It was 1983 and the Cold War was continuing to inspire stories of spies, sabotage, sneaky subterfuge, and daring escapes from behind enemy lines. Perfect material for a game like Taito’s Elevator Action which came out that year.
Like many game developers at the time for the arcade, and especially because of Taito’s prolific presence there, they created a huge stable of hardware variants focused on achieving specific tasks for the games they were making from Qix to Arkanoid. Elevator Action was a pretty sophisticated arcade game for the time and ran on Taito’s “System SJ” hardware, an 8-bit platform released in 1981 utilizing a Z80 running at 4Mhz as its brain and four AY8910 chips from Pennsylvania based, General Instrument, for sound.
Gameplay wasn’t as fast paced as a shooter or a racer — in some ways, like Ion Storm’s Deus Ex a few decades later, this was a kind of “thinking man’s” arcade game. At the same time, it also had great pacing that didn’t keep players from having to devote too much time to stopping and wondering what to do next. Instead, it lightly tapped your brain matter in just the right amount to offer new possibilities for play in a scene used to speeding around and blasting anything that moved. And that combination worked along with its spy flavored soundtrack and effects.
Players star as a secret agent who ziplines onto the roof of a thirty floor building filled with enemy agents and secret documents. There are also elevators and escalators that he needs to use to get around and the good news is that he can make elevators go up and down at will once he’s in one.
Players can also jump across elevator shafts (though dropping down one, even if the elevator is only one floor away, will cost a life), shoot enemy agents or have ceiling lamps fall on their heads plunging the building into darkness for a time, hide inside rooms, and crouch down to shoot tricky baddies. His jump can also be used to take out enemies if they get a bit too close, too, kung fu style.
When he ducks into a room with secret documents, he can even stay in there for a bit before coming back out to surprise enemies. And he has an unlimited amount of bullets. One neat thing that the game did was that opening doors could also afford whoever was coming out of them a limited degree of protection as bullets ricochet off of them even if it only lasts a short moment.
Secret documents are hidden behind red doors and once he has them all, he has to make his way to the bottom of the building where his car awaits. Of course, things aren’t quite that easy. As he descends deeper into the building, players will encounter linked elevators, escalators, walls blocking off one section of the floor from another necessitating finding out how to get around those, and trickier enemies who start crouching and shooting, too. They can also use elevators. And only one elevator has a clear exit to the bottom of the building which players have to try and get onto while fighting for their lives. If they’ve missed a red door, the game teleports them back up into the building to get those missing documents from where they’ll need to work themselves back all the way down.
After escaping, the game begins again, with more trigger-happy, enemies who eventually learn how to go prone and shoot at higher difficulties requiring you to jump over their gunfire in the nick of time.
Elevator Action was a tough game, but it was also a lot of fun to play. These cabs would often be found in arcades years later because of its unique mix of spy action and puzzles, a formula that still holds up pretty well even today. It would be ported to a huge number of home platforms over the years ranging from the Amstrad and the ZX Spectrum to the Nintendo Entertainment System (where players would be introduced to the name of our hero, “Otto”) and the 3DS. It would also be included in compilations such as Taito Legends Power Up for the Sony PSP.
Elevator Action is one of those timeless arcade classics whose formula does a great job in enduring over the years. It was also a remarkably risky game in a scene dominated by twitch titles with its mix of puzzles and action, but it’s one that paid off in spades capitalizing not only on the Cold War feel of its material but giving players a new experience to look forward to in the arcade. Even with the Cold War over, Elevator Action’s clever combination is still a favorite for many gamers as they take Otto back in to seize secrets and make yet another clean getaway.