Ok, I’ll admit that I got a bit caught out by this particular slot, my first of the New Year. I’d planned to bring you a review but unfortunately for one reason and another I haven’t managed to play enough of the games in my “review queue” to bring you any meaningful opinion. Plus it snuck up on me rather and I found myself at the last minute, staring at a blank document, bereft of inspiration.
Fortunately I keep a list of ideas for situations just such as this but looking at it, most of my fall back ideas just didn’t grab me enough to generate a whole article. Except one, inspired by a few recent session on MAME, which was to wallow in nostalgia by listing my top five old fashioned coin-op arcade game favourites. So that’s what I’m going to do, in no particular order.
First up to the podium is Wonder Boy in Monster Land. Even if you’ve never heard of this, you might have come across one of the other wonder boy games, which are side-scrolling platformers of a standard and undistinguished variety. Monster Land is also a side-scrolling platformer, but what elevated it into the ranks of the amazing and memorable is the fact that it had a basic RPG grafted on to the top of it. Killing monsters earned you gold, and more treasures were to be found hidden throughout the game world for those in the know. There were also doors – again, some hidden and waiting to be discovered – that one could go through where you could spend your hard-earned gold or, occasionally, fight a boss monster in order to upgrade your character. And so many options to choose from! Give yourself a better sword to slay enemies, or a shield to defend yourself from arrows, or armour to withstand hand-to-hand damage, or boots to make you run faster or even fly, or buy heals, or information about secrets, or arm yourself up with a variety of spells. Add in an engaging game world which spanned a variety of environments from beneath the sea to underground caverns to towns and castles, all filled with characters you could talk to and monsters to kill and you’ve got yourself the closest thing ever to a genuine RPG on a coin-op machine. I believe that Wii owners can experience the delights of Wonder Boy in Monster Land through their machines’ “virtual console”.
My next pick is the only coin op to genuinely keep me awake at night – by giving me nightmares. The game in question earned its place by not only being fun and challenging but managing to be the most gruesome and disturbing coin-op I’ve ever played: Splatterhouse. This was a side-scrolling beat ‘em up in which the protagonist was a muscular Jason rip-off in a hockey mask who ventured into a haunted house in order to rescue his girlfriend, where he would encounter and messily eviscerate all manner of horrors such as zombies, crawling intestinal worms, deformed babies and an upside-down cross surrounded by disembodied heads all rendered in gloriously disgusting detail. To add to the gore factor, “Jason” would occasionally find weapons that had even more elaborate kill animations: a pole, for example, which would slam his adversaries against the nearest wall in a halo of blood and brains. A lot of thought and design work had gone in to making the graphics as, well, as graphic as possible within the constraints of limited hardware and the results were so effective that I was surprised at the time – and remain so – that this was somehow deemed suitable as a potential pastime for children. A similar level of care was given to the story which, implausible as it was, featured a really nasty emotional twist when our brave hero finally managed to locate and rescue his beau. I won’t spoil the surprise for you in case you get to play it – a modern sequel, also called Splatterhouse – is out for the PS3 and Xbox 360 and while reviews of the modern game are mixed, it includes the original as an unlockable.
It seems as though side-scrollers of various sorts are a particular favourite of mine because here comes another one: a game I knew as Gryzor but which was better known in North America I believe as Contra. It’s harder for me to peg exactly why I enjoyed this game so much but enjoy it I did, and play it so often that it became one of the few games I could finish regularly. Conventional wisdom has it that the game was popular because it was an early adopter of simultaneous co-operative 2-player play but that certainly wasn’t it because I spent most of my time in front of the machine alone. Perhaps it was the constantly flipping view point which would regularly cycle from standard side-on view to a much more novel behind-the-head camera viewpoint for one of the many levels set inside a building. Perhaps it was the plethora of special weapons you could find, my especial favourite in a near-future world of high-tech weaponry being a trusty old machine gun. Perhaps it was the bizarre bio-cyborg nature of some of the bosses. Perhaps it was the fact that the game was ridiculously hard, having been voted by IGN as the toughest ever game to beat. Whatever it was, it worked.
My next pick is another game with 2-player co-operative play and one on which I can recall taking full advantage of the feature, the cute-overload platform game Bubble Bobble. It’s an example of a long-dead trend in video gaming: genuinely innovative game play. Where on earth someone got the idea of dragons that blow bubbles in which to trap enemies and then remove them from the game by bursting said bubbles with their claws and spines, furnished to perfection by the usual platform game extras of power-ups and varied enemies is beyond me, but I can’t help suspecting that some serious hallucinogens were involved. Whatever the truth the result is a masterstroke, a memorable, compelling game that had appeal which crossed national, age and gender boundaries – it’s the only coin-op I ever saw my Mum enjoy playing. So addictive was the game play that I can recall pumping a full ten pounds worth of change into the machine – and remember this is going back 20 years or more, when you could buy a AD&D hardback for ten pounds – in an effort to play it to complete. I got stuck on a bizarre level in the late nineties and couldn’t figure out a solution to it when the change finally ran out. I never have finished the game, but Wii owners who want to try and go one better than I did can download a copy for their virtual console.
I’ve saved my most left-field pick for last, another bizarre Japanese platform game called Psychic 5. In this game you play not one, but a team of five psychic youngsters who – for reasons that were never made entirely clear – must battle their way upwards through a series of levels populated by aggressive pieces of household furniture and a mad witch in order to destroy an avatar of Satan himself who lives in the roof space using only a magical hammer to defend themselves. Each of the five has different capacities to jump, move, attack, hover in mid-air and push over obstacles. However in a neat twist you couldn’t switch between your characters at will – you could only change at certain points in each level marked by a phone box and what’s more you only started with two of the five, the rest having to be rescued on your travels. This lent an aspect of pre-planned strategy to your play since you had to learn which character to best use on each section of the game. Power-ups and bonus items were not – as in most other platform games at the time – randomly generated but appeared based entirely on the players actions. The bonus items were governed by the number of times the player used their hammer between breaking open containers, and power-ups could be governed by watching a meter at the top of a screen and waiting to break the box at the appropriate time, no mean feat when a psychotic alarm clock is trying to tear your head off. To top things off there were also a variety of points bonuses on offer based on the order in which you collected things. Basically, to make the most of the game the player had to juggle a quite obscene number of different variables, mainly in their head, and it was almost certainly this coupled with the incredibly imaginative graphics and setting that lent the game its addictive quality: once you’d learned some of the various rules that governed item generation and collection you always felt like you could keep to the rules better if you just played “one more time”. An under-appreciated classic, this game deservedly retains a cult following into the modern age.
To forestall some inevitable questions in the discussion, I ought to include a quick paragraph on some notable omissions. Gauntlet was a near miss because, unlike all the games that made it on to the list, I have found playing it in nowadays to be fairly tedious, largely due to the lack of any fixed end point. I don’t like the majority of either beat-em-up games or rail shooters, hence many titles considered as classics such as Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Afterburner and Operation Wolf never got a look in.
That’s my list: what about you?