Hidden Gems: Arcade.
(For help with running any of the games featured in this article, check out Danny’s guide to Mame on Wave Six)
MAME, for the uninitiated, stands for Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator and by ‘multiple’ they mean ‘bloody loads, mate’. Everything from Arkanoid to Zaxxon is there and if you ever inserted your hard-earned into a willing slot then you’ll find all manner of memories here (Vicar).
Oh my god, when I first saw MAME in action I was convinced that things surely couldn’t be better than this. Playing an arcade-perfect game of Kung Fu Master on my own computer was everything I’d dreamed of ever since, well, the horrific 8-bit conversions of Data East’s finest ever fighting game (I’ll never forgive you US Gold). It’s a beautiful experience seeing every game you ever loved perfectly recreated for your gaming pleasure but eventually the novelty can wear off. Well after two years at least.
The problem with MAME is the sheer amount of games on offer and for every Metal Slug there are fifty weirdly pornographic Mahjong games. After you’ve gotten Outrun, Double Dragon and Street Fighter 2 (The New Challengers, just for Fei Long, of course) out of your system suddenly the whole thing can get a bit out of hand. Games-blindness sets in. Quality titles become camouflaged between hateful football games and dreary vertical shoot ’em ups. Worst of all, without any prior emotional attachment, even genuine classics come up short by modern standards if you never enjoyed them in their prime.
My personal low point was getting to the last level of Shinobi (furiously hitting ‘5’ on my keyboard to keep my credits topped up) only to realise that Shinobi takes away the ability to continue when you get to the last level. Cynical money-grabbing gameplay decisions like that become all to frequent as you realise that arcade games were mainly about making money for the owners. Check the flyers of your favourite games and you’ll see ‘the earnings are out of this world’ and ‘hate kids? Why not let us help you rob them blind!’.
Of course, not all games were like this and MAME has a fair few hidden gems that you may have missed first time round that still stand the test of time. Here is my round up of cult classics and nineties greats (admit it, you’re just like me and stopped going to arcades when they started charging a quid per go) that you may have missed out on. Even thoughâ€¦ermâ€¦ you commercially own the romsâ€¦ erâ€¦ m’lordâ€¦. Honest.
Aqua Rush (Namco 1999)
No, not a Midway driving game set on water (although seriously how great was Hydro Thunder?) but yet another Tetris variant. Yes, after Tetris caused 400 million Gameboy owners to literally lose their minds over it in a way not seen until people watched The Shawshank Redemption for the first time, every games company out there became obsessed with finding their own spin on the genre.
Namco’s great idea was to avoid the whole ‘falling blocks’ clichÃ© and adopt a bold, new ‘floating blocks’ theme instead. How do we make the blocks float? Set it under water! How do we convey that? Put in some fish. Genius. Well, perhaps not but Aqua Rush isn’t quite as cynical as you’d think either.
The nicest twist is that you actually create you own blocks by pressing one of three buttons to extend the left, middle or right section of the blocks to make them fit snugly into the available gaps. It works brilliantly and everything looks fantastic (in a late nineties, lets combine gaming and clubbing type of way). Nicely tranced-up music and some wibbly water effects support what is a charmingly simple but fiendishly addictive way to support your Tetris-Clone habit.
Blood Warrior (Kaneko 1994)
Released around the same time as Mortal Kombat III, you would think just from looking at the names of the company and the game itself that this is just another crappy Mortal Kombat inspired cash-in and, for the most part, you would be right.
Saying that though this game was made by Kaneko which won’t mean a thing to anyone unless they were really into the Neo Geo where people would point out that they made awesome games like Pulstar which had a cult following in Japan but was not heard of over here in the West. I did actually manage to play this in the arcades though and it was awesome and when I found out about MAME this was one of the first games I hunted down for it.
Ultimately this game is utter cheese, a real guilty pleasure of mine. Its controls are very similar to Street Fighter II’s and are probably just as smooth but the game only has four attack buttons. The biggest draw back about this game is that the blood looks like it’s been drawn in MS Paint by a toddler but the fighters are animated well and look very good for 1994 standards and the music is just plain outright awesomeness.
Any self-respecting Mortal Kombat rip-off would not be complete without the fatalities and Blood Warriors does have very gory fatalities but instead of remembering all those complex inputs, most of which have been bound to the character’s regular special moves, although there are only a few death animations so it’s not particularly varied in that respect.
Unfortunately the company that made this game went bust some considerable time ago so you have to check this game out via MAME. This game has only been made to work properly recently on MAME so you’ll need a fairly recent version of the program but it’s worth the hassle because this may soon become one of your guilty pleasures too.
Libero Grande (Namco 1997)
Football games are the barometers of a game system’s success I reckon. Well at least here in the UK (in Japan it’s RPGs and in America its Mortal Kombat and sports games). For example, the Speccy had Match Day, the Amiga had the glorious Sensible World of Soccer and the Playstation had Pro Evo. The Dreamcast however never got a decent footie game and paid a hefty penalty for it. I love the Dreamcast and will mewl like a kitten about its early demise but I’ve played 90 Minutes. Sega had it coming frankly! Fight me.
Libero Grande met with a largely unenthusiastic reception when it first got released on the Playstation. Reviewers applauded Namco’s sense of invention but rounded on the largely non-responsive and unsophisticated gameplay. Since then, Libero Grande finally made it onto MAME’s roster a couple of updates ago and has emerged as something of surprise.
You see, even the mighty Pro Evo has overstayed it’s welcome with a series of unimaginative, dare I say EA-like, yearly updates and yet it has nothing like a serious rival so playing a game like Libero Grande, a game that genuinely dares to be different, is a pleasure.
The game puts you in the boots of a midfielder of a national side. Throughout the ninety minutes you only get to play as that player and the camera is always set behind him giving you a unique view of proceedings. Once you get the ball its up to you to act as a playmaker and try and set your attacks into motion. A handful of special moves help you to baffle defenders which is just as well as your AI-controlled team mates had clearly been developed by a Wimbledon FC season ticket holder.
Somehow though the game manages to hold everything together just enough to create a playable match and scoring a goal has rarely felt this good. It’s as shallow and arcadey an experience as you could ever imagine but it delivers fun gameplay in easy to swallow five minute chunks and, above all else, at least it isn’t Fifa right?
Butasan (NMK 1987)
I know what you are thinking. â€œI know that game?â€ Well probably not this game exactly. If you owned a Amstrad, C64 or Spectrum then you might of played a port of this game called Psycho Pigs UXB by US Gold.
For those who have not played this game before on any of those high tech gaming computers allow me to explain how to play the game. You are this pink coloured pig with some trendy white boxer shorts and it’s your job to lob bombs at your enemies while avoiding any explosions yourself which is easier said than done when there are roughly ten or so pigs going mental and lobbing bombs at each other.
Of course you can pick up some bonus items that either give you points or help you in your quest to become the most awesome pig ever including a â€œpigzillaâ€ suit which is a parody of Godzilla obviously.
Overall this is a very simplistic game at best and can be very unfair at times due to bombs literally flying around everywhere but there is a lot of fun to be had here and the pigs do get considerably harder as the game goes on. I must also point out that the game has slowdown thanks to the amount of stuff going on, on screen at once but apart from that this is a fantastic game and worth checking out.
The Punisher (Capcom 1993)
By 1993 Capcom had produced so many scrolling beat-’em-ups, that they were actually able to design, code and release them within an fifteen minute tea break between sessions of coding Resident Evil and endless sequels to Streetfighter 2. Many of you will be familiar with Final Fight, Cadillacs and Dinosaurs and the masterful Aliens Vs Predator but they also produced this little gem which in some ways is the best one of the lot.
This also rates as one of the better comic to game conversions of the era (it’s easy to compare them as every comic character ended up in a scrolling beat-’em-up back then) with sumptuous graphics, a dollop of violence and nice use of weapons. You can even get Nick Fury to help you out (although unfortunately they’ve not digitised the Hoff for added realism).
Like Final Fight, this game has the same snappy, tight controls (even down to the punch and jump button configuration) and a full range of street furniture to smash or throw into people’s faces as applicable. Is it any wonder that we now have all this vandalism in our towns? The kids are just trying to find the gold pieces and pizza slices that Capcom promised them!
This is a classy product from start to finish but does remind of a less than glorious era of Capcom’s past. If you can stomach the constant feeling of deja-vu then this could well be the Final Fight sequel you were looking for.
Complex X (Taito 1984)
I never actually played this game in the arcade, mainly due to the fact that this game is literally one year younger than myself. This is an early platformer attempt by a company who would later bring us such legendary titles like Bobble Bubble, Rainbow Islands and Puzzle Bubble. Don’t be discouraged by its age though as this is one of the finest games I’ve discovered by hitting the ‘select random game’ button.
The game itself has very odd controls. It has twin stick controls very much like games like Robotron and Smash TV but with an additional ‘jump’ button which is handy because having up to jump in a game filled with ladders is very annoying, play Green Beret (Rush N Attack) to understand why.
The idea of the game is simple, escape by getting to the exit point. This is not easy when there are lots of killer aliens and traps waiting to punish you for every wrong move. Also there is a little matter of rising water as well. Stay under it for to long and you’ll drown, just like in real life so there is a real sense of urgency here.
Of course you are armed with a laser gun but it requires ammo so don’t get trigger happy. The levels are really well designed and I have never gotten to the end of the game because it’s very tough. The presentation and sound are very nice, especially for 1984 standards and so is the gameplay so I strongly suggest anyone in to platformers to check this game out right now.
Stone Ball (Art and Magic 1994)
You have to love EA Sports. Despite their football games getting almost unanimously average reviews, they still insist on churning out a game every year plus the World/Euro Cup tie-ins every two years and now, perhaps more ominously, the Fifa Street series. The last of these, the irredeemably awful Fifa Street 3, manages to combine everything that is bad about gaming with everything that is bad about football.
It will outsell everything. It will outsell Beautiful Katamari by a thousand copies to one and I’ll tell you this for free. Any footballer who creates a football trick and gives it a name like ‘the flip flap’ needs a punch to his fucking throat and that’s swearing!
But imagine Fifa Street without the bling attitude, without the hideous combo systems and ‘gamebreaker’ super shots and without the self-satisfied crew of football ‘stars’. Now take that a step further, take it back to the time of cavemen and replace the ‘aero-dynamically enhanced for her pleasure’ football with a big lump of rock.
Fifa Street without the trappings, and indeed skill moves, would make for a fairly empty gameplay experience right? Wrong! Stone Ball is magnificent. The 2 v 2 matches have a perfectly judged difficulty curve and the game never resorts to cheating (yes I’m looking at you Pro Evo). It also sports some of the finest hand-drawn animation that you could ever hope to see in an arcade game. In fact graphically this game still looks as stunning as I imagine it did twelve years ago (hey I never saw this down at my local swimming pool).
Games get frantic, especially as you are expected to score every time you get the ball. This due to the fact that neither side has a goalie which may sound odd but you try volleying a giant rock from your half of the pitch and see how far it gets! Overall Stone Ball may just be a little too primitive for some gamers, but there is a lot to like here if you give it a chance.
Land Maker (Taito 1998)
Land Maker sounds like some sort of real estate management game doesn’t it? Well it is kind of but it’s been boiled down to a guise of a Vs. style puzzle game and a very clever one at that but what did you expect from the makers of the legendary Puzzle Bobble series.
This is how the game works you must build squares of the same coloured blocks in traditional puzzle game fashion. Simple right? Well not quite because of the interesting way you have to go about doing it. First of all the blocks that you fire slide down the sides of the other blocks unless you fire it towards a corner which if the colour of the block is the same of the square your firing the block in to and it will destroy all of the same coloured blocks connected to the block. That’s probably not a very good description but if you were to trust me for one moment then please trust me now, you must play this game because it’s brilliant.
The game features a who cast of wacky characters each with their own strengths and weaknesses and the game has fantastic presentation. From the wonderful sound and music to the way that all the little blocks form one square thus creating a giant structure of some kind is just a marvel to behold.
The fast paced action of Land Maker makes it a must for anyone to check out right away. Although if you can’t be bothered with MAME your in luck because the game was also ported to the Play station (which had extra gameplay including a new puzzle mode with 3D graphics!) and once more it’s really underrated so it’s become a cheap game to obtain.
Bongo (Jetsoft 1983)
Last but by no means least is Bongo a flip-screen platformer with fussy controls, terrible graphics and no real variety. It’s as basic an arcade game as you could imagine but it’s also as addictive as Ben and Jerry’s Crack and Vanilla ice cream and twice as hard to eat with a spoon.
Mentioning a game like Bongo is like opening a can of worms and then throwing the contents of it at your reader’s head. However, if you’re lucky you’ll find just a few who actually like a face full of wrigglies (okay that’s enough of the rubbish worm metaphor).
My challenge to you is to attempt to beat the twenty or so levels in the allotted three lives without using continues. You’ll get pretty far but eventually Bongo will beat you and it will be your fault. You thought you had the skills? Jetsoft beg to differ. This is how we did things back in 1983. Platform games like Jet Selly Willy and Technician Ted ruled the roost with tricky challenges and no quicksaves. We kept our neighbourhoods clean and we only killed our own.
Equally you might look at the first screen and think ‘this is gash’ and you might even be right but it is playable, it is as retro a game as you could ever find (its even got twinkly music and a dragon that eats you if you stand still for too long) and it offers a nice little challenge if you’d just give it a try. Or you could go and play Halo 3 and have Halo 3 sex with all your Halo 3 chums.
Undercover Cops (Irem 1992)
When Irem’s Undercover Cops arrived in 1992 it was largely unnoticed for a long time thanks to the whole Street Fighter 2 vs. Mortal Kombat battle that was taking place in the arcades at the time (Mooortaaalll Koooombattttt! – Ed).
Now I know you might be thinking ‘that graphic style looks familiar’. Well a lot of the staff at Irem went on to create Gunforce (considered to be the spiritual prequels to Metal Slug) and eventually left Irem to form Nazca who created the now legendary Metal Slug series.
Undercover Cops is a freaking awesome scrolling beat-em-up in the style vein of games like Final Fight and Double Dragon. It had a lot of very nice touches to it which include interesting enemy and level design (the first stage boss is just awesome and the lift is a nice touch) and fantastic sound and music. The controls were fantastic and very responsive allowing the player to dash about the screen and perform some crazy moves. Also the player could literally rip up ten foot concrete pillars or even cars and throw them at enemies.
This game did get a port over the to the SNES but the Japanese Arcade version is defiantly the way forward since it’s by far superior to the ‘World’ version of the game. It has more moves, better gameplay balancing and enhanced digitalised sound (the music is also different). This game is worth checking out especially if you have a friend who likes this sort of thing and will happily play along with you because this is definately one of the most overlooked games of its type.