The most reliable thing which cheers me up, no matter how low my mood is, is going and feeding the ducks. This is, however, impractical at night. Accordingly, I turn to the second most reliable cheering-tool of last resort, which is to fire up MAME, the Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator, and play some old-fashioned arcade games on my PC.
There are two ways to get fun using MAME. The first is to play the games you already know which you know you like. The second is to play arcade games you don't know already and try to find the weirdest possible one out there.
Many of my favourite games remind me of growing up and discovering them in arcades; many of the games below were things I encountered at just the right time, which is why they have stayed with me. I feel MAME has most appeal for the twenty- and thirty- somethings, where it's perfectly possible to be thirty-seventeen years old and still enjoy it. Many of my favourite games have particularly memorable, strident music and often tremendous minutiae - wonderful touches of attention to detail which let you marvel at the programming which went into them. Here's a rough top ten.
20. Stakes Winner 2 (stakwin2) Unusual horse-racing game with special moves and memorable tunes. Almost too hard without the special moves, too easy with and you need some (shall we say) outside assistance to get far enough to find out what the special moves are.
19. Combat School (combasc) The ultimate development of the traditional button-bashing game like Track'n'Field or Hypersports, which were incidentally the first games I can remember loving in an arcade. Excellent variety and style.
18. Logic Pro (logicpro) Nonograms: the arcade game, but with a few special power-ups to help you when the time limit does not permit you to apply the logic you'd like. Logic Pro 2 has a much less annoying style, but gussies it up with irritating rubbish, and so probably isn't better. Nice funny furry dog character, though.
17. Toobin' (toobin) I'm not doing this for the name gag, honest. Float down fantasy rivers in inner tubes. Closer to a shoot-'em-up than anything else. Beautiful graphics, but some fairly nasty fantasy things happen to your protagonists in-game. The big crocodile that chases you is one of the scariest arcade game creatures yet. Seriously!
16. Metrocross (metrocrs) Horizontal running race memory game, sort of a predecessor of Trailblazer on 8-bit computers. Jaunty tune, elegant structure, easy gameplay, some variety.
15. Pipe Dream (pipedrm) Arcade version of Pipemania, the old direct-a-flow-against-the-clock 16-bit computer game. Pays a debt to the predecessor Locomotion (locomotn), but that's about shifting tiles rather than laying them.
14. Gauntlet (gauntlet) A tremendous, imposing machine in the arcades, revolutionary for its D&D-like gameplay and its four-players-at-once action. Considerably less impressive on a home PC, alas. Gauntlet II (gaunt2) has far more variety, but somehow much less presence.
13. Cyberball (cyberbal) American football with robots. Amazing-looking machine in the arcades - two teams of two players, two monitors angled away from each other. The gameplay isn't nearly as good as the premise, but unusual and the best attempt at a sport more complex than football yet.
12. Kick'n'Run (kicknrun) Best association football game. The arcade game had a Gauntlet-like machine, but with extra foot pedals for the players; there was also a two-player stand-up game called Mexico 86 (mexico86). Gains at least 100 places in the chart for the gorgeous whistle-along in-game tune.
11. Mr. Do Run Run (dorunrun) Gameplay all its own, a strange collect-the-fruit-or-kill-the-monsters game. This and other Mr. Do games have a remarkably intricate, difficult way of earning extra lives which is quite admirable. Mr Do itself is a less playable game, but has gorgeous early cut-scenes between levels.
10. Bomb Jack (bombjack) Some of the old one-offs have very few gimmicks other than unusual, bouncy, fast gameplay, but this is coupled with glorious glowing graphics and jazzy music, including the Beatles' only good tune.
9. Golden Axe (goldnaxe) Not a big fan of beat-'em-ups, whether scrolling or stationary, but this one was always fun with a friend. A simple plot, easy gameplay, faint fantasy trimmings, just enough variety to keep things interesting and only about 20 minutes of playtime to complete the thing, which feels about right. Very nice silly ending sequence with a jaunty tune which makes it all worthwhile, then an extremely strange scoring system at the very end. What more do you want?
8. 720° (720) The original skateboarding game. It really needs the arcade machine's original whirly joystick to be played properly - or, failing that, some sort of paddle controller. This has mini-games, a strange maze, another impossible-to-understand scoring system, tremendous ambition and bags of attitude.
7. (Atari's) Tetris (atetris) One of the nicer versions of Tetris out there and considerably better than Sega's arcade Tetris game. This splits the gameplay up into a number of levels and adds spurious and unfair obstacles on later levels. It missteps because the control isn't quite right - sometimes the pieces move down too fast but left-and-right not fast enough. Other than that, it's one of the definitive versions of Tetris out there and good enough on those grounds alone.
6. Marble Madness (marble) You don't get games like this any more - one of Atari's older, wilder ideas. Navigate a marble from the top of a maze to the bottom of a maze within a time limit, avoiding strange and frequently whimsical obstacles along the way. Not as 3-D as it pretends to be; comparable to Doom in being a game played on a strictly 2-D surface with token elements of height involved. Imagine how mind-blowing a 3-D Marble Madness game could be produced today; the original was claustrophobic and psychedelic enough, so perhaps better not imagine too hard.
5. Every Driving Game Ever OK, this is a bit of a cheat, but driving games are my favourite genre. (Sadly one underrepresented within MAME, because many games had custom technology which has proved extremely difficult to emulate.) Chase HQ (chasehq) is possibly the most playable that's in there at the moment, due to alternating "race to beat a time limit" and "crash into a car to knock it off the road" gameplay, but I have very fond memories of WEC Le Mans (wecleman) in the arcade and the technically-very-backwards-but-so-stylis
4. 1943 (1943) By far my favourite vertically-scrolling shoot-'em-up. A very gentle difficulty curve and lots of nice (if simple) power-ups at a time when power-ups were rather a novelty, yet remarkable variety within a very simple structure and some gorgeous tunes along the way. A game in which it's very easy to get a feeling of making at least a little bit of heroic progress. There's a Japanese version of the game called 1943kai with similar but different music, but it's slightly less good.
3. Space Harrier (sharrier) Offers similar sorts of thrills to 1943 but in a slightly different way. Satisfyingly simple gameplay, tremendously fast action on a number of levels, very easy when you know what you're doing, a couple of jolly bonus levels, remarkably psychedelic in places (the mushrooms on level 3! The icosahedrons on level 4!) and with one of the very best game tunes ever. Nostalgia value is immense, mostly for the hydraulic arcade machine that tilted you around, which is the single arcade machine I would most like to own. Space Harrier has been compared to the very recent Rez, which is never a bad thing - see jokey case study #5 in this funny piece. Space Harrier plus Trance Vibrator? "Welcome to the fantasy zone", I would say. Get ready!
2. Block Out (blockout) Elevator pitch: Tetris in 3-D where you make planes instead of lines. Rotate your pieces about all three axes and try to make them fit. Fantastic presentation, as noted by no less than jwz himself. Gorgeous tunes. Playing with virtual toys in 3-D is just more interesting than playing with them in 2-D. This is probably the arcade game I've played most over the last year or two and the one at which I'm best; I most enjoy the levels which are multiples of five, for the 5x5 flat grid offers you lots of flexibility and the lounge-ish music is wonderful. The best tip I have for this game is to always prepare for the least convenient piece that you might be dealt on any particular level. The practice of dumping long thin pieces on their ends is risky and short-termist, but rather more acceptable when you're down to your last plane or two.
1. Bubble Bobble (bublbobl) If you've been paying attention, you should've known this was coming, with mention in the interests list and even an allusion in the journal title. If I say it's a game about dinosaurs blowing bubbles to trap enemies, then bursting the bubbles with enemies in, then familiarity with the game already would be the only thing which would make you believe me. The most wonderful thing about this is that there's amazing internal logic involved in the game, not randomness - just see the FAQ. It's comparable to the way in which the number of points awarded by the mothership in Space Invaders was supposedly random, but actually you could guarantee the maximum score by shooting it with your 17th shot, your 34th shot, your 51st shot, your 68th shot or so on, only much more so.
On top of that, the rarer magic items are just wonderfully great fun, with the occasional potions providing a tremendous little mini-game. It's a game which has its own secrets - it even has its internal cypher to solve, plus a whole different ending in case you think you've solved the game. This game is an absolute labour of love; only its sequel, Rainbow Islands, seems to come close for being packed with so much stuff in a similar sort of way, but the gameplay there isn't quite as entertaining - and, crucially, only one player at a time. Lastly, returning to trumpet the glories of Bubble Bobble, how could I resist a game which is apparently the opposite of sex?
Nearly made it into the top 20: apb, bankp, bionicc, motos, rainbow, shangon, xybots and doubtless others I will remember tomorrow.
Ah, the weird shit. Jaw-dropping stuff.
10. Every Adult Game Ever Another cop-out, classifying a whole genre as weird. There's a well-established Japanese tradition of interleaving levels of gameplay with pictures bearing decreasing clothing. There are, at a rough guess, at least one or two hundred such mah-jongg games, a poker game (pkladies - relatively raunchy), famous Qix games (galpanic and many sequels), breakout, pinball and probably many other types of sexed-up classic formats.
However, I'm going to highlight Sexy Reaction Pachinko (sxyreact) as the most interesting of the breed, mostly for being video pachinko, a game requiring about as much skill as the National Lottery. There is a remarkable interwoven story involving five young ladies wearing decreasing quantities of clothing and quite frequently being rather displeased about it. (Some of them react very badly when you insert another coin to buy more balls, so to speak.) The graphic style is hentai - moderately attractive if you like that sort of thing. Yet the strangest thing about this extremely strange game is the fifth level, where (in order to earn extra balls) you need to get balls into a hole which starts a fruit-machine, which temporarily lights some other holes. Hitting all seven other holes while lit (easier said than done) then triggers the descent of an angel and the biggest target that you ever did see in which to deposit balls like they're going out of fashion. There's a moral there, somewhere.
9. Zookeeper (zookeep) Jumping over animals scores points. The weird thing is the way you run around the outside of the cage. Actually, there are lots of little, weird things to this game, which you just don't see in games any more. Perhaps they didn't prove to be very good ideas, or something.
8. Lotto Fun (lottofun) I think this game may have been removed from later versions of MAME, but it was definitely in earlier ones. It's effectively video keno which pays out tickets (at least, if you have a ticket dispenser attached). It's remarkably hypnotic. Probably a desirable attribute to have for a gambling game, really.
7. Total Carnage (totcarn) My nomination for the video game with the most graphic violence ever, in a fairly cartoony style. Earns bonus weird value for its remarkable attitude to destruction and the way it swaps between friendliness and insult at no notice. Topped off by its impossibly hard conclusion. I think there isn't much information about this game on the web simply because it was too hard for anyone ever to properly complete. Perhaps the gag is that you can't actually complete the game and see all that it's supposed to offer.
6. Arm Wrestling (armwrest) Joystick-wiggling arm-wrestling game, which is an unusual enough predicate in the first place. It flashes lots of arrows and exclamation marks at you and gives you no indication of what they mean. Seems to draw on the temporal success at the time of Punch Out, but ends up being completely incomprehensible.
5. I, Robot (irobot) Classy and weird - too imaginitive for the public of the day, with its way-ahead-of-its-time shaded polygons. Mixture of a timing-based maze/jumping game and a shoot-'em-up. Years ahead of its time. Also unusual in that there's an "ungame" drawing activity, Doodle City, that you can play with instead.
4. Super Loco (suprloco) Train-based shoot-'em-up. Remarkable and clever two-screen display, but you need to be tremendously talented to follow both halves of action at once. The game only starts to make sense when you realise the longer you hold the fire button down, the higher your steam (bullet) goes. There's all sorts going on at once here. Cool music, too.
3. Blaster (blaster) Back in the early '80s, the hot-shot maverick arcade game programmer of the day was Eugene Jarvis: his Defender was the seminal horizontally-scrolling shoot-'em-up, then he went on to do some very weird, misconstrued games like the adrenalin-rushiest hundreds-of-enemies-at-once shoot-'em-up of them all, Robotron, and the sophisticated-societal-AI-inside-a-space-g
2. Quiz & Dragons (qad) ...and, to a less extent, every other quiz game ever. The concept is Dungeons & Dragons with answering quiz questions instead of fighting and a traditional linear gameboard gussied up with some of the trappings of the fantasy game tradition (innkeepers, monsters, spurious magic items and so forth). More understandable than Japanese-language quiz games, but not by much.
1. Yes/No Tokimeki Memorial (yesno) I recognise this as an unfair pick for #1, simply because the format is a familiar part of Japanese culture which just hasn't made it to the Western world. Esentially, you pick a scenario from a list of several dozen (some one-player, some two-player) and the game asks you a series of yes/no questions related to that scenario. It takes your answers and then divines which of four possible resolutions to the scenario most applies to you. I've seen this in the Japanese class I took - the questions in the sample Tokimeki were "do you like (this type of food)?" and the conclusion was the cuisine of restaurant at which you should eat.
Yet, to Western eyes, it's unfamiliar, exotic and hence weird. There's also the fact that a woodpecker occasionally interjects with some spurious, impossible-to-win minigames and there's a "mad professor" character who typewrites your answer at the end. The music, while alien to Western ears, is probably entirely typical J-pop. Yet the whole package and style of it are like nothing else that MAME has to offer, and the fact that hundreds or thousands of young ladies will have used this game to determine the future of their relationships offers a sort of car-crash-like fascination. I don't even want to find out what the game's really saying in translation.
Tonight I brought my MAME installation up to date, jumping from v0.61 to the most recent v0.76, and tried out about ten new games that were added recently. mame.dk is long-gone history, but you can leech pots of ROMs from Planet Emu - all in French, but the language of MAME is global. (Incidentally, yes, I am expecting to receive lots of arcade ROM boards for my birthday - why do you ask? ;-) ) There's a neat system which prevents you from starting more than one download from their site every five minutes. Two of the night's new games are contenders for... well, one of the lists above, but I'm not quite sure which one.
Prop Cycle (propcycl) is a game I loved in the arcades and very heavily resonant of Oxford. It's a steering-accuracy flight game, but the arcade machine has speed controlled by how quickly you pedal the exercise-bike pedals. (On MAME, you just hammer left-CTRL.) Unfortunately my positively mid-'90s graphics card means that the game runs at approximately 5% of arcade speed, so I haven't managed to enjoy the cut scenes I fondly remember from the arcade original, but it's still nice to be able to take it slowly and play around in a way that you can't in the arcade, flying through the railway tunnels and so forth. Sing along, chrisvenus - "Don't worry! Just do your best! That's all you can do!"
And I quote, Bishi Bashi Championship Mini Game Senshuken (bishi) is, well, pretty much what it says on the tin. 17 little mini-games, each of which is controlled by three buttons. Redefine your keys so that (say) Q, W and E correspond to the blue, green and red buttons respectively and bishi-bash away. Some of the mini-games are tiny puzzles, others reaction games, others still speed games, a few colour-matching games. It's rather a predecessor of Wario Ware, or my own Light Speed concept demo, but in (slightly) bigger chunks. The presentation of the game could be taken as an influence for Banzai on TV. I'm not quite sure whether this is the same as Bishi Bashi Special or not. I suspect it's from the same family, but not the same family member. A very cute little game, all told.
So lots of new things to cheer me up. Not a good day, but a day from which I have been able to salvage a reasonable mood,
The zero'th most reliable thing to cheer me up is writing about games, which has done the trick once again. Good night, for I shall go to bed happy, and don't expect my birthday Thursday to start at all early. :-)