Publisher: Virgin Games
Played Before: No
Also on: Master System Exclusive
Progress: Stage 6 (Breakout), 27,587 (Centipede), 34,700 (Missile Command)
I’ll admit to not being a huge fan of ports of the most well-known arcade games. Quite often, the primordial gameplay doesn’t make for hours of satisfying entertainment. Disc-based compilations have usually attempted to get around this by offering more games and flashier graphics, yet this still doesn’t mask the puddle-deep mechanics and provide the value you’d want for around £40 a pop. The easiest option at that point becomes including an emulator to demonstrate the original experience and then pairing that up with improved versions. Here, we have a meagre three facsimiles of classic Atari arcade games: Breakout, Centipede and Missile Command.
With emulation beyond the capabilities of the Master System, the question is whether Arcade Smash Hits offers a worthwhile experience over playing the arcade originals or can at least capture the essence of each. The opening screen features what looks like a fluffy space creature to inject a bit of personality into the front end and the cartoony theme is carried through to the rest of the external presentation. Leave the controller untouched and you’ll see demos of each game along with explanations of point awards. These screens feature large, bold graphics that are drawn nicely and this bodes well for the games themselves. There are speech samples littered here and there, including some nonsensical gibberish from the space creature after accessing each game from the main menu. In stark contrast, selecting a game takes you to a plain, text-only options screen where you can choose number of players for all games (one or two) and number of lives for Breakout and Centipede (four or seven, oddly). In Missile Command, you start with six cities and three missile launchers. Another thing that is immediately apparent is the enthusiastic tune that plays on the title screen. The demo soon takes over and cuts this short and left me initially wanting to hear more, but I’ll get to that later.
My first contact with a Centipede clone was Mushroom Alley on the ZX Spectrum, which was a fairly accurate conversion with the twist of boxes of TNT that would instantly kill you if shot. This version of Centipede is more faithful to the arcade original, mirroring the speed and animal infestation variations found there with less of the accidental death. As with most games of the day, the requirement is simple. This is an imaginative variation on Space Invaders with advancement to the next wave relying on destruction of all parts of a centipede. This starts at the top of the screen and moves horizontally, turning and progressing downwards by a row each time it bumps into a mushroom. The mushrooms are destructible by you, in control of a small pointer that can freely move in the lower third of the screen and fire one shot at a time. Movement of this pointer is smooth, even with the translation from the original trackball to 8-way d-pad, which is fortunate as much of the action takes place in the area that the player is limited to. Shooting a centipede in the middle will break it into two, giving you an extra problem to keep an eye on. As in the arcade version, any centipede parts reaching the bottom of the screen won’t scroll off and return at the top. Instead, they go into reverse and start climbing the screen again, row by row. This can make the lower part of the play area quite busy, especially when the centipede is broken into multiple parts and other insects and animals are invading the screen. Snails, spiders, flies, mosquitoes, scorpions, crabs and even starfish conspire to make your life difficult, jumping around the screen, creating more mushrooms or dive-bombing the player. These are, of course, worth bonus points and killing off all parts of the centipede takes you immediately to the next stage for more of the smooth, playable same.
My brief history with Breakout clones has already been documented somewhat in another review and here we are again on the Master System with this version. What we have here is a set of 27 levels featuring colourful but quite uninspiring block layouts. Controls are as simple as you’d expect with left and right moving the paddle, button 1 launching the ball and button 2 making the paddle faster so you can pull off heroic saves when the challenge ramps up. Except it never really does. Breakout clones had long moved on from basic paddle vs wall by 1992 and a few extras were to be expected by then. This version of Breakout is faithful to the original in that it features no floating enemies or other gimmicks like Woody Pop’s train, no special blocks to change the speed and behaviour of the ball and no paddle upgrades to keep things interesting. So it’s just your paddle, a ball and some bricks. There are three ways ball physics are done in Breakout games. One is to calculate the angle of the incoming ball, consider the paddle’s movement and where it hits, then bounce the ball appropriately. Another I’ve seen is where ball physics are done badly, bouncing from the paddle at seemingly random speed and angles. Thankfully, the latter is avoided here, but the easy in-between option was taken instead and the ball leaves the paddle at an angle solely determined by where the ball hits. This negates much of the fun to be had from masterfully changing the speed and angle to get at a particularly elusive brick. The speed of the ball is also inconsistently variable and artificially removes a layer of control from the player. In-game presentation is clear, bold and colourful with nothing that jumps out and begs you to run and show someone, except the background. The action takes place over the top of a very distracting scrolling pattern which can usually be ignored but occasionally catches the eye and pulls focus from the tiresome task of juggling the ball. To be honest, this isn’t entirely unwelcome. Oh, remember I mentioned the tune that plays on the title screen? It returns in Breakout, allowing you to hear more and only broken by losing a life or progressing to the next level as sampled speech takes over between balls. It loops for as long as you can bear to play the game. I don’t want to hear it any more.
Updates of classics tend to retain the original gameplay but add a bit of flash to the sprites and backgrounds. Here, there are four backgrounds featuring two very nearby planets or moons, meaning that we can’t be defending Earth. Where are we? But jazzy backgrounds aren’t what we’re here for and playability is key. Sadly, Missile Command is not compatible with the Phaser, which would have improved involvement and challenge. An option to utilise the 3D glasses would have been great, too. A sense of depth to the screen with missiles getting closer as they fall would have enhanced the experience and brightened up what has always been a dull game. Yet, I was pleasantly surprised by this version. You’re given 24 shots per stage, equally distributed between three anti-missile cannon, with which to defend a maximum of six cities. One button selects the cannon you’re using and the other fires. Missiles rain from the sky at angles towards your cities, launched by some unseen foe. It was probably the Russians. It usually is. Your job is to shoot these missiles out of the sky. However, this isn’t just a case of popping your cursor over the falling ordnance and pressing fire. Your anti-missile missile (yes) takes time to traverse the screen, so you always have to aim ahead and allow for it to get there. Add to this the need to select the appropriate gun to fire with and Missile Command can quickly become a hectic experience. A small circular explosion provides some compensation to poor aiming and a city gets rebuilt every 10,000 points but otherwise you’re on your own until the world inevitably ends. The accompanying bouncy music is out of context with the subject matter and a plodding, more ominous soundtrack would have been more appropriate to the theme of defending against nuclear destruction, but this is otherwise a very playable game of global thermonuclear war.
With the strong presentation values immediately apparent, it’s a shame the games themselves don’t quite carry that through and the front end presentation ends up almost being irrelevant. Would the feel of the games have been improved with fuzzy space creatures in place of the relatively sterile graphics that were used? No, but it would have brought them into context with the whole package. As it is, everything surrounding the games themselves has ended up being extraneous fluff. That this small compilation was developed by Images, whose only other Master System production was the infamous Back To The Future 2, may go some way to explaining the lack of cohesion and added value. It feels as if there were two completely separate processes happening in development of Arcade Smash Hits; one for going wild with presentation and the other for making the games. It’s a shame that the package doesn’t have more games to choose from, particularly considering the late release year. The games themselves appear to do what the developer intended to achieve and are decent copies of the originals so, once the front end is put to one side, what we’re left with is an engrossing Missile Command, a very good Centipede and an uninteresting Breakout. However, with only two of the games worth playing and far more engaging and superior arcade-style gameplay available elsewhere on the Master System, it’s difficult to recommend picking this one up.
Exciting SEGA rating:
It’s worth mentioning as a post-script that the versions of Missile Command and Centipede found here, unspectacular as they are, are still vastly superior to their counterparts on Arcade Classics for Mega Drive.