The Brief Life of Arcade First Person Shooting Games

arcadehero June 28, 2013 10

I hope that everyone is having a happy summer if you are in the Northern hemisphere and if in the Southern, an acceptable Winter. Arcade news has been relatively slow for the past little while so I’ve been thinking of cooking up more of these articles about arcades as opposed to just waiting out for the hard news stories. I am still working on that sequel post to the Midway arcade prototypes so that there is plenty of new information to enjoy. But in the meantime I had an idea along the lines of the headline above.

Among the arcade genres that are the “Bread-and-butter” of the current industry, we have light-gun shooters, driving/racing games and music games. Occasionally we get something else like a fighter game here and there but most often an amusement only title will fall into one of those three categories. If you look over on the home console side of gaming, one of their pillars is that of the FPS or First-Person Shooter game. Every year we have a new iteration of the Call of Duty franchise raking in billions of dollars in sales; but it is not the only franchise to be popular in this area over the years. There was a time when arcades dabbled in this area, so let’s take a look at that.

First off, let’s define an FPS. Just the term First-Person Shooter can be applied to light-gun games if we wanted to get technical but we are going to avoid that by adding the part about “off-rails” movement. With on-rails, the player follows a track like it were a roller coaster and the typical FPS as it is thought of is off-rails. You have free movement to choose your direction at any time. So that is what we will go with.

Influences

Tracking possible influences is easier said than done and just because a game did something first doesn’t necessarily mean that a team down the road copied or was aware of the feature. That is less likely when it comes to a huge bestselling game but I will not spend a lot of time trying to trace every single element. A summary should be ok.

Shooting monsters like was seen with Space Invaders or navigating mazes like in Pac-Man can be seen as influential in many aspects and not just to FPS titles. Often Atari’s BattleZone can be argued as being the first “true” first person shooter thanks to the off-rails movement you get in the environment. The added bonus of looking into the game cabinet through something like a periscope enhanced the effect (Sea Wolf would be the first video game to employ a periscope however). It was this perspective combined with the freedom of movement that helped the game stand out and while crude by today’s standards, was a pioneering game for the genre.

Games like Berzerk or Venture could also be used as influences for what would come later, not because they were first-person at all but due to the combination of navigating mazes and blasting enemies therein was similar. By that same token, games like Cabal could also be noted for their influences of a one (or two) man army fighting hordes of bad guys although these populate a weird area in-between a light-gun rail shooter and 3rd person shooters.

Another Atari title got close to what the FPS would turn into was Xybots. Its formula was not too far off from Berzerk while being handled in a way that blew people’s minds back in 1987. Run through mazes destroying a variety of evil robots, it wasn’t quite an FPS as action was viewed in the 3rd person. Sega would follow-up with something along the lines of Xybots called Last Survivor in 1989 – still technically 3rd person although you only see an outline of your character. The arena style combat found in LS was similar to what would be found in many popular FPS titles in the 90s and the graphics were spot on for showing something like raycasting before that was a buzzword in the gaming world. It seems this was only released in Japan however so it’s not terribly well known.

There was also an effort by SNK called The Super Spy. This was among the first titles on the NeoGeo MVS, released in 1990. You play as a spy from the 1st person perspective but it involves punching and stabbing moreso than shooting, making it one of the few FP Brawling games to be found. (Thanks to Nomax for reminding me about this one)

iD Software’s Wolfenstien 3D and DOOM are often recognized as the catalysts to change everything. There is no question that those games were wildly popular but even on the PC they were not the first attempts at a first person shooter. One that comes to mind was MidiMaze on the Atari ST or The Catacombs Abyss for IBM PCs. There also had been numerous first person RPG games like The Eidolon, Alternate Reality, Dungeon Master and Eye of the Beholder which all were trying to figure out ways of providing an FP experience based on the limited technology of the time. One thing that stood out about Wolf3D and Doom was that few games were as fluid or detailed as they turned out to be. I recall the frenzy of attention those games brought to gaming and it was clear back in 1993 how quickly things were changing. In fact in grade school I recall a kid bringing a Doom manual to school and talking about it; we became friends around then, visiting each others home to play different games and we still are to this day. The explosion of FPS games after that became a part of PC gaming for us as the market began to flood with games offering their own twist on the concept.

Going Full FPS

So how would the arcade industry embrace it? They were about being on the cutting edge and some examples have already been touted. As it turned out, the industry was drunk on the glory of 1-on-1 fighting games so it took them a little while to embrace the genre, with a sudden explosion of games coming around 1998 and few games before that. If we stretched things to include tank-like games we could populate the list with the likes of T-Mek, PolygonNet Commanders, Tokyo Wars, Virtua On and others, but those are more fitting into a tank subgenre.  Here are some of the very few examples we have of the modern FPS being attempted in the quick play, quick action environment arcades are known for:

Gun Buster (1992) – (this was included in the final post originally but for some reason the post reverted to an earlier version without it. Apologies on that). Taito caught wind of the FPS trend that was happening on the PC and developed Gun Buster, a unique game that is along the lines of Wolfenstein 3D but it was much more detailed. You play as a futuristic mercenary/assassin that is contracted to take out bad guys. Graphically the world in Gun Buster is much more dynamic than Wolf 3D, as apparent from just the first level where you are headed up in a glass elevator where you can shoot out the windows. The game also supported Vs. play before DOOM and the control scheme was unique as well – a standard ball joystick for movement and a gun to shoot and aim. The aiming part is similar in function to what would happen with FPS games on the Wii about 15 years later.

Zone Hunter (1993) – Finding this game is no easy task as it was not released as a standalone title but as a part of the Virtuality VR pods that were neat but extremely pricey.

Quake Arcade Tournament Edition (1998) – The popular Doom series was never given an official chance in arcades (Doom II Arcade is seen in the movie Grosse Point Blank but it was just a prop) but iD’s other popular FPS franchise Quake was tested out. Quake was modified by LBE systems with some different deathmatch levels and a modified weapon selection that seemed to blend Quake 1 & 2 together. It also had a ticket redemption feature for some reason, where players could blast monsters in the arena and pick up an item drop to have the machine dispense the tickets. Cabinets could be linked together but I have not found what the limit was on that. The control layout seemed a bit complex, trying to mimic a keyboard with seven arcade buttons and a trackball.  It was never given a full release. The word on the street is that 20 cabinets were made for the testing phase and at the time of this writing someone is selling one on eBay for about $5000, although they are incorrect about it being “the rarest game ever”. [Source 1] [Source 2] [Source 3] [Source 4]

Gunmen Wars (1998) – Most of the examples of FPS games from this time tried similar variations with the controls but Namco’s Gunmen Wars tried out something completely different. At first glance a player will probably think its a strange looking Time Crisis but upon playing one can quickly realize that isn’t quite the case. Using a light-gun/joystick hybrid, it combined movement and aiming into one device. This was among Namco’s first games to use a camera that could paste an image of the user into the game for use as an avatar. The cabinets were sold with two monitors in one and two cabinets could be linked together. Only three levels meant fewer maps to play on than some of the competition out there.

Outtrigger (1999) – Sega was busy coming up with a lot of concepts in the 90s and as a sort of love letter to Last Survivor, they came up with Outtrigger. It embodied elements of arena deathmatch gaming but with some of the latest 3D graphics to be had at the time. The control scheme for this game used a grip joystick on the left and a trackball on the right for aiming. I’m not sure how many of these sold into the US; it was NAOMI but designed for Sega’s Japanese candy cabs. It could be networked with other cabs for some multiplayer mayhem. The game is also found on the Dreamcast, which is where the footage below comes from.  [Source 1]

War: Final Assualt (1999) – Also in 1999 Atari Games had a game to take advantage of the FPS craze, War: Final Assault. This used a control scheme that tried to be like the unreleased Quake Arcade machine – primary movement is handled by arcade buttons on the left, aiming and firing handled by an analog joystick on the left. While it featured multiplayer maps it also had a single player or co-op story players could tackle. This is one game I did come across multiple times and I used to have a single cab at my own arcade although having just one is not as enjoyable as say three of them. I also came across modified cabs where the arcade buttons were replaced with a top-button joystick, a configuration that actually played better than the original. This was among Atari Game’s last titles.

Gun Survivor 2 : Biohazard Code Veronica  (2001) – Namco teamed up with Capcom on this one and by doing so they managed to find a use for any leftover Gunmen Wars cabinets they had laying around. The use of the GW controller did allow this to become more than just a light-gun game, although it’s hard to say if that really helped it or not.

CounterStrike Neo (2003) – Before you tell me to lay off the crazy sauce, yes they had this in Japan although the setup was more like a customized LAN center than what is thought of as an arcade cabinet. Still, they released it branded as an arcade unit so here you go:

Half-Life 2: Survivor (2006) -  Half-Life 2 is a well-known name on the consumer side of the industry so Taito decided to try it out in arcades. There were two cabinet designs made for it, a sit-down model and a modified Vewlix style, both incorporated foot pedals into the control scheme. This was tested in the US by Namco for a brief period but it didn’t fare well enough so it has mostly stuck to Japan.

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Cyber Diver (2009) – We ran a couple of stories on this when it was released as an upgrade to Half-Life 2 cabinets. It’s a bit of a strange arena based game that uses the Source engine but to this day it has stuck around as a Japan-only release.

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cyberdiver

SciShooter (2013) – The most recent example brings us full circle to VR once again, with MoCap Games’ recent release of their MoCap VR Pods, which include a title called SciShooter. In addition to the VR headset, players are also fitted with some exo-skeleton type arm controllers that allow for exact mapping of their limbs into the virtual world. A thumbstick allows for walking and the players sit on a chair to swivel around in any direction.

Honorable Mentions

Not quite FPS but pretty close – a few (but certainly not all) 3rd person shooter examples that incorporated some hardware elements that AFPS games tried out.

The Grid (2001) – One of Midway’s last releases, The Grid was all about arena-style combat but in the 3rd person. This used a similar control scheme to Sega’s Outtrigger. Not long ago, the Galloping Ghost Arcade in IL picked up a set of these and they reported that it was one of the most popular additions to their facility they have seen yet.

2Spicy (2007) – This 3rd person light-gun shooter allowed you much more movement than the typical light gun game, from aiming being free and your character could move around thanks to foot pedals. You were restricted to an X-axis for body movement but it was certainly a game that could be considered “different”

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Metal Gear Arcade (2011) – Konami brought Metal Gear to arcades in Japan with this title, which was based upon their more action oriented Metal Gear Online game. It was far too expensive to release worldwide as had been hoped; the game incorporated a 3D screen, 3D glasses with head tracking sensors and a light-gun with seven buttons on it and a thumbstick for movement.

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Border Break – Sega’s popular mech battle game is mostly 3rd person although you can find moments of FPS, such as in sniping mode. The control scheme also gets close to the traditionally superior keyboard/mouse config but tailored to arcades.

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Why the lack of love?

While that is ultimately answered by the various game companies that currently produce arcade games, I will try to answer based upon what I know.

1) Not Locked In As A Safe Bet – There is a reason that light-gun games/driving/music games tend to be the genres that get attention, its because they are a safe bet. While not every light-gun game is a smashing success, it is not as risky to create a proven earner using a formula that has shown earning power time and time again.

2) Control confusion – I think any other points will really be sub-points to number 1. When you look over the handful of FPS arcade games, it becomes apparent that there is no unified control scheme that they follow. With a light-gun or driving game, you can rest assured that even with aesthetic changes, you will still be handling a wheel or pointing a gun of some kind at a screen. With an FPS, the right combination has not been decided upon so far. The result has shown that there are a lot of ways you can go about it but for a game to be easily approachable and thus a money maker, it has to balance potential complexity against approachability. I think that Sega’s approach with Outtrigger was a good way to try it and a similar approach was used in Midway’s The Grid. There is still testing that could be done – Sega proved that with Border Break, a mech combat game in Japan that uses and arcade-quality mouse and joystick combo. I think that walking movement is best handled by a joystick of some kind – using the huge arcade buttons to try and mimic WASD keyboard controls is too clunky. Something like this with two or three buttons could certainly provide a good workaround. Then the only challenge is figuring out if a trackball or other device (a pointing device like a mounted gun, a heavy duty mouse, an analog joystick, etc.)

3) Licensing and Changes – One way to make an arcade FPS a safer bet would be to license a popular game and “arcadify” it. This is useful for instant recognition and that is also why its constantly done with many other games. This almost happened with America’s Army but technical issues led to that being brought down to a light-gun level instead. As was going to be attempted with Quake Arcade, modifications would be needed to a degree to satisfy the demands of a fast paced arcade title. Most games these days you would have to cut out all of the attempts at cinematic story telling and focus just on a fast paced game. I just use this as an example not to induce cringing from those fatigued by the COD and zombie craze but I was absolutely amazed at how diligently players would go at the Nazi Zombies mode in CoD: World At War (this was back when I had a small LAN of PCs setup at the arcade). It received 95% of the play at the time and interest held for about 2 1/2 years.

That isn’t to say we’d need an exact copy of Nazi Zombies in arcades, just something structured towards action mingled with challenge. One thing that makes that particular NZ idea work is the scoring and waves of enemies that get harder as you progress. It’s not the only game mode type that could work if an entire arcade title was dedicated to it, providing a basis that could work with the right amount of tweaking. That hints at coming up with something unique however, which is a proposition that will also not be cheap since it requires creative thinking and a lot of time and work from people wanting to make it all happen.

4) Public Perception of Violence – This is a sticky area that arcades sometimes get hit with on light-gun games (despite any hard, logical evidence that light-gun games = real world gun violence) and its a place that can affect this genre as well. The arcade industry has mostly held back the levels of violence in the games for the past decade – its pretty rare you will find a brand new game with gushing blood and all of that. I think this could be handled in the same way we already handle it – offer an option to turn blood/gore off. Or even easier, the enemies are robots and no blood at all to begin with.

5) Player Interest – If you want to get a title out onto the arcade market, it has to show on test that players are interested enough in it. Many games have passed through this process and plenty of unique titles have not made the cut. There are occasions where it could be disputed as to whether the test was effectively held or not (putting a good game in the wrong venue or in the wrong place in a good venue, devs not wanting to make necessary changes that would save the game, not enough time given, etc.) which sours results. There is also a case that could be made for the lack of marketing that is often given arcade titles even after they are released. If no one knows about them, its time consuming for the word of mouth to spread in some situations. Ultimately players need to show interest when the come across it and if the right AFPS came along and nabbed that interest, perhaps things would change for the genre. I recall discussing with an operator once who said that “War sucked and no one played it”. That was not my personal experience with the game at a local arcade which had three linked units and it was being played constantly each time I was there. However I have heard that sort of response from others and while this is completely anecdotal, it seems like perception about one game from almost 15 years ago sealed the coffin on these kinds of games for eternity. Which should be a ridiculous notion.

Street Fighter II was not the first game to feature 1-on-1 combat, it was a perfected formula over others that came before it. I think that the right FPS game with correct pacing and a control scheme that clicks with players because it is easy to use could certainly be a success. It could actually be much like racing games now – you need multiple cabinets to make it work although some of that can be shored up these days with online play too. AFPSes don’t need to become a “dime-a-dozen” kind of game but having them could add variety to an arcade floor. If any was to capture excitement like some of these games do on the console side, they could be quite profitable too.

 


10 Comments »

  1. 60Hz June 28, 2013 at 5:31 pm - Reply

    awesome! would you put “virtual on” in the category or more in the tank category

    • arcadehero June 28, 2013 at 5:54 pm - Reply

      I had thought about Virtua On but forgot to throw it on there, will do

  2. editor June 28, 2013 at 6:37 pm - Reply

    Nice feature – AH will know I am an addicted to 2Spicy, especially as I beat his butt on the GW machine in Vegas last year. Was also a fan of HL2 – was the only player of the twin machines at IAAPA’12.

    A missed genre for Western amusement – with only the distributors to blame.

  3. Nomax June 29, 2013 at 3:56 am - Reply

    Let’s not forget “The Super Spy” released in 1990 as a 2D FPS on Neo-Geo MVS.

    • arcadehero June 29, 2013 at 4:39 pm - Reply

      I had forgot that one, thanks! Will add it in a moment

  4. kiwasabi June 29, 2013 at 6:19 pm - Reply

    I only came across a Virtuality cabinet once, and it was in a hologram store. I was going to play it but my dad talked me into saving my $5. I went back a few months later to play it but they were closed. It’s disappointing I never got to try out VR back then. I remember the store’s owner saying they had a first person billiards game too.

    FPS doesn’t work in the arcade environment because it’s only one player per screen, and doesn’t have the accessibility like a driving game would to justify the extra cost. Something like Gunslinger Stratos would have a better chance since it still has the familiar interface of the gun peripheral. Something that might work in arcades is having one player control the movement of a mech with a joystick, and have the other player control the turret with the light gun.

  5. arcades4ever July 1, 2013 at 9:24 am - Reply

    I’m still very surprised that board breaker hasn’t made it out to the west as they tend to be very popular with FPS fans

    and going back to that comment

    “Public Perception of Violence – This is a sticky area that arcades sometimes get hit with on light-gun games (despite any hard, logical evidence that light-gun games = real world gun violence) and its a place that can affect this genre as well. The arcade industry has mostly held back the levels of violence in the games for the past decade – its pretty rare you will find a brand new game with gushing blood and all of that. I think this could be handled in the same way we already handle it – offer an option to turn blood/gore off. Or even easier, the enemies are robots and no blood at all to begin with.”

    I really think namco should bring back a simular game to the gunman wars game they released years ago as personally for me the game was too ahead for it’s timne due to the technically controls and awkward graphics something with robots as the players characters with lcd screens for faces representing the players using the namcam and the patented technology used for dead heat driving game and players need to collect bullets.

    think of the game as a FPS bomberman but with bullets and other crazy items you need to collect like in tank tank tank lol that would be a seller :)

  6. Pinballsmith July 8, 2013 at 3:05 am - Reply

    I’ve been a big fan of FPS coin-op games. I just added CanrEvil to the collection. It’s always been a very nostalgic game for me.

  7. Jagger December 6, 2013 at 12:36 am - Reply

    I think you missed out a major one:

    Gun Buster (1992)

    This early FPS game from Taito was ahead of its time, anticipating some of the gameplay elements we’d later find in games like Doom and Quake. It’s worth checking out.

    • arcadehero December 6, 2013 at 9:47 am - Reply

      Thanks Jagger. It actually was on one of the post revisions but for some reason the system went with a version before that. It’s now been restored, thanks for catching that. It is certainly a game worth noting, not just in the genre but for innovative, overlooked games in general.

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