Arcade Memories of Youth

I like to say my gamer’s soul was forged in the arcades of my youth. I guess this makes me an “old school” gamer (or to younger folk that share the hobby, just plain old) and it’s shaped a lot of my gaming habits and console purchases over the years.

Dennis’ Place for Games on Clark Street was my neighbourhood arcade and it’s not just rose-tinted spectacles when I say it was a really special place. Dennis I remember as short of stature, but no nonsense: the sign on the front door said clearly “Shirts and Shoes Required. No Gang Colors” (that should tell you about the neighbourhood in Chicago I grew up in!). It was the kind of place people took their kids to and everyone partook of the entertainment on offer.

Long and narrow like a corner bar (tavern we called them), there was a small raised platform on the left with a couple of cocktail games. The wall immediately opposite went down to the right for some ways and had more than a dozen upright machines and half as many pinball tables; opposite these was another raised platform with a few more uprights and a couple of cocktail games. In front of this area was a couple of cockpit games: Pole Position and Spy Hunter I recall having their day there most of all. Just to the right of the front door was the change counter with a jukebox to the left of it. In the middle in front of the change counter was a foosball table and an Atari Football table, both of which saw some uproarious action in their time.

The place was all class. Dennis and his employees dressed like casino workers wearing waistcoats over white shirts with bow ties and black trousers. The ceilings were mirrored and lighting was provided by electric chandeliers: the effect was as if you’d gone to gaming heaven. Sunday mornings were a special occasion with the arcade opening at 10am and for two hours you could have unlimited plays for a $2 entry fee with free play on all the machines. Needless to say all subsequent arcade experiences have paled in comparison.

My love of old arcade games is shaped by the experience of this place, so the launch of the Virtual Console Arcade has really energised my feelings about the Wii. It’s not just about being able to play the games again, it’s seeing them validated on a console that’s re-invigorated my own interest in gaming that’s so exciting and satisfying.

I took a trip back to my old neighbourhood in the late 90s and the Place had gone. It turns out they moved to new digs on Belmont Avenue, but sadly it finally folded October 2008. It seems nostalgia isn’t enough to support an arcade any more, but I’m impressed it lasted as long as it did. Thankfully Nintendo and other publishers have recognised the power of arcade memories and have given my nostalgia a home on the Wii.

“People Are Changing”

My gaming history is coloured by the arcade and this has extended to the home console arena. Without exception every console I’ve owned has been due to an attempt to re-capture the arcade magic and play the games housed in cabinets that I loved.

The first console I owned was an Atari 2600. I wanted to play Asteroids and Pac-Man and other games I enjoyed in the arcades, but as I got older I grew intolerant of less-than-arcade-perfect console ports, which kept me away from the 8-bit and 16-bit Japanese systems. At the time those machines were released the arcade scene was still active: if I needed a gaming fix I just went to the local arcade and got out of the house. Besides my mates had Genesis and SNES and TG-16 systems, so I never felt like I really needed one.

“Here’s an example”
Then I saw Tempest 2000 on the Atari Jaguar and something changed. I actually found myself wanting a games console. When Jeff Minter did Defender 2000 that ignited a thirst for the original that his less-than-perfect port included on the D2K cart simply could not satisfy. When I saw Williams Arcade Classics for the Playstation, the Jag went on Ebay and the Playstation became the centre of my gaming universe. I broadened my gaming tastes a bit, but mostly my Playstation was my virtual arcade. I got the console modded so I could import classic compilations from Japan not released in the States. I even built my own joystick with Defender-friendly button layout using wood, arcade parts and a cheap 3rd-party controller.

The subsequent generation failed to inspire me and I moved back to gaming on computers, using emulators to scratch the arcade itch. Then in October 2007 I happened to flip through a Woolworth’s catalog in Glasgow and saw Gottlieb Pinball Classics for the Wii. Was it possible someone had actually captured the one thing I never thought I’d see again: classic pinball? I went from seeing the current generation of consoles as yet another rehash of the previous 2 only with HD, to seeing the Wii as my very own virtual pinball arcade.

“Add another example”
And then something strange happened. I actually started looking at other titles on the system; more bizarrely I actually purchased games blindly for franchises I had never played on any other system (or if I had, I hadn’t enjoyed them) and in genres I traditionally disliked. Metroid Prime 3 and Super Mario Galaxy I purchased on release, Excite Truck and Zelda: Twilight Princess on recommendation (well, to be honest Zelda was to install the Homebrew Channel, but I still played it!). Most of these games I don’t own any more simply because I didn’t think they warranted repeat play, but I did enjoy them for what they were.

There was a time I never even would have read a review of those games, but somehow the Wii had caused me to be open to games I actively disliked in the past or avoided for the “sure thing” I knew I would enjoy. Either that or I’m older and maybe a little less judgemental (the old dog that can learn new tricks?). The biggest surprise, and the inspiration for this article, was when I got Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn in the post.

I don’t know what made me decide to read up on this game, but I must have come across a thread in some forum where people were saying how good it was. I asked someone what a “tactical role-playing game” was and got a question in response: “Do you like micromangment?” The game looked a little like X-COM/UFO from the DOS days, so I thought it might be fun, but my last experience with a turn-based RPG was back in the Playstation days with Final Fantasy VII and I disliked it so much I only rented it for a single day and played it for 20min. I wanted to actually control the character real-time — what was the point of clicking buttons when I had no control?

When I booted Fire Emblem I think I was more excited to play this game than any game I have played previously — even more than seeing Defender emulated on the Playstation (well, maybe not that excited) — and it was strange. It was even stranger when I found myself utterly uninterested in playing Ookami: a more traditional 3rd-person action platformer. Somehow over the years turn-based combat has come to be exciting and interesting and 3rd-person action a bit of a chore. When did that happen?

“This whole world is changing”
I think it’s safe to say that other people are experiencing gaming for the first time on the Wii or maybe picking it up again after years without a console and the freshness of it will lead them in interesting directions as it has me. It makes the moaning on message boards from people who have played every console since the SNES all the more perplexing: maybe those folk are just in so deep they’ve become entrenched in their positions and lost the “thrill” of gaming. Perhaps a break would do them some good as it did me.

Ultimately gamers cannot be put into little boxes and categories like “casual” and “hardcore” mean nothing: it’s the experience itself that counts and that’s entirely subjective. It’s nice to see I can still get some thrill out of video games, just like in the arcades of old.

NB: Quotes from Herbie Hancock “People Are Changing” on the Sound System LP.

Note to Publishers: Don’t Neglect New IP!

Everyone has their favourite games and many games have been successful enough to go on to spawn sequels and become franchises. This can create a situation where a publisher may be inclined to “play it safe” and rely upon titles that have a proven sales track record and keep on churning out sequels at the expense of developing new properties, but this isn’t always a great strategy as the recent fate of Eidos would suggest.

Eidos is a company primarily known for two franchises: Tomb Raider and Championship Manager. Both games have had regular updates over the years and are well-promoted. Eidos has also launched new titles from time to time, but clearly these two (and Tomb Raider in particular) are favoured above all others.

Contrast Monster Lab with Tomb Raider: Underworld. Monster Lab was a game that Eidos published at the end of 2008. You couldn’t be blamed for not knowing about it because other than some previews at E3 and other big game events it never got a lot of media attention; probably due to the fact that there was no marketing push behind it by the publisher. A week after publication the game was discounted by %50 in GAME stores and garnered only one review from a major gaming site.

In response to my review, someone who worked on the game commented

“You can’t blame Eidos for not promoting it, they had a budget of 57p and clearly thought it would be better spent on Tomb Raider whilst they tried to claw cash in from wherever to keep the company going.”

With Eidos being a publicly traded company a business executive could focus on the quarterly results and put everything behind the proven franchise — rather than creating a “five year plan” around a mix of old and new IP — and expect to be viewed by shareholders as doing the right thing. Ultimately the strategy of exclusively concentrating marketing efforts on the existing Tomb Raider franchise failed with the result being the recently concluded buyout of Eidos by Square-Enix. One wonders if things might have gone differently for Eidos had they put a little more money into marketing their new games or even gave the Tomb Raider franchise a rest for awhile to focus exclusively on new IP.

THQ is another independent company facing pressure on their bottom line, but unlike Eidos they have recognised that they cannot be dependent upon their old licensed properties forever and recent titles like De Blob and Deadly Creatures have been well-promoted and garnered favourable response from reviewers at gaming news sites. Neither title has gone on to break sales records, but De Blob apparently sold well enough that a multi-platform sequel is due in the near future. Whilst it may ultimately be a case of too little, too late for THQ, the decision to focus on new quality releases as well as licensed property and existing franchises indicates a recognition that you cannot put all your eggs into one basket in the current environment.

Even large companies like EA recognise the fact that new quality-driven releases like Boom Blox are needed to ensure the long-term health of their enterprise. EA VP Ray Muzyka told

“I think the strategy is working pretty well. It’s a good strategy in the sense that it can lead to higher returns, because the fans appreciate that you’re investing in quality, and they appreciate that you’re investing in innovation.”

The Wii has been a huge gamble that paid off; if it didn’t appeal to such a broad audience this could well have been the Nintendo’s last foray into the games console market. But even Nintendo is not above criticism in neglecting new IP: Disaster Day of Crisis is an example of a title that garnered generally favourable, if mixed, reviews but scant promotion from Nintendo and seems to have little chance of a North American release. If a company has the confidence in a title to publish it, it should also have the confidence to promote it!

There is room for both old and new game properties, but publishing the games shouldn’t be where it ends. In an increasingly crowded market with online and disc offerings competing for the attention of gamers on today’s consoles, publishers would do well to put more effort into marketing their new titles to support their long-term futures.

Whatever Happened to the Classic IP?

I’ve been playing the SNK Arcade Classics compilation recently in preparation for my eventual review and the Volume 1 label on this and Namco Museum Remix have gotten me to thinking about other classic arcade games which are seemingly lost to history — or at least destined not to be used to make money by their rights holders — and to wonder why this is.

Unless you’ve been sleeping under a log for the past couple of years it should be apparent that, especially in the download market, retro-gaming is popular again on home consoles. We’re now seeing new games like Pole’s Big Adventure and “tribute” games like Bubble Bobble Wii and Gradius ReBirth on WiiWare and they’re being embraced by the gaming public with the first of those titles enjoying a continued place in the top of the best selling WiiWare titles in Japan after several weeks of release.

The Wii seems to be a natural place for these games: it has a large install base and many older folk playing games who have likely played classic arcade and console titles in their younger days and might be ripe for a bit of nostalgia. During these uncertain economic times, putting out a compilation of pre-existing content seems like a safe bet with minimal capital outlay required and potential of significant profit if marketed effectively. There’s no reason we cannot honour the old as well as develop the new.

Sure, there’s MAME and many classic arcade ROMs can be found online, but the fact is that many people cannot be bothered with it. The draw of a trouble-free disc load and playing on their TV would be a lure even for people who partake of emulation currently. It’s not like everything of interest in the arcades appeared on home consoles (or even had worthwhile ports); besides not everyone who would be interested in the classics uses the Wii Shop to buy VC content.

Just looking at the arcade vendors of old that are still alive and kicking, the question should rightly be asked: where is the product? I like seeing the Taito’s Collection series on WiiWare, but where’s the Taito Legends collection on disc to complement it? Konami have famously sat on a huge library of classics with the occasional sparse collection coming out from time to time. Why this is the case is quite beyond me. Midway is on the brink: bringing out a full library of Midway, Williams and Atari Games titles – including prototypes – would be a great way to celebrate the legacy of the IP this company holds; hopefully before it’s parceled off as part of some bankruptcy settlement and left to sit in a lawyer’s desk drawer.

At a minimum Namco and Ignition should continue the series they’ve already started. Namco hasn’t completely matched the collection of classic titles seen in the original Museum series on the Playstation, so let’s rectify that with another Remix collection or two. I’m also hopeful we’ll see a full accounting of Pac Man arcade titles on the upcoming 30th anniversary game that was recently announced. Ignition should remember there’s a library of SNK games outside of the Neo Geo – although the Neo Geo library alone could fill several compilations without difficulty – and maybe check into licensing other company’s old IP as well.

As we’re approaching the 30th anniversary of many classic arcade games I’m hopeful that companies will review their vast IP storehouses and bring out some compilations for those of us that remember them and kids that might find there was fun stuff to be played in arcades before they were born. Enterprising 3rd parties should consider licensing stuff that the big boys don’t want to handle themselves or dig for gold in the stacks of games that no longer seem to have owners (who owns Irem, Data East, Nichibutsu, Stern, Universal, Centuri, Exidy and Cinematronics these days?). There’s money to be made in old code guys, go get it!