Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Southern Fried Gameroom Expo 2017 BLOWOUT (Part One!)

The Internet Is In America returns to Atlanta's premier celebration of all things retro gaming ... and there was so much awesomeness that it's going to take us two articles to show you everything.


By: Jimbo X
JimboXAmerican@gmail.com
@JimboX

For the last two years I've been singing the praises of this here thing we've got in Atlanta called the Southern-Fried Gameroom Expo. For the uninitiated, it's this big old festival dedicated to old school gaming - that includes coin-ops, vintage consoles and pinball. While the event does have a lot of extra tomfoolery going on - concerts and tabletop gaming and costume contests and, if you can believe it, pro 'rassling - the central appeal of the event is that it's basically a gigantic arcade - plucked straight out of 1997 - that rolls into town once a year. For that one glorious weekend each June, all of of us old nostalgic souls can relive our wayward youths and play a dizzying array of long, long forgotten coin-op ephemera - and without having to pluck one damn quarter in any coin slots, to boot.

In short - it's utterly fantastic, and it might just be my favorite annual event anywhere. And this year's show definitely did not disappoint. As always, because there's just so much content to trudge through, I have to break this stuff up into two separate articles - the first one (i.e., the one you're looking at now) focusing on the expo's video game elements and the second (which'll be posted in a week or two) focusing on its pinball offerings.

So what are you waiting for, folks? Let's go on ahead and hop right into the retro-tastic, joystick-twaddling, trackball-rolling, button-smashing awesomeness, why don't we?


Virtua Fighter!

It is not often you see an original VF cab in the wild, so I definitely spent as much time playing this one as I could.


Sega's pioneering polygonal ass-kicker never really got the acclaim it truly deserved back in the '90s. Despite having a combat system that was about 300 times better than Mortal Kombat, most kids just sorta passed this one by to go play the latest and greatest blood-spattered brawler like Time Killers and the oh-so creatively titled Blood Storm. In short - we were some dumb, dumb motherfuckers back then.


Although the game does feel a little shallow compared to its sequels (to this day, I consider VF 4 to be the greatest 3D fighter ever) the original Virtua Fighter is still plenty of fun, and winning bouts by ringout is every bit the hoot and a half it was back in '94. Although looking at the character display underneath the screen, something did catch me by surprise. Can anyone explain to me why Akira is depicted as the Iron Sheik here? (EDITOR'S NOTE: Some thoughtful reader by the name of Mega Jump was kind enough to let my ignorant ass know that originally, Akira was supposed to be some kind of turban-wearing karate fighter, as these screens clearly indicate. Apparently, the folks at Sega forgot to update the arcade artwork, which means this is one of the earliest versions of the game ever released and probably a collector's item worth a shit-ton of money ... or, at least, a couple of extra quarters, I suppose.)


Escape from the Planet of the Robot Monsters!

I've played the game before on various home consoles, but this was my first time getting a chance to play it as an upright coin-op. Alas, the upgrade in graphics didn't really do a whole lot to warm me up to the I.P.


This is one of those games with really clumsy isometric controls. You get eight way directional shooting, but the movement is so slow that it's pretty much impossible to rattle off some shots without getting crept up on by something. There's a lot of stuff going on on-screen, and I guess if you really applied yourself you could get into a solid rhythm, but a good 10 minutes with this 'un left me really uninspired and unimpressed.


But it wasn't all bad, though. I, for one, was absolutely gobsmacked by just how much the two avatars resembled muscled up versions of Beavis and Butt-Head. Go ahead, look at that character art - complete with the bouffant hairdos! - and tell me Mike Judge didn't swipe the design.


Mappy!

Fuck, Mappy is a game with a subversively dark premise. After all, it is a game about cops murdering home invaders (which, itself, is the inversion of the general principle behind the cult classic Sega game Bonanza Bros. - a game in which YOU play the criminals.)


Personally, this one's always been a tad too peculiar for my liking. You don't really have a formal attack, you just have to lead your enemies into specific death traps (which, in this game, primarily come in the form of doors and extremely powerful microwave blasts.) You have to use trampolines to get from point A to point B and you collect points by retrieving TV sets and 1983-era personal computers. Oh, and almost all of the sound effects are borrowed from Galaga, which feel REALLY out of place when you're playing as a police officer mouse.


This is one of those old school games that just feels a bit too basic. The gameplay mechanics are easy enough to figure out, but the core gameplay just feels hobbled. Your character either moves too fast or too slow and the backdrops are extremely boring - sorry, Namco, but you didn't hit Pac-Man gold a second time around with this 'un.


Blaster!

I had never heard of nor seen Blaster prior to the expo and I was pleasantly surprised by what this Williams' offering had to ... well, offer.


Long story short, this is pretty much Star Fox ten years earlier and about ten times better. The proto-polygonal graphics actually look pretty decent and the controls are fuckin' spot-on. And the game provides plenty of challenge without coming off as painfully cheap - a real rarity for coin-ops this aged.


There's just something about early '80s shooters like this that I love that I can't quite put my finger on. Maybe it's the psychedelic (yet minimalist) visuals? As primitive as the level design may be, that aesthetic just gets me every time - assuredly, if people could've traveled to Saturn in 1984, this game is what the travel brochure would've looked like.


Kangaroo! 

This game is Atari's answer to Donkey Kong, and I've got to say, it's not a bad little imitation. If nothing else, it certainly beats the pants off Congo Bongo - Sega's attempt to outdo D.K.


The premise behind Kangaroo is simple enough. You play a mama kangaroo - equipped with boxing gloves - who has to travel up ladders to rescue her baby 'roo. The only problem is, there are these fuckin' monkeys all over the screen hurling apples and shit at you, and you have to get right up next to them before you can punch their lights out. Of course, if they touch you it's an instant kill, so perhaps you can see the importance of spatial skills heading into this particular coin-op.


It's a bit of an arbitrarily difficult game, though. It's not hard so much because of the gameplay as it is the control scheme. You just can't hit a "jump" button like any non-retard game designer would've programmed it, you have to tilt your joystick at a 45 degree angle to hop forward or backward. Naturally, enemies have a nasty tendency to close the gap on you while you're jumping, so half the time your leap concludes with your avatar landing ass first on a monkey and subsequently dying. With enough practice I suppose you can get the timing down, but as a first time player, this thing was a major rectal pain right out the gate.


Still, I enjoyed it. I love any and all things related to kangaroos, so that probably hampers my objectivity, but I really did find this one to be a far above average platform/puzzler from an era absolutely inundated with them. It ain't the easiest game to pick up and play, but once you get the hang of things, it's an absolute blast. And come on - how can anybody hate a game that lets you punch the simian shit outta' monkeys?


Wizard of Wor!

Every time I see this game, the first thing I think about is that segment in Nightmares where Emilio Evestevez ditches his girlfriend at a pizza parlor so he can play Battle of Bishop over and over again until the machine comes alive and sucks him into the video game world through the coin slot. I mean, the similar titles can't be mere coincidence, can they?


According to Walter Day - who was a special guest of honor at this year's SFGE - this is quite possibly his favorite game of all-time. You know how I know that? Because he literally told me in-person. He also said that he and Billy Mitchell still like to hit up random arcades and tag team this sumbitch, which honestly, sounds like it has all the makings of a wacky 1980s teen sex comedy. Except, you know, everybody is like 60. And nobody has sex. Ever.


But, uh, oh yeah, the game itself. I can't say I was particularly enthralled by the gameplay - basically, you just run around mazes shooting stuff at griffins (who, on the coin-op marquee, actually look more like outer space lizards) so it's an only slightly modified tweak on the old Pac-Man formula. Still, the controls were fluid enough and you just have to dig those minimalist visuals - or not. It's a free country, after all. 


After Burner!

There are two versions of After Burner that everybody remembers - the huge cabinet you got to sit in - and this version, which was immortalized in that classic of early 1990s cinema, Suburban Commando.


This was the game at my local Pizza Hut back in the day. It had enough knobs to fiddle around with to almost make it seem technically legit, but the arcade action was straight-forward enough that even a clumsy, mechanically-deficient first grader such as myself could at least get to the second mission. Sure, it was just a blatant ripoff of Top Gun, but I sure as hell would rather get my thumbprints all over this game's joystick than watch Tom Cruise deny his latent homosexuality for two hours.


Like a good 99 percent of my cohorts, I never "beat" After Burner. Some clips on YouTube suggest the full game can be completed in just 16 minutes, but I don't think I ever spent more than four playing it. It's a game you can appreciate for its technical aspects, but I never really considered it compelling, per se. Still, it beats the shit out of Space Harrier, and for that, we should all be eternally grateful. 


Primal Rage!

This game came out right at the apex of arcade fighters so we had already seen Samurai Shodown II and Super Street Fighter II and played about a hundred or so piss-poor knockoffs of the best the genre had to offer. Primal Rage is a game that kinda falls somewhere in-between being a decent post-genre-zenith fighter - think, Darkstalkers - and a really crummy Mortal Kombat wannabe like Way of the Warrior and Survival Arts. But there's no denying it has a hell of a hook - it's basically Pit Fighter with motherfuckin' dinosaurs!


Technically, Primal Rage ain't a good fighter. It's playable, but it leaves a lot to be desired - just contrast this game's combat system with something like King of the Fighters '94 or Virtua Fighter 2 and the argument is made for me. Still, what Primal Rage lacked in depth, it kinda' sorta' made up for it with sheer presentation. For example, you could pick up and eat cave people for bonus health and one of the fatalities involves a giant monkey literally pissing acid on his adversary. And how could any wayward youth circa 1995 NOT want to see prehistoric beasts giving each other golden showers in playable, animated form?


So yeah, Primal Rage is one of those games we all remember, but it's not exactly memorable for any legitimate reasons. It's not a bad game and it's certainly not a good game, but beyond the really chintzy stuff - again, with the monkey piss - it's just a kinda-there, lukewarm brawler from a time period with literally hundreds of superior genre competitors. That said - I'd still love to play the sequel, someday...


NFL Blitz!

Every year I find that one game that I totally forgot was fuckin' awesome. Well, this year's Arch Rivals was undoubtedly Midway's original NFL Blitz, the blatant NBA Jam clone that actually managed to provide an even better arcade sports experience than its inspiration.


It's been a really long time since I've played any of the Blitz games, and I sorta' remembered the titles as being very herky-jerky and simplistic, with some of the worst rubberband A.I. in the history of gaming. Well, one quarter playing the arcade original certainly changed my tune: this game is just phenomenal, with some of the finest arcade football gameplay and controls any of us are likely to experience.


The game is a lot deeper than most people give it credit for. I totally forgot how robust the playbook was, and I didn't even remember the title having a running game. Much to my jubilant surprise, though, this is a shockingly great football engine, made even better by all those concussion-causing late hits and pro 'rassling-style tackles that would probably get modern NFL players arrested and banned for life from formal competition. I fucking love this game, and if you don't love it, too, fuck you.


Bump 'N' Jump!

Believe it or not, this was the first time I ever played the arcade version of Bump 'N' Jump. And to borrow the immortal words of one Georges St-Pierre, I was not impressed by its performance.


It's really nothing more than a slightly faster than average top-down racer. There are no real "driving" mechanics at play - you just move the button up to keep going and slam the joystick downward to deaccelerate. Of course, the big variable in this one is that you can hop over obstacles and other racers a'la Herbie the Love Bug, which I'm pretty sure is what the people who designed it originally wanted it to be. Alas, shit happens, and that shit includes this game.


Am I being too hard on "Jumpin' John" and his solo contribution to video game lore? Eh, probably, it's just that compared to so many other racing games from the time frame, this one doesn't really offer anything new or especially well-done. Some people consider it a classic, but I consider it ho-hum at best - Pole Position II, this sumbitch certainly ain't.


Turbo Outrun!

The follow-up to Outrun isn't anywhere near as ubiquitous as its forerunner, so I was pleasantly surprised to see it wheeled out at this year's expo. 


Now, to the best of my knowledge, there were two versions of the game released; the one we see here (which was a stand-up coin-op unit with a steering wheel and pedals beneath the screen) and a version that basically just upgraded pre-existing Outrun cabinets (y'know, the huge honkin' ones that were built to make you feel like you were riding in a plastic Ferrari.) Gameplay-wise, it had some considerable tweaks (adios branching paths, for starters) and the proto Cruis'n U.S.A. level layout was RIFE with geographical oddities. Por exemple? You see that snow covered stage pictured above? According to the designers of this game, that's what Atlanta looks like.


And here's the rest of the get-up. Mashing the gas and the brakes is actually a lot more natural-feeling that it would appear, and personally, I dig the whole two-level manual shift feature. You can either drive low or you can drive high ... and come on, who among us doesn't love driving high!


Time Soldiers!

I've played this game on the Master System, and I wasn't really impressed by the port. Alas, as weak as that game was, its arcade big brother might actually be even lamer.


At first glance, Time Soldiers looks like your dime-a-dozen Ikari Warriors imitator. And what do you know, IT IS! The big problem here is the control set up. You see, instead of being given an eight-way directional joystick, you have this bizarre octagonal stick that moves your characters in increments of 1/8th. So basically, you're dialing the obelisk to aim your avatar's attacks, and that sounds every bit as clumsy and stupid as you'd imagine it to be. 


It's a hard game, but not because of the game design. The controls are so iffy that even making 45 degree turns takes way longer than it should, thus leaving you open to a flurry of attacks from the million-billion enemies onscreen at all times. The graphics are pretty good, but that doesn't make up for the underwhelming core gameplay - and, of course, that awful, awful control-phallus


Cloak & Dagger!

Now here's one I've never heard of before. Despite sharing its namesake with an obscure-ass Marvel comic, I assure you this game has nothing to do with teenage runaways gaining hard-to-describe supernatural powers. Instead, it's a game where you dress up like a lime green version of the Hamburglar, steal a whole bunch a shit in caves and shoot arrows at people, and yeah, it is kinda' awesome.


It's hard coming up with a good comparison point for the game. It looks like Dig-Dug but it plays more like a REALLY lo-fi version of Robotron. The controls take some time to get used to, but when you do it becomes a really fast and fluid experience. The graphics and audio ain't much to write home about, but there's no denying the gameplay is smooth and addictive.


And damn, do I LOVE the character design. Just look at the dude you're playing as and tell me he couldn't be an unused villain from Steve Ditko's Spider-Man run. I'm not sure what his canonical name is (I just dubbed him "Green Stealing Motherfucker"), but he definitely deserves to be in the next Smash Bros. game based on aesthetics alone.


Quick & Crash!

Now we're getting into the REALLY obscure stuff. Although the ampersand may lead you to believe it's an underadvertised sequel to Lucky & Wild, this weird-ass Namco coin-on is actually a shooting gallery game that lets you plug REAL metal ball bearings in miscellaneous objects, such as tea cups. 


Naturally, they don't give you a gun that fires actual projectiles. You're still tethered to a bright green plastic gun which sorta-kinda-but-not-really corresponds with the little cannon that launches ball bearings at targets. The Duck Hunt rule set is in order here; you have to leave the (fake) gun in the holster, and when prompted, you have a few seconds to blast the shit out of whatever the gallery throws at you, be it a simple paper target or something considerably more explodable


I can easily see why this one never became an arcade favorite. The maintenance on this thing has to be a bitch and a half and I suppose it's the onus of the operator to keep stocking the machine with fresh breakables. Gameplay-wise, this thing is super-duper-slow, so all you fans of "quick-spurt" arcade actions are definitely S.O.L. It's an interesting oddity, for sure, but it loses its novelty fast - we're all better off playing Beast Busters for the four-millionth time, unquestionably. 


Pop 'n Music!

A good six years before Guitar Hero, there was this rhythm-action series from Konami. I've heard of the series before (primarily, through a series of ANCIENT YouTube videos showing Japanese dudes playing the game absurdly fast), but this was my first time ever seeing a cabinet in person.


Since the unit was in Japanese, I can't really tell you too much about the storyline (if there is one.) All I know is that there are a lot of chibi anime characters on the screen and you have a pretty large mixture of songs to choose from - ones running the gamut from symphonic takes on classical music to your oh-so-expected grandiloquent, over-the-top J-Pop. Naturally, none of that stuff is necessarily my musical bag, so I can't say I was too enthused by the soundtrack options. But that's kind of an aside - what's really important is the control scheme.


So, yeah, it's pretty much a glorified game of Simon Says, except way, WAY harder. Just like Rock Band, you follow the notes onscreen, but since there are almost A DOZEN buttons to mash, things can get real confusing in a real hurry. I was fucking dead in the water less than 30 seconds in, but apparently, there are some people out there who are just as gung-ho about this shit as there are inevitable school-shooters into DDR. Still, it was cool seeing a game this obscure at the show, and let's just hope such is a sign that at next year's expo, I'll finally be able to get my hands on that one Japanese arcade game where you have to stick your fingers inside a giant, plastic butthole for bonus points.


The Irritating Maze!

If I had to pick one title for "find of the show," it would DEFINITELY be this ultra-obscure SNK coin-op. This thing was weird as fuck and fun as all hell to play, and I'll prolly never get a chance to get my hands on it ever again - which, in a way, sums up why shows like SFGE are so dadgum important to retro-enthusiasts such as myself.


The Irritating Maze has a really, really simple premise. Using the oversized trackball pictured above, it's your job to manuever the onscreen bubble around a giant maze littered with obstacles. So I guess, in a way, you could describe it as a new take on Marble Madness, except the fact that game is overrated trash and this game fucking rules


Naturally, hitting anything will kill you. Touch the barriers, get zapped by electricity, accidentally bump into a lever, just barely scratch a column and that's it, buster. Thankfully, the controls here are just ace, and you won't have any technical problems learning the ropes on this sucker in no time at all. Yes, it's an insanely basic idea for a game, but shit, is it just so much engrossing fun - you wouldn't expect it at first glance, but this really is one of the most nerve-racking arcade games ever made. 


Oh, and the best part? Every time your bubble gets popped, there's this little chamber beneath the screen that blasts you with a gust of hot air. And since this particular unit is so old, the residual blast smelled just like a super rank fart, which made losing the game especially demeaning. Pride is pride, but getting warm stank on your clothes? Yeah, that's definitely an incentive to kick Player 2's ass and ruthlessly


Xybots!

I suppose I can't fault Atari for at least trying to stay relevant in the late 1980s arcade market, but games like Xybots really make me wonder if their resources weren't better suited for home console and portable development instead.


This is easily one of the most convoluted arcade games I've ever played - this shit is so confounding, it makes Missile Command look like freakin' Pong. While the graphics are solid and I'll give the designers some dap for trying to make a more intricate game world than the average arcade title from the era, there's just way too many bad design choices hampering the fun. I mean, why in the hell would you relegate the action to just one fourth of the screen? Imagine playing Turtles in Time, only three-fourths of the screen is cluttered with maps, inventory screens and a big, neon green rectangle flashing "PRESS START" over and over again like some kind of malfunctioning VCR. I can kinda' understand what Atari was getting at, but the execution here is just all sorts of bungled.


They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and I'd say this little image says at least a thousand and one - primarily, "why aren't you playing something that's actually fun instead of gawping at the bottom left corner of the screen like you had Down syndrome?"


Raiden!

I've must've played Raiden and its endless permutations on at least half a dozen different consoles by now. Interestingly, I don't think I ever actually played the original arcade version, and needless to say, it smokes the home console iterations like a big, phat doob.


You really need the vertical arcade screen to truly grasp how large the playing field is. At the time having that much real estate to fly around in was fairly uncommon in SHMUPS, and you definitely needed as much lebensraum as you could muster because there is shit blowing up around you EVERYWHERE. Maybe it's the arcade unit's processing power, but this iteration just feels so much more intense than the ports we got on the Genesis and SNES (and the Lynx, too, but I guess that sorta' goes without saying.) This is a hardcore game for hardcore gamers ... and by golly, do I fucking love it.


Sky Skipper!

And lastly, we come to something REALLY special - a long-lost Nintendo coin-op that hasn't been seen since the early 1980s!


The backstory on this one might take awhile, so hang tight. Sky Skipper was a game Nintendo was working on right after Donkey Kong, but apparently the suits at the Big N got some cold feet when they saw the finished product and decided to scuttle the whole project at the last second. The thing is, the whole game was pretty much finished and the cabinets had already been designed - in fact, a whole lot of 'em wound up being converted into Popeye units, so there's a pretty good chance that if you scraped all the paint off one of those old arcade cabs you might see the original Sky Skipper artwork. While the game itself was never lost (in fact, everybody's been able to emulate it online for years now), these guys called The Sky Skipper Project decided to create their own upright cabinet and take it barnstorming across the globe. And wouldn't you know it, the very first stop on their worldwide tour was RIGHT HERE AT SFGE 2017. 


Oh, the pomp and circumstance on this shit was off the scale. There was a big unveiling with Billy Mitchell and Walter Day present (complete with the theme from 2001 as the game was booted up) but even cooler, the cabinet was soon wheeled on the show floor so SFGE attendees could play it there damn selves. So, uh, what exactly does this 35-year-old "lost" Nintendo game offer? 


Well, it's kinda' hard to tell you. Continuing the proud anti-Simian prejudice of Donkey Kong, this game once again has you doing battle with oversized apes, only this time, you do so while piloting a biplane. A biplane, I might add, with really wonky controls. The basic idea is you fly around a stage bumping off monkeys and avoiding hitting obstacles (or running out of gas) until you find a castle (just like in the original Super Mario Bros.) and then the whole shindig begins all over again. So, yeah, this ain't exactly a classic on par with, say StarTropics or Punch-Out!! - it's more of a Donkey Kong III type deal whre you're not entirely sure WHAT the hell you're supposed to make of the situation. To compare it to some of Nintendo's other obscure arcade offerings, I'd say it's noticeably better than Balloon Fight but still WAY behind Devil World in the fun department. Regardless, it's just plain cool that something like this even exists in our modern world - and, if absolutely nothing else, it certainly gives us all hope that one day, we will all get a chance to play Marble Man: Marble Madness 2 the way the Gods of Gaming originally intended.


And that's that for the video game portion of this year's SFGE retrospective. Bookmark this shit and be patient - 'cause we're about to hit your ass with so much vintage pinball goodness in part 2, you may NEVER recover...

HEY! Looking for some fine, fun and dandy retro gaming reading material in the interim? Check out our absurdly in-depth coverage of the last two Southern-Fried Gameroom Expos at the handy-dandy links below, why don't you?





1 comment:

  1. Hey, great article! The Iron Shake in the Virtua Fighter cabinet is a prototype character, probably they just forgot to swap the stickers on the early machines. There is an article about these prototype VF characters at SegaBits: http://segabits.com/blog/2016/11/08/unused-never-before-seen-virtua-fighter-characters-discovered/

    Looking forward to part 2!

    ReplyDelete