Saturday, July 21, 2012

UnMAMEd: Ballarena by Fisteme

Over fifteen years after its debut, it's gotten very hard to find an arcade game that's not supported by MAME.  Even pinball machines and mechanical devices have not escaped the notice of this exhaustively comprehensive emulator.  However, there's one game that's been on the edge of my mind for years, that I've never seen among the thousands of titles MAME runs.  That game is Ballarena by Fisteme.

Ballarena hasn't just been elusive to MAME... it's impossible to find anywhere!  I've never seen this French-designed coin-op in any arcade, and can't even find a reference to it online.  Looking up "Ballarena Fisteme" on Google just brings up cringeworthy sex acts involving clenched hands and dainty dancers... and if you think I'm kidding, I dare you to try it yourself!

I know Ballarena exists, though, because it was featured in an issue of Video Games and Computer Entertainment, printed exactly twenty two years ago.  Here's a snapshot of the page in question... if you're having trouble reading it, stick around for the Cliff Notes.


In his column "Destination Arcadia," VG+CE contributor Donn Nauert describes the game as "a strange mixture of Arkanoid and Galaga."  (Judging from the way the paddle spins along an axis, I think he meant to say "Arkanoid and Gyruss," but that's just splitting hairs.)  Nauert explains that the game is played with a dial, just like Arkanoid, and features a fire button for releasing the ball and firing lasers... uh, just like Arkanoid.  There are ninety-nine stages and sixty-four patterns (suggesting that some patterns are repeated over the course of the game), with the occasional Gyruss-like challenge stage thrown into the mix to keep the action lively.

Aside from the merger of two vastly different genres, what strikes me as most interesting about Ballarena is its use of pre-rendered graphics.  It wouldn't be the first time it was attempted in an arcade game- I think that honor goes to Pac-Mania, or Cube Quest if you actually consider those glorified laserdisc movies to be games- but it was nevertheless a surprise back in 1990, when we were still listening to cassette tapes and watching The Fresh Prince of Bel-Aire on our stone television sets.  The graphics are a bit grainy and the game has the overall presentation of a European shareware game for the Amiga, but I'd still love to see what surprises it has in store in the later stages.

The only question is, will that ever happen?  Nauert asserts that the game was released in the United States, but its complete lack of presence on the internet gives me the impression that Ballarena never made it out of its native France... and may never have been released in arcades there.  Half of me wants to finally end the mystery surrounding this game and play it after two decades of going without... but the other half would prefer that this vaporware be lost to the mists of time forever, just to keep that mystery alive.  After all, these games are rarely as good as your imagination would lead you to believe...

Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Night's All Right For Fighting

They say hunger is the best spice, and nobody knew this better than early adopters of the Sega Genesis. Before the system was openly embraced by third party developers in 1992, owners of the machine had to get by with Sega's arcade translations, as well as shaky knock-offs of the games they loved on other systems. DJ Boy may not have been fit to wipe the blood from Final Fight's brass knuckles, and Fighting Masters may have had one tenth the technique of Street Fighter II, but even rough approximations of those arcade hits were enough to sate our appetites during the Genesis's lean years.

And so it goes with Midnight Resistance, originally released in arcades by Data East. With its faceless heroes, heavy artillery, and a brutal difficulty level, it was clear the company wanted a taste of the success Konami had with the Contra series.  There are a half dozen reasons that Midnight Resistance falls short of its inspiration, but Genesis owners long starved of a good run 'n gun shooter sure weren't complaining.

Johnny come lately... but not lightly armed.
If nothing else, at least the story gets points for originality. When a brilliant chemist discovers the formula for breaking drug addictions, he and his family are kidnapped by a drug trafficker and his army of masked, white-eyed zombies. He didn't get everyone, though!  As the chemist's grandson and a decorated war hero, you must infiltrate the heavily armed compound of the sinister Crimson King and free your family from his clutches.  And oh yeah, while you're in there, it probably wouldn't hurt to plant a combat boot in his big red ass.

The gameplay in Midnight Resistance closely follows the Contra template, with your hero aiming his gun in eight different directions and marching to a confrontation with an enormous, bullet-sponging boss.  There's some light platforming, but the jump button is mostly reserved for dodging the many bullets thrown your way.  All this should be familiar territory to old-school gamers, but Midnight Resistance parts ways with Contra in the way it awards new weapons.  There are no power ups within the stages themselves... they're held in lockers at the end of each round, and you've got to unlock them with keys held by the Crimson King's elite red soldiers.

It doesn't sound like much of a distinction, but it's a more profound change than you'd expect. There will never be a power-up capsule to save your skin in a tight situation, forcing you to struggle to the end of the stage for your salvation. On the plus side, the weapons (both standard-issue firearms and back-mounted missiles) don't vanish when you've been killed in action... you merely drop them, along with any keys you've collected.  You're free to scoop them back up with your next life and use them until they run out of ammo... or fall off the edge of the screen, if you're unlucky.

The arcade version of Midnight Resistance paired the soldier with an eager young sidekick, who can still be seen in the opening of the Genesis version.  Unfortunately, the limitations of the Genesis hardware meant that Junior had to be left behind for this mission.  In all fairness, there is a lot of onscreen activity here, far more than there was in the NES Contra games, and an attempt to shoehorn in a second player would likely have turned the game into a flickery, slowdown-ridden mess.  Nevertheless, it's one of those omissions that will be deeply felt... especially by your friend, who will be forced to twiddle his thumbs while you're having all the fun.

Johnny fights the Blue Angels in one of the game's best
moments. It's just too ridiculous NOT to be awesome!
The two player action is likely the only thing you'll miss from the arcade game.  Not that there aren't other details missing, but they're largely inconsequential... even better left out in some cases.  The drill sergeant who barks out the names of the weapons as you collect them and the sickly moans of your family as they're rescued recall an age where developers were eager to put voice in their games, but not overly concerned with the quality of the acting. The knob stick's not missed, either... wrenching that stubborn dial into place to adjust your aim was always a bit of a kludge, and it rarely translates well to MAME.  The Genesis port of Midnight Resistance replaces it with a clever strafing system that lets you aim your gun in the direction you point the joystick, then lock it into place by holding down a button.  Firing is automatic and can be toggled on and off by tapping the A button... not that you'll get many chances to stop!

You couldn't call it arcade perfect, but in all the places that count, Midnight Resistance on the Genesis trails just a step behind the original. It looks like the real thing, and it sounds even better, with a remastered soundtrack that brings even more dramatic tension to boss fights. That's in sharp contrast to the ZX Spectrum game, which comes off as a jaundiced parody. (And yet it's regarded as one of the best games on the system, which speaks volumes about not only the machine's inadequacies but the desperation of British youth to play something, anything, that resembled a video game. I'd say Genesis owners feeling the pinch of Nintendo's exclusive licensing agreements had it pretty good by comparison! But, er, I digress.)

The only issues with Midnight Resistance can be traced directly back to the arcade game.  The level designs lean toward the lazy, with your hero marching right for half the stage, then taking a ladder or lift to a fight against some cast-off vehicle from the 1980s G.I. Joe toy line.  One stage is a long vertical shaft filled with drop away floors.  When each floor gives way, you're dropped into a battle against a dozen of the Crimson King's soldiers, then a cluster of gears.  The cycle repeats until the game realizes you're sick of its crap, then gives you a scrap of plot exposition as a peace offering.  Yes yes, Midnight Resistance, all is forgiven.  Just don't let it happen again!

...and proper grammar too, apparently.
It all culminates in one of the dopiest final stages in gaming history. Your soldier races across a field of ribcage-bound organs, only to be stopped by a wall of... King Crimson album covers.  When you're seventeen, the reference flies over your head with ten feet to spare. Twenty years later, when your taste in music has evolved from Estefan, Loc, and Paula to Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, all those mugging scarlet faces are impossible to take seriously. The confrontation against the Crimson King, who starts out as a giant fleshy skull in a hockey mask and is eventually reduced to a jet-propelled brain ("the big brain am winning again!  Now I will leave this game for no raisin!"), is less absurd, but only compared to what had come before it.

The ridiculousness of Midnight Resistance feels like a product of hapless confusion, unlike Gunstar Heroes, which was unrelentingly bizarre but always had a method to its madness. That being said, I had a lot more fun with this heavily Contra-inspired game than Hard Corps, the official Contra for the Sega Genesis. Sure, it was a much flashier game than Midnight Resistance- the four year gap between their releases practically guaranteed it- but it was just too full of that focus-tested, artificially sweetened extremeness synonymous with the 1990s. If Midnight Resistance was a victim of its own creative indecision, Contra: Hard Corps suffers from knowing exactly what it wants... and having the bad taste to pursue it.