We’ve been meaning to do an Arcade Mermaid article on Capcom’s very difficult late-80s arcade game The Speed Rumbler, since it’s a stand-out inclusion on Capcom Arcade 2nd Stadium on current console. This article is still coming, but in the meantime you can read Gaming Hell’s own take on this sadly unknown yet really cool game.
There’s a lot to like about it, but my favorite thing about The Speed Rumbler, known as Rush & Crash in Japan, is the CAR meter:
There is no reason that I know of to put the word CAR in a red splash, other than that the word CRASH in its arcade title screen is also within one. It somehow seems appropriate in the game though, since sometimes just rolling through things is as useful as shooting them.
If I wrote more about Speed Rumbler here I’ll just be using words I’ll have to repeat when I write about it myself, so go read Gaming Hell’s article!
The podcast Arcade Attack interviews former Atari designer and programmer Ed Rotberg, creator of Battlezone! His introduction identifies him as the creator of the first FPS. Is he? I do not know for sure, but it seems awfully plausible. I think it’s a little distasteful identifying him by his connection to a genre that, when he created Battlezone in 1980, wouldn’t even exist for a decade yet. Rotberg’s accomplishment feels more profound than that, but Battlezone is definitely foundational!
The Arcade Blogger recently spotlighted some documents related to the design process of the classic 1983 arcade game Tron, including information on some dropped minigames for it. Tron is such an interesting production. It is of course based on the movie of the same name, which has become a cultural landmark despite not actually doing that well in theaters upon its release. One of the interesting facts revealed in the article is that the arcade game actually outperformed the movie, despite being released while interest in US arcade gaming was falling.
The Museum Monster presents: a WEIRD MOMENT IN VIDEO GAMES.
About halfway through the arcade version of Star Force, a prominent early shooter made by Tehkan (later renamed Tecmo, and now half of Tecmo-Koei) something weird happens.
Shooters were in a kind of odd phase right then. The enormously influential Xevious was fresh in memory, and it presented, as a striking and memorable background element, the Nazca lines from Peru. It lent the game an air of mystery that impressed many Japanese players.
Perhaps inspired by that, Tehkan’s developers put something similarly bizarre in Star Force, but it’s a lot better hidden. First, you have to get about halfway through the game. Once there, on the ground of the weird space continents that float by serenely beneath your craft, you can spot a coelacanth, a whopping-great space fish.
Then, if you aim your ship’s guns at the spot at the right side of the screen that it’s looking at, and fire your guns a whole bunch of times, you’ll make the golden head you can see in the above screenshot appear. Then, fire at it a whole bunch more. If you’re relying on autofire it won’t do, you must actually pound away at the fire button yourself to have any hope of unloading as much firepower as needed to destroy it. If you do, this happens:
Here is a recording I made of this being done in gameplay. Note, I had an invincibility cheat on, because not only is the game extremely hard at this point, but unloading enough shots into it requires you to stay in one place for a while. In a real gameplay situation your only hope is to encounter Cleo during the lull between enemy waves.
Huh. So, what is that about anyway? It like triples your score! There is no mention of Cleopatra anywhere else in the game, and no hint as to what she’s doing sleeping on a big purple island floating out in deep space. This doesn’t occur anywhere else. It just a thing that happens.
Arcade Mermaid is our classic arcade weirdness and obscurity column! Once a month we aim to bring you an interesting and odd arcade game to wonder at.
You are reading the words of a Castlevania fanatic. Your standard fan who came into the series with the Igavanias will tell you its pinnacles are Symphony of the Night or, if they’re really trying to impress, Rondo of Blood. Truthfully, both of those are fine games. But I am of the opinion that the best the series has ever been was the first and third Famicom/NES games, and that series creator Hitoshi Akamatsu got a raw deal. The first game particularly is an especially brilliant gem among the jewels of the early Famicom’s library. Every moment of it shows care and attention to detail.
Just a few examples. While many people curse the stream of Medusa Heads that harry Simon Belmont at several places in the game, the game is actually quite sparing with their use, easing up with them at certain telling moments. One particular place this happens is climbing the staircases in the second stage of Block 3: while you’re on the staircases there, interestingly, the Medusa Heads don’t attack.
Also, the Fish Men in the first and fourth blocks, on the first loop, are kind enough never to jump from beneath the player’s location. And while on the second and later loops through the game they will happily emerge right beneath your feet and bump you into the water, there is a tell even for this: except for a brief section where there are no candles, Fish Men only emerge from the water directly beneath candle locations. (I gained a small amount of internet notoriety when an online friend pointed out where I had observed this fact in a Metafilter thread.)
I could go on, and will for a few more sentences, even though this kind of stuff makes for boring writing. The subweapons are very precisely designed, each filling a specific role in the game. All of the game’s platforms are supported by background elements, and when the player climbs stairs to a new area, background pillars in the upper area mostly line up with those from the lower area. You can see the crumbling spire that’s the site of the Dracula fight far in the background in block 3, half of the game before you get to climb up there yourself, and it’s such an iconic piece of level design that almost every Castlevania game that follows includes it. Much of its brilliance is recounted by Jeremy Parish in his book on the NES Castlevania games. (An earlier version of the Castlevania material can be seen linked here on the Internet Archive, but please consider his book if you are able to buy it.)
All of this is just preamble though, to the true subject of this post: the port for Nintendo’s Unisystem arcade hardware, Vs. Castlevania.
Castlevania is renowned as a tough game. While it only has six “blocks,” broken down into 19 stages, the game ramps up in difficulty pretty quickly through that thin territory. I’ve played through it all dozens of times. I’ve completed the game on one life before, but I still find the last level challenging. Even so, I’ve rolled both the score counter and stage counter. I’m good at Castlevania, not speedrunner-level, but, no offense intended to those who are, I have other things that I have to do. I cannot devote huge blocks of time to mastering individual games like I could as a teenager.
If you enjoy the original Castlevania, you might want to have a look at the Vs. variant, which is available via the Arcade Archives series for current consoles. Especially if you count yourself a master at it, this version will probably put you in your place.
In terms of hardware, the Unisystem is very close to a NES, and Vs. Castlevania doesn’t use any tricks that its home version doesn’t. Here is video of me playing through the first level:
People familiar with the original will notice that the game looks slightly different. The colors are different, which is something that was frequently the case of the arcade versions of NES software. It’s likely that the Unisystem’s hardware is responsible for this: as a protection against bootlegging, which was rife in the arcade industry, each Unisystem arcade board had, in addition to the ROMs with the code for each game, a specific, custom PPU chip with the palette for that game embedded within it. People who copied the ROM chips into EPROMs in order to run a game without buying it from Nintendo would have something that could technically run, but the palette would be for the original game, not the copied one, and make the colors look funny. While I don’t know if this is true for Vs. Castlevania, it might explain the difference if the whole game had to use a single palette set.
Two major differences between Vs. Castlevania and its home version are immediately evident. One, in the first level enemies do four bars of damage on each hit to protagonist Simon Belmont. The first couple of levels of NES Castlevania are mostly just a warmup. Enemies in both blocks only do two bars of damage, meaning even without health powerups Simon can take seven hits without dying. The increased damage is the same as on the game’s second loop, after finishing the whole thing and starting from the beginning. The arcade sensibility, to keep players putting in money in order to learn the game and see its later stages, means it doesn’t have time to let the player acclimate themselves to its heated waters. The fire is lit; the soup is boiling.
Even worse though is that, for each of the first three blocks of the game, the player only has 170 seconds to finish. It’s quite a shock if you’re used to the original, where time is practically never an issue! Even if you’ve mastered the levels on the NES, you’ll find, if you don’t constantly work towards reaching the door of each stage, you will easily run out of time. Expect the warning alarm to be ringing through the boss fights until you get used to the constant progress the game demands.
I don’t know what it is about the later blocks, but they have much more generous time limits, along the lines of the NES version. For these levels, the challenge goes back to surviving enemy attacks. Starting with Block 3, the game increases the damage done by enemies to levels never seen in the NES game even at its hardest: six bars, enough to kill Simon in just three hits. This makes Dracula at the end of the game quite a challenge.
If you manage to loop the game, you get to see something quite amazing. Desperate to end the player’s credit now, the game increases the damage done by enemies to eight bars, killing Simon Belmont in just two hits. More than that, the game pulls off the stops with nuisance enemies. You even have to face bats in the outside area before entering the castle! Take a look at this:
The extra nuisance enemies are an especially interesting addition, since NES Castlevania never uses so many, even on the second loop and beyond. It’s exactly the kind of ludicrous challenge that people who have mastered the original game should seek out!
Castlevania is not the only Vs. game with substantial differences from the arcade version. Vs. Excitebike has many niceties over the home version, including some clever bonus stages. Vs. Balloon Fight in the arcade is a vertically-scrolling game, that played with two players gives each its own monitor. There’s lots mot to say about these games, but I’ve got to save some material for later.
The last “major” F-Zero game released was back in the Gamecube, the sterling, yet extraordinarily challenging, F-Zero GX. What tends to be less remembered was it was a dual release. At around the same time, Sega released on Nintendo’s TRIFORCE hardware an arcade version called F-Zero AX. In the US arcades were pretty moribund around that time, so it tends to be a lot less recognized on these shores. The AX machine bore a Gamecube memory card slot so that players could take their save files to the arcade unit and use their custom vehicles there, and take data from that version back home. The AX version also has tracks and vehicles not in the GX version.
What tends to be even less well known is that nearly the entire arcade version of F-Zero AX is right there on the Gamecube disk! Back in 2021, Romhacker Elfor constructed a patch for the Gamecube version that, if played in an emulator or somehow made readable by GC hardware, can boot directly into that version of the game.
There are some differences from the arcade version in this revealed version of game, many of them related to music tracks left off the disk. More recently, Anthony Ryuki made a patch to restore those tracks, and bring the Gamecube AX version even closer to the arcade experience.
Arcade Mermaid is our classic arcade weirdness and obscurity column! Once a month we aim to bring you an interesting and odd arcade game to wonder at.
Released in 1982, a couple of years after a little game called Pac-Man, Pepper II is a maze game set in a four-screen world. You’re a blobby angel thing called Pepper, obeying an edict from the Powers Above: zip up four screens’ worth of boxes. The box borders are made of un-zipped zippers, and by zooming around each one it’s zipped up and captured, filled with a pattern.
Opposing your efforts are a bunch of roving eyes and a weird pink creature callled “the Whippersnapper.” It was the golden age of arcades, and realistic scenarios were on the outs for a time.
Its box-surrounding play looks similar to Amidar at first, but it’s really quite a different game. Amidar‘s enemies move according to a set and inviolate plan, but the eyes of Pepper II rove mostly randomly, with a slight bias towards chasing you. Amidar only lets you attack your enemies once per board, after you’ve surrounded all four corners, but Pepper gets this power after capturing just one of the corners, or the box in the center, up to five times per maze. This means that you’re invincible a lot of the time! Play carefully and you’re almost always invincible, which is important because you’re really vulnerable when you’re not. There are up to three more enemies after you at a time than in Pac-Man, and their unpredictable meandering means you often get caught right as you’re finishing a box.
Pepper’s world isn’t a single screen, but consists of four interconnected mazes. The arcade manual calls them cubes, and when you clear one you get a little cube icon in the bottom-right corner of the screen, but it isn’t a cube really; there’s only four sides. The game world is more like a horizontal strip. When you go off-screen to the left or right, you enter the next screen in the strip, but if you go up or down you skip ahead/behind one screen. From Screen 1, left goes to 4, right goes to 2, but both up and down go to 3. Enemies don’t have an off-screen existence beyond a few seconds after you change mazes, but your progress on other screens is remembered, so you can solve each maze a bit at a time if you choose.
The best thing Pepper II has going for it is its speed. It is incredibly fast! It makes Pac-Man feel creaky by comparison! Surrounding an energizer box gets you only four seconds of invincibility, but it’s long enough to surround multiple other boxes.
Pepper likes to overshoot intersections, and even with attention you’ll still probably miss them sometimes. When you enter a new maze, enemies enter from the four sides randomly after only a second, and at the game’s speeds this makes them very dangerous at that time. You could start capturing a box, and by the time you’re all the way around it a roving pair of eyes have both entered and moved over into your path. The eyes are not focused pursuers, but their large number and randomness make them plenty deadly enough.
The Whippersnapper is a little special. When you activate an energizer you can destroy the eyes for points, but will just pass through the Whippersnapper. The Whippersnapper exists to prevent you from zipping up tracks randomly. It undoes your work as it moves through the maze! Once you’ve completely captured a box it’s safe and cannot be unzipped, but until then it’s easy for it to mess up your work. It also moves much faster than the eyes.
There’s a couple more nuances to play. If you go back over your own trail you’ll unzip it. There are bonus items you can surround for ever-increasing bonuses as the game continues. The energizer in the center of the board flips between a stronger version that also kills all the enemies on the screen. These play quirks don’t really amount to all that much. Pepper II is a game about careening at full tilt around a board, clearing it piece by piece, and frantically racing between energizers to keep your invincibility going, and the other details tend to get lost in the rush.
Extra lives are awarded at 40,000 and 80,000 points. A good early score is around 50,000. I can regularly break 200,000, clearing two cubes, but the difficulty goes up rapidly from there. Both as you continue in each board and as the game goes on the enemies speed up a lot, and starting with the second cube the unzipped trails turn invisible for short periods.
Exidy was founded by in the very early days of arcade gaming. Some of their better known games include Star Fire, Mouse Trap, and Venture. They were never known for their graphics, although some of their products were among the earliest arcade games to use digitized sound. Many of Exidy’s games made up for their lack of visual flair with strong gameplay fundamentals. Venture, particularly, is a minor classic. Exidy was known to court controversy at times, with games like Death Race, in which the player runs down pedestrians, and the excessively-gory Chiller, where the player uses a light gun to dismember helpless victims in a torture room. Chiller received an unlicensed port to the NES by AGC (“American Game Cartridges”).
Coleco ported Mouse Trap, Pepper II, and Venture to the Colecovision console, where they were met by an appreciative audience. Their port of Pepper II is especially good. It’s very much like the arcade game, just a little slower.
Exidy games from the time of Pepper II tend to have a visual look akin to DOS games played through a CGA card. Pepper II is like this, but it certainly can’t be called slow. It takes sharp reflexes just to get around its mazes.
The 60-in-1 is often recognizable by its distinctive menu system, but it can actually be set to play one of its games in a stand-alone mode, in which case its menu never appears. It’s actually an ARM board running MAME, which means its games have distinctive quirks. All the information is there, so go acquaint yourself with ubiquitous gray-market arcade hardware!
Arcade Mermaid is our classic arcade weirdness and obscurity column! Once a month we aim to bring you an interesting and odd arcade game to wonder at. Although this time, we’re expanding the purview to talk about an extremely rare game that has just become playable by the public through emulation for the very first time. Please note, this was written quickly and late at night. It may see minor corrections once I see it by the harsh light of day.
Bob Flanagan was mainly a programmer during his time at Atari Games, where he helped implement the original Marble Madness, Paperboy, and Gauntlet. Skull & Crossbones is the only Flanagan-helmed game that got produced, but MM2 could have been another.
Another reason to cheer for this game finally, finally seeing the light of day is the music, which kyuubethe3rdmentions was among the finest work of Atari composer Brad Fuller, who sadly left us in 2016. Marble Madness had very memorable music, and the 14 main levels of MM2 sound like they could easily have come from that game, including a remix of the original’s Beginner Maze track.
I haven’t seen anyone talking about the source of the roms. It’s been known that the MAME developers have had copies for safe keeping, but were forbidden by the person who let them dump them from releasing them to the public. A MAME driver, I hear, has been around for a while, but maybe only privately. I don’t know what that has to do with the efforts of David ‘mamehaze” Haywood, who has worked to get the game working over the past few days.
I’ve watched a lot of playthroughs of MM2 over the past couple of days, it has been quite a focus to speedrunners. Here’s a couple, that make the game look really easy: FlannelKat, and LeKukie. DumpleChan has a slower run that looks a lot more like a good player would have done in an arcade if the game had been made:
As mentioned before, no one seems to know how this game, long a holy grail for preservations and arcade enthusiasts alike, got released. Was it leaked? Did someone who happened to have the roms just decide one day to throw them online? There’s a thread at AtariAge that notes that the owner would release the roms in exchange for $42,000. Did someone raise that much money? They are now on the Internet Archive, and work on an official MAME driver is well underway, so in any event, stuffing this genie back into its lamp now is probably impossible.
How It’s The Same
The sound design is nearly identical to Marble Madness, using many of the same noises. The attention to detail on recreating the experience of the first game is admirable! And as mentioned, the music is terrific.
All of the original game’s enemies and most of its obstacles are seen somewhere in this game’s 14 levels. The only ones that come to mind that are absent are the Intermediate Race’s rolling wave and the infuriating cycling platforms at the end of the Ultimate Race.
It’s still a race against time, with leftover seconds carrying over to later levels. It’s still a co-op/competition game, where players can interfere with each other, seek to scroll them off screen for a time penalty, or coordinate their movements to double-team the Evil Black Marbles* and help keep players in the game.
A few of the levels have names from the original game. Their layouts are different, though.
How It’s Different: Structure
Marble Madness’s greatest weakness was always its ultra-short length. It only had six levels! It could be excused around the time of its creation, since in 1984 those kinds of scrolling map games were still a new thing. Well here there are 14 mazes, and three bonus rounds too!
Instead of a straight sequence of levels from start to finish, they’re arranged into tiers, of roughly equal difficulty:
Each tier can be completed in a variable order, with the player(s) deciding which maze to tackle first. Like in the original game, each maze in a tier carries time over from the previous one, with a small bonus. When the last maze is finished, players get 1,000 points for every second they had left, but also their time is zeroed out.
After each tier, the players enter into a pinball-themed bonus stage! The acceleration is tuned way up for these, making them feel properly chaotic. The players use their marbles to hit targets to spell either MARBLE or MADNESS, and hit drop targets to earn as many points as they can. Players get five extra seconds for every 5,000 points they score, on top of a large time award granted for starting the next tier.
Throughout all of this, if a player runs out of time in solo play, they can opt to continue to try the maze again with a large amount of start time. In group play, they can continue with the same time as one of the other players.
This pattern lasts until the final level, King Of The Mountain. It’s like a tier to itself with only that one level. Only two attempts are granted here: The First Try, and then, after a continue, the Last Try.
A lot of the game is fairly easy, but King of the Mountain is long and tough! Unlike most of the other mazes, the player starts at the bottom and must ascend to the top. At the very end the players have to climb a series of icy slopes that’s very difficult to make it through! It’s a suitable successor to the end of the first game’s Ultimate Maze, with its disappearing pathways.
This one’s big. Marble Madness, in the arcades, a trackball game. Marble Madness II uses standard eight-way joysticks. It makes for a huge difference, it makes the game easier, and also negates the point of the game a little.
In an earlier stage of development (as “Marble Man,” see below) the game went out on test in a trackball version, but it happened around the time the company began to move away from trackballs as a control method. Atari had been associated with trackballs for a long time, going back to the classic Atari Football, and they had recently released the trackball-based strategy/puzzle game Rampart. It’s possible, had Marble Madness II made it to production, that it would have been offered as an upgrade kit for Rampart. There is talk in the arcade modding community of some people wanting to turn their Rampart machines into Marble Madness II, despite the hardware being quite different. (I think this is a shame, as a long-time outspoken fan of Rampart, but it’s understandable for this game!)
With digital joystick control, long narrow passages lose much of their danger, turning a frantic perilous roll into the holding of a direction and the tap of a Turbo button. But also, joysticks can be less precise for this kind of game. I’ve seen forum posts speculating about what would be necessary to reimplement trackball control in the game, even though it’s not a simple change to the code. There’s the advantage that the programming of the original, trackball-based Marble Madness is out there. Time will inform us of the feasibility of this.
Marble Madness II was developed seven years after Marble Madness, and in that time powerups went from intriguing new idea to de rigueur. Throughout most of the mazes (not the first or last) there are crown-like structures with a cycling powerup atop them. It’s possible to bash through these and collect the powerup that’s currently on display. Two of these, Cloak and Crusher, allow the player to either evade or destroy monsters. Knobby gives a marble super-sharp control, and Heli grants flight for a while, allowing for huge shortcuts.
As speedrun playthroughs have demonstrated, these powerups allow for gigantic time saves! Heli can bypass whole sections of the maze, and Knobby allows a marble to tear around corners with pinpoint precision. In a multiplayer game only one player can get a powerup from each location.
Points Earn Extra Time
This really is a major change. In Marble Madness, other than the time awards for starting mazes and the occasional random award of 10 seconds, there was no respite from the steady advancement of the clock. You do get five extra seconds for beating another player to the finish line, but that’s only awarded in two-player mode, and the difficulties of playing with another player overwhelm that meager allowance.
In Marble Madness II, each player is awarded five bonus seconds for every 5,000 points they collect. The plethora of bonus flags scattered around mean that players will be earning bonus time frequently, the time awards often greater than the loss from going out of your way to collect them.
Flags & Hidden Flags
About those flags. They’re in every level but the first and last ones. They grant from 1,000 to 5,000 points, with the number printed on the flag. These are all over the place, and make it easy to amass a load of surplus time. Fortunately for the game’s design, this extra time is converted into more points at the end of a tier, and the players must begin stockpiling all over again Also throughout most of the mazes are bonus flags, worth 2,000 points each. These rarely flash into visibility for a couple of seconds, but often will appear as a reward for reaching out-of-the-way regions of the map.
The game promises players a “Super Bonus” for collecting all the flags in an area, but this requires a lot of patience to track them all down, and sometimes there are mutually-exclusive branches in the path of a maze that make it impossible for a single player to reliably get every flag if playing on their own. The Heli powerup, particularly, is great for collecting flags.
That last level King Of The Mountain doesn’t have any flags! Killing the enemies on that level is worth good points, but it means that very little bonus time is awarded there.
Tons of new obstacles
Every level has its own unique peril! Sand, crushers, falling icicles, killer satellites, meteor crashes, fists smashing out of walls, floating frying pans (in Wacky, of course) and many more. At the very end, huge rock-throwing trolls guard the passages up to the top of the Mountain.
The released version of Marble Madness II doesn’t have the Marble Man theme, but it does have voices, and they’re pretty nice I think! When you start a game, your marble develops a face and shouts “Marble madness!” in a way that never fails to make me smile. When you hit a letter or spell a word in a bonus level it’s announced aloud, and to me that’s almost reward enough in itself. It’s probably for the best that the superhero theme was dropped, but the faces, both on the marbles in their death animations and on the enemies, add some needed character to what might otherwise have been a pretty dry game.
So, that’s what we have to report on Marble Madness II, a game developed 21 years ago and is just now seeing the light of day outside of an extremely small number of collectors. 21 years is a long time. A not-insignificant number of fans of the original Marble Madness have died in the intervening time, never having had a chance to enjoy it. And even now, because it’s only playable in emulators, a lot of people who could otherwise enjoy it, but cannot overcome the technical hurdle of getting MAME up and running and getting its roms into the right shape (a formidable obstacle to many), will still be denied playing it.
Marble Madness II is not yet up in official MAME, but its driver is well along, and I think it’ll probably appear in the next release. I urge you to at least give it a try, and think of all the people who would have enjoyed if it had appeared back at the time of its creation. It was a long time coming, but at least now it is here.
This is not some fan game made to play like Marble Madness, but the real deal, a legendary lost prototype from the Silver Age of Atari Games! Cancelled because of the great arcade fervor at the time around fighting games, meaning little Atari released in that era performed well on test.
Word is that the rom has been released somewhere on the internet, although I do not know where. It had been known that all the surviving Marble Madness II cabinets were owned by old Atari staff or collectors who were averse to allowing the rom images to be released. Whether one of them had a change of heart or, as has been speculated with Akka Arrh, another legendary prototype, they may have been obtained through nefarious means.
Technically the rights are still owned by Warner Media, I believe. I’ve long been amazed that the current rights holders haven’t seeked out the owners of these prototypes and offered them a big payday to dump the roms and release something like a Midway Arcade Treasures 4. Sure, it’d only be a matter of time before someone broke the roms out of such a package, but they’d still sell a ton of units and the prototype owners would be properly rewarded for both maintaining their machines and for lost collector value, and importantly, the games would be out there among people who would enjoy them and be protected against further loss and obscurity.
Arcade Mermaid is a recurring feature where we look at weird classic arcade games. The word weird has many meanings; sometimes it means bizarre or ludicrous, but sometimes it means of a really unusual design.
Our game this time easily fulfills multiple senses of the word. Konami’s Amidar was released in 1982, putting it near the end of the arcade boom in the US. It still came out early enough to get an Atari VCS/2600 port from Parker Bros., the source of many of the better arcade ports of the time that didn’t come from Atari or Coleco.
Odd Boards: Gorilla and Spearmen
Amidar‘s game world is both abstract and evocative. You’re a gorilla, tasked with collecting all the dots on a board made of lines, while evading hostile spearmen called “Amidar” (plural) and “Tracer.” Unlike as in Pac-Man, the playfield isn’t a maze as it is a bunch of adjoining boxes, with you and the enemies walking along their border lines.
People who have played a lot of Mario Party might find something oddly familiar about this layout. We’ll get to that.
When you collect all of the dots around one of those boxes, it fills in with a solid color. These boards you can play somewhat like Pac-Man. There are differences, though. The “turn the tables” mode that lets you attack your pursuers activates when you fill in the four squares in the corner of the screen. You only get one such period every level, and it takes a lot of effort and some foresight to achieve it. If the last box you fill in is one of those corners, you complete the level immediately and don’t get any bonus points for chasing down the enemies.
Even Boards: Paint Roller and Pigs
There is another kind of level in Amidar, however, that plays similarly, but with a significant difference. In these, for some reason, you’re not a gorilla but a paint roller, and you’re avoiding not natives but bipedal pigs. No reason is given for the change of graphics, although they’re still called “Amidar” and “Tracer.”
In these alternate boards, each of the rectangles has a number in the middle, which is a bonus score you earn for filling it in. On the gorilla boards, you only get points for collecting dots and capturing enemies during the attack period. Here, you get points for surrounding boxes and capturing them, so these score a lot better.
The trade-off, that makes these boards a lot harder to complete, is that you can’t just collect dots however and expect your progress to stick. There are no dots.
Instead, you have to extend the colored border away from already-colored lines, surrounding boxes one at a time. If you leave the border of the box you’re currently coloring, your progress will disappear! You’ll have to go back to one of your established lines and start over. Because you can’t just color them at any time but instead have to extend your territory out to them one box at a time, it’s a lot harder to take advantage of the attack phase granted by coloring the four corner boxes. It’s a lot harder in general. Most games end on Pig boards.
You have final aid to help you get through each level. Each board and each life, you get three uses of a “Jump” button that allows you to slip by the Amidar and Tracer. But, in keeping with a game where you alternate playing as a gorilla and a paint roller, the Jump button doesn’t allow you to jump over enemies. Instead, it causes the enemies to all jump, allowing you to pass beneath them.
After you’ve played a couple of games of Amidar, you might catch on to an unusual property of the enemies. They don’t chase you. The have a specific route they follow through the board. Pac-Man may have patterns you can use to evade its ghosts, but Amidar makes the pattern followed by the enemies explicit, and the whole point of the game.
The motion of the normal enemies is entirely deterministic and uncaring of your location. Instead, they move in a specific, meandering pattern. They actually follow the routes of the Chinese “Ghost Leg,” or as it’s called in Japan, Amidakuji lottery. (You see? Amidakuji? Amidar?) They move down along vertical paths until they reach a horizontal intersection, which they will always take and then continue downward. When they reach the bottom of the board, they reverse their vertical progress, going up to reach the top again, still taking horizontal paths when they encounter them.
This is where Mario Party players might find this familiar. The Amidakuji lottery is simulated in the minigame Pipe Maze. In this, the four players are randomly arranged at the bottom of a network of pipes, and one of them must drop a treasure chest down one of the entrances at the top. The treasure travels down in the manner of the Amidar, and whichever player it reaches at the bottom gets the treasure.
The Amidakuji lottery has some interesting characteristics. It matches up each of the vertical paths at the top with exactly one path at the bottom. It doesn’t matter how many side connections there are, there will always be one way through for each path at the top.
To emphasize this, between each board of Amidar there is a bonus round that works more directly like the Amidakuji. You pick one of the routes for an Amidar to begin winding down, trying to guide it to a bunch of bananas at the bottom. Once you learn the knack of these stages it’s not hard to get the bananas most of the time. With your eyes, try to quickly trace the path in reverse, starting from the bananas.
The key to success at Amidar is focus and practice. With experience you’ll get better at figuring out where the Amidar will go in real time, and can avoid them more easily. Later levels increase the number of Amidar. Also, since a player can avoid the Amidar pretty consistently, there’s a failsafe timer in play. If you take too long to finish a level, the Tracer, which usually only moves along the outer boarder, will leave its patrol route and start following your prior movements through the level. This really starts to be a problem with Level 4. It’s good to save the corner blocks for when this happens.
Once you internalize the rules to Amidakuji, you may find yourself progressing deep into the game. I’ve been as far as Level 6! The game also has charming, melodic music in the style of Frogger. At the time of its release it was a minor hit for Stern, its licensee in the U.S., and now can be seen as a highlight of its genre.
A post-script. I searched for information on Parker Bros. Atari VCS port of Amidar, the only one made during the classic era of arcades, and found a page on the fandom.com wiki that gets many key facts wrong. It mentions coconuts: no version of Amidar has coconuts in it. It mentions the Jump button making enemies jump and not you: this is not at all evident in the VCS version. It mentions a bonus stage after every round: this doesn’t exist in the VCS version. This is one of the reasons I hate fandom.com!