Friday, September 15, 2023

Game 383: Paperboy

You may not like the news, but you have to admire the boys who deliver it, bleeps out Paperboy through its distinctive Speak & Spell voice synthesizer by Texas Instruments. With a luxurious double-resolution, 64-color display, a popping suburban aesthetic reminiscent of The Sims, a convincing soundscape of flying newspapers, shattered windows, car horns, brakes, deadly crashes and other fanfare, frequent spoken witticisms by the paperboy himself ("need a passenger?" quips paperboy after colliding with a carelessly driven hearse), and a funky stereophonic beat with just enough cowbell, Paperboy, if nothing else, might just be the best-looking and best-sounding game I've covered yet.

The premise, like most arcade games of the day, is simple enough, and more grounded than most. Drive a morning newspaper bike route, delivering to your customers for points, and smash the windows of non-customers for a few bonus points. But watch out - you've got a deadline, the 'hood is indifferent at best to your survival, and if you miss a paying customer, or break their windows with an errantly thrown paper, or run over their flowers, they'll unsubscribe.

Photo by Jeremy Wagner


One of the first challenges was to figure out, how the heck do I control this? The real machine sports a pair of bicycle handlebars, actually a modified Star Wars flight yoke. And while a USB flight stick plays Star Wars well, Paperboy doesn't feel so nice with it. I've played with the real thing at ACAM New Hampshire, but that 40-year-old controller didn't perform too well either.

I tried using my Logitech racing wheel, and while the steering worked great, speed control was an issue. Throttle and brake pedals work well for racing games, but on Paperboy hardware, you push the handlebars forward or pull them back, and this didn't comfortably map to my racing setup.

Finally, I wound up mapping speed control to my shifter, and was happy with this.

At this point it's too late to hit the brakes.

I played this way for several days, and eventually learned how to survive for longer than a few seconds, but I wouldn't say that at any point I got good. Paperboy is difficult and unforgiving even for an arcade game. Even on the ironically named "Easy Street" route, which I never mustered the skill to graduate past from. Touching anything - curb edges, sewer grates, breakdancing teens, small remote control cars, you name it, will crash your bike. The isometric perspective makes it hard to judge your throws, hard to tell if you're going to crash into an upcoming obstacle or not, and with houses and their yards taking up a good 75% of the screen, the perspective gives you barely any room to maneuver or to see what's ahead of you.

But I managed to hold a career for a few ingame days, at which point I raced swarms of bees, swerved around dynamite explosions set by anti-gentrification saboteurs, dodged stray tires, mean cats, etc. Each day also concludes with an obstacle course to bike through for some bonus points. A full career goes the whole week to Sunday, where the jumbo-sized Sunday papers can't be thrown as far. Mine ended on Thursday, when I swerved to avoid a cat, only to slam right into a skateboarder.


Some notes:

  • Surprisingly, I found I performed better when I spent most of the time going as fast as I could pedal. This gives you little time to react to stuff, but the momentum helps carry your papers farther and more accurately this way. Memorizing the street and its day-to-day dangers is key.
  • On that note, crossing the intersection is the most dangerous part, especially when going fast. 1980's traffic stops for nobody.
  • By far the most important thing, apart from not getting killed, is delivering papers and not accidentally losing subscribers. Vandalism points are fun, but each day gives you a daily 250 point end-of-day bonus for each remaining customer, with the possibility of doubling it and getting a new subscriber if you perform really well.
  • Vandalism also has diminishing returns, as broken windows get boarded up on subsequent days and can't be smashed again.
  • You can score an extra 250 points by landing your paper right in the mailbox, but this is too difficult to be worth trying on purpose. If it happens to land there, great, but don't get distracted and crash because you were focused on this optional task.
  • Higher difficulties ("Middle Road" and "Hard Way") double and triple your points, respectively. They're also filled with threats that you don't even see on Easy Street, like the milk delivery truck, and even the grim reaper.
  • There was a bit of a missed opportunity to express the player's score as a cash value to further sell the theme of "you are a child laborer performing a crummy job for crummy pay." Imagine instead of 4,500 points at the end of the day, your route boss gives you a $4.50 paycheck plus ten cents bonus for each non-subscribers' window smashed.
  • My wife gave it a try and made it to Tuesday on her third attempt, which is a lot fewer tries than it took me.

"Easy Street," 1917c

GAB rating: Above average. I want to like Paperboy better, but it's just too frustrating for me to find enjoyable, and not quite deep enough to be rewarding. For what it's worth, I did feel motivated to play, replay, and improve my performance, but only to an extent.

1 comment:

  1. I played the NES version of this many times at my neighbor's house, without ever knowing that it was ported from an arcade game. Fun to see it again and learn that it's just as challenging as I remember.


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