51 Shades of Geek

Space Invaders

Space InvadersBuy this gameThe Game: It’s quite simple, really. You’re the pilot of a ground-based mobile weapons platform, and there are buttloads of alien meanies headed right for you. Your only defense is a trio of shields which are degraded by any weapons fire – yours or theirs – and a quick trigger finger. Occasionally a mothership zips across the top of the screen. When the screen is cleared of invaders, another wave – faster See the videoand more aggressive – appears. When you’re out of “lives,” or when the aliens manage to land on Earth… it’s all over. (Midway [under license from Taito], 1978)

Memories: Three buttons, three colors (if one includes black), all for 25 cents. And thus began the video game boom that made Taito a major manufacturer, with dozens of other companies – Atari, Bally/Midway, Namco, Nintendo, Sega, you name it – riding the large wave launched by Space Invaders. There was indeed an invasion underway…but it didn’t originate from space. It was launched from Japan and Silicon Valley, and for a while…it did take over the world. Continue reading

Lunar Rescue

Lunar RescueBuy this gameThe Game: Those pesky Space Invaders are back and this time they’ve got hostages. Your mothership hovers in orbit over the craggy, uninviting surface of the moon, waiting for you to hit the action button and signal the beginning of your mission. The docking back doors open underneath you and your lander begins See the videodropping toward the surface. You can control where you land, and to some extent the speed, and you’ll have to weave through several rotating zones of meteoroids to reach the surface safely. Once landed, you can take on one passenger, and then you have to blast off again to ferry your man back to the mothership. Only this time, the meteors are replaced by several waves of flying saucers who will not only be happy to ram your lander, but shoot at you from above too. If you get your man home – or even if you don’t – the mission begins anew until you run out of ships. Higher difficulty levels add more enemies, such as fireballs streaking through the sky. (Taito, 1979)

Memories: This very obscure Space Invaders sequel takes some of the same basic ideas as Atari’s Lunar Lander (released the same year) and adds some lunar loonies and other more obviously fictional elements; Lunar Lander was good if you wanted a straight-ahead simulation of an Apollo landing, but you get to land your ship and then take off and shoot stuff in Lunar Rescue. It’s challenging and quite a bit of fun, too – I find myself playing this one for a pretty good stretch if I start. Continue reading

Balloon Bomber

Balloon BomberThe Game: Why worry about space invaders when there are more pressing earthly threats? Players guide a mobile cannon at the bottom of the screen, trying to take out a constant barrage of balloon bombers dropping live bombs. A direct hit to the cannon costs the player a “life,” but if the player allows a bomb to hit bottom, the results can be almost as dangerous: bombs crater the surface that the player’s cannon moves across, and allowing those pits to collect on the surface can severely limit the player’s movements, to the point of leaving the cannon a motionless sitting duck for the next round of balloon bombs, or a plane that periodically drops cluster bombs from overhead. (Taito, 1980)

Memories: One of the more obscure exponents of the same basic hardware platform that brought us Space Invaders Part II, Balloon Bomber is an interesting twist in the slide-and-shoot genre that’s based on a real (and very strange) footnote in history. Continue reading

Crazy Climber

Crazy ClimberBuy this gameThe Game: You control a daredevil stunt climber on his trip up the side of the Nichubutsu building, using no ropes, no nets, and nothing but his hands and his feet. Obstacles such as a large stork with (apparently flaming) droppings and a large gorilla (perhaps on loan from the Nintendo building) can cause you to plunge to your See the videodeath several stories below, and even minor things such as annoyed building tenants dropping potted plants at you from above can have the same disastrous effect. When you reach the top – if you reach the top, that is – a helicopter lifts you away to your next challenge. (Taito [under license from Nichibutstu], 1980)

Memories: A bit of a cult favorite that never achieved a major following, Crazy Climber was a staple of many arcades and game rooms in the early 80s. The two-joystick control scheme took a little bit of practice, but once players got used to it, it was a major and unique part of the game’s appeal. Continue reading

Phoenix

PhoenixThe Game: In a heavily armed space fighter, your job is pretty simple – ward off wave after wave of bird-like advance fighters and Phoenix creatures until you get to the mothership, and then try to blow that to smithereens. All of which would be simple if not for the aliens’ unpredictable kamikaze dive-bombing patterns. The See the videoBuy this gamePhoenix creatures themselves are notoriously difficult to kill, requiring a direct hit in the center to destroy them – otherwise they’ll grow back whatever wings you managed to pick off of them and come back even stronger. (Taito, 1980)

Memories: Phoenix is one of my two favorite games to emerge from the shooting game genre which emerged from the success of Taito’s own Space Invaders. Most shooter games involve chance, luck, and precious little skill, and very few of them give you the chance to try to work out any kind of strategy. Two exceptions I can think of are Midway’s Galaga and this game. Continue reading

Space Chaser

Space ChaserBuy this gameThe Game: It’s got dots and a maze, but this is no Pac-Man. You’re trapped in a symmetrical maze with an enemy homing missile, and the maze is littered with rows of dots. You must maneuver your ship over these dots to collect them, while avoiding any collision with the missile. If the missile locks on to you from the other end of a long corridor, it will speed up drastically and hit you (unless you can round a corner first). You have no defense against the missile – just avoid it. If you survive long enough to clear the maze of dots, you get to try again – only this time with an additional missile (later screens add even more enemies for you to avoid). You can give your ship a boost by activating your engines, but such speed changes are both short-lived and very costly to your already-dwindling fuel supply. (Taito, 1980)

Memories: It seems like around 1980, everyone had a variation on a similar idea. Somewhat resembling Targ and Spectar in the basic tenet of its ships-chasing-each-other-in-a-maze premise, Space Chaser is perhaps the most challenging of its genre for giving the player no option except to flee. Continue reading

Colony 7

Colony 7Buy this gameThe Game: You’re in charge of defenses at Colony 7. Even though a shield protects the settlement’s power generators, weapons and populated buildings, the onslaught of alien intruders gradually and inevitably wears that shield down. Once holes have been bored through the shield, the aliens have a clear shot at Colony 7 – and you’re toast. You’re the colony’s last hope, aiming your crosshairs at anything that threatens the surface. (Taito, 1981)

Memories: Does Colony 7 look a little familiar? If so, think of another game from roughly the same era. Not a translation of the arcade game, but an Atari 2600 cartridge with roughly the same style of game play. Continue reading

Qix

QixThe Game: In an exceedingly abstract and addictive game, you are a marker, trying to claim as much of the playing field as you can by enclosing areas of it. Drawing your boundaries faster is safer, but yields fewer points. A slower draw, which leaves you vulnerable to attack from the Qix and the Sparx, gives you many more points See the videoBuy this gameupon the completion of an enclosed area. If the ever-shifting Qix touches your marker or an uncompleted boundary you are drawing, you lose a “life” and start again. And the Sparx, which travel only along the edges of the playing field and along the boundaries of areas of the screen you’ve already enclosed, can destroy you by touching your marker. And if you linger too long, a fuse will begin burning at the beginning of your unfinished boundary, and will eventually catch up with you. (Taito, 1981)

Memories: Possibly the single most abstract thing to hit the arcade until Tetris, Qix was an underground arcade hit. Its bizarre game play, which defies any attempt to attach a narrative element or even define the Qix and sparx as anything other than “your opponents,” is enormously addictive. To this day, it’s still one of my favorites, but it’s nearly impossible to explain the game to anyone who wasn’t there to see it for themselves. Continue reading

Rock Climber

Rock ClimberThe Game: You control a daredevil stunt climber on his trip up the side of a steep mountain, using no ropes, no nets, and nothing but his hands and his feet. Obstacles such as a large purple bear, pesky monkeys and waterfalls can cause you to plunge to your death several hundred feet below. (Taito, 1981)

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Memories: Imagine, for a moment, Crazy Climber, only with less fun and more frustration. That, in a nutshell, is a fairly accurate description of Taito’s Rock Climber, obviously an offshoot of Crazy Climber, which they had licensed from Nitsibushu. Instead of climbing a building, now your climber – still guided with two joysticks – is now trying to scale a mountain, plagued by annoying monkeys and deadly purple bears. (The bears probably wouldn’t be all that mean, except that they’re overcompensating for being what must seem to a bear to be an embarrassing shade of purple.) Continue reading

The Electric Yo-Yo

The Electric Yo-YoThe Game: Don’t take this personally, but you’re a yo-yo in The Electric Yo-Yo, trying to clear all the dots from the screen and trying just as hard to avoid the bug-eyed monsters and other enemies who seem to be natural predators of toys on strings. You must plan your movement around the screen carefully – the further you can move in a straight line to eliminate the most dots, the faster you’ll move. See the videoBuy this gameGetting stuck in limbo with no targets in the same horizontal or vertical space means you have to take painfully slow baby steps around the screen, making you a sitting duck (or a sitting yo-yo) for your adversaries. You can occasionally grab a flashing dot to give you the power to knock the bug-eyed monster out of the way momentarily. If you clear the screen of dots, a new pattern of dots appears, each one more difficult to complete than the last. (Taito, 1982)

Memories: Even two years after Pac-Man hit it big, just about everyone was trying to carve out a slice of the dot-gobbling pie with games that, if they weren’t outright ripoffs, were at least conceptually similar. Taito, normally associated with such trail-blazingly original games as Qix and Jungle Hunt, was no exception, but at least The Electric Yo-Yo is far more original than the vast majority of Pac-Man-inspired arcade games. Continue reading

Front Line

Front LineThe Game: In a very genteel and almost inappropriately cute game about armored combat, you’re a lone footsoldier fighting your way through a platoon of enemy troops, trying to take out as many of them as you can until you find your way to a handy empty tank. (Nice of the enemy to allow your government to plant friendly tanks behind their borders, isn’t it?) But once you man your own tank, enemy tanks surround you. If one of them hits your tank, you have mere seconds to bail out before your tank blows, and you have to dodge cannon fire until you can find another friendly tank to commandeer. Finally, after crossing hazardous stretches of desert and fighting off entire battallions of enemy tanks, you’re en route to the final confrontation, a showdown with the enemy’s armored headquarters… (Taito, 1982)

Memories: Front Line was a really fun and addictive game to play, and was always one of my favorites. I didn’t ever give a thought, at the time, that this game really keeps the player’s vision of warfare from delving into the bloody or the unpleasant, and all the characters – even those octagonal, roly-poly little tanks – are really cute. Continue reading

Jolly Jogger

Jolly JoggerThe Game: Players control the Jolly Jogger as he attempts to draw borders around every square area on the playing field. There are several special squares which temporarily give Jolly Jogger the ability to freeze his pursuers for a while; at all other times, they are to be avoided at all costs. Running around every square on the screen clears that level and introduces a new maze of squares where the process begins anew. A lit fuse counts down the time available to Jolly Jogger to complete each screen; if time runs out, a life is lost. (Taito, 1982)

Memories: With a setup and a play mechanic similar to Pepper II and Amidar, Jolly Jogger doesn’t seem to have been a high priority for Taito – even the sell sheet distributed to entice arcade operators and distributors to buy the game seemed lackluster and generic, as if Taito knew it had a game that wasn’t really worthy of prime arcade real estate. Continue reading

Jungle King / Jungle Hunt

Jungle HuntThe Game: You are the king of the jungle! Swinging from vine to vine! Swimming through crocodile-infested waters! Jumping and ducking huge rolling boulders! And vanquishing spear-weilding natives to rescue the damsel! (Taito, 1982)

Buy this gameMemories: Not that Jungle King was an incredibly simple game – the above description is supposed to be a little bit humorous, if oversimplified – but Jungle King‘s most infamous footnote in video game history is the lawsuit that it drew. The original Jungle King game opened with the sound of a sampled “Tarzan yell” – and the estate of Edgar Rice Burroughs was not amused. Continue reading

Mr. Do!

Mr. Do!The Game: As the clownlike elfin dweller of a magic garden, you must avoid or do away with a bunch of nasty critters who are after you, while gobbling up as much yummy fruit as you can. (Taito [under license from Universal], 1982)

See the videoMemories: Mr. Do! is a curious chicken-or-the-egg case. Many elements of Mr. Do! are very similar to Dig Dug. However, Mr. Do! is a much more challenging game.

It was also one of the earliest entries from Universal, a company – unrelated to the Hollywood studio of the same name – whose business model appealed to arcade owners, but became a bugbear for competing arcade game manufacturers. Though Mr. Do! was sold as a standalone cabinet licensed through Taito, Universal’s primary product line was “kit games” – a kit with a new circuit board, marquee and cabinet artwork that could transform any cabinet with similar controls into Universal’s latest offering. Continue reading

Pirate Pete

Pirate PeteThe Game: You are the king of the jung…uh, pirate ship! Swinging from rope to rope! Swimming through shark-infested waters! Jumping and ducking huge rolling boulders! And vanquishing knive-weilding pirates (wait, aren’t See the videothey supposed to be on your side if you’re a pirate too?) to rescue the damsel! (Taito, 1982)

Memories: So…Pirate Pete. I’m sure you’re not fooled – this is Jungle King again, with different scenery. (At the end of the second stage, the Jungle King / Jungle Hunt music still plays.) A few changes were made to the program itself as well, but not many. Continue reading

Super Mouse

Super MouseThe Game: Super Mouse is on the case. He’s trying to grab all the food from every level of the screen. While he’s on the case, cats are on the chase, trying to catch Super Mouse. Two blocks of cheese on the top levels of the screen can be dropped on top of the cats, or the cats can be tricked into chasing Super Mouse over a trap door that’ll dump them in a water tank. But the cats don’t stay gone for long. Super Mouse advances to a new level when he takes every piece of food back to his secret hideout. (Taito, 1982)

Memories: Barely remembered by anyone, Super Mouse was one of the hundreds of games that heralded the 1982 arcade “boom,” when no idea was too strange or too derivative. Super Mouse combines elements of Donkey Kong and Turtles (not exactly two games that one hears mentioned in the same breath a lot) to create something intriguingly unique. But it’s not all that and a piece of cheese. Continue reading

Time Tunnel

Time TunnelThe Game: As the conductor of a time-traveling train, you must find and collect your passenger cars in the present day, move on to the near future to pull up to several stations and fill those cars with time travelers, and then deposit See the videothem at various attractions in the distant future. That would be difficult enough to do without running out of fuel, but you also have to contend with space creatures and repeatedly avoid collisions with a competing train by controlling the switches on the tracks. (1982, Taito)

Memories: This exceedingly obscure Taito arcade game is cute and innovative – it’s certainly not another riff on Loco-Motion, that’s for sure. But if you don’t remember it, there may be a reason – it takes several minutes to play a single game. This in and of itself is not a bad thing, but the very nature of arcade games is to vanquish as many challengers as possible, and quickly – the more people come back to play an arcade game, the more money it earns, so conventional wisdom among arcade operators in the 1980s was to dispense quickly with any game that didn’t chew through players’ quarters quickly. A game that took a long time to play had limited earning potential, three words that could get an arcade game scrapped, sent back to the distributor, or converted into another game in record time. Continue reading

Zoo Keeper

Zoo KeeperBuy this gameThe Game: You are Zeke the Zoo Keeper, and apparently you’re asleep on the job because the critters are breaking free! Your job is to nab them with a net which appears occasionally (a la Donkey Kong’s hammer), and otherwise avoid the stampeding animals until you can wall them back into their cage. (It seems odd, caging the animals with bricks – wouldn’t that make them rather difficult to feed or show to the public?) See the videoThen you keep going until you reach Zeke’s girlfriend Zelda. (Taito, 1982)

Memories: Taito may have jumped the gun a little on their publicity campaign for Zoo Keeper, which touted Zeke and his girlfriend Zelda (no, not Nintendo’s Zelda) as the next wave of franchise video game characters, right up there with Mario and Pac-Man and family. Instead, Zeke and Zelda wound up in the same class as Mappy and Venture‘s Winky – the victims of the video arcade’s equivalent of the old Hollywood stand-by line, “Don’t call us – we’ll call you.” Continue reading

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