The new arcade game that makes Star Wars fun again
Do you remember the first time?
Arcades, despite reports to the contrary, can still be sticky-floored palaces of splendour, where bright blazing machines happily gobble up your loose coins in exchange for experiences you'd never be able to get at home. They still exude a certain magic, though perhaps not at 10am on a wet Wednesday morning, which is when I find myself traipsing along London's Embankment to Namco's Funscape park.
The arcade feels like it's blinking into life, the only clients a handful of those strange men who carry around their personal effects in flimsy orange Sainsbury's bags and gather around fruit machines, and a thinly dispersed group of schoolchildren, all wondering why there's a tired-looking 33-year-old man on the OutRun 2 cabinet shouting 'Eleganza!' as he nails the tricky switchback on Cloudy Highland.
It was a brief, essential diversion before checking out what I'd come to see: Bandai Namco's Star Wars Battle Pod, the monumental new cabinet that started making its way in to arcades last month. Placed towards the back of Namco Funscape, beyond the dodgems and the bowling alley and all those ticket redemption games, it's an imposing machine, the colossal cabinet putting you in mind of sit-down Sega classics such as G-Loc, OutRun or Space Harrier.
This isn't a bespoke design, mind. It's a conversion for one of Bandai Namco's POD machines - that's Panoramic Optical Display - that are more commonly found in Japanese arcades, where they house a networked Mobile Suit Gundam spin-off. I've tried one myself, though couldn't get over the abstruse mechanics and was instead left marvelling at the beauty of the wraparound screen that takes up your entire field of vision.
That's intact for Star Wars Battle Pod, and the cabinet's been augmented with lots of neat little flavour touches, such as a bank of chunky flashing buttons that looks like it's been ripped from a control panel of the Death Star. What that detail puts you in mind of is the sit-down cabinet that housed Atari's 1983 Star Wars spin-off - and that beautiful, vector-graphics-illustrated game, controlled by that deliciously chunky flight yoke. Sitting down to play Battle Pod, it seems it's worthy of comparison with the classic Atari game in more ways than one.
Star Wars Battle Pod follows in the lineage of the 1983 game - as well as Sega's 1998 Star Wars Trilogy Arcade - in presenting a short, shallow on-rails shooter that's all about the spectacle. And what spectacle it is. The immersion the wraparound screen gives you is impressive, and it's helped by controls built with a sturdiness that feels like it's from a different era: you can mash the flight-stick and throttle control with the same kiddish over-exuberance with which you used to hurl your Kenner Tie Fighter around the living room.
The missions are plucked from a predictable but welcome selection of highlights from the original trilogy. There are the Battles of Yavin and Hoth, the Speeder Bike run through the forest of Endor and the Millennium Falcon run on the Death Star in the distant space above, plus a chance to play as Vader in a final, brutal revenge mission. It's all fairly rote stuff as you twist your reticule this way and that, making sure your main guns don't overheat while waiting for opportunities to disperse of entire waves with your special.
There are a couple of William Castle-esque tricks that help sell it all. Missions start with you strapped into the cockpit of an X-Wing, T-47 or the Millennium Falcon (you can opt for an uncluttered view or, with the touch of a button, get all of that lovely familiar furniture framing the action), and each set-piece commences with you pulling down on the throttle. A bass boost kicks the back of your seat, and a small flush of air washes over your face at the start of each two to three minute mission. And then, you're in.
Hearing the stirring pomp of John Williams' score for a A New Hope's The Battle of Yavin undercut by the high-pitched squelch of laser fire is enough to send most people of a certain age into a frenzy. Star Wars Battle Pod brings that all together in a sensory overload that pushes you towards rapture as you hammer the flight-stick forwards, Tie Fighters screeching past at the outset of what's quite possibly the greatest recreation yet of the heroic trench run. It's slight and short-lived, but it's ludicrously exciting stuff.
There's a question of value hanging over Star Wars Battle Pod that some might find timely - at £2 a play for each of the missions, I blasted through a tenner to see the 15 minutes of fun the game offers. Do I regret spending that much? Not really. For a quarter of an hour I was transported back to being a wide-eyed 10-year-old, and given the fresh wonder of experiencing Star Wars and playing arcade games for the very first time.
Star Wars Battle Pod is currently playable at London's Namco Funscape, a five-minute walk away from Waterloo station. You should really go and check it out.