After its demonstrations at the A.M.O.A. in 1982, Sega decides that the technology in its revolutionary Astron Belt still needs work, and the game heads back to the drawing board even as its conception inspires a craze in laser games in the arcades. It is released in Japan and Europe mid-way through 1983, and when the U.S. division of Sega is bought by Bally/Midway the new owners keep fine-tuning the system. It is finally released in U.S. arcades late in the year. It offers more playability by letting the player freely control a computer generated spaceship from a chase view, superimposed on top of a filmed playfield. It must do battle against charging spaceships while soaring through space, across an alien landscape and through the tight metal corridors of a mother ship. While the attacking ships are on film, their laser fire is computer generated. A timer can be set by the operator to allow players between 40-60 seconds of indestructibility, past which they will start losing lives. The video is culled from a combination of films, primarily from the Japanese science fiction movie Message From Space from prolific Toei Studios, probably most famous for their campy Godzilla flicks. Released in 1978, Message features American actor Vic Morrow and is a thinly veiled ripoff of Star Wars, which hit theatres only a year earlier. Both Message and another movie whom Astron Belt borrows footage from, the low-budget Roger Corman SF quickie Battle Beyond the Stars, details the exploits of eight intergalactic mercenaries trying to defend a planet. The plot for both borrows liberally from Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, as did Star Wars. A TV series based on Message is produced by Toei, seen in America under the name Swords of the Space Ark. Yet even more footage is taken from the startling “Genesis Effect” CGI sequence in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. A nice bit of visual symmetry, as the Star Trek films are released by Paramount Pictures, the sister company to Sega, all under the Gulf + Western banner. Additional images are also created specifically for the game. Absent are the nagging blackouts from other laser based games, but the refined technology comes at a cost: the game misses most of the Dragon’s Lair-fueled boom in the arcades. Using even more footage from Message From Space, along with some created for the game, Bally/Midway releases similar film-shooter Galaxy Ranger in 1984. It offers the innovation of allowing players to choose which path to fly at certain points in the action during the game. On the hardware front, the sit-down version of Astron Belt features the “vibraseat” force-feedback system.
Laser games rapidly split into two factions: limited decision animated stories, and video footage shooting games. Following the tradition of the later is M.A.C.H. 3 by Mylstar, formerly Gottlieb & Company, located in Northlake, Illinois. Its play is similar to Astron Belt, but instead of cheesy movie visuals, MACH or Military Air Command Hunter features professionally shot aerial photography with the player’s computer generated jet aircraft superimposed. After inserting their 50 cents, gamers have the choice to face off against enemy planes and ground targets in Fighter Raid mode or to fly at high altitude over aerial targets in Bombing Run. Using an elaborate flight stick, they can fire a machine gun at the targets as well as launch missiles as they infiltrate enemy areas. Targets to be destroyed are computer-generated icons surrounded by a yellow box, including ground positions that keep their place on the landscape as the player soars around it. The fighter sequences are generally low-flying affairs as the player must avoid the scenery while blowing up ground targets and shooting oncoming enemy planes and missiles. Taking the other choice, the bomber drops its payload on ground targets and destroys enemy fighters with its machine gun fire. Players are warned of approaching planes by a red warning signal at the top of the screen. Since the enemy country seems to have had some kind of nuclear mishap, the game later provides radioactive clouds for players to avoid. If they can survive till the end, the game takes 15 minutes to complete with a finale runway landing. All of the footage is filmed by a special aerobatic plane with cameras in its nose and belly. Available in a sit-down cockpit and stand-up version, the game is a popular hit and is rated the #1 Player’s Choice in RePlay magazine.
“…to develop a laser game that would replicate the feel of a 1950′s martian movie.”
A year before M.A.C.H. 3 comes out in 1983, Gottlieb enjoyed a big hit with its “conventional” arcade game Q*bert, featuring a furry, big-nosed creature jumping through an M.C. Escher inspired playfield turning tiles different colours while being chased by a coiled snake. The lead designer of the game is Warren Davis, and he is tapped early on for a project to produce a MACH sequel that will be available as a conversion kit for the original. It is the idea of Dennis Nordman, who goes on to Williams/Bally/Midway to design pinball games (Blackwater 1000, Party Zone, Whitewater, Indy 500, Dr. Dude, Demolition Man, Elvira and Elvira: Scared Stiff), to develop a laser game that would replicate the feel of a 1950′s Martian movie. He writes a script around the premise with Gottlieb art director Rich Tracy and with the project titled Us Vs. Them the team begins to put together the footage. The story deals, as one can surmise from the title, with aliens attacking Earth. From a central command, military leaders send out pilots to fight the invaders from multiple points around the world. Utilizing the unique process of showing multiple views during a battle, the skirmishes take place in such locations as over the skyline of Chicago (home of Gottlieb), a desert, a forest, and a final showdown in the alien Mothership. The hook in this laser game is that players are subjected to four different views of the action, including a profile view as well as a chase camera behind their fighter.
A production company shoots all of the outdoor photography excluding the Chicago footage, using planes and helicopters. Nordman and Davis personally supervise the Chicago shoot, with a Steadicam operator hanging out of a helicopter during a brisk, -26F degree Chicago day. They also are present during a shoot in a forest in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Inspired by the Endor forest scenes in Return of the Jedi, the footage is taken as the Steadicam operator moves through the dense trees. Sets are built in Chicago for between-wave cinematics taking place inside the control room and in the fighter cockpits, with Davis acting as co-director. A music soundtrack is composed by Gottlieb’s in-house sound designer Dave Zabriskie, who conducts an orchestra for the score. Davis programs the game, as well as edits the footage together. Jeff Lee creates the computer overlay graphics of the player’s fighter and enemy ships, and Dave Thiel does the sound; both had worked with Davis on Q*bert. While the game does wonders with the laserdisc shooter genre, by the time Us. Vs. Them is released, the laser game market is beginning to tarnish. Orders for M.A.C.H. 3 dwindle, reducing the market for its sequel, and Gottlieb enters into a lawsuit against its distributors. Us Vs. Them is eventually released in 1984 but never has a chance to succeed. Due to these big-budget laserdisc failures, Mylstar closes its doors at the end of September 1984.
Warren Davis goes on to create another unusual game, published by the company that had purchased the remains of Mylstar, Premiere Technology. Titled Exterminator, it is released in 1989. Concerning a bug exterminator trying to rid houses of pesky insects and the like, it is the first game that incorporates digitized images for all of the game graphics. The only part of the exterminator shown is his disembodied hand, as he tries to shake, slap, and pound the critters, along with shooting lethal purple bug juice from his finger. The game might feature an inscrutable control scheme, but it certainly does ooze originality and creativity. Unfortunately, it also bombs, with only 250 units produced for the arcades.
One of the many animated laser game contenders is Cliff Hanger, licensed by Stern Electronics from Taito in 1983 and released in North America in early October. It tells the story of Cliff Hanger, a master cat burglar. In a resoundingly familiar plotline, Princess Clarissa is kidnapped by the evil Count Drago, and our hero must blah blah blah…. But wait! Our “hero” is actually using an alias! His real name is Lupin III, star of an immensely popular anime movie and TV series in Japan. Starting as a manga comic series in the late 60s by Katou Kazuhiko a.k.a. Monkey Punch, it is then developed into a TV series by Tokyo Movie Shinsha Co in 1971. Lupin’s first appearance as a video game comes with Taito’s Lupin III, released in Japan in 1980. He also makes a rather abstract appearance in Data East’s 1981 game Lock ‘n’ Chase. In his laser incarnation, he is accompanied by his longtime companions: Jigen, Goeman, and Fujiko. The animation for Cliff Hanger comes mainly from 1979 Lupin film The Castle of Cagliostro, with additional footage from 1978′s The Mystery of Mamo. The dialog for the game is changed in the English dubbing, turning Lupin into the daring Cliff. While it may not have a particularly original storyline, it does offer a new way of playing: the control panel contains a joystick and two buttons. One to control Lup…er, I mean CLIFF’s hands and the other his legs. When the action on screen requires it, players must hit the correct button to perform the needed move. The graphics may not be quite on par with Dragon’s Lair, but this is still a nice indoctrination into Japanese Anime which at the time of the game’s release is rare to find in America. Available to operators is a dip switch inside the cabinet to allow on-screen textual advice on the correct move (You should have gone right) given when players make a mistake. And there is also another alteration made available for the game soon after its release. If the player fails in his mission and loses a life, a scene is shown of Cliff being hanged from a gallows. Cliff. Hanged. Cliff Hanger. Funny, no? Watchdog groups are not amused and a dip-switch setting is made available to skip the neck-stretching. Another child safeguard is designed into the game, although this one probably inadvertently: a scene with Cliff fighting a band of Ninjas is so incredibly difficult, with a rash of moves jumbled on top of each other in rapid-fire sequence, it prevents most kids from making it to the end and seeing what has to be one of the most gruesome finales in video game history. Only 550 machines are sold by Stern, and the game quickly drops off arcade radar screens. This helps to make Cliff Hanger one of the most sought-after and highly priced arcade game collectible in later years.