Friday, March 13, 2009

Coin-Op Lives

Maybe it was because I was in the presence of coin-op, arcade design greatness or maybe it was because I'm the world's worst photographer--even with a digital camera--but I botched most of the pictures I took at Raw Thrills, recently. Raw Thrills, for those of you who don't keep up with coin-op goodness, is the company founded a few years ago by Eugene Jarvis. Yes, founded by that Eugene Jarvis, the creator of Defender, the mega-quarter muncher of yesteryear and the first video game ever to offer a "radarscope" to let players know about enemies coming from off-screen. As President of Raw Thrills, Jarvis has proven himself to be a survivor in an industry that seems to have reached equilibrium at a level far reduced from its glory years in the Space Invaders, Gorf!, Ms. PacMan, and Defender days, as well as something of a Renaissance Man in terms of design, distribution, innovation, manufacturing, and testing. Eugene can do it all.

Design innovation in coin-op games? Come on, has there been any? Yes, but it may not show itself in anything other than graphics. Graphics are what catch one's eye in the bars, restaurants, and movie theaters where coin-op games thrive in the current, admittedly niche, market. But as those beautiful 3D graphics whip across the screen with lightning flash screen refreshes, there have been advances. No longer do you see blocky images cavorting across a Cathode Ray Tube. Today's cabinets sport the latest flat screen monitors.

But flat screen monitors produced their own challenge. In the old days, one merely used a light gun in order to bounce the signal off a CRT. Today it requires a custom LED approach to read the signal's trajectory. Raw Thrills developed this in-house for their Big Buck Hunter and Big Buck Safari games. The fuzzy photo provided below shows such an array from the Big Buck Safari game.

Another successful game for Raw Thrills has been their Super Bikes game. The impetus for the design innovation in this game was a result of interviews with owners and operators of previous motorcycle games. Their biggest complaint was that the moveable handles would break off and malfunction, so they needed something more serviceable. Raw Thrills opted to make the handles stationary, but provided plenty of simulated movement through force-feedback mechanisms such as the one pictured here.

The in-house dev staff is currently working on Super Bikes 2, but the company has a great-looking boat racing game (imagine their old H2O Thunder on steroids) being developed in conjunction with Specular Interactive and continue to develop products with their Play Mechanix subsidiary.

Speaking of Super Bikes, the successful racing game's construction is particularly illustrative of the Renaissance Man aspect of creating coin-op games. The components for this game require a mixture of injection molded plastic parts, vacuum molded parts, and rotational molded parts. Rotational molding is where plastic pellets are dumped inside the mold and, as they are heated, the mold is moved in a centrifugal pattern so that the melting plastic adheres perfectly to the mold. The bike's body itself was crafted in this fashion. Here is the part before assembly:

Perhaps, the most amazing feature about visiting with Eugene Jarvis, though, is the recognition that he turned the industry on its side with less than 64K. The program itself for Defender was less than 18K and even the dedicated audio and graphics hardware didn't amount to 48K. In an era where 256 MB of RAM means you have a lackluster machine, that seems nothing short of phenomenal. Of course, in an era with all of these scripting languages, it doesn't seem real that anyone would laboriously code in machine language, either.

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