Arcade Games: the Early 90s Renaissance
"Between the years that the market drank Atari, and the years of the rise of the sons of Sony
The arcade… dark, weird lighting. Gnarly carpeting. An omnipresent riot of sound and color as you walked in and wrapped yourself in the electronic arms of sweet, sweet diversion. For many of us RetroFans, it’s a golden, soft-glow set of memories we keep well-polished and stored within our minds’ more secure vaults. Some of us were around in the late 70s and early 80s, when titles like Space Invaders and Donkey Kong were waving the banner of arcade gaming’s golden age. More of us remember the era when arcades saw some shrinkage; my own formative exposure to the format was in the smaller realms tucked into the side areas of bowling alleys and the nooks of theme restaurants. The early 90s saw the Neo Geo and a host of other innovative releases, breathing some life into the old arcade room… but nonetheless, the sad truth is that the phenomenon has continued to deflate over time (except in Japan, where it’s kept vigorously alive).
I consider myself lucky to have been an awe-struck young man in my pre-pubescent years when the early 90s brought us a small revival of the arcade. My venues were still within the greater confines of bowling alleys and Chuck E Cheeses, but the games we were playing in those places made it feel like its own circus… its own arena. Everyone can think of a couple off the top of their heads, and while I’ve already had the honor of discussing the gems like Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter II, I hope a few of you will recall the games I’ll highlight in this article. Many are both bizarre and wonderful, like our first childhood crush or that recurring dream we had about MC Hammer growing to Godzilla size and destroying our hometown with his brutal dance moves (was that just me?), but it didn’t stop us from throwing quarters or tokens in to give them a shot.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Released: October 31, 1991
Everyone just about lost their shit when the Terminator sequel came out. At least that’s what I remember. It had a good-guy Terminator, an even worse bad guy Terminator, and more catastrophic violence than a train wreck giving birth to a nuclear detonation with no epidural. Even though it was way rated R, we all did what we had to do to see it, and whoa… it was nuts. It even sort of made Guns n Roses cool (who am I kidding, a lot of us misguidedly loved them anyway). On Halloween of ’91, we got to live the whole thing out in one of the better shooter-style arcade games of its time. The demo sequence claimed that the game was also rated R, for Righteous. No shit.
T2‘s difficulty was harsh, but it was still a blast to see how long you could last on the battlefields of 2029 against your loyalist robot kin and the massive death machines they served. Some of us even got really sharp and made it back to John Connor’s 1995… but I never did. Not even with 2 players. No matter what, the game’s graphics were super-crisp and it had a ton of really fun digitized voice clips in it. I for one couldn’t help but get into it.
Captain America and the Avengers
Developers: Data East, Realtime Associates
This is one I dutifully played the absolute shit out of. I was huge into superheroes as a kid, both Marvel and DC (but a little more Marvel, and I’ve never been able to fully articulate why), and I was thrilled to see The Avengers when it first arrived at the smoky bowling alley my family frequented. They wanted to bowl? That’s fine, suckers are born every minute. I wanted to stop the fucking Red Skull.
While the ports of the game got mixed reception, the arcade version itself is often praised as a classic beat ’em up. I liked it because four of us disinterested junior bowlers could play at a time, and I could play as Vision, whom I found fascinating as a superhero. The team plows through an army of generic robots and lesser villains to chase after the Red Skull, even making a foray into space and some other bizarre places in the Marvel Universe. Each character has melee and ranged options, and you can even hoist a motherfucker and throw him into another motherfucker. That was my go-to move. The graphics were great, fitting the comic book source material wonderfully; the sound and music was almost honest-to-god inspiring. “AMERICA STILL NEEDS YOUR HELP!” Well shit, I’d better pop some more tokens in.
Developer: Technos Japan
“Jesus, dude, shut up about all these goddamned wrestling games!” No, though, because this one is incredible. You don’t even have to be a wrestling fan to get into it. Technos had released WWF Superstars in ’89, which did pretty well, and they took everything they learned from that in ’91 and produced an incredible mat-fighting arcade game.
The legendary Road Warriors/Legion of Doom are the “boss” characters in this one, replacing Andre the Giant and Ted DiBiase in Superstars. You can team up with a friend or go it alone in various match types, but it was easily the most fun to try for the tag team titles against Hawk and Animal (who were fucking impossible to beat unless you had a grocery bag full of change). Team-up moves, berserk tag-ins, and digitized announcing from Mike McGuirk and Gene Okerlund make this a bona fide classical-era WWF product. The graphics are a little goofy, but they’re good for the format; the action doesn’t suffer. While the actual “Sport” may be choreographed or pre-determined, WWF WrestleFest isn’t short on real entertainment.
Released: October 8th, 1992
This time period was also all about controversy. Lethal Enforcers didn’t become quite as notorious as games like Doom or Mortal Kombat, but it did cause quite a stir upon its release. Konami’s action-cop shooter game had photo-realistic graphics (for its time) and was somewhat intense. It didn’t matter to the self-appointed moral crusaders of the era if you were the good guy or not; they were pissed that you were shooting at an animation of an actor dressed as a stereotypical goon.
Aside form all that, the game is immersive and pulse pounding. Split second decisions must be made as you confront thugs with hostages, fleeing civilians, and lightning fast criminals. You can easily lose the game, in fact, if you’re not precisely accurate in order to avoid harming the innocent. There’s chase scenes, power-ups that give you guns the police definitely shouldn’t have, and even “training stages” that lighten things up while still maintaining the theme. Aside from the great visuals, the music kicks ass and Lethal Enforcers is another game that heavily incorporates digitized samples. I liked this one enough to get the Genesis version a couple years later, and it was pretty faithful to the source.
Developer: Sega (Sega AM2)
Released: October 1993
You were wondering why I was studiously avoiding fighting games in this particular article… I was saving this one for last. With the dawn of Virtua Fighter, the whole playing field of the genre was changed. Virtua Fighter wasn’t just showing us 3D polygon-based graphics, which we still considered pretty far-out and futuristic; the revolutionary fighter was making an earnest (and effective) attempt at fluid realism in its characters’ moves and techniques.
The “Model 1” hardware rig used for the game was jointly developed by Sega and Lockheed Martin. Yes, Lockheed fucking Martin the aerospace firm. The people who have a knee-deep resume of building cutting edge military technology. This hardware not only handles the revolutionary 3D rendering, but also allows for stunningly realistic movement and nearly true-to-life physics. The game’s plot was minimal and loosely resembled those of its ancestors, but literally no one cared. The game has spawned a thriving franchise that has continued to break ground in its genre. I remember seeing this shit and thinking to myself, “it’s pretty cool to live in the future.”
Towards the middle of the decade, the phenomenon of the arcade took a sullen plunge once more, though it’s remained alive through the 00’s and 10’s (or at least its heart beats). Our friends in the far East keep things going, and there’s of course been a small resurgence here as the retro gaming movement has gotten wind under its wings.
Between the years that the market drank Atari, and the years of the rise of the sons of Sony… there was an age undreamed of.