Lost And Found: Arcade Joy

At this year’s Fantastic Arcade down in Austin, Texas, I experienced a lot of great things. I ate at 24 Diner and had an amazing peanut butter milkshake (followed by an equally spectacular roasted banana and brown sugar milkshake because I love feeling like shit when I wake up); I went to a house party that was populated almost exclusively by indie game developers, including one Phil Fish of Fez fame who pulled DJ duties for most of the night; and I played and listened to people talk about some of the best games yet to be and already released.

One of those unreleased games was Hotline Miami, the top-down action game from Dennaton Games that eventually went on to win the Most Fantastic award as the festival came to a close last Sunday. And as Most Fantastic as that game is, the weird thing is that I found myself enjoying how I was playing it almost as much as what I was playing.

When I first arrived early that Saturday morning, walking through the appropriately empty bar and back under the bright, anachronistic ARCADE light-up sign, I found a bustling backroom full of stand-up arcade cabinets, an inordinate amount of banquet tables just lousy with Alienware laptops, and a stage adorned with a projector and a disco ball. Understandably, all of the laptop stations were taken, so I immediately turned to perhaps post up at a nearby dining table to write up a few things before the panels started.

But as I turned, I found myself face-to-face with the Hotline Miami cabinet and figured why not. I’d heard from a fellow writer that it was worth checking out (and by “heard,” I mean I saw that he’d been tweeting about it almost nonstop since playing it the night before), but the setup was a bit…odd. It was an arcade cabinet, sure, and a good-looking one at that—clean but ornate, sticking out like a sore thumb, just like an arcade cabinet should—but instead of being equipped with a conventional set of controls like a joystick and flat buttons, I found a keyboard and mouse simply set atop the blank slab.

And yes, it was weird at first and, being a rather tall fellow at 6’3″, a tad painful on my wrists, but soon I fell back into my arcade roots. Maybe it was the old school pixel graphics or the chippy, tinny sound effects or the crowd that had begun to gather around to watch me die over and over again, but it felt right, and it was a feeling I would be chasing for the rest of the weekend.

When I came back from what my local University of Texas friend called Taco Tour V (I prefer Inappropriately Large Lunch 2012, Austin Edition), The Highball was straight bumping. Every bowling lane was occupied, the bar and dining tables were full, and every arcade cabinet was in use, even the one of mostly broken but very much intriguing Adventure Time-themed Game Making Frenzy games (and probably the world’s most inconveniently sized keyboard ever). I spotted an empty laptop, though, and asserted myself with the speed and determination of a man who wasn’t overflowing with taco meat.

Given that I’d missed out on playing it at PAX Prime and the panel with Capybara Games lead programmer Kenneth Yeung was about to start, I fired up Super TIME Force and gave it a whirl, and you know what? That’s a good game. I had a ton of fun trying out all of the characters, seeing how I could use each one to help the other temporal clones progress in their own instances, and reveling in the satirical 80s overload. Without qualification, that is a promising game and one I wholeheartedly enjoyed playing. Capy has yet to let me down.

Yeung mentioned during the panel that they intentionally wanted to keep the game simple, utilizing only directional controls and two buttons (jump and attack), a configuration seemingly made for an arcade environment. Keeping that in mind, as soon as the audience Q&A was over, I beelined it straight for the Super TIME Force cabinet awkwardly positioned between the partition curtain and the kitchen entrance (but brandishing a proper arcade controller layout this time) and played through the demo one more time.

And I didn’t think it was possible, but I somehow managed to enjoy it even more. There’s something just very immediate-feeling and primal about how you use an entire limb to smash around a tiny but stalwart joystick as the other arm attempts to minutely articulate its intent between two comically large, red buttons. The way you jerk your body around as you stand—heaving your entire weight around as you hoist the stick left then right then left again as you attempt to dodge every bullet and dinosaur coming your way, both in real life and in the game—is such an unbelievably primordial sensation that I felt like a genuine thrillseeker of Joseph Kittingers proportions.

The heavy thud and click-clacks of every oversized gesture you make is a reaffirmation of how deeply connected you are to that game in that moment. And then once people start gathering around, either because that’s the only standing room left in the entire building or because I’m yelling AAAAGGGGHHHHH as I fight a giant cyborg T. rex that can spit up even more dinosaurs, the experience is truly complete.

Even as I play Vlambeer’s Luftrausers,the remake/sequel to their original free-to-play Flash game Luftrauser, I am overcome with a feeling I’d lost so many years ago when the TILT arcade closed down—just as so many other stores around it—in my local mall. Granted, many improvements to Luftrausers have been made over Luftrauser (pay attention to that “s”) such as the screen shake and the cloud movements and explosions and custom Rausers (all pointed out during the Vlambeer panel), but the simplistic point-and-shoot mechanics of piloting a intermittently powered, potentially amphibious biplane against non-Nazis during non-World War II becomes something else entirely when you play on a proper arcade configuration.

There’s nothing wrong with playing it on a keyboard, but when the music is almost literally being poured onto you from the cabinet’s overhanging facade and you can feel people crowd around to catch a glimpse of your score or how totally almost dead you are, something happens. A euphoria hits hard, deep inside of you in a place normally reserved for when you rewatch War Games or play a Theatre of Magic pinball machine, and it takes you over—mercilessly. Completely. It’s a joy that was lost but can be found. That arcade joy that you miss so much is still there.

Just go out and find it.

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