3 - Turn & Fire!
was it about arcade games that was so appealing? Even after I
welcomed the Sinclair Spectrum into my life there was something
that kept drawing me back to the arcades. I had Manic Miner and
Lunar Jetman, I had Ant Attack, Head over Heels and Automania.
There was no shortage of quality gaming on the humble rubber keyed
beastie so what was it that kept dragging me back to the coin
Certainly, the allure of the ever more colourful
and smooth graphics played a big part in this but, for me, it
was much more about the controls. For those who were used to the
contortions required to play games on the spectrum, arcade controls
were still an absolute dream. Joysticks that didn't cause the
machine to reset when you were too boisterous, buttons that you
could slam without fear of snapping the computer, the thought
of playing Hyper Sports without making the Spectrum assume an
unnatural position (one of our School Spectrums had to much hilarity,
developed a severe rocking motion after one too many Decathlon
But, aside from the sheer physicality of arcade
controls, there was something else.
In these far off days, before a bunch of businessmen
sat down and defined a standard for arcades, every game that came
out was different. It had different artwork, it used different
monitors, it had it's own sound and, most importantly, it had
it's own controls...
Not for arcade games the artificial restriction
of Up, Down, Left, Right and Fire that was becoming increasingly
prevalent elsewhere. Part of the reason that Defender was so good
(and so hard) was the sheer volume of controls you had to grapple
with. It was like learning to fly a plane or, in actual fact,
learning to fly a space ship - that control panel, with it's simple
joystick and five buttons, was an essential part of the detachment
from reality that Defender gave you. Instinctively, you could
feel that flying a spaceship wasn't as simple as wrenching a joystick
around in eight directions, and Defender played up to this. Learning
to play Defender meant learning to master the controls.
Even in 1980 or 1981 there was something unutterably
different, almost alien, about the controls of that game. I could
barely believe it when I first encountered it, this game needed
more than two hands to play. How could I possibly be expected
to move that, and then press this button, at the same time as
pressing that button? And I've got to keep an eye on the screen
as well? I needed a co-pilot to play this!
My first game lasted about 20 seconds. I didn't
even hesitate about putting more money into it. Eventually, I
found a compromise that afforded me enough control to survive
the opening wave. By which time I had all but run out of money...
Other games too proved this. Breakout and it's
super sensitive spinner, Robotron with it's two Joystick panic
inducing simplicity, Star Wars with the full immersion guaranteed
by the cockpit and it's real Flight Yoke, Missile Command with
it's micromanagement of the three bases, Q*Bert's diagonally mounted
joystick and even humble Pac Man with it's ultra simplistic four
way movement. These games, and many of their contemporaries, were
defined as much by their control systems as by their graphics
and their sound effects.
Of course, the Arcade industry eventually settled
into it's middle age with the cost-saving standardisation that
we now know as JAMMA. At the time we barely noticed, but something
rather unique was being lost. The familiarity gained from standardising
the controls was offset by the loss of what made many of the classic
games unique in the first place.
In recent years, in a last desperate attempt
to lure people back, arcades have reverted to using dedicated,
customised controls with hydraulic motors, motion sensitivity,
dance mats and other assorted control systems all making their
appearance. Home systems too, Edge recently voted the Steel Batallion
controller, which wouldn't look out of place in a 1980's video
arcade, their "hardware innovation of the year."
But is this just a question of too little, too
late? Only time will tell, but I for one can still dream about
playing Super Monkey Ball with a real monkey ball...
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