[9 April 2010]
PopMatters Associate Multimedia Editor
The transition from arcades to consoles often leads to a curious distinction between games that worked better when you could play them as much as you liked and ones that feel a bit flat once you aren’t pumping quarters into a machine. In a weird way, having to spend quarters can become a game in of itself, a challenge to see how little money you spend before getting to the end of a game. Sometimes the challenge is to get as many points as possible in one quarter. Sometimes it’s to see how much progress you can make. The thrill of not spending money is the surge that an arcade game offers, and it does not lend itself well to console games when you’ve already had to pay up front. For that reason, Data East Arcade Classics is both a bit dull while still being an interesting trip down memory lane for a few play sessions.
The collection contains most of the early 90s arcade classics while unfortunately missing a few gems due to licensing nonsense. Bad Dudes vs Dragon Ninja, Secret Agent, and Wizard Fire are all on the disc. Robocop is dearly missed. There are also a couple of games that I’d never heard of like Magical Drop III (match 3 game), Express Raider (cowboy brawler), or Heavy Barrel (overhead shooter). Every game uses the same setup: pressing a button counts as inserting a quarter, most titles use only two buttons, and most allow for two players. With the exception of something like Burger Time or Lock N Chase (a Pac-Man variation), most of the games can be beaten in about 30 to 40 minutes. I preferred the virtual controller because the analog sticks made a lot of the moves easier, but you could play it with a Wii-mote just as easily.
Data East was a trailblazer in the brawler genre and a lot of their games are conceptually rough as a consequence. A title like Wizard Fire was one of the first arcade games to incorporate inventory, magic, and unique character classes into the design. It also generally boils down to playing the Knight and mashing spin attack as rapidly as possible. Bad Dudes is still as bizarrely “Hurrah, Ronald Reagan! Hurrah, America!” as ever, but fundamentally, it plays like a simplified Contra. Two planes to move on, memorize the enemy pattern, and once again do the spin attack as much as possible. The crown jewel of the collection is Secret Agent. Multiple planes to move on, good variety in levels, and someone finally remembered to bring a gun to the knife fight. Levels include jumping out of a plane, a shoot-out at the Lincoln Memorial, fighting a shark, and a motorcycle chase.
A lot of the other brawlers in the collection feel like the rough drafts of these later games. Express Raider starts off as a brawler on a train car except each fight is 1-on-1 and fairly easy. The second level was a physically impossible shootout that I gave up on. Others show when the concept began to play itself out like with Crude Buster, which features throwable objects, multiple weapons, and destructible terrain. It’s also very cluttered and clunky feeling because your avatar keeps mucking around with crap when you just want to punch someone. Almost every game featured some awkward design moments in the later levels, like an insane insta-kill platform section in the last level of Wizard Fire or having the final boss in Secret Agent feature a confusing wall puzzle. I’m not really even sure puzzle is the right word. You essentially have 30 seconds to beat the crap out of a wall that the final boss is standing behind who then dies in one hit.
Playing this collection was actually pretty dull despite the waves of nostalgia that it induced. The game features achievements, but they rarely amounted to anything other than “Beat the Game” or “Reach this Score”. After awhile, I started keeping a record of how many imaginary quarters I had to pump into the game just to see if it made things more interesting. Truth be told, the whole experience became a lot more fascinating once I started keeping track of when I had to spend money. Bad Dudes cost me $3.25 to beat, Wizard Fire was $4.75, and Secret Agent came in at $3.50. The flow of gameplay always seemed to revolve around long periods of easy fighting followed by an intense choke point of difficulty. This is when you almost always dump another dollar into the machine. The last boss always involved some ridiculously unfair setup. The first level of a game was always beatable in one quarter, while the second was guaranteed to kill you. Some choke points were even designed to make me feel like it was my fault, like the platforming or maze sections in Wizard Fire. A lot of the things that I initially dismissed as bad design suddenly made a lot of sense from a money-making perspective. The game would get its claws into you and then kill you right when the game knew you’d be happy to drop another quarter into the machine.
This review makes it sound like there are only a handful of games on the collection, but most of the other ones are generally inferior to stuff that you can get on the internet for free. Super Real Darwin is a very drab shmup. Burning Rubber is a fairly average overhead racing game. Side Pocket is your usual 2-D pool hall game, and Street Hoop generally consisted of driving the ball down the court and dunking it over and over. The only real strategy to the game that I could figure out was finding ways to kill the clock and timing it so that I won by 2 points. These are the hallmarks of a bygone era of gaming, both in terms of setting and design itself. While it’s very easy to argue that video games have gotten a lot better since the early 90s, Data East Arcade Collection is a reminder that this evaluation is a product of shifting cultural values and expectations. Back in the day, these were the games that everybody was playing.