Untold Tales of The Arcade: Episode 1
By Francesco-Alessio Ursini / February 26, 2008
I've spent most of my life in L'Aquila, a small city northeast of Rome. My uncle also lives here, and has had a successful arcade since '82. I spent most of my gaming youth in said arcade, playing many titles and having fun with many people; between rounds of Street Fighter II and Puyo Puyo, I mastered games like Darius Gaiden and Rayforce. When I was not playing in my uncle's arcade, it was because there was another good game at the arcade of the swimming pool I went to. Sometimes I even went to bars or pizza joints because they had a game I wanted to play. I often found strange and bizarre games in the weirdest places, like a certain Chack'n Pop cabinet in a small bar near my old home. Having mentioned this, we can go back in time and reminisce about one of my first loves...
CHACK'N POP, or: WHY TAITO MAKES "GAMES WITH HEART"
When I was little kid I lived in another part of L'Aquila which had a small bar, the kind of place that draws its clientele from the local and peaceful citizens of the area. I was a little pest who couldn't resist the draw of videogames. Back in the '80s, it was common for non-arcade places that drew crowds (bars, pubs, pizza joints, etc.) to have two or three cabs with videogames. Or, more often than not, without videogames, since most of the time they were just rented by arcades or distributors, and if they didn't work all you could do was curse.
Back in '84, this little bar had a couple of cabinets in the corner featuring two interesting games: Chack'n Pop and Popeye.
Nintendo's Popeye is a well-known classic... but what about Chack'n Pop? The game is emulated in MAME but the colours are wrong (I can't recall the exact look, but it must have been a bad ROM dump). The game is basically a mix between puzzler and platformer. The evil monstas have stolen your hearts and you have to get them back and return them to your fiancée... but you often get caught in their trap and end up falling into a pit.
If it sounds familiar, it's because the game features some of the enemies later seen in Bubble Bobble. The platforms also share the design of Bubble Bobble, and your main character is a cute yellow mascot that would later appear in the Puzzle Bobble games (the "referee" in versus mode). Your little yellow character can jump and move left or right, as well as stick to "ceilings" (the upper part of a single platform) as long as they're within your reach. You can also release gas bombs that will explode after a couple of seconds, killing all characters within their cloud (including yourself), like in Bomberman.
Your goal is to free the hearts which are trapped in scattered cages and make your way to the exit. Since the stages are quickly filled with monstas this task is not easy, and you have a limited amount of time until the evil mage closes the exit.
Let's go back to '84 then; I was a young kid (six years old) during this phase of development in the gaming industry. New games and ideas were appearing at a very fast rate, to say the least. As a kid, I was usually attracted by colourful graphics and spaceships. Chack'n Pop was the first game that I enjoyed which featured cutesy graphics and what I could label an "anime flavour". I was also learning the basics of English at this time, and once I learned the words of the introduction, "Take back our hearts!", I couldn't avoid falling in love with the game and Mr. Chack's quest. Once the "cutesy graphics" aspect wore off, something else attracted my attention -- score.
This game is one of the first Taito games (if not the first) where having more monstas bapped ("killed" sounds so evil for such a cute game!) in a single explosion grants more points. Once I had learned the basics, I started examining various stages to improve my scores, often thinking of possible strategies while at school or during other boring activities.
In short, this is the game that sparked my passion for score-based gaming, a passion that only kept growing through the years, mainly thanks to Taito and their "games with heart".
However, my true passion had yet to come into my life as a gamer, but you'll hear about that later; for now let's go two years into the future to meet my first hori shooting love...
HYPER DYNE SIDE ARMS, or: THE BATTLE FOR SURVIVAL HAS BEGUN!
1986. I was eight and had a lot of spare time for playing games. At the time, I was a swimmer and the bar in the swimming pool complex usually had three or four cabs. I had a habit of coming in an hour before practice began. One fateful day, I met one of my first loves: a side-scrolling shoot 'em up by Capcom featuring two hyper-cool mechas and an excellent weapons system. That game was Side Arms.
In Side Arms you control a mecha which, like the character in Section Z (also by Capcom), can shoot to its left or right by pressing the first or second button respectively. Some enemies will release power-ups which will activate the various weapons at your disposal, and you have a third button to choose between them.
Now, many gamers associate hori (short for 'horizontal') shooters with classic games like Gradius and R-Type. My experience with this sub-genre, however, is different: Side Arms and Darius (the three-screen mammoth) were the first horis I played, so Side Arms, for me, was one of the most exciting experiences ever. As a kid growing up in the late '70s and early '80s I watched a lot of sci-fi anime with giant robots and mechs, futuristic vehicles and epic battles. When I saw Side Arms for the first time, I was hypnotized by the possibility of finally playing as a mecha.
Side Arms features some of the fastest and most frantic action of its age, with tons of enemies that pop out from every corner, huge bad-ass bosses, gorgeous graphics, and the ability, in two-player mode, to call in another mecha in order to form a super-robot, with one player controlling it while the other shoots! Not only that, but you can also rack up massive points by finding hidden icons, such as a cow, movi-chan (the little white robot), and other standard Capcom icons.
Side Arms is fast. Very fast. Forget slow ships, memorizing routes and safe spots -- this game defined the term 'manic' long before Cave started doing their brand of shooters. Bullets are fast too, with enemies usually firing several of them at you from all sides, something that really made me sweat a lot.
After eighteen years, I still think this game features the best weapon system ever, even if one of the weapons (the shotgun) is pretty weak. I still think that having a number of different weapons at my disposal is a great idea, especially when implemented well. While most players used the machinegun for most of the game, I would switch weapons according to the section to be cleared, a style of play that reappeared in later Toaplan and Cave games, but in a different form.
Since we've already started talking about scoring, Side Arms also had a lot of secret items, which are revealed by shooting at the scenery. The idea of uncovering bonuses or special power-ups has always been a favourite of mine; it allows some freedom to your scoring strategies and gives the possibility, once you discover new bonuses, to play the game again for score.
It was not until 2002 and 2004 that I discovered two other scoring tricks. In 2002, thanks to the internet, esoteric scoring techniques started circulating outside Japan. I won't spoil all of them here, but I will say that one of them involves suiciding to get extra points... From a historical perspective, I was amazed to discover that such a complex and controversial technique was implemented first in one of my most beloved games!
Side Arms was a sort of loyal companion for most of my gaming life. I played it a lot back in '86 and '87, and had a chance to play it again for a couple of months in '94. Thanks to emulation, I can play it again and again, discovering new secrets in the third millennium, so to speak. Few titles have bewitched me in such a strong manner as this; discovering its secrets little by little has made me appreciate it more and more with each passing year.
And since we're on the subject of secrets...
PSYCHIC 5, or: LET'S BEAT SATAN!
Psychic 5 is a pretty obscure title. It's one of those games that would be easily overlooked when getting a pizza or going to see a movie. The game has a strong Japanese style (back in '87 it wasn't *that* trendy to praise everything Japanese), brilliant mechanics and a wacky atmosphere. The player basically goes around as 5 ESPers (Extra Sensorial Power... ers) to beat up bad poltergeists that attack them as domestic objects, while they rescue food, and ultimately attempt to beat Satan, who lies at the centre of the vast building the game takes place in.
Psychic 5 is a free-roaming platformer with an elaborate scoring system typical of games in the '80s. To score, the player had to collect a lot of different bonuses -- some of them pretty complex secret ones -- while hammering the poltergeist-controlled objects. Your goal is to arrive at the central room and destroy a statue of Satan (yes, THE Satan), so that you can dispel all of the poltergeists.
While doing this you can collect a lot of nice power-ups. You can acquire one of these objects by knocking down Zara, your typical ugly witch on a broom, and collecting her broom as a power-up. You can also discover secret rooms that contain a British phone booth which you enter to call in your ESPer friends. And these are not even the wackiest things in the game.
I really did adore this game, and like its much more famous colleague, Rainbow Islands, it's at once a good example of Japanese design and a brilliant mix of original mechanics and a deep scoring system. As you can guess, I was already fascinated by heavily score-driven games by the time Psychic 5 came out, and with all its scattered food items and secret bonuses the game featured many different ways to score.
Throw in a wacky plot and '70s anime-like design, and you can easily see why I spent countless hours playing this game. It had taken months of playing before I could consistently get to the sixth boss when, just as I was beginning to get confident with my skills, my uncle decided to get rid of the cabinet! I was really tempted to kill him, as I desperately wanted to play the game again and finally complete it, but luckily I restrained myself.
Let's now zoom ahead a few months.
Psychic 5 was published in '87, so we're in '88 at this point. I spotted the game in a small pool club and, after a few more months of practice, was finally able to complete it. I still hadn't uncovered many of the subtleties of the scoring system, but I had enjoyed the long, sometimes "physical" journey to clear it. What I liked most of all were the small details like the food-based bonuses (dishes like ramen, of course) and truly bizarre enemies, including card-shooting telephone cards possessed by poltergeists, and the mighty cigarette vending machine that wears sunglasses and fires cigarettes!
BACK TO THE PRESENT
I've played a lot of obscure, bizarre and great games in my arcade life. The three I've covered in this first article are just the those I wanted to talk about when I wrote this. It would be truly difficult to name all of the odd games I've come across. Sometimes I discover that I really liked certain games because of very trivial factors, like graphics or (in the case of some Taito titles and their Zuntata soundtracks) music. There are some games, however, that I will never stop playing, simply because of their excellent mechanics and their ability to age well from a purely visual and aural point of view. After all, truly great games are like fine wine: the older they get, the tastier they become. I'd like to thank you then for letting me be your gaming sommelier and allowing me to introduce you to some of the finest games around.