Shooter Gallery #4: At the Electronic Carnival

Video games frequently take aesthetic cues from fairs and carnivals.  It's pretty easy to imagine, for example, the colors and iconography of Candy Crush being used in a carnival booth.  Likewise, some of the shooters released during the golden age of arcade games seemed to be channeling the carnival style, in both graphics and mechanics.  Considering that many of the early video game pioneers got their start in other forms of gaming, this shouldn't be a big surprise.  Nolan Bushnell, for example, worked at an amusement park while he was in college.

But what distinguishes the carnival style of gaming from other types of video games?  To help answer this question, I'm going to look at four shooters from 1980 with very strong carnival vibes.

Carnival (Gremlin/Sega, 1980)

Animation demonstrating the gameplay and graphics of the 1980 arcade game, Carnival.  Sprites for the target are also shown, including a duck, owl, rabbit, and bear.

There’s no ambiguity about the inspiration for Carnival, since it presents a near direct reproduction of a shooting gallery.  Of course, there won't be any birds flying at you in a real carnival booth, but the pipes, ducks, and rabbits are all standard fare for that setting.  The music, "Over the Waves", is also a tune well known for its use in carnivals.

The graphical systems of early arcade games were generally very limited in the colors they could produce, but this is okay for the carnival setting.  Carnivals tend to make heavy use of the primary colors to create a festive atmosphere and grab the attention of patrons, so the game uses a simple palette of red, green, yellow, and blue (technically cyan — blue probably wouldn’t stand out enough against the black background).

The gameplay is also consistent with carnival games, which tend to be simple and challenging, with mechanics that deliberately deemphasize depth.  It’s all about efficiency — a carnival booth should cycle quickly through its customers to maximize profit and excitement.  There's no time for complex strategic considerations, just give the player a quick thrill and move on to the next one.

Carnival does have some awareness of itself as a video game, and several gameplay elements are present that distinguish it from standard carnival fare.  For one, the descending ducks will eat away at your bullets if you let them pass, forcing the player to prioritize them over the scrolling targets.  Also, points will be awarded differently depending on when you shoot particular targets. Finally, the music speeds up as the rounds progress, adding an element of tension that borrows more from Space Invaders than real carnival games.

An amusing side note: apparently, the developers were so concerned that the carnival music would annoy players that they gave players the option to turn it off by shooting the musical note on the right side of the screen.

Magical Spot (Universal, 1980)

Animation demonstrating the gameplay and graphics of the 1980 arcade game, Magical Spot.  Sprites for the aliens, insects, title, and player are also shown.

Aside from Carnival, most of the shooters from this era shied away from explicit carnival themes, choosing instead war or science fiction.  Nevertheless, carnival influence is clear in many of them.  In the case of Magical Spot, you’re shooting insectoid aliens springing from a UFO, but the cartoonish presentation and grid layout are highly reminiscent of games like Whack-a-mole.

Magical Spot has another similarity with carnival games in its very high level of difficulty.  The centipede-like monsters each take two hits to kill and can restore themselves after being hit.  Even worse, there are intermediate stages that feature fast-flying bugs that can both target the player and shoot you in under 12 frames.  This is too fast to expect people to respond to, and really just randomizes outcomes.  Perhaps they were trying to follow in the tradition of carnival operators rigging their games.

Interestingly, Universal released a sequel, Magical Spot II, in the same year.  It didn't have any new features, however, it was just an easier version of the same game.  Perhaps someone called shenanigans on the developers.

Megatack (Centuri, 1980)

Animation demonstrating the gameplay and graphics of the 1980 arcade game, Megatack.  Sprites for the aliens, title, and player are also shown.

Centuri was best known for acquiring licensed games from other manufacturers, but they did produce a handful of their own games during the arcade golden age.  All of these in-house Centuri products have an immediately recognizable style that empahsizes color and action over nuance.  Three of them -- Megatack, Killer Comet, and Challenger -- are raster-based shooters released in 1980-1981, while Aztarac is a 1983 vector game.

Megatack is the most extreme example of Centuri's carnival-like approach -- a fixed shooter that arms the player with a three-barrel gun and simply tosses swarms of colorful enemies at them.  There are no patterns to learn or an AI to outsmart, you just shoot as many things as you can without getting hit.  In alternating stages, you'll have to gun down spinning disks of color that don't actually shoot at you, but will envelope your ship if they're allowed to reach a certain size.

The one aspect where the Centuri games tend to differ from carnival games is their difficulty, or rather lack thereof.  In Megatack, the three-barreled weapon allows you to destroy enemies from oblique angles, making it much easier to avoid their shots.  A careful player should be able to make it through ten or more waves before facing any serious challenge.

Sky Chuter (Irem, 1980)

Animation demonstrating the gameplay and graphics of the 1980 arcade game, Sky Chuter.  Sprites for the planes, bombs, and player are also shown.

Sky Chuter and the similar game, Balloon Bomber (Taito, 1980), adopted a shooting gallery style like Carnival, but found it necessary to add other mechanical elements to spice things up.  In Sky Chuter, bombs drop randomly from horizontally moving planes and the player has to destroy them or else they impede the player's lateral movement.  As the planes descend, they get easier to hit, but you have less time to dodge their bullets and knock out falling bombs, so it's important not to waste shots.

One thing that distinguishes Sky Chuter from most of its contemporaries is the player's slow bullet speed.  The player needs to account for the motion of the planes more than they would in most fixed shooters, adding yet another strategic element.  It seems clear that developers found the bare carnival style of gaming insufficiently complex to satisfy the gamers that frequented arcades.

The Big Picture

The very first video games were necessarily simple and I would argue that early hits like Breakout and Circus were direct offshoots of the carnival. By 1980, however, the style was on the decline.  Except for the Gremlin/Sega product, the games discussed here are obscure, and by 1981, the shooting gallery style of game was virtually extinct.  Arcade profits leaned very heavily on hardcore gamers, who tended to prefer depth and complexity over the quick-and-flashy style of the carnival.  

This wouldn't last forever -- by the '90s and '00s, the increasing prevalence of home computers and, eventually, mobile devices meant that the casual gamer would be a bigger part of the market.  Games like Bejeweled, Candy Crush, and Bust-a-Move are clear descendants of the carnival style.  In the near term, however, shooters were destined for increasing complexity.  In the next gallery, I'll talk about the first major leap in shooter design after Space-Invaders.


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