The Amusement and Music Operators Association International Expo, held this year in early October, is an annual arcade game trade show held at the Las Vegas Convention Center, an imposing building located adjacent to a vast asphalt sea, and beneath a brand new $650 million dollar monorail system that has now been closed for repairs longer than it had ever been open.
Here, amusement operators and arcade owners are encouraged to test out the latest in quarter-munching technology, economy-sized deep fryers, prize redemption machines, and products of all shape and description bearing the likeness of SpongeBob SquarePants. Most importantly, at least for Gamasutra readers, the AMOA International Expo is an opportunity for North American distributors to show off the latest and greatest in the world of arcade games.
Some might say that the arcade industry is suffering from a mid-life crisis. Like a disgruntled businessman, they say, it's dragging its feet with a lowered head and a solemn heart, as it continues its routine of producing a reduced diet of driving and shooting games. It's remembering its past with a melancholy fondness, those carefree days when pizzas ran from ghosts and little frogs crossed busy freeways to be with their little froggy families. Arcade's old haunts and hangout spots, at least in the U.S., have been disappearing faster than ever, forcing it to hang out at 'old man' bars and pick up golf as an awkward hobby. It's old, it's tired, and it's doing a pretty decent job of hiding its secret desire to return to its wild and reckless youth.
Another day at the races via Sega's Derby Owners Club.
Arguably, redundancy and nostalgia were the unofficial themes this year, with a loose genre tally of approximately 24% racing, 23% light gun, and 21% retro compilation machines on the show floor. The remainder of the arcade releases consisted of a handful of sports titles, a questionable return to full-motion video, exactly one new pinball table, and a refreshing and hopeful trend of licensed scratchware PC games.
The biggest success of the show was arguably Sega's Derby Owners Club, a horse training and racing simulation that has been on the market for quite some time now. For those unfamiliar with this gem, players take the role of a jockey attempting to cash in on the horse racing circuit by honing his horse's skills through training and building a relationship. Your horse's vital statistics are dispensed right from the unit in the form of a magnetic-strip card, which can be re-used as often as you'd like (at least until your horse gets too old and has to retire) on any Derby Owners Club machine. Experienced players have gone as far as to professionally breed the perfect horse, cashing in by selling them on eBay to would-be contenders, thus unexpectedly adding a new and perhaps frightening level of interactivity to the game.
Sega also showed Ghost Squad, a forgettable light-gun shooter, their two current racing staples, Initial D Part 3 and Outrun 2, and a skateboarding romp called Ollie King, with a physical skateboard deck that made the game a little more than awkward to control.
Sega's new daddy, the pachinko-happy Sammy, showed off a few new games for their Atomiswave cabinets, a customizable arcade system based on Dreamcast technology that allows operators to easily switch out titles by inserting a new game cartridge into the central CPU. Extreme Hunting and Ranger Mission are standard light-gun fair; in one you shoot people, and in the other you shoot meat. Dirty Pigskin Football is the latest in the "Let's Make Football Weird" genre that dates all the way back to the Commodore 64, with a joystick shaped like a football and teams consisting of zombies, convicts, and giant ogres. The King of Fighters: Neowave is the latest in the tried and true King of Fighters series from SNK, and plays in equally tried and true fashion. Finally, not one to deprive the racing genre, Sammy had the weirdly titled Faster Than Speed, an extremely generic racing game full of elaborate backgrounds and branching paths left inaccessible thanks to the magic of invisible walls.
Namco is expanding their line of retro collections with a classic Nintendo compilation consisting of Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., and Mario Bros., which easily has the honor of being the most physically impressive arcade cabinet at the show. Namco put a lot of loving detail into the machine, going as far as to seek out and purchase original, unused cabinet art decals from the original runs of all three machines, and combining them in a clever fashion on a cabinet shaped exactly like the original Donkey Kong. The games, as can be expected, play flawlessly, and even the original sound effects, which are relatively difficult to emulate, sound perfect. The machine should be approaching release by the time you read this.
Namco's retro compilation of Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., and Mario Bros.
In addition to their existing selection of shooters, consisting of Star Trek Voyager, Crossfire: Maximum Paintball and the long-overdue sequel to Police Trainer (which now has a bizarre robot theme), Team Play, Inc. showed a new Hasbro board game machine. While still relatively early in development, the cabinet had working representations of Connect Four, Battleship, Boggle, Yahtzee, and the original rhythm game, Simon. In the build shown, Connect Four had absolutely gruesome A.I., and Battleship was a slow-moving chore, but both of these issues are currently being worked on.
Ultracade, in addition to their usual retro compilations, had a new machine called Dragon's Lair: 20th Anniversary Edition, which combined the three main Don Bluth staples - Dragon's Lair, Dragon's Lair II, and Space Ace - into one convenient cabinet. The games seemed to have faster loading times than their originals, and each has the option to turn prompted hints on and off, which gives the player two gaming options - will you play the memorization game, or will you play the fast reflexes game? Only you can decide!
Ultracade also had a surprise with Feeding Frenzy, an intensely popular shareware PC game streamlined for the arcade market. At its core, Feeding Frenzy plays like an old Intellivision game called Shark! Shark!, in that the little player-controlled fish grows larger by eating smaller creatures, working its way up the food chain until it can tackle the larger predators. The game uses a simple trackball and one-button interface, and is a surprisingly addictive little romp.
GlobalVR continued their mission to turn arcade games into vehicles for national competition, with tournament editions of PGA Tour Golf Championship Edition III and the surprisingly tardy arcade debut of the Madden Football franchise. Both games are equipped to handle tournaments at both the local and national levels (via the Internet), with monthly cash prizes awarded by GlobalVR themselves. GlobalVR also has the honor of displaying the weirdest retro compilation of the entire show - a machine with nothing but 1990s Western-themed full-motion-video shooters built in, including Fast Draw Showdown, The Last Bounty Hunters, and both Mad Dog McCree. The games remain as frustrating as ever, and offer nothing that their original representations didn't.
Chicago Gaming Company - who operate out of Cicero, which is arguably not Chicago at all - showed off two games and a pinball machine. Nicktoons Racing follows the "kids don't know better" school of marketing by placing popular cartoon characters in a racing game with relatively little substance. SpongeBob SquarePants, the Rugrats, and a host of others are rendered in glorious PlayStation One-era polygons as they race through twelve "hi-speed race courses," which offer neither friendly greetings nor much in the way of speed. The game's A.I. makes it nearly impossible to be anywhere but first place, despite intentional crashes, and the game offers a two minutes of "no matter what" time per credit; there are no time extensions, nor rewards for first place. As soon as a player's two minutes are up, the game requires more money to continue.
Long-running licensors Ultracade showed off Arcade Legends, which contains a plethora of classic arcade titles from Capcom, Atari, and others. The cabinet, which boasts two joysticks and a trackball, is available in both consumer and commercial models. Major Havoc fans beware: the game is nearly impossible with the included trackball setup.
Incredible Technologies is still milking the bored-at-the-pub scene with Golden Tee Live, a continuation of the popular series. Included this time is a new tournament mode, along the lines of what GlobalVR is doing. Incredible also showed Silver Strike Bowling and Big Buck Hunter 2006: Call of the Wild, both of which are fairly self-explanatory.
Betson catered even more to the mainstream market by showing off the latest two titles by Raw Thrills, Inc.: Target: Terror Gold and The Fast and the Furious. Raw Thrills is a development studio headed by Eugene Jarvis, the man behind such innovations as Defender, Robotron, and Cruisin' USA. These days, Jarvis unfortunately seems to have lost much of his creativity by tending towards cookie-cutter products with big names.
Target: Terror Gold is an expansion pack that adds a slew of new minigames and bonus stages to Target: Terror, Jarvis' controversial light-gun game from earlier this year. For those who haven't had the pleasure, Target: Terror cashes in on the terrorist craze by allowing players to shoot pasty white guys dressed in black who, according to the monkey-lipped news reporter we see at the beginning of each level, are (in fact) "terrorists." These terrorists do stuff like "siege the airport" and hang out at the Golden Gate Bridge, waving guns around. Jarvis describes the game as the "next level" after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.
"Target: Terror is this extreme paranoia, but gosh, it could be real," Jarvis told Gamespot last June. The game, which bears a more than passing resemblance to 1992's Lethal Enforcers and its ilk, was designed to "get the player's attention" with its apparently innovative approach.
"I really think we're whipping a bunch of dead horses with the 43rd iteration of EverQuest," Jarvis went on to say in the same interview. "Do you do the 400th iteration of Halo? I feel like we're beating certain genres to death."
The final stage of Target: Terror takes place on a hijacked plane en route to the White House, which has gotten the game banned from Wal-Mart, among others.
Jarvis' quest to innovate the arcade industry continues with The Fast and the Furious, a racing game that feels exactly like Jarvis' first racing game from ten years ago, Cruisin' USA. And Cruisin' World. And Cruisin' Exotica. New features for Jarvis' fourth game in this style include a brand new movie license that doesn't seem to tie into the actual game anywhere, and stages that take place at night instead of during the day.
Finally, on a positive note, TLC Industries, Inc. introduced their new FlexArcade package at the show. FlexArcade takes a refreshing approach to arcade gaming by licensing indie PC titles for their standalone units, and offering an easy way for arcade operators to quickly switch titles. Swap out the game CD, replace the marquee, and you instantly have a new title. Their two premiere games, ORBZ and Hamsterball, ship this month.
Hamsterball plays like an amalgam of Monkey Ball and Marble Madness. Using the FlexArcade's trackball, players guide a helpless hamster stuck in a ball through twelve courses, racing against time and gruesome obstacles. The original PC version of Hamsterball was named Downloadable Game of the Year (2004) by the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences, and makes its surprisingly solid arcade debut with the FlexArcade system.
The arcade classics Defender and Defender II.
ORBZ also uses the trackball, and sees the player planning the best approach to shoot at colorful targets through fourteen distinct courses. With power-ups named "Money Shot" and "The Curse of the Goober," it's hard not to like this title. And as an added bonus, for those who can't find a FlexArcade machine in their area, ORBZ will be available at launch for the Phantom home console from Infinium Labs, if you're into that sort of thing.
There were a few other games spattered here and there - an incredibly shaky racing game by Triotech called Wasteland Racers 2071, a generic light-gun romp with a forced comic book theme called Johnny Nero: Action Hero - but nothing worth more than a mention. After a while, the racing and shooting games seem to blur together, unfortunately.
Many conclusions can be derived from the AMOA show and, with some clever use of arguments, most of them seem pretty logical. Is driving around and shooting stuff the "in" thing these days? Maybe. How about "retro?" Is the recent explosion of re-releasing ancient games a response to an actual social trend? Could be.
Regardless, there is one conclusion that seems pretty obvious: the arcade industry just isn't particularly profitable anymore in the U.S.. The situation in Japan seems much better, with companies like Sega and Konami still reaping considerable profits from a country where arcades are much better integrated into mainstream society, acceptable places for citizens of all ages to hang out. But with a lack of American-specific funding, a lack of consumers and, likely, a lack of dedicated U.S. arcades, there isn't enough money going around for publishers to take any chances. Of those genres that are marginally popular, racing games have always been one of the foremost and, with a bulky arcade unit using actual pedals and steering wheels, offers something you can't easily get at home. Same goes with gun games, and with Konami's Dance Dance Revolution games, which oddly didn't receive prominent billing at the show. Sure, these peripherals are often available for home consoles, but who generally has the money or real estate for that?
Way back in 1982, after wearing out their welcome in both the leather and plastics industries, the Connecticut Leather Company released their second attempt at a home videogame console. Thanks to a licensing deal with a marginally successful arcade game designer in Japan, the ColecoVision launched with a little killer app called Donkey Kong. Was the system a revolutionary new direction for videogames? No. Did it offer much that its competitors at the time didn't? No, not really. The ColecoVision was successful because, despite its somewhat primitive graphics, Donkey Kong resembled the arcade game just that much more than it did on the other consoles. Back in those days, arcade games just looked better than those we played at home. We went to arcades because, as much as we loved our consoles, nothing looked like the real thing. That's the problem, years in the making, that the arcade industry in North America is currently wrestling with.
The profitability and general well-being of the arcade industry hinges on its ability to offer a unique physical experience. Consoles don't come packaged with gas pedals, steering wheels and guns. In a day and age where Nintendo publicly stresses that graphics have reached their plateau, the arcade industry just doesn't wow us like it used to.
the bright side, remember that arcade games, unlike the home console
market, require no concept approval or expensive hardware licensing
fees from Sony and Microsoft. With enough investor capital, everyone
has the ability to design something truly unique without restraints.
Unfortunately, in a market dominated by standard "bar"
games like Incredible Technologies' Golden Tee Golf, no investor
is going to be coughing up millions for crazily innovative titles.
But perhaps, in indie PC crossovers such as FlexArcade, inexpensive
new U.S. titles may have a chance to show a some flair in the market.
So roll that little hamster around like there's no tomorrow, because
if you don't, there might not be.