Alongside the likes of Capcom, Konami and Namco, Data East was one of the quintessential software makers of the '80s arcade scene, but unlike those other firms it perhaps didn't have the pulling power to ensure long-term success. The company has long since been dissolved and its properties sold to the highest bidder, and while it lacks brands with the same impact as its rivals, it's library contains names that are sure to elicit nostalgic grins from gamers of a particular age.
As such, Data East is the perfect topic for the next in Hardcore Gaming 101's superb run of publications, following on from the likes of Sega and Konami. While some of its games have a considerable degree of fame – BurgerTime, RoboCop, Karnov, Midnight Resistance, Bad Dudes and Joe & Mac being notable examples – it's striking how many of the company's titles are obscure or largely unknown outside of coin-op circles. Flicking through the pages of this book you're almost certain to see a game you've never heard of, even if you consider yourself to be a seasoned gaming veteran.
Oddities like Tumblepop, Night Slashers and Boogie Wings will be news to many casual retro fans, largely because they never made it out of the arcades and onto home consoles at the time of release, meaning they only found fame with those who frequented amusement centers on a regular basis back in the '80s and early '90s. While it's true that the reason for the lack of console ports was due in part to the average quality of many of Data East's games – something this book doesn't shy away from – the fact that you're likely to view such games with a completely fresh perspective makes them fascinating.
Games like Psycho-Nics Oscar, Gondomania, Desert Assault and Act-Fancer: Cybernetick Hyper Weapon and Hippodrome may not be the finest examples of coin-op gaming but many of them boast interesting ideas as well as honing concepts seen in other games.
Amid these arcade exclusives there are examples which really should have found more fame. Take the brilliantly named The Cliffhanger: Edward Randy, for example. Released in 1990, this whip-cracking adventure put the licensed Indiana Jones titles to shame with its incredible scaling and rotational effects, making it a real treat for those who choose to play it today via MAME. The sheer volume of ideas on display in this title has led to Hardcore Gaming 101 branding it "a Treasure game before Treasure even existed", and it's a tragedy that it hasn't been experienced by more players.
Another highlight is the aforementioned Boogie Wings, also known as The Great Ragtime Show. A side-scrolling 2D shooter which boasts a steampunk-style aesthetic and is packed with bizarre enemies and levels. You can use your plane's hook to grapple virtually anything and use it as a weapon, and when your craft is destroyed the pilot leaps out and continues the battle on foot, with the ability to control any other vehicle (and in some cases, animal) he finds. It's a deliciously original and inventive shooter but remained exclusive to arcades, and would have been entirely forgotten were it not for modern-day emulation.
Data East's more famous offerings get plenty of attention in the book as well, as you might expect. Magical Drop has several pages devoted to it, while other titles are loosely grouped into series – Vapor Trail is followed by connected shooters Rohga: Armor Force and Skull Fang, for example. 1991's Captain America and the Avengers gets a glowing write-up thanks to its interesting take on the scrolling beat 'em up, and Neo Geo fan-favourite Windjammers is lavished with almost equal praise – and rightly so.
The book is less kind to Data East's attempt to cash-in on the Mortal Kombat craze with Tattoo Assassins, which was produced by the company's North American division. Featuring digitised sprites and goofy special moves which include farting on your opponent, this unreleased title is so bad it's almost amusing. Despite the involvement of Bob Gale, the screenwriter for the Back to the Future movies, it never even made it into arcades but a playable ROM exists which can be booted up in MAME – another piece of gaming history saved from oblivion by emulation.
Pound for pound, Data East arguably isn't in the same league as some of the other heavyweights of arcade gaming's golden era, but that's what makes the company's output – and this book – so interesting. It's also a vital piece of history as Data East isn't around these days to iterate on the ideas and concepts it crafted during the '80s and '90s, so be sure to pick up a copy if you have any interest in retro or coin-op gaming. It also serves as the perfect accompaniment to the hard-to-find Data East Arcade Classics, released on the Wii back in 2011.