Retro Rewind: Golden-Age Classics (Part 1)

Most kids today will never experience the thrill of setting foot into an old-school arcade. The closest they will get is likely someplace like Chuck E -Cheese’s or Dave & Buster’s. Sure, there may be a few retro-style arcade halls still tucked away here and there. But sadly, they are now few and far between.

Visiting an arcade in the 1980’s was quite an experience. Most of them were loud, dimly lit rooms, filled with glowing arcade cabinets. Sometimes there were neon bulbs or blacklights on the walls and ceiling. Occasionally, there would be a jukebox blasting music that struggled to be heard over the din of the digital beeps and bloops emanating from the arcade machines themselves.

It might be hard to imagine, but once upon a time, if you wanted to play really good games you simply had to fill up your pockets with quarters and head down to the local arcade. This was especially true in the days before the NES hit the scene. Sure, you could play games at home on the ATARI 2600, but the computing power of the 2600 paled in comparison to what was packed into most arcade machines.

The games that were popular during the golden age of gaming are simple by today’s standards. But nonetheless, they are classics and certainly worthy of attention. Now, I’m not going to go into great detail about the games themselves, but I do want to take a moment to provide a list of some of more memorable arcade classics that I enjoyed as a kid. I’m also going to provide details on how you can best experience these retro games on today’s platforms. So, without further delay, let’s dive in.

Space Invaders

Space Invaders – This is the original fixed shooter! In this game you control a mobile cannon that can move left to right across the bottom of the screen. You aim at rows of descending aliens that attack you with laser fire. Your cannon is protected partially from attacks by a number of bunker-like shields. If the aliens reach the bottom of the screen, or destroy all of the shields, the game is over. Space Invaders took the world by storm. It was a classic that will forever be remembered by older gamers like me. Sadly, there is not a true port of the original game available on modern consoles or for PC. However, a re-imagined version of the game, Space Invaders Extreme is available on Steam and XBOX Live Arcade.

Asteroids – This is a classic game from my youth. My summer camp had an Asteroids table and I wasted countless quarters on this thing. Asteroids in a top-down shooter. In it, you pilot a ship through an asteroid field. You can rotate the ship 360-degrees and thrust forward in whatever direction you are pointed. Asteroids of various size float by and you must shoot them with your laser, breaking them apart or destroying them entirely – without being hit. The best way to experience Asteroids today is through the Asteroid Deluxe title available on Xbox One or Xbox 360. This version of the game includes both to classic 1979 rendition, as well as a modern HD remake.

Galaxian – Many consider this game to be an evolution of Space Invaders. Also a fixed shooter, in Galaxian, you control a starfighter that can move left to right across the bottom of the screen. Hordes of alien ships line up across the top and attack. But unlike Space Invaders, these ships will swoop down and dive at the player. When comparing the two games, it is easy to see just how fast the technology behind the video game industry was evolving. The original version of Galaxian has been included as part of various NAMCO collections over the years, but it is not available on modern hardware at the time of this writing.

Pac-Man

Pac-Man – This is a game that needs no introduction. Pac-Man is arguably one of the most recognizable video games of all time. The purpose of the game is to navigate through various mazes and collect little pellets. Once every pellet is collected, you move on to the next level. The danger lies in being chased by four ghosts. Touching one of them will result in a life lost. However, the tides turn whenever Pac-Man eats one of the larger power pellets. Doing so gives him the ability to chomp down on his ghostly attackers for a limited time. I don’t know a single person who lived through the 1980’s that isn’t familiar with Pac-Man.  The name is synonymous with golden-age gaming. This classic title is available today in its original form on a number of systems. It is available on Steam, PS4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch (as part of NAMCO Museum collection).

Donkey Kong – This game was one of the first platform games ever developed. Interestingly enough, it is also the game that introduced the character of Mario (then known as Jump Man) to gamers all over the world. Donkey Kong is a giant gorilla, and he’s kidnapped Mario’s girlfriend! Mario must navigate his way through four levels – dodging whatever Donkey Kong throws his way. It’s a short but sweet classic. It is also responsible for bringing the name “Nintendo” to the attention of the west. If you consider yourself to be a fan of retro classics, this is one game that you should be on your shortlist. Donkey Kong is is currently available on the Nintendo Virtual Console and the Nintendo Switch.

Ms. Pac-Man – At first glance, Ms. Pac-Man might seem to be nothing more than a simple re-skin of the classic Pac-Man. But instead, in many ways it is actually a vastly superior game. The ghost AI is a bit trickier, and the levels are a bit more refined. When it comes to Pac-Man, this is my favorite of the two. It is considered by many, (myself included) to be the definitive Pac-Man experience.  Ms. Pac-Man is available on Steam, PS4, Xbox Arcade.

Defender

Defender – Ahh, Defender. This is the game that started the “schmup” craze. Defender is a sidescrolling shoot-em-up style game that’s renown for it’s difficulty and its ability to take quarter after quarter until your pockets were left empty. In this game you pilot a starship. The goal is to defend against an alien invasion force. In many ways, the concept here is similar to what was found in Space Invaders. But this time in an action-based side-scrolling presentation instead of an overhead view. At the time of this writing, the only modern system Defender is available on is the Xbox One via the backwards compatible title; Midway Arcade Origins.

Centipede – For me, this was the game that started it all. Centipede holds of honor of being the first video game I ever got my hands on. Like Space Invaders, you control a little character that can move left to right across the bottom of the screen. The goal is to destroy centipedes before they reach the bottom of the stage. To make things difficult, the game-field is littered with little mushrooms that provide cover for the centipedes. Defeating the head of a centipede also leaves a mushroom behind – providing a new obstacle for your next go-round. To make things even more challenging, slugs, spiders and other creep crawlies also get in your way and attack you. All of this makes for a fast paced arcade experience. Today, the original arcade version is available to play on Xbox Live Arcade.

Frogger – Who could forget this little guy? Frogger is a game in which you control a little frog as he tries to hop to his home. Of course, along the way there are many dangers – cars, alligators and even… water? It’s a game of both patience and reflexes. Frogger is another classic from my youth. It is simple, yet charming enough to survive the test of time. This game has been ported across a number of systems over the years. Today, the original arcade version is available on Xbox Live Arcade (although without the classic Frogger theme song)

Galaga – Many people confuse this game with its older cousin Galaxian. The confusion is understandable. Both games are very similar both in terms of gameplay and design. In fact, Galaga is a sequel (or some argue a reimagining) of Galaxian. The design and concept is nearly identical, but at a faster pace and with a few new elements thrown in. For many players, Galaga is the more memorable of the two. Galaga is currently available on the Xbox Arcade, PS4, Steam and the Nintendo Switch (as part of the NAMCO Museum collection).

BurgerTime – I was never a big fan of this game. My father on the other hand, loved it as did many others, so I’m including it in my list. The object of this game is assemble a number of hamburgers. Each ingredient is suspended from various levels of ascending platforms. The player must climb ladders and run across the ingredients to make them fall onto the waiting bun below until the hamburger is complete. Of course, it’s not quite that simple. The player is chased by various bad guys (sausages, fried eggs, and pickle slices)… It’s weird, it’s trippy… but it’s ultimately entertaining.  BurgerTime has been ported to a number of systems over the years, but at the time of this writing, it is not available on modern hardware.

Dig Dug

Dig DugDig Dug is a quirky little game that involves digging tunnels in the ground and inflating pests until they explode… Sounds weird? Well, that’s because it is. But it is also lots of fun. When I was little, Dig Dug was extremely popular at my local arcade. I remember seeing one player (a college kid) actually make it to round 256 in the game. Reaching this final level results in an instant kill, but achieving it was on par with having “conquered” the game. Today, Dig Dug is available on Steam, PS4, Xbox Arcade, and the Nintendo Switch (via the NAMCO Museum collection)

I’m going to take a break here and resume my list in a second post sometime within the coming weeks. If you’re a younger player who is curious about golden-age gaming, or if you’re an old nerd like myself, I encourage you to seek out copies of these classics and give them a spin. Better yet, if you can find one nearby, venture out to an actual arcade and try to relive the glorious days or retro gaming. Being there, quarters in hand, was arguably the best part of the experience.

 

Review: Tale of ALLTYNEX Trilogy

As I type this, I’m downloading the Final Fantasy XIV 4.0 patch and awaiting the release of that game’s new expansion. It’s during downtime like this that I tend to dig through my library and pull out something that can be played start-to-finish in a reasonable amount of time. In keeping with my current theme of games from the late-90’s era, I came across a trilogy of arcade-style schmups (shoot-em-ups) called The Tale of ALLTYNEX. This trilogy consists of three games: ALLTYNEX Second, RefleX and KAMUI. I’ve had these titles sitting in my Steam library for some time, but I’ve never paid them much attention. If I remember right, I got them as part of an indie Japanese game bundle several years ago. Last weekend, I found myself with a desire to step away from all the deep and complicated RPGS that tend to consume the majority of my game playing, and jump into some old school, bullet-hell arcade action. So I installed these games and went in completely blind.

Unless you’re really into the Japanese indie scene, you’ve probably never heard of these games. So, let’s take a moment to bring ourselves up to speed. This trilogy contains a set of games created by Japanese developer Siter Skain. This collection was actually made possible via a project on Kickstarter. It contains the following titles:

ALLTYNEX Second – This game is a semi-modern remake of the Japanese 1996 arcade classic ALLTYNEX.

RefleX – A 2008 remake, this time of an indie freeware game called Reflection from 1997.

KAMUI – A 1999 Japanese PC game, based on classic shoot-em-up arcade titles.

Originally, each of these games were separate entities with each successive game being largely inspired by the one that came before it. Now, they have been compiled and somewhat re-imagined as a loose trilogy. Oddly enough, due to the various remakes, the newest games are actually the oldest chronologically.

As mentioned above, the first game lore-wise in the trilogy is ALLTNYEX Second.  Essentially, you play as the pilot of a “superfighter” starship.  In this title, mankind’s  orbital defensive supercomputer, ALLTYNEX suddenly goes rogue and uses its control over all of all of Earth’s military hardware to wage war on humanity. As a result, the human race is forced to flee the planet and regroup on the far reaches of the solar system. In a last-ditch effort to reclaim the planet, a team of  “superfighters” are dispatched to destroy ALLTYNEX.

This game is very well done. It feels just like one of those old quarter-pumper arcade machines, and thanks to moderns graphics, it makes the genre look better than ever.  It embodies the classic Starfighter schmup gameplay: swarms of enemies, rapid fire, bullets everywhere.  The player can choose between their regular blasters or a special shield that both protects your starship as well as damages enemies.  The gameplay is intense and not particularly easy – but few bullet hells are. The nearly unlimited continues make the game accessible for even a casual player. From start to finish the game can be completed in under an hour by an experienced player.

Next up is RefleX. This game is very similar to the others. It’s an overheard bullet hell/schmup. But unlike the other entries, you don’t have multiple lives. If your ship is destroyed, it’s game over. Luckily, the starship here is protected by a reflective shield. Enemy bolts will bounce off the shield and back towards the sender. This provides a whole new level of strategy to the game.

RefleX actually has quite an in-depth backstory, but to find all the juicy details you will have to dig through the manual. (The Steam version does have a PDF manual).  Essentially, you are a member of a resistance group that is rallying against an overbearing government. What’s unclear, at least to me, is how this ties in with the first game… has humanity retaken Earth and now bad guys are running the show? Despite several similarities, it just isn’t made very clear.

Finally, we have the third game in the trilogy, KAMUI. Despite being the last game in the series, this title is the one that shows it’s age the most. Which, considering the other two are remakes, I guess that’s to be expected.

This is the game that actually manages to tie the other two titles together. It features story elements from both ALLTYNEX and RefleX and presents a final battle between the resistance and a new militarized version of the ALLTYNEX AI.

Despite being the most dated of the three, I think KAMUI is my favorite of the trilogy simply because it reminds me the most of those old arcade-style shoot-em-ups that consumed so many hours of my youth. Which, is odd in itself considering KAMUI was a PC title.

Difficulty: Hard–  Most schmups and bullet hell games are infamous for their high degree of difficulty. These games are no different. Unless you’re one of those machine-like professional gamers or some kind of savant, you’re going to die a lot. Luckily, the games are pretty forgiving in that you are granted nearly unlimited continue credits. So, in reality, as long as you are persistent you can manage to complete the games regardless of overall skill. This still doesn’t change the fact that the game itself is difficult in it’s own right.

Story: As a whole, the storyline shared between these games is surprisingly rich. This is true despite it being largely absent from the games themselves. Schmups are not typically known for being rich is lore and storyline, so for this type of game any real attempt to provide one is welcome

Originality: Back in the 90’s games like these were a dime a dozen. These days, they have become a bit a niche category. Despite being based on a tested and tired model, the games in the ALLTYNEX Trilogy manage to stand out in their own little ways. For example, the ricochet shield from RefleX is a pretty unique feature. Little things like these keep the games feeling semi-fresh in a pool of stagnant copy-cat titles.

Soundtrack: One of the high points of all three of these games are the fantastic soundtracks. All these of titles come complete with a groovy, high-energy techno-like score. The music is catchy and appropriate. It does a fantastic job of keeping your blood pumping for the split-second twitch action that games like these require.

Fun: I can imagine that many people would find games like these to be frustrating and overly difficult. But that is something that fans of bullet hell games have come to expect and love. So you’re either going to enjoy this type of game or you’re not. For people like me, I don’t really consider myself to be a fan of these types of games, per se. But I do enjoy them for the nostalgia factor. And, I can appreciate them for what they are.

Graphics:  Being a trilogy of games from different eras, the graphics are a mixed bag.  Kamui and RefleX, are both still stuck in the 16-bit era. While ALLTYNEX Second has a much more modern, polished look. 

Playcontrol:  Even though these games support keyboard controls, take my advice and plug in either an Xbox or Playstation game pad. Games like these were made for controllers. Personally, I found a trusty old Xbox 360 controller to be perfect to all three games, with no real issues.

Downloadable Content:  None

Mature Content: Sci-Fi violence.

Value:  Each of these games is available separately on Steam for $8, or together in a bundle for $20. If you’re a fan of this genre, the $20 pricetag may be well worth it. But, these games are on sale frequently so a bargain shopper can usually snag them on a deal.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 3 – Even though I don’t really consider myself a fan of the shoot-em-up genre, I found a lot of enjoyment in these three games. It was really a nice break our of the norm for me. Everything from the fast-paced action, to the visuals, to the soundtrack really scratched an itch I had been having for some retro arcade action. My biggest complaint about the collection is that the original versions of ALLTYNEX and RefleX were not included.

Available on: PC (Steam)

Coin-Op Origins

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In my 33 years I’ve been many things. I’ve been a husband, a father, a student, a banker, an insurance agent, a pizza delivery guy, I’ve even flirted with being a rock star. As the years have gone by, I’ve worn many labels and enjoyed just as many hobbies. A lot of these interests have come and gone over time. But one thing has remained constant since I was a young kid: I’ve been a gamer.

I remember the first time I played a video game. I had to be no more than six years old. I was with my parents at the local Pizza Hut when I turned around to find myself face-to-face with a giant, glowing Centipede machine. The controls were simple; roll a big red ball, press the button as fast as you could, and try to shoot the centipede in a field filled with mushrooms.

I was enthralled. It was fantastic. There were blinking lights, beeps and bloops, bright colors – it was sheer magic! The machine was adorned with the painting of a menacing cartoon centipede poised to strike at some unknown victim… From that first quarter down the coin slot, I was hooked.

It wasn’t too long after that I encountered other arcade machines; Asteroids, Galaxian, Pac-Man, Q-bert, Frogger, Donkey Kong. I found all of them to be interesting to some extent. But nothing had tickled my fancy quite like the first time I saw that Centipede machine.

Although I can’t claim to remember, I’m pretty sure I begged my parents to eat out at Pizza Hut every night just so I could play Centipede. Eventually, I assume they figured they could save some money by finding a way for me to play it at home, and for Christmas that year, I got an Atari 2600. Complete with a Centipede cart.

The Atari version did not satisfy me the same way the arcade machine did. The Atari 2600 was not as powerful as most arcade cabinets. The graphics were much less colorful. Comparing art of the Atari version of Pac-Man to the arcade machine will make that clear in an instant. Regardless, for the next couple of years the Atari 2600 was what I gamed on. I had all the classics: Pitfall, Moon Patrol, Donkey Kong, Asteroids, all of which suffered in quality compared to their arcade counterparts. I’ve included two pictures below as an example:

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Moon Patrol Arcade Version

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Moon Patrol Atari 2600 Version

Just not the same is it?

For a year or more, I was content in my little bubble of watered-down Atari games.It wasn’t until one fateful trip to the local 7-Eleven with my father that I realized there was something better. It was there, Slurpee in hand, that I first laid eyes on a Super Mario Bros. arcade machine. Everything from the graphics to the sound were revolutionary. My dad handed me a quarter and I plunged head-first into the Mushroom Kingdom. Of course, I was clueless. I didn’t make it past the first Goomba. I had no idea you were supposed to jump over it, or better yet, on it.

I recall going to school the next day and telling my friends about it.  “He had a a mustache. You could REALLY see that he had a mustache! It looked almost as good as a cartoon!” I was completely obsessed with it. I remember drawing pictures of Mario and Koopa Turtles on notebook paper and cutting them out like paper dolls and acting out scenes I had seen from the game. I mean, I had that Mario Fever bad.

One day I was in Toys R Us, and I saw a “Mario Brothers” game for the 2600. Not understanding this was actually a different game, I let out a squeal unmatched to this day. Imagine my disappointment when I got it home only to realize it was not as “super” as Super Mario Bros. Even worse, it was another terrible Atari port.

My fever was cured that coming Christmas with the gift of a Nintendo Entertainment System by my grandmother. From the first day I pushed that SMB cart into that beautiful gray toaster and pressed the power button, I was marked as a gamer for life.