Arcade Mermaid: Pepper II

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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.

About Exidy

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.

Arcade Mermaid: Amidar

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.

Amidakuji

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.

Level 6! Notice how all the lanes at the top are blocked off. You have to squeeze by when they’re taking horizontal routes or use the Jump button to get by them.

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!