Sunday, 17 June 2012

Five MAME Titles Even Your Buddy's Bitchy Girlfriend Can Enjoy

Even as a full-grown man with real world worries and responsibilities, I’m not ashamed to admit that I enjoy spending time with decades-old video games that have me doing such ridiculous things as taking the role of a little red penguin who throws big ice cubes at bouncy, life-sized skittles capable of smashing through stuff with their hands.  I mean, to me, that description has “kick-ass fuckin’ time” written all over it, but I completely understand how others might not get it. 

Still, whenever there is a social gathering at my house, the MAME cabinet gets a ton of use.  It really is nice to see others enjoy themselves using something I spent so much time building.  The problem is, most of the games are better suited to evenings home alone because they consume the player’s undivided attention and exclude everybody else in the room. 

There are games in the MAME library, however, that I have found actually fit well in social settings.  For the purposes of this article, we’ll refer to such games as “party games”.  From what I’ve observed over the last year or so, party games seem to have the following general characteristics: 
  • They allow for more than 2 players to participate
  • The objective or goal is plainly obvious
  • There are no “lives” to lose, and therefore no means to get instantly discouraged by the coin-grubbing difficulty arcade games are infamous for   
  • They use trackball controls   

I think the first three of these characteristics are logical, while the last one is just as much a coincidence as anything. 

The nice thing about games that meet these criteria is that they invite complete non-gamers into the fray, which is important for any party game.

So let’s get down to it.  These games are listed in no particular order.    

Shuuz (Atari Games, 1990)

The unfortunate spelling of the name notwithstanding, Shuuz is a very cool horseshoes game for up to 4 players.  The game’s characters are all caricatures of hillbillies, complete with southern accents as they utter such things as “Bah, fiddlesticks!” 

The graphics are fairly low-res by modern standards but they’re colorful and effective.  The best thing about Shuuz is its control scheme; you first use the trackball to position your player left to right, then press the button to fix your location.  Gradually rolling the trackball backward sets your “arc”, as indicated by a meter on the right side of the screen.  When you’re ready to make your toss, you simply roll forward on the trackball.  The length and straightness of your throw is dependent on this final forward roll.  This design provides a very intuitive flow to the game that is easy to learn and no more or less complex than it needs to be.    


World Class Bowling (Incredible Technologies, 1995)

If you’re like me and have no interest whatsoever in flailing your arms around like a Wii-tard when playing video games, then World Class Bowling is a great old-school alternative.  Up to 4 players can get in on the action and the game is dead simple to learn.  You simply roll the trackball left and right to select your starting position, then give the trackball a spirited forward spin to make your throw.  You can apply a “curve” to your ball by setting an incremental hook meter prior to making your shot. 

In the realm of arcade bowlers, this game kind of bridges the gap between the more primitive overhead games like Capcom Bowling and the popular modern simulation known as Silver Strike Bowling.  You won’t get the realistic physics in World Class that you get in Silver Strike, but the latter is not available in MAME, which makes World Class the next best thing.       


Shuffleshot (Incredible Technologies, 1997)

Shuffleshot is an arcade interpretation of shuffle board in which 1-4 players slide their colored pucks down a long table in an attempt to score as many points as possible.  The control scheme is virtually identical to World Class Bowling, but rather than a curve meter, you have the option to select the “slickness” of the table which affects how far your puck will travel.  It does take a fair bit of practice to get the hang of this one, because too soft a roll will land your puck in no-man’s-land out in front of the target(s), and too hard a roll will land your puck in the gutter at the end of the table. 

There are 4 table designs to choose from, but the core objective is essentially the same in all of them: get your pucks as close as possible to the highest scoring zones.  Since players alternate turns, you also have the option of taking aim at your opponents’ pucks in an attempt to knock them off the table, which brings an element of strategy to the game.    


Golden Tee (Incredible Technologies, several versions existing)

Of all the games on this list, I’m guessing that Golden Tee is probably the most widely known.  There were several versions of this game released throughout the 90’s and into the new millennium, many of which are available in MAME.  As for which version to play, take your pick; unless you’re a connoisseur of the game you’ll be hard-pressed to see any big differences between the different versions. 

In Golden Tee, 1-4 players take to the links for a contest of skill.  The game can be scored by either strokes or skins, and there are a few different courses to choose from.  The trackball controls are fairly intuitive; you select your club by rolling side to side, take your back swing by rolling the ball backward, and shoot by rolling forward.  Experienced players can apply more advanced techniques like hooking shots by rolling at different angles on the back and forward swings.  This game is a great middle ground between realism and arcade-style fun; it’s not a “simulator” like some modern console golf games, but at the same time, it’s not Lee Trevino’s Fighting Golf either.    


Simpsons Bowling (Konami, 2000)   

Simpsons Bowling is a different take on the arcade bowler that employs a completely different control scheme than most others in the genre.  Up to 4 players can get in on the action in the likeness of their favorite Simpsons character, each of which has different strengths and weaknesses. 

To throw your ball down the alley, this game doesn’t use a simple move-side-to-side-then-roll-forward mechanic, but rather, one that consists of a series of steps.  First, you roll the trackball side to side to set how much curve you want on your shot, as denoted by a bending red line on the alley.  Next, you set your left-to-right standing position.  Pressing the button fixes your location, and pressing it again starts your character walking up the approach.  You have to keep your eye on a meter in the upper left of the screen, and quickly roll forward on the trackball when the meter is in the sweet spot.  It’s an interesting design, but might have a bit more of a learning curve than World Class Bowling for non-gamers. 

In addition to a more recent version of MAME and the correct CHD files, Simpsons Bowling will require a beefier PC than most classic games do in order to run at full speed. 


The Also-rans…

Here are some other games that logically fall into a similar walk-up-and-play category as the ones listed above, but I feel are not quite up to the same standard in terms of entertainment value. 

Honorable Mention: Shoot the Bull (Bally Midway, 1985)

Shoot the Bull is a very primitive looking take on the game of darts.  The control scheme is interesting; you don’t “aim” your dart before taking your shot, you simply roll the trackball at the desired angle with the desired speed and your dart emerges from the bottom of the screen and slowly travels to the board, giving you a second or two to cross your fingers and hope you hit your mark.  As you can imagine, this requires precision in rolling the trackball in order to hit what you’re trying to hit, which makes this game worth a look despite its basic visual presentation. 



Dishonorable Mention: AmeriDarts (Ameri, 1989)

Another darts title, I don’t enjoy this one as much as Shoot the Bull, despite the fact that it has a bit more of a modern look to it.  You roll the trackball around to aim the tip of your dart at a spot on the board, fix the location by hitting the button, then roll forward on the trackball to shoot.  This sounds like it would be the ideal control scheme for a darts game, but I just don’t care for Ameridarts.  I struggle to put my finger on exactly what is missing; I think part of it is the fact that the darts travel to the board quickly so you don’t have that “anticipation” factor that you get in Shoot the Bull while waiting to see where your shot lands. 


The Stinkeroony Award: American Horseshoes (Taito, 1990)

Maybe I just need to practice this game more, but I think it blows.  At first glance it looks like it has potential, but I find the “work flow” of the controls disjointed and annoying.  You set your throw angle and hook by means of button-activated submenus, then wheel the trackball forward to make your toss.  I don’t know what I’m doing wrong but I just can’t seem to hit the broad side of a barn in this game.  Rest assured that if I want to fire up a horseshoes game for my guests, it’s going to be Shuuz every time. 

Artist's rendition of American Horseshoes