting the rocket launcher to work, twenty-five years in the making and maybe one kidney failure as I forgot to use the bathroom in my temporary madness.
It’s the journey, not the destination. I don’t have a cool video to show you of this thing working. Well, I do have a video, and it’s seven seconds long—two seconds of dominoes falling and five seconds of me standing there in shock waiting for the rest of it to happen. Two seconds. That’s how long it lasted before the whole thing failed. The dominoes didn’t all fall, the elevator never went off, and the rocket didn’t launch. It all sat there stagnant, sad, half collapsed.
So the story ends exactly the way it always does. Still, I’m oddly glad I did. It feels like an accomplishment. Domino Rally, you tried, but you didn’t defeat me.