Woburn never had an arcade. Blame the same bluenosed provincialism that held to a “no standing” rule for alcoholic beverages through the mid-1990s or credit to the traditional suspicion of any place where teens might gather unsupervised, but local access to coin-op videogames was limited to a handful of machines situated at the Boys’ Club, the cineplex, the creepy pool hall favored by feral heshers, and the bowling alley.
That last location was the best and most favored by my group of adolescent peers, especially once we’d hit an age where we could venture there without requiring parental-supplied transporation. This period also happened to coincide with the late 1980s second coming of the coin-op scene, which saw a breathtaking uptick in terms of graphics and gameplay.
I’m talking about the era of OutRun, Afterburner, and Gradius. Of broadened color palettes, symphonic chiptunes, and aesthetics rooted in the mysterious allure of what used to be dubbed “Japanimation.” Of parallax scrolling and co-op gameplay and the quarter-munching incentive of true continues and endgame victory screens.
It was a great time to be a teenage geek, let me tell you.
Many of my enduring arcade favorites were first experienced in the cramped stall over looking the candlepin lanes. There was the dual-mecha action of SideArms and the licensed insanity of Tatio’s Superman beat-em-up and the vertigo-inducing trippiness of Sega’s Space Harrier. Of all of the phosphor-dot delights I discovered at the bowling alley, however, the one that I indelibly associate with that time and place is Capcom’s Black Tiger.
The 1987 release was a side-and-vertically scrolling action platformer that bridged the gap between the Ghosts ‘n Goblins and Magic Sword in the publisher’s long CV of fantasy-themed killfests. The player guides a ludicrously top-heavy barbarian warrior through a beautifully detailed series of cave complexes, whacking enemies and avoiding hazards while nabbing power-ups from either treasure chests or the occasional friendly merchant. (The game marked the debut of “zenny,” which went on to have a long career as Capcom’s fictional currency of choice.)
It was the greatest thing I’d ever seen in my fifteen years of existence.
That might sound a little hyperbolic to folks who’ve come on the other side of the flood of barbarocentric jump-and-slash titles which emerged in Black Tiger’s wake, but it is true nonetheless. It’s expansive environments were mindboggling by 1987 standards and the Capcom’s attention to 2D art design had yet to become a widely understood given. The latter really shone through in smaller details, such as the drops of corrosive slime which dropped from above, the deadly pillars of fire which emerged from a trapped chest, or the spinning skull coins which served as obstacles during climbing sequences.
Though there was nothing particularly radical or innovative in Black Tiger, I could not shake the sense that I was witnessing the future of gaming, in theoretical promise if not reality. It was the first time I looked at a game and saw a realized “world” rather than an abstraction of the same.
(Yes, that’s more than a little unfair to Pac-Man or Defender or Dig Dug, but I was a dumb fifteen year old kid, for fuck’s sake.)
The mystique surrounding Black Tiger — and also The Speed Rumbler — was amplified by the lack of a console port. It would be another dozen years before I had another chance to experience Black Tiger’s charms and see how they fared against my inflationary nostalgia.
The answer was “not particularly well.”
In all fairness, though, “barbarians jumping and hitting shit” ranks pretty low on my list of “Things from 1987 Which Andrew Would Like To Recapture.”