Little Things: Tail 'Gator

Tail ‘Gator is one of those early Game Boy titles that stood all by itself. It has no tie-ins, no sequels, and no subsequent cameos for its reptike hero. It doesn’t even have the odd connections of Trip World (which is a spiritual successor to Mr. Gimmick) or Chalvo 55 (which stars the robot from the canceled Virtual Boy game Bound High). Nope, Tail ‘Gator is just a side-scrolling action game that Natsume released back in 1991.

Yet Tail ‘Gator is great fun. Its protagonist is an alligator named Charly, and he counters the menace of a dragon overlord by jumping around and whacking things with his tail—or launching a fiery tail-shaped corona across the screen, if he’s grabbed enough power-ups. The game runs through different realms that follow such standard templates as sky and water levels, and most of the stages are nicely designed despite their find-the-key simplicity and Charly’s sluggish movement. In fact, Tail ‘Gator is one of the best action games the Game Boy saw in its first few years on the market, and it has an appropriate small, devoted fan contigent.

Natsume also crammed Tail ‘Gator with a lot of entertaining details, all the more impressive considering the Game Boy’s small screen and the primitive graphics of many of its titles. My favorite little touch can be seen when Charly leaps into a waterfall.

Instead of just floating around, he spins through the water with a look of goggle-eyed perplexity on his face. The player can control just where he leaves the waterfall, but I prefer to let Charly drift through it in some embryonic trance. He even looks like a little tadpole.

Not that alligators are ever tadpoles. They hatch from eggs as baby alligators and are often devoured by their own species.

My second favorite detail comes when Charly takes too much damage and drifts up off the screen, gazing ruefully above him. A lot of games show dead heroes and heroines ascending to heaven, but they nearly always have robes, halos, and wings. Charly has none of these, and it makes perfect eschatological sense when you think about it. He won’t get angelic vestments until he actually reaches heaven.

Tail ‘Gator has a small legacy. It’s considered rare among Game Boy collectors, so you’d pay at least $80 for bare cartridge, its label showing an angrier and more realistic Charly wrecking a wall while a frog just stares in the background. That comes to about $20 per square inch of plastic and microchips, so I don’t recommend it.

A Virtual Console release would be nice for those who want to play the game without emulated thievery, but Natsume reported that Nintendo’s pretty much done with bringing Game Boy games to the 3DS. Tough luck, Charly. You can go play in the waterfall until you feel better.

Trouble Shooter Trivia

I admit that I’m lazy when it comes to investigating games. I'm willing to poke through old magazines in search of screenshots that differ from the actual released titles, but I rarely notice any changes unless it’s a game I really like. For example, I found something irrelevant about Trouble Shooter, which I enjoy and write about more than it probably merits.

Trouble Shooter, known as Battle Mania in Japan, is a charming Sega Genesis side-scrolling shooter, stitched together from two obvious sources. One is Capcom’s macho arcade fantasy-blaster Forgotten Worlds, and the other is Haruka Takachiho’s Dirty Pair line of novels and anime about bikini-clad interplanetary operatives Kei and Yuri blowing up a good chunk of space-faring civilization. Many people imitated both of these things to drab effect, but Trouble Shooter found its own identity. It’s colorful and competently made even if the gameplay is simple, and its sequel, Battle Mania Daiginjoh, is downright amazing. At the risk of perturbing Capcom diehards and the fansub kingpins of Reagan-era college anime clubs, I like Trouble Shooter more than Forgotten Worlds or any Dirty Pair adventure.

Most importantly, Trouble Shooter and Battle Mania Daiginjoh have genuine affection at their cores. It’s common for fans to declate their favorite games earnest labors of love regardless of how bland they may be, but the Trouble Shooter series truly seems to exist just because some staffers at Vic Tokai and Seibu Lease really, really wanted to make them. Rather than Xerox Kei and Yuri, they established heroine Madison (Mania in Japan) as a cranky, genre-wise mercenary and, in the American version, a slumming debutante with feminist quips. Along with her more placid and fun-loving roommate Crystal (a.k.a. Maria), she rescues a kidnapped prince who says things like “Coolness,” defeats a supervillain who turns into a giant buglike demon, and goes to even stranger places in the sequel.

And the developers, calling themselves Studio Space Iron Men, packed both games with precious details. A first-stage boss laughs for no reason. A giant ogre-faced assault train runs on hamsters in little wheels (and unleashes flying caped Marios). A beetle-like Batman attacks on a hoverscooter halfway through the second stage. Upon rescuing the prince, Madison and Crystal give him a blaster and turn him into yet another Gradius-like satellite. The menu of Battle Mania Daiginjoh even has a band of miniature Crystals, and they dance along with the sound test.

Trouble Shooter had a bright future for a month or two at the end of 1991. Vic Tokai promoted it with help from GamePro, and the magazine even gave the game a perfect score of red exploding faces. I freely admit that the first Trouble Shooter isn’t quite that great; the action’s slower than most shooters, and it’s challenging mostly because Madison's such a large target. But hey, it deserved a perfect score more than Pit Fighter. Or Valis III. Or Ghost Pilots, Magician Lord, or Quackshot. GamePro gave out a lot of perfect scores.

The most interesting thing about this review is the screenshot on the lower left. It doesn’t appear in the game, as Madison and Crystal are instead introduced by this opening shot.

Upon close examination, however, this mystery shot looks less like a rare early build of the game and more like a composite image pieced together by either Vic Tokai or GamePro. It’s odd that anyone would go through the fuss of making a mock-up from various screengrabs when they could just show the opening portraits of Madison and Crystal, but promotional shots take many strange and unnecessary forms.

There’s another reason I doubt this screenshot comes from a prototype. In one of my dumber moves as a game collector, I bought an alleged prototype of Trouble Shooter many years ago, dreaming that I’d uncover some fascinating pre-release version of the game that gave Madison an R-rated vocabulary or the villain a Hitler mustache. The cartridge used EPROMs and had a tattered Vic Tokai label, but the game within was exactly the same as the released Trouble Shooter, as far as I could tell. It certainly didn’t have the intro screen show in that GamePro review. So yes, this is a false alarm.

GamePro and Vic Tokai further hyped Trouble Shooter with a contest that gave away Game Gears and a chance to be on GamePro TV. Readers could win by finding special Madison or Crystal cards packed in with Trouble Shooter, but they could enter far more easily by sending Vic Tokai the answer to a question. It’s Colonel Patch, by the way.

I hope the contest winners enjoyed their Game Gears, because it’s not likely they appeared on GamePro TV. The show was canceled in late 1991, though it’s possible that two lucky kids ended up on its infomercial revival. It’d beat that Nintendo Power competition where the winner only met Arnold Schwarzenegger for five seconds.

The real question is this: what happened to those prize cards? Only seven of them apparently existed, making them ridiculously rare, and it’s possible that customers didn’t find them all. In fact, there’s a factory-sealed copy of Trouble Shooter on eBay RIGHT NOW for $340, and a Madison or Crystal card might be inside! Crowdfund me, and I promise I’ll scan the card for everyone to print out.

I have a better suggestion if you like Trouble Shooter and have money to spare. Shmuplations is a wonderful place that regularly translates obscure interviews with Japanese developers, and the site’s back catalog has not one but two discussions with the Trouble Shooter series director, who went by Takayan the Barbarian. If you donate to Shmuplations, which you should do anyway, you’ll get to vote on which ones get translated next, or even up your pledge to the point where you can pick interviews outright.

Naturally, I’m voting for Battle Mania/Trouble Shooter each month. I’d really like to know more about the series, even if it turns out that I’m completely wrong. Perhaps Takayan will reveal that Trouble Shooter wasn’t a pet project driven by earnest affection for comedic destruction and spunky anime heroines. Perhaps it just came about after some detached Vic Tokai executive flipped through both a Famitsu and a Newtype in the same afternoon. Perhaps the Trouble Shooter games exist just for mercenary profit. But they don't seem like they do. That’s why I like them.

California Crisis: Do a Lot of Coke and Vote for Ronald Reagan

We’ll remember the 1980s as a time of fanciful excess in North America and Japan, no matter how meretricious that may be. Never mind the Cold War or the AIDS crisis or the rampant sleaziness peddled as noble success. Textbooks will document an era of Thompson Twins singles, Schwarzenegger films, feathered hair, mecha anime, suspiciously avuncular presidents, and video games where you had to rescue suspiciously avuncular presidents from ninjas. Not ninja. Ninjas. It was the 1980s, and we didn’t care about faithfully pluralizing loanwords.

The indulgences of the 1980s fed Japan’s direct-to-video anime market in the decade’s latter half, ensuring that the acronym OVA would remain part of the nerd lexicon. Companies turned just about any idea into at least 45 minutes of animation, even if that idea consisted of nothing more than a giant mecha, a big-eyed heroine, or some combination of the two. Ideally, the OVA boom would’ve spurred a wealth of creative animation from rising talents, but instead it brought a deluge of vapid waste with occasionally nice animation and all the enduring quality of a Sci-Fi Channel Original Movie. The typical 1980s OVA is not Angel’s Egg. It is Ladius, Good Morning Althea, Roots Search, Explorer Woman Ray, Relic Armor Legaciam, or anything else so generic that it’s hard to remember the title. I think one of them was called Steel Guarder Lyzerial.

California Crisis: Gun Salvo, a 1986 radar blip from Studio Unicorn, is smack-dab in the middle of this nonsense. It lasts under an hour, and its story pitch could be summed up in restroom graffiti. It’s a ridiculous joyride that imitates the shallowest parts of shallow action films.

Yet California Crisis stands a little above the dross.

For one thing, it looks different. It’s animated with linework and shadows much heavier than the typical ‘80s cartoon from Japan or anywhere else. And instead of servicing a story about toy-ready mecha, Tokyo teenagers, or robot-demon warfare in the dead of space, California Crisis is all about the glorious sun-baked façade of America.

Noera doesn’t have much in his life. His high-school glories are a decade past, and he spends the opening of California Crisis reminiscing in a bar just outside of San Diego. At least he has his blond good looks, a gorgeous vintage car, and nothing to do but take a leisurely drive while listening to a news report about a crashed meteorite. A young redhead pulls alongside to ask for directions and call him “Pops,” and that’s when a truck runs them both off the road and crashes itself. Armed thugs chase them away, but not before the redhead, Marcia, recovers a mysterious box from the wreckage.

Recovering at a diner, the two learn that the box contains a bowling ball, or at least a curious sphere that resembles a bowling ball. It summons visions of Death Valley at their touch, and Marcia declares that they should take this alien visitor to its apparent home. Her rationale? "American Dream." That's what she says.

A reluctant Noera goes along once some armed goons arrive, and from there the two race around southern California, closely followed by a government task force that includes one of Noera’s high-school pals.

Noera and Marcia drift along, pausing to enjoy lavish scenes of billboards, restaurants, nightclubs, countryside, and other SoCal sights that I assume the animators researched first-hand. I’d like to think that writer-director Mizuho Nishikubo (who'd direct the largely disposable Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensi OVA the following year) and his crew got a nice vacation out of all this.

Their creation isn't realistic, of course. Anyone who actually lived in California, in the 1980s or outside of it, will see only a ridiculous mockery in the whitebread characters and complete void of consequences, physical or otherwise. But that’s OK, because California Crisis is almost over.

Our heroes eventually arrive at Death Valley and, harried by helicopter fire, plunge off a cliff and into a lake. As they’re on the verge of drowning, their spherical cargo glows and draws them out of the water. Noera and Marcia stand on the shore, gazing at the cracked and empty alien orb as copter blades drone nearby.

And that’s the ending. Really. It cuts straight to a shot of Noera and Marcia riding off with a new car and a new bike, while pop singer Miho Fujiwara reminds us all that the streets are hot—perhaps even too hot. She’s very nice, and you might even see her comment on YouTube.

California Crisis is striking in its refusal to mean anything.  Two complete strangers are chased by government agents. A nightclub is visited for no reason. Perfectly good cars are abandoned. There's a pet cat along for the ride. A carefree young woman declares “American Dream!” in a diner before deciding to risk her life for a Sputink-shaped UFO. A rickety pickup truck and an attack helicopter have a canyon chase and a head-to-head showdown. Casual sex is offered and turned down. A vagrant alien artifact does nothing beyond a single anticlimactic rescue. There’s no lasting message, no potential relationship, no ending, no point.

And yet California Crisis is a perfect summation of the 1980s. Not the 1980s as they actually happened, but the 1980s as they were stereotyped even while they occurred, and as they may well be remembered by the terse, distant estimation of history. It’s pretty, it’s hollow, and it’s suddenly over.

The only resolution for the tale sees Noera and Marcia going their separate ways, and that’s what awaited the OVA boom at the end of the decade. Japan’s economic bubble popped as the 1990s arrived, while America had a brief recession and swept away its ‘80s neon gobbledygook with a uglier tide of grunge rock and disaffection. Everyone moved on and grew up a little. In fact, Nishikubo recently directed Mamoru Oshii's Miyamoto Musashi film and the prestigious/propagandic historical drama Giovanni’s Island.

So California Crisis captures two worlds in their vivid inanity. What did most of Japan’s direct-to-video cartoons and America’s flashfire pop overkill really accomplish in the 1980s? Not a whole lot. But they looked good doing nothing.

Major Miclus Moments

I just don't think that kids today know enough about Miclus. I'm sure they're familiar with video-game mascots like Mario, Sonic, Pac-Man, Jack Frost, Wonder Boy, Randar, G-Mantle, Disk-Kun, and the internationally famous duo of Rei Misazaki and Chris [LAST NAME NOT TRANSLATED YET], but Miclus remains obscure. That's understandable, though there was a time when you could find Miclus in just about every arcade worth visiting.

Miclus is a mostly blue dragon devised by Seibu Kaihatsu. Apparently without an official gender, the creature first appeared as the final boss in Wiz, a 1985 side-scrolling arcade game with a pointy-hatted protagonist and an unbearably repetitive soundtrack.

Miclus had more exposure in Raiden, Seibu Kaihatsu's landmark vertical shooter. By the early 1990s, Raiden was everywhere: full-blown arcades, mini-golf centers, bowling alleys, Chuck E. Cheeses, knock-off Chuck E. Cheeses, laundromats, 7-Elevens, and anyplace else that needed a decent coin-eating attraction wherein a lone jet dodged and blasted several hi-tech armies. Miclus appears briefly as a bonus icon; the player usually grabs medals (which always looked like stubby bombs to me) for points, but Miclus shows up for an extra score boost at times. You'll usually see it by the second level, but it'll appear on the first if you explode too often.

Later Raiden games give Miclus bigger roles. Raiden Fighters 2 and Raiden Fighters Jet make it a playable character that sweeps the screen with fiery breath. There are other ships to choose, but Miclus is clearly the best.

That aside, my favorite Miclus appearance comes in the Japanese manual for The Raiden Project.

While it's not a highlight of the PlayStation's first year, The Raiden Project was comforting at the time. Many early PlayStation games showed us fancy 3-D effects that would age rapidly, but The Raiden Project revealed a more enduring advantage of Sony's new system: letting us play nearly perfect renditions of older arcade games. The Raiden Project offers the original game and Raiden II in arcade-faithful style, aside from some loading times. Its default presentation puts big borders on the screen to show all of the vertical playfield, but you can turn your TV on its side to get a more accurate full-set look. That's where Miclus comes in.

The manual's last pages find the fat little dragon delivering a warning about flipping your TV for  arcade mode. On the left, Miclus turns away in disgust from an anthropomorphized and improperly rotated television. On the right, Miclus looks on in approval. Or maybe it's inspecting that humanoid TV for genitalia and other Videodrome-like abnormalities.

This Miclus comic wasn't necessary for the North American version of The Raiden Project. Sony technically left in the full-screen mode, but with only side-scrolling controls. They didn't want customers damaging their TVs. And yet I think Miclus could've given Sony airtight legal exoneration. If a tiny dragon cautions you about rotating your set, it's your own fault if you don't listen.

Monster Wrecks

What’s the anime-manga industry up to these days? Monster girls, from the look of it. Mike Toole recently wrote an Anime News Network article about this trend, which seizes the base elements of sex comedies or domestic dramas and adds centaurs, lamia, harpies, mermaids, ogres, spider-people, slimes, and other creatures, most of them female.

I find this fascinating in concept. I always like it when people appropriate legends and creatures in new and ridiculous ways, so I see nothing wrong with a sitcom about a guy forced to share a house with a snake-person or a pile of sentient protean goo. I’m sure the storytellers of ancient Greece and general antiquity came up with things like this. They just didn’t write them down.

The problem with most of these monster-girl series is that they’re typical stories beneath the new paint. The leader of the whole movement is Monster Musume, a manga and anime about an average guy with various roommates from the monster realm: first a lamia who can’t keep her coils off him, then a juvenile harpy, then a noble centaur, and so on. It adheres to the same bland template as countless other risque comedies, as nearly all of the mythical beast-women want the protagonist in one way or another. That's why I gave up on the series. Well, that and I started feeling sorry for the lamia, who met the protagonist first and clearly liked him best.

Monster Musume doesn’t hesitate to overload on titillation, and rarely does it take its premise to imaginative heights. For example, we’re told that lamia are all female and thus require human males to breed (gosh, how convenient), even though many brands of fiction have male snake-men. What about Michael Swanwick’s The Dragons of Babel, where a male lamia is called a lamius? What about the G.I. Joe movie, which features a serpent-emperor voiced by Burgess Meredith? What about those Piers Anthony novels that a lot of people warned me against reading? I’m sure at least one of them has a male lamia.

There’s one section of the monster-girl trend that I actually enjoy, if only for selfish, nerdy reasons. It’s a manga called T-Rex na Kanojo, or My Girlfriend is a T-Rex.

It’s ostensibly a parody of the whole monster-girl thing, and it envisions a world where dinosaurs didn’t go extinct so much as they evolved over untold epochs to live and work alongside humans. Of course, this evolution means that dinosaur girls look human as far as their heads and torsos are concerned—everywhere else they have scales, claws, horns, or armor plating.

My Girlfriend is a T-Rex introduces Yuuma, a college kid of such placid disposition that he thinks nothing of a carnosaur woman named Churio digging through his garbage one night (because T-rexes aren’t above scavenging). After failing to frighten him away, Churio is strangely impressed with the thoughtful, laid-back human guy, and she moves in with him. The manga then delivers loosely linked gags about Churio fitting into the human world; she doesn’t know her own strength or grasp the tenets of civilization, and that’s dangerous when you’re a dinosaur from the waist and elbows down.

More gentle comedy than ribald fantasy, My Girlfriend is a T-Rex seems to enjoy mocking reader expectations. Churio is buxom and naked when she’s introduced (and kept PG-13 by sound effect placement), but she dons clothes early on, and the series never goes for sex jokes when fish-out-of-water gags will do. The art is average and the humor tends to be mundane day-to-day fare, but the series has a slow charm that I can’t resist.

I also respect My Girlfriend is a T-Rex for its allegiance to a deeper cause. Churio makes friends among other dino-girls, and one of them is Kram. She’s an ankylosaurid woman who wags her clubbed tail when she’s happy. That joke is probably why the author went with an ankylosaur, but I’m glad to see my favorite dino get high billing here. Instead of following convention and introducing a Triceratops, an Apatosaurus, or a Stegosaurus as a supporting character, the series skipped to the Ankylosaurus.

Most dinosaur fiction sticks the noble creature, with its plated back and macelike tail, down among the C-listers. Jurassic Park took four movies before an Ankylosaurus or Euoplocephalus did anything, and they never had prominent parts in Dinotopia, Dino-Riders, or even Shotaro Ishinomori’s obscure, child-traumatizing Age of the Great Dinosaurs.

Most insulting of all is Dinosaucers, the mediocre ‘80s cartoon that pairs up hyperevolved alien dinosaurs with unnecessary human kids. The villain’s chief toady is Ankylo, a snorting, sniveling dimwit who looks more like a Dragon Ball Z devil-pig than a genuine Ankylosaurus. For that wretched aspersion, I hope Dinosaucers rots in the same remake-deprived cartoon hinterland as The Biskitts, Sport Billy, and Hound Town.

So I’ll give My Girlfriend is a T-Rex some credit, and perhaps I’ll buy it when the English version arrives later this year. It can join my childhood Ankylosaurus collection.

Depressing Game Endings: El Viento

El Viento is among my favorite weird games, perhaps because it isn't all that weird. Compared to Katamari Damacy or Cho-Aniki or even the culturally ratified oddities of Super Mario Bros., El Viento is ordinary. It’s a side-scrolling action game with jumping and boomerang-tossing, and its base effect isn't so different from the many other Sega Genesis titles where a fetching heroine saves the world from some eldritch menace.

Look closer, and you'll see invention. Like the two other (lesser) parts of the Earnest Evans trilogy, El Viento is steeped in 1920s adventure and interdimensional horrors, as it sends lithe Peruvian explorer Annet from Chicago streets to hellish caverns and an Empire State Building designed to summon demons. Like Indiana Jones with gangsters and Lovecraft beasts instead of Nazis and chilled monkey brains, El Viento brims with lower-key strangeness, and it's more fascinating for that.

So much of El Viento mixes typical action with fabulously bizarre details. Annet starts off by fighting Al Capone's thugs, but then she leaps across a Mount Rushmore full of smiling gun turrets and a floating cactus chain. Then she raids a blind-tiger club full of tiny imp mobsters and sluglike bartenders who explode when struck by her boomerangs and magic spells. Then she hops on a dolphin and rides straight into giant pixel jellyfish-octopuses. They explode as well. Most of the enemies come in weird and flammable varieties, and there’s never a reason why. Even the rats that pester Annet in a sewer look like they're wearing little sunglasses.

See? They're cool rats.

Annet does all of this to keep cultists and criminals from summoning the ancient deity Hastur, but she's also out to rescue her sister Restiana. Despite rampant evidence that the cult's planning to sacrifice her, Restiana is convinced that she'll become a veritable goddess with Hastur's powers, and she openly asks why Annet opposes them. Annet's response?

That's a solid riposte, Annet. In fact, that screenshot can be used in all sorts of arguments. The next time someone on a forum asks why you favor socialized medicine or oppose a poll tax or enjoy Gundam X, hit 'em with Annet's counter. They'll either give up in disgust or congratulate you on your taste in Genesis games.

Annet's sharp rejoinders fail to sway Restiana, and the game's climax sees the two sisters meeting atop an under-construction Empire State Building. Restiana turns into Hastur's dragonlike form, and Annet destroys the creature.


Oh wait. There’s more to this ending.

Well. That’s not as uplifting. Annet looks on in sorrow as she saves the world but not her misguided sister. This is made all the more haunting by the Earnest Evans trilogy’s tendency to show defeated bosses as viciously mangled corpses. In El Viento, you don't discreetly fade away or gasp out dying solemnities with only a tasteful line of blood at the corner of your mouth. If you mess with Annet, she’ll tear open your ribcage like a stubborn bag of Doritos.

Annet’s resolute façade cracks completely as the ending continues, and she tearfully collapses into the embrace of Earnest, who hasn’t done much else in this entire game. No wonder the third Earnest Evans title was once again all about Annet.

And so El Viento closes with Annet murdering her sister and facing the gravity of her deeds in the most gruesome way. What’s more, her longtime friend Zigfried slinks off, his thoughts revealing that he's got something nasty in mind for Earnest and Annet. There's not much to be happy about here.

It's even more downbeat when you consider that things never improved for Annet. The third and last Earnest Evans game, Annet Futatabi, is a mediocre brawler, and Telenet and Wolfteam ditched the series afterward. They had high hopes for Annet at first, even going so far as to cast her in marketable bighead form, but El Viento never became as momentous as the Valis series, and Annet never became another Yuko. But considering how Telenet turned out a Valis X line of porn games in 2006, Annet might've succeeded a lot worse.

Pity for Annet comes easily. She has engaging pluck about her, and even her typically scant outfit benefits from a few colorful flourishes. Yet the game reduces her mostly to reactions instead of genuine personality, and that may be why she didn’t stick around. In fact, even more vivacious heroines were denied the careers they deserved in the early 1990s. Popful Mail burned with charming avarice, but Falcom never gave her an ongoing series. Madison and Crystal delivered quips and parodies over two Trouble Shooter games, but that was as far as they went. Annet couldn't hope to go further.

Arcade of My Youth: Landstuhl

A lot of us had childhood arcades, and most of us saw them change. If you’re my age, you might’ve watched a gallery of varied offerings, Final Fight and Ghosts ‘N Goblins and Raiden and all, shift into a throng of Street Fighter II, Mortal Kombat, and every fighting game aping their success. If you’re older than I am, you might’ve seen an arcade trade pop-culture staples like Pac-Man and Space Invaders for things with vaguer goals and smaller crowds. If you’re younger than I am, you might’ve had time only to observe a neighborhood fixture waste down to a few prize-grabber machines and an Area 51 cabinet with one defective plastic pistol. Then it finally closed and signaled that the modern world has little space for childhood arcades.

I say all of this in envy, because I never had much of a childhood arcade. I spent five years of that childhood in Germany, as my father was in the Air Force. Instead of living on an American military base, we lived in a German village, and if that warren of half-timbered homes and dangerously sharp turns had an arcade, I never found it.

The closest I had was the small arcade at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center. It was a mere nook in the base cafeteria, but it was my best vision of quarter-devouring culture in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The selection was the video-game equivalent of the Armed Forces Network, where you’d see current TV shows like ALF and In Living Color aired in tandem with black-and-white movies. Older Kung-Fu and Tiger-Heli cabinets would sit alongside Cabal and Golden Axe, and I couldn’t be sure if a game would stick around for the next time my family dropped by the BX.

In this arcade the size of a small moving van, I remember three games most vividly.

Arcades intimidated me, and I doubt I was alone. A game on the computer or NES could be practiced in your own home, but arcade titles were merciless and impatient. You put in a quarter and tried to grasp the gameplay through a joystick and buttons, and heaven help the slow learners.

My mother always admonished me against playing arcade games. I once thought she merely disdained them as unproductive wastes, but I now think she had a more insightful motive. She didn’t want me spending money on arcade games because I was terrible at them.

That’s why Wardner got my attention. Arcade games tended to kill you off in barrages of enemy bullets or throngs of street punks, but Wardner was less threatening at first. It was a side-scrolling game where a pudgy hobbit bounced across forest floors and threw fireballs. It was a lot like Super Mario Bros., and I already knew how to play that! This Wardner thing should be easy!

Well, it wasn’t. Wardner is an action-platform game from Toaplan, a company better known for crafting impressive shooters like Batsugun and Outzone. Those shooters are tough, and so is Wardner. It sees its rotund hero waddling through a fantasy realm in search of his girlfriend, who’s encased in crystal and offered to the local tyrant, Mr. Wardner. Our protagonist can boost his fire magic and don a protective cloak, but at the game’s start he tosses only one limp flame at a time, and a single hit does him in. I’d later learn that his name is Dover, but after losing a few quarters to the game, I was more inclined to call him Fatsy Bumbledick.

As frustrating as Wardner was, it fascinated me with the loose, unexplained logic arcade games often put forth. The second level is a dilapidated factory where Fatsy faces whirling blades, conveyor belts, spiked drones, and other challenges required by any game where someone can jump. Yet I was intrigued to see all of this pop up after a stage full of forests and castles and dragons. Was Mr. Wardner trying to industrialize this peaceful land, like something out of that unnecessary chapter at the end of The Lord of the Rings? Or did Wardner actually occur in the future, when gnomes and fairies live among the ruins of humankind and an entire factory still treads on in ignorance, slowly devolving into one massive death trap?

I also liked what awaits at the end of the factory. You’ll see a woman pacing in a locked room, but once the level-boss dragon is defeated and the door is opened, she turns into a generic ghoul. If that occurred only on the second level, I just knew that the game held stranger twists later on. Perhaps the real villain would be Fatsy’s crystalized sweetheart or some mutated, long-lived survivor of whatever catastrophe had ended human civilization!

Wardner wasn’t worth my speculation. As I found out years later, it grows wearisomely hard by the last stage, and there are no shockers apart from Mr. Wardner transforming from an aged sorcerer to a hirsute demon. That's really a standard disappearing-handkerchief trick among the dark sorcerers of video games. Wardner is just an average action title with a few neat ideas and solid Toaplan execution. It’s Ghosts ‘N Goblins after a big fatty meal, but for a little while it opened up a post-apocalyptic fantasyland for me. In several ways.

The Landstuhl base arcade was a cubbyhole. It had room for about half a dozen cabinets, and it didn't hold any of those oversized setups that mimic jet cockpits or racecar seats. Perhaps that was deliberate, because those things always attracted little kids who'd sit inside and mess with the controls even if they weren’t playing. I was one of them at first.

The most elaborate home belonged to Power Drift. Unsuited to conventional controls, it was a regular upright cabinet with foot pedals at its base and a steering wheel where the joystick might be. That caught my eye. I also liked how forgiving the game was compared to others in the arcade. Instead of some hellish gauntlet of alien ships or spiked pits, it sent a bunch of stereotyped ‘80s drivers around a track. It didn’t doom you instantly if you screwed up, and you usually got to drive for an entire race even if you constantly crashed into things and careened off the track. Which I usually did.

Power Drift also stands out in my memory for the reactions it provoked. One day a slightly older kid wandered into the arcade and went from one game to another, yelling about whatever he saw onscreen. He must’ve thought he was cool.

He reached Power Drift, watched for a moment, and let fly with his witticism.

“WHOAAA, EMILY BABY!” he shouted.

Power Drift’s demo mode includes portraits of the game’s drivers, and the last one shown is Emily. She looks straight out of a Jordache ad or perhaps a 1980s horror movie where she’d have to recite lines like “This isn't funny!" and "You're scaring me!” before her gruesome end.

There are moments in life that teach us lessons with perfect, unimpeachable clarity. The young arcade catcaller made me realize that the harder you try to be cool, the less cool you actually seem. In the years to follow, I became a lonely and hollow adolescent, and I developed small crushes on several women who existed only in video games. But I at least knew that I shouldn’t reveal these attractions to anyone—or shout about them in an arcade.

I suspect that arcade games were fascinating to us partly because they were ephemeral. We might get only a glimpse of a blob bouncing through a maze or a high-tech jet blasting its way through the lattices of an orbital station. Then mom would drag us away, and we’d never see that game again. Even after MAME came along and presented decades of arcade games to explore, we might never recall those lost games well enough to find them.

I remember the titles of nearly every game hosted by the Landstuhl arcade, but one escaped me. I saw it the last time I visited the arcade, and I didn’t play it.

This game of mystery was foreboding on two fronts. For one thing, it was a spaceship shooter, and I sucked at those even more than I sucked at side-scrolling action games about inept hobbit magicians. The game also showed a screen that read “IF YOU ARE PLAYING THIS GAME OUTSIDE OF NORTH AMERICA YOU MAY BE INVOLVED IN A CRIME” or something to that effect. Distributors used these to prevent piracy and unauthorized exportation, and this was the first time I saw such a message. I wasn’t sure I could play it. Technically, the military base was American territory. Geographically, I was in Germany. I figured it was best not to risk some MPs barging into the arcade and calling my parents and banning me from video games for life.

I couldn’t put a title on the game for years, and I remembered scant details. It was a side-scrolling shooter, it had very vivid, glowing backgrounds, and one stage had metal scenery and a fleet of green helicopter enemies. That was all I had.

I recently tried tracking down this mystery shooter, and after an hour or so I found the most likely suspect: Kaneko’s Heavy Unit.

Heavy Unit is a cruelly difficult game, and I’m certain I would have lasted about forty-five seconds on it back in 1991. Yet it’s also a visually imaginative game, with stages that throw new backgrounds and fresh, weird enemies your way every ten seconds or so. You might speed down a corridor of alien cilia, blasting skull centipedes, a crablike prize-catcher, and fire-breathing serpents before you scale a pyramid to face gargoyles and a giant horned demon’s visage. And that’s all in the first level. I especially like the backdrop of skeletal white trees that starts off the second level, like you’re flying through some subterranean world in a nuclear winter, or navigating one of Fiver's visions in the Watership Down movie.

So Heavy Unit fulfills all three of my memories: it’s a side-view shooter, it has pulsating reddish backgrounds at several points, and the third stage brings out a fleet of little copter-mechs. That’s where I stopped playing for research purposes. I’d already surpassed my younger self.

The only thing that Heavy Unit lacks is that warning screen I misinterpreted all those years ago, but I’m going to count it as a match and consider this case closed. Now I need to hunt for a side-scrolling fantasy-action game I saw at a French rest stop circa 1988. It had a hero with a double-bladed axe and an intro where someone got kidnapped. That should narrow things down.

And that was it for my childhood half-arcade. My family moved to Ohio, where there were arcades aplenty but none within walking range. It wasn’t until I became a teenager that the neighborhood got an arcade called Cap’n Bogey’s Golf ‘N Games.

But that’s a story for another time.