Not every arcade icon had a big name like Capcom, Taito, Williams, or Atari attached to them. A few were created by companies out from left field bursting on the scene with one or two surprising entries. One of those was Valadon Automation located in France. Their specialty was in the construction and setup of devices focused on industrial automation and they’re actually still around doing the same thing.
In the early 80s, though, they dabbled with the arcade scene putting out a few arcade coin munchers but didn’t stay in the game after ’85. Out of the handful of titles they released, one of those turned out to be a memorable hit by the name of Bagman in 1982. It was licensed for release in the US by Stern, then a giant in pinball machines and known for the iconic Berserk in 1980.
Bagman stood out for its novel and challenging gameplay involving an escaping prisoner, bags of money, and two very persistent officers of the law. The chase took place in a 2D, side scrolling, three-screen wide mine maze filled with hazards like mine carts, drops, and dead ends, all of which the player had to find a way around in order to gather up as much loose loot as possible.
There was a wheelbarrow up on the surface and the prisoner, or the “Bagman”, had to carry as many of them as possible up to it in order to score points. A bonus counter starts counting down at the top of the screen and the longer you take in returning a bag of cash to the ‘barrow, the fewer points you’d get. Every time you returned a bag, however, the counter reset for the next bag.
The gameplay was a lot of fun because of the options it gave the player. To help avoid the moving minecarts, players could use the “action” button to clutch handles set in the roof. They could even drop into the minecart to protect themselves from the guards if one was too close for comfort, but to get back out, they had to wait until they passed beneath one of those handles again.
The bags also slowed down the Bagman adding another layer of risk, but if players were climbing up a ladder with one and a guard was right behind them, they could actually drop the loot down to hit them with it and put them out of commission for awhile. There was also a pickaxe that could break through a thin dirt wall hiding a blue bag of loot (more points in exchange for more of a movement penalty) or brain the guards in your way before disappearing. An elevator also served as a temporary bridge across a mine shaft or two, or a convenient escape route for our Bagman. Players could even move the wheelbarrow to one of the other screens to make getting that loot over to it a bit easier. Other than the pickaxe, there were no other power-ups. No super strength, no invincibility, nothing else other than your wits.
Aside from a few bars at the start of your current life (you usually started with three, two in reserve), music was sparse but it had some digital vocal effects such as muttering “Ay yi yi!” when you were knocked out by anything from a mine cart to one of the guards finally catching up with you. There was even an “ahh..whoop!” for clinging onto one of the ceiling bars.
All of these elements together created at game that was aimed at a player’s tactical grasp of the maze and its loot than in twitch reflexes making it something of a refreshing break from its action-heavy peers. There could be moments of tense, snap decision making since the AI could be pretty aggressive, but overall, it felt as if it depended more on out thinking the maze than in trying to jump or dodge as quickly as in other games at the time.
The game had solid graphics for the time and the Bagman, though he didn’t resemble anything like what was seen on the marquee, looked just fine. The blue jumpsuited guards with what looked like shotguns, on the other hand, really didn’t look like the cops in the cartoon strip giving me the impression that this guy was part of a chain gang. Still, I was glad that there were only two of them to deal with.
Bagman ended up on a number of platforms outside of the arcade, though apparently not in an officially licensed sense such as with the port “Gilligan’s Gold” which appeared in ’84 from Ocean Software for the Commodore 64, Amstrad, and the ZX Spectrum. Or in ’83 with Aardvark-80’s “Bagitman”, also for the Commodore 64 and the TRS-80. Today, you can play it at the Internet Archive’s Arcade or try out one of the fan made remakes floating around the ‘net.
This was one of those games that didn’t have to go to extremes to really stand out as a great, challenging classic that took a simple premise and made it into a race to outsmart the guards while getting away with the goods. A fun twist to the maze genre where players can root for the “bad” guy getting away with the goods.