Commentary


Untold Tales of The Arcade: Mission Secret

By Francesco-Alessio Ursini / March 14, 2008


I've played many arcade games in my life: sometimes just for the music (before it became easy to import OSTs), and sometimes because the mechanics were so smooth and well-designed that every play was a subtle and sublime experience. Everyone understands this with a title like Shinobi, but what about Rolling Thunder, Sly Spy, Crime City or Elevator Action Returns?



PART 1 - ROLLING THUNDER, MR. STEED AND MRS. PEEL: WHERE IS THE TARGET?


The first Rolling Thunder was far ahead of its time. Not because of the immensely cool music (jazz rearrangements courtesy of the Namco sound team, of course), the incredibly refined and obscenity-inducing action or the fluid sprites, but because of its introduction of a new genre and its focus on cool.


Rolling Thunder was published by Namco in 1986. The game is an homage to the Britannia-flavored spy series of the '60s. You control Albatross, a groovy special agent who has to defeat Geldra, a mysterious secret society whose members are actually synthetic robots manipulated by a deformed scientist. Rolling Thunder is the father of all side-scrolling run and guns. It's a simple game: you shoot (your bullets are limited), you jump, travel up stairs (if you can), and if you get hit twice by enemies or once by projectiles, you're dead.


I was nine, I think, and played it in 1986-1987, from early autumn till late winter. At that time there were still re-runs of "The Avengers" and other spy shows on TV, and it wasn't difficult to catch a random Michael Caine movie either -- all the better if he played as Harry Palmer. Of course there was also James Bond, back when the experience of seeing him set off on exotic adventures to save the world from some bizarre baddie still retained some novelty. Rolling Thunder was like playing as James Bond and Mr. Steed at the same time -- and I had the honor of playing one of the finest games ever in my uncle's arcade, only with crowds waiting behind me to do the same thing.


But what is the game about?


Time: there is never enough -- be fast or you won't complete most of the stages. There are two versions, "old" and "new", the earlier being tougher, with more time at your disposal, no extends and a lot of bugs. The new one with less bugs but also with less time, more bullets per room and nastier enemies.


This said, you should take the main theme song (via MAME ROM and M1 emulator) and put it on before going further. Better yet, put it on, go back to the beginning, and read again.


Rolling Thunder is about coolness. Later games may have more complex mechanics, but that's only because this was one hell of a genre-founder.


Rolling Thunder is about smoothness. It's not just a matter of shooting down every enemy before they attack, because every enemy can be incredibly aggressive. The game won't give you an excess of time -- scratch that, the time allotted is barely enough. You get 150 seconds per stage and you can clear the last three stages only if you're smooth, meaning not a single movement from your hands that isn't a flawless jump or perfect hit, and all the while you are constantly moving forward, of course.


It's a mad rush, and it can only be done if you know how to deal with giant bats, lava men, yellow dwarfs, black panthers -- do you see a pattern? It's not exactly like "The Avengers", my favorite Brit TV series, but more like a distorted version of "The Prisoner", with a mix of disturbingly psychedelic touches. Why go through this? Because, well, your work partner Leila was kidnapped by Mobbo, the green evil leader of Geldra, and you're the one who has the best shot to take down the hordes of caped clones. In order to conclude your mission, though, you have to be perfect.


Many games get hard once you start caring about your score -- Rolling Thunder is hard from the beginning, because Albatross is a wimp. He dies if he's touched or punched twice, and bullets, lasers, bombs, or falling into pits cause instant death, as anyone might expect. Now, if this is not enough, add jumping. Many of the leaps you are required to make are tight -- and they have to be. At some point you'll have to shoot a stream of bullets, then make a perfect jump immediately after, so while the bullets are still on screen you can advance and get on the first pixel of the next platform, while the still travelling bullets take down the dashing enemies. That's pretty hardcore, isn't it? Try doing it for 150 seconds, jumping up and down platforms, exploiting every single trick, and taking advantage of every bug that could save you a second or two!


You have to know most of the enemies in order of appearance, though a good chunk of them are random. For the first five stages, an enemy will wear a given uniform (i.e. green dress and white cape) and always use the same attack (low shot). During the second quintuplet of stages, they may try something else -- and frankly, you should avoid discovering what. Tempus fugit, they're torturing Leila, so it's best to hurry up.


And then there's the final stage. Picture hordes of all possible enemies, caped clones appearing from walls, and of course Mobbo himself.


Albatross is not a ninja like Joe Musashi; his jump seems always barely enough to go from the tip of one platform to the next. He's strong, so he can jump high, put a hand on the balcony above him and pull himself up, though if he doesn't make a jump he'll fall down and be exposed to attacks. Besides that, he needs to aim, so don't expect lightning-fast shots. It's not much, but it's enough, and if you know what you're doing every single movement is an act of grace.


It would be easy if you simply needed to jump half your maximum distance with no one bent on killing you, but that's not the way it goes. Everything is perfectly timed, and for every hundred times you fail and curse there'll be the 101st where you'll be flawless, performing a perfect jump after killing the enemy pixels just before they hit you. The smoothness and the elegance required are more than enough of a reward for your effort -- they're in fact the essence of arcade gaming itself.


Well, we've started with one hell of an action game. My martini is almost finished, so let's jump ahead three years. But let's stay in my uncle's arcade. And get another drink, of course.



PART 2 - AFTER RONNIE, THE BAD DUDES HAVE KIDNAPPED GEORGIE


Data East has never made masterpieces. Well, except for the Magical Drop games, but we're referring to the '90s. You've probably heard of Sly Spy, as Data East games had a wide distribution (had, as the company is sadly no more). The game itself is by the same group of Dragoninja, or "the bad dudes who had kidnapped Ronnie" (Reagan). If you've never laughed at this line I question your arcade experience. Better yet, go hide in a dark corner, please.


At the swimming pool again, in the winter of 1990. I needed a game for a quick post-training play. Luckily, in the cold and dark afternoons of that winter I found two excellent companions: Sly Spy and Ninja Gaiden (which we'll speak of in another installment). Sly Spy is a good title, but not outstanding. Data East, in the '80s, didn't have the habit of animating their games too well, and it must be said that their soundtracks weren't too hot either. However, Sly Spy captured the Britannia flavor very well, by virtue of the main theme and a design that cleverly ripped off Bond movies.


The game has tigers, sharks (and two scuba diving levels), Draxo (the Nazi-Communist guy who throws the hat), enemies in jet packs and the golden gun, a special weapon which destroys everything in sight, obtainable by collecting the golden power-ups.


The game itself is simple: get bullets, shoot the baddies, get the random jet-pack, shoot the giant shark's carcass for points (a bug that gives you 10k per hit) and so forth. It may be said that the game looks cheap at the beginning, but, so long as you don't put yourself in chaotic situations, managing the huge amount of enemies is not that difficult. Most of the time you'll be shooting like a madman because of the silly amount of enemies coming at you (only Metal Slug surpasses it in terms of characters on screen, probably). Another interesting feature is the ability to abuse the invulnerabity induced by bouncing against enemies.


From Shinobi on, bouncing against enemies has been implemented in various ways; in this special case, you'll get an invulnerability window of about two seconds that is not easily discernible by any visual signs. In English: once you bounce, you will be invulnerable to everything (you can even walk on spikes without getting damaged). However, your sprite won't change, so you have to get used to the exact timing, since the game won't signal to you when the invulnerability window ends.


A major reason for my passion for the game lies in the atmosphere. I may have said it before, but I like to play some games in specific parts of the year. This one is no exception. There's something pretty groovy about playing a cool game during a cold winter. You just want to play something cool to maintain the necessary mental temperature. After all these years, Sly Spy, in style and mechanics, is a winter game for me.


The game is hectic only if you proceed in a reckless way. Time is, to the say the least, excessive. So, unless you want to make it difficult, you have to proceed slowly and, most importantly, exploit a few tricks in order to get your mission accomplished. While not reaching the peaks of the other titles mentioned here, it was, and still is, a cool enough game to play for those who crave a quick dive into a James Bond-flavored world.



PART 3 - A SPIN-OFF STARRING THE MIAMI VICE RIP-OFF GUYS


Sixteen springs ago I was in my uncle's arcade. My father had the healthy habit of playing Special Criminal Investigation, the second chapter of the Chase H.Q. saga. I've never been too fond of driving games, partly due to the fact that their nature is the apotheosis of the coin-eating attitude. Sure, all arcade games can be coin-munchers if you are not very good at them, but driving games tend to be way too short, even if you can complete them.


I had a limited amount of free credits as a kid, and since in an arcade time is money to an extent, I didn't like to pay for a short experience. However, I was fascinated by this Taito series. I arrived at my arcade one day after swimming practice and saw my father chatting with my uncle about the latest batch of games. He saw me and said, "Ehi, sonny, since you don't like driving games, they've made the action equivalent for you. It's upstairs." He handed me my credits with a smile. A bit puzzled, I thanked him and went upstairs to the sit-down cabs.


Before delving into this next arcade experience, let me clarify a few things: Chase H.Q. and its three sequels are an homage to "Miami Vice". If you don't know "Miami Vice" you've skipped the worst [Read: best. --Ed] part of the '80s. In any case, Taito created this very successful driving game where you had to arrest criminals by bashing onto their cars with your Porsche 928. At some point in 1989, they decided to give Raymond Broady and Tony Gibson a chance to finally shoot at the baddies -- in Crime City.


This is an action game: you shoot, jump and kill criminals, along with doing other neat stuff. You have an energy bar, so if you get hit you'll lose one energy point out of eight and become momentarily invincible, so the game is much easier to handle than Rolling Thunder. If you're close to your enemies, you can either take them down with a punch, or roll against them. If you press the jump button more than once while doing a high jump (i.e. command move: up/up-left/up-right+jump) you'll perform a somersault which will kill or damage any enemy. In Crime City, you're one hell of an acrobatic cop!


You can also just shoot, of course. Bullets are limited, but you have a few interesting weapons: the basic gun, a rifle, a "piercing gun" (at least that's what it does), and a three-way shot gun. Add to that mix a hand-grenade and a beer to replenish your energy, plus a kevlar jacket that will make you momentarily invincible. Of course, this is a Taito game, which means you have to be fast, since you are not given too much time to clear the stages. Fast and action-packed... what else do you need?


Music, of course, and end credits. Well, unfortunately Crime City seems to lack proper ending credits; when you complete it you get movie-like credits showing who acted in the game, and that's all. Maybe someone can clear up a mystery I've been trying to solve since my youth by letting me know who did the soundtrack for this game. My bet is Yasuhisa Watanabe, known as "Yack". Yes, he was a Zuntata member at the time. If he's not the author, maybe it was MAR (Masahiko Tataki)?


The soundtrack for this game, if you had ever any doubts, is a charm. Picture the feeling of a TV series in the '80s, with its urban settings and yuppie-esque style. Add the unique sounds of Zuntata and, more than anything, the typical Yack sound (I'm taking his authorship for granted), and you get a perfect blend of late-'80s sophisticated pop with a bit of added melancholy.


There's one aspect of loved games, or perhaps of love in general, that is based on the first glance: you see someone -- or some thing -- and you know it's love. Maybe you won't get any love back, or maybe time passes and you wonder how you got so high (or drunk, as per my experience with human beings) during that first glance. In this case, however, the first glance was absolutely prophetic. Sixteen springs later I still take a brief shot at this game on a daily basis.


Crime City itself isn't a masterpiece but I would say the design is interesting and it's nice that it offers a lot of opportunities for legalized violence. The pace is fast and the difficulty curve is smooth. As I said, if you get hit, you will lose one bar of energy but gain a couple of seconds of invincibility: used wisely, you can actually cancel attacks. Consider that all the enemies are very aggressive and that time is short, and you have an explosive mix.


But, alas, the game is not a masterpiece. In these modern times, full of flamboyant and bombastic propaganda by the money-driven media, what everyone wants are "life-changing postmodern experiences." But let's put that nonsense aside and get back to a very basic point: a game can be immensely fun without being perfect. You can enjoy flawless mechanics for years, beyond music or graphics, because, in videogames, that's what really counts.


Now let's fast forward to the summer of 2001, back when I had just discovered MAME. One of the first games I looked for, of course, was Crime City. After a few more versions, the MAME team added it. One glance later I was right back in the spring of 1989.



PART 4 - LEILA AND ALBATROSS ARE BACK


Now one simple recipe before we continue: it's called "The American", a simple aperitif that was invented in the Florence of the '30s. It got its name because of its astounding success among tourists from the US. Take half a glass of red Martini, half a glass of white Martini, just a sprinkle of soda, one slice of lemon and one of orange. Shake a bit, and serve with some ice, just enough to keep it cool.


Namco, back in the pre-Tekken days, was one hell of a company. In 1990, they decided to produce a sequel to one of their best games. It's 199x (damn those '90s games!) and someone is shutting off all satellites orbiting the Earth. Chaos ensues, and since the resurrected Geldra is discovered behind the diabolical plot, there's only one thing to do: call agents Leila and Albatross.


Rolling Thunder 2 is one hell of a sequel. Learning from other titles in the genre, this second chapter has a few tweaks that make it a bit less demanding and more relaxed than the original, yet while still maintaining smooth action and a fast pace. Enemies have a new look and new attacks (well, at least some of them) but will always use a given attack depending on their uniform. This time, you fight in two different locations: Miami (and the secret Geldra base below the sea) and Egypt (the secret base here being behind the pyramids, of course). You have to stop the nefarious Geldra boys before they launch their final attack, and to do this you'll have to be every bit as perfect as in the first chapter.


We're in 1990, remember? It was a warm summer and me and my family were on vacation in a beautiful place near Amalfi (which is not very far from Naples and Capri). A kid like me couldn't stay too long without videogames of course, and by the end of the first day I'd managed to find a very good arcade. To my surprise, one of their new titles was Rolling Thunder 2. I was in love after the first play.


One of the things I always liked about Rolling Thunder 2 is that it's slightly easier. It's a tad different and allows for a few more errors than the first chapter, but the most important thing is that you have some room for pauses, even though, overall, you still need to go at breakneck speed. Sometimes it can be frustrating, and the last stage is probably one of the most difficult ever in an action game, especially considering the pretty hardcore tricks you'll need to pull off in order to clear it.


Rolling Thunder 2 is actually faster than the first installment. Enemies are quicker, more aggressive and harder to kill, and there's also less ammunition to kill them with. Luckily, you can still freely bounce against enemies, giving you a better chance to take them down.


Even now, in the third millennium, this game looks excellent. It would be easy to just say that the zooming and parallax effects were incredibly well-done for their time, but the truth is that, in this age, when the few 2D games still being released lack even the most basic of effects, featuring shallow backgrounds with no sense of depth or interaction, Rolling Thunder 2 still shines.


But there's one final note that must be added to this celebration: music. Are you surprised that Rolling Thunder 2 has a great soundtrack? This is probably the first professional work by Sasou Ayako -- as always, take the M1 emulator and enjoy a groovy, Bond-esque score. From the swift, jazzy songs of stage 1 and 2, you go to the inner core of the sea base while humming "Where is the Target?", the absolutely majestic stage 4 song. Few titles have such great timing between music and game events. The jazzy solo part of "Where is the target?" kicking in while you cruise through Geldra's headquarters is one of the classiest moments in arcade gaming -- that is to say, in gaming.


In case this is still not enough, you really have to play through the final stage, one of the hardest challenges around. You can't kill all the enemies, and bullets won't suffice, because there are many enemies that take more than two bullets to die. Not only that, but there are also no checkpoints and barely enough time: it's start to finish, no excuses.


Picture the lovely coasts of Italy in summer, an arcade on the seaside and a young kid who found his most desired sequel. The vacations didn't last forever, so I spent most of those lovely summer evenings playing the second chapter of Albatross and Leila's adventures like a fiend. On the final evening, I was successful in clearing the game, one of the sweetest pleasures in my life. It was a perfect example of arcade dolce vita.


Thankfully, my uncle received the game in the early days of September, so I could continue enjoying the swinging adventures of my two favorite special agents.



PART 5 - I CAN ONLY THINK IN JOB


It should be clear by now that I'm a bit of a Taito fanboy. I'm also a martini fanboy. Combine these two passions with a lazy, hot Sunday afternoon and you get one unforgettable mix. At this point, we go a bit ahead and a bit back, depending on where we place our point of view: in short, we're back in 1994. Where? The swimming pool to be exact, my other favorite place for gaming (and for peeping at hot girls lazily tanning in the sunny summer morning, but that's a subject for another installment).


You probably know the Taito title Elevator Action. One interesting thing Taito did with their F3 hardware in the mid-'90s was to recreate many of their classic games. "Taito" and "classic game" is a combination that has generated a lot of interesting results, but I will focus on one specific example for this last part of today's episode.


Elevator Action Returns (or Elevator Action II, depending on the version) is like its precursor, more or less. After eleven years, and many other action games, this sequel plays more like an action game in the sense that the platforming part (i.e. the going up and down in the building) has been toned down from the second stage on.


So what's the game about? Of course, there's a terrorist organization that wants to conquer the world. In order to do this, the lunatics go around blowing up buildings, airports, etc. or acquiring nuclear weapons from the former Soviet Union. It goes without saying that you won't let them do this, since you're of course one of the best secret agents around.


This game is slow. I wouldn't say that it has a slow pace, but unless you're playing for score the overall rhythm is somewhat slow. You have a lot of time to clear each stage, the action is relaxed and all the sprites are pretty small, so you always have a view of a pretty big area of the current stage. Of course none of this is a problem, as the game has been designed accordingly.


You can choose between three characters, and once you develop your style, you have more than a few creative ways to take down punks. One way is to shoot them, and this time you can also aim 30 degrees above your head. Another way is to use close-range attacks, which double the points obtained. If you're in a risky situation, or can take down a baddie before he even realizes his impending doom, you'll get four times the points. You can also tap to run, something very useful in some situations. If you jump you will also hit enemies in this way and, unless they require multiple hits, they will be killed.


That said, let's focus again on the pace. You can take it easy and move around slowly because the buildings are big and your characters small. You'll need a few seconds to go from side to side anyway. The enemies will usually aim at you, take their time and shoot. Forget about enemies dashing left and right, they know they're safer from a distance because they fear your punches. As I mentioned, close range attacks are useful to double, or even quadruple, your points. In this game, enemies will actually allow you to close in and punch them to oblivion, so it lacks the hectic pace found in more "bullet-based" action titles. However, the trick, if you want to play for score, is to quickly clear the stage and then maneuver to a single spot where you can... well, start milking for points by killing spawning enemies using close-range attacks. There is basically one spot per stage where you can do this, so yes, it's all about being fast and then spending a few minutes per stage milking.


However, the game is still incredibly successful by virtue of its slowness, which helps create the sensation of a spy story in the style of "Mission: Impossible". Most of the time you sneak behind an enemy, take him down with a punch, move on to get your data and take the elevator down to escape. As this happens, you get a feeling of secrecy and stealth, reflected by the extra time spent to clear a stage. At other times you may suddenly need to run through a stage, kill dozens of enemies and suddenly, abruptly, move to a section mainly based on platforms, where baddies will suddenly appear behind you and fire bullets that can only be dodged by perfectly timed jumps. In short, in this game, you can pass from a fast to a slow-paced section in a matter of half a screen.


Elevator Action Returns is all about the cinematic style, something that works wonders when complemented by brilliant design with the proper pace, and, of course, by a masterful OST. It goes without saying that we're speaking of Zuntata, but which member? Well, since I'm the one who is writing this article, you can be sure it will have something to do with Yasuhisa Watanabe (well, it could also have to do with OGR or MAR, or, uh, any other Zuntata member). Well, this is another masterpiece of his. This one can be defined as lounge music, in the sense that it's more or less reminiscent of the spy movies we've talked about so far.


Since we've spoken so far of a cinematic style, the OST blends flawlessly with the rest of the game. Let's take for instance, again, the second stage: the first section has a slow style. Picture one of those summer days in which you can do two things: sunbathe in the garden of the swimming pool, or play Elevator Action Returns in its bar. The music slowly builds up until at some point tons of enemies start to attack and the theme suddenly changes to a much faster pace. After clearing that section, the song slows down to a low, menacing hum while you clear the last platforms before the end of the stage. I think this article is best read in the summer. Maybe the best thing to do, in the sunny moments of the day, when the temperature is too high to think of important issues, once your glass is full, is to have a run of Elevator Action Returns.



AND THE CONCLUSION IS


I've played many good games in my life, some of them being more than just good. Some of them about grooviness or style, a bit like the difference between a cocktail and a good cocktail. While a game can be good and a charm to play, some games have the necessary quality of just being extra smooth. Those are the ones I like to return to again and again, in order to appreciate them with the added luxury of a good cocktail by my side. So let's go back to old classics and see how they mix. How they mix with other old classics: a synesthesic experience that makes my life... cooler, to say the least.