Untold Tales of The Arcade: Konami's Finest

By Francesco-Alessio Ursini / December 9, 2011

Everyone knows Konami, as long as we keep it on the console side. You immediately think of the Belmont clan, Solid Snake, the Snatchers, and tons of other games which are cool and whatnot. But not arcade games.
   I decided to dedicate an entire installment of this column to Konami’s arcade efforts. Why? Because some of their arcade titles are really great (albeit not the scoring frenzies of complex mechanics I so often praise). I’ll start with just names, so you can get an idea: Gyruss, Surprise Attack, Aliens, Gaiapolis. No bells ringing? Damn. I blame you, Simon Belmont! These games are truly small gems, and in many ways, they were cornerstones of my gaming history.

Gyruss — Toccata and Fugue
Gyruss You know Gyruss, I hope. It’s a tube shooter like Tempest, a geometric exercise on the Space Invaders theme. And it’s by Yoshiki Okamoto, the guy who made Time Pilot and who later moved to Capcom and made 1942, Makaimura/Ghosts'n Goblins, and the Street Fighter series. Gyruss was everywhere in 1983, and Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor”, in rocking digital glory, was its background music. There was no copyright problem, of course, and it gave the game a 20% bonus in coolness.
   But the most striking thing about the game was its omnipresence. I can’t remember a place that didn’t have Gyruss between 1983 and 1984, and I quickly developed an addiction from excessive exposure. I could get a fix of Gyruss at every damn place around the city. And I did. I spent a small fortune and tons of hours on this title. I loved the basic plot and the trippy mechanics, and I craved the ultra-fast pace.
   By now, I think that everyone and their dog knows that I’m all for fast action. I don’t really need to cover it again; I like it fast. Gyruss is fast, too. It’s three stages of destroying all enemies who appear onscreen in formations, and ultimately proceeding from Pluto to Earth, our Final Destination. The combo of “Final Destination Earth” and “Toccata and Fugue” was enough to pump up the emo feelings of a sci-fi freak. (I was five years old and already a nerd, yeah!) Gyruss made me carefully plan my routes when going around the city, in order to have free time for a few fixes every afternoon.
   Now, if you’ve faithfully followed this column since day one, you might be wondering: “But, what about your uncle’s arcade?”
   Well, my uncle’s arcade was off-limits for this title. There were two cabinets, but they were always busy. That is, they were busy whenever I could go to my uncle’s arcade, so in my child’s mind they were always busy. And my uncle always had a third cab right beside the register, so he could sneak a play while not busy. But my uncle’s dedicated cab was off-limits to me too!
   So I spent my free time wandering everywhere, with two places being my favourites: the small cozy bar near my house, where I also played Chack’n Pop, and a pool club with a few arcade cabs. This club was actually a cool place, and the owners never thought that perhaps it wasn’t the best idea for a kid to be sneaking into a shady dive to play videogames. But that’s material for another story, trust me.
   Instead, Gyruss at the small bar near my house was another of my prototypical memories, if that expression makes sense. Aside from playing my “love and tenderness” Chack’n Pop, I also enjoyed the wintry dark afternoons in a dramatic battle against time, bizarre enemies and a peculiar geometry, with the sense of impeding doom summoned by Bach’s masterpiece, in order to reach our final destination, Earth.

Surprise Attack — The Shinobi of Space
Surprise Attack So, we all love sci-fi, don’t we? Picture a 21st century with moon bases, satellites, all the usual stuff. Somehow, some weirdos called Black Dawn manage to take control of a moon base. Of course, their goal is domination of all humanity, and they have Rutger Hauer as their boss.[1]
   Now, obviously, instead of sending one gazillion troops to crush the terrorists, the US sends a single sergeant of the elite forces to defeat the nasty guys (at least, I suppose it’s the US. I never figured out exactly which flag is on the sergeant’s arm). I mean, it would be too easy, otherwise, no? In any case, the point is this: take Shinobi, but then add a low-gravity effect. The game is set on the moon, with a weaker gravity than Earth, so your character has a peculiar way of jumping, even worse than Tiki in Taito’s The New Zealand Story. And then add deadly collisions (i.e., you die when you touch an enemy) and a special attack that shoots lightning around!
   The rest is, for the most part, pretty straightforward and Shinobi-esque. Still, it’s set in space, and trust me, if you want to know how it feels to be a space marine shooting people to save Earth, you seriously need to play this game. This is the space version of Rolling Thunder, in terms of unadulterated coolness. Why? You’re this sergeant with a shagadelic ’60s space suit going around shooting improbable space terrorists with bullets from your hands. That’s right, bullets from your hands. Well, technically you shoot them from your space-suit glove, but still, this is stylish enough to make the game cool. And it has deep, infinite space as your background. Think of some of the cool flicks of the ’60s, the ones that exuded cheeshe in every scene. Add a Space 1999 atmosphere. Add a kid who’s nuts about Rolling Thunder/Shinobi-like games, and his eternal passion for deep space. And it goes without saying that you’d add the skies of winter that I’m still so fond of. And then, as always, add my uncle’s arcade.
   But let me warn you: the game has these stupid bonus rounds where you must play a quiz mini-game. So, in winter, in late 1990, I walked into my uncle’s arcade and first discovered this cool game while someone else was playing the dumb mini-game. A quick look at the screen and I thought, “Ack, Konami has done a quiz game!” I went to have a few rounds of Taito’s Cadash (which could be the start of another article), and when I got back I discovered that I had been fooled!
   So I dropped a few coins, and all of a sudden, the epic combinations of space opera, pseudo-platform gameplay and that peculiar Konami style hypnotized me. At once, I was the almighty space sergeant against a bunch of freaks trying to dominate the cosmos but who don’t realize that they have to go through me, the toughest of the space marines!
   And, I’ll admit that I actually like the quiz parts a bit. But don’t spread it around, okay?
   Aside from the trivialities, I’d say that Surprise Attack was more the Rolling Thunder of space: speed of play and elegant stage design are its core aspects, with some pretty cool boss battles thrown in. And then there’s the background music of stage 7-1.
   It’s true that my gaming experience is intertwined with my musical experience, and many times, great background music has meant as much to me as great mechanics. And the cool, fast-paced theme of stage 7-1 fully evokes the oh-so-Bondesque sense of an epic, urgent battle to save Earth, all compressed in two minutes of stage. A miracle of balance, and one of the coolest sequences in my gaming life.
   For the Earth! For the moon! For the cosmos! And all in Moonraker style!

Aliens — Two Mothers Clash
Aliens In the same cold winter that I played Surprise Attack, I also played Aliens. On one side, then, campy sci-fi; on the other, the dark, brooding morbidity of space, the vast, cold nothingness of eternity. Maybe it’s embarrassing to confess it, but I was scared by the creatures in Aliens. There is something about these creatures and their universe, the sense of hopelessness that steams out of the garish world of violent colors and stark settings, of gritty industrial ruins snarled with the beautifully putrescent bodies of the infected colonists of Acheron. Aliens was my most violent nightmare. And it was also my most beloved succubus. Maybe I like fear? Maybe I’m just morbid. (Let me hide my Giger posters, in any case).
   The mechanics aren't bad, but it’s not much more than Contra without jumps. And unless you’re a masochist, you’ll only ever use the flamethrower. But I had the sensation, when playing the game, of suddenly falling into my deepest nightmares. In stage 2, I walked through a vast complex of organic material, the nest of the aliens. Lights flashed while the colonists died, watching alien larvae explode out of their chests.
   But also, there was something attractive. Music, of course, as always. Slow percussions, bizarre sound effects, and then a crescendo of epic and majestic darkness, so strong and deep that it evokes the solitude and horror of the forsaken colony on Acheron, and the cruel battle of a woman to avenge her lost life with her daughter by destroying another mother and her children.
   In the director’s cut of the movie Aliens, Ripley confesses that she had been a mother. But in the 57 years she’d been in space, her 11-year-old daughter grew old and died while Ripley was frozen in an ageless deep sleep. And in the comic book Aliens: Earth War, published by Dark Horse Comics, Ripley clearly wanted revenge on the creatures from the void because of her loss. I played this game while I was reading the comics. So, for me, the story of the videogame Aliens was Ripley’s vendetta against the alien queen, played out against the morbidly fascinating music, and the cool graphics by Hiroshi Iuchi (though his art was more of a guest appearance, on this title).
   The queen’s lair is criant, all in orange and red and some purple as well. A bizarre choice for a game supposedly “dark”, but sometimes garish colours can tell much more of horror, than black. And, in this case, the violent oranges and the putrescent greens and the sunset of the penultimate stage prophesy the total annihilation of Acheron and its monster; and the background music promises an ultimate apocalypse (in the first meaning of the word: revelation).
   I remember, as a kid, the final battle. And I remember the confrontation between Ripley and the alien queen. Once the apocalypse is complete and we’re aboard on the spaceship Sulaco, the giant nemesis is waiting for us; and there, I was finally entangled in the web of nightmares.
   See, the final battle between Ripley and the queen was merely the beginning of my journey. I remember, upon seeing that the game loops, deciding to play the nightmare more and more, over and over. And I thought that I could nuke, from orbit, my nightmares by destroying their electronic sigils, metaphors for the shadows and the parasites that had started growing inside my teenage mind. Winter slowly turned into spring, and soon I was the only one interested in this rather simple Konami title. After a while, I had to wander the city to find the game, because my uncle had decided “Nevermore!” like Poe’s dark omen.
   And summer came, but the sun and warmth didn’t wash away the cold, bloody sunsets of Acheron, nor the night-gaunt phantasms, nor their eternal fight, nor my scared and confused teenage self. After years, I have to say, I still have nightmares. Sometimes, in the dark and brooding nights of winter, I have to hunt them down again, wondering if they are, after all, truly the cancerous doubts I have inside me.

Gaiapolis — The City of Earth
Gaiapolis Gaiapolis is a game that truly and absolutely bewitched me. I was more than speechless; I was in some kind of rapture the first time I saw it. It was an epic tale, a great game, and a superb soundtrack put together in one of the most evocative arcade games I have seen so far.
   My first memory of this game is from one lazy August morning. I entered my uncle’s arcade, as always. But this time, my eye was captured by an attract mode that seemed to be pretty interesting. Fantasy? No. It was something else. And then I saw it: the city in the sky.
   No, it’s not a game based on Hayao Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky or Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Still, a few images, and I’m totally lost in the superb coils of its art. There are three fighters: a prince fighting for the future of his reign, a brave humanoid dragon seeking justice, and a fairy Amazon avenging her tribe. Together, they journey across the planet fighting against the forces of evil (oh, how original) and witness wonders and perils beyond their wildest imaginations...
   Part of my fascination with Gaiapolis lies with its anime style. Recall, we’re speaking of Konami here, and they, together with Taito, were the most “international” of the gaming companies in terms of design. But at some point during the early ’90s, the anime style became commercially viable. So Gaiapolis was one of the first titles that looked like the other Japanese art I enjoyed.
   But the Miyazaki-esque art style (the connection is tenuous, but there’s something similar) is the least important part of the game. Gaiapolis is also a nice (and pretty rare) vertically-oriented hack-and-slash brawler. Throw in some CRPG-like elements, a possible sub-plot, leveling up, secret attacks, and a few other nice but useless gimmicks.
   But the music... Well, Castle in the Sky has a few epic sequences by Joe Hisaishi that have inspired virtually every Japanese game under the sun (a lot of shooters, for instance). But this is not Castle in the Sky, one of the most incredible movies I can think of — this is Gaiapolis, an elegant rip-off but also a distinct work of art in its own right.
   I played the game a lot as a kid. Playing it again in MAME, years after that glorious August of ’93, makes me realize that the mechanics aren't the hottest ever. It’s nice and all; you can parry with your shield, use special moves, and discover various secrets; the standard fare, nothing to write home about. But the soundtrack and the overall atmosphere? I can’t remember the composer, but I will never forget the first time I reached Gaiapolis itself, the vibrant theme, a musical panorama of revelation and wonder.
   Then the various stages: the mystery of the long tunnel below the continents; the battle against the giant dragon, the angry spirit of the netherworlds; the high-road stage with its smart musical homage to The Police’s “Synchronicity”; the diverse orchestral pieces commenting on the epic quest of our heroes.
   And the boss battle theme. I have empirical evidence proving that good games have good boss battle themes. A boss battle is when you stop dealing with trivialities like cookie-cutter enemies, and you make it personal, you and the boss. And this time, it’s to get the keys to Gaiapolis, the city of Earth, so no less than the fate of the world is at stake (like always). And there is a final theme, a reprise of the theme that plays when you discover the grave of humankind, near New York. It sings of the foolishness of man, fool enough to wage war and misery, and visionary enough to build the city of Earth as a city in the skies, Gaiapolis.
   And, of course, all of this is fascinating exactly because it gives us a chance, in a way, to play Castle in the Sky. As a 15-year-old, I was simply enraptured by being able to fight for the future of humankind and the city in the sky, just putting a coin in a cab, in those glorious and sunny days of August.
   Time passes, and I look back at Gaiapolis and Castle in the Sky; both aging well, even if Gaiapolis shows some rust, mechanics-wise. I think on the words of Muska, the shady villain of Castle in the Sky: “This is the dream of mankind.” And indeed it is. One of our strongest and most powerful dreams. And I cherish the possibility to live, somewhat, this dream of mine.

* * * * *

I have played a lot of games in my life, and when I think of Konami, I have to say that these games fascinated me because of their overall settings, with mechanics merely a secondary element. It doesn’t matter, though; these games will always be part of my gaming experience. After all, what matters is the possibility to live out epic battles and majestic adventures, a trademark of Konami games.
   And so, I will see you on our next journey, up in the skies of gaming stardom!

[1] Please don’t take me seriously on this, but he does look like Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner. And besides that, the game has the peculiar art style of other Konami titles, like the brawlers Crime Fighters and Vendetta, where everyone looks a little like a movie actor.