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Insert Coin: Kicked To The Curb

Friday, June 28th, 2013

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You know what pisses me off? People who don’t take care of their games. It drives me crazy. Companies like Nintendo often talk about video games and refer to them as “toys” people will want to play with. Suddenly I’m reminded of Woody’s “scared straight” speech to Sid near the end of Toy Story. Creepy talking toys aside, sometimes it’s cool to be able to pass the toys of your youth on to your children. Sure, they’ll find better toys as they grow up, but that’s not the point. The point is being able to share a piece of your childhood with your own children. It creates a bond between generations and gives parents something to show their children to help them understand that deep down, we’re all still kids inside. Problem with that is, you can’t do it if you treat your toys like shit.

GetAttachment1.aspxLet’s face it. Video game consoles are toys. Adults with insecurities like to make distinctions to protect their ever so frail masculinity with some ridiculous nonsense such as publicly denying the urge to buy a “kid’s console” like the Wii U (welcome to 1994, folks) when they secretly love a game of Smash Bros. with their friends as much now as they did when they were kids. Good games don’t age, folks – just cynical gamers do. That being said, one should take care of their toys. Nothing in the world of gaming bothers me more than when I see an abandoned, left-for-dead, sad looking arcade machine left unattended in any random establishment with it’s marquee cracked, artwork torn, and T-molding stripped (Oh, the pain! – Mike). When you see a machine like that, it’s almost certain that at any moment it will break down and be damned to the junk pile because the operator just doesn’t give a damn.

I go out of my way to rescue broken down arcade machines when I see them and I can afford them, or have the space to store them. I’ve found rat infested Galaga machines left in barns, to a beautiful Super Mario Bros: Mushroom World pinball that had undertaken years of abuse at a kid’s pizza place. There’s probably less than 300 of them left in the world. It’s in rough shape, but I’m going to bring it back to life. Sometimes I keep my rescued machines, and sometimes they are farmed off or sold to worthy caretakers. I’ve never sold a machine back to an operator and I don’t intend to ever do so. The idea of taking a 35 year old Pac-Man cabinet (yes, it’s that old) and putting it out in the field is basically to condemn it to death. Seeing a classic machine like that out taking abuse from men in their 40’s who still feel the juvenile need to kick a machine when they lose, or pour beer on it because they can’t be bothered to set their damn drink down is disheartening. It literally makes me sick.

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Most people aren’t bothered so much at the sight of a random amusement machine taking abuse, but then again, I’m not normal. I see these machines as my children. They’re little pieces of pop culture history that I’m reaching out to save in a time where they aren’t quite old enough for people to have fully realized their value. It drives me mad to see a douchebag who’s far too old for such bullshit to punch out the marquee of a Street Fighter II machine just because he sucks as button mashing.

I often go out of my way to share my machines with people, often to the extent that I’ll cart some of them to conventions around the area for people to play, either for nostalgic value, or to share with their children. It’s always fun to watch a child play a 20+ year old arcade machine with the cynical eyes of adulthood to cloud their judgement. A game is a game, regardless of age. Time doesn’t erode a quality game design. To them, it’s a giant stand-up video game machine. Suddenly that game on your TV at home has because a public event and it’s somehow cooler because of it.

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I guess consumers of today are so accustomed to their electronics only lasting 3 years or so. I’ve been through seven Xbox 360s and three PlayStation 3’s in the past six years. That’s pathetic. But that doesn’t give us just cause to treat our belongings like shit. There’s a whole generation ahead of us that might like to look back and enjoy the games of their parents or grandparents one day. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were some consoles still around ready for them when that time comes so they could get the authentic experience? Take care of your video games, folks… take care of your toys.

I leave you with this quote from Shigeru Miyamoto:

What’s really important is viewing Nintendo almost like a toy company where we’re making these things for people to play with. As a consumer you want to be able to keep those things around for a long time and have those things from your youth that you can go back to and experience again.”

–Shigeru Miyamoto

 

Insert Coin: Unseen Value

Saturday, June 8th, 2013

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Electronic toys are still a relatively new thing in human history, yet as with any toys in the history of humanity, electronics too go through cycles of value. Everything that is new eventually becomes old. At this point, some of these toys are discarded, recycled, and forgotten. Others rot in bins, attics, and thrift shops only to be rediscovered years later as a forgotten treasure due to the lingering nostalgia tinges of those that once valued them so deeply. Years later once the nostalgia has worn away and age has crept up with beholder, we discover whether that treasure is something that will transcend generations, or simply fade away with the generation that beloved it. Due to the relative young age of electronic – and especially video games, one can never know what kinds of ancient electronic toys will become valued after their heyday, and by the time we reach that point in time, those objects have likely decreased in their numbers as the majority of their brethren join the landfills of the nation.

When you walk into a Best Buy store, you’ll often find one of those electronics recycling bins. Every so often, a random parent cleaning out the attic of his or her college bound kid will come in with a perfectly boxed retro console and throw in in the trash, often to the horrified look of the 20-something year old door guy watching the execution. It’s heartbreaking to see a console like the NES go into the trash with no hope of (legal) rescue, but that’s the situation. There were once 60 million NES consoles in the world. How many will be left in 20 years? Who really knows.

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It’s interesting to see the cycle of old electronics as they reach different milestones in their existence. An old Apple computer from the 80s was once the pinnacle of home computing power. A few years later? It was a cheap budget system used by schools who could afford the newest toys. By the end of the 90s, the world had left platforms such as the Apple 2, Amiga, and the Commodore in the trash bins in favor of the business friendly Windows 98. Computers back then were as much about the brand as the tech, much like how people view Apple hardware today. There’s an emotional attachment to hardware when a brand has a face. You don’t often find people reminiscing about their old Windows 95 machines, but then again, those machines were made to be business friendly and bland – not quite the same emotional attachment that comes with a Nintendo 64. But to be fair, there’s even folks out there that still love their old Windows machines. The games we played on those machines, and the experiences we had are ageless, and transcend the hardware they were played on, yet to many older gamers, there is nothing quite so authentic as playing a game on the original hardware it was made for.

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Unfortunately, as we get older, that becomes harder and harder to do just that. Hardware ages, controllers break, and discs get scratched or come apart. We’re forced to compromise the experience to help the game survive. Sometimes we resort to emulation, and other times we create USB loaders or flash carts to help prop up aging media formats or replace dying CD/DVD drives. Capacitors on our old consoles go bad and the sound suddenly dies. Do you throw them away, or do you fix them? Often times it’s possible to breathe new life into dying game hardware. I’ve heard an NES’s sound chip go out while playing it. The capacitor that powered it dried up and failed. It was a sad little sound, hearing the Super Mario Bros. theme crackle and electronically fade away like a dying heartbeat, but with a new capacitor off the internet for a couple of bucks, that little baby was humming happily along the next day, and probably can for the next 30 years. But will there even be new capacitors available in thirty years? Will there be anyone alive to care? One could simply say that is simply the vicious cycle of being a collector of vintage items, though fans of electronic items have a harder time of it due to their degenerative nature.

As time rolls on, will electronics see a healthy sub-industry form around them dedicated to producing replacement parts for the continued longevity of their operation to the delight of the owners, much like the classic car industry? It’s probably still too early to tell for sure, but the problem is that old game electronics aren’t valued the same way in the eye of America as the car. Cars are a part of culture going back over a century. Until electronics reach that milestone of belovedness, older toys will continue to rot with a small devout base of experts keeping alive a handful of them for future generations to use as a window into our past.

My advice? Don’t throw out your old N64. Somebody will treasure it one day and your great grandkids will thank you. And for heaven’s sake, don’t let it wind up like this…

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Insert Coin: Chiptune Culture

Friday, May 24th, 2013

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Some call it tracker music, or “bit-pop”. Some call it primitive MIDI or “old game music”. The rest of us call it chiptune. From the day that an arcade machine made it’s first sound, to the modern era where aspiring game designers who weren’t even alive in the 8-bit era are making old-school style platformers with authentic 8-bit soundtracks, one thing is certain – chiptune is a part of musical culture. In the mid 2000s, chiptune began to rise from it’s rise from the underground cult love of 8-bit kids around the nation from what was referred to as a primitive form of nostalgia fused sound reproduction made up of “bleeps” and “bloops” and began it’s trek into the underground club scene as Game Boys, Game Boy Pockets, and Game Boy Colors made their way onto the kits of DJs across the country.

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Atari2600The earliest electronic music can be dated back to 1951 when expensive mainframe computers such as the CSIRAC or Ferranti Mark 1 performed real-time synthesized sounds in public. It would be another two decades before synthesizers would work their way out of the science lab and into mainstream music culture. Historically, game consoles used cheap alternatives to popular synthesizers of the time. A good example of that would be the Sega Genesis. While the Genesis is known for it’s distinctive metallic FM synth sounds, the Yamaha YM2612 chip at the heart of the Genesis sound core is simply a cheaper version of the YM2610 (used in the more expensive Neo-Geo) which is a cheaper version of the YM2608 (used in more expensive NEC computers of the 80s), which was a cheaper variant of the YM2151. This chip in particular was used in many arcade games of the era, most notably including Street Fighter II, but is also unique because it was also the base for Yamaha’s early DX line of FM synthesizers, including the legendary DX-7 – generally regarded as the musical soul of the 1980s and the base for the synthpop revolution. You can climb the chiptune ladder from game console, to PC, to professional instruments. As you can see, “state of the art” game music tech was usually multiple generation old digital synth technology that had become cheaper and affordable for use in low-end keyboards or home consumer electronics like video game consoles.

The interesting thing was that with the way the tech evolved, many musicians who had learned to program for these chips in the recording studio found the transition to game music sequencing relatively painless as it was like revisiting an old car they used to drive. This is why someone such as Michael Jackson (who wrote the soundtrack to Sonic the Hedgehog 3, but would not receive credit until some 15 years later) was able to understand the sound abilities of a Sega Genesis as he had himself written many of his earlier albums (including Thriller and Bad) using FM instrumentation that was programmed and sequenced in very much the same way as a game console.

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Chiptune music’s roots began deep-rooted in the early days of arcade culture, back in the day when Space Invaders iconic 4-note loop of doom was deeply rooted in the memory of pop culture. The first game to actually use a melodic theme was Namco’s Rally-X, though it would be Pac-Man’s iconic starting jingle (written by Toshio Kai) that took a simple theme and engrained it into the heart of a generation. Suddenly, everything from Pole Position to Galaga had to have a memorable little opening ditty that would stick with the player. These little intermission style jingles would be the norm for video game music until game music was changed forever with the arrival of Super Mario Bros., and Koji Kondo’s timeless soundtrack which provided a theme that has lasted through the generations. While the theme to Super Mario Bros. wasn’t the first use of game music in a full soundtrack sense (GYRUSS had done it in 1983 with a full six sound-chips providing EIGHTTENN sounds at once), it was the music of Super Mario Bros. itself that was burned into the minds of a generation. One could say that the music overcame the technological limitations, but to this day there are people who prefer hearing the theme on the instrument it was written for, namely the NES’s Ricoh 2A03 chip.

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To this day, chiptune culture has continued to evolve and thrive. Audio composition cartridges have been developed for the Game Boy line of hardware, often making the Game Boy accessible as an entry level chiptune instrument. People serious about their sound have their Game Boy’s modified for “Pro Sound” to further clarify and amplify the abilities of the humble little machine. Many similar mods have become popular for other chip-tune-centric machines of the past such as the NEC PC Engine, Commodore 64, MSX, Amiga, as well as the NES, Genesis, and even the Super Nintendo – known and loved for it’s low-fi sampled sounds, tightly packed into the ROMS of cartridges. These machines were once seemingly forgotten by the world once redbook audio standard and digital playback become the norm in video game music composition, however people’s love for the rich electronic sounds of these classic machines has driven them to create an entire genre of music lovers yearning for the rich harmonies of chiptune composition. Everywhere from the clubs to the soundtrack to cartoons like Adventure Time have chiptune embedded into their sound space. When you see children who weren’t alive when the NES was available in stores teaching themselves how to program 8-bit music simply because they love the sound, sudden you realize that chiptune is not just a nostalgic throwback to simpler times, but rather a living, thriving part of musical culture that is only just beginning to grow, and I can’t wait to see where we go from here.

Insert Coin: It’s Not Just Nostalgia

Friday, May 10th, 2013

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In 1986, a child sits down in front of a television set to play his first game of Super Mario Brothers on the Nintendo Entertainment System. It’s a special day. “Wow, a game that scrolls to the right so smoothly? That’s totally radical dude!”. Yes, 80s lingo shall live forever. That kid is hooked for life, and the world moves on with an 8-bit revolution. Somewhere else in America, the year is 1991 and another kid opens up a Super Nintendo Entertainment System on Christmas morning, and loses his mind with happiness upon plugging that copy of Super Mario World. A few years later, yet another bleeming kid opens up a beautiful new Nintendo 64 with the Atomic Purple controller and a copy of Super Mario 64. This child promptly goes apeshit while his parents record it, only to become an internet meme a little over a decade later.

largePeople often assume that old-school video games are dated entertainment, disposable by most means and only maintain their value based on the merits of nostalgia. I’m here to call bullshit. Is a game of Super Mario World today any less fun than it was in 1991? No, it’s not. It’s still amazing. It just happens to be tied to a dated technology (the Super Nintendo) that is becoming increasingly hard to find. If you download it to your Wii U tomorrow, is it any less fun? Hell no. If Nintendo released an HD remake tomorrow, would it be any more fun than the existing version? Barring the addition of new content, no – it’d just be prettier and less blocky. A good game is good forever, and I grow tired of being claiming that we cling to classic software only due to nsotalgia. Place a small child in front of a copy of Super Mario World right now. That child has no concept of “graphics and horsepower”. All they understand is fun. I guarantee you a child who plays Super Mario World today will have as much fun as you any cynical adult had when they too were a child back in 1991.

Fun doesn’t age, and sometimes, it’s possible to pass fun from one generation to another, because that’s the nature of fun. It’s a timeless entity that doesn’t age and doesn’t care what year it’s in. I’ll give you a little comparison… I’m a big fan of The Price is Right. You know, that little game show that has aired at 10:00am on CBS for the past 41 years. The video game industry itself is also just over 41 years old. Ralph Baer’s Magnavox Odyssey – the world’s first home video game console – was born April of 1972. The Odyssey and The Price is Right are separated by only a couple of months, so it’s fun to track the evolution of these two entertainment mediums in popular culture. The Price is Right has been on the air for 41 years, during which time the show has fundamentally remained largely the same, with the same games, music, catchphrases, camera angles, set design… it’s like a television time capsule – a warm, familiar friend that has never aged and nor changed at the core. Sure, little things evolved… announces (Johnny Olsen and Rod Roddy) died as decades went by, models came and went, sexist overtones gradually gave way in the 90s, and eventually even Bob Barker himself marched into the sunset to be replaced with a now-hysterically skinny Drew Carey… but it’s still the Price is Right. Sometimes you forget about it, but then you remember and it’s there when you need it. The “beep..beep..beep” of the Big Wheel is burned into America’s very soul. Can you even begin to fathom what an eternity 41 years is in the entertainment industry? That’s multiple generations of people having grown up with the same thing, fundamentally unchanged. A child staying home sick from school and watching The Price is Right with his Mom in 1977 (or 1984, or 1994, or 2004) is getting the same exact experience that a kid sent home with the flu watching The Price is Right in 2013 gets. It’s just there, and most of us can’t imagine it ever not being there.

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Bob Barker’s Price is Right in the 1970s.

Then the unthinkable happened… Bob Barker was retiring. Most of us felt the show was about to end. It’s not like it had too, but when longtime establishments go through a major transition, often ambitious people try to take advantage of the situation to make themselves important, and The Price is Right was no different. After Bob Barker (who had been executive producer for well over a decade and was largely responsible for the show’s never-changing image) left, various show-runners and directors came in and tried to “put their stamp on it” in a sense. Fremantle Media (who had bought the show from Mark Goodson Productions a decade prior) and it’s new president wanted to dramatically change the format, alter the concept, and “modernize” the show… but why? Yes, we’re talking about a show that still uses the “flower power” symbol of the late 60s on the set (which was a throwback even in the 70s), but when something has been so successful and beloved with so many generations of people, why tamper with it in a time of transition when it’s at its most vulnerable moment? Thankfully, cooler heads at CBS prevailed, and the show has remained bright, happy, successful, and most of all… constant. It’s not always #1. Sometimes The View orchestrates some faux/bullshit controversial TV and beats it out, but The Price is Right always manages to come right back because people out there – contrary to what marketing people want you to believe – still love to see happy people winning goofy prizes and making complete fools of themselves. Fun is timeless and sometimes you don’t have to change for people to see that.

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Drew Carey’s Price is Right in 2013 — still the same fun as it was 41 years ago.

When a new Mario game comes out, media people often complain that the formula hasn’t changed or evolved enough, but why in the hell should it? The same was said of Capcom’s retro throwbacks Mega Man 9 and Mega Man 10. Both of those games pushed millions of digital copies because people out there still enjoy that old-school formula, but most reviewers were quick to pull the nostalgia card. Sure, 8-bit graphics evoke precious memories of our youth, but maybe, just maybe the core game concept of an old time Mega Man game is just still fun in this HD age of overproduction and hundred million dollar budgets.

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A new Mario game in 2013, still just as fun as it was in 1985. It’s not just nostalgia. It’s just fun.

So the next time someone sits down to enjoy a time worn game concept that we’ve all seen before, don’t be so quick to think that the blind eyes of nostalgia are just hiding a lack of innovation. Sometimes the old way of doing things is just fine. Just ask Rayman Orgins, Donkey Kong Country Returns, New Super Mario Bros. U, A Link to the Past II (tentative title) or any other number of other modern installments in old concepts. They’re not “throwbacks” – they’re just good games.

Insert Coin: The ‘Game Over’ screen

Friday, April 26th, 2013

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We’ve reached a point in game culture where the arcade game has been frozen in carbonite and remembered in this stagnant form as the “retro thing” from the ’80s. People think of Pac-Man or Donkey Kong when they recall arcades and leave it at that.

We know the culture is far more diverse than that. But we’re at a point where modern fighting games like Soul Calibur V omit the traditional “arcade” mode, or more recent titles such as Injustice: Gods Among Us refer to the mode as something else like “Classic Battle”, tucked away in the ladder modes. But arcades left a lot of little marks on video gaming culture that people don’t even recall as having been a part of arcade culture because it feels like these little things have been around forever. One of the most prominent examples is the classic “Game Over” screen.

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Here’s the first in the “falling for ten seconds” vein of arcade deaths. Remember, the purpose of these screens was to send the player into a mad panic to find more change in their pockets to cram into the machine before time ran out and all of their progress was lost. I’d say flinging your character to their death off a rooftop does the job…

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Mortal Kombat 4

Yes, Mortal Kombat 4 was the bastard child of the original series with it’s ugly mid-’90s 3D character models replacing the digitized sprites, and it directly cops Fatal Fury’s game over concept, but it’s just done so well here. Can’t get your money into the machine fast enough? SPIKES THROUGH THE HEART! Awesome.

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Super Mario Kart

Races in the original Super Mario Kart were furiously tough against the CPU on the higher levels, but what if you couldn’t place in the top four racers? Well, the game would play a humiliating little jingle on par with the famous internet/Price is Right “lose horns” and then your character goes “poof” with a sad little look on their face. It’s hilarious and sad at the same time. Even more hilarious is how the CPU characters just stop trying when you rank out.

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Donkey Kong Country

DK and Diddy just look like they’ve been beaten to holy hell here. It’s such a sad image, made all the more final by the beautiful yet haunting little 20 second melody composed by David Wise… then the music stops, and the image almost starts to take on a creepy feel in the silence.

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Final Fight 2

This one landed on Super Nintendo. The sequel continued the humorous “death countdown” from the first game, even though this game was home console exclusive so there was no incentive to rush players into cramming more money into the machine. What was unique was that because the game involved a girl (Maki, the ninja) as a playable character, Western critics were quick to complain about a women being placed in such a suggestively brutal moral situation (drowning). Bear in mind, this was 1993 and video games were at the center of the national consciousness with congress barking for something new to regulate. Today? It’s just a funny game over screen.

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I’d argue that the deaths in the little known Final Fight 3 were more brutal, but by that point we were going 32-bit and people were numb to comic violence.

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Three words, “Game Over, Yeaaaaaaaauhhhhh”. Takenobu Mitsuyoshi will live forever.

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Arkham Asylum

This game was already a masterpiece in every essence of the word, but it was the little dashes that pushed it over the top. Having the screen fade to black after dying in Arkham Asylum, you were already gearing up to try again, but before you got the opportunity, one of Batman’s Rogue’s gallery would march to the screen out of the black void and call your ass out in hysterical fashion. Some of the lines were written by Paul Dini. Others were improvised by the legendary Mark Hamill. Either way, dying in a video game has arguably never been more entertaining.

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Fear Effect 2: Retro Helix

Fear Effect was one of those late PS1 gems that showed up after the PS2 was already well established. The cel-shaded look hid the low graphical fidelity well and led to some high-water animation for the system, which was used to full gory effect. The game already had a lot of controversy following it in the West thanks to the heavy lesbian overtones, and with America screaming in homophobia through those years, it was ripe for bashing by critics. What often got ignored however was the many brutal ways in which you could kill Rain & Hana. Some are as simple as bullets to the heart, and often comically bad, while others devolve into a bloody mess of dying bodies splattering their contents all over the place. It’s a mixed bag of gore, but packed a punch for 2001.

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Tomb Raider

You just as well call this game “1001 Ways To Kill Lara Croft”. The only thing missing is Ron Perlman narrating it. Seriously, fewer games feature everything from your protagonist getting her body torn apart by wolves, to having river debris rammed through her throat while Lara squirms and fights for those last seconds of life. Some of it’s hard to watch, but you certainly pay the price for sucking ass at the Tomb Raider reboot.

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Today, the classic “Game Over” screen is being omitted from a lot of modern games for fear of discouraging players. When I saw a “Game Over” screen, I was usually angry… angry at myself for screwing up and determined to go again until I met success. I guess players aren’t so easily motivated today. Either way, the “Game Over” screen is one of those things everyone understands – a harmless little piece of Engrish that has become embedded in our culture for evermore. It’s evolved and changed over the years, but it’s message remains the same. You’re dead – try again.

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Insert Coin is Games Are Evil’s weekly exploration of arcade culture and classic arcade games, hosted by our own Lucas DeWoody. You can follow Lucas on Twitter here.

Insert Coin: Better on Dreamcast

Friday, April 19th, 2013

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The concept of the “home port” is a lost art in today’s gaming world. All modern games are made directly for a console audience. It’s where they begin and end. Just barely over a decade ago, things were very different.

One of the reasons why the Dreamcast was so beloved by the core demographic of gamers is because it was the last stand for mainstream arcade gaming. All the best ports of the best arcade games were housed there and placed up on a pillar alongside then-current console hits like Sonic Adventure and Resident Evil: Code Veronica. Arcade games of the ’90s had a typically short life. While in the ’80s, games were built to draw in revenue over a long period based on replay value and the endless quest to get the high score, new games were always coming out because operators were always looking to keep crowds interested. As the ’90s rolled around, established concepts began to become watered down as manufacturers realized that operators would still buy anything new just to keep the crowds coming in. This led to nickel-and-dime incremental updates to hit franchises (Street Fighter II Turbo) and a flood of awful ’90s racing knock-offs (California Speed) of established hits (Cruisin’ USA).

Though shallow in concept, many an arcade games carried a degree of technological flair that home consoles couldn’t provide, even if console titles often eclipsed arcade games in depth and lasting value. It didn’t matter. Players HAD to have the latest arcade hits on their home consoles, even if it was in a considerably watered down form. That changed when the Dreamcast arrived. Here’s some of the era’s best show-stealing ports:

Daytona USA 2001

Daytona-USA-2001-Dreamcast-_We all know what a classic Daytona USA is. It’s a timeless racer from a special “balls-to-the-wall” era in racing where realism was a limitation that got in the way of pure fun.

Unfortunately, that visceral arcade experience didn’t translate so well to the limited 3D prowess of the Sega Saturn, and the initial port was a choppy, popup-ridden mess best left forgotten, with the sole exclusion of its amazing live renditions of the arcade game’s ridiculous soundtrack.

The next port to “fix” matters was the Championship Circuit Racing edition. Problem is, this port was handled by AM3 (best known for Sega Rally) and while it looked great for Saturn, it played nothing like Daytona USA.

By this point, most companies in the world would have dropped the issue and given up. But not Sega. Daytona USA was such a hilariously entrenched part of their history that it had started up an entire wave in ’90s arcade culture, so obviously Sega had to give it one more go.

Hence, rather than do the sensible thing and move on, they created a “best of” all-in-one port of the original Daytona USA containing all the content from the original and CCE editions, plus three extra tracks. It was the ultimate Daytona. While the controls were far too sensitive for the Dreamcast’s less than stellar analog stick, plug in a racing wheel and you’ve basically got the ultimate Daytona experience. On top of that, Sega included 4-player net play. Keep in mind this was during the tail end of the dial-up era and several years before Xbox Live took root in America. Daytona USA 2001 was in it’s own class of awesome. Too bad it would also be the last original entry in the series to date.

Crazy Taxi

crazy-taxi02When this port landed on Dreamcast in 1999, people literally shit their pants. I mean literally. (Speak for yourself, dirty boy — Pete)

Crazy Taxi was the last truly great hurrah of the ’90s balls-out arcade racing era, and it was freaking everywhere. People adored this game and it’s frantic time-based taxi cab warfare, wild jumps, colorful characters, bad attitude, and unforgettable Offspring/Bad Religion soundtrack.

What people didn’t know is that it ran on the NAOMI arcade hardware. What was NAOMI? Well, basically it was a cartridge based Dreamcast with double the RAM to eliminate loading (and disc drive wear) in an “always-on” arcade environment.

That made a home conversion easy. Any NAOMI software could pretty much just be dropped on Dreamcast with little effort… but gamers in 1999 didn’t know that. When the latest arcade blockbuster suddenly shows up on the current console of the day with no limitations, no pop-up, no frame rate issues, and no compromises whatsoever… well, yeah – you shit your pants. (You should probably go to a doctor or something? — Pete)

Ports like this didn’t happen in 1999. Not to mention that Sega/Hitmaker also managed to throw in a bonus remixed city for people to explore as well as a mission mode to show off your stunt driving skills.

Street Fighter Zero 3 (Saturn)

Here’s one that the Dreamcast didn’t get right.

This is one of the holy grails of Saturn collecting. Aside from being among the very last batch of new releases for the Saturn in Japan, this port holds a special distinction. It came out after the Dreamcast version.

The Dreamcast port was ill-received as it was based off the original 1998 PlayStation version, only enhanced. The problem with the PS1 version of Alpha 3 is that the PlayStation lacked the ability to handle native 2D graphics. Sony was trying to forcibly move gaming away from 2D in the ’90s because their rivals excelled at it. Traditional 2D hit boxes had to be converted into invisible polygons, and the sprites themselves were actually overlaid as textures on flat polygonal models. Otherwise, the whole thing would have had to have been done in software rendering, resulting in a piss poor port and a chuggy frame rate. RAM limitations meant dropped animation frames, and dramatic battle mode was limited to Ryu/Ken or Juni/Juli due to their similar animation routines.

As incredibly faithful as the PS1 version is considering the hardware limitations, the Dreamcast version should have been arcade-perfect. There was no excuse for one of the most timeless fighting games ever made to hold up so sloppily on a machine so much more powerful than the arcade original’s chip-set. The Dreamcast version was like a slightly polished version of the PS1 port with a few bandages to hide the fact that most of the flaws of the first port were still there. Thus, Capcom had some major ass-kissing to do. The only viable option was to make another port, but this time do it for the console with the most powerful dedicated 2D processing of its era – the Sega Saturn.

The Saturn was dead meat by this point, but it didn’t matter. With the 4MB RAM expansion cartridge and some creative programming, the entire Street Fighter Zero 3 experience is compiled with all the features of the PS1 and Dreamcast versions, as well as added characters in the form of Evil Ryu and Guile, bringing the entire Super Street Fighter II cast to the Alpha universe.

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When the Dreamcast left us, so left the dominance of arcade games in our culture as well as their relevance in the form of consoles having the best port of the latest arcade hits. Home ports of current hits would continue to trickle out on the GameCube, Xbox, and PS2 as the years rolled on, but it very quickly became appearant that the further we got from the Dreamcast, the more that arcade games were being seen as the dominion of the retro enthusiast.

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Insert Coin is Games Are Evil’s weekly exploration of arcade culture and classic arcade games, hosted by our own Lucas DeWoody. You can follow Lucas on Twitter here.

Insert Coin: Sloppy Emulation

Friday, April 5th, 2013

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Almost anyone who has enjoyed a retro game in the past decade has become well acquainted with the concept of console and arcade emulation. It’s a fairly basic concept: using software to imitate the inner workings of classic video game hardware so that those games can be enjoyed well past the physical hardware’s lifespan. In 200 years, there may not be a single working Nintendo Entertainment System left on Earth, but thanks to the hard work of hobbyist coders, those games will be available for the humans of that century to either study or enjoy at their leisure. At the very least, it’s a way of preserving our hobby. It’s a part of our culture.

The problem with emulation however is that it’s a complex art. With proper documentation, writing an emulator is not a complex task, but this documentation of the inner workings of classic consoles is usually held exclusively by the platform creator, and not to be shared. Even more difficult is when the platform is one of the tens of thousands of random arcade boards that floated around for every individual arcade title of the ’70s, ’80s, or ’90s. Each of those boards is unique and has to be meticulously researched to understand how it works so that its inner workings can be simulated in a digital environment.

One would assume that if a classic Michelangelo painting of the past was to be preserved, it would be done with the greatest of care. The same applies to classic film. For decades, we lost countless silent films because it was assumed that they had no commercial value beyond their initial run. The birth of home video proved that logic to be flawed, but it took home video a good 60 years after the birth of the American cinema to make those works relevant again. In that time, we lost almost everything from the Charlie Chaplin films to Bambi, The Wizard of Oz and The Three Stooges to film rot, and even almost losing something as recent, relevant, and timeless as Star Wars, thanks to cheap ’80s Kodak film. The problem is that while we see those films as art, it takes lots of money to digitally preserve and restore their greatness. In a capitalist society, unless there is money in doing such a task, the work is left to universities and foundations who often lack the funds, but give it their all.

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Imagine if this broken version of Super Mario Bros. was the only way to share the games of your youth with your own children? Fortunately Nintendo takes a wee bit more care in the digital repackaging of their back-catalog.

Preserving our art form is not a difficult concept. Freelancers and hobbyists have been doing this for a couple of decades now. MAME has been keeping arcade culture alive since the mid-’90s, in fact. This kind of dedication is admirable. What’s sad however is that the IP holders of many of these games often do a fraction of the work necessary to preserve their games, even when those games are being offered commercially.

One of the worst offenders has historically been Sega. Back in the early ’00s, Sega purchased a fan made emulator titled DGen. It ran fairly competent Genesis/Sega CD/32x emulation for the time, but why would Sega need to purchase a hobbyist emulator to run their own back catalog on modern hardware? Never mind the fact that years later, Sega was still using the same dated emulator when hobbyists had created more advanced software that could mimic the notoriously complex FM audio chip of the Genesis in exacting detail on a computer as slow as 60Mhz. One would suppose the casual crowd those “retro throwbacks” are tailored to wouldn’t care. But sound is a powerful trigger for memory and emotion. If that unforgettable “ba-da-ling” sound of Sonic grabbing a ring isn’t the exact same way as you heard it coming out of your Sega Genesis in 1992, isn’t the emotional connection sullied?

Then again, we’re talking about Sega — a company that is so far removed from its original incarnation after being sold to Japanese Pachinko maker Sammy, that the people who run the American branch didn’t even realize there was a “secret” room in their building containing a proud mural of every commercial product Sega released from the Master System to the Dreamcast. Quite sad, really. What’s worse is that with a little digging, one can also tell that the ROMs buried in lots of those Sega Genesis compilation discs and XBLA rereleases are often sourced from common internet torrents. Yes, Sega has “illegally” sourced their own damn IP to be released in retro compilations. That’s the definition of pathetic. Rumor has it that recent ports of Saturn-era Sega software has only been possible because a former employee returned the source code to a large part of Sega’s game library the company itself lost thanks to poor archiving practices. So while Sega lost the source code to Sonic the Hedgehog, all the while Nintendo was able to source and release a never before seen version of Donkey Kong for the NES that had all four stages (The Pie Factory stage was originally removed so the game could fit on a single 20KB ROM.)

What if this scrambled nightmare was the only way to preserve the legacy of Super Mario 64? Proper emulation is a must for the survival of our medium's past.

What if this scrambled nightmare was the only way to preserve the legacy of Super Mario 64? Proper emulation is a must for the survival of our medium’s past. Not too long from now, we’ll be on the other side of the generational commercial divide. Will publishers treat the games of our childhood as badly as the Atari generation’s classics have been treated on Xbox Live?

If a company so important to the history of video games such as Sega cannot even be trusted to preserve its own heritage, even when most of that heritage still holds great commercial value, how can we trust any of them? Atari’s back-catalog has been pouring out onto Xbox Live for the past few years, and the results are disgusting. Games like Tempest, Centipede, Missile Command, and Asteroids are the foundation of our hobby, and their current commercial digital representation is laughable at best. The controls are inaccurate, the sound is laughably bad, and the graphics occasionally feature visual glitches. But one must also remember to consider commercial appeal. These games are going on 40 years old. The target demographic for these retro throwbacks is in its 50s now, and far from the target 16-30 year old target demo for modern video game sales. What’s even sadder is that emulation for these timeless old classics was presented in far more accurate versions on mid-’90s PC and even the meager PlayStation. If the PS1 could run an arcade perfect version of Missile Command, why in the hell can’t the Xbox 360? Oh yeah, because the current license holders of Atari’s legacy don’t give a shit.

Guess what? I’m 28, and I treasure these games. I wasn’t alive when they were created. I often wish I was so I could have experienced that magical ’80s arcade aura so often described to me, and while I’m grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to play them on original hardware (and in some cases own that original hardware), I’m even more thankful that these digital versions exist to pacify oneself when the original cannot be obtained, because someday that moment will come when you can’t play Missile Command on the original hardware, and that digital footprint of the game will be all that remains of the lost culture of arcade games. But who will we trust more to preserve that culture — corporations or hobbyists? So far, the latter has proven the safer bet.

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Insert Coin is Games Are Evil’s weekly exploration of arcade culture and classic arcade games, hosted by our own Lucas DeWoody. You can follow Lucas on Twitter here.

Insert Coin: Arcade Game Flyers

Friday, March 29th, 2013

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As the movie business evolves, there has been talk of phasing out the storied 27×40 inch movie poster in favor of a digital LCD replacement. Would it be cost-effective after an up-front fee? Possibly, but it would come at the price of something that has been a part of moviegoing culture from the very beginning. Movie posters can be just as iconic as the films they promote, as well as terrific pieces of art on their own. Just like the movie posters of the past, arcade games have typically been known to have promotional flyers attached to them to promote their arrivals. There are teaser posters, and release flyers. Sometimes there were even commemorative flyers when a game is rereleased to celebrate the fact that it’s a hit and to encourage secondary locations to buy in.

In today’s game industry, simple art and bland mainstream images often feature on the front of game boxes — just look at Bioshock Infinite. But once upon a time, it was fitting to commission high quality artwork to promote the arrival of a new game. Let’s take a look at some of the flyers and posters that used to frequent the walls in arcades, warning players of the impending arrival of a new challenger for their quarter allowance…

Salamander

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Here’s an image right out of my nightmares. If a giant flying satanic space Salamander that breaths fire is your idea of hell, then you can imagine how this NES box art for what Westerners know as Life Force haunted my childhood dreams. Before that, this image was used as the official arcade flyer for the 1986 Gradius spin-off in Japan and America. Salamander played like a simplified version of Gradius, including the ability to continue where you died rather than via checkpoints. The thing that made Salamander stand apart from Gradius was the two-player cooperative mode, where the second player took control of an identical craft titled “Lord British”. The power-up system was stripped down, but the gameplay concept was otherwise identical. An official sequel titled Salamander II would follow in 1996.

Donkey Kong, Radarscope, & Popeye

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Nintendo was known primarily as a producer of quirky LCD handheld games and off-beat toys. Though they had been producing arcade games for several years at this point including minor hits like Sheriff, their success had been marginal at best. In 1979, Nintendo took a shot at the American shooter market with Radarscope which was sort of a combination of Galaxian and Space Invaders, but failed miserably. The game wasn’t bad by any means, but the concept was heavily overused at this point.

Young industrial designer and artist Shigeru Miyamoto was brought in to design a better game that could reuse the same hardware as Radarscope, and we all know the rest. The unnamed carpenter with the Popeye style face would one day become Mario. There were a lot of promotional flyers for Donkey Kong in 1981, but this is by far the most iconic.

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It’s funny that he looked so much like Popeye in this art as originally Miyamoto wanted to nab the Popeye license and design a game based off that, but King Features Syndicate didn’t know or care about a then-unknown company like Nintendo. That would change shortly after Donkey Kong’s release and Miyamoto got to make his Popeye game, though it would be the stubby italian plumber with the ugly face on that famous poster that would see the most success.

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 Space Harrier

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Here’s a batshit mess of an arcade flyer. Sega’s classic third-person flying shooter is about as trippy as an ’80s game can get, but could you expect anything less from the Fantasy Zone? Space Harrier’s flyer didn’t have to work too hard to sell such a surreal game, but the artwork certainly does the job, especially in the mid-’80s, which was something of a dead period for arcade game originality. At this point, American genres dominated such as racers, shooters, and other generic types. Sega was always daring in this regard. Their “Super Scaler” technology was among the very first 16-bit technology in arcades and allowed for pseudo-3D sprite scaling of up to 32,000 objects. Space Harrier was some advanced stuff, and this wacky flyer perfectly captures the spirit of flying in the Fantasy Zone in 1985.

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Insert Coin is Games Are Evil’s weekly exploration of arcade culture and classic arcade games, hosted by our own Lucas DeWoody. You can follow Lucas on Twitter here.

Insert Coin: Groundbreaking Shmups

Friday, March 15th, 2013

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The shoot ‘em up (aka “Shmup”) is one of the founding fathers of the modern video gaming experience. It’s such a simple concept to grasp. You take a ship/airplane/chopper/Gothic Lolita (Deathsmiles represent — Pete) and fly around blowing up everything around you to holy hell. It’s quite the fun experience, but has been lost in the last few years as everything nowadays revolves around FPS and heavily scripted action-adventure games.

Let’s take a look at two of the more unusual examples of this once-dominant genre.

Blaster (Williams) 1983

blaster2Here’s one of the world’s first “tunnel view” shoot ‘em up titles. Think of it as Star Fox’s great, great grandfather. It was originally conceived as a technical sequel to Robotron: 2084, yet aside from a few oversized G.R.U.N.T. robots, it could be set in any universe, really. It’s a space shooter in the purest form. You fly through asteroid fields, across rainbow planetoids, and shoot stuff. You can shoot pretty much anything from characters to scenery to enemy bullets. In fact, you’ll have to shoot all those bullets if you want a chance to survive.

It’s a beautiful game, really. More impressively, everything in the game is represented with 2D graphics with butter-smooth scaling, but the entire game runs on a meager 1Mhz CPU. Bear in mind, this is 1983 and Williams pulled this off. It’s a visual and technical marvel for its time.

Blaster was programmed for Atari’s home line of computers, but was shit-canned the moment the corporate reshuffle happened at the cusp of the great video game crash. Atari’s home division wanted nothing to do with video game ports, so Blaster was instead converted and sent to die in arcades. And by die, I mean literally. Only three dedicated sit-down cabinets were ever made. One sits in director Eugene Jarvis’s father’s home, the second was converted into another unreleased prototype, and the third is supposedly out there floating around in the void. The rest were conversions, typically stuck inside upright conversion cabs.

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A true holy grail…. if it still exists. Have you seen it?

It’s quite a shame that so few people have had the opportunity to play this trailblazing game, but that was one of the consequences of the industry crash.

Thunder Blade (Sega) 1987

thunder1Games like this had a tendency to blow minds in the late ’80s. Thunder Blade is a tunnel view/top-down helicopter shooter with the distinct ability to shift between a “behind the chopper” view for barreling through towering skyscrapers and through caves, then immediately shift to a to a top-down view during gameplay to allow for more traditional shooter gameplay. These tunnel racing scenes were incredibly impressive for their fluid 2D scaling, but even more impressive were the top-down sections because you could use the throttle to control your altitude as the layered 2D graphics would zoom in and out to sell the illusion. It was an amazing effect nobody had pulled off before.

The whole game was based more than loosely off the 1983 Roy Scheider movie Blue Thunder. In fact, Sega fully intended to license the movie, but the brand was tied up with the now totally forgotten Worlds of Wonder VHS-based Action Max home console. So Sega just ripped the movie off. In fact, the title screen is literally an image ripped from a VHS copy of the movie. Take a look…

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The game came in stand up form, introducing players to the concept of force-feedback as the throttle stick would vibrate and shake with the gameplay. The cockpit deluxe version introduced a rumble seat that shifted and swayed with the gameplay. This was mind-blowing for 1987 and signaled the arrival of a long line of Sega thrill ride flight experiences.

You would imagine that converting such a massive and immersive arcade game to the home would be difficult, but the home conversion to the Master System was a disaster. 3 lives and 2 continues was no where NEAR enough for a game so difficult. Never mind the fact that the game bore almost no visual resemblance to the arcade original. The Genesis version was probably more embarrassing because the system should have been capable of more, as developers such as Treasure would prove in later years. But the game is poorly programmed — the hit box detection is embarrassing — and the scaling is seizure-inducing. Why are the programming issues even more embarrassing for such a relatively low-profile game? Yuji Naka was responsible for this disaster of a conversion. Of course his next job would land him designing the engine for Sonic the Hedgehog. I’d argue the programming for that one was a taaaaad better.

Is Thunder Blade, much like Nintendo’s Pilotwings – a giant 2D tech demo with some damn impressive FM music? Sure, but 2D/3D shooters honestly don’t get much prettier than this. Play it and be taken back in time to an era of cheap arcade thrills and shallow, enjoyable ’80s action movies.

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Insert Coin is Games Are Evil’s weekly exploration of arcade culture and classic arcade games, hosted by our own Lucas DeWoody. You can follow Lucas on Twitter here.

Insert Coin: The Great Virtual Pinball Revival

Friday, March 8th, 2013

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When Bally/Williams died at the tail end of the ’90s, so too went all the promises of a new world of pinball. We were promised a new era of holographic targets, interchangeable/upgradeable games, LCD/LED integration, and other amazing ideas – all gone. And to this day, Williams stubbornly sits on most of the patents, almost as if they want the industry to be dead simply because they chose to pull out of it. In their wake, Stern Pinball rose from the ashes and has tried to keep the hobby alive in the past decade, but it’s certainly been on life support as sales dropped each year, and the company reached for more generic/broad appeal licenses like the notoriously poorly named NFL and NBA pinball. New tables tend to harken back to established ’80s/’90s concepts with the bankers putting a strict limit on the amount of on-field toys allowed to keep costs down, and new tech is nowhere to be seen. Basically, the advancement of the game stopped with the death of Bally/Williams tables when they decided patent hording and making gambling equipment was more profitable.

Pinball’s downward spiral is well-documented. The story less told is that of pinball’s revival, the cusp of which we currently stand upon. Through digital recreations of existing classics both legal and otherwise and the pioneering new designs coming to digital marketplaces, pinball has been reintroduced to a generation of console gamers that never had the chance to experience the game in arcades.

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The modern digital revival began back in 2000 with Visual Pinball, a PC application from a fellow named Randy Davis that allowed users to create their own pinball table concepts with amazingly accurate ball physics (for the time) using VBScript for programming. Pinball simulations had been a staple of video game software libraries for eons, but they were always sub-par substitutions for the real thing. Starting with Visual Pinball, the ability to enjoy a game of digital pinball could finally become reality. But the community took it one step further. There was an off-shoot of the popular MAME arcade emulator that supported the digital software systems powering the vast majority of pinball machines made post-1976. This was known as PinMAME. Users imagined that if they could recreate the table in Visual Pinball, then connect that recreation with the original software in the back-end, people could enjoy exacting recreations of existing classic tables in all their glory. People began scanning original playfield art and recreating the playfield toys to the best of their ability. The only limitation of Visual Pinball was that the entire experience was programmed to only work in 2D. You had to settle on a fixed camera angle to enjoy the table. If you altered the viewing angle, the visuals would break into layers and ruin the illusion.

To compensate for the limited viewing angle, a second version of Visual Pinball was developed utilizing a more standard top down view. The problem with this however was that you really need to flip a 16:9 HD monitor into the vertical position to enjoy all the added detail. Many devoted fans began doing just this, some going as far as to create fully dedicated virtual pinball machines. In 2005, realizing there was a potential market for digital pinball machines for people looking for something closer to the authetntic experience, minus the maintenance work and space requirements of becoming a pinball collector, David Foley decided to approach Randy about purchasing the rights to utilize a highly modified version of Visual Pinball to be used in full sized digital recreations of existing licensed Williams pinball tables running on giant Plasma screens with enhanced visuals thanks to the community. The project was known as UltraPin. It never achieved widespread success and died out around 2008, but certainly left a mark on the homebrew community.

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Visual PinMAME in its various incarnations was imperfect, but it was the best we had for the digital preservation of many tables. Other software solutions like Future Pinball were far more advanced and supported full-scale polygon graphics and HD support, but also took longer to support PinMAME integration. Over time though, Future Pinball’s audience began to integrate the original pinball ROMs and definitive digital versions of many classics are now available, but it also takes longer to recreate the tables since the software is far more complex. Future Pinball’s experience is far superior, but Visual PinMAME has a deeper library or existing works. Either way, the homebrew community’s approach to digital pinball preservation is an exciting place full of innovation and amazing talents.

On the other side of the spectrum, traditional consoles like the PS2 and the Wii were seeing releases like The Williams Collection which introduced many of the more original Bally/Williams tables such as Funhouse and Pin-bot to a broad audience. The problems with these collections however was that access to some of history’s most beloved pinball classics was off the table due to hefty license fees. Many of history’s greatest pinballs were based on licensed themes, and the rights holders of these tables (Addams Family/Paramount, Twilight Zone/Viacom, Simpsons Pinball Party/Fox, etc.) often demand exorbitant amounts of money for the license, even though they know the audience isn’t large enough to warrant that price. If a certain license won’t generate $XXX,XXX.00 amount of dollars, they’re content to sit on the IP and let it rot – historical value be damned.

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Perhaps the inability to reach out to the licensed tables of pinball’s past is what generated such amazing software as Zen Pinball. When Zen Pinball came around, an entire new generation of pinball designers was introduced to the hobby. Some of the most innovative and original ideas in the history of pinball have wound up in these digital playgrounds, many based on original themes, and others based on current licensees like Marvel, Angry Birds and Star Wars. On the other side of the yard, FarSight Studios started a new digital pinball simulation known as The Pinball Arcade, available for every platform under the sun. They’ve been introduced as many original and licensed concepts as they can the past couple of years, and now, thanks to several successful Kickstarter campaigns, FarSight Studios has finally raised enough cash to begin recreating some of the more expensive real world licensed tables such as Star Trek: The Next Generation and Twilight Zone to their digital playground.

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A whole new generation of fans is now able to enjoy pinball on their consoles, hand-held consoles, and phones… and some of them are hungry for more. Stern has expanded into becoming the first pinball manufacturer to produce home versions of some of their more popular tables, and a new manufacturer by the name of Jersey Jack Pinball has popped up offering a new Wizard of Oz table, bringing with it some of the most exciting and new pinball tech to grace the hobby in generations. Convention game rooms around the nation are beginning to offer pinball machines are part of their experience, and pinball conventions such as the Texas Pinball Festival are expanding leaps and bounds every year, offering hundreds upon hundreds of classic tables for people to play, thanks to the generosity of collectors around the world.

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Short-sighted historians with a bias for the olden days like to make-believe and preach that video games killed pinball, and while the initial low-maintenance of arcade machines versus pinball probably had a lot to do with their diminishing presence in the ’90s, it was the death of arcades thanks to mismanagement and a blind eye to the future that killed not just pinball but arcade culture in the West altogether. In the end, it seems as though video games have indeed saved pinball and primed the hobby for a massive revival, built on a generation of players raised on the digital supplement, and are now hungry for the real thing. Pinball is alive folks, and the revival is just getting started.

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Insert Coin is Games Are Evil’s weekly exploration of arcade culture and classic arcade games, hosted by our own Lucas DeWoody. You can follow Lucas on Twitter here.