The Thrill of the Arcade
This year I’ve been pushing myself to play games outside of my comfort zone—namely AAA titles. I’ve never been attracted to cinematic games, and my experiment to try and appreciate them has mostly confounded my preconceptions. I could feel myself getting fed up. Gaming sessions had become a chore. It was time to slip into something more comfortable. My love of gaming was born out of the deafening, incandescent arcades of the 90s (and from the home console ports that trickled out of them). Super Street Fighter II, Daytona, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Spinmasters—it didn’t matter what the game was. It was the visceral thrill of being thrown into the action and seeing how long I could last, how far I could get.
Back then, as a young child with below average hand-eye coordination, the answer to those questions was always ‘not very’—but it didn’t matter. Whatever the outcome, I would walk away from the machine wide-eyed, sweaty-palmed and bursting with adrenaline. As the game would settle back into its demo state—ready to entice the next coin wielding adolescent—it would flash up its high scores. The rollcall of initials sparked something in me, a jealousy, a desire to do better. It taught me that gaming could be competitive, even when you were playing alone. The feeling of pride was immense whenever I managed to sneak onto the bottom of a scoreboard. Followed by the feeling of panic as I frantically wrestled the stick up and down to input my initials before the timer ran out. S…D…C…end.
(More often than not, it would end up as S.D.D or S.D.B or some other variation that definitely wasn’t my initials. Damn those sweaty palms.)
Infinite Continues, Limited Fun
These days I still get a huge kick out of playing any 90s era arcade games. I have a bunch of compilations from when they were common place—namely the PS2 and Wii era. I still enjoy dusting them off from time to time. As fun as they are though, I’ve never had quite the same exhilaration from playing arcade games at home. Something about being able to press continue over and over again takes away some of the mystique of these old games. All too quickly the credits roll and you feel like you’ve sailed your way to a hollow victory.
In my opinion, the true joy in arcade games is in their challenge. Giving yourself a handful of coins and trying to overcome everything the game throws at you—or even better, trying to get as far as you can on one coin. For some reason though, that’s always been a restriction that I’ve struggled to impose on myself—at least until now.
Arcade Archives: Hi Score Mode
Recently, I picked up a few of Hamster’s Arcade Archives titles for the Nintendo Switch and not only have they managed to re-invigorate the thrill of arcade gaming for me, but they have also re-ignited my love of video-games as a whole. It’s all thanks to one crucial thing: Hi Score Mode.
Hi Score Mode is a subtly brilliant feature in all of Hamster’s Arcade Archives ports. It gives you one coin, no continues, no save states, no way to pause, and it challenges you to rack up as high a score as possible. An online leaderboard sits at the right-hand side of the screen. It gives you all the motivation you need to try and do better. Can you break into the top 100? Now the top 90, 75, 50… Just one more try… I know what I did wrong that time… I can do better…
This is the way these games are meant to be played—competitively. With infinite continues, it’s so easy to see them as little more than disposable—20 minutes of fun and onto the next one. With a sense of competition however, they truly come alive and become something you can pour countless hours into.
Anyone who’s seen the 2007 documentary King of Kong will have witnessed just how obsessed people can become when it comes to chasing high scores (and lengths they’ll go to win). In that documentary the game was Donkey Kong, but really it could have been any number of classic arcade titles. What mattered was the glory that came from sitting on the top spot. Seeing your name (or at least your initials) in lights. Being the best at something.
Climbing the Ranks
My own Donkey Kong has been Ninja Kid II. Yeah, I hadn’t heard of it either—at least, I thought I hadn’t. I picked it up blindly in an Arcade Archives sale on the Switch eshop. As it turns out, I’d actually played a fair amount of the first Ninja Kid title on Famicom. Like most westerners who buy Famicom games, I’d picked it up not knowing what it was (the titles are usually in kanji). Despite not ever bothering to find out what it was called, I’d enjoyed it enough to sink a fair bit of time into it, and so I felt immediately comfortable in Ninja Kid II.
I stumbled into the Hi Score Mode fairly quickly, mainly just to see what it was. I’d had a reasonable first run thanks to my previous experience, and surprisingly found myself in the top 100. I have no idea how many people own Ninja Kid II on Switch, and I don’t know how many of those people have played it more than a handful of times but I got a buzz of excitement from the achievement nonetheless.
My goal was to get further into the game each time, but it was slow going. Like all coin-ops, it was totally unforgiving—after all, it was designed to keep a steady flow of coins coming in. As I started to hit a brick wall in one of the stages I instead began to figure out ways of maximising my points.
Ninja Kid II gives you a choice of three paths of increasing difficulty. The most difficult path yields the most points so I started trying to get good enough to tackle it. I then realised that shooting a dead enemy as it falls off the screen scores you a mighty 1000pts. Surely far better to avoid the enemies until I pick up the multi-directional fire spell then—the perfect tool for catching enemies as they fall. My scores were improving little by little and my name was slowly climbing the ranks. “Ha! Back down to 61st for you Davos390. He’s probably going be devastated when he finds out” I thought (whilst my sanity ebbed).
When I finally cracked 100,000 points, I felt like I’d arrived. I was perched in 32nd place, tantalisingly close to the top 30, but I noticed the point gap between ranks was getting bigger. 30th place was 37000 points ahead, 20th was 13700 ahead—to get into the top 10 I’d need to quadruple my best score.
I’d reached my limit—at least for now. I just need to practice that dreaded fifth stage. I need to figure out new ways of maximising my points. What strategies are they employing? Are they farming points for as long as possible in each stage, or speedrunning to get the best time bonus? I’m sure I could crack that top 30 eventually, and then the top 25 is right there…
And so it goes on…
If I’d have found Ninja Kid II on an emulator, or an old compilation, I‘d probably have played it for half an hour and then forgotten about it. It’s not an amazing game by any stretch, especially three decades after its original release, but it’s certainly fun enough. It has cute, colourful graphics, bouncy music, solid controls and a decent variety of gameplay. With an added sense of competition however, it had managed to become something far greater than the sum of its parts.
I could be playing any number of big budget titles with hair follicle levels of graphical fidelity and Hollywood celebrity cameos, but right now I’d rather be playing a 30-year-old coin-op. If you haven’t picked up any of the Arcade Archives titles then I urge you to do so. Give one a try, and dive into the Hi Score Mode—you might find more than you’d bargained for.