Missing in Action – Adventure/RPGs
Missing In Action is an editorial series that takes a look at different genres of games that have come onto the arcade scene throughout the years but in recent times have fallen by the wayside in favor or popular genres like racers, dancing games, light-gun shooters, etc. We have previously looked at Space Combat, puzzles, scrolling fighters and tanks/mechs/planes games. The point is to demonstrate that the popular genres are not the only ones that can make it, as long as the new games are done right. Today we are taking a look at the genre of adventure or RPG style games. Adventure games honestly never played a huge role in arcades – compared to other genres adventure games probably make up the smallest percentage of arcade titles out there. That is not because it’s impossible to pull these games off in an arcade setting – it just takes a little bit of creativity to do an arcade style adventure or RPG title which requires a bit more fast action than the same game would on a console as adventure games usually deal with the exploration of lands or dungeons and reading a lot into a story – two things that typically don’t go over well in arcades. These games also tend to cater to hardcore players where video arcades usually do better with a more casual gaming audience. But for those adventure games that have been created, they tend to pull their gameplay from other successful arcade-style games such as scrolling fighters, labyrinth exploring games, and side scrollers. I believe that adventure arcades can find a place in the market so let’s take a look at what they have done already and what we could see in the future.
So for a little history on Adventure games in arcades…
The first adventure style game to come along in arcades was Venture, by Exidy released in 1981. Venture was a treasure hunting, multi-level dungeon crawling game where you played a happy face character named Winky. Armed with a bow & arrow and you ran into large rooms avoiding invincible enemies called Hall Montsers. Once you entered a room you were to collect the treasure, kill or avoid the enemies and get out quick. If you waited around too long a Hall Monster would appear that could not be killed and he would chase after you (this enemy scared the crap out of me when I was a kid playing this game on the 2600 which had far scarier sound than the arcade version does). To make it more difficult, touching a dead enemy carcass would kill you. Venture would be the most prominent adventure game of the early 80’s but a few others came along including Fantasy, Leprechaun, & Pirate Treasure, Mysterious Stones. Once 1983 hit, a new phenomenon would hit arcades that gave adventure games their day in the sun, FMV (Full Motion Video) games like Dragon’s Lair.
FMV Games hit the scene
While FMV games were criticized by some as being nothing more than shallow memorization exercises, the fact of the matter is they were fun and they were able to tell a story unlike any other games could at the time. Dragon’s Lair launched the FMV craze as you played as Dirk The Daring, venturing into a dark castle to save Princess Daphne from an evil dragon while avoiding, traps, pitfalls, solving puzzles and dispatching enemies that got in your way. Dragon’s Lair 2 would fit into the same vein as the first but with an evolved storyline and with the ability to collect things like treasure. In Space Ace the complexity of the game continued to evolve as not only did you have to save the girl but also regain your manhood. You also had a blaster that could be fired and in a later release of the game diagonal movement was required in certain scenes. Thayer’s Quest one-upped both of those games by integrating a back-lit keyboard into the cabinet and made heavy use of commentary to assist in the flow of play and you could pick up objects and cast spells as the game unfolded. There were several other FMV games that came to arcades but they would not see the same level of success as Dragon’s Lair as creating an FMV game was very time consuming and thus expensive to undertake. Interest in these games also waned to a degree and they all but disappeared from arcades in the 90’s.
Back to dungeon crawling
During the FMV phase of adventure games this did not stop more “traditional” adventuring from storming arcades. While it was never popular, Namco attempted to bring an RPG to arcades in ’84 with Dragon Buster. The story was typical of many games coming into play at the time – save the princess from the dragon but it introduced (for Namco games) a life-bar and you could use spells. Int he same year Namco released The Tower of Druaga, which began a series that Namco has continued on occasion through the years (such as with the sequel The Return of Ishtar which was Namco’s first game with a password feature) with another princess saving story and gameplay kind of like Zelda and Gauntlet. In 1985 Atari Games introduced Gauntlet to arcades and it became a raging success by combining fast-paced dungeon crawling, item collecting, monster slaying and it changed the realm of multiplayer arcade games. While it was far from a full-fledged RPG, it was good enough and proved to be wildly successful. The multiplayer aspect would return in many other adventure/RPG games down the line including Sega’s popular Golden Axe series which was more a scrolling fighter with fantasy elements than the other way around (the same kind of happened with Atari’s less-popular scrolling fighter/adventure game Skull & Crossbones); or Konami’s 3-player take on the adventure genre in ’87 with Dark Adventure. Dark Adventure featured enough complexity that it didn’t fare too well but it still made for a great adventure exploration game. In fact despite Dark Adventure not making it in arcades, companies still wanted to give the adventure concept a try. Namco made a similar game in 1989 called The Legend of the Valkyrie where you play as a valkyrie equipped with a sword and magic to battle enemies with an overhead view. Data East released Gate of Doom in 1990 which also used an isometric overhead view and you can pick from various characters who go dungeon crawling with fighting skills and magic to accompany them. Similarly, SNK released Crossed Swords in 1990 where you control a transparent (sort-of) knight with an early version of the 3rd person view who is on a quest to free his land from evil creatures, and you can pick up new weapons and shields long the way.
Speaking of attempting to bring more complicated, RPG -style games to the arcade, in ‘ 89 Taito released Cadash by Taito which included stat building and experience points in addition to other traditional adventure elements, making it a full-fledged RPG. While less complicated than Cadash, Sega also tried their hand at an RPG style game called Last Survivor by following the lead of popular games like Dungeon Master or Eye of The Beholder where you had a 1st person view of a varied maze filled with monsters and other players where you had to not only take out other monsters but also the other players to get their keys to unlock the exit. Taito again tried their hand at an RPG style game in 1993 with Dungeon Magic/Light Bringer which combined RPG elements into an isometric scrolling fighter. The scrolling fighter/RPG hybrid would also be used by Capcom in their popular games Knights of the Round, Dungeons and Dragons: Tower of Doom and Shadow of Mystara to mild success. The D&D games were probably one of the most successful arcade RPG games to make it in the arcade.
Not all adventure games need to be dungeon crawlers of course. A few notable adventure games that fit into this category would include Arabian (1983, Atari) where you play as a young Arabian prince who must rescue his captive princess while the game plays as an animated storybook; Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1985, Atari) where you played the intrepid Dr. Jones on his quest to rescue the kidnapped children and get out alive; Pitfall II – The Lost Caverns (1985, Sega) which was an enhanced version of the excellent Atari 2600 game where you play as Pitfall Harry (who I believe was a take on Indiana Jones) navigating his way through a giant cavern filled with obstacles, traps, deadly animals and treasure; Spelunker (1985, Irem) where you play a miner descending through a cave collecting treasures and navigating deadly obstacles (it’s a bit like Pitfall II actually); the WonderBoy series (Sega, various years in the 80’s) which was a fun combination of platform action and adventuring; games like Pyros (1987, Taito) and Black Tiger also infused adventure elements into the popular platforming style games of the time.
Arcade Adventure/RPGs come to 3D
Naturally all the games mentioned up to this point have made use of 2D graphics which by themselves are not looked upon with the high favorability that they used to have in the wake of 3D games. But there were a couple of 3D based adventure games that proved that by using the right concepts and elements, you can do an adventure/RPG game in today’s world of 3D gaming successfully. The most prominent game to do this in arcades would have to be Gauntlet Legends by Atari Games and the sequel Dark Legacy. GL brought Gauntlet into the 3D world but moved up from a labyrinth crawler to a more realistic 3D environment along with enemy bashing and the added RPG stat building element which was not too complex to leave certain players in the cold. As the game would save player profiles one could leave the game and return to your quest at a later time.
Sega has also created a number of 3D RPG titles that have mostly seen success in Japan such as Dragon Treasure, Quest of D (which also made use of a touch screen for item selection) and the Key of Avalon series. These were full-fledged RPGs and have been deemed too complex for foreign markets who are better tuned for more casual gaming. This would also include the Sangokushi Taisen series which makes use of specialized player cards that when set on the control surface of the game it would create certain actions in the game. SquareEnix has also tried this recently in Japan with The Lord of Vermilion.
So the question remains – is this a feasible genre for today’s arcade environment? I believe so, despite the fact that casual games are king and hardcore games face an uphill battle. It is the humble opinion of this writer that casual games don’t have to be the final end of arcades. I think it really comes down to marketing games to get the attention of hardcore players that are all over the place. It also depends on the price of these games as really expensive games see less of a chance showing up all over the place. But as long as we continue the trend of paranoia in revealing anything about upcoming games until the production units are off of the manufacturing floor and into arcades, it’s going to be difficult to attract the same level of attention to hardcore arcade games that hardcore console games see. I understand that arcade developers don’t want to see their competition releasing something like what they are doing but let’s face it – if you are about half finished with a game and the competition finds out about it, chances are it will be a while before they can hammer out something like it. And the games aren’t going to be the same as it is and a game that is properly marketed will be able to instill itself into the minds of gamers as something unique anyways.
Bringing adventuring back to arcades also involves risk – you need a good idea that is well-executed on top of branching out into a genre that has never been as wildly popular as light-gun games. But as I said – if a game is poorly marketed (like most arcade games are) then the chances of people going to the arcade with the sole purpose of seeking out the game are going to be considerably less anyways. It is not impossible to make a successful adventure game though – just take a look at Gauntlet Legends – it was well-known, well made and addictive. When it first came out I remember seeing people gathering around it all the time and it sucked the tokens right out of all of us.