Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Agony and the Ecstacy: Midway Arcade Origins

It's my opinion there's no gaming experience as pure as the one you'd find in a 1980s arcade. All the baggage we've come to reluctantly accept in today's video games was blessedly light in the quarter-munchers of the past... or absent entirely. There were no interminably long, nonsensical cut scenes, no tedious resource management, and no pointless, game-bloating filler... just you, a million hungry aliens, and a weapon to keep the two apart. 

Astronauts one, creepy bug guy zero.
(Image courtesy of
With this in mind, it should be no surprise that some of my favorite games from the past twenty years were collections of arcade greats from the decade of excess. Namco Museum! Atari Anniversary! Taito Legends! And the granddaddy of them all, Midway Arcade's Greatest Hits, created by Digital Eclipse and released just in time to satisfy gamers' first pangs of nostalgia. After the debut of the Playstation 2, Midway Arcade's Greatest Hits evolved into the more robust Midway Arcade Treasures, and now, over ten years later, we have... this.

Midway Arcade Origins' flaws can be traced back to the industry turmoil that cost Midway its life. The company went bankrupt in 2009 thanks to the mismanagement of Shari Redstone, daughter of Viacom CEO Sumner Redstone. Under the Redstones, Midway went down the same path as the other game companies that went defunct in the 21st century, spending lavishly on marketing and licenses while recouping little of that investment.

Around the same time, Digital Eclipse was facing a crisis of its own. The design team, acquired by Foundation 9 Entertainment in 2003, was in the process of being fully absorbed by the company. Many of Digital Eclipse's programmers abandoned ship during the transition, leaving to form a new studio called Code Mystics. Code Mystics had nothing to do with the production of Midway Arcade Origins, and believe me, it shows.

I'll be honest, I liked this game
better with the Budweiser
license. Even caffeine-laden
Mountain Dew seemed like
a better substitute
than this!
I can't write off Midway Arcade Origins as a total loss. It's got over thirty titles for your gaming pleasure (and occasional bemusement), and they're all reasonably well emulated, even if there's not much to enhance the experience. You get some beautifully rendered cabinets, a trivia scroll at the bottom of the screen, and that's about it. You also get some questionable choices for inclusion, including two flavors of Super Sprint, crusty late '80s relic 720°, and Joust 2, the most unpalatable sequel since Snake Plissken tangled with a cross-dressing Bruce Campbell in Escape from L.A. The decision to leave out the Mortal Kombat trilogy is understandable, since it had already been released in its own collection the year before, but who in their right minds would choose the dreadful Spy Hunter II over Roadblasters, which has never been hotter thanks to its cameo in the film Wreck-It Ralph?

Then there are the achievements. They run the gamut from insultingly easy (enter a warp zone in Total Carnage? You mean the one that appears one screen to the right of the beginning?) to murderously hard (the game's cousin, Smash TV, tasks you with killing Mutoid Man and thousands of his minions with one credit. Good luck! Are you ever going to need it...). A few of the achievements are broken, like finishing the Colorado stage in Toobin', while at least one goes so far as to break its game. Reach 10,000 points in Wizard of Wor and the game shifts into glacier speed until you return to the main menu. 

Too often, this game made me
want to do to the designers
what William Conrad here
is doing to this lousy cop.
To Warner Bros.'s credit, the bug doesn't come back the next time you play the game, and it is much closer to the arcade version than it was in past Midway collections. Still, how did Warner's playtesters miss a bug that I found an hour after I popped the disc into my Xbox 360? Did they hire any? It's a question you'll find yourself asking again and again, when you play 720° and can't control your skater worth a damn, and when you can't make your hero fire diagonally in Smash TV unless you jam the analog sticks in place until they snap. (Want to use the face buttons on your controller instead? Forget it; that ain't happening.) It's just sloppy, and below the standards established by the former Digital Eclipse team fifteen years before.

Midway Arcade Origins is the first collection in this series with native support for high-resolution televisions, and that alone might be enough to seal the deal for fans who couldn't stand the way the Treasures trilogy looked on their LCD displays. Still, Warner Bros. could have done better with Midway Arcade Origins. They probably would have if the Code Mystics team had been calling the shots.

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