It used to be that home videogame or computer translations of arcade games were judged on how closely they mimicked the source material. This included how many levels were brought over - memory constraints often meant that one or more stages were left on the cutting room floor (Donkey Kong translations were rarely complete, for instance) - how accurate the graphics and animation were (did Pac-Man look like Pac-Man?), whether or not the sound captured the intended spirit (did Asteroids provide enough of a bass effect?), and how well the controls matched up (like angling the joystick for Q*bert), among many other areas.
Today, of course, through clever emulation programming and sheer technical horsepower, we are able to enjoy classic arcade games running directly from the original code, be it through something like MAME, a service like GameTap or an officially licensed retail version. Even if the game is simulated rather than emulated, it's trivial to make a near clone on even modest platforms, such as self-contained joysticks that plug directly into a television, cost about $20 and provide one to a half dozen or more games.
With the idea that one way or another we can easily get a near perfect arcade translation today, what purpose then do the imperfect translations of the past serve? Plenty, as it turns out. While many classic programmers did their best to mimick the properties of the original game, many times the actual end result was a fairly different experience, more inspiration than homage.
This brings me to what got me started on this path in the first place and that's the ColecoVision. It seems to be fairly common knowledge that the ColecoVision is filled with almost all arcade ports. While this is not exactly true - the ColecoVision actually had a surprising number of high quality and wholly original titles - it did in actuality have more depth in its arcade to home translation lineup, from common to obscure, than most other systems from the same era.
In one of the Coleco programming newsgroups that I receive a feed from and whose discussions I participate in, a comment was made about how bad the port of Zaxxon for the ColecoVision was and how much the gentleman in question disliked the game because of it. In truth, as a port by modern standards it really is rather poor, but at the time, most of us loved it (even though even then it was not the best home version). There are actually plenty of differences between Zaxxon in the arcade and Zaxxon on the ColecoVision, enough in fact to only make them very similar games. Similar, but different enough where each version stands as its own creation. If Zaxxon for the ColecoVision was fun then, it should still be fun now. Removing the bias of "arcade perfect" helps to put the game on equal footing as just a game again, not a series of requirements to meet. As a game then, yes, I argue that Zaxxon for the ColecoVision is indeed a success, quirks, ommissions and all (and for the most radically different take on the ideas in Zaxxon, try the Atari 2600 version, which doesn't even mimick the famous three quarters perspective!). The same of course applies to nearly every other arcade-to-home port on systems from before and a few years after the end of that same era.
As gamers - true gamers - it is up to us to not judge a classic-era home arcade game port on its authenticity, but instead to judge it more on its merits as just a game, and what properties (character, if you will) - even actual flaws in the porting process - may or may not make it "better" or "worse" than what inspired it. Being different is not a bad thing in our modern world of plenty, where playing "near arcade perfect" is just a quick download away or purchase away. Perspective and choices are quite empowering in that regard.
As a follow-up to this piece, I'd just like to point out what amounts to the opposite idea, that with careful and clever programming, these classic systems could/can actually support amazing arcade translations from the equivalent era. With the benefit of past knowledge, "unlimited" time, cheap cartridge memory and no budget or target market constraints, special things are possible. For instance, check out http://www.opcodegames.com/ , where you can get more information on the forthcoming "Pac-Man Collection" for the ColecoVision and MSX2 systems. This work obviously blows away what AtariSoft had done on the first conversion of Pac-Man for the ColecoVision from the classic era and is practically an emulation, though of course is pure simulation. The added bonus is that you get several Pac games. While I personally own what seems like a million different versions of Pac-Man and related games, and have an arcade MAME machine and even access to the recently released Pac-Man on Xbox Live Arcade, this is one of those achievements that would just be nice to own from both a collection standpoint and an appreciation of great work.
Now, let's hope some of these guys - like the one(s) above - who accomplish these amazing programming achievments turn their attention to more original creations rather than ports of prior games available from countless other sources. Imagine how excited we could get then!
In hindsight, you can probably pass fair judgement on arcade conversions for home systems, but back in the day, you were often promised a more or less accurate experience, but often you'd get something else entirely (whether good or bad). However, users of the ZX Spectrum (like I was) quickly realized that a even a close approximation of most arcade games was in most cases an unattainable goal for the modestly specced (geddit?) machine. Add to that the fact that a lot of people simply didn't have access to the real arcade games, and I think most arcade conversions were actually judged on their own merits. Having read a few articles on how the conversion process actually worked in those days, I think the word "interpretation" is more appropriate.
Wow, this is a really great post, Bill. I've been thinking all day about the issues that it raises!
As I've often declared, I have very little actual experience in actual arcades. Sure, I'd play the odd arcade machine in Pizza Hut and made the occasional trip to arcades in the mall, but 99.9% of my gaming experience has been at home in front of a computer. What that means is that I often have only played the arcade game as it was "interpreted" for a home computer like the Commodore 64 or Amiga, or later via MAME. Even though MAME allows us to emulate actual arcade ROMS, I think it's arguable whether, even with the benefit of an X-Arcade, this setup really compares to playing the original games on the original arcade hardware.
One game that sticks out in my mind is Commando for the C-64 and Ikari Warriors for the Amiga. I've never even seen the arcade games these were based on, though I enjoyed both of them at home. From what I've heard, the C-64 version of Commando was sufficiently different (especially in terms of music) that it's really a new game. I would also add Arkanoid to this list--I was actually surprised to see an Arkanoid arcade machine years after I'd been playing the game on my Amiga. However, I always thought the arcade version of Bubble Bobble was better than the Amiga port, as was the Popeye arcade game compared to the C-64. And Battlezone and Robotron never appealed to me in the least until I was able to play them as intended, with the dual-joystick configuration with my dual X-Arcade. Suddenly I saw why these game were hits in the arcade.
I also played a Spelunker game on MAME that I felt was vastly inferior to the C-64 version. Even though it had "better" graphics, it was harder to control with precision, which (as everyone knows) is critical in that rather difficult platformer. I also noticed that the C-64 version of Green Beret (or Rush'n Attack) wasn't necessarily "better" than the arcade version, but it had a distinctly different feel that I'd come to love. The arcade version just never quite right after all that time spent behind the C-64's version.
At any rate, I know in my experience I've often preferred to emulate a port of a game rather than the original arcade game via MAME. However, I don't think that will be the case when it comes to the arcade Pac-Man vs. the, uh, imperfect port on the Atari 2600.
That's true too, Matt. Certainly even with a crazy setup like mine, with arcade controls, arcade monitor, arcade cabinet, etc., I can only approximate the experience of each of the games that I play. It's not necessarily better or worse, but even with all the accuracy thanks to MAME, having the right settings and authentic-style hardware, it's most definitely NOT the same. The only thing that's the same is the actual, original machine; only then will you be playing the game EXACTLY as intended. It's as simple as that.
I've also heard and can relate to many stories like the one you told Matt of your younger days and playing certain games first at home, then later at the arcades or through MAME. Sometimes the innacurate port is the better game or can even taint you in favor of one over the other (what you play first often has the most impact, just like with first systems!). People mention that all the time; a popular example are the NES versions of the Ninja Gaiden games, very different, and many prefer the NES game over the arcade, same with Tecmo Bowl on NES versus arcade, but there are countless examples across all videogame and computer systems spanning several eras. By standard definitions, Ninja Gaiden and Tecmo Bowl are complete failures as ports on the NES of the arcade originals, but that doesn't change their implementations as great games all to themselves. Go figure, but I believe it supports the "stand-alone" argument quite well.
That's true, Custard. I've read that many programmers doing arcade conversions back then didn't have access to the original machines, let alone the original code. Some worked off of design documents, others from just playing it at a local arcade. Funny how that worked.
The Coleco packaging is very interesting in regards to "arcade accuracy". They would often have the explosive advertising call out that said, "Plays like the real arcade game!" or something along those lines (I'm at work now and don't have access to my Coleco boxes). I believe that verbiage varied depending on how close the Coleco programmer in question actually got in most cases, though it could just be coincidental ("Plays like..." obviously is a hedge)
What I also agree with, Custard, is that back then we DID expect to get the arcade game at home to a certain degree (Pac-Man on Atari 2600 was roundly criticized for rectangular pellets, an incorrect maze, etc., but it was also a relatively weak game on its own more or less). I guess my true point is that NOW (today) we don't have to really expect that since we can get the arcade game BETTER in a myriad of other ways. We can then examine these games as stand-alone creations, not judged against some other, probably unattainable standard like a "perfect recreation".
My first home system (second, if you count the Video Wizard, which played Pong and its variants), was the Atari 400 (followed thereafter by the Atari 800XL). First of all, home monitors and television are always a landscape view as opposed to portrait, so right there is the first obstacle programmers had to overcome. But this didn't bother me in the case of the Galaxian cartridge. The wide screen allowed more movement for my spaceship, so much so that I would jack the difficulty up to Level 9, increasing the ferocity of the enemy hordes, and dodge the rainfall of enemy fire, often with the goal of destroying the enemies as the landed on missile without even launching them.
Clearly I played this game too much, but I found another wrinkle of gameplay that was not available in the arcade version, creating additional value to the home user.
And if anyone remembers this game, they will recall that the enemies would fly some pretty haphazard patterns as the levels got deeper.
Slightly off-topic is the whole issue with emulation and screen orientation and control schemes. There are a fair number of arcade games that don't translate as well because of this (for example - why did anyone bother with Super Sprint in Midway Arcade Treasures 1 and 2?)
It is when developers write a version of the game from scratch that these problems can be overcome in most cases.
That's a great point about screen orientation, Davy. I was baffled why Nokia didn't take advantage of their unusual (by today's standards) vertical screen format on their N-Gage systems by re-releasing classic vertical arcade games. To me it was a foolish error among many for Nokia.
I also know that I have a heck of a time tweaking my display on my home MAME arcade machine, even with an arcade monitor.
Finally, on the arcade translations for Xbox Live Arcade on the Xbox 360, it's nice that games like Frogger and Galaga and Pac-Man, etc., are true emulations, but it would have been nice to have a remastered mode that took better advantage of the widescreen format. Frankly, it's too small at HD resolutions, particularly Frogger. And no, the included screen stretching options are not a good solution!
A vertical screen alignment doesn't have to be a big problem for a home conversion. Often, if the developer offer a choice of yoko and tate modes, combined with zoom settings, there's usually a setting to be found that satisfies nearly everyone. There actually quite a few games that offer a range of options, most famously perhaps is Ikaruga.
For me the display options in XBLA are quite enough. If a game offers zoom, withough stretching, like Galaga does, I can play perfectly fine. It's a slicht dissapointment they don't offer tate mode though. This would be a nice extra for those who play on a rotatable TFT monitor.
To come back on topic though, with a bit of a challenge: I'm sure the last coin-op conversion of a current arcade title done by a western developer is the great Outrun 2006 Coast 2 Coast by UK developer Sumo. The one before that would be the absolutely gobsmacking Outrun 2 for the XBOX by the same guys. I'm not sure what would be the one before that. Anyone? My guess is that it's been a while, but I could be wrong...
I played so much of Zaxxon on the Coleovision that I didn't know it wasn't arcade perfect. If the game wasn't arcade perfect, then I'm perfectly fine on how fun it is. When the 32-bit CD systems came out was when I start expecting TRUE arcade ports. I was playing Cobra Command on the Sega CD today, and while the FMV video quality was poor, the gameplay was fun after all these years. While the arcade version had better video, the audio wasn't great compair to the Sega CD version (the Sega CD version had better soundtrack, and improve audio thanks to Wolf Team).