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Sean Pettibone

Review

Midway Arcade Origins (Playstation 3)

Playing Midway Arcade Origins is like opening a window on the past of electronic gaming. The games span mostly 80ís and early 90ís arcade games including classics mixed with more obscure releases. Titles like Joust and Robotron have held up well over these many decades but one of the more interesting things is too play through them and see how theyíve continued to influence current games and designers today. From that perspective, this is more than nostalgia for older gamers, but can also become an interactive history lesson allowing younger players to experience first-hand how games have evolved. What else can be learned by playing through these games again? Look inside and discover what we found.

During the current age of downloadable mini-games and apps, shorter, simpler games such as Geometry Wars and Angry Birds have become the rage on smart-phones and tablets. Todayís more elaborate console games seem to have taken a back seat to these smaller scale titles, their roots seem to lie in the arcade hits of the golden age of arcade games back in the 1980ís. For those player curious as to where these kinds of games might have come from, Midway Arcade Origins offers an excellent survey of these classic titles, most of which have been emulated flawlessly in this package. Younger players might want to try something like Rampart, a simple game on the surface but one that has a lot of strategy underneath the surface. The objective is simple, place you castles and guns on a map and fire at the attacking ships that lodge cannon-balls in your direction. After each round, you can rebuild any castle walls that have been damaged with Tetris-style pieces. You can also claim new territory building around other castles, which can then be used to increase your firepower with additional cannons. Look beyond its 2D presentation, and concentrate on its approach and physics and you have a game that feels a little bit like an ancestor of Angry Birds, though its not quite a straight line in terms of evolutionary design, you can definitely see elements of current games if you look carefully.

You can find interesting parallels to current titles in many of these classic games, such as how Pit-Fighter anticipated Mortal Kombat a few years later. The gameís digitized characters and Ďundergroundí attitude can almost be seen as a prequel, though its limited-move list hinders its replay value these days. Another interesting thing you might want to do is play Xybots for a short time, and see its primordial roots as an ancestor to current FPS titles like Call of Duty or Halo, though the controls and clunky movement arenít nearly as precise as one would like, its definitely an interesting title to play through. Other games didnít have nearly as much influence but are still enjoyable, such as the mindless smashing of Rampage, with its monstrous characters and humorous overtones overcoming its somewhat repetitive gameplay mechanics.

Many of the games on the compilation were designed with co-operative play, with the first and second Gauntlet titles prime examples of the kinds of games that attracted more players at once. Playing through the arcade version of Gauntlet, youíre probably going to be surprised by just how fast and intense it is compared to the later home versions, which unfolded much slower. The famous digitized voice is here complete with its exhortation that ďWarrior needs food badly!Ē making the experience feel authentic to the arcade game. Thinking about it context with todayís games, Gauntletís co-op play and simple top-down approach probably wouldnít feel completely out of place on a touch-screen tablet, though it would likely need a graphical overhaul and a slower pace to appeal to todayís gamers.

To put a point on this approach, Midway Arcade Origins also includes a pair of over-head racers that remain appealing. Playing Super Sprint on a huge monitor with its simple, retro graphics is loads of fun and its streamlined play with minimal distractions allows players to concentrate on the gameplay itself, with the sole challenge keeping control of your racer, avoiding the nasty traps and collecting the occasional, well-placed power-up to speed you along. Its straightforward approach proves that games donít need to be overly elaborate or filled with bells and whistles to be enjoyable and challenging. Super Off-Road takes a similar approach, but adds hills and ramps, which might makes things more complex, but doesnít lose sight of the fact that simple doesnít always mean simplistic and fun doesnít always come with strings attached. You donít really need too much introduction to play these games, but you definitely need skill to succeed, which is a key reason why Off-Road and Sprint remain entertaining these days.

Many of the long-standing classics on the compilation need no introduction to veteran players and they appear here in fine form for the most part. As mentioned earlier, the classics Defender and Defender II (A.K.A, Stargate) have been successfully imported in this compilation and remain as primal, challenging and exciting as they were when they were released nearly 30 years ago. Both titles paved the way for literally hundreds of horizontally-scrolling Ďshmupsí over the years, but few matched the intensity and sheer challenge of these releases. Playing these games yet again might seem redundant at this point, but its interesting looking back at how many things went right with Defender. Itís sense of balance, uncompromising level of difficulty and the sheer exhilaration of its battles give it a timeless quality that allows players to jump right in, no matter how much time has passed. Grabbing that high score and outlasting your opponents is just as satisfying now, and this one only seems to get better with age. Defender II adds a few new elements and is nearly as good, but the extra seem to slow things down just enough to make it a little less exciting. Still, its worth playing since it provides a different spin on the original enough to offer a unique experience.

Robotron: 2084 has inspired legions of imitators over the years and this edition offers an excellent version of the game. It remains one of the pinnacles of classic game design with its flawless pacing, gradually upping the ante level by level with more difficult enemies. New types appear in almost every level and you go from shooting mindless robots to brains that suck up characters you want to rescue to impervious tanks that throw hundreds of large bombs at you at once. All of this wrapped up in a dizzying primal series of cycling light that explode in waves of nearly unstoppable destruction that keep you engaged at almost every moment. One interesting thing about Robotronís design that makes it so compelling is how the stages seem large at first, offering plenty of maneuverability to attack your foes. As you face more enemies at once, the single-screen becomes increasingly claustrophobic, where you have to figure out how to shoot your way out of seemingly endless numbers of opponents. The PS3ís dual shock controller does an excellent job in recreating the originalís double-joystick controls and its simple visuals and intense speed remain as addictive and challenging as ever.

Two of Robotronís Ďspiritual successorsí also play into the disc with different results. The first did an excellent job in updating the original game for a new era, while the other didnít match the intensity for reasons that show how not to produce a sequel. Smash TV took the basic mechanics of the original game and set them in a game show, with new power-ups, collectible bonus items and even a few boss battles. The game was fun and matched the intensity of the original game. It did this by dividing the action into different self-contained rooms that matched the claustrophobic feel of the original and kept most of the original controls intact. Opening the action up a little bit might seem like a good idea, but the next sequel Total Carnage shows that evolution can go a step too far. Total Carnageís larger more expansive stages stretched over multiple screens but this proved to be problematic. It made it harder to see oncoming enemies while diffusing the tightly wound action that made Smash TV so appealing. Goals werenít as clear and the end result was a game that didnít match its earlier siblings. Still, it was a cool idea and it makes an interesting example for gamers of what happens when you take an original idea too far from its roots and stray into areas that get in the way of its intrinsic appeal.

The other game in the famous Midway trilogy was Joust, a title that offered a unique flapping mechanic where you had to ride an ostrich and help it fly through the sky. Using the flap button, you had to time your ascent and descent perfectly in order to beat your opponents. When you came into contact, the knight with the higher lance would knock off their opponent. This made for an extremely challenging game and one that has great physics that are intuitive and interesting for players. It remains seemingly far ahead of the curve in this aspect, and in another unexpected way. One interesting thing about Joust comes to mind when you encounter its sporadic egg waves. In these stages, eggs are placed on various platforms and players have to collect all of them before they hatch. It requires seamless timing with the flap button and spatial reasoning that would come into play in other platform titles. While youíre running and jumping through these stages, you only need change the eggs to coins and substitute the ostrich-riding knight with a goofy plumber. Then, it's hard not to think of Joustís egg stages in a different light, viewing them as prototypes of play mechanics implemented the first Mario Bros arcade game a few years later. Playing with a different perspective makes it feel a bit more significant these days and its definitely aged well. Joust is an interesting example of how small elements can lead to bigger innovations.

Many players were disappointed by the previous emulations of Wizard of Wor, which were plagued by speed problems. This version plays flawlessly complete with its invisible monsters with the radar. The game was also ahead of the pack, with its end-level boss battles against the monstrous warlock and then the final battle with the Wizard himself. The starts off slowly for the first few levels, but builds into something much more intense later on. While a bit simple by todayís standards, its straightforward controls, intense shooting action and myriad battle maze layouts makes it challenging to play today with its digitized voices adding to the tension and difficulty. Two more early titles benefit from renewed play if youíre looking for some new insights.  Spy Hunter was a huge hit back in the day and its easy to see why it was so compelling. Mixing the strategy of standard racing with combat, adding tricky power-ups and a brilliant presentation makes the game quite appealing. While thereís nothing more frustrating than getting knocked off the road by a spiked rival, moving your vehicle into the bonus trucks and getting that power-up is equally satisfying. Its this mix of risk and reward that makes the game so compelling. Unfortunately, the lame 3D-lite sequel failed to recapture the first gameís magic and its awkward, split screen approach didnít match the impact the first game had.  While it would be easy to initially dismiss Satanís Hollow as another empty Galaxian clone after playing the first few stages, those who persist and are able to get through to the end-boss battles will find a much more interesting and complex game that remains compelling to play, even though the shields arenít as effective as youíd like them to be in certain situations.

While most of the games on this disc have held up well, some of them just donít stand up to the test of time. Arch Rivals is a fairly dull basketball title with limited moves, ugly graphics and some fairly dull play mechanics that make it an unappealing title these days. However, you can see all the elements that made NBA Jam so popular later on are missing in this flat, uninspired release. Players probably wonít find much appeal in Xenophobe, a trudge through badly rendered platforming with wonky controls, badly designed play and repetitive action that doesnít meet the standards set by other games. Another disappointing game in this release is APB, a pedestrian driving game where you navigate a confusing layout in your police car. The bad controls undermine this one and itís a challenge to keep on the road without smashing into other vehicles while chasing down suspects simultaneously. The simpler approach taken in Toobiní seems to work better, and the race mechanics are fun, though it seems to be missing a little of the spark seen in some of the earlier games. Presentation undermines the otherwise decent port of Tournament Cyberball, a futuristic football game where youíre objective is to beat the opposing team. Unfortunately, the split-screen approach and poor controls make it difficult to call plays which leads to confusion and frequently frustrating mis-throws and errant plays. While not every title is a winner, its still interesting to play through these lesser games with a historical eye, to figure out what went wrong, or how other games that came along later improved on some of these nascent ideas.

It would be easy to dismiss this as another classic game compilation, with a selection of games youíve played many times over the years. It could easy to ignore in a flood of newer games with more flash and style. Looking at them from a fresh vantage point after all these years, or even after only a few months can give you some new insights. If you look at these old games from a different perspective, in this case how they might have influenced other games later on, might make playing through them more interesting. This compilationís lack of extras such as interviews or marketing materials might seem detrimental, but it can also be seen as beneficial. Since you only have the games themselves to play, your focus can stay on their qualities. Players can learn a lot about todayís games, what worked consistently over the years, which ideas turned into dead ends and how gaming evolved. Going through them with a different perspective might be more challenging, but this approach allows you to see things that you hadnít before. Taking this approach can reveal a lot of interesting, unexpected parallels and fresh ideas on their own if you look at them through the right lens. The factoid bullet points might state that Midway Arcade Origins contains 30 emulated copies of 30-year old games, but there might be more inside if you know what to look for.

- Michael Palisano

Grade: B

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