I recently spent a week in Northwest Arkansas to visit family. The region has changed a lot since I grew up there, and with a population of 500,000 it is now referred to as “the Northwest Arkansas Metropolitan Area,” a phrase I never expected to be applied to the isolated and rural region that I remember.
One highlight of my visit was a trip to the Northwest Arkansas Arkadia Retrocade, a vintage video arcade with more than 150 machines from gaming’s bygone days. Every foot of the relatively small floorspace of the Retrocade (a former Chucky Cheese’s in a strip mall) is packed with games from the early 1980′s through the mid 1990′s. It’s a scenario that triggers the fervor associated with novels like Lucky Wander Boy and Ready Player One!, both of which are love letters to the virtual and physical enchantments of entertainment that is perilously close to being lost outside of its native environment.
The best game that I played was Magic Sword, a side-scrolling, sword-and-sorcery themed beat ‘em up in which a barbarian warrior must ascend a fifty-story tower to defeat an evil wizard. This scenario is deep, primal stuff: the ludic equivalent of Robert E. Howard’s Conan story “The Tower of the Elephant.” When explored with sufficient gusto, the hoariest of fantasy cliches glow with enchantment, and these tropes only become cliches after first being represented with energy and originality. It is this very energy that allow them to become cliches in the first place.
One such adventure cliche, which never loses its power for me, is gathering keys to unlock doors. By collecting keys and unlocking doors in Magic Sword, the player acquires companions who fight alongside (or just behind) him, flinging missiles and magic in sync with the player’s attacks. I like many things about the game: its bright, crisp pulp fiction aesthetic, its short but satisfying levels, its roster of fantasy archetype NPC’s, and most of all the forward momentum created by the text snippets that describe the tower. There is a feeling of addictive discovery here, of exploration that lures despite or because of its linearity. It’s no surprise that Magic Sword turns out to be the sequel to Black Tiger, the beloved, secret-brimming game of Ready Player One’s protagonist.
Magic Sword was part of a row of hack and slash beat ‘em ups that included Golden Axe, Astyanax, Willow, Altered Beast, and (sadly non-operational on the day that I visited) Ghosts and Goblins. And, while the arcade contained many genres (racing games, shoot ‘em ups, several versions of Pac-Man), the row that contained Magic Sword captivated me. Pacing up and down between each game a fervor that bordered on mania or sugar-induced ADHD, I jumped between each of these games, delighting the wealth of infinite continues (since the arcade charges only a $5 admission fee for unlimited free play).
And it struck me that these games, with their linear, pulpy premises and their adrenaline-fueled gameplay, have a quality often lacking in many contemporary games: atmosphere. Unfettered by a need for realism or graphical fidelity or sophistication demanded by either current indie or AAA efforts, these games are unabashedly grim, spooky, and magical, like the cover of a vintage Weird Tales magazine or an Iron Maiden album over. Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber didn’t have to ironize or apologize for the barbarians, sorcerers, and rogues in their stories, just as Magic Sword happily trots out ninjas, wizards, and lizard men with not an ounce of self-reflective shame. Why are their ninjas in a fantasy tower? Doesn’t matter. What is my relationship to these characters? Don’t care. Trailing a black-clad shinobi and a hooded sorcerer behind the player’s barbarian is exciting, like dangling a daisy-chain of archetypes. Completely absent are the elaborate branching dialogues and nuanced intra-party romances with which RPG’s like Dragon Age are festooned. NPC companions inevitably die after a few minutes, short-lived as goldfish, and one doesn’t have time or reason to mourn them. Such is the fantastic brutality of a Conan story, in which the Cimmerian king’s companions are ad hoc and ephemeral.
There is a place in this world for ludo-narrative sophistication and complexity, which I strenuously advocate in other genres and contexts. But there is also a place for rich, pulpy, sword-and-sorcery atmosphere. And it’s that atmosphere that keeps me hunched over the screens of ancient and clunky handheld devices, playing endless iterations of Castlevania because almost nothing else in the vaguely contemporary gaming market quite scratches this pure, Gothic, medieval itch. Wandering through the equally clunky, ancient machines of the Retrocade, I felt vindicated. Each of these games resembles my beloved Castlevania in mood and gameplay, but each is also individual in setting and premise (resurrection in ancient Greece, time-traveling to fantasy Persia, clambering as Warwick Davis over treacherous cliffs). Here, standing six foot tall and glowing, were colossal machines whose entire purpose for existence was to munch quarters and ooze atmosphere. And, just for today, they didn’t even need quarters.