I’ve tried to abstain from more machines but recently a Megalo 410 popped up for sale at a price I couldn’t refuse. For those of you who have never seen one before, the Megalo is a Japanese, rear-projection arcade machine by Sega. Released in 1996, the machine has both Jamma and JVS wiring inside. The screen can support normal 15KHz signals up to 32KHz. “hi-res” signals used by boards like the Naomi.
The cab came with a Sega STV / Titan motherboard. It’s the same hardware set as the Sega Saturn but designed to take cartridge media. I’ve owned an STV motherboard for about 10 years but never bothered to buy any games for it given I had a Saturn collection with a few hundred games. To sweeten the deal, the cab came with Die Hard and Decathlete.
Although the acquisition of the cab was the inception for this post, I wanted to dig a bit deeper into Decathlete. Decathlete is one of those games that you would resent paying full price for as a console port, but for some reason (which I’ll get into) works perfectly as an arcade title.
Decathlete falls into a category of games often referred to as “Waggle” games. Aptly named because they often involved performing highly repetitive mechanical movements of the controller to get your avatar to do it’s thing (“waggling a joystick” being the norm – no, not a euphemism) . I think this category of games has single handedly kept makers of cheap after market controllers in business. (How many keyboard died as a consequence of California Games?)
In decathlete you tend to spend most of your time doing the following;
1. Press one button as fast as you can
2. Press another button at a very precise time
3. Sometimes use the joystick
The whole experience reminds me of a slightly more complex version of Dragons Lair – There is only one option and it needs to be inputted with clairvoyant levels of accuracy. Now, I do own this as a Saturn game. I paid about $2 for it second hand and consequently it got about $2 worth of play-time. I didn’t get the point of it. Sure, setting “world records” was nice but not something that I considered spending too much time on given the other options at the time. (FYI – I think I also got Guardian Heroes at the same time)
Today I played it on the STV version on the cab for the first time and it was an awesome experience! The thing is, the game is ridiculous in terms of how it asks it’s players to interact with it. You can’t help but laugh at how stupid the whole thing looks.
The 100m sprint event in the game is great. When the starters gun goes off, repeatedly press the B button as fast as possible. At the end, hit the A button at the right time to lunge. Sounds pretty simple right? Wrong! I’ve never had a need to figure out the bio-mechanics of human “rapid fire” until now. Sure, I’ve experienced the fun of Raiden’s Tooth-Paste laser but as Kearney from the Simpsons says, after doing the 100m sprint (and setting a few world records) “my doctor says I have the wrists of an 80- year-old.”
Did I get this experience on the Saturn version? Sure, but I didn’t have other people pissing themselves laughing and then turning to serious critiquing of button mashing technique. The other part of the experience is that beneath the ridiculousness of the whole thing, the public audience gave the competition a sense of seriousness and purpose that you just can’t get on the home console version. Why? because it’s the type of game where anyone can be an expert, even if they have never played it.
Let me explain, most games made post 1983 rely less on twitch mechanics and more on memorization and sometimes rote use of specific game mechanics. Twitch mechanics reward good reaction time and good bio-mechanics. It’s a type of universal ‘leveler’ as game experience counts for very little, at least in comparison to contemporary games. (No, I am not saying old games are better)
To play Decathlete and play it well, you simply need to follow some basic instructions which are provided both on the machine and prior to each event, and execute them precisely and often as quickly as possible. In game design terms, we would class this a perfect LEB game. (Low entry barrier – think the opposite of Master of Orion 3)
More importantly though, the game is easy to use, difficult to master. The perfect mantra for any competitive game, arcade or not.
I’ll leave it there before blubbering on about the arcade glory days more. For more similar discussion, check out the discussion around Metal Slug 3 in episode 12 of the First 10 Minutes
Triggered by this experience, I will be delving into a definition of Depth versus Complexity. Stay tuned.