Every once in a while I take a look over at what’s happening in the arcade side of gaming. Usually I’m left feeling pretty sad. The age when there were dozens of cool arcade concepts being released every year was very long ago at this point. For arcade video games made in the US, the only two companies I’m aware of that are doing anything substantive are Raw Thrills (who are ubiquitous) and Play Mechanix. I mean, there’s also Incredible Technologies, still making their yearly Golden Tee updates. And of you consider screened slot machines to be a kind of “video game” then sure there’s more–but I don’t. I don’t consider them to be video games.
All of this is just from a cursory look, mind you. I haven’t had the will to follow the current-day arcade industry, from any country, for a good while. The demise of Atari Games and Midway took a lot out of me. I’ve carped a bit about Raw Thrills a bit, but honestly that’s probably just how upset I am that Atari is gone. A lot of the games that are made seem to be things like driving or light-gun games, usually with a big-cabinet or ride-like component. Mind you, a local arcade has two Raw Thrills Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles machines, but they’re so inferior in play to Konami’s classic cabinets, even running on thirty-year-old tech, that I’m embarrassed to watch them on their behalf.
But there are a few interesting newer games in arcades. Two places local to me have interesting Space Invaders-themed light gun games, that use a large bank of LEDs for a screen. And… well, that’s actually about it, as far as recent games I’ve gotten my own hands on that I find remotely interesting.
But the blog Arcade Heroes, which makes the arcade scene its beat, sometimes uncovers some games I’d like to have a play on, if I ever were to encounter one, which seems mostly unlikely, alas.
For example. While I find them theme on most current pinball releases to be a bit lacking, for example focusing on rock bands consisting of senior citizens, in the case of the upcoming table based on Spinal Tap, that actually makes the machine more entertaining instead of less.
Bandai-Namco has a game coming up called Bike Dash Delivery, which actually allows players to (gasp) actually explore a little, instead of being stuck on a set course like so many other arcade titles in these sad times. The article mentions both Crazy Taxi and Propcycle, both machines beloved by me, so I’m rather hopeful this game will make it to the States!
Kevin Williams has a recurring column on the arcade scene over there, and his most recent is a retrospective on the years of 1982 and 1983, the end of the “classic era” of arcade gaming. Whether for history or nostalgia, it’s worth a look.
More low-effort posts about game things spotted at Atlanta’s pop culture mega-convention.
A Cosmic Smash cabinet!
That recent arcade port of NES obscurity Mr. Gimmick!
A 2007 arcade version of Rhythm Heaven, completely in Japanese! This was perhaps the coolest game at the convention.
Sadly blurry in this shot, but: Space Invaders! Without the color overlay though. The monitor didn’t work for like two entire days, too.
Twilight Zone pinball, this picture being of the time I nearly completed the door but lost my last ball before collecting that hated Question Mark! (Don’t worry though, the next day I came back and did it, and played Lost In The Zone. I left with the #2 score on the machine–although oddly, it seems someone else who plays these games also has my initials? JWH? Their Terminator 2 machine’s scoreboard is full of JWH but I’ve never played it!)
The games were brought this year by Save Point, who mostly provided Japanese games and some pinballs, and Joystick Gamebar, which provided a good number or retro arcade machines and more pinball, including that Twilight Zone.
I’ve got hundreds of pictures that I’ve yet to sift through. More tomorrow!
The Atari brand has been in so many hands, and been used for so many things (including, most recently, NFTs and hotels) that making sense of it all is maddening. Christ Trotter on the atomicpoet Pleroma instance made a fairly lengthy series of posts laying it all out that, to my eyes, is accurate. He may actually know more about their history than I do, although pride makes me loathe to admit it!
The whole thread is useful, but here’s the first post on it, presented as screenshot because WordPress doesn’t yet support embedding that kind of thing directly. I don’t know why it’s so blurry, that seems to be WordPress again.
I’ve been working on diversifying our link game a bit, so here’s a more academic article, one with an actual bibliography no less, from the site romchip.org, by Kieran Nolan on restoring arcade machines. I’ll let the link speak for itself this time!
Back on April 12th, WIRED Magazine published an article about Space Invaders 45 years after its original production. In it they spoke with the creator of iconic arcade game, Tomohiro Nishikado, who now considers it the best game he ever made.
Despite them including the Atari 2600 version as if it were the original (the two games are similar but ultimately rather different), it’s a nice look back.
The arcade industry existed for six years before Space Invaders, a period that is often forgotten. Two games in particular I think kicked off the meteoric, and short-lived, rise of arcade gaming as a cultural force: Atari’s Asteroids, and Taito’s Space Invaders. Asteroids was actually more popular in the U.S., but Space Invaders was still one of the most successful arcade games ever sold in the States. In Japan, its success was, and I believe still is, unequaled.
Video games at that time were tied to their hardware in a way they almost never are now. Gaming is now mostly done with graphics hardware that is mostly replaceable. Back then, arcade hardware was usually purpose-built, with the capabilities the design required. Space Invaders is an example where the hardware constraints really made the game. It was one of the few games at the time to use framebuffer hardware: a bank of memory that corresponded directly to the display, in Space Invaders’ case, every pixel on screen echoing the state of a dot in memory.
There were a number of reasons that this wasn’t used by most games. Memory was expensive, and a screen-sized bitmapped display needed a lot of it. More colors requires even more memory to be able to depict all the possible states, so Space Invaders’ screen was monochrome with a color overlay.
Possibly the biggest reason of all: it takes a CPU a lot of time to shuffle around all those bits. Computers are fast, but they still have their limits. Space Invaders uses an Intel 8080, the chip they made before the 8086 which was the foundation for the x86 line, but still only an 8-bit processor.
Space Invaders, ingeniously, uses the 8080’s slowness at updating the framebuffer as a strength. As the armada of aliens moves across the screen, the processor is updating them as rapidly as it is able, erasing and drawing each into its new position one at a time. As the player shoots them, there are fewer ships to draw, and so it can get its updating done faster. This naturally causes the fleet to progress across the screen faster and faster as they’re wiped out, with the last alien rushing across with all that CPU power freed up by the destruction of its comrades.
Space Invaders had even more clever ideas in its design than that. It was an early example of a game using a life system, borrowed from the limited balls players were allowed in pinball games. But also, the game had a sudden loss condition: if any alien managed to make it all the way down the screen to the ground, the game instantly ended.
There was considerable strategy in deciding which aliens to shoot first. Wiping out rows from the bottom of the formation delayed the whole armada from reaching the bottom by one pass across the screen, but if the player destroyed a column off one of the sides, all of those aliens would have to travel further before they could descend a level. Or, if the player was prepared to take a bit more of a risk, they could wipe out columns in the middle of the formation, which means the aliens would descend more rapidly, but leaving a hole in the ranks through which to shoot the Mystery Ship that passed by at the top of the screen.
The game even has a couple of secret features, which is pretty interesting considering the game was released in 1978. The points awarded by the Mystery Ship appeared random at first, but was in fact went through a cycle that advanced every time the player fired a shot. And, as documented in Craig Kubey’s The Winner’s Book of Video Games, if a skilled player could annihilate a whole rack of aliens while leaving one of them from the two lowest rows of the board, it would leave a trail behind it. digipress.com reveals that this was caused by a bug in the code, but later versions of Space Invaders promoted this trick to a legitimate secret.
Space Invaders has inspired many remakes and revivals through the years, the first, Space Invaders Part II, also known as Space Invaders Deluxe, introduced new kinds of aliens that split in two when shot. That’s not to be confused with the later Space Invaders DX, released in 1993. Before that came Return of the Invaders in 1985, and Space Invaders Part IV: The Majestic 12 in 1991. A while after there were Space Invaders Extreme, which got its own sequel, and other games I can’t be bothered to look up right now. Recently, in 2016, arcades have even seen a fairly interesting Space Invaders lightgun game from Raw Thrills, called Space Invaders Frenzy. (I tend to be harsh on Raw Thrills here, but it’s actually pretty interesting!)
45 years. Not bad for an ancient 8-bit arcade game that struggled to shift black-and-white pixels around.
Have you ever heard of Cosmic Smash? I’d be shocked if you had. It’s the kind of thing that even I only know about from obsessive reading of obscure game blogs and Youtube videos. It was a Sega arcade game that got a release for the Dreamcast right at the moment the company was getting out of the console business. It had laughably bad timing, and it never made it out of Japan.
Yet, the game has gotten a cult following. You could deride it as merely a futuristic, three-dimensional take on racquetball and Breakout, but it’s one of those games where the style makes all the difference. Here’s some footage of the Dreamcast version:
Time Extension, one of those blogs that makes good posts so often that I’m tempted to tell you to read it instead, did an article talking with the creator of a spiritual remake called C-Smash VR, released for Playstation VR2 with a license from Sega and the blessing of the game’s original creators. It’s such an obscure game that I’d be surprised if it could be profitable, but we love rooting for underdogs here, even if I have a general antipathy for VR.
Arcade Mermaid is our classic arcade weirdness and obscurity column! Frequently (no promises) we aim to bring you an interesting and odd arcade game to wonder at.
It’s been awhile since the Merm has brought us something weird and fun to look at, and wow, this one’s really weird.
To get us started, you are free to interpret this as either a warning, a promise, or a money-back guarantee, but you should know going in that this is a journey that ends with this upstanding member of the community right here:
They’re a stunner, aren’t they? And they live for the great taste of robots. But let’s start from the beginning.
Hole Land is a shooter, and apparently the only game made by the Spanish company Tecfri. Wikipedia tells us it was only released in Japan, possibly because it came out in 1984, and the arcade scene in the US was falling apart.
Consider for a moment the concept. Hole Land. Land of Holes. Certainly a theme that bears contemplation. It seems that you are an invader to this land, a gaily-colored robot that runs back and forth across the bottom of the screen, that shoots upward at a horde of adorably, and understandably, angry monsters of various sorts, in order to claim it away for things that aren’t monsters, or holes.
The land itself is against you: volcanoes in the background launch rocks at your droid with suspicious accuracy, and the monsters throw bombs down at it. Getting hit by projectiles doesn’t destroy your ‘bot, it just disables it for a few seconds. A little guy runs on-screen to fix your problem and allow you to resume blasting after a short delay. If a rock hits you, it smashes your head down into your torso, and you have to push the fire button rapidly to decrush yourself.
The game consists of three boards, that cycle. In board one, the monsters (called “Silfoos”es and “Xagart”s) all run down from the top of the screen. Because it’s a classic-era arcade game, they have a odd system to their attack: They wind their way down in a curious way, akin to the Centipede, moving all the way to one side, dropping a levels, then taking another horizontal pass.
This gives you many opportunities to shoot them, but they’re a little cleverer than the standard video game oppono-target: they duck into the holes repeatedly as they pass, and your shots will miss if they’re in a hole, which is often. They’re also smart enough to stay in a hole if you keep shooting at it while it’s hidden. While they make a horizontal trip across the grid, if you hit the lead monster of a line, it causes the others to reverse direction, which may be good or bad depending on how far they’ve gotten. Unless the wave is almost over: then they progress to the bottom of the grid for a pass, then, as if dissatisfied that you haven’t killed them yet, sprint across one more time without even bothering with the holes.
If, after so many opportunities, you still haven’t fried one of them, it’ll take a run across the screen on your level. Your robot is blessed with the power of jumping, and you must leap over it to avoid losing a life.
The problems though are: you’re probably focused on shooting at its associates still falling, or dodging the bombs they throw or rocks from the volcanoes from the top of the screen, or if you’ve been hit you might not be able to jump it. If multiple monsters made it through it might not even be possible to leap over them all. If you don’t make it over a monster, it knocks the robot’s bottom half off, a type of damage your mechanical assistant seems unable to repair, so scratch one life. Helpfully, if you’ve already made it far into the wave when that happens, the game will advance you to the next level as a consolation.
Those bombs and rocks, from the monsters and volcanoes, are your biggest problems. They fall down with great speed, and bounce around too, and if one hits you when the monsters are low enough on the screen the chances are slim you’ll get repaired before one of them uses your lower half as a kickball. Despite all the chances that the monsters give you to shoot them, Hole Land is a dangerous place, and it took several tries for me to get through even the first three screens.
The second board is similar to the first. The monsters are “Kiles” and “Morfos” for some reason. The screen is a lot darker, making it harder to see the monsters and the bombs that fall down.
But then comes the third board, where the game changes up a lot. Now the grid of holes is gone, replaced by a few scattered openings, but dominated by a big imposing crater at the top of the screen. There’s some more new monsters, “Microons,” and some unnamed colleagues that I assume are also Microonian. They don’t hide in the holes, but instead parade around the screen in Galaga-like patterns, giving you a good chance to plug them as they pass by.
Sometimes they run straight down at you on their last pass, to try to overwhelm your gun before you can incinerate their monsterly asses.
On this level there are also little rat creatures that hide in the holes, waiting for the end of the level where the run in from the wings for their one pass at tearing up your droid. And there are spiders that hang down from threads, that can’t be shot, and will hold your robot in place for a few seconds if they touch you.
But all this is just in preparation for the main event: their boss.
In 1984 boss monsters were not yet in vogue, yet Hole Land certainly has a memorable one.
It’s not named in the game’s intro. I have put some effort into trying to come up with a suitable name. I thought of Testicules, rhymes with Hercules, but it looks like it’d be pronounced like “molecules.” Gonad Man is a possibility, but it’s obviously not a man; it may not even be male, technically, but Gonad Person doesn’t have the same ring. Scrotor has already been used by Mystery Science Theater 3000. As a brainstorming exercise, and for your own entertainment, I invite you to come up with your own name for this globular goblin.
Whatever its name, once it has emerged from its Hole, the fight is on. It advances straight down, slowly. Your job is to shoot out its jagged, pointy teeth, one by one. It feels like it takes multiple hits each, but in fact each tooth takes only one shot. It just has to hit it dead on; shots that don’t strike a tooth right in its middle have no effect. You also must knock out all of its lower teeth, every one, before any hits to upper teeth will register.
While you’re blasting away, it’s ominously stomping its way down towards you, KA-WUMP KA-WUMP, following your movements with its bloodshot eyes, and throwing rocks from its hands. It’s aim isn’t good, it can only really throw straight down or at specific angles to the left and right, but it can throw from either hand, and as it gets menacingly closer its rocks get harder to avoid. Hits don’t damage or destroy your robot, but they do knock it away, making you have to scramble back over to get in more shots, but likely getting back just in time to be hit by the next rock.
If it gets all the way down, it stomps to the side to catch your robot, then it eats it, its hands working with the effort of crunching it to bits:
But the best part is if you succeed in shooting out all of its teeth. While your robot jumps around in inane joy, your now toothless foe sits, defeated and sad. While it might be a grotesque testicle monster from out of a giant hole in the ground, it’s gracious in failure and acknowledges your accomplishment, with a synthesized voice no less. Civility is not dead in Hole Land!
Here is my playthrough, if you’re curious what this all looks like in action:
Better yet, you could have a look at this video from classic gaming Youtuber Zerst, who hosts plays of lots of obscure and bizarre old arcade games and whose channel was where I first found out about it, and who made it through all five difficulty levels. There is no ending other than the Congratulations screen at the end of each level; it probably cycles endlessly from there.
I don’t know if I could add much more about it than this. It’s very hard, it’s difficult knocking out all of the boss monster’s teeth before it eats you, and on later levels the volcanoes’ rock deluge is incessant. But they really don’t make them like this any more. The time window for the making of this kind of crazy arcade game was pitifully short. Even relatively simple games take so much time and person-power to construct that, unless one’s just doing it as a hobby, willfully chasing bizarre concepts will probably turn away most of the gaming public, and that’s a shame.
Well, that’s all on this one. I bid you all a fond farewell, coming from the Land of Holes!
The question of how vulnerable ghosts move, after Pac-Man has eaten a Power Pellet (Energizer), isn’t covered in as much detail. It’s still as accurate as the rest of the information in the document, but its implications are left for the reader to explore. Well, RGMEx has explored it.
Vulnerable ghosts move pseudo-randomly, through an interesting process. The game has a RNG (random number generator) that’s reset at the start of every level, that cycles through a period of 8,192 values. Vulnerable ghost movement is the only thing in the game that it’s used for, but it isn’t applied directly. Instead, it’s used as a pointer into the game’s own code, and the value of the address it finds is used to determine how the ghost moves.
A result of this is that not all directions are chosen equally. But further, and more importantly, if the direction chosen isn’t available, the ghost tries the next direction in a clockwise order. If that one’s not possible, it tries the next, until it finds one that works.
These two facts combine to give a definite bias to the directions that frightened ghosts move. Retro Game Mechanics Explained then ran the numbers and figured out where scared ghosts tend to go. It’s interesting, even slightly useful, information.
News flash: there is one UmJammer Lammy Now arcade machine remaining in the world!
News flash: by the way, there used to be an UmJammer Lammy arcade machine!
The news of both comes to us from the account of Youtuber UnEricYockey (12 minutes), in the form of a short documentary on the game’s history and, due to poor performance on location test, what is probably its sole surviving unit:
We recently posted about Rodney Greenblat’s early obscure Playstation title Dazzeloids, made a year or two before his and Nana-On Sha’s breakout hit Parappa the Rapper. Parappa became something of a media franchise, spawning a much-overdue sequel on the Playstation 4 and an anime series. UmJammer Lammy was Parappa’s original sequel, that brought the same kind of call-and-response gameplay to guitars.
UmJammer Lammy starred Lammy, an insecure young lamb and front-woman for the band Milkcan, who becomes a rock goddess when a guitar is in her hands. Play structure is similar to Parappa, giving the player a series of increasingly unlikely situations that they have to escape somehow by playing music: a dream, putting out a fire, taking care of babies, flying an airplane, making a chainsaw sculpture, and escaping Hell itself (or, getting off an island, in overseas versions), before ending with the most dire situation of all: a public performance in front of a stadium full of people. Yikes! You can do it Lammy!
Production values were a bit less than Parappa, but Lammy and her friends were, indeed are, still engaging and wonderful, and the PS1 game is worth giving a try if you’re at all a fan of Parappa and his world. You can play as Parappa in an unlockable mode after you win, and all of the game’s tracks were mixed as funky remakes! Sadly I can tell you that Parappa’s lines had nowhere near as much flow as they did in his first game, but speaking as one of the few US players who bought a copy of UmJammer Lammy, jamming with her is a great time.
That should be enough information on Lammy’s game. But, how did UmJammerLammy Now come about? The video tells us that the Namco System 12 arcade board is pretty much an original Playstation in an arcade format, and Namco wanted to get some games in Japanese arcades quickly to compete with Konami’s rhythm game dominance.
While the gameplay of the arcade version is similar to the PS1 edition, there are some notable differences, including a surprising number of extra cutscenes featuring the various business ventures of Joe Chin, the antagonist of Parappa the Rapper. The arcade game has been dumped for preservation purposes, and all of its cutscenes are demonstrated in a Youtube video, also on UmEricYockey’s channel (23 minutes):
There’s so much weird Parappa lore in this weird and obscure arcade game! And Lammy’s crippling social anxiety truly makes her a heroine for our age.
Waxy points us to a post on the blog The History Of How We Play (at thehistoryofhowweplay.wordpress.com, natch) explaining the practice of arcade game developers putting their initials on the default vanity boards of arcade machines, as some small way of getting their names into a public piece of software they had created, at a time when many companies tried to keep that knowledge secret. As the article says, this process slowly receded, as both arcade games relied less on high score chasing for their appeal, and as arcade games began to get actual credit sequences for players to see.
Dr. Sparkle’s epic, Sisyphean journey through the entire library of the Nintendo Famicom/NES, Chrontendo is back! This episode has the subtitle, “The games will get worse until morale improves,” and is it ever fitting. Here it is, more about it beneath:
This episode presents ten games from June of 1990, well into the glut of NES games when many companies with no business being in the games business dipped in their toes, much as they did at the end of the Atari 2600’s reign. Even though Nintendo was supposedly guiding the library with their benevolent white-gloved hand, those of us who were alive then and lived through it know better.
Bandit Kings of Ancient China (a.k.a.. Suikoden): Dr. S has some fun with the opening of this one, where he confuses it with a different, much later, much prettier game called Suikoden. This one is another of Koei’s many historical sim strategy games, ports of computer games. These games aren’t actually bad, but they are definitely an acquired taste, and they’ll destroy you if you aren’t prepared. I wonder how these games look internally? There doesn’t exactly seem to be a huge Koei historical strategy sim romhacking scene. Internally I imagine them being a giant maze of 8-bit math routines and text tables. If NES-era JRPGs are anything to go by, lots of menu-based games like this are riddled with subtle bugs. Someone should look into that. Someone other than me.
Kickle Cubicle: Also not that bad a game, a fairly charming port of an arcade puzzle game. Someone should have told Irem that no one was making good NES games around this time, because this is a highlight of the episode. Sadly it’s not to Dr. Sparkle’s tastes, but he admits it’s not really that bad. (Apparently he got beat up by Koke the Eyepatch-Wearing Chicken.)
Moero!! Judo Warriors: A judo sim from Jaleco’s “Moero” series (which doesn’t contain Moero Twinbee as one might think or hope). Many of the Moero sports games got localized to the US under different names (the baseball one became Bases Loaded). It’s largely a redo of an earlier Jaleco judo simulation.
Jeopardy! 25th Anniversary Edition: Agh, another of the avalanche of Rare-developed game show adaptions from the NES era. At least Jeopardy still exists today so you roughly know what’s going on, as opposed to the hates of Double Dare or Remote Control. No great shakes, no, but at least look at the spinning words “Anniversary Edition” on the title screen. Rare would often put that bit of unnecessary polish into their work. Despite their efforts though, this is not a game that plays well with a gamepad.
Cabal: an adaption of an arcade game, programmed by Rare. (But remember, there is no cabal!) You might call it an Operation Wolf-like, but with destructible terrain. On the NES it’s not a lightgun game, even though it looks like it wishes it were one.
Silk Worm: Another arcade port, on the NES is lacklustre side-scrolling shooter where you can play as a helicopter or a jeep. Keep in mind, as you watch the footage of this, that Super Mario Bros. 3 came out the year before in Japan.
Arkista’s Ring: the cover seems to promise at last the Zelda where you play as Zelda, but no, it’s not an exploration game at all. Not really bad, but not a system highlight. As Dr. Sparkle says, the game pulls a Ghosts ‘n Goblins on you, making you compete all the levels four times at higher difficulties. Hm.
Rad Racer II: Pretty much a track update of the original Nasir-developed Rad Racer, and Square’s last non-RPG game for a long time, as well as their last Famicom game. Rad Racer was a modest hit when Nintendo published it for the NES, so Square probably sought to capitalize on that with this US-only release.
Rocket Ranger: A port of the Cinemaware computer game. Cinemaware’s gimmick was making games that mimicked the experience of movies, and this one’s no different. In actual play it’s just a minigame collection within a simple strategy framework.
And as an extra, Dr. Sparkle presents his 1990 arcade round-up. Games covered are Sega’s Alien Storm, Moonwalker, GP Rider and Columns, Atari’s Batman, Race Drivin’ and Pit Fighter, Capcom’s Mercs, 1941 Counter Attack and Super Buster Bros., Konami’s Aliens and Parodius Da!, Namco’s Final Lap 2, Irem’s Air Duel, Williams’ Smash T.V., SNK’s Beast Busters, and-oh wow!-Seibu Kaihatsu’s Raiden!
The Pico-8 is the most popular fantasy game console by a wide margin. We’ve already linked to Josh “cortex” Millard’s Ennuigi, which is notable enough to have its own Wikipedia entry.
Ennuigi was more of an extended joke than a game, though, while Pico-8 Moon Patrol is no joke; it’s substantially harder than the original arcade game, putting you up against harder obstacles earlier. Sometimes it doesn’t feel fair when a flying saucer drops a bomb at such an angle that neither speeding up nor slowing down could have avoided it in time, although it’s possible, in this version, to shoot down the bomb before it strikes you.
Give it a try! This video is my best run to date, getting through the first three sectors: