Monday, February 24, 2020

Games 150-153: Early Data East

Data East is one of those developers that never resonated me in terms of branding. I had played BurgerTime on the NES back in the day. City Connection was one of the first NES games I ever rented. I knew about Bad Dudes and its ridiculous plot, had some notion of Robocop and Shadowrun video games, and of SomethingAwful’s love of Karnov, but while other Japanese companies like Konami, Sunsoft, and Irem had established large footprints in the arcade scene and as well as being major third party developers for Nintendo and Sega, Data East just seemed to exist on the sidelines. I played Sly Spy quite a bit at a local pizza parlor in the early 90’s, but it never occurred to me that this was a Data East game until fairly recently. One of the titles I mentioned in this paragraph isn’t even a Data East game, and I’d wager most of you didn’t notice that.

The company was founded in 1976, and according to an archive of their home page, their first arcade games were Jacklot, a token-dispensing blackjack game, and Super Break, which of course is a Breakout clone with “obstacles in front of walls to increase difficulty.” It’s nice, for once, to see an early Japanese arcade developer meticulously documenting their own pre-1980’s history, even if nearly all of them sound like blatant plagiarizing (e.g. “Shooting game that uses a missile to destroy an invader from space while avoiding attacks from invaders”).

The earliest of their games emulated in MAME is that game’s sequel; Space Fighter Mark II.

Game 150: Space Fighter Mark II

And it’s barely distinguishable from Space Invaders. The biggest difference is the color graphics, though tiles are still monochrome. If this is the Mark II, then I have to wonder how primitive the unemulated first one is.

There are some gameplay differences. The invaders start off at a quicker pace, and you really can’t dawdle the way you can during the first few seconds of Space Invaders. And the UFO shows up pretty much constantly, but it now takes multiple hits to destroy, and your laser cannon blasts small chunks out of it like the barriers. Because of the faster pace, you’ve really got to focus on thinning the phalanx width a little bit before you can afford to start taking shots at the UFO.

MAME doesn’t emulate the sound, so here’s a GIF of the last two rounds of play, from the only session that I bothered recording.

GAB rating: Average. It’s a competent enough clone, and I’ve seen worse, but I can’t fathom any reason to play this instead of Space Invaders.

Game 151: Astro Fighter

Astro Fighter reminds me a lot of SNK’s Ozma Wars, which came out around the same time. Both are obviously influenced by Space Invaders, and both advance on the formula in a similar way – by introducing a variety of enemy types, with different movement and attack patterns, which appear in a sequence of phases ending in a boss fight. Their mostly forward movement and a scrolling starfield lend the appearance of a vertically scrolling shmup, even though you can’t actually move vertically, or at least not deliberately.

Ozma Wars is a lot more ambitious, though. Here, each phase has only one kind of enemy, and they all have simple, if not always easily predictable movement patterns. There are also no animations at all, aside from simple explosions; Ozma Wars’ enemies pitched, weaved, rotated, and grew and shrank to suggest 3D movement, but Astro Fighter’s enemies just come at you, unmoved from their single frame of animation until you shoot them.

Like Ozma Wars, there’s a fuel meter to keep a time pressure on you, but in the former game it was a shared energy meter that depleted from elapsed time, from moving, from shooting, and most of all from taking damage. Here, getting hit just kills you, and the fuel meter’s biggest effect is the time crunch. The only way to refuel is to finish a loop, and even losing a life doesn’t refill it! In addition, there’s a cruel punishment for letting even one enemy past your guard; the entire phase repeats, with that much less fuel available, and your ship is kicked forward one rank just to make things even harder.

GAB rating: Average. On paper it’s an upgrade from Space Invaders, but subjectively, I find that this game is a bit boring.

Game 152: Lock 'n' Chase

In 1980, Data East released the DECO Cassette System, an arcade system which operated in a manner similar to cassette-based computer systems of the day. A tape player accepted miniature cassette tapes which would play when the machine was powered on, loading the game data into 32KB of memory. They released 44 games in this format from 1980 to 1985, with the idea that arcade operators could easily showcase the latest Data East games by simply swapping out old cassettes for new, without needing to replace their large and expensive cabinets or change the often incompatible circuitry within. The first, Highway Chase, was a conversion of an earlier ROM-based game Mad Alien, with some minor graphical and gameplay changes.

The system was not a huge success outside of Japan. Arcade operators, who were used to machines that turned on instantly, found the comparatively long load times a nuisance, and the tapes themselves were prone to failure over time. I also must imagine that by 1982, this system’s technology was starting to look dated. The majority of its games, likewise, saw no release outside of Japan.

Lock ‘n’ Chase, released in 1981 as a response to Pac-Man, was one of the more successful titles for this system (though not the most successful – we’ll get to that one later), and was popular enough to receive ports to the Atari VCS, Intellivision, and Apple II.

The bezel of the US version shows some play instructions.

Yeah, so you’re running from “the D.” And their de facto leader is named “Stiffy D.”

Lock ‘n’ Chase is one of at least three Pac-Man variants of 1981 featuring some ability to change the maze layout on the fly. Between it, Lady Bug, and Mouse Trap, this one's implementation is probably the simplest - you can press a button to place a barrier at the last corridor you passed through, but they don’t last long, and only two can be placed at once. The actual barrier placement seems a bit finicky; if you or the “D” are anywhere near the junction that you’re trying to seal off (a common enough scenario since you probably want to use these barriers to get them off your tail), there’s a good chance of it forming somewhere else where it won’t do anything to help, or it might even trap you.

Like Pac-Man, your goal is to collect all of the dots, and four enemies – the cops that initially start on the sidelines – try to catch you. Unlike Pac-Man, and most of the Pac-Man clones for that matter, there’s no way to catch them back. You can, however, score some big points by trapping several of them between two barriers in the lower-left and upper-right corners (the lower-right corner works too but is worth no bonus points). To complicate things, the junctions near the center will have their own doors that open and close on their own.

One neat touch, which I haven't seen in any Pac-Man style game yet, is that to finish a stage, you must escape from the maze via one of two exit doors which swing open upon collecting the last dot.

Frequently, bags of cash or other treasures will spawn near the middle of the screen. Money bags are worth more the more of them you collect, and this also causes the “D” to cry, buying you maybe a second of time to escape from this vulnerable location. The other treasures – hats, briefcases, pocket watches, etc., increase in value with each stage you finish. In later stages, these valuables don’t last long at all, and seem to always spawn at the worst possible times; when you’re far away, or when the most direct path is blocked by a self-closing door, or when a “D” is patrolling the center area. I expect that their appearance is determined by the number of dots remaining in a stage, and that a skilled player can use this to force their appearance at opportune times.

My best attempt made it to level 6 and scored not quite $30,000.

GAB rating: Above Average. There are good ideas here, and for these ideas Lock ‘n’ Chase is a smarter, more strategic take on Pac-Man without losing any of its excitement, but it’s held back from greatness by unreliable controls and a boring maze layout. I’m not really sure how that last part could be fixed, as the game would be too easy if it had multiple long Pac-Man-like corridors to lose the “D” in, but navigating a basic orthographic grid isn’t all that interesting.

Game 153: BurgerTime

The 26th DECO Cassette System tape, originally just called Hamburger, was almost certainly the most successful, given that it had sequels, re-releases, contemporary ports to thirteen console and computer systems, and remains an active IP to this day, with a Nintendo Switch game released in 2019.

I’m sure you know the premise. You, a short-order cook, must prepare hamburgers by stomping on all of the ingredients, while being chased around the kitchen by surly sausages, evil eggs, and pernicious pickles. It’s a lot like working at Dairy Queen, but slightly more hygienic.

One minute quirk that continually threw me off is that although each stage opens with a jingle, typically signifying a few breather seconds before gameplay truly begins, you can actually start moving immediately, and you really should.

Stomping on an ingredient kicks it down to the platform below, where it will dislodge anything there, sending a cascade of ingredients down as far as the plate, and crushing any enemies in this path, which can score you a great deal of points if you can get a large number in a single drop. But this won’t send more than a single ingredient all the way to the bottom, and isn’t very efficient. If you can get an enemy to follow you closely, and drop the ingredient while an enemy is also standing on it, then it will drop as far as three platforms, carrying the enemy with it. If you can drop two enemies at once, it will fall six platforms, which on most levels completes your burger in one swoop.

This is easier said than done though, as the enemies have a nasty habit of blindsiding you from the other end of the ingredient. Pepper helps when this happens, but you really don’t want to be profligate with your pepper; once it runs out, your lives have a way of quickly running out soon after.

My best attempt reached level 6 and scored 62,000 points.

There’s actually a bug in the ROM-based conversion of BurgerTime, which I was playing when I recorded this video. The background layer is rendered one pixel too low, and because of it, it looks like the characters and all of the burger ingredients are floating one pixel’s height above the platforms. The cassette version doesn’t have this bug, but does have long loading times.

GAB rating: Average. I have a beef with BurgerTime. It just feels so sluggish. It’s an original enough game concept, and is mechanically pretty solid, if visually plain-looking, and controls well (though sometimes pepper does spray in the wrong direction for no apparent reason and climbing ladders can be finicky if not positioned pixel-perfect). But, like Frogger, it’s just too leisurely for my taste, and with the chef’s slow, slow walking and climbing speed and so much time spent herding enemies and waiting for them to approach, I got bored very quickly and had little desire to improve on my score.

Also, that damned, repetitive six-second music loop.


  1. "I have a beef with BurgerTime."

    Sorry, you deserved to have someone at least acknowledge that line.


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