Thursday, March 12, 2020

Games 159-162: Universal’s Cosmic games

Universal occupies a strange place in video game history. The first time I heard of them, I was reading about Space Panic – allegedly the first platformer preceding Donkey Kong, and sort of free-associated with Universal Studios, who unsuccessfully sued Nintendo for trademark infringement over that game. In truth, this Universal is a Japanese coin-op machine manufacturer, and their business has historically been in pachinko, slots, and related gaming hardware, and are obscure to western mainstream video game consumers. Among arcade machine collectors' circles, they have a reputation for beautiful cabinets housing mostly lackluster games. ACAM, notably, has a Universal lineup with the entire set of titles released in the U.S.

By cross referencing lists on MAME, Mobygames, and the Wikipedia article about current holding company Universal Entertainment Corporation, we get the idea that video games were a brief but intense blip in the company’s history.

1978 to 1980 were their most productive years in terms of sheer output, dominated by a “Cosmic series” of space-themed video games seeking a piece of the Space Invaders pie. In 1981, production slowed down but quality improved, with only two games released that year, Cosmic Avenger and Lady Bug. In 1982 they released their greatest hit, Mr. Do! Three sequels followed, and then in 1985 Universal bowed out of the video games market with their final release Indoor Soccer, which saw more success as a port to 8-bit European microcomputers than it did as a coin-op arcade game. More than a decade later, a Mr. Do! remake surfaced on the Neo Geo MVS arcade system. Sources conflict on whether Universal authored or merely licensed it, but this was their only post-1985 involvement in video games until they were merged into SNK’s holding company Aruze Corporation in 2005, which in turn renamed themselves Universal Entertainment Corporation in 2009.

Scan by FlyerFever


Mobygames lists four 1978 credits, but only one, UFO, is an original, and it is unemulated. An English language flyer describes a Breakout/pinball hybrid. Hypothetically, this could be emulated in MAME someday, as the flyer advertises being powered by a CPU rather than discrete logic chips.

The three others are publishing credits for Nintendo’s Computer Othello, and Japan distribution of Exidy’s Circus and Ramtek’s Clean Sweep.

Their first title of 1979, and their earliest emulated game, begins the Cosmic series.

Cosmic Monsters & Cosmic Monsters II


You lost your gun, hon.


If UFO managed to subvert the expectation that every first-generation Japanese video game developer must get their foot in the door by completely ripping off Breakout, then Cosmic Monsters doubles down on that other expectation; that said company must follow up by completely ripping off Space Invaders. I don’t know if they had some kind of licensing deal with Taito, but Cosmic Monsters is, in MAME parlance, a clone of Space Invaders, running on the same hardware and using modified ROMs. Apart from the Flash Gordon-esque artwork and minor graphic differences, the only difference I can tell is that the UFO comes very infrequently, is easier to hit, and if you don’t shoot it down you are punished with an additional row of invaders.



This is followed by Cosmic Monsters II. I can’t figure out what makes this any different from the first one. The title screen even just says “Cosmic Monsters,” just like the first one!

Adding to the mystery, a flyer for Cosmic Monsters depicts a dial, rather than a joystick, but otherwise describes gameplay exactly as it occurs in Space Invaders, including its UFO behavior and scoring values, which are different in what I played. Meanwhile, a flyer for Cosmic Monsters II accurately describes the UFO behavior seen in both games.

On top of that, MAME calls the first game “Cosmic Monsters version II,” and the second game “Cosmic Monsters 2.” Normally that wouldn’t be noteworthy – versions and sequels are distinct concepts, but all of the incongruities here make me wonder if these are even different games.

Forgetting about MAME for a second, we have two indistinguishable games, both called “Cosmic Monsters” ingame. There exists a flyer for “Cosmic Monsters” which does not accurately describe either, but there also exists a flyer for “Cosmic Monsters II” which accurately describes both. My preferred hypothesis is that the first flyer depicts and describes a mockup or prototype that differs from the final version, which was later rebranded as “Cosmic Monsters II” with an updated flyer but without any meaningful software changes.

I can’t really think of these early efforts as games distinguishable from Space Invaders. They don’t get numbers or GAB ratings.

Game 159: Galaxy Wars

Later that year, Universal showed an inkling of originality. Galaxy Wars plays like a hybrid of Space Race and Space Invaders. The similarities to Space Race are pretty strong, but inexact, and could be coincidental as I don’t know if that game had ever been released in Japan.

Not officially part of the Cosmic series, but the artwork is suitably sci-fi pulpy.


Rather than shooting the invaders, you launch a rocket at them, and have to dodge meteorites along the way up as well as their fire. In a glaring violation of common sense for the sake of gameplay, you lose a life if the invaders shoot down your rocket mid-flight, but not if your rocket hits them.

How nice, it says GOOD! after a successful wave.


At first I thought this wasn’t too bad. But I got bored with it long before my first (and only) game ended. Meteorite density is low, there’s not much challenge, and there’s no time pressure or competitive element here as in Space Race, which also had the good sense to end after 100 seconds of play, which is still a longer amount of time that Galaxy Wars was fun.

GAB rating: Bad. It’s playable, just boring as sin.

Their last game of 1979, “Cosmic Guerilla,” solidified that this “Cosmic series” was going to be a thing. I didn’t play it long enough to critique, but let’s just admire the artwork overlay.



Game 160: Cosmic Alien

In 1980, Universal released four games in the Cosmic series alone, starting with this one.



Oh good, now we’re ripping off Galaxian! But what’s with all the demonic imagery on the monitor overlay?

Last guy… HOLY CRAP!


I found it quite a bit easier than Galaxian – the enemies aren’t nearly as aggressive or unpredictable. On subsequent rounds you start off some rows closer to the action giving you less breathing room, but it peaks at round 7, at which point the demon starts moving across the screen between rounds like a ring girl carrying the round number sign.



I made it to screen 9 before losing my last life, mostly from losing focus out of being a bit bored.




GAB rating: Below Average. It’s like Galaxian but slower, uglier, easier, and more boring.

If that wasn't enough devil for you, their next Cosmic game is called “Devil Zone.”

And rips off Radar Scope.


I didn’t play this very much. I did briefly play the next one “Zero Hour,” and it’s a full-fledged vertical shmup, the earliest one I’ve seen yet, featuring 8-way directional movement, a rapid fire gun, and a Lunar Lander-like bonus round where you land the ship precisely for extra points. But the controls are sluggish, and overall I didn’t find it interesting enough to play in-depth. Universal also released four games unrelated to the Cosmic series this year; Cheeky Mouse, Magical Spot, Magical Spot II, and No Man’s Land. I played none of them.

Universal’s final game of 1980 is the seventh Cosmic game, and certainly the most influential.

Game 161: Space Panic




Tanktics author Chris Crawford describes this as a platformer, preceding Donkey Kong by a year. I’m not convinced for sure that it had any influence on Donkey Kong – it’s certainly possible that Shigeru Miyamoto copied its ladders and tiered-platform design, but it’s just as possible that he came up with that design independently.

What seems quite impossible to handwave as a coincidence is how this game, with its mechanic about digging holes in platforms in order to trap your enemies, so closely anticipates Broøderbund’s Apple II classic Lode Runner. Said company even published an unauthorized port as Apple Panic prior to Lode Runner.

The ladder-and-girder stage design also compels me to rethink an assumption I made recently about BurgerTime. I had once thought that its ladder mechanics must have been inspired by Donkey Kong, but its gameplay and perfectly orthogonal stage design much more strongly resemble Space Panic.

Space Panic’s broad concept of digging holes to trap aliens may have been influenced by earlier game Heiankyo Alien, but given the lack of concrete similarities between these games, and also considering Heiankyo Alien’s obscurity, this could be coincidental.



Either way, kudos to Universal for making something original. Sadly, like so many of their games so far, Space Panic isn’t very good. It looks mediocre, controls badly with frequently ignored commands, and the chaotic randomness of how the aliens move ultimately means that the best strategy becomes surrounding yourself with holes and praying that things go your way before oxygen runs out. The space monsters, which look like rejected Pac-Man designs, seem to be indifferent to the location of the player or any holes you’ve dug. They show some preference for moving your direction when on the same level as you, but otherwise just bumble blindly around the level, roaming wherever they will, which often means bouncing back and forth between two ladders for the better part of an eternity while your oxygen levels run ever closer to zero.

Later rounds introduce Bosses and Dons, who take a bit more planning to kill, as burying them only drops them a level, and to finish them off you must drop them multiple levels by digging holes directly above other holes in pixel-perfect alignment, and hoping that they wander into the holes you dug on the higher levels first (and that you can scramble up there to bury them before they escape, and without getting eaten). Improperly disposing of a ditched enemy can also promote it to the next rank.



GAB rating: Bad. It may be original, but an unforgiving game like must have reliable controls, consistent mechanics, and at least some sort of AI pattern that you can influence, and Space Panic hasn’t got any of this. It’s just a tedious, frustrating experience, one that’s frequently ruined because your space man refused to turn around, dig, or climb a ladder at the exact moment you needed him to.

Game 162: Cosmic Avenger

Heading into 1981, we have Universal’s final Cosmic game, and we go right back to ripping off other space shooters, this time Konami’s Scramble.



Like other Universal games, this isn’t an exact carbon copy of its inspiration. You do have bombs as in Scramble, but this time your speed affects their falling arc, which is tricky to master but can be used to hit ground targets well ahead of you. Speaking of which, the movement system is kind of strange; unlike Scramble, where lateral movement was limited to increasing or decreasing your forward velocity, you have true 8-way movement and can effectively move backwards to an extent, but the forward scrolling speed also depends on how far your ship is from the left edge of the screen; move as far right as the game allows, and everything will fly by at top speed. Move as far left as possible, and things will scroll fairly slowly, giving you time to react and shoot at stuff ahead of you, but moving forward will speed things up again. You can’t just hang out on the left edge all the time, though, as sometimes UFOs will ambush you from behind, giving you no time to react. Radar, possibly influenced by Defender, will warn you of impending threats from either direction, but splitting your attention can be just as dangerous as ignoring it.

Possibly the biggest difference from Scramble is that explosions can destroy things, including you. So many shmups let you blast incoming missiles at point blank range and cruise through the debris unscathed, but in Cosmic Avenger this will probably kill you, and it’s better to take them out from as far away as you can, or if it’s too late, to dodge them. Taking out a large number of targets in a chain reaction of explosions is pretty satisfying, though, and is something you don’t often see in this genre.

There are only three phases, per loop, compared to Scramble’s six, but they’re much more difficult.



GAB rating: Average. It’s Universal’s best effort yet, but weird controls, repetitive stage design, and bad hit detection combined with high difficulty hold it back.


Playing the games that make up this post was an interesting experience, even if ultimately none of them were very good. I'll say this for Universal - it's kind of impressive that they blatantly ripped off at least four games from four different developers in only three years!

We're not quite done with this company yet, and the games get better from here on.

3 comments:

  1. "In a glaring violation of common sense for the sake of gameplay, you lose a life if the invaders shoot down your rocket mid-flight, but not if your rocket hits them."

    I don't get this. Your mission is to destroy the invaders. If the invaders shoot you down and you don't destroy them, you fail in your mission. How is this a violation of common sense?

    Was this supposed to be funny instead of an overly harsh criticism?

    How is it you didn't mention Cosmic Guerilla uses Mardi Gras colors? That's noteworthy and has never been seen before in a video game.

    "But what’s with all the demonic imagery on the monitor overlay?"

    Of course you know that Japan is not Christian and they don't think of "demonic" imagery as something dangerous or wrong? In fact, Japanese "demonic" is rather different altogether.

    I get the idea that you're not as well-traveled or worldly as you like to imagine. Disappointing.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I think what he means is that if the missile is a life, and you lose a life when it is destroyed, and it is destroyed when it explodes an enemy, why don't you lose a life when you explode an enemy?
    Seems logical to me.

    As for the demonic imagery bit, it seems weird to me too. An odd choice to depict "aliens" as demons.

    Finally, Cosmic Guerilla uses Mardi Gras colors? What an odd, super-location-dependent observation! What makes them Mardi Gras colors? Mardi Gras isn't a thing where I come from so, I had no idea there were colors associated with them.

    In conclusion: calm down dude. No need to scourge the Captain just because he doesn't meet your particular metric of "Worldly" or "Well-Traveled".

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "I think what he means is that if the missile is a life, and you lose a life when it is destroyed, and it is destroyed when it explodes an enemy, why don't you lose a life when you explode an enemy?"

      Precisely. If I only have three rockets, I should only be able to hit three invaders. And if I have unlimited rockets, then it shouldn't be a big deal if some of them get shot down mid-flight so long as the launch base is unharmed. I suppose we could come up with a tortured justification (e.g. we have exactly as many rockets as there are invaders plus two extras), but ultimately I think Universal just had more pragmatic concerns here than logical consistency.

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