Jun 292012

Spy Hunter sticker imageWhen I was a child, arcade gaming was a way of life. In addition to dedicated arcades such as Aladdin’s Castle, arcade games could be found in all sorts of ancillary locations. Laundromats, convenience stores and even some restaurants would have a couple of cabinets on hand to pass the time. You could hardly swing a cat without hitting an arcade machine, which is just how I liked it, even if the cats didn’t appreciate it so much. Dedicated arcades were the province of malls or other out-of-the-way places, so most of my exposure to these games came from those isolated cabinets. One of the earliest arcade games I fell in love with was Bally Midway’s classic Spy Hunter, located in a Stop-n-Go in the Florida town I lived in.

Spy Hunter puts you behind the wheel of a tricked-out car on a never-ending race against the eponymous spy hunters. Your vehicle comes equipped automatically with infinite-capacity machine guns, which can be used to take down some of your enemies. Other opponents are either bulletproof or remain out of reach of machineguns. For these foes (and to help with the others whom you can still shoot, of course), you’ll need to upgrade, which is accomplished by driving up into a semi, much like Knight Rider, the television series that premiered a year before. Via the semi, you can acquire limited supplies of oil slicks, smoke screens and even surface-to-air missiles. A light on the cabinet’s display will even flash to get your attention when the semi approaches, which would hopefully help prevent you from accidentally wiping it out with said weapons. In addition to weapons, you can also ram some enemies off the road, but you’ll have to exercise caution not to run off the road and into a tree yourself.

Spy Hunter, Upgrade Time

This smokescreen semi couldn’t have come at a better time. Now all you have to do is survive long enough to get in it.

Your car is controlled through a gas pedal for speed and a steering wheel (complete with weapon triggers) for direction and attacking. Points are awarded for distance covered as well as enemies eliminated, so driving faster will result in a higher score but make it more likely you’ll rear-end someone, totalling your car. And you do not want to crash this car. In addition to the travesty of smashing up this sweet ride, you’ll end the game very quickly. Unlike many games, Spy Hunter starts off with a timer, about a minute and a half long, during which you have infinite lives. Get destroyed during this period and you’ll lose nothing but scoring opportunity. Once the timer ends, however, you have only the car you’re driving, plus any extra cars you earned from bonus points.

Civilians are an issue. They populate the roads and get in the way of your glorious escape. Accidentally destroying them isn’t as punitive as it is in, say, Operation Wolf, Lethal Enforcers or even City Connection — they won’t cost you a life — but they’ll temporarily disable earning any points. While you’d often have to actually try to destroy civilian cars (watch that machinegun fire), it’s very easy to nudge motorcycles with your own car and wipe them out. But really, that’s kind of what they get for being in your way. You’re trying to save the world from some nefarious plot; they’re just trying to save a little gas by driving a bike.

Stay alive long enough and you’ll have the opportunity to covert your spy car into a boat and take to the open water. This provides a nice dash of variety, even if the gameplay changes only slightly (the coolest change being that oil slicks catch fire, leaving a trail of flames that torches enemies.) Eventually, you’ll cycle through terrain changes, such as the gray environments of an icy winter.

Spy Hunter, Boat Chase

Laying down a trail of flames in a speedboat while evading all enemies. Does it get any better than that?

Technically, Spy Hunter was and is a remarkable game. It sported a much larger resolution (480×480) than almost any other game of the time or, for that matter, most arcade games following it for the next two decades; even modern widescreen sprite-based games rarely crossed 400 pixels in either dimension. This enabled the sprites it used to be small yet surprisingly detailed, an important element in trying to tell the good guys from the bad guys without relying on silly high-contrasting elements like pink cars. The graphics and sound, use of multiple weapons, different enemies with distinct attack patterns and even the ability to detour into playing on water were significantly above the depth offered by many other arcade games at the time, including hits like Zaxxon, Xevious and Pole Position.

Despite a legacy that includes a buggy-but-fun NES port, a terrible arcade sequel, and some very respectable re-imaginings on the PS2, the original Spy Hunter is still the best. It’s also one of those games that, unfortunately, you need to play in a cabinet to truly appreciate; while the game can be emulated, the experience of controlling your car through a keyboard, joystick or even mouse ranges from mediocre to rage-inducing. You’re best off seeking out an old-school arcade (for a variety of reasons, in truth) and spending some quality time cruising to the tune of Peter Gunn.

Jun 222012

Raid Over Moscow sticker imageIt was 1984 and even though we were 30+ years into of the Cold War and (unknown to us) nearing its end, we were clearly at the height of its social and media exposure. One year earlier, Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy had narrowly avoided starting a nuclear war in Wargames. Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen were about to lead a guerrilla resistance of russian occupation in Red Dawn. And in a year, Sylvester Stallone as Rocky would be tackling Dolph Lundgren’s Ivan Drago (“I must break you”) in Rocky IV. Far from attempting to hide the Cold War, the entertainment industry was riding the idea all the way to the bank. Propaganda or Capitalism? Either way, it opposed the doctrines of Communism represented by the Soviet Union.

Enter Raid Over Moscow, not the first Cold War-based computer game, but arguably the greatest of its era. As the name might suggest, the ultimate successful conclusion of the game will put you in the position of directly attacking the heart of the USSR. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start from the beginning. The game’s intro sets the stage. Following successful anti-nuclear movements throughout America and Europe, the United States and Soviet Union signed a nuclear disarmament treaty. The U.S. has complied with the treaty, desroyed all of their missiles and is replacing its arsenal with a series of defense satellites bearing both lasers and military dropships. The USSR has not been able to implement such a plan so, while on the surface they have been disarming, they have hidden nuclear stockpiles in three major cities. When tensions increase due to a American-Russian conflict in the Persian Gulf, the Soviets launch their missiles, threatening to detonate if the U.S. does not back down in the gulf. In response, the United States dispatches the forces from its single operational satellite to take out the control centers for the missiles and then strike the Soviet headquarters.

Raid Over Moscow, Incoming Nuclear Strike

The world map, displaying the current incoming strike from Russia. Note: Incoming Russian nuclear missles are not to scale.

As a youngster in middle school I didn’t really grasp the full context of this intro, being content to just blow stuff up and save the world, but this story has a surprising amount of complexity for an action game in its time. Many developers (and players) would have been satisfied with the mere concept of intercepting and stopping a Soviet nuclear launch, but the backstory surrounding disarmament and Persian Gulf conflict were remarkably prescient. To be sure, there are some gaps in the logic involved, and the technology proposed within the game still isn’t feasible nearly 30 years later, but it was still a great step forward for action gaming.

You take control of the commander of the satellite station, and will be responsible for the decisions that will (hopefully) save the United States from nuclear annihilation. The first of these decisions is how many shuttles to launch from your satellite during each sortie. You have to pilot each out manually, potentially destroying them in the process. Take too long, and the missiles in the air will touch down, obliterating a United States city. Don’t take enough shuttles, and you may run out of them during the next step of the process, a Zaxxon-style shooting stage leading to the enemy control center. Running out of shuttles would be a bad thing, as it means starting back at the satellite and travelling to the city all over again. Assuming you make it through this, you’ll still need to face down a number of armed bunkers to take down the control center. And if you defeat that, there are two other major cities just waiting to launch their nuclear strikes. Why didn’t all three cities launch simultaneously? Who knows, but that kind of thinking must be why we won.

After disabling the nuclear arsenals at Minsk, Leningrad and Saratov, it’s time for Moscow itself. You’ll have another Zaxxon-esque flying stage to tackle on your approach before, armed with nothing more than a grenade launcher, you assault… the State Historical Museum? Well, that’s a little weird, but I can’t blame the developers for possibly thinking this was the Kremlin considering how many people nowadays make that mistake. It certainly looks more Russian than the chief building of the Kremlin–maybe that was the reason. The only building more demonstrably Russian is St. Basil’s Cathedral, which would later be featured on the cover of Tetris–and who would want to blow up that?

Raid Over Moscow, Assaulting Moscow

Admittedly, it was convenient that someone dug a trench in Red Square that you could hide in while bombarding the capital.

Even after you’ve overcome snipers and a weird alien tank-thing to bust into this building, you’re still not done. The central reactor for Moscow is guarded by not just one but two drones that you must take out Deadly Discs of Tron-style. This is very difficult and complicated by the fact that after the first drone is defeated, a reactor explosion counter starts, and you’ll need to defeat the second drone in time to successfully escape.

Raid Over Moscow is a remarkable game for its time. The game has six different types of gameplay to go through, all loaded into memory simultaneously and all sporting graphics that, while sometimes simple, are quite respectable. You’re challenged right off the bat to pilot shuttles out of your satellite, dealing with altitude, direction and inertia all at once. Things only get trickier from there and the fast action plus missile detonation deadlines really stress the urgency of a Defcon 1 scenario. And although modern games (especially shooters) still portray Russians as a force of potential evil in the world, we may never again see a game that so places you so squarely in the iron-clad tension of the Cold War. While the fears represented in the game when it was published were very real, now Raid Over Moscow serves only as a look into what could have been, and thankfully wasn’t.

Jun 162012

Marvel vs. Capcom sticker imageIt seems like just yesterday that my wife and I bought Street Fighter II Turbo for the SNES–our first joint purchase. Many a heated match were fought pitting her Guile against my Chun-Li, her Ken vs. my Ryu. Little did we know how the face of fighting games was changing. X-Men: Children of the Atom and Marvel Super Heroes, bearing super-powered combatants, were just around the corner and, in 1996, the fighting game crossover was born with X-Men vs. Street Fighter. (While previous crossover games like Battletoads and Double Dragon and Aliens vs. Predator had been created, they were beat-em-ups and not fighting games.) Capcom had a grand idea on their hands, and they followed up with Marvel Super Heroes vs. Street Fighter. It was only inevitable that they would take it to the next level with Marvel vs. Capcom: Clash of Super Heroes.

It’s easy to forget, now that the world has seen Namco vs. Capcom, Tatsunoko vs. Capcom and Marvel vs. Capcom 3, just how amazing this concept was. For the first time, characters with no place in a fighting game–some of them believed to be losts to the mists of time–were duking it out in the arcade. Popular favorites like Mega Man as well as obscure characters like Jin Saotome (of Cyberbots) joined the expected Street Fighter II cast and even members of Darkstalkers, while the Marvel side also added some new characters not seen in any of Capcom’s previous Marvel fighting games. You select two characters to fight with, as well as a random “helper” which enabled the inclusion of cameos in the game for characters who would not be feasible to play on their own, like Michelle Heart from Legendary Wings. My team of choice? Strider Hiryu and Chun-Li, with, if I was lucky, Saki of Quiz Nanairo Dreams as an assistant.

Marvel vs. Capcom, Strider Hiryu vs. Morrigan

Strider Hiryu shows off his cipher skills; Morrigan is unimpressed.

Not that you play a game like this for the story, but essentially Professor X is summoning heroes (and villains, it seems) from the Marvel and Capcom universes to help him stop Onslaught or prevent him from becoming Onslaught, or something like that. You end up fighting Onslaught as the main boss. Since Onslaught is made from the dark sides of both Professor X and Magneto (whose mind was wiped clean at the time), someone on the development staff was smart enough to realize that you shouldn’t be able to play as Magneto in a game where you ultimately end up fighting a being that is one-half Magneto. They weren’t smart enough to realize Magneto shouldn’t be an assist character, however, so you can actually unleash Magneto on himself if you play it right. However, that’s an issue of continuity, which is something that hardly belongs in a vs. fighting game.

Broken laws of time and space aside, for my money, Clash of Super Heroes remains the best game in the Marvel vs. Capcom series (a view which, I admit, is not widely shared), and the most intense representation of sprite-based fighting in its heyday. Marvel vs. Capcom 2 added many, many new characters, it’s true, but it also simplified control schemes, took out helper characters (in favor of an overloaded 3-character fighting team), has a nonspecific character story driven by Ruby Heart, a Capcom creation who never even appeared in any previous game, and began the transition away from bitmapped images by using 3D rendered backgrounds. Marvel vs. Capcom 3, while improving on the storylines and fan references from Marvel vs. Capcom 2, further simplified controls (down to three buttons from the original six) and did away with sprite-based graphics altogether, now rendering each character in polygons. Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 may well represent the pinnacle of vs. fighting games to date, but chucks reality out the window, with ludicrous match-ups such as Phoenix Wright against Doctor Doom, or Chris Redfield against Galactus being possible.

Marvel vs. Capcom, Roll vs. Onslaught

Okay, so this fight isn't that fair either, I suppose.

Playing the original Marvel vs. Capcom may be problematic. Finding a copy in your local arcade–or even having a local arcade–can be tough. The game was ported to the Playstation 1, but that version was abysmal due to memory restrictions that removed the helper character and made your second fighter character a “helper” instead so that you really only controlled one character. By the time the game came out, Capcom had abandoned the Sega Saturn, else it could have done a respectable Japanese release with the 4MB memory cart it used for other fighting games. The Dreamcast port is very respectable, with accurate graphics and gameplay, and even a mode allowing four players to fight at once, Smash Bros.-style. Of course, this requires a Dreamcast. The easiest option will be an emulator such as MAME, if you’re willing to wade into the grey area of emulation.

Even if you don’t like the genre, if you get a chance to check this out, you should. It stands as the last hurrah of old-school fighting games and an experience that lovers of both comics and Capcom games (old or new) should witness.

Jun 112012

Spelunker sticker imageFive years ago, if you had asked me, I would have laid good money that this game–a treasure of the ancient past about seeking a treasure from the ancient past–was long forgotten. That was before Irem arranged for the NES version of the game to appear on the Wii Virtual Console, and created Spelunker HD for the PS3. Neither of those are the Commodore 64 version, because they’re based on the inferior NES port, but they’re enough to show how long a good game can live.

Spelunker, a Brøderbund release (completely coincidental to The Guardian Legend I posted about last time), was one of the earliest games I played on my Commodore 64, which is the version I’ll speak of here. It puts you in the role of–you guessed it–a Spelunker, making your way through an extremely large series of caves in search of hidden treasure from who-knows-when. Along the way, you’ll need to deal with the sort of dangers that real spelunkers face, such as instantly deadly bat guano, ghosts and dropping more than five feet from any surface. Don’t be fooled by the cover art from any version; you’ll be playing no fit and bold explorer, but instead a dumpy unfortunate with bones are made of crystal and whose ability to slip off any surface could make Groo look graceful.

This game is hard, make no mistake. Your movements require the kind of precision that would make many modern platformers look easy, and there’s almost no allowance for error. Virtually every jump that you slightly mistime will end in your death because if you fall more than about one body length for any reason, you lose a life. You don’t have forever to stand around figuring out how to make a sequence of jumps either, because, just like a real explorer trapped in a cave larger than that seen in The Goonies, you’re constantly running out of air. Go figure. Air supply tanks are plentiful, but they don’t last long when picked up, so you must continuously move from one to the next. To make matters worse, ghosts occasionally appear. While you can blow them away using a fan-type device (if only someone had let Egon Spengler know it was so easy), doing so consumes even more oxygen.

Spelunker, grabbing an air tank

It may not look like much, but this little object will let you breathe for a whole 60 seconds! (No, I'm not kidding.)

There are either five or six levels–I can’t remember how many because it’s been so long since I finished the game (a feat I’m proud of)–but many players will never make it past the first due to this kind of difficulty. If you survive to the third stage, consider yourself accomplished. Beat the game, and that’s one to put on your gamer résumé.

So what makes such a punishing game worth talking about? The atmosphere. No, not the literal atmosphere of the game, which must be something like 99% cyanide to kill you so quickly. The Commodore version of the game runs on a 320×200 resolution, sports 16 colors, has part of the display taken up by your score, the game’s title and a bar for the remaining air, and still manages to portray a large, immersive underground world. Each level (loaded from disk when you move from one to the next) is surprisingly large given the memory constraints of the machine at hand and the amount of things going on in each.

Spelunker, hitching a ride

Nice of someone before you to leave a bridge and cart. Right next to the deadly fire spouts.

Curiosity about what you’ll find next (or at the end) constantly drives you forward. The puzzles, if they can even be called that, are incredibly simple; find dynamite, flares or keys and use them to overcome appropriate obstacles. Jumping and maneuvering around hazards takes real work and can send your blood pressure through the roof, but like the best of games, the challenge comes with a thrill of victory that’s reward enough in itself.

Spelunker is not for the faint of spirit, but it’s an experience that you won’t find elsewhere. Nearly 30 years later, many games can’t set the simple yet deep tone it provides. Check it out and see for yourself–just be sure to have some stress balls handy.