Before the modern era of electronic entertainment, a major venue for any gamer was the local arcade. These establishments were noisy fun factories featuring enough flashing lights to cause fits, homes to huge game machines that were simple and addictive – the perfect combination for separating you from your pocket change. While these are still around in a more sparse fashion, the gaming landscape has changed greatly since the late 70s and early 80s. Developer Nordcurrent tries to channel this style with Arcade Essentials, originally released as a PSP download; is it full of retro goodness, or a poor cover of the classics?
Arcade Essentials is a collection of five titles designed to satisfy your old-school gaming cravings. We’ll give a brief overview of each title, but let’s just cover the basic features seen throughout. Firstly, all games are controlled solely with the Wii Remote; no Nunchuk or Classic Controller support here. Each is one-player only, equipped with local leaderboards for all you high-score junkies. In addition, once you beat levels in multiples of five you can, if you want a stiffer challenge, start your next playthrough from level five, ten, 15, and so on.
Interceptor is the first game on the list, and it's a Space Invaders clone. You hold the Remote sideways and use the d-pad to move your ship left and right, hold the 2 button to shoot and 1 to use bombs to clear the enemies on screen. To beat each level you must beat an initial wave of minions and then a larger boss enemy. Power-ups drop down that give you extra lives, bombs and an increased rate of fire. You don’t have any defences in this version of the classic to deflect enemy fire, and once you get beyond the first few levels the difficulty really ramps up. Overall this game is well executed; it is challenging, intuitive and addictive.
The next title on offer is Terra Conqueror, which has the same gameplay principles as Urbanix, a title from the same developers, both of which are clones of Qix. This is a simplified version, with your aim to carve off 60% of a large area, progressing from the perimeter and returning to another spot on the border without getting hit by roaming enemies. You control very simply with the d-pad, so it is easy to pick up and play. Difficulty increases sharply as more enemies appear to disrupt your efforts. This is an enjoyable game that is paced well, with enough going on to keep your brain busy.
Next is Colour Cells, which is Puzzle Bobble lite; there are a few titles similar to this available on both WiiWare and DSiWare, which will diminish its appeal to anyone who's purchased one. The basic idea is to match three hexagons of the same colour by aiming and firing one from below at a cluster of them. The key to progressing here is to play quickly, as the level of challenge is fairly high. Moving the cannon with the d-pad can be a tad frustrating, as it's difficult to aim accurately; we had many occasions where, because of the hexagonal shapes, our tiles wouldn’t go where we intended, causing some problems and frustration. The basic format is entertaining, but these control issues detract from the overall experience.
Then you have Troops Attack, in which you play as a turret blasting targets attacking from above. You'll recognise some enemies from Interceptor; here, they'll drop troops that land and attack your surrounding base towers on each side. Each level is completed by destroying one boss and a number of smaller baddies. You lose a life when these troops land and get past your base towers, or if the boss successfully bombs you. This game is controlled by pointing your Remote at the screen and firing, a scheme that perhaps contributes most to its overly easy nature. The pointer controls, slow enemy movements and generous extra lives and power-ups mean that you may be able to complete the 50 levels on offer without too many Game Over screens, and it quickly becomes monotonous on the way there.
Finally, there's Hexagonum. You control a ship with the task of jumping on all hexagons to change their colour. You jump up and down multiple levels to avoid pursuing enemies, and as the levels progress the bad guys become quicker, with one in particular even undoing the changes you’ve made to some tiles. You move one hexagon tile at a time, and the controls are truly awkward. The game displays a line showing the tile that your ship will jump to next, and you move this line by pointing at the screen. Due to the multiple tiers of the tiles, we can understand why the d-pad wasn’t suitable for the style of movement, but the use of an analogue stick, either on the Nunchuk or Classic Controller, would have made this game much easier to play. This may divert you for a few minutes, but its simplicity and control issues combine to make it the least memorable of the games on offer.
The visuals are generally appealing, but are less impressive in motion than in still screen shots; at times, the retro graphics feel less like a stylistic choice than a cop-out. The BIT.TRIP series is a good example of how to retain that classic feel and add some modern touches, and while the presentation here gets the job done, a similar approach would have been quite welcome. In terms of sound, the high pitched "pew-pew" of your ships’ cannons in Interceptor and Troops Attack sounds like it comes right from an arcade sound chip, which is an enjoyable touch. The music is the same in all games, a kind of simplistic techno dance score that may give some the urge to put out the lights and wave some glow sticks around. Overall, it’s inoffensive and doesn’t detract from the game.
Arcade Essentials lacks a bit of magic, but is worth consideration if you enjoy re-living the earliest days of gaming. Like any collection, some parts are better than others, with Interceptor and Terra Conqueror the stand-outs here. However, the overall experience is underwhelming. It’s not a bad title and it's affordably priced, but it doesn’t triumph in any areas, either. The gameplay doesn’t quite match the compulsive, addictive nature of the originals that it clones, and the visuals deserve an extra level of polish. It’s a bit like a karaoke version of your favourite song – you still enjoy it, but it just isn’t the same as the original.