Friday, March 12, 2021

Matter of Import 50: Streaking (Shoei 1981)



Streaking is a 1981 Maze game from Shoei with mechanics superficially similar to Pac Man. You run around a maze eating dots and avoiding enemies trying to catch you, only in Streaking the enemies are cops and you're playing a naked woman.


There are a few twists that make the game unique; instead of power pellets in the four corners of the maze there are single-shot teleporters that zap you to the opposite corner when used, and instead of fruit or pretzels you collect clothing items to dress yourself. This doesn't make the police chasing you any more inclined to let you go, of course, but it does make the game slightly less embarrassing to play if your parents are watching.

There's a mechanic to the dots as well – while your ultimate goal in any board is to collect them all and move on to the next identical maze, you also accrue fatigue as you run around – max out your fatigue bar and you'll lose a life just as if the cops had caught you. Eating helps relieve the bar.

As far as the art and music go, it's far less charming than 1981's Ms Pac-Man, the game we have to compare it to, though also presented in a cartoonish "kawaii" style. The maze feels less well designed, and gameplay is a little rough – you can't tell the police apart, so there's no strategy possible based on their AI – if they even have individual AI.

I'd give the game a higher rating if there was some variation like clothing making you slower but the cops less interested in chasing you, but there isn't. It's just a sub-par maze chase game with a mildly salacious theme, so I give it a D ranking.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Matter of Import 49: Space Cruiser [Taito 1981]

Today's game is Taito's 1981 fixed screen shooter Space Cruiser. In the game your ship can move horizontally and fire vertically – one shot at first, alternating with two after an automatic upgrade. This game is best compared to Galaga, released the same year. How does it stack up?

On the positive there's more variety in enemies and formation... we pass through several waves on our way to blow up the enemy planet. The first two are familiar looking mobs of enemy spacecraft, though if we manage to hit one just right it'll flip over and act as a shield temporarily. There's also this larger mothership that'll take a few shots to kill.

The enemies flit about in deceptive patterns, making them difficult to lead with your shots, and this is another title where you only get one – later two – shots on the screen at a time. You also feel slower than in some shooters, though the pacing is not, overall, too bad.

After two waves of disc-like enemies we enter an asteroid belt. Here the goal is simply to travel far enough without getting killed to activate the slip zone warning – at this point we'll start to rise from the bottom of the screen as it changes color, making dodging more difficult. One nice touch is that if you do die you don't have to start a wave over from the very beginning; you only face the foes you hadn't destroyed, and if you lose all your lives... well, this is one of those 1981 games with continues. Makes it a lot less frustrating.

After the asteroid stage you get to a friendly space station that you'll need to dock with – after dealing with a few opportunistic enemy ships. Docking gives you the game's sole power-up – an attachment to the front of your ship that gives you additional firepower, allowing you to fire two blasts every second shot.

The last phase is the enemy planet. After dealing with a few defensive craft and the missile ports in the moon, you at last fire a planet-buster from the nose of your ship, destroying the planet once and for all. Well, not for all, because now the game repeats, with you tackling the stages in the same order again.

While the game does have some nice action to it, at the same time the design doesn't feel as holistic as in something like Galaga – there's a little too much variety and it doesn't really come together into something cohesive. The graphics are also a little bit on the basic side. The score – Night on Bald Mountain, a 19th century Russian piece made famous by Disney's Fantasia but perhaps more familiar to retrogamers as the "What the Heck" level music used in Earthworm Jim  – isn't a bad rendition given the technological limitations.

Compared to Galaga, Space Cruiser just comes up short, though I give it props for its enemy variety and continue system. I'll give it a B ranking.


Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Matter of Import 48: Draco [Cidelsa 1981]

Today we start covering games released in 1981 – in US arcades the most popular titles were Donkey Kong, Galaga, and Frogger, and these games will form the basis for evaluating what we play – how well does it stack up?

Draco was released by Spanish developer Cidelsa as a twin stick shooter similar in superficial ways to Berzerk. You run around a two-screen world, trying to accomplish different tasks in different stages – in the first, you need to shoot these bubbles to "free" the points held within – touching the walls, points themselves, or enemies will kill you. In stage two, you need to navigate this maze to collect the point values – which no longer kill you – before the time runs out. After a few tries I discovered you don't need to collect all the points, only the highlighted set at the end.

In stage three, you need to collect all the dots before time runs out. Is there a stage four? Is it different or more of the same? I don't know. I lost interest in the game after three stages. But I could have continued on, because Draco allows you to keep playing from the last stage you reached if you insert another quarter.

I haven't been able to track down exactly when in 1981 Draco was released, so I can't say for sure if it predates SNK's October release Fantasy, generally regarded as the first arcade game to feature continues... but it's possible.

While the graphics are primitive by 1981's standards and the music is certainly nothing special, the innovation of "Continues" – either as early adopters or inventors – is enough that I can see fit to giving Draco a C rating.


Monday, March 8, 2021

Matter of Import 047: Sasuke vs Commander [SNK 1980]


Sasuke vs Commander is a 1980 fixed screen shooter from SNK. As in the last game we discussed – Indian Battle – the player controls a character, not a ship or a canon – you're a ninja protecting your Daimyo from enemy ninja.

In the first part of each stage you need to fire what I assume are shuriken up at flocks of ninja soaring from tree to tree overhead as they throw stars back down at you. First, there's a wave of red ninja, then a larger flock of green ninja that, for some reason, remind me of frogs.

As an interesting wrinkle, if you manage to hit a ninja they fall from the sky to hit the ground – and you will lose a life if they collide with you.

After eliminating both waves of ninja you're taken to a boss stage, where you have to contend with the powerful magic of a ninja boss – the first shoots gouts of flame, the second creates copies of himself, the third throws bolts... and then it's back to the waves of ninja again.

That's the flow of the game – it's challenging enough, and a unique theme in the games we've covered so far, and the falling corpses adds an unexpected element. Visually it's quite nice, too – the sprites are full color, if yet small, except for the larger bosses.

I give Sasuke vs Commander a B ranking.

Friday, March 5, 2021

Matter of Import 46: Indian Battle [Taito 1980]


Indian Battle is an old-west themed fixed screen shooter released by Taito in 1980. The player controls a cowboy with a rifle at the bottom of the screen, firing at waves of native american warriors who advance towards him, hiding behind rocks and cactus, moving from cover to cover while firing arrows and throwing tomahawks.

Occasionally a bird will fly by overhead, dropping an egg that hatches into a snake or scorpion if it hits the ground without being shot. There's also a native american that pops up out of the ground to anchor the player in place for a few moments.

As the player cannot fire horizontally – only up – the snake, scorpion, and grabbing native american cannot be shot, only avoided – along with the natives that reach the bottom of the screen, though those will quickly return to cover.

Each round lasts until you've shot 21 enemies, as noted by a counter on the left side of the screen. After you've passed, if you've done well enough there's a bonus stage where your cowboy attempts to lasso animals.

The basic mechanics here are the same – left, right, fire to throw your lasso – but your rope moves slow and takes a long time to cross the screen and return if you miss. This makes careful and patient aim a must if you want to capture them all before the time runs out.

The sprites aren't bad, but it's another monochrome game whose color is provided by an overlay. There is music – a version of "ten little indians" which is its own issues – but the game presents with all the sensitivity you'd expect from a Japanese team covering native american issues in 1980.

I give Indian Battle a C ranking – the gameplay isn't boring, but beyond the enemy moving from cover to cover it's nothing special.

Thursday, March 4, 2021

Matter of Import 45: Heli Fire [Nintendo 1980]

 Heli Fire is a 1980 scrolling shooter developed by Nintendo. The player controls a submarine, firing missiles up at helicopters while trying to dodge torpedoes, enemy watercraft, and aquatic mines. The helicopters, in turn, drop missiles and depth charges towards you.

The goal here is simple – to wipe out each wave of ten helicopters before time runs out and their attacks become more dangerous, including dropping depth-charges that fire an unavoidable wave of missiles to destroy you.

Doing so while avoiding their vertical attacks, and the horizontal attacks from oceanic dangers, is quite difficult. Heli Fire is a challenging game, but not unfairly so – you need to learn to split your attention to remain a sense of situational awareness.

In terms of the visuals, the game is beautiful compared to those we've been reviewing recently – full color raster sprites and scrolling backgrounds that entice without distracting. It might not be up there with Star Castle or Wizards of Wor in terms of gameplay, but it's fun to play for a few rounds.

I give Heli Fire a B ranking.

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Matter of Import 44: Kaitei Takara Sagashi [Namco 1980]

 Kaitei Takara Sagashi is a 1980 Namco release that translates to Underwater Treasure Hunting. The player's goal is to lower a diver through shark infested waters to the seabed where a number of pots await. Controls are simple while diving – you descend automatically unless you hold the button, and pushing left or right allows you to fire your speargun in that direction.

Shooting the sharks is difficult, however, as both they and your spears are very narrow – it's easy to miss by a mere matter of pixels.

Once you hit the bottom, the controls become pressing left or right to walk over one of the pots. Once you've done so, your rope drops down again to push you into it – and here you discover whether the pot contains points or a sad death under the sea.

Once you find a treasure pot the boat begins to pull you back up, with the same controls as your descent. Make it up and you get the points; fail and they return to the pot so you can try again.

Once all non-trap pots have been collected you advance to the next stage, with a new pattern of sharks and treasure pots.

The game is, unfortunately, monochrome with screen overlays to provide color. It's simple in design, and not too difficult to grasp. Trying to get a handle on the sharks' speed and overall pattern does provide a bit of challenge, as does the difficulty in hitting them with your spear.

Are the pots containing death traps unfair? Absolutely. As far as I can tell they shuffle every stage and show no hints as to which will kill you.

I give Kaitei Takara Sagashi a C rating.

Monday, March 1, 2021

Matter of Import 43: Lupin III [Taitlo 1980]

Taito's 1980 Lupin III game came at the height of the character's anime and manga popularity, though licensing issues – the French IP didn't enter public domain until 2012 – prevented its export to the US.

The arcade game fits into the maze chase genre. As Lupin you are to grab bags of money, evading an increasing number of guards and dogs, and bring them to a staging area. Grab all the bags and you're treated to a cut-scene of what looks like Lupin bringing the goods to his love interest – in some cut-scenes she chastises him to bring her more, in others she rewards his theft with love.

The maze in each stage is the same, and arranged around UI elements such as your score and "M.Energy." I assume this stands for "Mental Energy" and is consumed when you activate your panic button – a hyperspace like feature that teleports you from where you are to elsewhere in the maze. Sometimes it doesn't move you at all. Sometimes it throws you right where you want to be.

The figures in the maze come in three types. First, there's this guy with a stick. Inspector Zenigata, maybe? He'll chase you, move to cut you off, and generally try to make your day harder. The other guys – ordinary guards, I suppose – are a little more random and less direct in their pursuit of you. Finally, there are the guard dogs... they simply run back and forth, but have a habit of stopping when you need to pass through an intersection.

Touch any of them and you go to jail. Lose all your lives and you're treated to a losing cutscene of Lupin being sent to prison.

As a game it isn't bad, it's themed well enough for the show, and it's certainly playable. It uses screen overlays for color, which isn't great. I'll give it a C rating.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Matter of Import 42: Steel Worker [Taito 1980]


As a construction platformer, Taito's 1980 Steel Worker is a vast departure from the fixed screen shooters we've been looking at so far. In the game you control a construction worker who... actually, scratch that. You don't control the construction worker.

As in the later NES game Gumshoe or the much later Lemmings, the worker strides confidently forward, heedless of danger, while you do your best to create a path of girders to keep them from falling.

You have a selection of ten pieces down at the bottom, chosen with the joystick, and precious little time to pick the right one to complete the path to the midpoint structure and the endpoint. You also have a button you can press to get your worker to temporary walk back from the edge instead of dropping off of it, but a limited number of uses for it.

Complicating this is that you can only select a new piece while your worker is crossing the current one, meaning you can't work ahead... you can only try to be ready in time.

Even worse are the two gantries raising and lowering in the middle of the screen. Their touch is death, and you cannot stop your worker once he begins to cross the central platform – if you think his path will intersect with them, your only recourse is to use up one of your limited reverses on a prior section and hope you timed it right.

The game is clearly innovative, of a type as yet unseen in the arcade field... maybe a little much for 1980, seeing as it was never an export from Japan. The sound and graphics are disappointing – audio lifted straight from Space Invaders, with the monochrome display and screen overlay style to boot.

Still, as a standout pioneer it astounds me, and after I picked up its controls and the general concept of what I was supposed to be doing, I found it a lot of fun. I give Steel Worker a B ranking.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Matter of Import 41: Sky Chuter [Irem 1980]


Sky Chuter is a 1980 fixed-screen shooter from Irem. The player, as a gun on the bottom of the screen, can scroll left and right while firing up at waves of aircraft flying by overhead. When a plane manages to cross, it reappears on another lower level of the screen to continue its journey.

 You face three types of enemy craft in Sky Chuter – red biplanes, yellow Fighters, and green bombers. The first two – red and yellow – are smaller craft that drop fast moving glowing missiles towards you. These missiles can be blown out of the air if you're good enough.

The green bombers, though, drop the parachute bombs that Sky Chuter draws its name from. These drift slow until they get low enough, then drop – not to explode, but to sit there like mines and constrict your playfield.

While Sky Chuter does have some technical improvements over Balloon Bomber, the last game we played – the sprites are colored rather than monochrome with a fixed screen overlay – the pacing is far slower. You, your canon, your shots, the enemies – everything moves at a glacial pace... and in fact, the game's challenge primarily comes from the slow speed of your canon's single shot. Miss, and you'll have to wait a while for it to exit the screen.

Unfortunately this means that it isn't any fun to play, and while the sprites are colored, they are simple and un-inspiring. I give Sky Chuter a D ranking.