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...

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