The Age of Prohibition (1920 – 1933) was a bold experiment in legally enforced temperance banning alcohol within the United States. One of the biggest criticisms of the law behind it was that it also facilitated the rapid rise of organized crime creating empires under the control of the Mafia and figures such as Al Capone who took advantage of the “dry” period to build up fortunes illegally importing and distributing alcohol.
It also created a huge body of fiction ranging from films to comic books giving rise to legends such as that of Elliott Ness and his band of “Untouchables” as they heroically fought the forces of Al Capone to free Chicago (though the real story was a lot less exciting though no less important). But in the arcades of the 80s, it wasn’t exactly the kind of stuff that many developers chose to build their games around. Seibu Kaihatsu, however, thought differently.
Shmup fans might recognize Seibu Kaihatsu as the home of the popular Raiden shoot ’em up series, but the company also created a variety of other, lesser known, titles including Empire City: 1931 which debuted in Japanese arcades in 1986.
Empire City was set during Prohibition and the player was a lone wolf waging war against the Mob in eight stages of gallery-blasting mayhem. The European flyer for the game described the player as a “youth” whose family was killed in a shootout and is off to avenge their deaths by fighting the Mafia. There was no light gun — the aiming cursor was controlled by joystick which the player used to pan around the play area to find and perforate their targets with.
The basic gameplay had the player pan around a play area with the reticle, looking for gangsters in windows, doorways, alleys, behind obstacles like crates, rooftops, or standing out in the open before running along the sidewalk. It wasn’t a single screen — this was a big play area that you could pan up, down, left, and right to find the bad guys.
The difficulty comes from the game’s “one hit” mechanic, meaning one hit and you’re dead. Fortunately, that also goes for the enemies, too, as long as you can keep your aim steady. As you look for bad guys (and follow arrows hinting at where to look), a timer bubble pops up in the lower right hand corner. It usually starts from five and then begins counting down. When it reaches zero, and you haven’t shot the bad guy by then, they get to shoot you and it doesn’t matter if you can see them onscreen or not. Some bad guys don’t give you much time at all, maybe three seconds, before unloading on you.
But you can dodge! Yes, you can avoid bullets thanks to the dodge button. The game is pretty generous, giving you a few seconds of safety when you dodge, so you can re-aim and try again before the new countdown ends. You’ll also be dodging judging purely by the timer since many enemies will be off screen until you can pan around to them. The good news is that there are a limited number of thugs per stage and continuing doesn’t respawn them all over again which is a nice thing considering how brutal the difficulty can be.
After clearing the eighth stage, you need to kill the Mob Boss with one shot by panning from window to window to find him walking around inside a building. This time, you’re seeing things through a scope surrounded by a “fog” of war effect, and once you get the kill shot, you get a short congratulatory ending before it starts all over again. Fail, and you’re thrown back into the eighth stage to clear it all over again.
Empire City is kind of a mixed bag. On one hand, it’s the kind of shooter style that Taito classics such as Operation Wolf would raise the bar on a few years later. On the other, its brutal difficulty (and sending the player back a stage for failing to kill the Mob Boss) can be frustrating lessons in patience that the average player may simply leave behind for more forgiving (and entertaining) fare. It’s not impossible to play, but the margin for error is so narrow that after seeing the death screen so many times, players may decide to simply move on. It’s interesting, but not interesting enough to stick around for another lesson in failure when there are so many other games asking for the player’s attention.
The game was ported over to the Japan-only MSX and the Famicom (the Nintendo Entertainment System in the West). Continues on the Famicom version were handled with a password system, a popular feature with a number of Famicom/NES games at the time as an alternative to battery backup tech. Though the arcade game did migrate over to the West, the home port doesn’t seem to have followed it over.
Seibu Kaihatsu would go on to give the world games like Raiden and Dynamite Duke later on, but this wasn’t the end of Empire City’s story. It would get a sequel in 1988 showing that what happened in Empire City was only a warm up.