Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Z is for Zaxxon

It seems fitting that my final A to Z blog post for this year be about more than just an appropriately named arcade game.  I fondly remember where I first played this particular game, so I'd like to reminisce a little about it, as well as a related gaming topic for classic arcade games from the 1980's.

I first encountered Zaxxon at World of Burgers, which was an independently owned burger joint near the barbershop where I got my hair cut as a kid.  World of Burgers, as the name suggests, served all kinds of themed hamburgers inspired by world locations; e.g. the Mexican burger had guacamole and spicy salsa.  My favorite kind of burger, which I honestly haven't found the equal of anywhere else, was their bagel burger, which utilized bagels instead of the usual hamburger buns.  They were so good that for a time I was able to talk my mom into using bagels for the buns for burgers we'd have at home.  World of Burgers has long closed, but I always remember it fondly.  In addition to Zaxxon, I remember playing games of Pacman, Rally X, Donkey Kong, and other classic arcade games there.  The owner never complained about us coming in to get change to play the games either, for which I was always thankful.

Video game-inspired board games were also produced for several of the classic 1980's arcade games, and I ended up owning several of these, including Pacman, Frogger, Donkey Kong, Qbert, Centipede and, believe it or not, a Zaxxon board game.  The Zaxxon board game was a lot of fun, and I recall some fun rounds of it with family members.  Truth be told I suspect these games, and my sister's Ms. Pacman board game are probably at my folks' house somewhere.

As for Zaxxon the arcade game, I typically had problems judging the position of the plane in the fortress areas, usually resulting in me crashing into walls or getting shot by a missile rising up from the ground.  The game's initial toughness and resultant short games were a deterrent to me playing it enough to get good, which was a similar problem I had with other games like Defender.  My strongest memories of Zaxxon are the place I first played it and the related board game, which in some ways I actually liked more than the arcade game lol.

I had a lot of fun this year taking on the 2013 A to Z blogging challenge with my chosen theme of classic arcade games.  I hope you enjoyed reading about some of the games I grew up playing in the various arcades, pizza joints and restaurants.  I invite you to go back and read and comment on any of the earlier posts you may have missed.  As for what comes next in blogging, let's just say that when the writing itch strikes, I will scratch it on this blog.  Stay eclectic.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Y is for Yie Ar Kung-Fu

Yie Ar Kung-Fu was one of those games that I enjoyed watching other people play (who played it well) more than attempting to play it myself.  Granted, I first encountered this game as a younger kid at the local A&W restaurant, and I had yet to start developing my skills at fighting games.  However, Yie Ar Kung-Fu disappeared off my radar right around that time, so I had little actual playing exposure to it.  I have tried the game when I randomly found one in the wild or at an expo, but I still remain pretty amateurish at it.

One of the things I always liked about Yie Ar Kung-Fu was the way the characters would fly around the screen while fighting.  If you've seen the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and recall the tree fighting scenes, the action seems similar in some ways.  I also liked the whole "against all odds" aspect, whereby your character is always fighting against characters who have some sort of weapons, making victories attained seem that much more incredible.

Looking back at Yie Ar Kung-Fu, one can see the foundation of game play which eventually became the the root of such fighting games as Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat and the like, though the latter games improved on features, graphics and added player versus player combat.  Still, for what it was, Yie Ar Kung-Fu had exciting game play.  After all, I was very much entertained by watching others play the game.

What games did you enjoy watching other people play more than playing them yourself?

Saturday, April 27, 2013

X is for Xybots

Xybots was another in a line of interesting games I discovered at the local Scandia Fun Center.  It was a 3-D first person shooter with a lot of interesting twists that kept the gameplay fun (and encouraged players to spend their quarters).

First, the game seemed to borrow elements of Gauntlet, an earlier maze game with a Dungeons and Dragons-esque theme.  In Xybots, you also navigated mazes and needed to destroy enemies in an effort to find the exit.  Also as in Gauntlet, you were able to collect money.  The interesting variant, though, was that you were able to spend money collected on various powerups.  Interestingly, succeeding versions of Gauntlet also eventually adopted the "spend money for powerups" model thereafter.  Xybots also allowed for two people to play simultaneously (another Gauntlet-like feature), which allowed for cooperative or somewhat competitive play as players vied for limited money and decided whether they would work together to destroy the enemies (or not).

One of the more novel features of Xybots was the joystick control.  The joysticks on Xybots both moved players in 8 directions and also rotated left and right, thereby allowing players to rotate their bodies 90 degrees left or right.  This allowed for players to potentially be moving in one direction and shooting in a completely different direction while traversing a 3-D maze.  Depending on the player location and orientation within the maze, the game play could provide some novel situations, such as the player on the "far end" of a corridor shooting towards enemies located at the "near end" of the screen (e.g. towards the person playing the game).

The other interesting aspect of Xybots was the split-screen display.  Since both players are wandering through a 3-D maze (and could be in different parts of the maze at the same time), the display is split so that each player sees the maze from their individual perspective.  There is also an overall map showing the locations of enemies, the exit, etc., and a status for each player showing energy, coins, powerups, etc.

Did you ever play Xybots?  If so, what did you think of it?

Friday, April 26, 2013

W is for Wizard of Wor

Wizard of Wor was another arcade game whose discovery for me was bass-ackward of how the game was actually released.  I played many, many games of Wizard of Wor on a friend's Atari 2600 as a youth.  It was only as an adult that I was privileged to be able to play an actual Wizard of Wor game at one of the California Extreme video game and pinball game expos.

Wizard of Wor was another Dungeons and Dragons inspired type of game, like Venture (the previous game I blogged about), which also focused largely on the dungeon experience.  Unlike Venture, though, Wizard of Wor had no rooms and no treasures, just smallish dungeon mazes and endless supplies of monsters to shoot.  There is a wizard (of Wor), who is able to teleport around the maze while going after the heroes, hence the name of the game.

Wizard of Wor also utilized the element of competition/cooperation, similar to Joust, where two players could play simultaneously, and could either work together to destroy the monsters, or could engage in direct competition including shooting each other's warriors.  I recall the latter behavior often being the source of my friend and I arguing when playing the Atari 2600 rendition of the game.

I always found Wizard of Wor to be a fast paced game, like Venture, and as such, one was able to look past the somewhat simplistic graphics to concentrate on the exciting game play.  I preferred to play cooperatively with other players rather than competitively.  I look forward to hopefully being able to play the game again at a future California Extreme.

What games did you first discover in ported form and later discovered the actual arcade game from which the port was made?

Thursday, April 25, 2013

V is for Venture

Unlike many of the games I've already blogged about, Venture is one that I actually encountered in non-arcade game forms first.  My first game of Venture was actually on the Atari 2600 at a neighbor's house which was hooked up to a black and white TV.  Later on I "discovered" the arcade version of Venture when I learned about the MAME arcade game emulator and had the opportunity to play the "arcade" version on my PC.  Eventually I found an actual Venture arcade game at the California Extreme expo and got to play it for real.

Venture's graphics were fairly minimal, as per the norm for many games from the early 1980's.  The poignant role of Venture for me was that it's a fairly fast paced fun attempt at simulating the dungeon adventure (hence the name) of Dungeons and Dragons, which I used to play from upper elementary school up through college.  Getting to run around racking up treasure, shooting monsters, avoiding traps and trying desperately the dodge the hall monsters made the game exciting despite the less than gripping graphics.  It was all about the game play.

I suspect that if I had managed to find an actual Venture arcade game as a youth I would have spent quite a few quarters on it.  Fortunately we have expositions and emulators so that games like this still exist.

What Dungeons and Dragons-esque arcade games have you played?

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

U is for Up'n Down

Folks familiar with classic arcade games of the car variety where the car is able to jump will usually think of either Bump 'n Jump or Jump Bug.  My favorite of the genre, though, happens to be Up'n Down, which I encountered at a local skating rink growing up.  I always found it to be a challenging but fun game, and I imagine if I had more pocket money at the time I would have spent quite a bit on this little game.

In Up'n Down you drive around a dune buggy which looks somewhat similar to a Volkswagen Beetle to my eye.  You race around trying to run over ten colored flags.  Along the way you have to avoid crashing into enemy cars or squish them by jumping your car on top of them.  You have to be careful though as you must navigate hills which speed up and slow down your car and bridges which have to be jumped over.  You have to make sure to not accidentally jump off the road into the grass or water.

As mentioned, I just found the gameplay on this game fun.  The first level isn't too bad to get through even for a beginner, so you quickly get that sense of accomplishment.  As the levels progress, though, the strategic use of speeding up, slowing down, choosing which fork to take in the road, etc., decries the challenging nature of a seemingly simple game.  The thing about this game, though, is that even when I was dying, it was a cute, entertaining game.

What did you think of Up'n Down, or what was your favorite classic car racing arcade game?

T is for Tron

I actually had a tough time choosing what game starting with T to write about because there are so many.  However, after some pondering, the game Tron stood out as being retro (given the recent Tron movie remake), multi-genre'd (given movies and video games), and ultimately iconic as a representative of the 1980's and 1980's video games at large, given its enthusiastic reception upon release.

Tron was the quintessential computer nerd's video game.  The plot of the video game loosely followed the plot of the Tron movie, during which a hacker was abducted into a computer world and forced to play video games for his survival.  The levels of the game all have names tied to computers, most of which are programming languages (albeit mostly dated ones by current standards).

The controls for Tron always stood out as somewhat unique and high tech at the time the game was made, given that you had a joystick with a trigger fire button that you worked in concert with a rotating dial for aiming.  The color schemes of the cabinet mimicked the neon blues, etc. of the movie.  The game play also got very hard very quickly, as you'd expect an enemy computer to do.  In all, the game seemed pretty futuristic for 1982 when it was released.  The music and sound effects were great as well.

To this day, Tron still remains a favorite of mine and I make sure to play it when I run across one at expos like California Extreme.  Given the control scheme described above, it's hard to emulate such a game; you really need to play the actual game in an actual cabinet to get the full experience.

End of line.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

S is for Super Pac-Man

It's a bird...it's a plane...it's Super Pac-Man!  Other than the extremely odd side-scrolling Pac-Land, which was based on the old Pac-Man cartoon, Super Pac-Man was probably one of the stranger members of the early days of the Pac-Man video game hierarchy.

I encountered Super Pac-Man as a kid at the Scandia in Fairfield during the Pac-Man gaming heyday.  At this time, along one of the walls there was a Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man and Super Pac-Man machine all next to each other.  If memory serves, the former two were already occupied, so I tried out Super Pac-Man.

The gameplay of Super Pac-Man was different from the norm from the beginning.  Instead of the usual dots, you had various foods or objects (depending on what board you were on).  You had to eat keys to open up access to the foods/objects, energizers and super energizers.  And, if you ate one of the special green energizers, you briefly turned into Super Pac-Man, which was basically a giant version of Pac-Man which was capable of going through the unlockable barriers, "flying" over/through the ghosts, and able to zoom around the maze very fast with the use of the "super speed" button.

It was the latter capability that fascinated me as a kid.  The ghosts always seemed like these perpetual monsters that would eventually get you no matter what.  So, it was really cool for your Pac-Man to be huge and super fast, going right through the ghosts.

It was also hilarious to me that in Super Pac-Man you could go inside the central area where the ghosts regenerate.  In fact, I recall getting stuck in there a couple of times (and naturally dying) after zooming around too fast as Super Pac-Man and the super energizer wearing off.

Super Pac-Man wasn't a huge commercial success, but I liked it.  But then, I like quirky games.  What spin-offs of popular games have you played and liked, particularly ones which may not have been popular with the masses?

Sunday, April 21, 2013

R is for Rampage

I first saw Rampage at the local Scandia arcade when I was in high school, and I remember thinking to myself I gotta play this game.  Monster movies have a long standing iconic status in our culture.  Everyone knows about King Kong, Godzilla, etc.  How could you pass up a game where you have the opportunity to be one of those monsters and do what they do best (destroying buildings, vehicles, eating people, etc.).

I also liked Rampage because it had 3 sets of controls, so all three monsters could play at the same time, in either competitive or cooperative style as the players saw fit.  I usually went to Scandia with a couple of friends, so that meant all three of us could cause monster mayhem at the same time.  The monsters could also hit each other or knock each other into enemy weapons or pools or what have you, usually with hilarious consequences.

I liked being Ralph the giant wolf the best, followed by George the killer ape and then Lizzie the huge lizard.  We usually fought over who had to be Lizzie because George and Ralph were guys, while Lizzie was a girl (stupid guy teenager logic at its finest).

Interestingly enough, getting to play the role of a traditional villain kept its appeal for me.  Later on when Super Mario Kart (and the resultant series) took off, I usually liked being Bowser rather than one of the "good guy" characters (go figure).

What did you think of Rampage?  Enjoy rooting for and being the traditional bad guy?

Q is for Qix

My initial introduction to Qix was actually in junior high or high school through a video game strategy book which covered a dozen or so games from the 1980s.  I remember being intrigued by the description of the gameplay as well as the use of the word googleplex, which was used to describe the variation on resultant board patterns which could be seen during gameplay.  Not to mention that the game name actually started with Q, which was rare and which I thought was cool (given my Scrabble playing experiences).

I actually can't remember the place I first found a Qix machine.  I just remember seeing it in an arcade and saying to myself "Hey! There's that cool nerdly Qix game you read about.  Let's try it!"

Suffice it to say, the game is harder than it looks.  It seems on the surface to be some sort of souped up Etch-A-Sketch, but it's a lot harder to draw what you want when you've got enemies chasing you and when the huge Qix is zooming around the screen randomly (though always seeming to want to go at you).  Playing the game was always quite a workout as well, because you had to follow the contours of the filled-in screen if you weren't in the process of drawing a line, and I remember my arm being tired after a few games.

What games have you played that had a seemingly simple premise but when played turned out to be more complicated than was evident on the surface?

Thursday, April 18, 2013

P is for Paperboy

Paperboy was one of those games that was easy to start to play, hard to learn to play well, but still typically was fun almost every time you played due to the ridiculous things you could do while playing the game.  In case you couldn't guess from the title, you're a paperboy, whose objective is to safely deliver papers to the light colored subscriber houses while simultaneously avoiding obstacles and vandalizing the dark colored non-subscriber houses.  Obstacles range from cars, people, fences, dogs, breakdancers, bombs and bees (the same ones from 720 degrees) if you go too slowly.

Honestly, did anyone ever deliberately start the game on Hard Way?  I always picked Easy Street, and even doing so only usually allowed me to last a couple of delivery days (usually).  I also usually managed to crash and burn early on in the obstacle course that you try to complete after you reach the end of the street.

One of my favorite things about the game was the controls, which were designed to look like bike handle bars.  You push the handle bars forward to go faster, pull back to go slower, and the buttons for throwing papers were on the handle bars too.  It felt pretty much like you were steering a bike as you were playing.

I also have fond memories of the game because I had a paper route as a kid, so I remember those days of biking around with a heavy load of papers and delivering them.  Nowadays I think the paper gets delivered by some guy driving around in a car.  Thankfully I never had to deal with obstacles like the guy in Paperboy though :-)

How many days could you survive on Paperboy?

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

O is for Off The Wall

My first encounter with Off The Wall was actually the 1979 Michael Jackson album (Don't Stop Til You Get Enough!).  My second encounter with Off The Wall was the early 1990's Breakout clone.  The interesting part of the story this time around actually has less to do with the game itself and more about the circumstances under which I encountered said game.

In the fall of 1991 I was just a freshman at UC Davis, and having no car, I spent a good deal of time getting acquainted with my new city of residence riding my bike.  As it so happened, I was riding through downtown on G Street when a sign caught my eye.  "The Library" was painted on it in fairly plain letters, and the location seemed a bit plain and frankly, un-library-like.  Naturally my curiosity got the best of me, so I parked and locked my bike and went in.

Lo and behold, I found that The Library wasn't a library at all, but was a reasonably sized video game arcade occupying two large rooms worth of real estate!  After getting over the wonderment of having found this random video game arcade in my new town, I naturally got some change and went to play some games.  The first game I ended up playing that day was Off The Wall.

Off The Wall was an okay game in and of itself, and added various widgets onto the Breakout theme.  It also had a multiplayer option which was a change from, say, Arkanoid.  However, having played Arkanoid quite a bit, I wasn't as wowed by Off The Wall as I otherwise might have been.  Not to mention the fact that the game behind Off The Wall, Mortal Kombat, was the one getting all of the attention from avid gamers.  I actually spent a good deal of time watching folks squaring off and seeing fatalities for the first time was a trip.

I still laugh to this day when I think about the genius of naming an arcade "The Library".  I just imagine the conversations kids would have with their parents:  "Hey Jimmy, where are you going?"  "I'm going to The Library!"  "Ok, that sounds nice." lolz

The Library has long since closed down, and I can't even remember what business took over the space now.  I spent quite a few dollars playing various classic and current video games at The Library, and it was a nice place to have a study break in between the rigors of an engineering major and band events and practice.

What's the most interesting name for an arcade you recall?

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

N is for Noah's Ark

There aren't a lot of arcade games starting with the letter N that really stood out for me.  But, I do remember a strange game I saw when I used to go with the family to the Scandia in Fairfield called Noah's Ark that seemed worth a post.

Noah's Ark was one of those games where you just looked at it and thought why the heck would anyone make a game about this?  As you'd expect if you have any familiarity with the biblical story about Noah, you control Noah as he runs around trying to collect pairs of animals.  That was pretty much it.  I think I played part of a game of it and just left it for someone else to play, as I sought out games with more action.

If memory serves, the game itself was in one of the smaller upright arcade cabinets as opposed to the usual sized ones, probably to try to encourage little kids to play the game.  At the time, Scandia had Noah's Ark mixed into the section of ticket games, hoping for little kid money?  Unfortunately, that game gave no tickets out for scoring achievements, so if anything it was largely treated as a novelty.

Have you ever come across a game and wondered why they made this into a game?  Alternately, what other biblical-themed arcade games have you seen if any?

M is for Ms. Pacman

I'd be remiss if I didn't include a blog post about Ms. Pacman.  For me, this was the game that turned me into a patron of arcade games.  Ironically, one can still find Ms. Pacman machines about here and there, and seeing one never fails to bring forth wonderful feelings of nostalgia and joy.

I had encountered video games before Ms Pacman.  I vaguely recall going to a Chuck E. Cheese with relatives down in southern California and playing some games, but my memories were vague and I was young enough that I know I didn't know what I was doing.  I had also spent some time watching people play games at the skating rink, such as Galaxian and Asteroids, but up to that point I never had spent any money of my own (not that I had much anyways).

All of that changed when my parents surprised me with a birthday party at the roller rink.  Besides being surprised by all of my friends showing up to skate with us, they were also tossing quarters in my direction and suggesting I play some video games.  The first game I skated up to that day was a Ms. Pacman machine, and the rest, as they say, is history.

I find it ironic that I first played Ms. Pacman as opposed to Pacman, which historically is regarded as one of, if not the quintessential 1980's arcade game.  However, I always found Ms. Pacman to be a better game, given the variance in mazes, the floating fruits, and I enjoyed the intermissions with the "story" of Pacman and Ms. Pacman meeting, hooking up and eventually making a Jr. Pacman much more than the ones in the original Pacman game.

What was the first arcade game you ever put a quarter into?

Saturday, April 13, 2013

L is for Lost Tomb

Lost Tomb was a mystifying game to me as a kid, largely because the attract screens didn't show anything about what the actual gameplay was like!  In attract mode, all you got to see was a picture of a pyramid, the words Lost Tomb, and an invitation to insert a coin.  This made it hard for me to play the game in the first place.

However, as you'd expect, eventually my curiosity got the better of me and I did play a few games of Lost Tomb.  I quickly found out it was more than a handful for a kid just getting into game playing (at the time).  As you'd expect, the game is set in a pyramid.  You're an explorer, trying to go through the pyramid's rooms and hallways, collecting treasures and trying not to get killed by various monsters and enemies including spiders and vampire bats.  You also have to avoid causing earthquakes via too much shooting/whip usage.

You have weapons, namely a gun and whip (though limited uses of the latter) and your character is controlled by TWO joysticks and a button (the button for the whip).  The two joystick control model also gets used in games like Robotron, but at the time I found Lost Tomb I had not played such a game nor I was able to easily get used to the controls.  So, I ended up only playing a few games of Lost Tomb.  However, I did enjoy watching the older teenagers play the game and going through room after room racking up treasures.

What games do you remember not being very good at yourself but you enjoyed watching others play who were good?

Friday, April 12, 2013

K is for Kick Man

Ah, Kick Man, what a strange game, both fun to play and frustrating to play well for various reasons.  I first encountered Kick Man at the local skating rink and later at the local A&W restaurant.  I never was able to score very high on the game as a kid, but did considerably better when I encountered it decades later at video game expos like California Extreme.

In Kick Man, you control a clown riding a unicycle.  The trackball allows you to move the clown left and right and controls the speed at which he does so.  At the top of the screen in each level are a collection of balloons and assorted Pac-Man characters (Pac-Man and ghosts in later rounds).  Items fall from the top of the screen at various speeds and you're supposed to catch them on your head.  If the item gets too low, you can kick the item back up towards the top of the screen (hence the name of the game).  When the stack of items gets too high, the clown will pop all of the items.  Alternatively, if you can catch a Pac-Man, the Pac-Man will eat all of the items before landing on your head (which is worth more points).

Naturally, as the game progresses, it gets faster and more difficult.  You often find yourself kicking and juggling more than one item at a time.  And, dealing with a high stack of items on the clown's head while objects are falling fast makes the game quite difficult.  Periodic bonus stages also introduce the concept of bombs being tossed down (which you're supposed to avoid).

Having said all of the above, the game is a strange amalgamation, combining elements of the games Breakout and Clowns with a sprinkling of Pac-man and a touch of the Atari VCS game Kaboom! (for the bombs).  A seemingly strange combination, but in the end it actually works well.  Depending on how well maintained the machine you play is, it can also be quite a workout as you frantically spin the trackball back and forth trying to juggle balloons, Pac-Man and ghosts.

What games have you played that have borrowed from other previously existing games or which are strange combinations of existing games?

Thursday, April 11, 2013

J is for Joust

Joust always stood out for me as one of those simplistically weird games.  It was easy to get started playing but tough to master.  Unlike the previous game I discussed, I Robot, Joust's weirdness is subtle, and it's only once you delve into the game with more detail that you realize just how weird it is.

The first thing I remember noticing was that the controls are pretty simple, just a joystick and a button per player.  Ah, but the joystick only moves you left and right, and the button is labeled "flap".  Joust and its successors are just about the only games I can recall where you have a "flap" button.

And why, pray tell is there a flap button?  Naturally, because your player is riding an ostrich.  Yes, I said ostrich.  And the enemies are riding buzzards, so there.  Thus, the flap button gets to be mashed rapidly in succession by you, the player, to make your rider rise up into the air, mashed in regular pattern to hover (or virtually hover), and stop outright to make the rider fall down.

Then, you come to realize that the playing field is an island surrounded by volcano-esque "liquid hot magma" which can kill you if you get too close or fall in (in later levels).  Taking too long on a given level (or just reaching a high enough level) also reveals the tough to kill pterodactyl.  Yes, the game has dinosaurs too.

One thing I always liked about the game was the ability for two players to play simultaneously.  This allowed for either strategic cooperative play as both players try to destroy the enemies, or competitive play where both players kill enemies and also each other.  If I was playing two players, I preferred naturally to play cooperatively, because I hated if my game ended quickly due to someone just trying to kill me instead of the enemies.

"Thy Game Is Over", as the end of game message displays.  Have you ever played Joust, and if so, have you ever managed to kill the pterodactyl?

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

I is for I, Robot

The first I, Robot I encountered in my youth was not the Asimov short story, and it would be many years before the Will Smith movie.  Rather, the I, Robot I remember was a quirky early 1980's arcade game I first encountered at the local roller rink.

I, Robot was immediately striking due to its innovative graphics.  It was the first commercial video game with 3-D filled polygon graphics.  In addition to the board mazes and space theme, obstacles such as birds, bombs, sharks and such provided a colorful and odd game display.  The game also had camera control, whereby you could change the angle of the playfield, which could increase your score multiplier for using angles that made it harder to see.

The game scenario was pretty quirky, as mentioned.  You play a robot, and the object of the game is to run over the colored squares in each maze to turn them blue, thereby destroying the shield and eye at the end of the maze, which is constantly watching you.  You are only allowed to jump when the eye is green.  Attempting to jump when the eye is red results in you being destroyed.  In between mazes you travel through space and have to shoot various obstacles in order to reach the next one.

I, Robot also provided a game mode called "Doodle City", where instead of playing the actual I, Robot game, you can use the various items in the game to draw on the screen.  As you can probably imagine, I never understood why anyone would want to pay quarters just to fiddle around with Doodle City, but then I did see some people playing with it.

All told, I, Robot wasn't much of a commercial success, so the machines are pretty rare.  You'll most likely find them in people's private collections or possibly at video game expos like the annual one held at California Extreme.  For all of its weirdness, I find I, Robot to be a pretty fun game to play, and I do make a point to play it when I happen upon one.

What quirky games have you come across that you would recommend playing despite their oddness?

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

H is for Hogan's Alley

It's more likely that you'd remember Hogan's Alley as an NES cartridge instead of as an arcade game.  Generally speaking, I do as well, since folks who were into using the light gun for the NES typically had either Duck Hunt or Hogan's Alley (or both).

However, my first encounter with Hogan's Alley was at a local skating rink as an upright arcade game.  To be honest, as a kid, I was a little taken aback by the game, in a "what's the big deal?" kind of way.  At the time, the gun apparatus on the game seemed odd against the backdrop of games with joysticks, buttons and the like.  Oh sure, there were gun games before, but a lot of them were target based, and usually used some sort of large gun apparatus as the control, as opposed to something resembling a hand pistol.

Much like I did with the debut of new candy bars, I gave Hogan's Alley a try or two.  I quickly found out I wasn't much good at it, with too slow of reaction times to figure out where the bad guy targets were to shoot.  Given the resultant brevity of games, I quickly abandoned Hogan's Alley as quickly as I tried it.

I found that I haven't gotten much better at target or action first person shooters as an adult, either, so I suspect I'm just not really made for such activities.

Did you ever play Hogan's Alley in the arcade?  What do you think about first person shooter games in general, either past or present?

Monday, April 8, 2013

G is for Galaga '88

It was a day like any other trip to the Scandia Fun Center.  I locked up my bike outside, got my usual $5 worth of tokens (had a little more pocket money in high school), and cruised around the arcade to see what looked like a good game to start playing.  There I saw my first Galaga '88 machine, sitting nonchalantly in a cluster of games not currently in use.  I ended up spending a good chunk of my tokens on Galaga '88 that afternoon.

Galaga '88 was the sequel to Galaga; well, second sequel when one counts the rare Galaga 3 game, which I believe I had played once prior to seeing Galaga '88.  Galaga and Galaxian had pretty much come and gone by the time Galaga '88 showed up in the arcade, so for me, Galaga '88 brought an immediate sense of nostalgia along with what I discovered were upgraded gameplay elements.

For example, Galaga '88 built on Galaga's feature of being able to have your ship be captured (deliberately) by a boss alien, and using your next ship (life) to shoot said alien once it came down from the formation, thereby granting you a double ship.  Galaga '88 allowed a double ship to be captured and gave you the opportunity to do the same in order to get a _triple_ ship, which was a mass of firepower (albeit via a much wider target for enemy shots).  You could even start your game with a double ship (and 1 life left) to try to accelerate this process at the start of the game.

Galaga '88 also had the concept of warping to different dimensions.  Through the collection of two canisters, after finishing a challenging (bonus) stage, you would warp to the next dimension.  Each dimension had aliens with various abilities and characteristics making the game easier or harder to play, so some strategy needed to be used to decide when and if to collect sufficient canisters to warp.  The big boss alien was also different in each dimension.

As a musician, one of the biggest highlights of Galaga '88 for me was the music.  All of the music, be it, in-game, credits, challenging stages were all great.  In fact, the challenging stages had the extra special touch of each one using music from a different kind of dance.  The first few, if I recall correctly, were waltz, tango, swing and samba.  In the challenging stages, the aliens would move/dance in time with the music, which was both highly entertaining as well as challenging to try to shoot them down.  Pattern memorization was key.

I managed to find a Galaga '88 machine at a recent California Extreme expo, and had a great time playing it again as an adult.  Truth be told, I managed to score higher on it as an adult than as a teenager.  With age comes experience?

What games bring you straight back into nostalgia land?

Saturday, April 6, 2013

F is for Frogger

To be honest, an arcade was not the first place I ever played Frogger.  I actually first played a computer version of Frogger at a fairly young age at a friend's house, and recall being able to get to level 4 after a couple of hours of playing.  I would later discover a Frogger machine at Scandia Fun Center, and would rediscover it periodically at arcades thereafter.

Frogger honestly frightened me to play it as a young kid, because I was scared of the graphics when your frog got run over by a car.  Your frog looked like it blew up like a balloon and transformed into a purple skull and crossbones.  If I was going to die, I much preferred it to be on an errant jump into the water, because of no balloon death effect.

In terms of classic arcade games, Frogger seems to be one of the ones that persists and shows up in places where there are just a couple/few games.  Well, that and Galaga it seems.  It's a simple enough game (or so it seems), needing just a joystick to play, and thus is able to draw in all kinds of players.  My dad doesn't like video games, but even he has been known to play a game or two of Frogger when a machine is found.

Frogger has persisted over time as well in various forms.  It has been ported to multiple home video game systems with updated game play.  I believe my sister still has the miniature arcade cabinet-looking battery powered version she had when we were kids.  I still have a Frogger board game up in the rafters somewhere.  And lately, I noticed a Frogger-themed ticket game show up at Dave and Busters.  Not bad for a game about a frog trying to cross a busy road and a river to get home.

Got any Frogger stories?  Hop to it and leave them in a comment :-)

Friday, April 5, 2013

E is for Excitebike

Most people probably remember Excitebike from playing it on a home game system like the NES or one of its derivative systems.  In my case, though, I remember playing it first as an arcade game!  So, this post is somewhat dual purpose, to talk about both Excitebike and the circumstances of its discovery for me.

PlayChoice 10 was an unusual arcade game concept, whereby instead of paying for playing an individual game, you paid for time to play whatever games you liked (of the provided set of ten, hence the name).  The more quarters you put in, the more time you had to play.  The game titles in the PlayChoice 10 games varied from game to game (all told over 50 possible titles were available through the early 1990's) but the one I found at our local skating rink had Excitebike, or more precisely Vs. Excitebike as this variant was called.

Excitebike was fascinating to me from the onset because there were some guys that used to play it that were really good.  I spent a lot of time watching people play games as well as playing them, and it was really cool seeing someone expertly racing their bikes around the courses with (seemingly insane) jump combos, avoiding other bikes, jumping over dirt patches, weaving around oil slicks, etc.  Some guys seemed like they could just play the game for hours.

Excitebike remains fascinating to me because of the personal difficulty I have in playing the game well.  I've never been able to play the game well enough to go more than a couple of levels before I'd lose.  I suspect if I practiced enough (like with many things) I'd be able to do better on it.  However, this game was one of those that I never took the time to master.

Have you ever played Excitebike in an arcade setting?  Seen a PlayChoice 10?  What games fascinate you because they are difficult for you to play well?

Thursday, April 4, 2013

D is for Dig Dug

The Dig Dug machine beckoned from the row of video games along the wall in the usual spot at a roller rink up in Santa Rosa while attending a friend's birthday party.  [Aside - I'm noticing just how many of the games I'm talking about first showed up at roller rinks.  And, how much more prevalent roller rinks were when I was a kid than today.  But I digress.]  Again, it was the early 1980's.

Looking back, the premise of Dig Dug was pretty weird, with the need to blow up your enemies with air until they popped like a balloon, digging tunnels underground, making rocks fall to reveal bonus "fruit" (ala Pacman), etc.

It was the little things that had me playing this game as often as I did in the arcade.  I liked to see the level indicator at the upper right of the screen (shown via number and type of flowers).  I liked getting to successive levels to see what the next bonus fruit was going to be.  There was also the challenge of seeing how many enemies you could manage to squash with one rock in a really long tunnel.  These goals actually superseded the concept of trying to attain the highest score possible.

I also liked trying to dig up as much of the screen as possible while still not finishing the level.  This naturally became more difficult as more of the screen was dug up.  You needed to keep at least two enemies around, because when you were down to one enemy it would typically go through tunnels or ghost through them to the top of the screen and exit stage left.  Given a lack of tunnel walls, also, the movement of said two enemies became somewhat unpredictable and dangerous.  As I recall, I only accomplished emptying the screen of dirt on the Apple II port of the game, which also had the added advantage that the Fygars (the dragon-looking enemies) were stripped of their ability to breathe fire.

Dig Dug was also one of the first games I remember playing that had the option to put in more money to continue.  As a younger child with less pocket money for games, I was more content to let the game end and start over, thereby allowing me to play more levels than to try again on a harder level.  I think I tried the continue once and died really fast, resulting in continues being labeled a ripoff by me.

How high of a score did you get on Dig Dug?  Did you ever use the continue feature?

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

C is for Crystal Castles

Crystal Castles was another game I first played at the local roller rink, and has remained a retro favorite for me to this day.  The game featured a number of unique qualities which made it into a standout when it first debuted in the early 1980's.

First, the game mazes (castles) are presented in a quasi-3D format.  In addition to the maze as an obstacle in and of itself, the castles also have elevators, tunnels, and in some cases navigable spaces _behind_ portions of the building, the latter of which force you to guide Bentley Bear, your character behind the building, which can be challenging.

Second, the game controls consist of a track ball and a jump button.  With the track ball, the speed at which the ball is turned controls the speed of Bentley Bear.  Thus, skill must be employed to be able to make Bentley Bear move the way you want him to, and strategy must be employed when jumping to make Bentley be able to effectively evade enemies, which move faster and faster on each successive level.

Third, the plot elements of the game are just unusual.  You're a bear, collecting gems, avoiding monsters (which are also eating gems).  There's a witch, whom you can kill if you're wearing the invincibility hat.  There's a honey pot bonus, which if collected keeps a swarm of bees away temporarily, unless you take too long on a level, in which case the bees come back and pursue you relentlessly.

Finally, as a musician, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the game music.  The game utilizes snippets of classical music from Liszt and Tchaikovsky, the most pervasive of which is a snippet from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite which plays after each level completion.  At the time I found this game, I had coincidentally been playing excerpts of the Nutcracker Suite in concert band, so suffice it to say I was pleased to hear the same music in the game!

I still like to play Crystal Castles when I find one, though they're obviously getting more rare as time rolls on. What other unusual arcade games have you played?  Or how about games with great uses of music?

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

B is for BreakThru

BreakThru was an odd mid-1980's side-scrolling vehicular combat video game which I spent quite a bit of time playing in my youth, but not for reasons you'd originally expect.  I first encountered the game at the local A&W Rootbeer establishment.  Over the course of several dollars worth of quarters, I eventually was able to master it.

I found the game interesting initially because your car could both shoot things and jump up in the air, which when combined with speed variance could result in jumping the from the top to the bottom of the screen.  Thus, there was strategy involved as to when to go fast versus slow, when to jump, knowing when and where certain bonuses were available to both maximize your score and in some cases to just plain survive a tough enemy.

Like many mission-based games which were out at that time (Bad Dudes, Double Dragon, Altered Beast, etc.) there were a total of five stages.  However, one odd feature that intrigued me was the end of game continue.  Upon successfully getting through the final stage, the player had the option to start the game over a second time beginning at whatever stage the player liked.  Successfully finishing the final stage a second time would terminate the game.

The game continuing feature was the thing that had me continuing to play this game when it arrived at the local skating rink.  I was always cash limited at the skating rink, so I looked to play games where I could maximize my playing time per quarter.  With the continuing feature and starting over at the first stage, I could make one game of BreakThru last over half an hour!  Call it a victory for frugality in the face of economic adversity (from a kid's perspective anyways, rolling my eyes).

I don't remember the sequence of enemies any more, so I'm sure it would take practice if I was to attempt the same feat on a BreakThru machine today.  Still, the memories of "beating the system" at the time, as it were, still make me smile.

Were you able to beat BreakThru, or other similar games to make your game playing money last?  Would love to hear other stories of conquering frugality.

Monday, April 1, 2013

A is for Arkanoid

Well, it's April A to Z blogging season again, and my lovely wife Sonnia persuaded me to once again participate again this year.  I'm not always inspired to write, which is why my blog has been dormant of late.  Hopefully those of you who kept your subscriptions around for some reason (You like me! You really like me!) and those of you who might be checking my blog out for the first time will be entertained in some fashion.

I'm going to attempt to stick to a theme this year, which (if successful) should become apparent over the next few days of entries.

Arkanoid is a mid-1980's reboot of the classic Atari Breakout series of games from the 1970's (which were in turn a vertical descendant of the old Pong game, but I digress).  I first came upon an Arkanoid machine on a random trip to the yogurt shop adjacent to our usual grocery store.  I quickly became addicted to the game for multiple reasons.  

The nostalgia factor was an obvious draw (even as a youth), as I had played many games of Super Breakout on a friend's Atari 2600 home system.  The gameplay was expanded in multiple directions as well.  Every successive board had its own unique layout, some of which were interesting pictures, and which included bricks which could require multiple shots or in some cases were indestructible.  You now had enemy aliens to contend with which when hit would send the ball careening off in a random direction.  Power up capsules would drop down from some bricks when destroyed, which if caught bestowed bonuses like expanding the paddle, allowing you to catch the ball, making your ball able to go through bricks instead of bouncing off, multiplying your ball into many balls, or even weaponizing your paddle with a laser (pew pew pew!).  

The addition of power up capsules and board layouts added elements of strategy (should you go try to catch that laser capsule coming down or keep your expanded paddle?) to elements of luck (pesky aliens), and the draw of seeing the next board (what's going to be the picture on level 5) resulted in the game turning quickly into a quarter eater.  The game allowed continues, so theoretically if you had unlimited quarters you could finish the game at one sitting.  I never managed more than a game or two in those days.

I ended up liking the game so much that I bought the home computer version when it came out for my Apple IIgs computer (yep, obscure old school).  I spent many hours playing the game (eventually beating it) and constructing custom levels.  

If memory serves, last time I was at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk there was still an Arkanoid machine in the arcade.  Worth a play?  You bet!

Do you have any fond memories of Arkanoid?  I'd love to hear about it in a comment below.

M-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-mega ball!!!!!!!