New Rally-X

New Rally-XBuy this gameThe Game: As the driver of a high-powered race car, you rocket around corners and down straightaways, trying to pick up every yellow flag in the maze-like course and avoiding deadly collisions with pursuing red cars. Special flags (marked with an “S”, of course) offer big points bonuses, while Lucky flags (“L”) give you bonus points based on how much fuel remains in your car’s gas tank, so it’s best to find them as quickly as possible. Watch out for rocks, and use your smokescreen only when necessary to distance yourself from the red cars. (1981, Namco)

See the videoMemories: Not even really a sequel to Rally-X, which hit the arcades at roughly the same time as Pac-Man, New Rally-X was an attempt by Namco to give its cutesy overhead racing game a little more “oomph” to Rally-X in the hope that it might pick up steam during the arcade boom that Pac-Man spawned. Continue reading

Piranha

PiranhaThe Game: As a butt-ugly fish, you maneuver around a simple undersea maze, gobbling small dots (10 points) and evading four colorful squids who can eat you on contact. In four corners of the screen, large flashing dots (50 points) enable you to turn the tables and eat the monsters See the videofor a brief period for an escalating score (200, 400, 800 and 1600 points). Periodically, assorted items appear near the center of the maze, and you can consume these for additional points as well. The squids, once eaten, return to their home base in ghost form and return to chase you anew. If cleared of dots, the maze refills and the game starts again, but just a little bit faster… (“GL”, 1981)

Memories: Journey back with us now to the first two years of the eighties, when Pac-Man ruled the coin-op video game roost, where arcade owners’ demand for the prized Pac-Man machines was high, where players’ skill at winning was increasing and their repeat business was proportionately dwindling, and everyone wanted a piece of that little yellow pie. Continue reading

Pleiades / Pleiads

Pleiads or PleiadesThe Game: Earth is under attack, but due to defense spending cutbacks (how much planetary defense can you buy for a quarter?), you’re the pilot of the only vessel responding to the emergency. Try to fend off Buy this gameseveral darting waves of alien ships which are attempting to bomb your base. Some of them may briefly land, wreaking even more havoc, and as you may have guessed, all of them will be firing at you. After you’ve secured Earth, you blast off into deep space to take on a wave of larger, more vicious attackers, and then an assault on a heavily armed alien mother ship. Once you’ve vanquished this foe, you’ll be called back to Earth again – it seems the aliens can’t take a hint. Once you’ve maneuvered your way through the landing runway and lined yourself up to fight the next wing of invaders, the battle begins anew. (Centuri [under ilcense from Tehkan], 1981)

Memories: A rather obscure shoot-’em-up, Pleaides (or Pleiads, as the game proclaims on its monitor, at odds with the cabinet artwork) almost looks like a sequel to Phoenix, though Pleiades originated from a different company. It’s a safe bet that the part of the game best remembered by arcade-goers back in the day is the final stage before the game begins again, the runway screen. You can’t shoot anything, you can only avoid it – and let’s face it, it’s pretty embarrassing if you get yourself splattered in a situation where you have no enemies. Continue reading

Puck-Man

Puck ManThe Game: As a round yellow creature consisting of a mouth and nothing else, you maneuver around a relatively simple maze, gobbling small dots (10 points) and evading four colorful monsters who can eat you on contact. In four corners of the screen, large flashing dots (50 points) enable you to turn the tables and eat the monsters for a brief period for an escalating score (200, 400, 800 and 1600 points). Periodically, assorted items appear near the center of the maze, and you can consume these for additional points as well. The monsters, once eaten, return to their home base in ghost form and return to chase you anew. If cleared of dots, the maze refills and the game starts again, but just a little bit faster… (Deluxe, 1981)

Memories: Journey back with us now to the first two years of the eighties, when Pac-Man ruled the coin-op video game roost, where arcade owners’ demand for the prized Pac-Man machines was high, where players’ skill at winning was increasing and their repeat business was proportionately dwindling, and everyone wanted a piece of that little yellow pie. Continue reading

Pulsar

PulsarThe Game: You control a tank – though it seems like an awfully tiny one – zipping through a maze teeming with enemies. Three color-coded keys are tucked away in a corner, and after grabbing one of these keys you must fight your way past enemy forces to open the corresponding lock. The process must be repeated until all of the keys on a given level have been used, allowing you to travel to the next portion of the maze – where more keys, more locks and more enemies await. Additionally, shooting some enemies may have an effect on your tank’s speed, causing it to move event faster through the maze (and potentially face-first into trouble) or slowing it down to the point where it’s a nearly defenseless target for the enemy. (Sega, 1981)

Memories: Somewhere between Tank! and Mouse Trap lies Pulsar, an intriguing and oddly compelling hybrid of game elements. If you missed this one in the arcade, don’t worry: you weren’t alone. Given the surfeit of maze games that were marketed to amusement operators as a cure for the epidemic of Pac-Man fever, there were a lot of games that looked like Pulsar. Besides, in 1980, cute was king, slide-and-shoot derivatives of Space Invaders were still “in,” and tank games that happened not to be Battlezone were so 1974. 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

Satan’s Hollow

Satan's HollowBuy this gameThe Game: It’s the ultimate, cataclysmic battle between good and evil – expressed as a variation on the basic theme of Phoenix! Hellish green flying demons try to formation-dive your well-armed, devil-fryin’ vehicle at the bottom of the screen. Each time you knock one of this gargoylesque beasties out of the sky, they drop a piece of a bridge you must drag over to the appropriate spot on the screen. When you’re close to completing the bridge, the Prince of Darkness sends in some heavier artillery – a spooky floating demon head who spits fire at your cannon – to do away with you. Once you’ve toasted the flying meanies out of the sky and cross the bridge, it’s time to do battle with Satan himself, though he starts out looking a little bit like that cute little mascot you see on cans of deviled ham. (Bally/Midway, 1981)

Memories: While it presents some interesting variations – bridge-building while shooting? – Satan’s Hollow really had little to distinguish it from the other dozens of Space Invaders variants which had been appearing in arcades for three years at this point. Continue reading

Scramble

ScrambleBuy this gameThe Game: Once again, you’re apparently the only space pilot willing to take on this dangerous mission – though there’s probably a reason for that. You’re storming a heavily-armed installation which has loads of missiles and other defenses. And there’s one thing you don’t have a load of – fuel. If your gas needle lands on the big E, you’re going to your doom in a big rush. For some reason whose physics I can’t even begin to explain, bombing fuel depots in the enemy base will replenish your tank. Good luck! (Stern [under license from Konami], 1981)

Memories: A fun little Defender-style game, Scramble is a real challenge, especially the pesky, persistent problem of fuel shortage. But it proved to have a pesky, persistent problem of its own in the courtroom. Scramble was the basis of a major landmark copyright case in the history of computer-based works. Continue reading

Space Odyssey

Space OdysseyThe Game: Look out below – and above! You pilot a space fighter taking fire (and potentially kamikaze collisions) from all sides, zooming over an alien cityscape through the night sky and trying to blast your way through their inexhaustible defenses. If you succeed (and in this context, “succeed” = “survive”), you then switch from a side-scrolling perspective to a vaguely 3-D overhead view of the action as your fight zooms over a heavily defended alien fortress and then into deep space, where you’ll need to avoid black holes and comets, as well as a very likely lethal onslaught of fast-moving alien ships. If you manage to survive that, then (A) damn, you’re good, and (B) you’re going to do it all again, over a slightly different background. (Sega, 1981)

Memories: This interesting, if somewhat lesser-known, entry from Sega featured what were some eye-popping graphics for its day, but it seems unlikely that anyone played long enough to notice, since the game was so unbelievably difficult. Continue reading

Stargate / Defender II

StargateSee the videoThe Game: The alien abductors are back. Their henchbeings are back. And fortunately for the hapless humans on the planet’s surface, you’re back too, in a fully armed warship with a belly full of smart bombs. But the aliens have brought new and unusual reinforcements, and now the ultimate X-factor is seen visibly floating in the night sky – a stargate which could deposit your space fighter anywhere, delivering you to safety…or a rendezvous with a swarm of aliens. (Williams Electronics, 1981)
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Memories: This sequel to Defender was a game I positively hated way back when. Why? Because I just flat-out sucked at the controls of Defender, so Stargate showed me no mercy whatsoever. With an even more complicated control scheme than its ancestor, I didn’t stand a chance at Stargate. But watching the people who had learned how to really make the game theirs? That was something else. Continue reading

Thief

ThiefThe Game: You’re on the run from the long arm of the law, and the police radio dispatchers have put an an APB out for you. Money lines the city streets, and you must evade the cop cars and stash away all the cash until the screen is cleared. Four special items in the corners of the screen enable you to turn the table on your pursuers and temporarily eliminate them from the screen – but they’ll be back. If the police cars catch you, you have the right to remain silent; if they catch your last getaway car, you have the right to see “game over” on the screen. (Pacific Novelty, 1981)

See the videoMemories: 1981 was the summer of Pac-Man Fever in the United States. Midway, who licensed the game from Namco, had to contend with any number of challenges to its sovereignty as the sole distributor of Pac-Man, from bootlegged rip-off ROMs such as Pirhana to games like Thief which, while they didn’t pirate the actual game code of Pac-Man, certainly lifted its basic game play concept wholesale. These were the days before the video game industry was bogged down by lawsuits for every day of the week. It was a wild frontier, and it seems somehow appropriate that Thief fits in that genre. Continue reading

Tac-Scan

Tac-ScanThe Game: Commanding a fleet of ships, you use their combined firepower to wipe out an onslaught of alien ships (which, perhaps not at all surprisingly, are firing back at you). It only takes one hit to lose one of your own fleet, and when your fleet is completely wiped out, the game is over. Until then, do as much damage to the enemy armada as you can. (Sega/Gremlin, 1981)

Memories: I always admired games with novel ways of counting down how many “lives” a player had left until his quarter was declared a total loss. Moon Cresta had a three-stage rocket which could be destroyed stage-by-stage, and Lock ‘n’ Chase featured a getaway car full of extra crooks that could be deployed one-by-one into its Pac-Man-like maze. Tac-Scan gave the player one fleet – and only one fleet – of ships that would be wiped out as the game progressed. When the entire fleet was wiped out, thus ended the game. Continue reading

Turbo

TurboThe Game: It’s pretty straightforward…you’re zipping along in your Formula One race car, trying to avoid other drivers and obstacles along the way while hauling a sufficient quantity of butt to win the race. (Sega, 1981)

Memories: Ah, the driving game wars of the early 1980s. Remember when everyone was ga-ga over this game and Pole Position, which were both essentially very pretty remakes of Atari’s old Night Driver game? Though, to be quite honest, both of the early 80’s driving game staples were graphically impressive. Turbo reached the checkered flag first, though – Pole Position was released the following year in the U.S. Continue reading

Vanguard

VanguardThe Game: Your Vanguard space fighter has infiltrated a heavily-defended alien base. The enemy outnumbers you by six or seven to one at any given time (thank goodness for animated sprite limitations, or you’d be in real trouble!). You can fire above, below, ahead and behind your ship, which is an art you’ll need to master since enemy ships attack from all of these directions. You can’t run into any of the walls and expect to survive, but you can gain brief invincibility by flying through an Energy block, which supercharges your hull enough to ram your enemies (something which, at any other time, would mean certain death for you as well). At the end of your treacherous journey lies the alien in charge of the entire complex – but if you lose a life at that stage, you don’t get to come back for another shot! (Centuri [under license from SNK], 1981)

Memories: Very much like another SNK-originated game from this period, Fantasy (which was licensed out to Rock-Ola), Vanguard was an early entry in the exploration game genre. Sure, shooting things was fun, but this game made it clear – through the “radar map” of the alien base at the top of the screen – that there was a clear destination to be reached. And if you weren’t good enough to get there with the lives you had, you could continue the journey – for just a quarter more – again and again, until you got there. Continue reading

Venture

VentureThe Game: Trapped in a maze full of HallMonsters (TM, pat. pend.), you are adventurer Winky (TM, pat. pend.), on a mission to snatch incredible treasures (TM, pat. pend.) from hazardous underground rooms inhabited by lesser beasts such as re-animated skeletons, goblins, serpents, and so on (TM, pat. pend.). Sometimes even the See the videowalls move, threatening to squish Winky (TM, pat. pend.) or trap him, helpless to run from the HallMonsters (TM, pat. pend.). The deeper into the dungeons you go, the more treacherous the danger – and the greater the rewards. Just remember two things – the decomposing corpses of the smaller enemies are just as deadly as the live creatures. And there is no defense – and almost never any means of escape – from the HallMonsters (TM, pat. pend.). (Exidy, 1981)

Memories: Okay, maybe I went a little too far making fun of Exidy’s hopes that Venture would become a Major Video Game Franchise (TM, pat. pend.), but this game is peppered with trademark symbols – a sure sign that Exidy was banking on this game being the kind of breakthrough licensing windfall that Pac-Man was for Bally/Midway and Namco. Continue reading

War Of The Worlds

War Of The WorldsThe Game: The Martians are coming! And they’re coming in colorful vector graphics! The tripod-like Martian War Machines land, extend their legs, and begin marching inexorably toward your cannon, pausing momentarily to sweep the bottom of the screen with their deadly heat rays, or hurling spirals of energy your way to slow down See the videoyour cannon. You have a shield that can offer you mere moments of protection, but if it wears out or you find yourself in the Martians’ sights, your spiky-headed cannon operator is fried, and the cannon is promptly manned by another spiky-headed gunner. When your spiky-headed infantry is exhausted, the Martian invasion continues… (Cinematronics, 1981)

Memories: An entertaining variation on the basic game concept of Space Invaders, War Of The Worlds is quite a tricky game. From a visual standpoint, for line art, the Martian War Machines are menacing foes, and it could be that this is their best moving-image representation, possibly even better than Pal or Spielberg managed. (The rotating “Cylon eye” effect adds a lot of frisson, especially when the heat ray unexpectedly shoots out of it and blasts you!) Continue reading

Warp Warp

Warp WarpThe Game: What do you do when you’re alone in a space filled with big-tongued alien meanies? Well, you shoot ’em, naturally! The game starts in a wide-open, unrestricted playing field in which both you and the aliens can move about freely. Two structures in the center of the screen form a “warp” through which you can See the videoinstantaneously transport yourself into a different playing field, a structured maze also filled with nasties. Only this time, instead of a gun, you have bombs which you can only leave in your wake – and hopefully you can run far enough in that time that the bomb will only blow up the aliens, and not yourself. You can return to the warp – and the first playing field – when it flashes. (Rock-Ola [under license from Namco], 1981)

Memories: This is an oddity in arcade history, and not everyone knew that it came from the same hotbed of creativity that spawned Pac-Man, Dig Dug and Galaga – especially since it really wasn’t that much of a hit. Continue reading

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