Review: Midway Arcade Treasures (GCN)

Experience some of America's arcade masterpieces

The history of Midway Home Entertainment is a convoluted story of boom and bust that includes the most famous names in the index of America's arcade companies. Williams Electronics and Midway merged in the 1990s to create WMS Industries in a bid to remain competitive in a market seeing the rapid decline of the video arcades that were still the core business for both companies. Following the purchase of Time Warner Interactive (formerly Atari Games, the arcade remnant of the original Atari after Time Warner sold off the home console business to Jack Tramiel as Atari Corp.) towards the end of decade, the company became known as Midway Home Entertainment and possessed practically the whole of American arcade gaming in its IP portfolio.

Like Namco, Midway was quick to exploit the success of the Sony Playstation, and the nostalgia of the mature gamers who were buying it, by putting out a series of "Greatest Hits" collections with arcade titles from Williams Electronics, Bally Midway and Atari Games spanning the "golden age" from the 80s to the early 90s. Like Namco's Museum series, they included media assets like concept art and promotional flyers, but they did Namco one better by including video interviews with the creators of seminal classics like Defender, Robotron 2084, Joust, Battlezone, Asteroids and Centipede. Combined with excellent emulation (which, in some cases, included the original operator interfaces) and fully customisable controls supporting a variety of peripherals, they were a celebratedion of the company's arcade origins.

During the following console era, Midway's fortunes started to fade. Games in development were being cancelled due to falling profits; in a bid to save the company, all arcade divisions, including the former Atari Games (now renamed Midway Entertainment West) and the pinball production arms, were shut down. It marked the end of an American presence in video arcades. Refocused on console gaming, Midway was more than willing to trot out classic IP again, and the best of the three collections to appear on PS2, Xbox and Gamecube was the first: Midway Arcade Treasures, a collection bursting at the seams with the very best titles from Williams Electronics and a decent share of games from the Bally Midway and Atari Games portfolios.

The main menu has an Egyptian theme following a journey down into the depths of a virtual pyramid, with each game having a hieroglyphic representing it. Confusingly, the control stick isn't used to choose between games; only the D-pad does. Highlighting the icon for a game results in a shimmering display of the game's attract mode in the centre of the screen. You can then launch the selected game, change settings for it or view its extras. Unlike Namco's 50th Anniversary Museum, Midway was kind enough to include all the assets from the original Playstation collections in this one; among them images, history and video interviews. Sadly, no extra expense was made for new content, so any game lacking extra content in the original Playstation collections won't have any here. The videos are still in their original MPEG-1 video format, though the audio quality is cleaned up a bit. For folk who might have had the games on the Playstation, it's nice to know you're not missing out on anything with the Gamecube release.

As stated, there is an impressive array of games on offer: Defender, Defender II (nee Stargate), Joust, Joust 2, Sinistar, Bubbles, Robotron 2084, Blaster, Smash TV, Splat!, Satan's Hollow, Rampage, Root Beer Tapper (the kid-friendly version of Tapper), Spy Hunter, 720°, Klax, Rampart, Marble Madness, Toobin', Super Sprint, Vindicators, Gauntlet, Paperboy and Road Blasters comprise the full list. All of them are faithfully recreated and have customisable controls — though within the limitations of the Gamecube controller, which is the biggest weakness of this release. Super Sprint is the worst-playing game in the collection with extremely poor controls stemming from a lousy adaptation of the arcade steering wheel to an analogue joystick — it simply doesn't provide the tight turning required and needed a bit more work, or better still a wheel peripheral. The use of the control stick in place of a trackball for Marble Madness is surprisingly not that bad as the marble still has the same floaty feeling, even if an analogue thumbstick is a radically different interface from the trackball used in the arcade. The rest of the games on offer work much better, though given some of them use two joysticks and the button layout of the Gamecube controller can be awkward for multi-button games, you'll have a better experience using the Wii Classic Controller or a Playstation controller (blasphemy!) via an adapter like the Classic Linker.

Game options are easily navigated and allow adjustments to difficulty, number of lives and points required for bonus lives. Controller configuration is shown on the screen prior to game start — handy in case you forget! The range of control options is quite impressive: players can not only remap buttons as they see fit, but also choose from a variety of movement inputs. Paperboy allows for analogue speed control via up/down on the control stick or C-stick, but it can also be mapped to up-down on the D-pad or a simple button press. The marble in Marble Madness can be moved using D-pad, control stick, C-stick or even having input accepted from both analogue sticks at once (shame the Gamecube lacked a mouse/trackball or it doubtless would have been included as an option). High scores are auto-saved after a game completes by exiting using the Z button — great for pursuing that world record, though you cannot save mid-game (at least you can pause for bathroom breaks, unlike the arcade).

Strange in their omission are the early Atari Games titles like Missile Command, Tempest and others; especially since Arcade's Greatest Hits: The Atari Collection, Volume 1 was published by Midway on Playstation and N64. That collection was possible due to the legacy of the division of the original Atari by Time Warner, with the pre-split arcade IP being jointly owned by Atari Games and Atari Corp. The Atari Anniversary Collection later published by Infogrames (sadly never released on Gamecube) includes the titles from Midway's release; it may be that the oldest IP ended up with Infogrames exclusively via a deal between the two companies.

Most disappointing for Gamecube- and Wii-owning retro gamers in PAL territories is that despite PAL releases of the PS2 and Xbox editions of Midway Arcade Treasures, the Gamecube version was mysteriously only released in North America. Rest assured, it is an import-friendly title (if you have the means/desire to do so), though the later two volumes (focused more on fighting games and driving games, respectively) are not.

Conclusion

Midway Arcade Treasures on Gamecube marks the first time these classics have appeared with the full set of extras on a Nintendo console. It may be the only (official) way of playing these arcade greats on the Wii for some time — depending on Time Warner Interactive's intentions regarding IP from the recently-acquired remains of Midway Home Entertainment. It's still a fine set of games and a great slice of arcade history; even if some of them don't come off that well due to the limitations of the Gamecube controller. If you can get it do pick it up!

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