Our next whale, Tecmo's 1984 title Bomb Jack, is a lesser one that's probably more famous for its ports to the 8-bit microcomputers in Europe and its NES sequel than for the original arcade release.
The early arcade works of Tecmo - then called Tehkan - are informed by some golden age classics which had been moderately successful in their day but failed to secure much historical legacy, and didn't make whale status. For this post, I am covering these games for the first time, as ancestors.
Game 374: Head On
Developed in 1979 by Sega & then-partner Gremlin Industries, Head On is, in a word, stressful.
Driving a car around and around a course of concentric encircling lanes, your goal is to collect all of the dots while a rival driving around the course in the opposite direction tries his darnedest to crash into you, for some perverse reason.
Similarities to Pac-Man are impossible to ignore, though without any solid evidence that Iwatani took cues here, I'm content to assume them coincidental. But while Pac-Man's mechanics afforded the player occasional breathers from the manic chase - power pills, escape tunnels, and AI patterns that alternate between "pursue" and "scatter" on an interval, Head On offers no respite from its suicidal chicken game. Wind up in the same lane as the red car and miss your opportunity to change lanes, and you crash. Change lanes too late, and you crash. Change lanes too early, and the red car changes lanes right with you and you crash. Misjudge your own lane, or misjudge which lane the red car is going to take, and you probably crash. Fail to enter the lane-changing zone at just the right time, which gets increasingly difficult to reckon as the round drags on and the red car gets faster, and you probably won't be able to avoid a crash.
There's a puzzle-like element seen here determining the optimal route to hit all of the dots without crashing. The red car's AI is simple and almost entirely deterministic, reacting mainly to your changes in position by honing in on it. You can accelerate, but at top speed you may only change one lane at a time while at standard speed you can cross two, which is often necessary in order to survive.
I only managed to reach the third round once, where you go up against two cars instead of one. I didn't last long at all - in fact the entire game lasted not even two and a half minutes. Even this meager victory was neither enjoyable nor rewarding.
GAB rating: Bad. Head On is too simplistic, too stressful, and too punishing. Pac-Man may or may not have been influenced by this, but either way, this just isn't it.
Game 375: Rally-X
Released by Namco a few months after Pac-Man, Rally-X is ostensibly another maze chase game, but unlike Iwatani's pizza-shaped sensation, openly takes after Head On, though it more resembles Pac-Man in all ways except for theme. Racecars chase you through a maze - a four-way scrolling maze far bigger than Pac-Man's single screen - as you try to collect ten flags scattered throughout.
The large maze makes all the difference here, and frankly it isn't for the better. Skillful twisting and turning - or use of the smoke screen weapon - can put several screens of distance between you and your enemies, which was obviously impossible in Pac-Man, but since the screen can't show you the whole maze at once, and the game speed is much faster, you can't really develop Pac-Man's type of complex evasion strategies either. Here, enemies pop in from off-screen, your only advance warning being a small radar display showing their approximate positions, and will crash into you under a second.
Scoring hasn't got much nuance either. Doing well in Pac-Man requires developing tactics to clump ghosts together so you can eat them all in one go, but here, you're rewarded mainly for efficiency - finishing quickly and with minimal use of smoke screen gives you a larger bonus for remaining fuel. The only other factor is a special flag which doubles the value of all subsequent ones, worth up to 4,500 extra points if you collect it before all others, and it is absolutely not worth spending time prowling the maze to find it and ensure you get it first.
Retrogame Deconstruction Zone offers an insightful and more thorough comparison that I recommend for further reading.
I made it to round 6 in my best attempt before getting bored. I'd have stuck with it longer back when I was playing 1980 whales, but for whatever reason I just don't have as much patience for these early arcade games as I used to.
GAB rating: Above average. This is fine, definitely a better game than Head On, but it's no Pac-Man.
I should note - in 1981, Namco followed up with New Rally-X, which is a big improvement over the original. I prefer the original game's earthier colors and music, but New Rally-X plays more fairly, with a gradualized difficulty curve, mazes with fewer dead-ends, fewer cars, and the special flag is highlighted on the radar, making it actually viable to go for it early instead of just hoping you luck into it (a new "lucky" flag supplants that niche). I do think it errs a bit on the easy side - reducing the vehicles makes it takes longer for things to get challenging - but slightly too easy is better than unfairly hard.
Game 376: Phoenix
Phoenix might be the most notable of these missed classics. There's an air of mystery about it.
For one, no other game of its era, or indeed any era, quite looks like this, with so many sprites moving around the screen in erratic unison, animated so fluidly, and yet a bit jerkily, being somehow both evolved years ahead of its time and not quite up to par for its time. This surreal look and feel, motivated by the unconventional technique of using animated background tiles in lieu of hardware sprites to draw everything (a technique which Galaxian also utilized but committed to less fully), is difficult to appreciate when looking back from games of 1984, but we need only compare it to Rally-X to observe just how different Phoenix looks from anything else in its generation.
We also don't know for sure who made this game. Mobygames credits Amstar Electronics (their sole sitewide credit!), but a trade magazine sourced on Wikipedia notes Amstar as the manufacturer of the U.S. cocktail table version as a counterpart to Centuri's upright cabinet version. There are many early and obscure video games whose developers are unknown, especially from Japan, but Phoenix may be unique among them as a multinational hit, which brought its respective manufacturers money and fame and spawned a strong selling console conversion and multiple imitations.
Phoenix's Galaxian-inspired gameplay unfolds in a loop of five stages, and is possibly the first of its kind to.
In the first, things indeed look very much like Galaxian. Small, flying aliens, more resembling bats than the Space Invaders of old and with a slick wing-flapping animation, flit about the screen and swoop down to attack. Unlike Galaxian, these are no simple, predictable dive-bombing passes, but chaotic dances that makes it even more of a challenge to hit them.
Aliens that make it to the bottom tend to linger there for a little while, where they may try to kamikaze your ship, or just hover above at a close range so that hitting them is easy, but avoiding fire should they shoot as you pass below is nearly impossible, making it risky to pass. To help the odds a bit, you have a shield, but it's difficult to use defensively as like so many other shields, by the time you realize you need it it could be too late. It can be used offensively to ram them, but this carries risks too - it immobilizes you for the duration of the shield's pulsations, and sometimes it doesn't even work and the enemy or its shots go right through the shield and destroy you!
The second round is just a repeat of the first round, but you have double the firepower. Both rounds have some tricks to score extra points, but it's peanuts compared to what you can get later. Except for one trick which I've never been able to pull off and is probably a glitch - shooting three aliens in rapid succession during the right animation frames gets you a massive 200,000 points!
The next round introduces the phoenixes, large, swooping birds in an eternal cycle of fluidly animated birth, life, and rebirth. Until you shoot a laser up their smug little beaks.
Despite their predictable motion patterns, it is difficult to hit them at any part of their sinusoidal flight paths except at the very crests, which tends to put you in the corner where you are most vulnerable.
Some decent points can be scored here by clipping the birds' wings before finishing them off. The payoff is random and not worth taking unnecessary risks to pursue, but if the opportunity presents, go for it.
Round 4 is just a repeat of round 3 except the birds are pink.
The final round is an attack on the mothership, whose outer hull and inner shield must be blasted apart before landing a shot on the purple commander. You've got three zones of death here - the center, where the mothership fires, and as usual the corners, where you can only escape in one direction when things get hot. The flier support will do its best to drive you into these danger zones!
This fight offers the real jackpot - 8000+ points - and it's risky but well worth it, even if you lose a life in the process. The mothership descends throughout the stage, and each pixel it advances not only makes its bullets harder to dodge, but also shields the fliers from your own bullets, making them deadlier as well. To score big, you must allow it to descend to the lowest point possible before landing the killing shot!
|One pixel higher and you get nothing.|
Easier said than done, but the best method is to punch away at the center hull early on while it's still possible to dodge the return fire, and then chip away at the rotating shield from the edge where you're safer, and cannot accidentally hit the commander. Kill the fliers when you can - the more you can kill, the less you'll have to deal with while waiting out the mothership's final descent.
I was only able to clear a single loop before feeling done with this game - once again, I think I'd have had more patience and more will to improve had I covered this game years ago rather than now.
GAB rating: Above average. In a way, Phoenix feels like an evolutionary dead-end, building on Space Invaders and Galaxian in areas that the industry wasn't quite ready for. It's a visual spectacle, and offers a gameplay variety that anticipates Gorf of the following year, but I can't help feel the overall experience is a bit unpolished. Galaxian consistently rewarded precision and strategy, but the chaotic enemy movements and sometimes unreliable hit detection make Phoenix feel random and frustrating. And the longer a round goes on without thinning out the enemies, the worse it exacerbates. It's worth playing, but it isn't my favorite.