Lost in Translation

As long as I remember, I have had this particular fondness toward arcade games (and I mean the actual coin-operated ones), especially when growing up. Obviously we are now living in the post-arcade era where sophisticated home systems made arcades finally obsolete, but fortunately at least classic arcade games continue to live on through collectors and, of course, emulation.

What made arcade games so special back then was that they offered, in a way, a window into the future of consumer real-time imagery, as in, what could be possible in home environment somewhere down the line. In fact, for me they acted like windows quite literally since I rarely had resources to actually play the games, but awkwardly hang around them. Watching other people play was almost equally exciting nevertheless, which made me a rather lousy customer for the local arcade as a juvenile.

Even though arcade games by and large came from a variety of developers, one publisher was and, in a way, still is in a league of its own: Sega, and particularly the Sega AM2 team led by design genius Yu Suzuki. I’ve yet to encounter an entity that has broken ground in video game graphics as ambitiously as Sega has, with games that continuously redefined what the real-time image can do.

The closest games to my heart out of the Sega’s overwhelming portfolio are the ones released in the 80s using so-called Super Scaler technology. These are the titles that simulate 3D space by algorithmically scaling the bitmap art assets creating an illusion of traversing along the z-axis. The effect was nothing short of staggering and light years ahead what home systems could do at the time. Games, like Out Run (1986), After Burner (1987) and Thunder Blade (1988), to name but a few, all used this Super Scaler system, and the whole charm of them, I would argue, was ultimately reduced to the smooth scaling effect.

As said, the above-mentioned arcade games ­represented the absolute high-end of the gaming spectrum at the time. The commercial success of them naturally created financial pressures to bring the arcade experience to the home systems, such as the Commodore 64, as well. The problem was, that the C64 represented virtually the direct opposite end of the spectrum with its lackluster hardware in terms of screen resolution, color palette and computational horsepower in general.

Of course, that didn’t stop money-grabbing publishers, such as Ocean and U.S.Gold, bringing Out Run and the likes to the low-end home systems. The issue was that, for instance, Out Run was not so much about the gameplay per se, but the spectacle of driving smoothly through the colorful scenery filled with eye pleasing details. When those things were stripped off in the low-end versions, such as the one on the C64, there wasn’t that much, if anything, conveyed from the original experience anymore due to the hardware limitations. All that there was left was a really bad game, even by the C64 standards.

The original Out Run was indeed a rock-solid fusion of software and hardware that carried through the visual concept Out Run was built on gracefully with no hiccups whatsoever. The game ran beautifully at high and steady frame rates, contained striking transition effects when driving from one section to the next one, and offered vast variation in terms of visuals in general. I’d say Out Run was best the year 1986 had to offer for real-time imagery which the everyday audience had access to.

However, the way the C64 version was constructed was completely backward. The exercise here was to shove the concept of Out Run into the system in any way possible regardless the inherent hardware limitations. There was indeed nothing – not a single chip – inside the C64 that would’ve warranted or justified the ludicrous idea of porting a game like Out Run to such a weak system. Which is painfully obvious just by glancing at the end result, especially in motion.

In the end, everything comes down to the fact that the real-time image as a medium can’t be separated from the hardware platform that it’s on; the real-time image is the software and the hardware. I can only imagine the level of disappointment of someone who actually paid real money for an arcade conversion like the C64’s Out Run and thought having nearly the same arcade experience at home. It was like buying Star Wars: Episode IV on DVD and getting Star Wars Uncut instead.

It goes without saying that in the end the logic of such endeavors had got to do more than anything with the power of Intellectual Property and the “fraudulent” financial leverage that came along with it. In fact, all this makes me think of fast food joints where the pictures of the burgers above the counter represent nothing of the actual products people are shoving, rather happily, into their faces. What they are doing is consuming the simulacrum of the Big Mac, not the Bic Mac depicted in the marketing materials.

The problem of horrible arcade conversions wasn’t the poor target hardware in and of itself. There were quite beautiful games on the C64 at the time, like, for instance, Uridium (1986) that utilized even the awkward shape of the C64 pixels for its advantage. The problem was the completely backward and corrupt creative process. And I’m using the term creative very loosely here.