Saturday, November 26, 2016

Arcade Games Potpourri

Donkey Kong

Where is the Original?

Donkey Kong's historical importance cannot be understated.  The huge international success of Donkey Kong was closely tied to the rise of Nintendo as a force in the video game industry.  It also marked the first of many masterpieces by Shigeru Miyamoto.  It also made important legal precedent with Universal City Studios, Inc. v. Nintendo Co., Ltd., 746 F.2d 112 (1984) giving games more freedom to take inspiration from popular culture without risking being sued.  The game was widely ported and the NES version is very good, especially in the Original Edition version released by Nintendo with all four stages at times for the Wii and Wii U Virtual Console.

Donkey Kong Arcade

The ROM for the Original Edition has been extracted and works very well in flash carts.  In reproduction cartridges, things are a little more complicated.  While the Original Edition uses the CNROM/Mapper 3, it was programmed not to rely on bus conflicts.  A bus conflict occurs when the NES tries to write to a bankwitching register while the ROM is enabled.  If the value to be written at a memory location differs from the value in the in ROM at that same location, the NES and the ROM will have a contest as to which value will actually be placed on the bus.  If a bus conflict occurred with a PRG-ROM, a game may very well crash.  But since the conflict is with CHR-ROM, only graphical glitches will result.  This is not guaranteed to occur and added circuitry can be added, a la ANROM/Mapper 7, to disable the CHR-ROM when the bankswitching register is being written.  This avoids the bus conflict.

Donkey Kong NES "Original Edition"
The arcade original has never been officially re-released.  The closest thing to it was a recreation found in Donkey Kong 64.  This may be because much of the arcade machine's code was contributed by an independent company called Ikegami Tsushinki.  Donkey Kong as found in the N64 game may look like a port but plays and sounds more like a recreation.  But Nintendo has never really done anything with any of its classic arcade titles like DK, DKjr., DK3, Punch-Out or Super Punch-Out.  It has been content to release the NES ports of these games or develop new games using characters and themes from these games.

The King of Kong

In 2007, the documentary film King of Kong was released.  It focused on former Boeing engineer Steve Wiebe, who was trying to obtain the high score on arcade Donkey Kong.  The record holder for the high score at Donkey Kong at the time was Billy Mitchell, well-known for establishing several arcade game records.  The film sets out to document the rivalry between the two men.  Wiebe is portrayed as the underdog, he is essentially Rocky to Mitchell's Apollo Creed.

One criticism I have about the film is that while the film recognized the importance of arcade games and how popular they were in the 1980s, it does not highlight anything about Donkey Kong's importance.  The game in question could just as easily be a lesser known arcade classic like Star Castle or Phoenix or Mr. Do.  The film assumes you know what Donkey Kong is and why it is so important.  It does not have any commentary from the game's creators about the high score phenomenon.  The only reason the film's interviewees seem to give for the attraction of that game is that it is very challenging.

A second criticism has to do with a bait and switch concerning the resolution of the film.  The film appears to build up to a head-to-head confrontation between Wiebe and Mitchell, but that never happened.  Seeing the two men side by side in tandem Donkey Kong cabinets to see who can get the best score would have been the perfect way to end the film.  Instead, the two men only have fleeting encounters and Mitchell refuses to play against Wiebe in person.  During the film, Mitchell's long-standing high score is leapfrogged by Wiebe's twice.  Mitchell responds by a VHS tape showing a higher score than Wiebe, then Wiebe fails to beat Mitchell's score at the climax to the film in a public playthrough.  Finally, he beats Mitchell's score in his garage.  All these accomplishments take place months apart on the opposite sides of the United States.

A secondary theme where Wiebe feels his initial high score was unjustly rejected by Twin Galaxies, the video game record authority of the time, is resolved as the thematic finale to the film, but it isn't as satisfying a conclusion to the cinematic journey as a faceoff would have been.  I acknowledge that documentary film makers, unlike fictional film makers, must go where the action takes them.  While they can shape the personalities and events, they cannot make up incidents out of nothing.  Still, the filmmakers do their best to shape the narrative to tell their story.  Mitchell is portrayed as little more than a hyper-competitive jerk.  Twin Galaxies is implied to be biased in favor of older record holders like Mitchell compared to newer challengers like Wiebe.  In fact, Walter Day, the owner of Twin Galaxies, wrote a scene-by-scene refutation of many of the negative insinuations of the film as to him and his company.

Twin Galaxies

Twin Galaxies was an institution run by human beings and like every institution run by men, it had its flaws.  Foibles notwithstanding, under Walter Day the organization was the authority on video game achievements for 30 years.  Day's Twin Galaxies website was accessible when you needed to track down records for any game in its database.  However, Day sold the Twin Galaxies name and branding in 2010 and the organization had several years of unavailability.  While it is now accessible today and players can submit high scores, it may no longer command the authority it did under Day's leadership due to its hiatus.

The current flaw in Twin Galaxies today is that its current site is absolute garbage.  The front page is the among the worst Web 2.0 designs I have seen in a long time.  Searching for a game is unnecessarily cumbersome.  If you type in "Metroid" into a search box, it will give you not give you Super Metroid in the search results.  You must type in "Super Metroid".  It takes a lot of clicking and scrolling to get the information you are looking for.


Coming and Going

Frogger was a huge hit in the arcades.  It was simple to play, highly addictive, colorful and musically pleasant.  It did not involve killing or destruction, which appealed to female players.  It was quickly ported to home video game consoles and computers.  But after the video game crash of 1983-84, it virtually disappeared from the systems that came after the crash.  The NES and the 7800 had many arcade ports, but a classic like Frogger was not among them.  There were no official releases of the game for the Atari ST, Commodore Amiga and the only PC version was a booter!

In 1998 there was something of a flood of official Frogger releases, mainly because there was a new Frogger title for the Playstation.  While it wasn't very good, it did help spawn new releases of the original game for the Game Boy/Game Boy Color, Sega Genesis and Super NES.  The game has been sporadically released, but these days its largest influence can be felt with games like Crossy Road, which is essentially Frogger without an end (with a fair bit of Donkey Kong's influence).

The Obscure Superior Port

Interestingly, Frogger would be released for the Atari 2600 twice.  Parker Bros. originally released the game in a standard 4KB ROM cart.  Parker Bros. spent millions advertising this game and was rewarded with millions of sales.  The port is servicable, it has five rows for the traffic and the river.  Some ports cut down one or two rows, usually from the traffic.  But the graphics are very simplistic, there is no animation to the sprites and the in-game music is absent.

Frogger - Parker Bros.
Because Parker Bros. had only the rights to manufacture a cartridge version of Frogger, Starpath was able to license the game for its Supercharger cassette loading system.  The Supercharger loaded games on compact cassette to a 6KB RAM cartridge.  Some games require more than one load of the cassette, but Frogger is not among them.  For the price of a 30 second loading screen, you would be treated to a vastly superior version of Frogger.  Detailed graphics, animation and full music are present.  It may not be as impressive as the arcade cabinet, but I believe it is the best official port of the game that was not intended to recreate or emulate the arcade machine.  However, the Supercharger was not the most popular of peripheral and it had somewhat of a higher entry price point, so the Supercharger version of Frogger did not sell nearly as well as the Parker Bros. version.

Frogger - Starpath
The Supercharger's main benefit was increasing the amount of RAM available to the 2600, 128 bytes, several fold.  Even though much of the Supercharger's 6KB had to dedicated to storing game code, whatever RAM was left over was free for the programmer to use.  Atari and other companies would also start including extra RAM in some of their cartridges. Another amazing arcade port from this period is Stargate/Defender II.  The extra 128 bytes of RAM helped keep track of the many objects on and off the screen and provide a far, far superior arcade experience to its port of its predecessor.  The arcade cabinets for Defender and Stargate have nightmarish controls, and the 2600 version is much less frustrating to play.  It still requires two joysticks to get the full array of abilities, but is playable with one.  It is a great way to get a Defender/Stargate fix.

The Last Laugh

In 1997, Frogger was the final game released for both the Sega Genesis and the Super Nintendo.  Both systems had the most heated rivalry of any home console system up to that time.  The Genesis had a two year lead over the SNES and had built up a strong library of games.  Nintendo had an uphill battle, but by 1994 it seemed to have been selling more units than Sega.  Sega's rage for pricey add-ons, the Sega CD and the Sega 32X, combined with the focus on the upcoming Sega Saturn diluted its focus on its best selling console.  Nintendo's focus on quality titles and still strong third party support helped it tremendously to catch up and eventually overtake its rival.  By 1994 the Genesis had been played out while the SNES had two solid years left in its lifespan.

Frogger - Arcade
In 1997, however, both systems were in their twilight years and ready to be discontinued.  Majesco Sales had found a niche republishing older titles for both systems like Super Star Wars and Castlevania Bloodlines.  It was not adverse to publishing less ambitious newer titles, and it published a port of Frogger for both the SNES and Genesis.

The Genesis port is essentially a port of the arcade game, and it is a very fine recreation.  The graphics look as though they were ripped straight from the cabinet and the sound and music is spot-on.  It plays like the arcade.  The Genesis is helped by supporting a 320x224 resolution and having a very similar sound chip to the original arcade game.

Frogger - Sega Genesis
The SNES port is garbage by comparison.  While the objects and backgrounds are more colorful and detailed, the color scheme and character designs are offensively garish.  It can make for difficulties in tracking object movement.  There is no arcade graphics option.  Moreover, there is absolutely no music in the game.  Even the Game Boy version had the title music, heck even the Parker Bros. 2600 port had it as well.  If you want a superior arcade port for the SNES, try Taito's Space Invaders instead.
Frogger - Super Nintendo
It has since been discovered that the some of the music in the arcade Frogger was adapted from anime of the early 1980s.  Since the Genesis port, all licensed releases of Frogger use new music or no music.  They typically upgrade the graphics.  The Konami Classic Vol. 1 for the Game Boy Advance from 2001 used the arcade graphics but there noticeable changes in the music.  The music was similar to but not the same as the arcade cabinet.

Namco Classic Collections

Namco released Pac-Man in 1980 and it was the best-selling arcade machine of all time.  Pac-Man was the most popular arcade game of all time and until Mario came along, when the general public thought of video game characters, it thought of Pac-Man.  Like most popular arcade games, Pac-Man was very widely ported to home video game consoles and home computers.

Fifteen years later, Namco was in a celebratory mood.  Given the number of classic arcade games it had manufactured back in the Golden Age of Arcade Games, it wanted to update some of the most successful of them for a modern arcade gaming audience.  Thus in 1995, the Namco Classic Collection Vol. 1 was released, containing original and arranged versions of Galaga, Xevious (regular and Super) and Mappy.  The arranged versions offered video and audio updates, new enemies and new levels.  Galaga Arrangement has 25 stages and a boss battle.  Mappy also has the same design, but two players can play simultaneously because the game uses a split screen to show each player's position on the stage.  Xevious has 16 areas, powerups and more than one boss, but each boss can be killed with 1-2 bombs.  Each Arrangement game allows for two player simultaneous play.

Dig Dug - Original Arcade
In 1996, Namco released the Namco Classic Collection Vol. 2 machine, containing original and arranged versions of Dig Dug, Rally-X and Pac-Man (original Rally-X and New Rally-X are included).  For these arrangements, Namco became more ambitious.   Rally-X Arrangement has new scenery and power ups, but is only one player.  Dig Dug has power ups, new enemies, bosses and worlds.  There is a finish line after 15 rounds.  There are two bosses in Dig Dug Arrangement, large versions of the Pookas and the Fygars.  You will encounter one or the other about every dozen rounds.  You must defeat them either with a blaster power up or by busting a certain type of exploding enemy.  There are 50 rounds in Dig Dug Arrangement.

Dig Dug - Arrangement

Pac-Man Arrangement

The game I really want to talk about is Pac-Man Arrangement, which in my opinion is the best of all the arrangement titles.  Pac-Man Arrangement consists of 22 levels and the boss battle.  The levels are divided up into six worlds, each with its own theme and music.  The normal ghosts are present, Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde, although for some weird reason Clyde is the name of the red ghost and Blinky is the name of the orange ghost.  There is also a fifth ghost called kinky.

Pac-Man Original Arcade
Pac-Man Arrangement Title Screen
Kinky is always blue and can be eaten by Pac-Man at any time. Kinky can combine with each ghost to form a super powered ghost.  Thus red becomes like a bull and can charge across the screen very quickly, purple grows bunny ears and can hop around the stage, blue dons sunglasses and splits into a mirror image and orange becomes fat and adds large pellets to the maze.

Pinky's Powerup - Romp
Pac-Man also can acquire power ups that correspond to the ghost's super abilities.  A red pill makes Pac-Man go faster, an orange pill lets him eat large pellets just as quickly as small pellets, a blue pill splits Pac-Man into a mirror image that can eat pellets, and a pink pill (or a jar) makes all the ghosts hop back into their cage.  There is also a wand power up that turns the ghosts into edible present boxes.

Frightened Ghosts
There are a couple of new features to the maze.  There are large and larger pellets, which take slightly longer for Pac-Man to eat.  There are dash arrows in many of the levels, allowing you to go very quickly and run through ghosts, stunning them briefly.  There are jump holes in other levels, sending you to different parts of the maze.  Some mazes have staircases for a more 3-D look.

Inky's Powerup - Stylist (One copy flickers on real hardware)
The presentation in Pac-Man Arrangement is superb, especially considering the simplicity of the original game.  Instead of a pure top-down or bird's-eye view as in the original, or an isometric view as in Pac-Mania, here Namco opted for a angled bird's eye view.  This gives characters and backgrounds a much greater sense of depth than the perpendicular bird's eye view of Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man.

"Clyde's" Powerup - Urchin
This Arrangement just reeks of candy-coated fun.  The ghosts are incredibly cute looking, especially in their super modes.  The levels are, for the most part, very bright and colorful.  The music is light and catchy.  The difficulty and speed ramps up to help keep things from becoming boring.  The boss battle works extremely well for a Pac-Man game.

Pac-Man's Powerup
Perhaps the most stand out feature of this game, as opposed to the other Arrangements, is that it is a game which can be completed relatively quickly, especially in the two-player simultaneous mode.  In a one player game, you can be finished in about 20 minutes, assuming reasonable skill.  With one player, Dig Dug Arrangement can take close to an hour.

"Blinky's" Powerup - Crybaby

1 comment:

  1. Just a note, the most famous bit of music from Frogger is actually a Japanese children's song, roughly translated as "The Police Dog and the Lost Kitty".