[15 March 2013]
This wasn’t how it was supposed to happen.
25 years ago, I was eight years old and part of a little kids’ bowling league. You know, the type of bowling league where they unroll carpets halfway up the lanes so you can walk right up to those pins and give ‘em the what-for with your ten-pound ball. I joined that league because—well, why does an eight-year-old do anything? It sounded fun. At least, it sounded better than sitting around a house on a January day in a suburb of Buffalo, looking out frosted windows that said “don’t even bother, you won’t last ten minutes out there.” My dad bowled. He was good at it. He looked like he was having fun, even when he was shouting words I wasn’t allowed to say at pins that refused, even at his bellowing request, to fall like they were supposed to.
I didn’t care for it. Not at the start, anyway. It didn’t feel like a sport. It didn’t feel like anything, really. I was well into the glory days of my baseball career at that point. Bowling felt like something people did if they didn’t know how to throw. Or catch. Or bat.
My parents, however, knew none of my reservations about the sport. All they knew was that I kept wanting to go back, week after week. I got better at it, almost despite myself. I joined a summer league. It wasn’t all that long before I didn’t need the carpet. Practice makes perfect, after all, whether you give a shit or not. And you know what? That bowling alley had an arcade. And that arcade had Black Tiger. And every week, my dad gave me a buck to go spend on video games when I was done rolling a ball down a waxed and wooden lane.
And every week, those four quarters went into the Black Tiger machine.
You’d think that with weeks upon weeks of practice, I’d have gotten better at it. I never did, at least in any immediately quantifiable sense. There was too much time in between tries, too much time to be able to remember all the trap-laden treasure chests, all the tricks for beating enemies, all the locations of the most helpful thankful old wise men to be rescued. I remember thinking that someday I’d get better, that when I was older, I’d have the wherewithal and the persistence to beat that confounded game. “When I’m older,” I’d think, “I’ll have all the quarters I’ll need. Which won’t be many. Because I’ll be great at this game.”
When you’re that age, you don’t realize the world is going to change. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that arcades would disappear, that technical advances would progress the way they did, that Black Tiger would become a relic of a time long gone. Black Tiger disappeared. I kept right on bowling. Funny how things work out.
I finally beat Black Tiger this month. I navigated impossible enemy combinations, I sought out as many little old men who would sell me things as I could find, and I eventually crushed the three dragons that the game’s intro screen so dramatically describes. It’s a part of Capcom’s newly-released Capcom Arcade Cabinet, one of three games in the first five-dollar pack released for the package. Rarely did my feat require any real skill; only at some of the particularly difficult boss battles did I really have to control my avatar, the Black Tiger himself (who actually looks more like a Viking, truth be told), with the deft touch that console platformers typically require. No, this victory was one of attrition, of stuffing virtual quarters into a virtual arcade cabinet and coming out with a victory. I finally got to see the fourth stage, and the fifth, and the sixth, seventh, and eighth. I got to see what the dragons actually look like when you fight them. I got to see the end, a feat that I could only imagine all those years ago.
It felt hollow. I didn’t spend the money, I didn’t learn the game. I just won, because I could, because anyone can now.
Nostalgia is a tricky beast. As thankful as I am that a release like this can dredge up memories of youth, of the games I loved, and of weekend days spent with my father, the experience now is melancholy. I wonder if I shouldn’t have left it in the past where it was perfect and glorious.
* * *
As of the writing of this review, the Capcom Arcade Cabinet can run three games: 1943, Avengers (no relation to the Marvel comic or the ‘60s TV show, as it turns out), and the aforementioned Black Tiger. Black Tiger was, obviously, the selling point for me, but my guess is that 1943 will be at least as popular a reference point. Avengers I’d never heard of, but I know at least a few people who had, so maybe nostalgia for that game is out there too, in corners of the retro arcade scene that I rarely frequent.
They all exist as they did then, except that all you need to do to “insert coin” is hit the start button. In the case of 1943, this makes the matter of beating the game a trivial one; you lose all your energy, you pound the start button, and you start exactly at the spot you left off. It doesn’t matter how many times you die because an arcade game will always let you put in another quarter. Put in enough quarters and you’ll beat the game, regardless of little things like practice or skill. Black Tiger, for its part, requires a little bit of skill; it features a checkpoint system, so every time you die, you move back a bit. The checkpoints are very, very closely placed, however, and dead enemies stay dead, so all you need to do to progress on any given attempt is to kill one of the enemies. A couple of the bosses are fairly difficult, and it might take a few retries to figure out their patterns and weaknesses, but for the most part, Black Tiger can be beaten by someone who has more time than skill as well.
The exception here, then, is Avengers. Like Black Tiger, Avengers has checkpoints, but its levels are short and mostly exist as something to do in between boss fights. The bosses of Avengers are in the later stages actually quite difficult, and beating them takes some skill, some patience, and some understanding of how the often unpredictable collision detection of the game works.
Avengers is sort of like Ikari Warriors (or Commando or Gun Smoke, if we want to stick with Capcom comparisons) mixed with Double Dragon mechanics. You see it from overhead, while your avatar (your “avenger”, I suppose) walks upwards, sometimes moving from side-to-side if the need arises. You can punch, which is a quick attack, or you can kick, which is slow and strong, or you can do a circular “roundhouse” to clear out a coming onslaught of enemies. The stages are insultingly easy, with droves of baddies coming at you who get pounded off the screen with a single attack, while the bosses are often stiflingly difficult pattern-attacking enemies that can drain your pitiful collection of energy and lives with barely a thought. Even learning the patterns is sometimes not enough to reliably do away with them. You need to learn when your attacks will hurt and when they won’t, not to mention the best ways to get out of the way of the variety of weapons and obstacles that might be coming your way while you do so.
Avengers was a bit of a surprise, honestly. After blowing through Black Tiger and 1943 with a minimum of effort, I wasn’t expecting a challenge, and that’s exactly what Avengers gave me. I’m not sure if it’s a fun enough game, even as a retro curiosity, to justify that challenge. Eight directions to punch or kick often don’t feel like enough, and the sheer inanity of the enemies who aren’t the bosses make them feel like busywork.
Time hasn’t really been kind to any of these games. Black Tiger is the game it always was, but it makes you ask questions like “am I really not allowed to bend my jump in mid-air at all?” when you die in places that don’t feel like they should be one bit challenging. 1943 pits enemies who are too fast against an avatar who is too underpowered and slow, making it never feel like the fair fight that the best shmups manage even when thousands of bullets are hurtling toward the player. Avengers feels like a forgotten quarter-gobbler that maybe should have stayed forgotten.
Capcom has done all it could to combat the sense of retro fatigue here. Online leaderboards reward skill over persistence, quantifying the efforts of those who take pride in the dexterity of their thumbs. Leaderboards are only offered through a “score attack” mode that allows the player to play from the beginning of the game to the first game over screen. Then it cuts you off and posts your score if it was your best. It is fun to play like this, to get a look at how you compare to the couple of thousand others who are attempting to do the same thing and to treat the game like an old-school three-lives-and-out Nintendo game.
Capcom also threw in “Casual Mode” versions of each of the games, in case you either a) don’t want to die so often, or b) ever want to see the end of Avengers. It’s a nice touch, but mostly it feels extraneous, given the ability to quarter-pump most of these games to the end.
There is some unlockable artwork, for those who are into that sort of thing, and there are trophies/achievements, also for those who are into that sort of thing. Really, the presentation is top-notch, and Capcom did well with the “packaging” of its arcade cabinet. The only real issue with the job Capcom has done is one of pricing. Capcom is punishing those who wait. Pay five bucks now, you get the pack of three games. Not so bad. There are four more packs of three games, however, which cost ten bucks each, still not an awful price on a per-game basis, but not as nice. Or, you could wait almost three months and get the lot for a cool $30, a $15 savings compared to the pack-at-a-time price. While it’s easy to see the strategy here—making players pay more to get content earlier is not exactly a novel approach – but it seems misguided in a package of retro games. A potential buyer aware of the pricing scheme might decide to wait until 21 May to get the discounted price, only to forget about it altogether when the time finally comes. There’s no real rush to “see it first” when you’re talking about re-releasing old arcade games.
Wonky pricing scheme aside, if the first set of three games is anything to go by, Capcom has preserved these games for the modern age as well as anyone could really hope for. The two-player modes of 1943 and Avengers can even be played via Xbox Live or PlayStation Network, a nice touch for those looking to relive these experiences with the friends or family that they shared these games with so many years ago. If these are the games you grew up with, this may well be your best chance to give them another go for old time’s sake. As with most of the opportunities we get to revisit our youth, however, don’t be surprised if you come away thinking they may have been better left as brilliant memories than as less-than-perfect realities.