Home gaming has been around about as long as I have, and the industry has made astonishing progress in the forty years since the first Pong machines were parked in front of the family television set. Unfortunately, in our race to advance the hobby, we tend to leave its earlier innovations in the dust.
|It's alive! ALIVE!|
Take the dial controller, for instance. What used to be standard equipment for game consoles has become a little-seen novelty, compatible with just a few games and often carrying a hefty price tag. (Seriously, look up a JogCon or a Vaus controller on eBay sometime. You'll plotz.)
There are no mass-produced dials at all for home computers, which is especially frustrating when you consider the many emulators that support them. Sure, you could use a mouse or an analog joystick instead, but the only way to get the precision and the feel of a dial is to build one yourself. Fortunately, it’s possible to build one from spare parts… a laser mouse here, a few buttons there, the knob from an Atari paddle on the top, and a box to hold it all, and you’re off to the races.
I won’t bore you with the specifics of how my dial came to be… I’ll save that for an Instructables entry. However, I will bore you with reviews of the games I’ve recently played with it!
If you were reading Telebunny, you’d get a painstakingly detailed analysis of Arkanoid, exploring its evolution of the Breakout gameplay and its impact on video game history, while unearthing a treasure trove of intriguing facts about its development. However, since Parish doesn’t have a dial, you’ll have to settle for sloppy seconds. Bwa ha ha!
|The solid NES conversion of Arkanoid.|
I loved both the Atari and NES eras of gaming, so you can imagine how thrilled I was with a game that brought them together. I played Arkanoid every chance I got, and snapped up a copy of the NES version shortly after I bought the system in 1988. Twenty five years later, the game’s inspired countless spin-offs and knock-offs, all with something new to add to the formula. However, Arkanoid brings just enough to Breakout to give the game depth and purpose, without feeling overburdened by the new features. The power-ups are logical, the stages thoughtfully designed, the gameplay kept streamlined and straightforward. All the pieces just fit, which can't always be said for the games that followed in its footsteps.
ARKANOID: DOH IT AGAIN
|If only the game were this appealing!|
That’s just the window dressing, though. Look beyond it and you’ll find a banal experience, easily in the low tier of Arkanoid games. In contrast with the other games in the series, DOH It Again is almost insultingly easy, taking at least ten stages before it starts to pick up steam. The sound is also a miss, with the classic ringing of broken bricks taking on a staccato, unpleasantly digital edge that would probably be more at home on the creaky Odyssey2. (The music is strictly reserved for the boss fights, and it has that overwhelming pipe organ motif that's aggravatingly common in Super NES titles.) The gameplay is classic Arkanoid, give or take a few aggravating new enemies, and the game plays like a dream with a dial, but this is still not one of the series’ finer moments.
|As seen on "I Love the '90s."|
With all that said, Ballarena is pretty lousy. As the pictures in VG&CE suggested, it’s a hybrid of Arkanoid and Gyruss, but these two great games make one hell of an ugly baby. You circle around the edge of the playfield like in Gyruss, but unlike Gyruss, there’s no vanishing point in the center… the ball just flies past it to the opposite end of the screen, often slipping past you in the process. Miss a ball and you’re dragged to the side of the screen for another, as the computer cries “MAMA MIA!” in a voice so grating, it would give even Charles Martinet a splitting headache. The graphics demonstrate the power of Acorn’s state-of-the-art ARM processor, with some striking patterns in the later stages, but you’ll have a hell of a time reaching them thanks to the ill-conceived gameplay. By the way, who was the dope who thought it would be a good idea to stop the action with a text message every time a power-up appears? I hope he trips down some stairs. Like those really long cement ones Sly Stallone jogs up in the Rocky movies.
|I'm going to need a Tylenol|
after this one.
For instance, take the way Block Block handles the length of your paddle. It starts out fairly long, but there’s a counter at the bottom of the screen that drops each time the paddle strikes the ball. When the counter hits zero, the paddle drops a few pounds, making it tougher to keep the ball in play. Fruit can fatten up the paddle, but it’s only a temporary fix, giving the player an incentive to carefully aim their shots and finish each stage in short order. However, if you find yourself stuck, sometimes the game will take pity on you and drop an exit sign somewhere on the playfield, giving you a chance to skip the stage entirely. Any Breakout fan who's spent minutes trying to clear away the last elusive block in a stage can tell you what a relief it is to have this backdoor available to them.
Some of Block Block’s innovations are less welcome than others. A few stages put blocks below your paddle, forcing you to take an uncomfortable leap of faith and let the ball slip past to clear them. Other stages have bumpers and other pinball targets, suggesting that the designers forgot how well they didn’t work in Namco’s Cutie Q and Gee Bee. There are occasional stumbles here and there, but what works in Block Block overshadows what doesn’t.
|Going for a spin in Cameltry.|
Cameltry made its debut in arcades, but there’s also an excellent Super NES conversion called On the Ball which makes the most of that system’s hardware scaling and rotation. They both play beautifully with a homemade spinner, and both come highly recommended even if you don't have a dial handy.
|It's just you and me now, triangular paddleboat!|
Beyond that, the experience is largely the same, with the player darting around a rectangular track, picking off innocuous drones before they can morph into more threatening forms. Omega Race demands a more proactive approach to hunting your targets than Asteroids, along with mastery of your ship’s sensitive thrusting. If you’re not moving, you won’t be living for long.
STAR TREK: STRATEGIC OPERATIONS SIMULATOR
|It's smooth sailin' until every Klingon in the|
quadrant closes in on you.
Sega’s solution was to present its game as a battle simulation. They stripped away the technobabble, the moral dilemmas, and the absurd plot twists, and presented the player with three simple goals: blast Klingons, defend space stations, and stay alive. Normally, they could achieve this with impulse power and phaser fire, but in times of distress, players could fire a photon torpedo, wiping out any Klingon caught in the explosion, or hit the warp button for a fast escape.
As dumbed down as it was from the television show, Star Trek was pretty sophisticated for a 1982 arcade game, with shields acting as a health bar years before they were commonplace and windows that showed the action from multiple perspectives. It doesn’t offer the visceral, seat of the pants action of its rival Star Wars, but Star Trek is a fun game in its own right, with a slower, more measured pace better suited to fans of the franchise.
|Sensory overload makes a comeback in Typhoon 2001.|
(Image courtesy of Arcade-Junkies.com)
Typhoon 2001 readily accepts mouse input, making it compatible with any spinners you happen to have on hand. It’s better if your spinner has a flywheel, but you can get by with an ordinary dial if you crank up the mouse sensitivity to adjust for the lack of inertia. You might also want to crank down the distracting Minter-brand special effects if you want to make it past the fifth stage.
|Victory. Where figuring out what the hell|
to do is half the challenge!
Like its inspiration Defender, Victory is frantic and chaotic… but it’s also incredibly confusing, something no shooter from the early 1980s should ever be. There are so many buttons and status bars and details that it’s hard to keep track of it all, and the aliens rarely give you the opportunity to sort it all out before blowing you to bits. On the plus side, your Battlesphere- er, star- controls pretty well with a dial, and there’s plenty of synthesized voice, which must have been mindblowing at the time and remains impressive thirty years later.
VS BLOCK BREAKER
|Getting the boot in Vs Block Breaker.|
The twist here is that each stage is a tug of war against a character on the right hand side of the screen. As time passes, your opponent squeezes your side of the playfield, giving you less room to move and shrinking your blocks. You can give yourself some temporary breathing room by hitting a power-up that sometimes drifts across the playfield, but your only hope for long-term survival is to clear away all the blocks, giving your hero the strength to squash his rival flat. It’s a clever idea that really shines in the versus mode, where two players gain and lose ground as bricks are shattered.
|Come on Sega, I thought we were friends!|
There are differences between the two games, but they’re mostly cosmetic. While Arkanoid is set in the far reaches of ‘80s art deco space, Woody Pop takes place in a rustic 19th century mansion. While Arkanoid littered its stages with a never ending supply of spheres, cubes, and spinning cones, Woody Pop instead offers wind-up toys, belched out from question blocks strategically placed in most stages. Finally, while Arkanoid had the sleek Vaus as its lead character, Woody Pop gives you a shifty-eyed, rose-cheeked block of oak. Sega was probably aiming for adorable here, but there’s something about Woody that makes me want to run out of the room screaming.
There’s one other thing worth mentioning. Woody Pop was originally released for the Sega Master System, but it never left Japan because of its reliance on a special dial controller released only in that country. However, the game eventually did make it to the United States as an early release for the Game Gear… a handheld with no analog controls whatsoever. Uh, perhaps you should have thought that one through a bit more carefully, Sega.