This week has been super slow for arcade news so this has given me some time to work on an article I’ve had floating in the queue for a while now.
A few years ago I wrote some articles entitled “Missing In Action”, which focused on game genre that used to be popular in the arcade industry but for one reason or another they are rarely made anymore. That might be due to changing cultural tastes in what people like in a game, or a genre burns out due to a lack of creativity within the subject realm. Regardless of the reasons why these genres are ignored, I think with the right ideas a title fitting into one of these genres can still work.
For previous MIA articles:
The subject for this one as you already saw with the headline: maze (labyrinth) games!
When most people think of maze or labyrinth arcade games, the first to come to mind would likely be Pac-Man but before we get into the most popular maze game ever, let’s take a look at some of the predecessors that set the stage for the famous international icon of such games. When you look at it in-depth, the maze genre has been one of the most important and influential to be found in video games.
The first time the arcade industry would attempt the maze concept was Atari’s Gotcha (1973). This game has been mentioned numerous times on AH as being first in a few ideas has its benefits. This established the use of moving walls and the chase motif in games – it was quite simple but that was the case with games of this era.
A couple of years later, as a quick cash in on the JAWS craze, a company not really associated with video games called US Billiards released Shark. What made Shark a little different from Atari’s Shark JAWS and Project Support Engineering’s Maneater was that you played as the shark chasing down swimmers as opposed to avoiding the shark. You also have to swim through a maze with shark traps. This could have been called Feeding Frenzy as it was a 1-4 player game where in multiplayer mode, the goal was to be the first shark to eat five swimmers before the timer ran out. Given that, this also fell into one of the first violent games.
If you wanted a straightforward maze game then Midway would provide that in ’76 with Amazing Maze. With over a million maze combinations and single player against AI or 2 player competitive play, this would be as pure as a maze game could get. This game did have some music that could play although most of the time it would remain silent.
It wasn’t long after this that Draw your maze type games became the flavor of the day. These games influenced ideas like the light-cycles in TRON. There were quite a few of these to come along around 1976: Blockade, Barricade, Bigfoot Bonkers, Comotion, Checkmate, Dominos, Hustle & Minesweeper among others.
After that idea was beat to death, another type of maze game was tried out involving cars grabbing dots in a simple wrap-around maze. It was an Atari 2600 game called Dodge ‘Em (1978) that would influence these titles, most of which repackaged the idea with higher resolution graphics: Head On and Head On 2, Dodgem, Crash, Rolling Crash, Side Trak, Safari Rally & Space Chaser. The last three titles did change the formula up a little – Rolling Crash used a much different course; Side Trak featured trains picking up people on the side of the tracks (and the track design was unique); Safari Rally ditched the single screen course for looped vertical scrolling (plus great explosions!) and Space Chaser featured space vehicles being chased by rockets while you collect fuel. Here is a working Exidy Side Trak that was recently found by an operator in Oklahoma.
As a way to set themselves apart, a Japanese company called Denki Onyko created an odd title in 1979 by the name of Heiankyou Alien. It was kind of like Lode Runner, in that you dug holes to trap the aliens in but you have to fill the holes back in. Part of the challenge this game has comes from the amount of time it takes to dig but at least it had different maze layouts. A variation of this game was brought to the US by Sega/Gremlin under the name Digger.
Before we get to the most popular maze game ever made, it is worth noting Stern’s Berzerk. While it isn’t exactly a single screen or scrolling maze type game, the game contains “64,000 maze patterns” and according to the Atari 2600 version of the game, your character is trapped on the planet Mazeon. The voice effects and the relentless chase that Evil Otto gives helped this game shine amongThis is the game that put Stern on the map for video games in the early 80s and the game got a sequel with Frenzy.
Pac-Man – I don’t really need to spend a lot of time on this game since it practically became a mascot for arcades in general. Much has already been said about Pac-Man and the impact it would have on arcades, video games and the culture at large. Same thing with the pseudo-sequel Ms. Pac-Man, which improved on the formula and still tends to be among the few classic games that can still make a decent cash pull every week (i.e., more than $1/wk – more like $20-$30). Other spin-offs (that maintained the maze aspect) include: Super Pac-Man, Jr. Pac-Man, Baby Pac-Man, Pac-Man Plus, Pac & Pal, PacMania and years later, Pac-Man Battle Royale. (There was also Pac-Man VR but that was more of a prototype than a wide release)
Around the same time, Namco had another maze game up their sleeve by the name of Rally-X. When the game was shown at a trade show up against Pac-Man it was actually thought that it would be the highest money maker of various new titles due to the scrolling graphics and the play, but those making the bets at the time were wrong about that. It still was a fun and unique game that was a big step-up from those aforementioned vehicle maze games released just a year prior.
Due to the raging success that Pac-Man became, that had a huge influence on developments at the time and not just in the sense of hacks or straight clones. People knew that arcade games could make money and this solidified that way of thinking so competition would become as strong as ever, creating the bubble that would soon burst, at least in the US. If you wanted a piece of the action to become “the next Pac-Man”, then you had to do something a little different. As such this does make categorizing maze games in the first half of the 80s a little bit of a challenge.
The Dot-Eaters – for titles that borrowed Pac-Man’s formula of eating objects around a maze, usually with a character and some villains. Some sort of power-up would grant you the ability to go on the offensive for a moment: Lady Bug had you as…a ladybug, eating dots, avoiding bugs and poison but many of the maze walls could move if you pushed into them; Anteater was a cool (and tough) variation where you control an anteater’s tongue underground to eat both dots and ants; Lock ‘N Chase was a cops ‘n robbers kind of variation where you could create walls at certain points to try and trap your enemies; Mouse Trap was a cat and mouse variation where you could manipulate certain points of the maze (like Lady Bug) and grabbing bones allowed you to turn into a dog to eat the cats; Nibbler blended the concept that would be known as ‘Snake’ with Pac-Man; Got-Ya used the idea of rock/paper/scissors for the enemies; Changes has you navigating a maze to change from a caterpillar to a butterfly; play a reverse Pac-Man by filling the maze with dots in Heart Attack; thump along to the beat of gathering musical notes in Rootin’ Tootin’; Macho Mouse was another cat and mouse game but it did introduce a jump feature to stun enemies and Crystal Castles beefed up the graphics side of things with isometric mazes, a wider variety of cute enemies and jumping (Marvin’s Maze would also use some isometric looking mazes).
There were some titles that took some obvious inspiration from the dot collecting madness that Pac-Man offered while not exactly fitting into our definition of navigating a labyrinth – titles like Solar Fox, Piranha, Red Tank.
Shooter Maze Games – In these games you had the power to constantly be on the offense since you could fire at your leisure. Exidy would release Targ and Spectar in 1980, both of which featured grid mazes for the player to navigate while blasting space ships from your car (Spectar had more elaborate and animated mazes). Exidy also produced the adventure/shooting game Venture, which wasn’t exactly mazes, it was more “go room to room”, thus blurring the line a little. Midway’s Wizard of Wor gained some popularity thanks to voiceovers and co-op play, navigating a maze filled with deadly creatures (and a wizard); Jungler by Konami had elements of Centipede and Snake mixed into the confines of a maze game; Sega’s Pulsar and Namco’s Tank Battalion let you hunt enemies down in the maze with a tank; Rock-Ola’s Eyes had you blasting everything, both enemies and the dot/objects, as a strange floating eyeball; NATO Defense involved driving over mines (the dots) while blasting enemy tanks; Stern had a few games in this area including Tutankham and Lost Tomb which jumped on the popularity of Indiana Jones’ adventures allowing you to fill a similar role while you navigate labyrinth-like ruins; they also had a light-gun type game with a maze called Mazer Blazer; Nintendo’s Sky Skipper allowed players to enjoy a scrolling maze while bombing evil gorillas that were holding innocent animals captive and I can’t forget Atari’s I,Robot, which was a blend of Pac-Man and a shooter game, with 3D polygons thrown in to great effect.
Related to shooting maze games, Ed Logg was working a game called Maze Invaders back in 1981/82 but it didn’t pass testing and ended up in the pile of prototypes.
The Diggers – Choose-your-own-maze-path digging games became popular around this time with titles like Dig Dug, Mr. Do!, The Pit, Gold Bug, Boulder Dash and The Adventures of Robby Roto; the latter one has this amusing historical note where a reporter at a trade show was convinced that it would be the next Pac-Man so kept on asking people about it, including Eugene Jarvis (who didn’t sound convinced that it had that Pac-Man punch to it).
Other character driven maze titles – Pac-Man showed the utility of making a character or set of characters the stars over generic and bland vehicles. A lot of these titles fall into a variety of game styles with mazes and some sort of characters as a foundation. They don’t exactly fit into the other mentioned categories so I’ll throw them together here: Sega’s Pengo was almost like the digger games in that you could move the blocks of the maze around to smash bees; Crush Roller/Make Trax had you painting the floors of the maze, ala reverse Pac-Man; Amidar was about covering certain connected maze-like lines to fill in boxes as a gorilla (a similar game idea was used with Exidy’s Pepper II) ; build a weapon to save your girlfriend by gathering pieces in Blue Print; take the role of Jack The Giantkiller to scale the beanstalk and take out the giants; gather up the baby turtles in Konami’s Turtles; shuffle colored blocks into their boxes with Pickin’; gather treasure as the legendary Sindbad in Sega’s Sindbad Mystery; and catch weird octopi as a dog in Devil Fish.
Speaking of ‘other’ category titles from the years in the aftermath of Pac-Man, there were a couple of games that tried to improve on the formula found with the Hang On games from ’79 including Route 16, which used the concept from Venture of zoomed outside and a maze inside one of the buildings or Thief which gave the concept a cops ‘n robbers theme. Jump ahead to 1988 and there was Counter Run by Sega which was a modern and cute version of Hang On with new mazes or Raimais by Taito which stuck to a sci-fi theme.
With the improvements in game hardware found in the mid-80s, that allowed for new game types but maze games still would be created and would benefit from more colors, details and larger, scrolling playfields. Among the famous titles you had original games like Marble Madness or some medieval themed maze games such as Namco’s Tower of Druaga and Atari Game’s Gauntlet. The latter would jumpstart a craze for group co-op play and it demonstrated that RPG style arcade games isn’t impossible to manage. From there, multi-screen or wide-area maze adventures would become a thing through the mid-80s, the idea hardly being exclusive to something like The Legend of Zelda on home consoles. You had titles such as I’m Sorry, Mikie, Alien Syndrome, Tank Busters, Shackled, Crack Down, Labyrinth Runner, Escape From the Planet of the Robot Monsters, Marchen Maze or Maze of Flott. As mentioned previously, Pac-Man made a comeback in 1987 with PacMania, which also put scrolling hardware to good use.
As the 80s came to a close, arcade makers showed off their technical superiority and tied that to labyrinths in efforts like Xybots (Atari Games, 1987) or showcasing 2D rotation effects like Taito’s Cameltry.
Ten years after Pac-Man, the use of games that were obviously designed around navigating a labyrinth had simmered down but they were not completely gone from development consciousness – just mostly. The hot games were 1 on 1 fighters or 3D games of various kinds.
1990 would see the release of an updated Boulder Dash and a single screen maze/puzzle game by Midway called Trog. In ’91 Bomberman made its way to Japanese arcades as did the much lesser known Sel Feena by East Technology. Bomberman would influence a number of single screen maze games from Tinkle Pit to Neo Bomberman or Balloon and Balloon Arcade. Atari Games designed a sequel to Marble Madness to release this year but it wasn’t as appealing as the sequel Street Fighter so they did not release it. Cheese Chase by Art & Magic in 1994 hearkened back to the use of a mouse in a maze ideas from the early 80s but with much nicer, cartoon grade graphics. That same year a company called Semicom would release Hyper Pac-Man, a lesser known Pac-Man entry but pretty fun to play. There must have been something in the water to bring back Pac-Man style play at the time since in addition to Hyper Pac-Man we got other single screen dot eater games such as Mad Donna and Go! Go! Mile Smile. Mr. Do! made a comeback in 1996 with Neo Mr. Do! for the NeoGeo MVS.
On top of Hyper Pac-Man, Namco themselves would re-release three maze games thanks to Namco Classic Collection Vol. 2. This included the original Pac-Man, Rally X and Dig Dug with a special remake version of each title, which they called an “arrangement”. All of them featured new graphics and power-ups along with a few other changes. The Pac-man arrangement allowed for co-op play and it featured completely new levels and ghost types; Dig Dug would feature boss battles, Rally X had a larger racing area.
Speaking of the MVS was a game released by SNK in 1997 that was quite different from most of the games to land on that platform. The MVS is well-known for fighting games and other joystick titles but with The Irritating Maze they decided to provide a unique dedicated cabinet to the game along with a trackball plus air jets to blast the player in case they got it wrong. The point of the game (and the reason they call it irritating) is to navigate the maze without touching the walls, which of course are narrow in many places. I actually had a chance to get one of these for $100 back when I opened my arcade in ’08 but I passed that opportunity up. I kick myself for that as I should have grabbed it instead of the Mighty Pang I had grabbed.
After that came Gauntlet Legends and Dark Legacy, which do have you wandering around in less rectangular/square mazes than in the original but they are labyrinths nonetheless. I remember coming across Legends when it was new and playing it for hours next to total strangers as we worked our way through the game. Good times.
After that the well for maze-specific type games dried up although I could stretch it to include first-person games like OutTrigger, War: Final Assault or third person 3D action games like Spawn or Cannon Spike. While not exactly billed as navigating a maze, that is what you are doing as you trudge along blasting enemies. But I’ve covered those separately here.
The only real labyrinth game to come along in modern times would be Bandai Namco’s Pac-Man Battle Royale, which just ended production this year. That had the strong benefit of using Pac-Man but built on it by making it a multiplayer competitive game.
While the sales numbers of PMBR have not been published, being in production for 3 years generally is a good sign. The game has done well at my location (pretty much the same with the prototype Tournament Edition, just slightly higher) and tends to be a solid earner. It shows that with the right game concept and presentation that the ‘joystick stigma’ can be overcome. Or with the use of odd joysticks that could also help the game stand out – perhaps the size of sticks like Giant Tetris used. Of course if this was 25-30 years ago then we would probably have several kits come along to convert PMBR into something else for when earnings would start to slide. These days kits are rare objects anyways.
Of course I don’t think that control would have to be limited to the joystick/trackball. Since games like to take up a ton of space now, something like a foot pad controller could be integrated, as was done for the prototype Balance Ball game Toccata Gaming has shown a while back; given the love of racing titles, hearken back to the Head On style games with racing vehicle through a maze combined with modern graphics and racing controls; or give first-person titles another arcade chance, those are usually built around the maze idea anyways.
With that history and those thoughts out of the way, I’ll open it up to you. What is your take?