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Thursday, 1 January 2015

Happy 2015

Happy New Year! Again, an automated message from me, as it's my little girl's birthday today, so we're in Cardiff for the Doctor Who Experience. Just hope I get to Jenna Coleman — I mean Peter Capaldi, yes, the Doctor. Ahem!

Anyway, I'm sad to say this marks the end of Arcade Throwback's scheduled publications. I've been running this site for 4½ years, but I no longer have enough free time to work on the site regularly and even my Classic of the Month feature has been slipping. A quick look at the archives will show in 2014 my post count was a third of what I'd posted in previous years — and my post count for 2015 is going to drop again. I've already dropped my other regular features and this year I am going to stop writing Classic of the Month as well. There are still a few arcade games I'd like to talk about, so I will replace the monthly feature with an ad hoc one called Nostalgia Trip, which I can use to discuss both random games and random arcade memories. I've actually gone back and tagged up some older articles that already fit that description, so the tag is already well populated. I still have plans for one or two Brief Histories, so the site will be updated every once in a while, just not routinely.

Believe me when I say this is purely out of necessity. I have other projects in progress that unfortunately have to take precedence over Arcade Throwback. You can read about those on my technical and creative writing blog I did have plans for other monthly features, but I know I won't find the time to do them justice.

I'll still be tweeting and retweeting from @ArcadeThrowback, so please follow (or keep following) me, as I still love talking to fellow retro gamers. I will also announce my sporadic posts through Twitter and my Facebook page. In the mean time, enjoy the rest of your holidays and I hope 2015 is a great year for us all.


Sunday, 14 December 2014

Classic of the Month - Pong

Design:Allan Alcorn

Last month I talked about the game that, for me, represents the beginning of the end for arcade gaming. This month, for my final Classic of the Month, I'm going to talk about the game that was the beginning of my love affair with video games — and yes, it really is Pong! I really am that old!

I was born in May 1975, by which point video games had just got a foothold in arcades. Before then, arcade games consisted of mechanical devices, such as shooting galleries, one-armed bandits, shove penny games and of course, pinball machines. That all changed in 1972, with Atari's Pong, a table tennis game designed and built by Al Alcorn and Nolan Bushnell. The first Pong machine was sited at Andy Capp's Tavern, a bar popular with students in Sunnyvale, California. The game was a huge hit. Legend has it, a few weeks after being installed, Bill Gatiss, the owner of Andy Capp's, complained the machine had stopped working. When Alcorn opened the machine to check it, money started pouring out of it — it was stuffed with more quarters than it could handle.

There had been electronic games displayed on a monitor and controlled with buttons and dials before Atari's Pong and there's a lot of debate about whether Bushnell plagiarised Ralph Baer's designs in those early days, but however you look at it, Pong is the game the established video arcade games as an entertainment medium. All too often when people talk about Pong, what they end up talking about is those halcyon, but controversial, days at Atari, before they were first taken over in the late 70s. There are the tales of lawsuits, drug use on company premises, Steve Jobs working for Bushnell while he and Steve Wozniak built their first Apple computers and more, but all of that stuff is well documented. What I want to talk about is Pong as a video game.

Full disclosure time, I've never played an original Pong arcade machine, because by the time I was old enough to enter an arcade (around 1984), Pong was ancient history. However, I played one of the many (and there were a great many) home Pong clones. In fact, my earliest memory of playing any kind of video game was a machine called (generically) TV Video Game 5 in 1. My brother-in-law gave it to me when he moved on to home computers and it became my first video game system (the word console seems too generous for such a basic a machine). As its name suggests, it included five variations on the Pong theme, from the original two bats and two-players, to a version with both bats at one end and a wall at the other, which was Squash, to a four bat, two-player version generously called Ice Hockey and even a single-player mode called Handball. Like all of those early machines, the TV Video Game was controlled using paddles with variable resistors (or rheostats) that connected via 2.5mm jack plugs. I mainly played this Pong game with my brother-in-law, who, despite being 13 years my senior, was generous enough to let me win every now and then.

Like he real Pong, the idea was as simple as it gets. A square white block bounces around a black court, with various white lines representing the edges, the centre net and the players, who had to knock the square block hither and thither in an attempt to get it past the other player and score a point. However, as simple as was, it still contained everything that makes gaming such great fun: direct, intense competition between two players, each trying to out-do the other. It's the same formula that worked for countless other Pong and tennis games, as well as fighting games, racing games, sports games, flying games and military simulators. The number of players and the intricacies of each game may vary, but that kernel of competition and skill remains in all video games.

As my simple TV Video Game system demonstrated, Pong could be easily adapted into other games and mine wasn't the only one to do so. Atari themselves adapted the game to create Breakout and in thousands of homes across America, the Magnavox  used the same building blocks as the basis for a dozen different "games" for their Odyssey console (the world's first console, based on Ralph Baer's designs). The idea lives on today, not such in the countless tennis games on the market, but also retro-inspired games, such as Bit.Trip Beat.

There are a lot of video of Pong on YouTube, but this is the only one I've found of a Pong arcade machine in its natural habitat, an arcade — something I've not seen myself. Plus it has a Jo Garcia in it, so you know — blokes!


Saturday, 15 November 2014

Classic of the Month - Tekken

Genre:Beat 'em up/Fighting

Capcom's Street Fighter II: The World Warriors couldn't have been much bigger and it spawned countless clones, but it also ignited the fighting game genre just as traditional 2D, sprite-based games were on the wane and new technology was pushing gaming into exciting new territory. While there were plenty lacklustre imitators (Fighter's History, I'm looking at you!), there were a few that stood out from the pack. SNK's triple threat of Fatal Fury, Art of Fighting and King of Fighters were a cut above the rest, for example.  Fatal Fury, in particular, used the Neo Geo's superior sprite scaling add an extra dimension to the genre, by allowing players to fight on different planes. Then along came Midway, with their digitized sprites and their ultra-violence. Mortal Kombat gave us a taste of video realism (as laughable as that sounds looking at it now), which terrified parents and Daily Mail readers at the time. Then, in 1993, Sega released Virtua Fighter, a 3D fighting game that used the same kind of polygonal graphics previously only seen in racing and flying games. The sense of space was greater than Fatal Fury, the animation was far more realistic than MK's muddy digitised combatants and, if you were patient, you would find the combat itself was deeper and more technical than Street Fighter II. It was, however, a little pedestrian, lacking any of the fantastical that made other fighting games such silly fun. Then a year later, Namco hit back with Tekken, which used the same kind of technology as Virtua Fighter, but had more eccentric and detailed characters, more attractive environments, more explosive combat and a control scheme that (to me at least) suited 3D combat far better than just having kick, punch and block buttons.

The plot of Tekken, such as it is, tells the story of the King of Iron Fist tournament. Organised by Mishima Zaibatsu, a giant multinational company with questionable ethics, headed (at the time) by Heihachi Mishima, who is also the game's final boss. You take control of one of eight combatants, each of whom had their own reasons for taking part in the competition:

  • Kazuya Mishima - Heihachi's son, who used the Mishima form of Karate, like his father. In this first game Kazuya was a heroic character, although this changed drastically in later instalments.
  • Paul Phoenix - A hot headed American and rival to Kazuya, who fought using a form of Judo.
  • Marshall Law - The obligatory Bruce Lee clone, who fought using Jeet Kune Do.
  • Nina Williams - Tekken's "sexy" female assassin, who fought using a combination of Koppojutsu and Aikido.
  • King - A massive Mexican luchador in a jaguar mask (although you'd be forgiven for thinking it was his actual head).
  • Yoshimitsu - a samurai or maybe a ninja. I'm not really sure, but he does turn up in the alternative universe of Soul Calibur, so maybe he's a robot or a time traveller?
  • Michelle Chang - A Chinese girl, in native American garb, who fights using a combination of Xin Yi Liu He Quan and Baji Quan.
  • Jack - a Russian military robot, who wildly pummels his opponents then poses, macho man style.

I'll be honest, of all those different martial arts the only ones I recognise are Judo, Karate and wild pummelling. And you'd be hard pressed to tell the difference playing this first game, due to the primitive nature of the graphics engine. 

After picking a character you had to fight your way through the remaining seven, then a unique rival, before you could face Heihachi. The unique (non-selectable) rivals were a great addition and gave players an incentive to try out all eight fighters - though getting to each fighter's rival would take a hell of a lot of practice (and a lot of coins).

Between the hard hitting combat and having control over each limb independently, Tekken was a thrilling game back in the day and at the time, I preferred it to Sega's offering (although by VF4 my opinion had changed). During the course of the arcade sequels, Namco did what all fighting game developers do: add more characters and more crazy. The storyline got more and more ridiculous, with people being thrown into volcanoes, people sprouting demon wings and pandas and kangaroos getting in on the action. Despite being a big Blanka player on Street Fighter, it was the addition of characters like Roger the kangaroo that put me off the series overall. Although I have played the first five games and Tag Tournament, for me the early games were the best - in particular Tekken III. Nonetheless, the series is still going strong on home consoles, thanks to games like Tekken 6 and Street Fighter X Tekken.

There is debate about how and when the arcade scene started to die. While most commentators agree arcades were defunct by the end of the 20th century, some that say the scene had been on the decline since the mid-80s and others say the mid-90s. I'm one of the latter, having seen just how big arcade games became with the release of games like R-Type, Street Fighter II, Mortal Kombat, Time Crisis and Sega Rally. However, if you asked me what game marked the beginning of the end, I would honestly say Tekken — not because it was a bad game (it wasn't, it was great) but because Namco's close ties with Sony and their brand new PlayStation console closed the gap between home and arcade gaming more ever before. Sure, the Neo Geo AES and MVS essentially had the same hardware, but who do you know that owned an AES? Exactly, but I bet you either owned a PlayStation or knew someone who did. There was less than 5 months between the arcade and PlayStation releases of Tekken; the PlayStation version was so good, so close to the arcade that you'd really have to be paying attention to notice the differences. And little things like slightly lower resolution textures and the loss of animated character select screens paled into insignificance compared to the ability to unlock rival characters on the PlayStation version. Add in other Namco 3D arcade hits of the time, like Ridge Racer, Soul Edge and Time Crisis, as well as near-perfect conversions of arcade hits from the likes of Taito, Capcom, Midway, Konami and even SNK, and you had, for all intents and purposes, a home arcade machine. So with me winding down the Classic of the Month feature, it seemed apropos to talk about the game that was, for me at least, the thin end of the wedge that lead to the obsolescence of the arcade machine. At the time, we were all too excited to play as Kazuya, King and Marshall at home, in our bedrooms, on our 14" TVs, to realise what having so many "arcade perfect" conversions at our finger tips really meant to the future of the arcade machine.

To finish this month's instalment, here's someone playing through Tekken as Kazuya.


Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Creepy Classic of the Month - Centaur

Design:Jim Patla (table), Paul Faris (art)

There are things from your childhood that will stay with you your whole life, memories that sit deep inside your subconscious and are never forgotten, even if you cannot instantly recall them. Some of these memories may be significant — the death of a grand parent or some achievement at school — but some will be trifling. For me, one of the latter memories is the dark Gothic art work for Bally's pinball table, Centaur. I did not know the name of the table, only the backboard art, with the H.R. Gigar-esque design of the part demon, part motor cycle, wielding a battle axe and the leather-clad rock chick riding him. It scared me and made me think the people playing the table must be dark, malevolent types, but it fascinated me all the same. It was only when Farsight Studio's converted the table for their Pinball Arcade platform that my memories all clicked into place. As soon as I saw it I had to play it and I found that beyond the scary art is a brilliant pin. Since then I've played the table a lot, but I still find Paul Faris's art work a little creepy, so I had to make it my Halloween classic for 2014.

The stark, dingy art work of the backboard and sides carries over on to the playfield, which is one of the gloomiest ever made; everything is black, white and red. If you play on a table with dim or faulty bulbs, it can be quite difficult to see anything at all. Like many tables from the early 80s, Centaur has primitive synthesized sound that, although basic, only adds to its eerie atmosphere. As you play the table instructs you to "Destroy Centaur" and says the names of the table's various features as you enable them.

Key to success in Centaur are the table's O.R.B.S. drop targets, which can initiate multi-ball mode in a number of ways. Drop all four targets and you'll lock a ball for multi-ball. Drop the targets in order and you'll both lock a ball and trigger a multi-ball at the same time. To initiate the multi-ball you have to hit the captive ball in the chamber on the top left and knock down another series of drop targets, until eventually you hit the release target to launch the locked balls. However, it takes considerable skill to do this, which is why the table is such a beloved classic. Thankfully, that's not the only way to get multi-ball on Centaur and in fact it's possible to "lock" balls without ever having a ball go out of play, thanks to a clever trap-door launch mechanism under the shooter lane.

I used to think nudging was kinda cheating, but here it is encouraged in the game's design. There are small, rubber notches on the outlanes, which, if you rock the table just so, will bounce the ball back into play, preventing it from draining.

This table is too early for DMD, so it has 7-bit displays for the scores. This means that unlike later tables the amount of direction the player gets from the backboard is limited. Thankfully, as well as its famous synthesized voice commands, the game also makes clever use of colour-coding. with different coloured bulbs showing the player which targets trigger which features. For example, a green light in the top right hand corner indicates that the target behind can be used to reset the green drop targets below.

Playing it today, Centaur may look basic, with no ramps, multiple tiers or even spinners. However, its multifaceted multiball mechanism makes it every bit as rewarding as many more intricate-looking tables. The video below shows a beautifully restored Centaur table in action, which looks brighter than a normal table thanks to the LEDs that have been used to replace the original bulbs.

And this video, by the brilliant Todd Tuckey of TNT Amusements, explains the rules brilliantly.

I still vow to own a pinball table one day and while it's likely I'll opt for a newer, more reliable Stern, Jersey Jack or Heighway table, when it comes to classic pins, Centaur is very high on my want list.

And as a final note, if you're looking for more Halloween games, Pinball Arcade has recently added Phantom of the Opera and Bram Stoker's Dracula, to go along with Centaur and its other spooky tables, such as Haunted House, Gorgar, Class of 1812, Monster Bash and both Elvira tables.


Saturday, 13 September 2014

Classic of the Month - GORF

Manufacture:Dave Nutting Associates/Midway
Design:Jay Fenton
Genre:Shoot 'em up

Although there had been space games before Space Invaders, Taito really started something with their 1978 hit arcade game. Rivals and rip-offs soon flooded the market, many of which (such as Galaxian, Galaga and Phoenix) went on to become legends in their own right, but there were plenty of others that history has forgotten. One neither I nor history can forget is 1981's GORF, developed by Dave Nutting Associates and manufactured by Midway. This game was both a imitator and an innovator in equal measure.

GORF puts you in control of decidedly familiar-looking space fighter, defending Earth from the Galactic Orbiting Robot Force (or GORF for short). If you watch the game's attract mode you will see it has five different stages, more than a few of which will be very familiar.
  1. The first stage is called Astro Battles and it's a Space Invaders clone, even down to the design of the aliens. The only major difference is instead of shelters you get a force field, which the player can shoot through without damaging it, although each piece of the force field can only take one impact from an enemy missile.
  2. The second stage is called Laser Attack. It features a small number of aliens flying around two gun ships, firing long straight lasers that fill the screen and restrict your movement. If you were being fussy you could say the game is a bit like Galaga, but I think that would be pushing it a bit. The key to this level is to take out the gun ships first, then life is much easier.
  3. The third stage is called Galaxian and it's exactly that, only with more erratic bullet patterns. Quite how Midway got away with a direct clone of not one but two major arcade games I'll never know.
  4. The forth stage is called Space Warp and it's probably the most original of the five (even if it does have a passing resemblance to Tempest). This time you are flying through a worm hole (I think), with aliens emerging one by one from a portal-like shape at the end. This is actually the easiest level of the lot, as it's possible to pick off each alien ship as soon as it appears.
  5. Finally there is the Flag Ship stage, in which players battle the game's boss. This level is somewhat similar to the final level of Phoenix, with you having to blast through a shield to hit the flag ship's weak spot and blow it up.
GORF was effectively a mini-game collection, an idea designer Jay Fenton would re-use the following year with his adaptation of Tron (which also used the same pistol-grip joystick as GORF). Each stage played slightly differently and when it came to choosing where to put your precious 10p's, it did appear to offer more bang for your buck than the games it plagiarised.

If you completed all five rounds you would get a promotion, as indicated by an array of six light-up panels on the right of the screen. The ranks were:
  1. Space Cadet 
  2. Space Captain
  3. Space Colonel
  4. Space General
  5. Space Warrior
  6. Space Avenger
This was, to my knowledge, pretty rare and it did feel kinda nice seeing the ranks light up (although I never got past Space Captain). However, with each rank the difficulty escalated, which meant if you wanted to be a Space Avenger you needed to do more than just be consistent — you had to improve your game every rank.

Inserting a coin into a GORF machine revealed something else a bit different: more coins = more lives. The game had no continue, but by doubling your credit you could double your lives (six instead of three). The trade off being that there were separate highscore tables, so sneaky-sneaks couldn't rack up a mighty score with six lives and pass it off as a three life run.

Playing GORF also feels quite different from the games it mimics due to the fact the player's ship could also move up and down, not just left and right. This gave you the ability to dodge around enemy fire, in much the same way as Juno First. Further more, unlike either Space Invaders or Galaxian, GORF let you fire as fast as you wanted, although launching a fresh missile cancelled the one before it. This meant if you wanted to hit a high up enemy you had to be patient, where as the dive bombers could be sprayed with bullets and destroyed at close quarters. So despite the crazy bullet patterns, GORF was generally easier to play than Galaxian, Galaga or Space Invaders. 

Finally, you cannot talk about GORF without mentioning its digitised voice. Sounding somewhat like a Speak and Spell with attitude, the game taunts you throughout, with quips like, "You cannot escape the Gorfian empire" and "Some galactic defender you are!" when you get shot. It even referenced your current rank in its taunts. This helped draw crowds to the game and made it very popular indeed.

GORF was ported to a number of 8-bit computers and consoles, including the Commodore 64 and VIC-20, the Atari 800, 2600 and 5200, BBC Micro B and the ColecoVision. However, the Galaxian stage did not make it into any one these ports — and not just because of technical limitations. The video below shows the original arcade version and all of the ports, of which the ColecoVision was probably the best.


Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Classic of the Month - Willow

Design:Hiroyuki Kawano and Seigo Ito

The 1980s had some great games and also some great kids fantasy adventure movies. Princess Bride, Krull, Dark Crystal, Legend, Labyrinth, Beastmaster, Sword and the Sorcerer, Neverending Story I could on for some time and if I did it wouldn't take me too long to get to Willow. Showcasing the ever-likeable Warwick Davis as the titular Willow and co-starring Val Kilmer and Joanne Whalley, the movie was the brainchild of (1980s) George Lucas (the one we still like). It wasn't a huge success, but it was nonetheless popular enough to warrant several video game adaptations across a number of platforms. Of course we're here to look at the arcade version, which was by Capcom.

The game puts you in the roles of dwarven trainee wizard/farmer Willow Ufgood and outlaw/swordsman-for-hire Madmartigan on a quest to protect the holy baby, Elora Danan, from the evil witch queen, Bavmorda — just like the movie. The game is essentially a platformer, with Willow being able to fire magic missiles and Madmartigan flashing his foil in a similar way to Strider. Both characters are able to charge their weapons to unleash more devastating attacks and knowing when to charge, run and jump is vital if you want to survive more than a couple of levels. Slain enemies drop coins, which you can spend by walking into the owl-like shop keeper (a creature whom I do not recognise from the films, to be honest). Among the usual supply of keys and health bars are new spells for Willow. Once purchased, these spells appear as additional segments on his charge bar, so by holding the attack button for specific amounts of time you can select the spell you require. In later levels, this includes things like an area of effect attacks and even the ability to freeze enemies. You can also free the brownies, Rool and Franjean, who run along side you and attack, much like a Force bit in R-Type or Option in Gradius.

At first glance it would be easy to write this game off as a pretty, but generic movie tie-in and a poor cousin to other Capcom platformers, such as Ghosts and Goblins. However, the platforming is very tight and both Willow and Madmartigan control brilliantly. As well as standard jumps, pushing up and jumping will get you some extra height, while holding down and attacking performs a useful sliding tackle. When you have platforms that are way above your standard jump height, you can get to them Shinobi-style by pushing up and jumping. All of which means the controls are surprisingly versatile for a game of that period. Another good plus point is that this game does an above average job of portraying its source material, helped by the gorgeous 2D sprites. I mean check out the image above, right. Brilliant for 1989. As ever with old arcade games, Willow is brutal. Not only does it constantly throw enemies at you, it has a fair degree of pattern recognition to perfect and the platforming is up there with the best of the genre. Playing this game legally is basically impossible, because it was never ported and each home version was a actually different game. Even Capcom's own NES Willow game was different, taking a more Zelda-like approach to the movie adaption. So in lieu of playing it, here is a complete playthrough video:


Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Classic of the Month - Marble Madness

Design:Mark Cerny

Marbles. We all played with them as kids and so when, in 1982, Atari's Mark Cerny created Marble Madness, a game based on the venerable playground activity, it was a guaranteed hit. The premise behind the game was simple: guide the marble to the exit, avoiding hazards en route. It's as basic as can be, but the combination of great course design, challenging game play, eye-catching visuals and one of the best video game sound tracks of the early 80s meant that it was as addictive as they get.

The game is played from an isometric perspective, in order to give the illusion of the courses being three dimensional. With the aid of some Escher-like level design, you genuinely feel as through you are progressing through a 3D terrain and can clearly determine when hazards are on your platform. All told there are just 6 courses in the game, some of which take less then a minute to complete, meaning that it's possible to finish the game in less than 10 mins. However, like most games of that era getting good enough to finish at all takes months of practice. I've never got past the 4th. The difficulty comes in two parts. 1.) The hazards, which range from narrow or steeply banked sections of the courses, to hostile marbles, acidic platforms and marble-gobbling bouncing tubes.

Marble Madness was subsequently ported to every platform going throughout the 80s, 90s and 00s. Even today you can get a rather good clone on Android and PCcalled Flarble Badness. However, the arcade machine used trackballs to provide control over your marbles, which were far more precise and responsive than using a keyboard, joystick, mouse or even touch screen controls of any of the home versions.

The video below shows the game in action. The screen display isn't the best, but it does show how crucial the trackballs were.

Finally, I can't talk about this game without talking about a cover of the title track by indie musicians Stemage and Disasterpeace. They manage to take everything that makes the track so memorable and elevate it to become a soaring, majestic, uplifting piece of music. You can listen to it here.