Stories from the Back O’ The Arcade

No one needs an in depth retrospective of Mario Bros., Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter II. Even if you were part of the extended 15 year expedition to the Mir space station and never played the games, chances are you’ve seen the movies. But there were a lot more arcade games released every year than the two or three classics that caused Japanese coin shortages, and many of these were far superior to the well remembered titles. It has taken more than a little effort to plough the depths of both the internet and my own, fragmented memory to rediscover those fantastic, unheard of games (in whose coin boxes I would store my pocket money), but here are a couple of trips down memory lane for anyone looking to discover the soul of the arcade scene.

Fire Trap – Nihon Bussan – 1986
(If you like this, you might also like: Crazy Climber 1 & 2, and Rampage.)

A vertiginous update of the 1980 classic, Crazy Climber, recast the ascending protagonist as a daredevil fire fighter, winging his way from window sill to drainpipe in exhilarating, finger nail wrenching drama while dowsing vicious back drafts with his trusty water pistol.

As the 3-D revolution was still having its shoes tied by its mum, Fire Trap was born into a time where isometrics were king. The stage is set with our fearless wall crawler hanging from a ledge at the bottom of a blazing tower block viewed from the corner, making for a clean cut isometric playing field of two walls.

The player commands each of the character’s arms independently using two joysticks in an alternating action – kind of like those cross training machines that people without any hobbies use, only without the annoyance of getting fit. That said, an enthusiastic player will work up a hearty sweat traversing the treacherous building-scape as any number of hazardous impediments plummet down the side of the crumbling structure.

Cars, teapots, toilets, gravestones, flowerpots, large novelty mallets and even birds of prey all conspire to loose the valiant fireman’s tenuous finger hold and send him nose-diving onto the safety of a generous crash mat. The length of the towering inferno is interspersed with panicked occupants (and their dogs) flailing from the windows, hoping the daring-doer will stop by and strap a parachute to them before dropping them from the significant loftiness of their once prestigious apartment.

The difficulty of the game is directly proportional to the diversity of the building’s flamboyant architectural designs. A straight route to the top is hindered by gaping balconies, outdoor hot tubs, neon billboards and the occasional parking space (how exactly someone reverse parks into a spot thirty stories above the ground is not detailed), all spewing forth fireballs, explosions and shrapnel.

Once at the top of the elevated conflagration, the stalwart anti-combustion technician is rewarded by a free base jump in the company of a precarious damsel who dimwittedly fled to the highest point on the building to escape the burgeoning blaze.

A terrifically gratifying and underrated jaunt that is difficult to place in any specific genre. It’s unlikely you will find this beauty in its original cabinet, so I suggest you go and emulate yourself up a right tasty treat in Fire Trap. It’s the next best thing to playing with matches.

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Vigilante – Irem – 1988
(If you like this, you might also like: Bad Dudes vs. Dragon Ninja, Strider and The Ninja Warriors.)

“The law failed, but the vigilante prevailed!”

Now if that isn’t a fitting social commentary that is as true today as it was in 1988, I’ll beat up my landlord. This is the cheesy rhyme used to congratulate the fearless vigilante with enough money to make it to the end of Irem’s superlative update to their dreadful Kung Fu game of four years previous.

“The police cannot stop the street gangs…” is the set up line for a few quid’s worth of carnage, “take the law into your own hands!” After such eloquent counsel, who could refuse?

“Madonna has been kidnapped.” I wouldn’t like to say if it’s that Madonna, but judging by her blonde ringlets and “school girl” gingham get-up, I’d say it probably isn’t (unless she’s dressed like that as part of a role-playing fetish, in which case, way-hey!). A gang known as the Skinheads have snatched a kung fu warrior’s (material) girlfriend for no obvious reason other than incurring his expert wrath. The antagonists of this violent street theatre are that most prevalent of beat ’em up misanthropes, the punks.

Graphics are crisp, cartoony and unambiguous, with detailed backdrops and sparse but artistic sprites, while the music is a bass driven metronome that thumps along in harmony with fists and feet. Sound effects worthy of any Hong Kong movie are expertly used, allowing the player to feel every bone crunching assault. Not exactly replete with moves, the player is awarded naught but a solid punch and a throat mashing kick, both of which can be used while jumping or crouching. Robust nunchaku can also be found audaciously abandoned on the pavement for your miscreant thrashing pleasures.

Enemies are fairly standard across the five modish levels, many of whom are likewise armed with rudimentary weaponry available now from B&Q. Iron bars and chains are unexpectedly (but effectively, as any inner city police officer will tell you) whipped across our hero’s kneecaps, while others push combat knives in his ribs or take careful aim before busting a cap in his dome.

I will not pretend there is any brain to this two dimensional “kick and punch-a-thon;” it is just one of those games that unerringly succeeds through its basic simplicity and raw, shameless entertainment value.

Although Vigilante may lie rotting and ignored at the bottom of the retro gaming canal while we “ooo” and “ahhh” over beautifully restored Galaxian cabinets, it is exactly this kind of bare bones, well-groomed gamer’s game that kept the industry alive during the insipid 1980s. In the true spirit of this perfection in video game brutality, if you don’t agree, I’ll see you on the street!

Spanner has written articles for several publications, including Retro Gamer. He is a self-proclaimed horror junkie, with a deep appreciation for all things Romero.

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