Riding elevators from arcade’s past – Elevator Action Returns

The Arcade Flyer Archive only had the Japanese flyer available and it looks great showing off our three heroes posing for the audience in a solid action shot.

It’s 1994. The Cold War is over, the Soviet Union dissolved, and everyone’s attention is focused on what might be coming next. Games were also changing. PCs were improving by leaps and bounds during the 90s, arcades were getting squeezed out, and home consoles were slowly devouring their audience.

Nearly eleven years later, Taito revisited the classic Elevator Action with a sequel called Elevator Action Returns (Elevator Action II in the West). In keeping with the “New World Order”, enemies were no longer spies stealing secret documents — these were terrorists threatening to blow up targets around the world and it was up to three special agents to stop them.

Taito went all out with the sequel completely building it back up on top of cutting edge arcade know-how and re-invigorating the original formula by using that as a baseline and then jumping into the stratosphere with it.

The guts of the game ran on Taito’s F3 System hardware which online arcade museum, System 16, has a pic of including the rare, early single-board version. Over at hardMVS, you can see a few pics of the F3 with and without the cartridge module. The hardware appears to have debuted in 1992 with a number of its earliest games listed that year and as I noted with a look at another F3 powered classic, Dungeon Magic, was a big change from Taito’s usual modus operandi when it came to hardware copying efforts being made by others such as Capcom’s CPS and SNK’s Neo Geo MVS in creating a cartridge-based solution to help shave costs for arcade owners. Before, Taito had a smorgasbord of hardware guts they built for their games. Now, if you need a few game in an existing cab, no EPROMs or CPUs to change out — just change the cartridge, the cab marquee, control labels, and you’re good to go.

Taito’s F3 hardware also also called “Cybercore” in a clever bit of PR marketing speak to make it sound all future awesome. This ad, according to the Arcade Flyer Archive, came out in 1995 though the hardware had already been out for a few years. You can see a shot of the board and a cartridge (the big red square) at the bottom.

The F3 was no slouch. Its brain was the MC68EC020 (an iteration of the 32-bit Motorola 68020) with sound provided by an Ensoniq ES5510 in conjunction with a Motorola MC68000, all running at 16Mhz. It had a number of neat tricks up its sleeve with clever scrolling effects, scaling, and a number a other technical tools that it used to make its games stand out from the rest and ran a large number of Taito games from a shmup like Darius Gaiden in ’94 to Arkanoid Returns in ’97. The F3 was a great workhorse.

And Elevator Action Returns made great use of it. The plot of the game is that terrorists led by a mysterious mastermind are seeking to spread chaos around the world by blowing up everything from office buildings to airports. Three specialists, Kart Bradfield, Edie Buret, and Jad the Taff, are sent in to stop this maniac before it’s too late by infiltrating each target and disarming the explosives before they go off.

Our three heroes. Notice the weapon names that are slightly misspelled, likely so as to avoid any potential copyright issues, though I think Jad might have been more comfortable with something other than a

Our three heroes. Notice the weapon names that are slightly misspelled, likely so as to avoid any potential copyright issues, though I think Jad might have been more comfortable with something other than a “Dessert” Eagle.

One of the biggest differences is that players get to choose to play as one of these three heroes (and can co-op as two of them) and each one behaves differently in the game because of their statistics. Kart Bradfield is the generally balanced character. Edie’s shots aren’t as powerful and she doesn’t move quite as fast, but she has the fastest trigger finger out of the three. Jad has the most power in his shots, decently quick trigger finger, but is also the slowest out of the group. And when I say slow, he walks as if his feet are made of concrete. Each character also has a different gun that they use that also affects their shooting speed as well as a secondary weapon whether it’s Edie’s napalm-like grenades or Kart’s plain grenades.

Each mission started out with a short briefing like this to add a little atmosphere.

Each mission started out with a short briefing like this to add a little atmosphere.

Unlike the original Elevator Action which went on for as long as the player could survive its increasing challenge, and where some purists might be a bit put off by the new game, is that there are only six levels in Returns. On the plus side, each level is unique since each one embodies a specific venue whether it’s a high rise office or an airport. The objective still remains the same — find the red doors, and there’s still a quota for each mission.

The areas were packed with plenty of details and made the best use of each locale, such as this oil rig with its twisting array of elevators and platforms. And one guy on a toilet.

The areas were packed with plenty of details and made the best use of each locale, such as this oil rig with its twisting array of elevators and platforms. And one guy on a toilet.

But now there are also blue doors which kick off a kind of roulette wheel of choices ranging from extra ‘nades to extra health, exploding barrels, barrels that can tip over and roll down hallways, onto elevators, and over enemies, crates that you can break open for powerful weapons ranging from rapid-fire uzis to missile launchers setting nearly everything they hit on fire…Taito packed enough crazy action in this game to outdo Michael Bay before he made it a trademark.

Each character now has a health bar — no more one hit kills as in the original — and continues preserve your score and pick up right where you had died by summoning you back there (or at least to a floor section near to where you died). You can still die from falling from one floor to the next (unless you’re still in invincible for a few seconds after coming back from death) and kick enemies to death by jumping right at them. If you’re closer than that, each hero does a special move to take out enemies with a nice point bonus. And not every enemy goes down with just one shot, anymore. There’s quite a few from flying, suited up foes to shield-wielding soldiers and little robots to plague players.

Elevator Actions Returns took advantage of the latest advances by making everything look and sound great from enemy screams to enemies on fire. These bad guys didn't curl up into a ball and blink out of sight like in the 80s, no sir.

Elevator Actions Returns took advantage of the latest advances by making everything look and sound great from enemy screams to enemies on fire. These bad guys didn’t curl up into a ball and blink out of sight like in the 80s, no sir.

This was also a great looking game for the time with scaling effects and fine details to many of the backdrops with a solid soundtrack by Yasuhisa Watanabe (credited as “-Zuntata-” in the game), an old Taito veteran of many other classics from The Ninja Warriors in ’88 to Bubble Bobble Neo! in ’09. Stills between each mission showed our heroes making a dramatic getaway from their last mission with a great attract mode featuring even more explosions.

After totaling the place, our heroes make a clean getaway to the next mission! They're kind of like anime's Dirty Pair, only, er, with three people instead of two.

After totaling the place, our heroes make a clean getaway to the next mission! They’re kind of like anime’s Dirty Pair, only, er, with three people instead of two.

There are no boss fights until the climax where players come face to face with the mastermind protecting missile silo door controls with his life as a nuke prepares to launch. The ending itself is pretty surprising — the characters literally give their lives to stop the missile and there’s not much else to see aside from the credits after that. The game ends, too. No continuation at a higher difficulty level.

A home version of the game was released for the ill-fated Saturn in ’97 which included the original from ’83. It was also rolled into a compilation, Taito Legends 2, for the PC, PlayStation 2, and the Xbox in 2007.

Despite not being quite as hardcore as the original, Elevator Action Returns was still an amazingly fun game. It had crazy action, an explosive “story”, great sprite animations, solid music, and really felt a lot like an action adventure. Just like the original, some sections in the game required players to think their way through multiple elevators in order to reach sections of the area that may appear completely cut off at first. In that respect, Returns continues to carry on that tradition.

Risk it all to get to the blue doors for potential points and goodies? Or just survive long enough to get to the bottom of this platform hell? It's up to you!

Risk it all to get to the blue doors for potential points and goodies? Or just survive long enough to get to the bottom of this platform hell? It’s up to you!

At the end, the enemy has a nuke that they're planning to launch and a timer starts up as a challenging twist. Players have to fight their way to the end in time to stop the launch.

At the end, the enemy has a nuke that they’re planning to launch and a timer starts up as a challenging twist. Players have to fight their way to the end in time to stop the launch.

Up through the missile silo...

Up through the missile silo…

...until you face off against the man behind the mayhem!

…until you face off against the man behind the mayhem!

Just as the world was changing, so was the arcade, and games like Elevator Action Returns reflected that with its continues, health bars, and weapon upgrades. These mechanics were already being used by many other games, especially beat ’em ups, to keep players interested in playing.

The days of when one shot, one kill would make you scramble for more tokens seemed to be waning, but in exchange, the designers would try throwing more challenges at you, wearing you and your wallet down by sheer attrition while dangling the prospect of not having to continue from the start of this experience as a big, juicy carrot. Returns could be harsh with the amount of enemies it tosses into your lap, especially in the later areas. Try and negotiate some of the later elevator puzzles while they’re shooting at you, and it can feel like its channeling a bit of that classic spirit back into your trigger finger.

Returns is a great classic from Taito and a solid example of the kind of creative ideas that they could come up with to introduce a new generation to the type of fun that made them one of the reigning kings of the arcade. The Cold War was over, the world was changing, but Taito was still very much in the game adapting new stories into bleeding edge hardware making new heroes out of its audience one mission at a time.

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