Friday, March 21, 2014

Operation: StarBlade

"Come in Starflighter Geo Sword!
This is King Raider, over."
One of the neat things about arcade games is the opportunity to experiment with a variety of different control layouts and operator configurations.  The most common design is to have the player (or players) stand in front of the machine using some buttons and a joystick.  However, a number of arcade machines had alternate systems of interface.  For example Paperboy had a pair of bicycle handlebars which could be tilted or pivoted to control direction and speed.   A button on each grip allowed the player to throw a newspaper as well.  Then you had games with tracking balls like Missile Command, games with steering wheels like Out Run, and even games with light guns for rail shooting style experiences.  The real standouts though were arcade games that had the player sit rather than stand.  Hang-On had a mock-up motorcycle for the player to ride on, and of course a large number of racing games featured seats complete with gas and brake peddles.  Mech combat games would sometimes feature a chair with a throttle on one side and a multi-button control stick in the other.  By far though my favorite type of these games was Operation: StarBlade.

Check out the text in the beginning
briefing video (below) for some
examples of "Engrish" at it's finest
What made this particular arcade machine stand out was its abnormally huge screen made possible by taking a 26" monitor display above the chair and reflecting the image across a wide concave mirror surface in front of the player's seat.  The effect was akin to being in a gunner cockpit complete with two handed targeting grips.  High end polygonal graphics (for the time) and six speaker sound also added quite a bit to the sense of immersion.  Gameplay amounts to a lot of rail shooting in deep space.  The story sets you up as a starfighter pilot code named "Geo Sword" about to sortie on a mission to neutralize the threat of mechanized planet "Red Eye" by attacking it's power source (a huge surface construct called the "Octopus").  After launching from a carrier in orbit over your mother planet you quickly find yourself entangled in a huge furball against enemy fighter craft.  This is followed by a warp sequence to an asteroid field and then an enemy vanguard fleet of capital ships.  The whole time you're battling toward Red Eye an enemy strike craft designated "Enemy Flagship Commander" continuously harasses you making this foe somewhat of a reoccurring nemesis throughout the game.  After blasting your way across the surface of Red Eye you eventually reach the Octopus power core and destroy it along with the entire mechanized planet.

At this point you'd think the game is over, but the arcade game pulls a kind of surprise 4th act on you by having Geo Sword intercepted by a colossal enemy ship during the return warp transit.  In the ensuing firefight players must destroy a second ship mounted power core and the "Enemy Flagship Commander" in a rather climactic one-on-one duel.  Only then does the game finally conclude with a victory barrel roll cut scene and return to base fanfare.  You can check out a complete recording of the game from beginning to end here:

The video clip doesn't really do the full game justice though.  Trust me when I say if you were actually sitting in the gunnery chair it would be a noticeably more enhanced experience.  Then again you're not out about $5 in quarters either.

"Located Enemy Flagship Commander."
I've heard people accuse Operation: StarBlade of ripping off Star Fox.  A rather silly criticism when you consider that this arcade game predates the SNES title by about two years.  Not to mention StarBlade is a first person rail shooter while Star Fox is a third person flight-sim with some freedom of movement.  After viewing some gameplay footage I'd expect someone to call out the obvious parallels between StarBlade and Star Wars.  After all Red Eye does have more than a passing resemblance to the Death Star.  But if I had to pick a movie that most resembles Operation: StarBlade it would be The Last Starfighter.  In other words I'm comparing an arcade game to a film featuring an arcade game that doesn't actually exist.

Actually, technically speaking a prototype of The Last Starfighter arcade game does exist thanks to the hard work of a dedicated fan.  Atari also had plans to mass produce arcade machines identical to the one seen in the movie, but gave up on the project when it became apparent that the amount of hardware needed (at the time) to produce graphics similar to those seem in the film would cost an impractically huge amount of money.  Not all that surprising considering that the CG used in The Last Starfighter was generated by way of a Cray Supercomputer.  Fast forward seven years to when StarBlade came out though and comparable graphics were more or less economically viable.

The Last Starfighter cabinet logo
While I'm on the topic of The Last Starfighter...does anyone else out there think this movie really needs a sequel?  Granted the story is incredibly cheesy; a kid who's so good at a particular arcade machine he's recruited by an alien alliance to help fight off an invading force using his incredible gaming skills.  Sounds pretty corny, right?  Well, it the best possible way.  The original script writer specifically mentioned in an interview that he got the idea from observing a boy playing arcade games while reading The Once and Future King by T.H. White.  Quite literally the screenplay writer though of the arcade game as being a kind of Excalibur and the boy a young King Arthur.  Not a bad source of inspiration if I do say so myself.  Honestly though, I'd be just as happy to see a sequel to the movie in the form of a video game.  The main villain in the film, Xur, escapes in the end and the Ko-dan Empire, while down one armada, probably still has a sizable military force at their disposal.   There's even an easy point to introduce newcomers to the franchise in the form of the protagonists little brother, Louis, who also shows an affinity toward gaming, but at the time of the events in the film was too young to join the Star League.

You might think it weird to continue the story of a movie via a video game, but think of it this way.  The film was trying to show how similar video games are to reality.  In the case of a sequel, how about showing how similar reality is to video games?  It could work really well if the concept of a video game about a movie about a video game is handled carefully.  At the very least I think it would be a lot of fun to play another game like Operation: StarBlade, just swap out the Geo Sword for a Gunstar.

"Greetings, Starfighter. You have been recruited by the Star League to defend the Frontier against Xur and the Ko-dan Armada."

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