Arcades are dead, goes the refrain. But it’s news to the likes of Patrick Michael, who runs R&D at Sega Amusements Europe. “There are still traditional arcades, particularly at holiday destinations,” he says. “You’ve got big holiday parks, seasides, combined family entertainment centres, bowling centres which have arcades attached, cinemas, shopping centres – it’s pretty varied. And if you go to places like the Middle East, they have very large dedicated arcades.”
Today, we haven’t made it as far as the Middle East. We’ve instead arrived at Weston-Super-Mare, a seaside town in the south west of England whose coin-op-cabinet-festooned Grand Pier was reopened in November following an ambitious rebuild said to have cost in the region of £56m. As the UK’s (possibly the world’s) newest arcade, where better to take the temperature of the modern coin-op industry?
Over the following pages, in which we get to grips with a selection of cabinets (some produced this year, others having rolled out of factories as early as 2006), a clear picture emerges: today’s large-scale arcade is dominated by racing and shooting, and by racing and shooting games designed to offer fewer than five minutes of play for your 50p or £1 coin. The application and determination of old-school arcade gaming ninjas like Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe is therefore entirely irrelevant here; this is videogaming more as fairground attraction than it is test of man versus machine.
The modern arcade attempts to make the experience more engaging through its understanding and exploitation of social factors. Nearly all of the cabinets set up on the Grand Pier offer a multiplayer mode, and naturally the buzz of both head-to-head competition and collaborative play proves to be a valuable component in their pursuit of coins.
The arcade industry has been heading in this direction for years, of course, sharpening and honing its act in order to stay alive in an era of dizzyingly sophisticated and diverse home entertainment. But can a bunch of spoilt console and PC gamers still have fun in such an environment? That’s what we set out to discover.
There are no pretensions here in Sega’s wilfully trashy lightgun romp. Splicing clips from the films with clumsy, chunky 3D, Rambo takes us to the rocky wilds of Afghanistan and to the jungles of Vietnam. It’s a little surprising to play a game in 2010 in which you fight alongside the Mujahideen, but then Rambo’s political nuances have always been lost amid a relentless hail of bullets. And so it is here, with unlimited ammunition, the briefest of reloads and hundreds upon hundreds of Soviets to gun down. You shoot a helicopter with an arrow – true to the films, it explodes instantly. Like many of the games at the Grand Pier, there’s little that encourages a second go: the pleasure comes not from the mechanics, but from the ludicrousness of its clumsy spectacle and shoddy transitions between corny film lines and gormless CG. But for that first run, it’s pretty damn hilarious.
The idea of General Motors’ lumbering, whale-sized automobiles providing fast-paced thrills in the context of a racing game is an unusual one, and the concept simply shouldn’t work. But it sort of does. In the hands of a lesser coin-op designer, Hummer would probably have proved a disaster, but Sega manages to wring out hard-edged, knockabout fun that has little to do with finesse and everything to do with action. The cabinet’s insistence on shaking you around until your fillings come loose has something to do with it, but the hazard-strewn environments and a control system that allows you to use a pedal to adjust the angle of your gas-guzzler in mid-air (in order to perfect your landing) provide plenty of things to keep you occupied as you attempt to shunt your way to the front of a particularly heavyweight pack. It’s big, loud and unreconstructed, and thus a perfect modern coin-op.
A haunted museum is the scene for Taito’s barking mad lightgun game, in which you’re as likely to encounter mummies and witches as you are planes, flying books and giant bees. The game revels in non sequiturs, with a mine-cart section culminating in a battle with a speeding sphinx and a showdown with Frankenstein’s monster. There are collectibles, power-ups and health pick-ups to nab along the way, and the game keeps things lively, mixing slow enemies which soak up bullets with speedier, more fragile foes. The game propels you through jungles, catacombs and dogfights, while boss creatures betray weakspots and obstacles speed towards you, awaiting to be shattered with bullets. There’s no need to reload, which may seem like one interaction too few in a genre not encumbered with complexity – but the game knows its limits, and otherwise embraces the absurdity of the on-rails shooter.
(Raw Thrills, 2009)
H2Overdrive – and let us acknowledge that that is a truly great name – is a ‘spiritual sequel’ to Hydro Thunder, inasmuch as it is Hydro Thunder HD. A set of faux-hovercraft cockpits with enormous throttle levers is the key difference between the games, and one exploited to the fullest by a rip-roaring racer that bucks you and the onscreen craft about mercilessly. Our fourplayer races make some its nearby competitors feel poor – visually it possesses more than enough grunt to throw lots of effects around, and the combination of its key boosting mechanic with that throttle control is a tactile thrill that hooks you from the off. The great water physics and shallow learning curve prompted further rounds of credits, along with the fact you get a decent length of race for your money – or perhaps the intensity just makes it feel that way. One of the best of the modern coin-op breed to play with friends.