One of my favourite films is 1962’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. It’s about a young working-class boy sent to a borstal, and his relationship with the governor there, who befriends him and invites him to be on the long-distance running team. It’s a great film, but one that was made in 1962, with all that entails.
Luckily, I encountered it through the excellent BFI DVD reissue. This includes a commentary from a film historian, a video essay, and some extra background information. Sure, the film is a great work, but the context given in the commentary and supplementary materials helped me understand it more and place it in the context of the other films being made at the time.
Taito Milestones is a collection of 10 games, with absolutely no context whatsoever.
You’re presented with a menu – a weirdly orientated timeline – of the games to pick from, and away you go. Why are these particular games in this collection? What milestones did they represent? What did their arcade cabinets look like? Google it, I guess.
It’s odd, as these games have been individually well treated. They’re the Arcade Archives versions, and as such, loads of options are available. You can mess with the scoring mechanics, pull CRT filters on the screen (although these filter settings do not carry over from game to game) and access a digital manual – although you don’t get scans or images of the original manuals or arcade control cards.
The games themselves are very much a mixed bag. I’ll go through them individually.
Space Seeker (1981) is the first game chronologically in this collection, and one of only two not available individually on the eShop. It’s at both a highlight of the collection and a demonstration of its weakness. You pilot a craft on an overworld destroying bases by dropping into one of two types of levels. There’s a fairly basic horizontal shoot-em-up, but then there’s also proto-3D shooting levels. It’s a fun little time, if a little low on thrills. But I’m going to come back to context. There’s very little information on this game on the internet. Who designed it? Why is it here? What milestone does it represent? Taito had it ported specifically for this collection. They should tell us why they did that.
Qix (1981) this stylish game (pronounced “Kicks”) sees you section off parts of a board by drawing lines from the edges. It’s all aged quite well, helped by the fact that games like Geometry Wars and Rez have adapted the vector style. It’s also got a really interesting history. The problem with Qix has always been its staying power. I quite like a game of Qix, but I never feel like I need just one more go.
Front Line (1982) definitely is a milestone. It’s a run and gun game similar to Commando, which released three years later. Being first isn’t always best, though, as Front Line shows. It’s a primitive game with a punishing difficulty level and a cartoon art style that I’m not a fan of. If you enjoy running, gunning and grenade lobbing, you might enjoy this, but I would peg this as something for serious arcade devotees only.
Wild Western (1982) is an early 80’s Western chase adventure thing. A train runs through the middle of the screen, with bandits trying to hijack it. You play a sheriff trying to enforce the law by shooting the bandits in the face. You can get on the train, too. Which is nice. It’s all fine, I guess. Again, this is a game that could have been enhanced with a little context. We’d love to know the history of it. There’s very little out there on the internet – not even a Wikipedia article.
Alpine Ski (198?) is famous enough to have a Wikipedia article, but its release date listed there puts it chronologically before Wild Western. Obviously, Taito themselves think this isn’t true. You play as a skier, dodging trees, and ice, whilst trying to collect tokens which increase your score. I don’t know why, but I hated playing this. It feels like empty calories. Less than the sum of its parts, it all just feels pointless.
Elevator Action (1982) is a classic. You play as a spy, collecting documents from a building, going up and down elevators and shooting other spies. This is the first game in the collection that has a subtlety of tactics. You can shoot lamps to cause a blackout, but you can also time it to drop lamps on enemy’s heads. Elevators are your mode of transport, but you can also drop them on enemy’s heads. You can jump, but you can also jump into an enemy’s head. It’s great. But it’s also available individually, so do that.
Chack’n Pop (1984) is an incredibly unintuitive platformer. Here, you play a cute little creature who can walk, jump, but also stick to the ceiling. You have to free hearts in each level before making it to the exit. Despite being difficult to master, Chack’n demonstrates a huge graphical and sound upgrade over other titles in this collection, with its chunky sprites. Jeremy Parish has an excellent video looking at the NES version. Just the kind of content that this collection could have done with.
The Fairyland Story (1985) is a weird one. It should be one of the best games on this collection. It looks lovely, and its gameplay is quite refined. Walk around levels and use your magic wand to turn enemies into cake, before pushing the cake off a platform to destroy it. Unfortunately, the action is a bit too sedate to give any lasting impression.
Halley’s Comet (1986) is a vertical shoot-em-up where you must stop comets crashing into and destroying the earth. There’s cool power-ups (although when you die and lose them you can quickly become swamped on restarting at a late point of a level) and it all works well enough. I enjoyed it the most out of all the games on this collection. But I love a shoot-em-up. There’s also very little information on the internet about this game, so I would have, again, liked the opportunity to learn more.
Finally, we get to The Ninja Warriors (1987), which is supposed to be the crown jewel here. Not available separately, this is an early version of the Final Fight/Streets of Rage genre. The big thing in arcades was that it had three screens, so you were presented with a beautiful panoramic view. It also has great music. But in the year 2022, it feels like a curio. It works best as an argument to why porting arcade releases to a home console will inevitably miss out some of what made the arcade experience so magical.
I suppose the idea behind collections like this is that it’s cheaper to buy this collection than it would be to buy all the games for £6.29 (approx.) each. But unless you’re a completionist, we can’t imagine anyone wanting to own all ten of these games that span disparate eras and genres.
Then there’s the context. By presenting these games without context, be it audio, video or textual, these games are forced to stand up for themselves, when some of them could do with a voice in their corner, pointing out why they’re important and special. As is it, they feel rather lonely and unloved.
Taito Milestones, from ININ Games, is out now on Switch. Available at retail and on the eShop.