The New Arcade
or Why Right Now Is The Greatest Videogame Era Of All Time
Mainstream videogaming in 2010 is a bit like paying your gas and electricity bills automatically by Direct Debit – it’s all very efficient and technologically advanced and impressive and everything, but it’s also exactly the same every month, and as a result it’s kinda boring. There, I said it.
Now don’t get me wrong – we’ve seen a lot of brilliant games in recent years. But alert readers will know that for some time now this writer's found it hard to summon up the enthusiasm to try to get all excited about yet another WW2/Space Marine FPS, yet another fantasy RPG or MMO full of elves, or yet another gloomy survival horror.
Sometimes someone needs to write about games made of colours other than grey, dark green and brown. Sometimes, WoSblog feels very alone.
Because in 2010, more than at any other time in history, there are two very distinct kinds of gamer, and one of the two groups is almost entirely neglected by the gaming media. They’re a broad mix, with mums and pre-teen girls standing side-by-side with grizzled old men with thousand-yard stares and twitchy thumbs who were there the day that Lenin and Jesus invented Pong.
They live together in a little-known parallel world that thrives quietly, like a colony of techno sewer rats lighting up the giant, gloomy shadows cast by the £40 triple-A blockbusters that greedily swallow up all of videogaming’s cultural airtime. They are the inhabitants of the New Arcade.
Throughout the 90s and the early years of the 21st Century, the original videogamers and people like them were gradually pushed out of gaming. As joypads sprouted new buttons and knobs as if under attack by bubonic plague, and manuals got thicker than phone books and games suddenly started forcing you through hour-long tutorials before they’d let you actually have a go with the training wheels off, the pick-up-and-players who were the lifeblood of the industry got bored and lost interest.
Their modern equivalents, busy people with real lives who liked the idea of games but not the idea of having to spend half a day learning the controls every time, never got interested in the first place. The games industry had by now learned to focus almost exclusively on 15-year-old boys with acres of free time, few other leisure options, their parents’ money to spend, and the obsessive nature required to tolerate – and indeed, actively embrace – the high barriers to entry that dissuaded so-called “casual” players.
(There’s nothing teenagers enjoy more, after all, than to form gangs that exclude and despise everyone either younger or older than them.)
But then something changed. In the Hospital For Terminally-Ill Cultures, a device called the Game Boy Advance had kept a single tiny pulse beating in Ward 2D – the coma unit where arcade gaming slept, never expected to awake. And one stormy night a bolt of lightning split the sky asunder and sent electricity surging through the entire wing. Patients rose from their beds and stumbled outside to find families and friends who’d almost given up hope, waiting for them with open arms and tearful, joyous welcomes. They returned home and started to build their world anew.
Three main things characterise the games of the New Arcade movement. One is extremely low cost (many of these games cost about the same as one credit on a modern coin-op), another is instant playability (because coin-op cabinets don’t come with player manuals, and because people who've spent 60p won’t slog through a slow start to justify their investment, but will demand to enjoy themselves straight away or they'll move on to something else), and the third is high-score competition, reborn as the online leaderboard.
(The first and third are the reasons why so-called “casual” and so-called “retro” gaming were previously such small niches – forking out 30 quid on a GBA Namco Museum that doesn’t even save local high scores to the cartridge is very different to spending £3 on XBLA Pac-Man that lets you compete against either your own best, just your friends, or the entire world.)
Four of the dominant current-generation formats have embraced the New Arcade concept fulsomely. Xbox Live Arcade grasped all three of the core principles immediately, and has more New Arcade games than any other format. (Sony have been the most ambitious of all the big console companies when it comes to download games, offering up what could arguably have been £40 disc-based games like Wipeout HD and Warhawk, at prices that are expensive compared to most digital products but still only half or a third of what they’d cost on shop shelves.)
But the Playstation Store is still stuffed with budget-priced instant-appeal gems like the excellent Go Puzzle, and arguably has a broader selection that’s less concentrated on shooting games than XBLA. This is exemplified by a fair smattering of boldly innovative and highly experimental – if imperfect – stuff like The Last Guy, Rag Doll Kung Fu, Flower and Noby Noby Boy, but there's also a hefty clutch of more traditional arcade styles.
While it's a slightly anomalous presence in this list (as its software is still overwhelmingly full-priced, on account of Nintendo being greedy thieving bastards), in many ways the DS was the pioneer of the New Arcade, the trailblazer of the simplified controls that are the hallmark of the entire genre. When it appeared everyone predicted it’d be crushed under the juggernaut wheels of Sony’s feature-heavy (and just generally heavy) hardcore-targeted PSP, but the ease-of-use factor has made the DS the console that everyone’s mum owns, including mine.
(The Wii, incidentally, should have been the natural home of the New Arcade, with its strong focus on accessibility and huge catalogue of Virtual Console titles, but as usual Nintendo ruined it with their insatiable greed. True to form, the company tried to get away with charging seven or eight quid for poor-quality NES ports of old coin-ops with half the levels missing, while on the iPhone you could buy a modern updated version of an arcade classic, with a perfect conversion of the original also included, for 59p.)
The resulting world-annihilating success of the DS has given it the most enviable catalogue of any current format, with at least 100 genuinely stellar games waiting to be discovered, dozens of them New Arcade classics. But the format that has truly taken the new genre mainstream* is, obviously, the aforementioned iPhone.
Despite its current phenomenal rate of growth, a lot of serious gamers overlook or even deride Apple’s touchscreen marvel as a gaming platform, for a variety of reasons. One is the perception that the lack of buttons makes for too limited a control interface (partly true, but only really applicable to conventional mainstream genres, ie the opposite of what we're talking about). The other is price, with expensive hardware and the necessity for a hefty £30+ monthly contract.
What a lot of people miss, though, is that you don’t need an iPhone (and therefore a contract) at all. The cheapest iPod Touch comes in at almost the same price as a DSi, will happily connect to the App Store through your PC or via any wireless network you have access to, and plays all the same games as the iPhone.
Apple have done very poorly at getting this fact across. Until very recently the iPod Touch was largely ignored in their advertising, and even when it did get a mention its gaming capabilities were an afterthought. But the company seems to have finally wised up to some extent, and is now promoting the Touch more vigorously as a gaming platform.
(Perhaps because as an MP3 player it's fairly pointless – it's either just a much bulkier and more expensive iPod Nano without a video camera, or a slightly smaller and more expensive iPod Classic with a tenth of the capacity.)
Buy an iPod Touch (at the time of writing you can get the excellent 32GB model with the faster 3GS hardware for an effective price of £184 – or, of course, just £6 if you're a WoS subscriber) and you instantly have access to a library of thousands of games, many of which are excellent and the vast majority of which cost less than Spectrum budget games from 25 years ago. There are loads of very good mainstream-style titles like Real Racing, Modern Combat: Sandstorm and Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, and brilliant puzzlers and RPGs by the truckload, but where the iPod really shines is in the insta-play arcade field.
(And what's more, you only pay for what you want when you want it, with none of the hideous and cynical "points" bollocks you have to go through with the 360, PS3, WiiWare or DSiWare.)
I don't think I've ever known a better time for videogaming, and I've been here since Pong. While nerds are kept quiet by plenty of triple-A blockbusters, running on amazingly powerful HD hardware, those of us who got into games because they offered something new and different have never had it so good. It's partly due to XBLA and PSN, rather less so to the DS (because good new DS releases all but dried up in 2009, though I've still got scores of games in need of finishing or playing properly), but it's mostly thanks to Xbox Indies and the iPod.
To be honest, I don't really even feel that I'm a part of "mainstream" gaming any more. I no longer have anything in common with whoever the hell it is that's going out and paying £50 for Final Fantasy XIII or Assassin's Creed 2. The first thing I do every morning, before even getting out of bed, is fire up my iPod Touch and see what's new, what's had a price cut, and what's going for nothing. There are dozens and dozens of price reductions and temporary free promotions every single day, featuring some of the format's best games.
(You could get by perfectly well as an iPod gamer simply by grabbing all the freebies and never spending a penny – quality stuff I've snagged for zero pence on limited-time promos in the last month alone includes Vector Tanks, Timeloop, Flick Kick Field Goal, Low Grav Racer 2, Eco Punk, Sky Force Reloaded, Kingdom Of Gnester, Neocell Fighters Evolution, Strimko and of course the inimitable Draw Slasher: Dark Ninja vs Pirate Monkey Zombies.)
What all the games of the New Arcade possess and propagate is nothing less than the original spirit of videogaming. What's showcased in, particularly, Xbox Indies and the App Store is the sheer joy of invention and creation for invention and creation's sake. At least half of all the games released for those formats can't possibly even be dreaming of making any significant money – they're being released simply because their creator made something they were proud of and wanted to share it.
If there's a healthier driving force behind any field (or sub-field) of successful popular culture in the world today than that, I don't know what it is.
* One of the most remarkable things about the current hardware generation is the number of people you meet who own a 360 or a PS3 and haven’t even heard of XBLA or PSN. Something like 40% of 360 users, for example, don’t have a Live account (even a Silver one), and are missing out on playing some of the most iconic games of this era for as little as the price of a pint.
(And of the ones who do have a Live account, it’s probably fair to say that the majority have little if any awareness of the XNA sub-community that showcases indie titles at even lower prices, typically around £1.70.)
Despite around 17 million people allegedly having “active” Live accounts, even the most successful XBLA titles generally have leaderboards measured in just tens of thousands of players at best, meaning a huge number of people are missing out on some of the finest games of their generation.
XBLA TOP SIX
1. SPACE GIRAFFE
Jeff Minter’s tour-de-force Tempest derivative single-handedly destroys the idea that the New Arcade games are somehow “casual”, despite their simple controls and straightforward goals (namely, score lots of points). Terrifying to the novice, only hardened arcade veterans can see through the ultra-psychedelic surface pyrotechnics to the superb gameplay lying underneath. At 400 points there’s no excuse for a single 360 gamer not owning this.
2. GEOMETRY WARS 2
The two Geometry Wars games are probably the best-known titles in the entire New Arcade genre, but the true genius of the second game is the live leaderboard, which shows you the next person on your friends list whose score you’re approaching, while you’re still playing. It’s just like having a crowd of mates standing round you watching.
3. JETPAC REFUELLED
A terrific remake of the Spectrum classic which proves that great gameplay stands the test of time, in both its updated and original forms. Terrific multiplayer modes (the other facet of the New Arcade’s delight in competition) highlight and emphasise the original Jetpac’s similarities to Williams’ seminal Joust, and it’s another giveaway at just 400 points.
4. SUPER STREET FIGHTER 2 ULTRA EXTREME SUPER TURBO SUPER HD WORLD TOURNAMENT SUPER SUPER SUPER REMIX EDITION
For many, SF2 is simply the definitive arcade game, and the money it earned in the 1990s is perhaps the main reason that any real-world amusement arcades still exist at all.
This highly polished graphical respray of SSF2T (also available on PSN) will keep the New Challengers arriving for many more years of mano-a-mano fisticuffs. (And, um, footicuffs and fireballicuffs.)
5. OMEGA V
XBLA plays host to several old-school 2D shmups, including ports of Ikaruga and Triggerheart Exelica, but this lavish and visceral cross between R-Type and Forgotten Worlds is the pick of the bunch.
6. GALAGA LEGIONS
After an initial wave of lazy ports that failed to even offer smartened-up 21st-Century graphics, Namco have finally kicked themselves up the arse and done some halfway-interesting things with their legacy IP, starting with the excellent Pac-Man Championship Edition (see below) and continuing with this equally intense and radical rebooting of Galaga.
PSN TOP SIX
1. SUPER STARDUST HD
Appropriately enough this stunning remake of an Amiga remake of Asteroids is rock-hard, but it’s not just the difficulty that’ll keep you playing it for weeks and months, it’s the brilliant variety of modes in both single- and multi-player. SSHD has a very decent claim to be the overall best digitally-delivered game on any current format.
2. PIXELJUNK RACERS
Whoever invented the Dual Shock 3’s backward-slanted triggers needs throwing in a crocodile pit smeared in antelope jam, but if you’ve wisely invested a couple of quid in a set of after-market Gioteck Real replacements you can put them to no better use that this ingenious homage to Scalextric. (Or if we’re being strictly accurate, TCR. Ask someone over 35.)
It’s a blindingly fast test of concentration, reaction and co-ordination that does away with all that tedious steering-round-corners malarkey in favour of sheer white-knuckle car-dodging thrills reminiscent of the very first coin-op driving games.
3. SUPER RUB-A-DUB
One for the ladies here – in our experience, you can’t shift girls from this adorable splishy-splashy bathtime romp, one of the few games to utilise the PS3’s ill-fated tilt sensors.
The bonus levels where the cute clockwork sharks wreak terrible revenge in mass duck-slaughter sprees are man’s work, though.
4. GTI CLUB
Sometimes, of course, New Arcade games are actually old arcade games too, as with the unfortunately cut-down Outrun Online Arcade but more excitingly in the shape of Sumo’s revival of this, one of the great “lost” coin-op games.
A unique sandbox checkpoint racer set under the glorious blue skies of the Cote d’Azur , it’ll turn you into your dad arguing over whether taking the A89 is really the quickest route to Inverness or not.
(It isn’t, by the way. It goes to Coatbridge.)
5. ZEN PINBALL
Pinball is another genre that’s enjoyed a major revival under the auspices of the New Arcade generation, with excellent titles like Metroid Prime Pinball on DS, Gottlieb/Williams Pinball Classics on Wii and Pinball FX on the 360.
Zen Pinball (from the makers of PFX, and also available on iPod/iPhone) is probably the pick of the crop so far, with four varied and imaginative tables and – if FX is anything to go by – lots more to come at less than a couple of quid a throw.
Yet another very different slant on the racing genre here (also on XBLA), with a high-speed modern rendition of the legendary Stunt Car Racer offering a vast range of challenges on tracks so spectacular they make Wipeout HD look like Gran Turismo 3. (The one nobody remembers because it was so boring.)
DS TOP SIX
1. BANGAI-O SPIRITS
The undisputed game of 2008 for the New Arcade crowd, Treasure’s Robotron-meets-Defender-in-the-middle-of-Starship-Troopers extravaganza isn’t just a mind-manglingly magnificent mega-mash of monstrous million-missile mayhem, but also a great example of the tree-hugging community spirit of the New Arcade era, thanks to the genius of its Sound Record level editor.
2. METAL SLUG 7
An epic, iron-gauntleted slap in the face to the tiresome dullards who think MS3 was the best game in SNK’s much-abused run-and-gun series, this is Metal Slug picking up its army boots and going back to its roots as a wired, all-action shooter on speed rather than a gruelling slog through a lake of treacle armed only with a teaspoon.
Arranged in dozens of tasty bite-sized meaty chunks, it’s juicier than a mouth full of Skittles Sours and crunchier and tangier than a bag of Walkers Caramelised Onion & Sweet Balsamic Vinegar Sensations.
3. LOONEY TUNES CARTOON CONDUCTOR
Also representing the two superb Ouendan games (but NOT the crap-awful Euro version Elite Beat Agents), LTCC just edges out the heart-warmingly lovely Rhythm Heaven at the pinnacle of the rhythm-action genre. One slight gameplay tweak from the Ouendan formula turns it into a flamboyant piece of exhibition gaming at its finest, and on the hardest levels you’ll be gasping for breath at the end of the Can-Can as if you’d just done it for real.
4. BALLS OF FURY
Rockstar Table Tennis but seven-and-a-half times as good.
5. SPACE INVADERS EXTREME
Few games can ever have been more accurately and efficiently titled, because it’s Space Invaders and it’s Extreme and that’s just about all you need to know. So popular it was followed by a sequel just eight months later, but it’s the original that holds a special place in our hearts as a demonstration of how the grandaddy of gaming can still spawn hot and spunky Young Turks. The epitome of the New Arcade.
6. CONTRA 4
It was tempting to leave Contra 4 out in favour of more obscure entrants in the “insanely difficult platform shooting” category like Commando Steel Disaster and Chronos Twin, but in the end you just have to admire a game that piles on the pain from the first moments of the first level as if it was making 10p every time you died.
iPOD TOP SIX
Six brilliant games – yours for under a tenner all-in, guv.
Absurdly lovely little air traffic control sim that takes literally seconds to learn and then just won’t let go. More addictive than strawberry-and-heroin ice cream, at just 59p it’s probably the best value for money in the history of videogaming.
Thought Flight Control was addictive? Man, you're REALLY in trouble now.
For just over £1 more than the price of original arcade Pac-Man (with no enhanced features), Namco will sell you the complete Pac-Man Championship Edition, a radically expanded version of the XBLA game with 30 different mazes, plus 30 Challenge mazes and 120 Mission levels. Even the starter pack – which costs barely over half what ordinary Pac-Man does – gets you five mazes and 20 missions, which might well be all you need.
If you've already got Flight Control and Orbital and you buy this, you're pretty much never leaving the house again.
There are lots of excellent games in the "running man" genre, but Run is better than the more-hyped Canabalt, and (at 59p) a third of the price.
The iPod is well served with really good tower-defence games, also including Sentinel and Field Runners, but this frantic and ferocious Geometry Wars-styled version (along with its sibling Geodefense Swarm) stands out from the crowd.
A shorter version of this piece was originally published in GamesTM in July 2009.