Sometimes you start writing about one subject and you find your mind drifting to other subjects. I started off this morning writing about zombies and why they are such a popular feature in video games. I reasoned with myself that most zombie games are survival games in which you try to stay alive as long as possible. That is not my favorite type of game and I found myself losing interest. (It’s not good when you start to lose interest in your own writing!). Then my mind started to drift to back to the days of my youth when I would hang out at Time Out Arcade…
The early days of video games were almost always based on that “survive as long as you can” premise. Why was that? There are a couple of reasons. One, because the goal was to get players to spend their quarters and the best way to do that was to create games that tried to end your game as quickly as possible. Two, there were limits to hardware and programming back then – a game could only do so much so wave after wave of increasing difficulty was the only way to go.
I have come up with three classic arcade coin operated games that were simply too hard for me to play. I enjoyed watching others play them, but I just could not get the hang of them.
Lunar Lander – The game looked so simple. It was black and white with vector graphics. You controlled the spaceship with a simple left-right and thrust controls. So why was the game so hard? There was something about this game that made it feel real. You knew it was just a simple image on the screen but you could almost imagine yourself to be an astronaut in training. I happened to be a terrible astronaut. You had to control the lander with precision and I was too reckless. If you came down too fast or a little bit off the platform your ship exploded. I loved to watch someone else play this game if they were good at it – it was almost like a ballet, a gentle dance.
Robotron 2084 – A futuristic game in which you are trying to save innocent people from being destroyed by swarm after swarm of robots. One of the elements that made this game distinctive was the fact that it had no fire button. Control of your character was done by two joysticks. The left joystick controlled your motion and the right joystick controlled your direction of fire. You could move one direction and fire in another. You could also fire in all directions very quickly – and you needed to. Those robots would start coming from everywhere fast. It was a little stressful to watch! I would barely make it past the second wave.
Defender – How could I not mention this game? Just one look at the controls intimidated me. There was up-down, thrust, fire, reverse, and smart bomb. I remember thinking to myself, “Learning to play this game has to be like learning to type.” But there were people who were good at this game. They could pilot that spaceship with precision and shoot down the invaders. It always unnerved me to watch this game – that sound the little space alien would make when picking up a human. I can still hear it. I’m still amazed that somehow they made a port of Defender for the Atari 2600. They somehow took all those complex controls and put them onto a joystick with a single button! I couldn’t play it on the Atari either.
All three of these games had some unique control features. I have emulators but they simply do not reproduce the actual experience of playing these in an arcade. If you really want to reproduce the experience. Step 1: Buy an arcade game. Step 2: Paint a room black, wire it with bad lighting, and put the game in it. Step 3: Add the odor of a locker room and cigarette smoke. Bam! You are back in the arcades during the 70’s and 80’s!