Untold Tales of The Arcade: Taito Think Tank

By Francesco-Alessio Ursini / March 30, 2008

I've played a lot of arcade games in my life. Most of them have been Taito games.

Ah, Taito. They created a shortage of 100-yen coins in 1978 with Space Invaders, but times have changed and they have since largely moved out of the arcade market, with the exception of the occasional dedicated machine. Shortly after, a group of former programmers, who had worked on Raystorm and G Darius, decided to start their own company, G.rev. But that's another story -- this is an homage to Taito, so let's celebrate and promulgate the superbness of their magnificent and glorious arcade heritage!

Maybe I'm overstating things. But, well, it's called the "Taito Think Tank", not the "Objective Evaluation of Taito Games", so you're supposed to take all of my comments cum grano salis. And maybe not. That's something you will discover by playing the games yourselves. So let's start the celebration!


There is one thing that can be said about Taito that should be enough to make them win. What they'll win, I don't know, but it will make them the winners, okay?

That thing is this: Taito are the makers of Bubble Bobble.

Yes, the two bubble dragons, Bub and Bob, are the genial creation of Taito designers, inspired by (unless I'm mistaken) the genial intuition of designers V.A.P. and Peacock, to be exact. The basic idea behind the game is pure genius: shoot bubbles from your mouth (with a hilarious animation) and capture your enemies inside them. And after that? Hit the bubbles with your horns, of course!

If you never played this title in an arcade, you should seriously question the purpose of your life. Don't finish reading this article -- go outside, find a place with a Diamond cab (or whatever it is they're called) and check if it contains Bubble Bobble.

Bubble Bobble is pure bliss.

While some score mechanics work better in the sequel, Rainbow Islands, Bubble Bobble is still one of the most elegant and complex engines ever. Surprised? You shouldn't be, as the '80s had one genre as its supreme ruler, as far as score-fests went: the platformer. I have already covered another masterpiece, Psychic 5, in Untold Tales' first installment. Bubble Bobble came a year earlier, and shared the same philosophy about scoring: lots of secrets, big rewards for one-life performances, and a killer rhythm.

Actually, Bubble Bobble is from the older generation of platformers -- no scrolling, one screen full of enemies, destroy them all and go to next stage, etc. -- and in this case, you have a hundred stages to get through before you arrive at the bottom of the pit and save your parents from the evil drunken sorcerer. While doing this, you can obtain a shitload of bonuses, secret doors, special items and random stuff. It works like Chack'n Pop, and they have recycled this mechanic in many other games, one of them being Rayforce. Taito equals exponential scores.

I think that it was the summer of 1986 when I saw this game for the first time. It goes without saying that the queue was incredible. I had to wait about an hour, and people were playing in tag play the whole time.

My first impression was of pure violence as the other person was credit-feeding. If I wanted to play, I had to join them -- at the 91st stage! I don't remember what stage that is, but I remember it being brutal. My few credits lasted a few more stages, then someone else took my place and managed to finish the game.

I thought, "what the hell, this was one nasty spoiler", and remained pissed for the rest of the day. When you're eight years old, these things matter.

However, summer and lovely, colourful games tend to work flawlessly together. So the next day I woke up early to be the first one playing Bubble Bobble, only to find many others who had had the same idea. This must be a really good game if people wake up early during summer to play it, no?

Let's stop for one moment and analyze, with scientific rigour, one of the best aspects of the arcade setting: social life. To start our inquiry, I will define this setting: my uncle's arcade, in its old location, very close to the centre of the city, during the hot summer of 1986. Bubble Bobble is the coolest game of the moment. There are the usual customers: various kids of all ages, teenagers, 20-something guys (and girls -- girls love platformers, that's the official dogma) who are usually CS or Engineering students, older people who are engineers or programmers, random nerds, a few punks, etc.

The common thread between us was a sheer love for Bubble Bobble. I clearly remember at some point small meetings in front of the cabs (my uncle had three copies of the game) with people discussing tricks and strategies. At some point, my uncle, who was a passionate gamer himself, started compiling a guide: all the tricks, secrets and bonuses were stored in this small guide, which could be consulted while playing. After a while, the standard habit of many people was to organize "threesomes", two players in tag play with a "navigator" telling them which tricks to apply and when.

Now, let's get back to the ending: the game can only be completed in tag mode. If you're good enough to complete it all by yourself, the game will send you back to stage 66. I'm not sure if you loop the last 34 stages all by yourself if you're playing alone. As I told you, it was impossible to play this game without a partner, so I never found out the truth. Not that it matters, after all. What matters is the sheer passion and cheerful atmosphere that this game brought to our lazy and hot summers of 1986, shared with many friends, in search of all possible secrets that Bubble Bobble could offer us.

So, let's examine the other side of the coin.


Raimais is one of the most peculiar and intriguing Pac-Man clones around. Winter 1988. I can clearly remember the order of games on the second floor, after the pool tables. The cabs started from the window side, which looked out over a covered gallery, facing south. There were four cabs: Contra, Raimais, Black Tiger and Double Dragon, then two cabs: Jr. Pac-Man and Side Arms, and then Wonder Boy, Wonder Boy in Monster Land and 1943: The Battle of Midway.

I could write an entire book on that room alone, but for the moment, because I'm in a Taito frenzy, I will focus on Raimais. I don't know what the hell the title means; however, I know what it's all about. Picture the future, Akira-style. You are a young woman who has been enslaved by a mad scientist, and the only hope of survival for you and your imprisoned brother is to escape from the Hive.

In order to escape from the mad professor's clutches, you have to clear a sequence of labyrinths of dots and then choose which cell of the Hive to work on next. Every once in a while (depending on which pattern you choose) you have to fight giant insect mechas, because the mad professor wants you to stay safe and warm in his gigantic prison, so he can study you for his experiments.

You clearly disagree with his wishes, so the journey begins.

Raimais was really loved by the girls, as far as I remember. I don't know why, and I don't remember girls loving Pac-Man, but I do remember me loving this one girl, at least ten years older than me, who was an absolute Raimais genius. Personally, I am a disaster with maze games, and I would surely never have escaped from the Hive. But she did it all the time, and she liked that I showed her attention. I still know her after almost twenty years; she owns the gym that took the place of the old arcade.

I don't love her anymore, of course. But I loved her when I was a kid. I loved her grace -- her hypnotic precision in playing Raimais. Raimais, in my personal opinion, is the best maze game around.

Let's start from the OST: Masahiko Takaki, known as MAR, and obviously a Zuntata member, did a terrific job. It's impossible not to be enthralled by the hypnotic main theme he composed for the game, or by the majestic boss battle theme.

In hands other than Taito's, this would have been a "kill them all!" theme. It is not; as Taito always had a passion for building complete worlds behind a game. Vision, Conception, Organization: these are the three main points of consideration behind Taito's design style, as stated in most of Zuntata's booklets. I suppose they mean something like, "we decide to make a game with a given argument, then develop the game concept with this vision in mind, then we organize various aspects to make it worthwhile."

Well, the strength of Raimais is this: Pac-Man with various power-ups, the ability to choose your path (like Darius), a great sci-fi design, a cool plot and an atmospheric soundtrack. Add a cute girl that can play the game to perfection, a young kid who easily falls in love, and mix them together for a perfect scenario. I remember that I usually spent my time silently watching her play, looking at her cute, expressionless face showing a singular focus on her task.

When we became friends, when I got older, she never knew of my silent love pains. I'm not sure whether I was in love with her, or with her skill and her fight to escape from the Hive. Speaking of skill, she had plenty, I have to say. Her best score, to my memory, was only a few thousand points less than the current Japanese one. I wonder if she was actually the best at that time.

I don't really like Raimais as a game. This is an old fault of mine: if I can't be competent at something I tend to dislike it. I mean, I like everything about the game and have fond memories of it, but I don't like its mechanics because I could never get anywhere. Shame on me, I'd add. I also have to admit that after all these years my fascination is still strongly attached mostly to the plot.

I go back in my memory and I can't distinguish clearly what made me so enamoured with Raimais. Or even with the girl. However, I am sure that I am in love with the OST. Maybe it was the dedication of the girl to the game, or maybe just the girl. Regardless, in the last two cases, I still think that she has influenced me as far as my attitude toward gaming goes. And I still wonder: was she mastering the Hive in order to escape from it?


Gun Frontier is a peculiar game. First and foremost, its title indirectly pays homage to an old Matsumoto series, the one with the Harlock and Tochiro characters. Like all Matsumoto anime, it was permeated by a sense of "romantic fascism", which is closer to the reactionary spirit found in Mishima's works. This Taito shooter does not delve deep enough to match this dimension, but it did manage to found the steampunk design often encountered in later shooters. Varth, Battle Garegga and Giga Wing all have a "retro sci-fi" look heavily influenced by this game, to name some of the most famous ones.

Planet Gloria, somewhere in the future. The space age has become a reality, but colonists are having a rough time and their lifestyle is not much different from the one found in the wild west days of old. Space ships and saloons populate the all-but barren plains at the same time. When things seem like they can't get much worse, the space pirates attack the planet and enslave its population. It's high time for some heroes to come to the rescue and rustle up a healthier future for planet Gloria.

I don't know if Sergio Leone, director of many great Westerns, would have liked this game, but surely his sense of gritty darkness has crept into many parts of it. Let's return to 1990. I remember that summer (it's always summer in my memories) as being pretty hot and stimulating, gaming-wise. I remember spending this particular summer playing this game, Liquid Kids (another great platformer by Taito, of course) and Carrier Air Wing. These other two are both great games, but I will not cover them in this particular article.

I remember Gun Frontier with very mixed feelings. Have you ever played it, maybe on Saturn -- where you might have exploited the auto fire feature to make the game easier and more enjoyable? Back in 1990 I had a lot of problems with it, courtesy of the insane number of enemies and the necessity to button-mash like a fiend. My uncle made a simple hack to partially overclock the fire rate, which was helpful, but made me feel like a cheater.

I recently discovered that this game (and since I mentioned it, Carrier Air Wing too) were some of the targets of such cheaty practices in many Japanese arcades. Hell, at some points programmers gave up and started putting auto fire in as the default option in shooters.

Gun Frontier hasn't aged well. Rendering techniques were pretty primitive, mechanics were a bit stiff, even for the time, and the game has a nasty ranking system and even worse restart points. Yet still, there was something about it (even if this has by no means the best audio work by Yack and OGR), about its peculiar and truly original atmosphere, about the space shuttles half-covered by the dunes in Stage 4 and the incredibly climactic duel at the end.

The game itself is pretty simple. Well, one original idea is its power-up system. You need five small icons to get one extra power level, and 40 small bomb icons for an extra bomb. Okay, this was not a true innovation as most Compile games worked in that way, but that was the first time I saw such an approach in an arcade game. Small but meaningful change, eh? There is at least one point in which you can send a mid-boss to its resting place in such a way that it gives you a few extra points if you destroy it by targeting a specific area. There are so many shooters since that use this mechanic that I find it pointless to stress again how influential this game has been.

Back when I was twelve, I couldn't have predicted that this game would have such a deep impact on future shooters. Well, I didn't care, nor do I really care now. My enjoyment wasn't a question of mechanics. I mean, the mechanics are simple -- shoot stuff before they shoot you. The final boss battle works like an old western duel: you need to be the quick if you don't want to be the dead, leaving Gloria to be engulfed by an eternal nightmare. This is but one great thing about the game, much in the vein of the epic duels between the white hats and the black hats. Except nobody is wearing a white or black hat. Actually, I wouldn't even suggest shades of gray: after all, it's just a game.

The important thing is that there are two main reasons to play: score and atmosphere. As I said, the game doesn't have a particular score-system to talk about so, frankly, I played it for the atmosphere. Speaking of which, I think that its melancholic atmosphere is what made me think of Sergio Leone's westerns in the first place.

Atmosphere was why other people played this shooter as well. I wouldn't label it as a very successful game -- not in the sense that I needed to queue up to play it, which is usually a good indication of success for an arcade game. Despite its relative unpopularity, there were a few people playing it with gusto and passion -- among them my father and uncle. They were the ones who constantly made comparisons to westerns by Leone while I kept thinking of Matsumoto's anime.

I don't know if the true West had improbable heroes flying on planes built like Smith and Wesson's guns, but I couldn't avoid imagining that I was the lone rider fighting against all enemies to save the poor citizens of Gloria -- feeling like a romantic knight who made justice where there was none. Well, that is more Clint Eastwood than Sergio Leone, and as a kid I was a bit of a reactionary. Luckily, I grew up and stopped taking Matsumoto, Eastwood, or romanticism too seriously. It's embarrassing, but I think we're all little Nazis at 12.

Another shooter, Battle Garegga, had a plot involving two brothers, John and Bruce Wayne, fighting against an evil dictatorship that uses their father's weapons to enslave people. John Wayne's true name was Marion Morrison, and he used the nickname "John Wayne" to pay homage to Saint John and Bruce Wayne, also known as the Batman. Why mention Garegga? Because Garegga is the unofficial sequel of Gun Frontier.

Not that I knew it when I was a kid, but many shooters, such as Batsugun, Rayforce, and Giga Wing, were heavily influenced by Gun Frontier. This realization goes beyond my fond memories of this title, my arcade memories especially. Other arcade games captured my attention after this title of course, and a good portion of them were made by Taito.