For the arcade game fan who plays arcade games at home, Jess Ragan's "MAMExpose" presents you with the many joys - and pitfalls - of emulation, specifically those found while using our favorite program in the universe: MAME.

Data East was once considered one of Nintendo's most important third parties.  Unfortunately, this success didn't last...  the 1990's brought hard times for this once respected game developer.  Data East became increasingly desperate, releasing clones of popular games in the hopes of remaining in the public's fickle eye.  All this brought them was a lawsuit from Capcom, which had been pushed over the edge by one too many rip-offs of its successful Street Fighter series. 

Data East's days were numbered, although they somehow managed to limp into the next century with help from cult hits like Magical Drop series.  It wasn't long after this that the developers responsible for arcade classics like Bump 'n Jump and Bad Dudes went out of business.  They didn't have the money to make new software, and they couldn't adapt to the rapidly changing video game industry.  The only way Data East could go was out, so in 2003, they did just that, declaring bankruptcy and closing their doors forever.

The company that kept us entertained throughout most of the 1980's may be gone, but the games they created are still here for us to enjoy.  Here's my review of three popular Data East arcade games, along with a more obscure Japanese release which you may consider a pleasant surprise.

Released by Data East in 1984


Ten years ago, Capcom sued Data East for releasing a versus fighting game which they claimed was too similar to their own Street Fighter II.  I suppose they conveniently forgot that Data East created the entire genre ten years before that with Karate Champ.  In this early martial arts game, you've got to demonstrate your mastery of karate by beating opponents in sparring matches.  Karate Champ is unique in that it uses two joysticks to control both your fighter and his attacks.  This control scheme made the exceptional shooter Robotron: 2084 incredibly intuitive, but in Karate Champ, it has the opposite effect, making the gameplay clumsy and confusing.  It's hard to remember what joystick combinations perform which attacks, often leaving you vulnerable... and frustrated!  It's really a shame, because there are some great ideas in Karate Champ, especially the bonus rounds sandwiched between fights.  You'll break cement blocks, dodge flying debris, and even bring down a bull with your bare hands! 

If Karate Champ had better control, it would have been a whole lot of fist flyin' fun despite its plain graphics and rough digitized sound effects.  However, as it is, I can only give it an average rating of five.


Created by Data East in 1987


Even if you don't agree with the theory of evolution, you've got to admit that it has a lot of potential as a video game play mechanic.  In Super Real Darwin, the sequel to the unique Data East shooter Darwin 4078, you pilot a biomechanical ship which can capture the genetic code of its enemies and use it to evolve into increasingly powerful (and bizarre!) forms.  Each of these forms have unique weapons, along with fittingly strange names like Zwipi, Dlime, and Hodoyodo (I'm fine!  How do YOU do?).  Unfortunately, the more your ship evolves, the larger and more vulnerable it becomes.  If your ship is damaged, it will quickly devolve, transforming into the tiny, underpowered Pister.  The Pister is instantly destroyed by enemy fire... the only way you can protect yourself from a quick, humiliating death is to collect more genetic code and once again transform into a more formidable spacecraft.  There were tons of shooters released in the late 1980's, but Super Real Darwin distinguishes itself from the rest by being, well, frickin' weird, to be blunt.  You'll find yourself scratching your head in the rare moments that the screen isn't overflowing with enemies and their bullets.  The evolution play mechanic helps, too, giving the game more variety than most of its competitors. 

That's why I give the game a seven, even if its bizarre design may scare off less devoted shooter fans.


Released by Data East in 1987


Who needs a plump Italian plumber when you can step into the curled shoes of an obscenely flabby Russian circus attraction?  That's what Data East must have been thinking when they released Karnov, a side-scrolling action game intended to compete against Super Mario Bros.  Unfortunately, the game has even less appeal than its massive star.  Karnov is brutally ugly, with washed out backgrounds and a cast of bizarre, misshapen creatures.  It's also incredibly aggravating... when you're not getting flattened by large, seemingly unavoidable boulders, you're desperately trying to target enemies which flit around your fireballs with ease.  The game's wide selection of power ups and items does give it more variety than Super Mario Bros., but you won't be given many opportunities to use them because of the rigid and unforgiving gameplay.  I can't blame Data East for making a Super Mario Bros. clone like this... after all, nearly every other game company in the late 80's did, too.  However, they could have done a much better job with it than this. 

I give Karnov a five, and still wonder to this day how the rotund Russian managed to find work after starring in this colossal flop.


Released by Data East in 1988


One of the coolest action films from the 1980's gets an equally slick video game, courtesy of the creators of Bad Dudes.  Robocop will go down in history as one of the most effective movie-licensed games of all time.  It doesn't have much depth, but it does perfectly capture the gritty, futuristic look of the film... and let's face it, Robocop makes one hell of a video game character.  The steel-plated police officer makes his way through  the streets of New Detroit, stopping only to strike thugs with his mighty metal fists.  Robocop's punches are deadly enough to bring down even the strongest enemies, but they don't have much range.  When crooks start shooting at him from windows and from behind barrels, our hero compensates by pulling a pistol from a compartment inside his thigh.  That's when the game really gets exciting... gunning down crowds of criminals and carefully picking off sneaky villains hiding inside buildings is what makes Robocop truly satisfying.  To be honest, it isn't quite as good as some of Data East's other action titles, including Sly Spy and Midnight Resistance... the game gets pretty repetitive (exactly how many ED-209s do you have to fight, anyway?!), and the slowdown in later stages is just atrocious.  However, the exceptional use of the film's license is what makes Robocop a hit, and one of Data East's most successful arcade games. 

I give it a seven.


MAME TIPS:  If you're hungry for even more Data East action, fill your plate with these great games!  Bubble Bobble fans ought to love Funky Jet and Tumblepop.  In Funky Jet, you fly around the screen with a jet pack, punching out crowds of punks.  In Tumblepop, you sweep up enemies with a vacuum cleaner and spit them out, uncovering coins and bonus items.  For more lighthearted fun, try Joe and Mac: Caveman Ninja and its modern equivalent Spinmasters (the sequel to the Genesis game Dashin' Desperadoes).  If you want to challenge both your mind and your reflexes, Magical Drop and its sequels are just what the doctor ordered... it's a fast, tough puzzle game with a cast of adorable characters.  Finally, if you've got an itchy finger, Heavy Barrel and its sequel Midnight Resistance will keep you busy for hours.  Heavy Barrel is similar to Ikari Warriors but with much more satisfying weapons, including a devastating laser bazooka assembled from pieces you'll find in locked chests.  Midnight Resistance is more like the Contra series, but uses the key system from Heavy Barrel... to gain new weapons, you'll have to purchase them from a storage room at the end of each stage.  Finally, if you just want to laugh, spend a couple of minutes with Tattoo Assassins, the miserable Mortal Kombat clone that was briefly in development at Data East's pinball division.  It was never officially released in arcades, but thanks (or no thanks...?) to MAME, you can play it at home.

Get ready for some serious firepower!  In the next edition of MAMExpose, we take flight with some of our favorite shooters... as well as a couple of duds we'd like to drop from the bomb hatch.

You've played plenty of bad games on game consoles, but what about bad arcade games? In the next MAMExpose, we'll look at a few titles that aren't worth a second look, let alone a second quarter.

A new "MAMExpose" can be found here bi-monthly!

For "back issues" of this column, click HERE.

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Last updated: Monday, July 04, 2005 10:03 PM