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.
THE MYSTERY SHOOTER
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.