It’s been a long time since I’ve been to a proper arcade (well, at least as proper as they come these days). My local bowling alley has a decent sized collection of aging and decaying ticket games off to the side of the lanes, but I don’t really count that. I recently visited a more well-equipped venue, and I was incredibly surprised to see a cabinet based on Luigi’s Mansion. I’m a big fan of Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon on the 3DS, so I had to give the game a go once it was free.
Luigi’s Mansion Arcade is heavily based off of its 3DS counterpart. I played through two levels which appeared to me to be exact replicas of the Gloomy Manor and Old Clockworks stages of the handheld game. As far as I can tell, I think the game just takes the exact levels and art assets from Dark Moon and scales them up to a big screen experience. And the game looks great, despite everything originally being designed for a tiny handheld display. It’s a testament to the strength of the visual design that was present in the excellent original.
Luigi’s Mansion Arcade is probably best grouped with the lightgun games, although it’s not really a shooter. The machine features two (one for each player) fairly hefty and solid replicas of Luigi’s Poltergust 5000, which is the gun peripheral used to play the game. If you’ve never played a Luigi’s Mansion game, then the brief explanation is that Luigi explores a series of haunted mansions using a vacuum-like contraption, the Poltergust, to capture the various spooky ghosts that evilly inhabit each residence. There are two buttons on the arcade game’s Poltergust peripheral. One on the top is used to blast a bright flash of light (the Strobulb) that stuns the ghosts and makes them vulnerable to attack. Once stunned, the button on the Poltergust’s grip can be used to start vacuuming in the specters.
Gameplay mostly consists of Luigi slowly making his way through each mansion of the game, with the players having a first person view of his perspective. The game is on-rails, so there is no direct control of Luigi’s movement, but there are a few branching paths offered in each level. During the downtimes of the game, the players can aim the Poltergust at various objects that decorate each mansion to try to suck out some some loose coins to add to their score. Each time you suck up a coin, there is a very satisfying *ka-chink* recoil that is triggered in the peripheral’s force feedback. After a bit of this, you’ll begin to hear the snickering of ghosts or catch glimpses of them preparing an ambush, and this is the cue to get ready for a fight.
Combat consists of flash stunning the ghosts before they can attack, and then using the suction on the Poltergust to vacuum them into captivity. If you know the home games, then you’ll know that when vacuuming up a ghost, you need to pull them in the opposite direction to which they’re travelling. This is featured in the arcade game by aiming the poltergust away from the ghost as you’re capturing them. So, for instance, if the ghost is moving toward the right side of the screen, you need to aim the Poltergust to the left side of the screen to more quickly reel it into the vacuum. Each ghost has a health counter that depletes as you wrestle with it, and the ghost is finally captured when this counter hits zero.
I’ve always found Luigi’s Mansion to be a rather hectic game. You see, as you are working on wrangling in one ghost, other ghosts usually come out to attack. The player is defenseless while using the vacuum, which means that they need to properly time when to let go of the ghost they’re currently capturing. I don’t think this is necessarily obvious to someone who has never played a Luigi’s Mansion games. Sometimes, there’s a lot of ghosts that come out of the woodwork at one time, and the game becomes a bit overwhelming.
Most shooter-type games in the arcade are very simple, you just point, shoot, and reload. And because of the nature of arcades, these types of games need to have a “walk-up and play” quality where anyone can drop money into a machine and quickly understand the basics of what they need to be doing. But with the need to flash the ghosts first (which sometimes requires precise timing), suck them up, and play defensively, it may be a bit complex for someone who has no prior experience with the series. I know the girl I enjoyed the game with expressed some confusion as to exactly what we were supposed to be doing.
It’s not that the game doesn’t try to explain all of this to you. Quite the opposite. As you move about outside of combat, there’s a constant stream of messages at the bottom of the screen from Professor E. Gadd, the inventor of the Poltergust. But these messages are text only, since E. Gadd speaks in his “wabba wabba” style gibberish from the home games. I actually didn’t pay much attention to these communiques, since I was too busy probing the environment for hidden coins during these segments. I suspect most people will be similarly distracted from E. Gadd’s chattiness.
I really liked Luigi’s Mansion Arcade. It’s a unique and visually attractive game, and the Poltergust is probably my favorite controller I’ve ever used in the arcade. But I feel it’s not necessarily a good arcade game, because I fear that it’s not particularly accessible. It’s also an unusually slow game for the arcade, as combat is broken up by the walking sections which are fairly slow and uneventful. But it’s a cool game, nonetheless. Some might not remember, but Nintendo used to be a real presence in the arcade before their extraordinary success with the NES and Game Boy caused them to turn their entire focus on home gaming. From my understanding, this game was actually developed by Sega on behalf of Nintendo, but regardless it’s still awesome to see Nintendo in the arcade again.
I don’t believe I really grew up during the heyday of the arcade, which has always seemed to me to be more in the 1980’s, but arcades did still have a presence when I was young. Still though, arcade culture was something I completely missed out on. Growing up in a fairly rural area, the only nearby machines were the OutRun and MK2 cabinets in the local Pizza Hut. Otherwise, I got most of my experience in this area when I occasionally might happen to visit an arcade during a stop-off on a family trip.
To be honest, I’ve never really gotten arcades. I mean, there are a few arcade staples that I like (I am a huge Sega fan), but overall they’ve never felt as well designed as their home or handheld counterparts. Take beat’em ups for instance. Streets of Rage 2 is one of my favorite Genesis games, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a contender for my favorite XBLA game. But on the arcade side, I’ve always been completely baffled by the popularity of the best arcade beat’em ups (or at least what others hold up as the top-tier). The TMNT and Simpsons brawlers are particularly offensive to me. They sort of crystallize what I feel is wrong with a lot of arcade games: these games aren’t meant to be well-designed challenges, rather, they are meant to push the player’s tolerance limit with cheap and unfair level design just enough so that they can maximize the amount of money extracted from their customers. They are meant to require more luck than skill to avoid having to feed the machine hard earned money to sustain the adventure. This is super frustrating to me, as I enjoy a game that provides a challenge that, while perhaps high in difficulty, is completely conquerable with the right amount of skill and practice. These arcade brawlers make death feel unavoidable, regardless of practice, and ultimately only a test of the depth of one’s pockets.
Enter Capcom’s Dungeons and Dragons arcade brawlers, Tower of Doom and Shadow over Mystara, which were rereleased last year on digital storefronts in the Chronicles of Mystara collection. I’ve seen many arcade experts express admiration for these games, even though they were perhaps not the most widely accessible arcade cabs back in the day. Considering my aversion to these sorts of games, I completely avoided the collection until recently, when a dirt cheap sale online provoked me to give them a shot. Having spent a few hours with the collection, I’m rather happy to report that I don’t find them nearly as bad as the loathsome TMNT and Simpsons games; instead I find they succeed at creating exciting, replayable adventures that don’t feel like hollow cash grabs. I’m not sure I would recommend this collection at full price, seeing as how (for obvious reasons) they can be beaten pretty quickly, but it does feel like a good game for a Steam sale purchase if you can find it for a few bucks.
The Chronicles of Mystara games take place in the somewhat obscure Mystara D&D setting. I don’t have much experience with this setting (or really D&D) but it seems to be a rather straightforward fantasy setting filled with the standard bestiary (e.g., trolls, kobolds, goblins, ogres, etc.) and a simplistic “stop the evil wizard” plot that requires no prior knowledge to follow. Your characters area actually sort of the standard D&D classes: fighter, cleric, elven ranger, etc. For the most part it’s your pretty standard brawler, although it does have a few nice features that stand out. There are a lot of useable items, throwing weapons, and spells that are dropped by enemies, so you have a fair bit of freedom to mix up the gameplay. In addition, as Mystara is a fantasy setting, the enemies tend to be fairly diverse, contrasting with most games of this genre which limit their adversaries to slightly varied street thugs. The monsters, characters, and landscapes are fairly well illustrated. A production of Capcom, the game’s Japanese artists did a good job capturing the feel of western fantasy, deftly avoiding the typical big eyes/small mouth anime-style visual template. The resulting aesthetic is enhanced by the major use of pastel colors to generate an artistic style that is somewhat unique, although not entirely unfamiliar for this type of setting.
What I like most of all about these games is that there is a fairly heavy focus on branching paths and side areas. This gives rise to a fair bit of replayability and, in the context of the arcade, is a much more excellent way of driving repeat business into a machine than just making frequent death unavoidable. The classes are also decently different and likeable enough that you’ll want to experiment with all of them, instead of just lazily sticking to the one you like the looks of the most. Furthermore, the games also seem to be very balanced challenges. Even on the highest difficulty level, I almost never found myself trapped in a situation where I was overwhelmed. If I took damage, then it was because I was not reactive enough and let it happen. And, although it originally took me a fairly large number of credits to get through the games, with repeat playthroughs my credit count started to diminish, and I found myself becoming more adept at battling through enemy hordes.
Chronicles of Mystara has resulted in me lightening my attitudes toward arcade beat’em ups. A good arcade game is definitely fundamentally very different from a good home game. For obvious reasons, arcades just couldn’t deliver the long-form adventures that are found on home gaming machines. Although neither of the Mystara games are especially long, the differing paths you can choose to take with each playthrough give these quests an epic quality that is competitive with the best home adventure games of that era.