Microsoft Arcade

I'm 23 years old, and I feel nostalgic.  (Is that wrong?  Is it unhealthy?)  It usually happens when I walk into an arcade, which doesn't happen too often anymore, and check out the games that are eating up tokens on today's market.  I can't help feeling a little depressed.  It seems like everything being made today is just another kick and punch, or just another side-scrolling beat-em-up game nearly identical to the 50 or so games of the type that came before it.  It's been years since I fed a five dollar bill into a token changer, not because I can't afford it, but because I can't find enough good games to spend 20 tokens on, even though most of them cost two apiece now.  I find it hard enough just spending a dollar in the arcades now, and most of that usually goes into pinball machines.  I wander from game to game, shaking my head with growing sadness, thinking, "That's boring.  Didn't I just see that game over there?  No, only one just like it".

I have some seriously fond memories of many hours and dollars spent in my favorite arcades.  When I was 14 or 15, going to the arcade was better than going to the movies; the games were that good.  Wherever I looked, there was a cool game that was nothing like the ones next to it.  And there was a feeling of community in those long-gone arcades, too.  I'll never forget the ego boost of a crowd of kids cheering me on as I blasted mother ship after mother ship in Xevious, or sitting down at a table-top version of Warlords with a friend and playing one game that lasted nearly an hour and a half.  I think back on those days when Atari was king and Nintendo was that company that made Donkey Kong and I think one thought:  "Nope, they just don't make 'em like they used to."  I'm an old-timer, and I haven't even tweezed my first nose hair.

Someone at Microsoft must have had the same idea.  And Someone's boss was bright enough to say, "Yeah, but if we're gonna do this, let's do it right."  The result is Microsoft Arcade, a five game package that runs under Windows 3.1, and despite all the technological marvels I have on my hard drive, I can't think of a computer game that's made me happier. When you run the Arcade install program from Program Manager, it uncompresses the single distribution disk to take up a whopping 3MB of hard drive space.  When this is done, you'll have five wonderful games to liven up your next Windows session:  Asteroids, Battle Zone, Centipede, Missile Command, and Tempest.  I never realized Tempest was an especially popular game, but it's always been one of my favorites.  Just like any other Windows application, each of these games can be minimized to an icon, blown up to full-screen size, and task-swapped with other programs.  (You don't think I typed this whole article without some on-the-spot "research", do you?)

Times have definitely changed from when I played arcade conversions on my Atari 2600.  (And don't forget the Atari 600XL computer with a stupendous 16K of RAM!)  This time around, the conversions really are just like the arcade versions.  Leave it to Microsoft to use high-tech to bring these games to the home computer in all their low-tech splendor.  The games' graphics have been scanned from the old arcade games, so the graphics are exactly like they were when I was 14.  On my SVGA system that displays something like 94 billion colors, one of the most beautiful sights I've seen is that old monochrome Asteroids screen.

Players with a Sound Blaster card installed with Windows drivers are in for another treat.  Windows isn't just for quiet people anymore, and Microsoft knows it.  That's why all the game sounds were digitally sampled from those old stand-up machines.  The result is an experience that made me think I could turn around and see my 9th grade girlfriend standing in front of a Mr. Do machine.  Since I started playing MS Arcade I've come to realize that few computer games on the market even come close to duplicating that rumbling boom of a shattering asteroid.

Controls for the games are intelligently programmed and entirely customizable.  Asteroids players will feel right at home using the keyboard.  Centipede and Missile Command feel just as good with the mouse as they ever did with the trackball.  Battle Zone uses the numeric keypad instead of the tank controls found on the coin-op.  (I doubt ThrustMaster will come out with a TCS product to support Battle Zone, but hey, I can always dream, can't I?)  Tempest is the only one that feels awkward at all.  There's no getting around the fact that that little 360-degree knob was the ultimate controller for this game.  The MS version uses the mouse to take the knob's place (left to rotate clockwise, right for counter-clockwise).  It's a little weird at first, but after a few games it becomes second nature.

Each game is fully customizable, and this customizing goes far beyond selecting which keys do what.  Nearly every aspect of every game is under your control.  You can set how many lives you start off with, how many points it takes to get a free life, how fast your ship is, even how smart the smart bombs are in Missile Command!  If I'd had control like this in the arcades, I would have gone through life with a Tempest machine stuck to my fingertips.

One final flourish Microsoft has included is a wonderful help screen to go along with each game.  Not only will the help screens give you instructions and playing tips, each screen gives a full history of the game, complete with quotes from the designers and programmers.  It's great to be able to see how these games came into existence, as each is a classic that has stood the test of time.

It's obvious that a lot of love went into the creation of MS Arcade, and I can't thank Microsoft enough for its release.  If you liked these games when you met them in the arcade years ago, you owe it to yourself to pick up this package.  If it sells well enough, maybe Microsoft will produce additional volumes.  Star Castle is an obvious choice, as is Warlords.  (Can you imagine Warlords with full modem and network options?  Duuude!!)  Personally, I'd love to see faithful home versions of some of my old favorites like Sinistar and Quantum--which would be perfect with a mouse.  The list of great old games that cry out for resurrection is too long to print.

Go ahead, put down that spreadsheet.  Minimize that word processor.  There's a new arcade in town, and it's just a double-click away.