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Midway Arcade Treasures

At last Kristan gets a justifiable reason to indulge in some rose tinted retro gaming action...

Old games never die - they just wind up on the permanent life support machine that is the retro gaming collection. Most publishers with a lengthy heritage have peddled them over the years, but normally with limited success thanks to their tight-fisted policy of cobbling together full price packages featuring only two genuine classics and four has-beens (take a bow Namco, Midway, Konami!).

Normally, of course, the very people that these collections attracted had already been feverishly compiling their own multi-thousand retro game via the truly wonderful world of MAME and the dozens of machine specific emulators freely available. Having undoubtedly recognised that it needed to offer something a little extra, Midway has managed to shoehorn together a thoroughly enjoyable '80s revisionist package that somehow unites its own best-ofs with the likes of Atari and Williams.

Over before it has even begun

But however hard companies like Midway try to glorify their past, the central curse of almost every single game on offer here is their resonant design principle of kicking the player off the cabinet as quickly as possible. Back in those heady times when these games were new, and such offerings were years away from being replicated properly via home machines, you'd happily surrender all your pocket money for that precious glimpse into the future of gaming. Decades later, with the palpable thrill of the new long since drained away, we're looking at these money-making relics entirely out of context - and probably unfairly.

On the other hand, Midway has taken the genius step of getting our competitive juices flowing by including the facility to upload your high scores on any of the games over Xbox Live. The thrill of having your name in lights at the top of the chart on your machine of choice was dulled slightly when you realised that as soon as the machine was turned off, your score was wiped. This gaming tragedy need never be an issue again with worldwide players uniting to claim the bragging rights once and for all.

Ultimately, though, whether you'll want to spend hours honing your twitch gaming skills again very much depends on how much affection you had for them in the first place. Some of us weren't even born when half of these games were plying their trade - and much of the game buying public will be in the same situation - so many of these games will probably seem embarrassingly old school for the whippersnappers among you.

You had to be there (No, you really did)

Although it's definitely package that should come with the tagline "you had to be there", at least half of the games here still stand up today in terms of instant pick up and play charm and are worthy of investigation - for the sake of furthering your gaming education if nothing else.

Top of the tree in terms of raw addictive appeal has to be Root Beer Tapper, which simply has you flinging pints of beer to a seemingly never-ending bunch of thirsty punters. Thanks to its high-res (for the time) display, its cute cartoony visuals haven't aged too badly either - and that ditty is as incessant as ever. Not far behind in the manic one-more-go stakes is the psychedelic shooter Robotron 2084. Although hamstrung by peculiarly tiny graphics, the innovative multi-directional fire lends the game a panicked air as you run around clearing screen after screen of marauding hordes.

1985's Gauntlet is undoubtedly one of the more famous titles on show here. Not only was it one of the first co-operative gaming experiences (up to four players at once), it featured incredible speech and allowed players to continue the game for as long as their wallet could stand. Unlike virtually ever other game here, though, it's a pretty pointless experience on your own, especially once the game just arbitrarily turns up the heat (that old coin extraction trick). Even with some mates to play it with, it's lost the ground breaking magic it once had and now just feels like a bit of a repetitive slog. Rose tinted spectacles can't save it, sadly.

Gaming for hardcore perverts

Smash TV is another shooter better played in co-op mode, and is ostensibly a more polished Robotron in its room by room multi-directional shooting mayhem, albeit with insanely unfair odds and the increasingly cynical 'infinite continues' mechanic to lure more coinage from your pocket. Although fun for a while, the ridiculous unfairness soon grates. Side scrolling shooter Defender, meanwhile, perhaps featured the most ill-conceived button-based control system ever in the arcade (awaits flaming from the Defender masses), and although feels much more intuitive on a pad still suffers from one of the most extreme learning curves ever. But some of you liked that. Have we got time for it now? Hmmm, only if we feel like being punished.

Paperboy was probably this author's favourite arcade game of 1985, with its Day-Glo high-res visuals, relentless humour and paper chucking/obstacle avoiding gameplay dynamic and handlebar control system. Take away the novelty factor and reflect on another bloody mindedly hard game that has no continues and it's possibly just too damned frustrating for those not prepared for a rigorous memorise 'em up challenge. Seminal driving duo Spy Hunter and Super Sprint, meanwhile, haven't dated too badly thanks to tight design, delightful handling and visuals that don't try to be too ambitious. The former still charms with its special weapons and land/water dynamic, while the latter remains incredibly good fun in multiplayer all these years later - a semi-serious Micro Machines, basically. The pseudo 3D present in Roadblasters, however, dates it badly, and although initially promising it's evident that its one of those games that tried to impress with graphics.

On the other end of the scale, Williams' titles like Joust 1 and 2, Bubbles, and Sinistar are forced to rely on the game designer's imagination and guile to overcome the hardware limitations. Joust still feels fun, but none can really occupy your time for more than a few minutes at a time these days. More impressive are the out and out original titles such as Marble Madness and Vindicators that really tried to think outside of conventional control devices to deliver a fresh experience. Both are well worth a look and suffer less from the obsession with ending your game as quickly as possible - and feel much better for it.

Try and get this one past the suits

Of the rest, Rampage seems initially intriguing with its three player cooperative King Kong building-bashing novelty, but quickly becomes tiresome; seminal skateboard title 720 has always been a tricky sonofabitch to control with its trackball-based control and is even harder now (but almost worth the effort if you're prepared to put the practise in); while the rubber ring craziness present in Toobin is exactly the kind of off the wall gaming concept you'd never get past publishers these days - and more's the pity.

Typically, Midway has gathered up a few odds and ends (Klax, Splat, Rampart, Stargate, Satan's Hollow) that never really figured in too many UK arcades (to our knowledge) and unsurprisingly aren't really the stars of the show either. Still, with the package retailing for under £20 in most stores, you won't be complaining about a few obscurities. Midway bookends the package with some fairly half-hearted extras, such as the occasional video clip of the developers, or some horribly low res artwork (note to Midway - Namco did this ten times better eight years ago), but there is work to be done to satisfy the true aficionado.

For many, most of the titles on show will be obscure, but if you want to dip your toes into the bewildering waters of the '80s arcade, this is probably the best introduction released to date. If only the likes of Konami, Namco and Nintendo could join forces to produce the ultimate compendium we could start addressing some of the true classics. For now, as a round up of the greats of the US coin-op scene of the 80s, Midway's Arcade Treasures has no equal - and for the price represents an essential purchase for all nostalgists. Not perfect, yet, but it'll do for now.

8 / 10