The Golden Age of the Video Game Arcade : 1981
After a vintage year for video games, 1981 seemed less of technological leap, a building of reputations. That’s not to say we weren’t introduced to some great games, and a few new genres first saw the light of day too.
1981: Arcade halls were getting more and more popular, with the games themselves becoming just one part of the culture. I was still too young to join in though, so for now the cabinets became a way into their world, my proving ground. I was developing my trigger finger and arcade reflexes in general, convincing myself I didn’t need to be involved. But I always was, beavering away in the corner. “ADY” was becoming a regular, part of the furniture as I skipped from arcade to arcade. I knew where all the games were, when the newest games appeared and I was always almost the first one to sample them.
The staff behind the change counters had become familiar faces as time and time again the 10p’s rattled down their metal till slides to be recycled in the coin slots and back down again like a perpetual waterfall of silver. I was hooked on the games and hooked on the culture. Even the smell of the arcades was enough to up my pulse. I couldn’t get enough.
There was just something great about Moon Cresta that I instantly took a shine to. After the first round of vertical shoot-em up action you had to manually dock a second ship on top of your ‘base’ ship. This sheer tension of getting the docking manoeuvre right was often the deciding factor in increasing you firepower from two shots to four or wiping out both ships at once. The first time I’d experienced genuine anger in a video game.
Although it’s importance wasn’t fully appreciated at the time. Scramble was the first side scrolling shooter with multiple and distinct levels, and the template for one of my favourite genres and some of my favourite games of all time (Salamander, R-Type, etc). I could never get tired of the bombing button, strafing swathes of land-based targets, including a handy energy boost structure. Scramble was seat-of-your-pants flying over and between mountains and tunnels, culmination in almost labyrinth-like levels that gave you no room for error whatsoever. Although it didn’t seem that ground-breaking, like many of 1981s releases, it was still a great game.
With the exception of Donkey Kong and Punch Out!, Nintendo never really made it massively in the arcades. I was never really a fan of the tweeness and repetitiveness of their franchises. With Donkey Kong, however, they made a fantastic start, introducing the world to its first platformer. Back then of course, everyone else was interested in space battles, or at least blowing the smithereens out of everything. But Donkey Kong was a change of pace, of mood, introducing humour in the form of future gaming icon Mario, and focusing on that hard to describe but unmistakable element : Gameplay. Donkey Kong was just a pleasure to play, pure and simple and, like Scramble, set the template for next 30 years of gaming and beyond.
Another oddity from Atari. This time employing the tracker ball first seen in Missile command. Like Asteroids, I really think they dropped the ball with controls in this one. The tracker ball was much too twitchy in a vertically shooter scenario, particularly a fast paced one such as this. It was just too hard to be accurate with your shots. Despite this, like Asteroids, the Centipede package was difficult not to love. The quirkiness and obvious heart put into the game concept kept you coming back, so much so that you were able to forgive its faults and get lost in its weird colourful world of frenzied arachnid death. As you can see from the screenshot below, it really hasn’t aged well at all.
Gorf pretty much sums up the year’s gaming . Incremental improvement. Gorf doesn’t just rip off space-invaders and Galaxians, it makes it obvious it’s doing so by basically splitting up its levels into copies of its inspiration (plus a ‘Mother ship’ level to finish). Still, Gorf does stick in the mind. First of all there was my introduction to my first real joystick, complete with trigger, which was almost worth the 10p alone, but on your death an explosion effect that sent a shiver down the spine, not just the usual beeps and blips. The effect was so realistic I actually feared dying. so uncomfortably loud and real the sounds seemed at the time. I know you can’t polish a turd. But my God, Midway went out of its way with Gorf to distract your from its meat and potatoes gameplay.
Galaga & Stargate
I couldn’t very well leave out the sequels to Galaxians and Defender from this list. Of course, in my mind nothing could beat the perfection of Galaxians, Galaga seeming a little too cartoony, as though a little of Namco’s Pac-man success had rubbed off on it. The twin ship mechanic had been done a lot better in Moon Cresta, leaving just the gimmicky ‘seen it all before by now’ bonus levels. It was good, it just wasn’t great.
Stargate also failed to surpass its predecessor, being if anything even more unwelcoming, over-complicated and unforgiving. To me at least, the vector style graphics just didn’t work that well in a horizontal scroller, or maybe I just wasn’t up to the challenge yet.
Which brings us neatly onto a game born and famous for vector graphics. Tempest was, similar to the later Tetris, difficult to describe yet incredibly simple to play and an instant classic for no particular reason other than ‘one-more-go’ addictiveness. A couple of screen-shots tells you all there is to know, and yet the synergy of sound, visuals, controls and gameplay form a chemical reaction all gamers are instantly familiar with. Of course, Tempest didn’t have the draw or glamour of the big-guns. There was no frills, no gimmicks, but it was still timeless.
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