One of the most pathetic ironies of my life is that, as an ’80s kid, I spent hours and hours and hours playing my Atari 2600. I ultimately got in some time on my brother’s Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), but by the time of the 16-bit revolution, I’d moved on to even more solitary pursuits. Today’s video game renaissance is passing me by. I could spend days of my life trying to get E.T. out of those damned holes in the ground, but now that video games are a fully-fledged art form, I can’t be bothered.
That makes me sound pretty old, but I was still too young to spend much time in arcades outside of Aladdin’s Castle birthday parties. So, when I had the chance to review a throwback game system that promised to replicate eight classic arcade games, I said yes. I could practically feel those double rolls of quarters in my pocket.
I soon realized, though, that the product I’d signed up to field-test came preceded by online infamy. As reviewers have noted, the Bandai Namco Flashback Blast! is deceivingly packaged: the box features arcade-game graphics, but the actual product runs the inferior NES versions of the games. There are also a couple of technical challenges: the provided USB cord is far too short to reach from the average TV to the average outlet, and when pairing the controller with the HDMI dongle you need to figure out that the designated pairing keys need to be depressed when the controller power is turned on. (Not to mention, you have to provide your own damn AAA batteries, but at least the box mentions that.)
Once you get it up and running, there are some bells and whistles that the NES never had. You can save a game and come back to it, and you can rewind the game if you make a boner move and die at a crucial moment. Might be more important for an ambitious game like Super Mario Bros. 3 than, say, Pac-Man…but still, it’s an option.
Controller in hand (complete with its many extraneous buttons), I set out to play my way through all six games — well, at least through the first board of each.
Nearly four decades after this hungry yellow circle hit arcades, that woopa-woopa-woopa sound Pac-Man makes while he chows down on dots is still iconic. What’s that siren constantly going off in the background, though? As usual, the cops make a lot of noise but aren’t there when you need ’em. Anyway, this game is hard. When I was a kid I memorized a pattern on the Atari version, but fuck if I’m going to do that now. The NES graphics are gratifyingly closer to the arcade version, meaning that the ghosts actually turn blue instead of just flickering when they’re vulnerable, but Pac-Man does not have an impressive turn radius on this controller. If you want him to stop and turn off a straightaway before he hits a corner, good luck.
This game I didn’t remember as well, but helpful onscreen instructions effectively convey the gist: MISSION: DESTROY ALIENS/ WE ARE THE GALAXIANS. The pronoun begs the question of why your mission is being conveyed by the enemy, but never mind that. This game is like Space Invaders, but with friskier foes. (This is also the game where I remembered how much time I used to spend talking to the TV.) In addition to scooting back and forth across the rainbow-starred sky in formation, the Galaxians regularly come gliding down towards your ship singly or in groups, firing as they descend. You have to mind your firing finger, since you can’t shoot until your last projectile has disappeared. There is something satisfying about zipping beneath a Galaxian descending at a lazy angle and popping it off, kind of like sliding into home. Or into first, as the case may be: you have to achieve a score of 5,000 just to dislodge the table-ante high score.
So basically, this game is like baby-sitting. Little critters are chasing you, and it’s your job to sneak around them while you try to get some work done. At first this game seems liberating — it’s like Pac-Man, but you get to carve your own path! Quickly, though, you realize that your paths are your pursuers’ paths too. Plus, they can turn into pairs of disembodied eyes and float through the dirt to come after your little space-suited Smurf. Things did get a little easier once I realized that you could shoot them, but that requires turning around to get them in your sights, and when the chase gets hectic, that’s tricky. Also, there are dragons that can breathe fire on you, and rocks that drop on you. But you can trap your pursuers under the rocks for bonus points, and you can eat veggies for points too. What a good influence video games are.
WTF is Mappy? This was the first Blast throwback game I was entirely unfamiliar with, and it took me about nine straight deaths to figure out what I was supposed to be doing. Your little pink foes run really fast, and you can’t jump or shoot — you can only run back and forth horizontally. What you can do is hit a trampoline that will fire you as high as you please in the reaches of what I took to be a mansion beset by robbers. Your little character seems to be a mouse charged with grabbing the house’s valuables — TVs, computers, copies of the Mona Lisa — before your foes do. (Actually, I subsequently learned from Wikipedia, you’re on their turf retrieving stolen goods, which makes more sense. Also, they’re kleptomaniac cats called Meowkies.) Weirdly, while they immediately subdue you if you cross paths while running, you’re totally safe from them if you’re flying through the air. Your reward if you clear one house? Another house, of course, with tricksier trampoline placements.
Maybe the quintessential tabletop game, Galaga is somehow infinitely less compelling when you’re not dropping quarters in a pizzeria. It’s yet another Space Invaders variant, this time with aliens who are even more athletic than their counterparts in Galaxian. They come sweeping onscreen in tight formation, and don’t stay in place for very long before they come swooping down, blasting as they descend. I gather from the demo screens that they have the ability to capture your fighter, and I gather that involves the beam-like force deployed by one of the creatures during a game in which I hit the enemy with only 51.8% of my shots. (A post-game stat helpfully informs you.) I’m not going to spend any longer trying to find out.
A bright and cheerful game involving arial combat in World War I, this one puts you in the cockpit of a red biplane as a character disconcertingly named Baron — but the prominent Reichsadler adorning your first target suggests you’re fighting for the good guys. This one held my attention longer than the other Blast-ed games, because its gameplay is more complex. First, you have to figure out how to take off (you point your nose upward, and FYI, shooting the tree at the end of the runway doesn’t help). Then, you’re confronted with a squad of enemy fighters, with a rolling supply convoy you can take pot shots at for bonus points. Then, there’s a bomb to pick up and an aggressive anti-aircraft artillery installation to take out. Finally, you have to land your little plane (it’s okay if you bounce off the runway) and you’re off on another mission that requires you to use your special looping maneuver. Except for the fact that I died a 20 or more times getting to that point, Sky Kid makes war seem like a fun little lark. Pew! Pew! Pew!
The Tower of Druaga
“IN ANOTHER TIME IN ANOTHER WORLD…THE BLUE CRYSTAL ROD KEPT THE KINGDOM IN PEACE BUT THE EVIL DEMON DRUAGA HID THE ROD AND THE MAIDEN KI IN A TOWER THE PRINCE GILGAMESH WORE GOLDEN ARMOR AND ATTACKED MONSTERS TO SAVE KI IN THE TOWER OF DRUAGA.” That opening-screen text suggests a way more exciting adventure than you’ll experience in the first few screens of this game. You’re tasked with trotting through a maze, escaping enemies that slither through the corridors like giant pronto pups. You grab keys that open doors to stairs that take you higher in the tower. Eventually you run into another warrior, but after dying a dozen deaths being poked by the mystery critters, I didn’t have enough faith in the power of my slow sword to confront the malevolent figure.
Solvaleu! What’s a solvaleu? Fuck if I know, but it’s the name Xevious gives to the ship you fly over a forested landscape in this game, catching (presumably) military targets in your crosshairs and taking them out while your unseen opponents hurl twirling discs at you. Yeah, it’s not that fun.