By Neil Merrett
Capcom Beat ‘Em Up Bundle, released on Nintendo Switch, PS4 and Xbox One in 2018, published by Capcom
There was a time in the history of gaming when arguably the greatest technical challenge facing industry was an almost-saga like push to recreate the experience of arcade games on home consoles.
It seemed for a while that these efforts to perfect that elusive arcade look and feel on consoles might forever remain the impossible dream for developers in trying to create the perfect Pac-Man or Double Dragon – an industry tilting at digital windmills as it were.
Arcade games just always seemed to be that little more powerful than the consoles most people owned, and that is how things always would be. But then things changed, as they tend to do with technology.
In our current age of endless remastered HD collections of decades-old arcades hits, recreating a pure arcade-style Pac-Man from a technical perspective can be managed a thousands times over on a tiny chip, or played anyway online via your phone.
But there was a time when giving people a perfect sounding Pac-Man or Space Invaders in more than three colours, or with authentic arcade sounding blips and bloops, was the industry’s ongoing driving aspiration, rather than a technical possibility.
Throughout the 80’s and 90’s, as the cost and technical capabilities of arcade hardware increased, home consoles still attempted to try and recreate a facsimile or approximation of the big arcade games.
The high cost Neo-Geo range of consoles for example were effectively home arcade boards that allowed arcade quality shooters and fighters that could legitimately match the visuals and gameplay of the arcades.
But these Neo-Geo consoles, at least from a European perspective, were built to play games – whether on its proprietary cartridges, or in single purpose arcade boards – that cost the best part of 100 pounds each. This was even if you could even find them in the pre-internet age.
Unsurprisingly, the Neo-Geo never reached the heights and market share afforded to rivals such as Sega and Nintendo. Yet booming second hand market for various hardware permutations of the Neo-Geo console and its arcade boards now exists. This means that the company’s hardware and software can now sell for hundreds, if not thousands of pounds.
For about the price of a trip around the world with a loved one, you could play some decades old arcade games. The choice of the free market.
Playing these sort of arcade games was only possible for most in 50p slices, where your hard earned coinage gave you three lives or so at a time. If you wanted to play on past death, you had to keep inserting coins.
This was the only way most would ever get the chance to properly enjoy and proceed through these old arcade treasures and curiosities.
Arcade games of the 90s ranged from a Simpsons-themed street brawler, to more gimmicky flight simulators such as G-Loc that allowed the player’s seat to shift and spin to the in-game action.
In the intervening years, some of these wacky peripherals, and repurposed arcade units found themselves available for collectors with enough money to build their own arcades. They can live out those experiences without having to share them with random members of the public – even though this was sort of the key point of amusement arcades.
But the main purpose for arcades is now something of moot point. Established players such as Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony, as well as tech giants such as Google, can now give us high quality games wherever we are in the world, even on the tiniest screen.
Nothing like getting utterly decked while having a Sauvignon Blanc in a French airport. pic.twitter.com/4v8I70UBQM
— Queen Octav1us (@Octav1usKitten) April 25, 2019
However, some people still want janky buttons and a retro joy stock as if to evoke some age old sense of place or time through their gaming.
In some cases, this may be a world a gamer would never have known, yet even younger people still want to embrace the iconography of the arcade, whether for competitive fighting games, or just to enjoy controllers that are seemingly more tactile and tangible.
Needless to say, the appeal of the videogame arcade has not gone unnoticed by a range of companies of various different sizes
Capcom is in the process of developing a somewhat garish arcade stick unit (see below) that can plug into TVs to allow for two player gaming of some its popular arcade titles. Some of these games never found their way to home computers without emulation software of dubious legality. For a cool £199, you can try to recreate the feeling of smashing away at arcade buttons and a joystick, as if you were in an arcade.
Of course, the problem here is that you are not in an arcade, with its smells and coin slots, and faint echoes of some bygone caravan park or seaside holiday hotspot.
Arcades, for many people in their 20s and beyond, is now a retro affair – an act of defiant nostalgic enjoyment. It is the gaming equivalent of seeking out a Blockbuster Video store that once dominated high streets around the western world. There is an appeal there, but it is not necessarily for the movies or games themselves, but the associated world around them.
This is perhaps most apparent with last year’s release of the Capcom Beat ‘Em Up Bundle on the Nintendo Switch, which sought to give gamers the chance to play either the original Japanese or western versions of several arcade brawler games developed between 1989 and 1997.
These games included the much ported Final Fight – originally launched on the Super Nintendo with only a single player mode due to technical limitations – to games such as the anime-inspired mech punch-em-up Armoured Warriors. The latter had never been released outside of the arcades before, according to Capcom.
While often simplistic and formulaic, usually having a single attack and jump button, as well as a special attack, each of these games charts an interesting evolution of the once ubiquitous brawler game, with some beautiful sprite work and visual flare.
They are fun to play in isolation, especially with the new dynamic of online play added to all the games. It is amazing to think that multiplayer gaming is now possible through wireless handheld devices that would have felt like science fiction, and perhaps were, in the amusement arcades on the outskirts of Bristol in the early 90s.
Unlike the games on old arcade cabinets, Capcom’s arcade collection allows the player set the game’s difficulty to their exact standards, as well as setting out how many continues and lives the player is allowed before giving up.
While each title has little gameplay quirks to try and avoid losing as little life as possible when taking out each new wave of bad guys, the games are themselves an unrelenting challenge.
These arcade games were designed to be an unavoidable battle of attrition, where some loss of life was inevitable to ensure a player keeps putting in coins to get to the next world or boss. Should a player run out of funds, they may find themselves usurped at the game by some freshly minted interloper with enough pocket money to spare, allowing them to leapfrog on the previous player’s achievements.
In one way, it was an exciting social interaction with fellow strangers and travellers in some obscure holiday hotspot, while also a brutal challenge built partly on price gouging. For good or bad, that is something Capcom is yet to enact in the old school coin-op sense of a game.
Perhaps in our modern online world, we will one day get pay-to-play transactions returning at the cost of 50p per game returning. As it stands, even with a mandatory limit on lives and continues, Capcom’s arcade brawlers can never really be the arcade experience as it felt back then.
Mr Biffo, the storied games journalist and alter-ego of writer Paul Rose, noted that the recent popularity of the Dark Souls series of games and Cuphead, which are built on relentless challenge and learning from player death, were in some ways the modern form of arcade games.
He said, “It’s an old-fashioned approach to game design, but one which I thought had died out. It’s rooted in the challenge of arcades, where games were deliberately difficult so that players would keep sinking in the coins. And that’s probably my issue; that worked out great for arcade owners, but the odds were always stacked unfairly against the player. The house always won.”
Mr Biffo argued that many of these fondly remembered arcade games removed the safety net of ensuring that the player can complete the game should they become skilled enough.
He concluded, “I get that there can be a certain thrill in such endeavours, for me the eventual pay-off is never worth the journey.”
“To my eyes, it demonstrates a lazy approach to game design when difficulty is artificially raised in such a way, by limiting lives or checkpoints, or by throwing so much at a player that they’re going to fail more often than they’ll succeed.”
Just as with home videogaming, our perceptions of what arcade games are has evolved drastically beyond the once dominant brawlers and fighters developed by Capcom and Neo-Geo’s parent company SNK.
We have moved through the age of Dance Dance Revolution, multiplayer, multi-cabinet immersive racing games and towards the age of more high concept, VR experiences.
This provides an exciting new world for many different types of gamer, but even technical sophistication can’t fully bridge that notion of creating a true home arcade experience.
In short, arcades were built on an experience that could never be replicated at home. Perhaps it is best then that we treasure these arcade memories as happy ghosts of our collective past. An experience built on that elusive sense of being desperate for just one last 50p. That feeling of desperation for one last desperate continue on a heady long-gone summer holiday night.
Some gamers may move heaven and earth to get that feeling back, and best of luck to them. But others can just be content with a form of gaming that maybe just had its time.