RF Generation.  The Classic and Modern Gaming Databases.RF Generation.  The Classic and Modern Gaming Databases.

Posted on Jun 7th 2020 at 12:00:00 PM by (MetalFRO)
Posted under arcade port, home conversion, 8 bit, 16 bit, console gaming, retrogaming, classic games

During the 80's and early 90's, kids like myself were treated to a large number of ports of popular (and not so popular) arcade games to home consoles. Who wouldn't want to play their favorite arcade game at home on their own TV, rather than having to go drop quarters into the arcade cabinet? And what happens when that arcade game at the bowling alley or gas station got replaced with something else? Sure, there was a new period of discovery, and perhaps you'll find a new favorite, but you still like that previous game enough to want to keep playing it. Enter the home conversion. According to the advertising, you could have the fun of the arcade game in the comfort of your own home! The reality, however, is that it didn't always work out like that.

During the last month, when the RF Generation Shmup Club was playing the classic Fantasy Zone, it hit me: not all ports are created equal. Of course, I knew this intellectually, but when nostalgia is involved, it's a tricky thing to overcome. It's easy to look past the flaws in a game you loved as a kid, even as an adult, and still enjoy it.  But at the end of the day, you know the game you grew up loving isn't perfect, and there are definitely cracks in the foundation. The real win is when you can look at the game objectively, see it for what it is, and be honest about it.

Screenshot shamelessly linked from NEPA Scene.
Most of us here can identify this turkey. And many of us have played it, some far too much.

During the early 8-bit era, with 1st and 2nd generation consoles, there was some ability to port simplistic arcade games to home consoles. The Atari 2600 version of Space Invaders is reasonably good for its time, and manages to approximate the arcade game in a recognizable fashion. Once you started to see high quality, multi-color games in arcades, such as Donkey Kong, PAC-MAN, and Galaxian, it became clear that bringing those experiences home would be harder to do. The 2nd generation fared better in this regard, with the ColecoVision and Atari 5200 having a fair number of competent arcade ports between them, but even among those was a handful of stinkers. Still, the hardware of early arcade games was simple enough to at least do it some justice at home.

In 1983, when Nintendo released the Famicom, and Sega brought out the SG-1000 (in Japan, at least), the arcade conversions began to look and sound even better, at least of the early titles. But as arcade technology advanced quickly through the decade, the ability for these systems to approximate what was in the arcades was severely hampered. Sure, the Famicom had upgrades, such as the Disk System, and various Mapper chips that could be added to game cartridges, which would augment the base capabilities of the system's core functionality. But ultimately, in the roughly 10-year lifespan of the hardware, from the initial Japanese launch, to the console's last gasp in North America, arcade tech improved by a large margin. There was no way a high quality arcade port was possible for most arcade games released in the last few years of that stretch.

Screenshot shamelessly linked from 8-Bit Central.
Some companies opted to take their home games a different route - re-imaginings, rather than conversions.

As the 80's drew closer to a close, and it became apparent that the hardware wasn't sufficient to bring current arcade hits home, some companies opted for a different approach: re-imagining a game. Rather than try to fit the proverbial square peg into a round home, some developers and publishers chose to instead make a game inspired by the arcade hit, but more directly suitable for the home system. Capcom improved upon the formula of the original with the NES version of Bionic Commando, for example. Konami brought home Contra in a form that resembled the arcade game, but actually controlled better, and was more fun to play. And Tecmo took the basic scrolling beat-em-up of Ninja Gaiden and turned it into a game that spawned a trilogy - and then a decade later, spawned another! This was a smart move by many of these companies, because it meant they could still have the name recognition of the arcade game, but still be able to chart divergent paths for the home market.

When the 4th generation of consoles hit, once again, the eye on real arcade hits at home was once against cast. The PC Engine was already doing well in this area, in its native Japan, and though it didn't see commercial success in other parts of the world, its ability to translate arcade action games to the home venue was still apparent. Sega leaned into the arcade-to-home conversion idea, not only by packing Altered Beast in with the initial launch of the Genesis in North America, but also by touting the "arcade at home" experience in their marketing, and prominently featuring games such as Golden Axe, Alien Storm, Ghouls 'n Ghostsand especially Strider in a lot of early advertising. Though Sega's hardware was once again in a position of not being able to keep up with the changes in arcade hardware through the early 90's, the early focus was still a big part of Sega's marketing strategy.

Screenshot shamelessly linked from Venture Beat.
The Sega Genesis port of Capcom's Strider arcade game is still a solid example of how to bring an arcade game home.

As the 32-bit generation took root in the mid-90's, there was a lot closer parity between arcade hardware and home console hardware. There was less emphasis on pixels, and more on polygons, and while early polygon games were rough in many ways, they were equally rough in both the home and arcade arenas. This lent a lot of credibility to the home market being able to successfully bring these titles home. Still in the 2D space, the Sega Saturn had many good ports of scrolling shooters and 2D fighting games, including many of Capcom's mainstay games from the era. The PlayStation benefited from Namco's involvement, since the Namco System 11 hardware is basically a souped-up PlayStation console. As such, the Tekken series came home to much success, and many other early 3D arcade titles made for fairly adept translations to the hardware, as well. Even the N64 got in on the action, despite its limiting cartridge media, and esoteric controller, with ports of arcade racing games. But this era also saw a major decline in the arcade, and the major shift from arcade gaming to home consoles that had been taking place over the previous decade really took hold.

Ultimately, the Dreamcast ended up being the last stand for many quality arcade ports. Once again, since the hardware was the basis for Sega's NAOMI arcade hardware, there was no question there would be arcade ports. Sega's Virtual Fighter 3tb and Virtua Tennis saw release, among a series of Sega racing games. Capcom also heavily supported the console with many CPS2 and CPS3 games seeing release on the system. Additional ports, like Midway's Hydro Thunder, or Namco's Soul Calibur, also bolstered the console. By this point, however, it was with diminishing returns, as the console space had shifted further away from arcade gaming. More people were interested in non-arcade genres, such as role-playing games, survival horror, first person shooters, and 3rd person action games.

Screenshot shamelessly linked from RetroGameAge.
Soul Calibur still looks amazing on the Dreamcast, especially through a VGA cable.

All of this got me thinking - how many of the arcade ports or conversions have I played, and enjoyed, over the years, even though they may have been terrible? How many have I defended in the past, such as the Tengen NES version of Fantasy Zone, only to have my eyes opened later, when I played enough of the other versions, so that I finally saw all the flaws of the game laid bare? How many games have I looked back at fondly, being blissfully unaware of how poor they may actually have been, when compared to their source material? Pondering all this, it makes me realize that it's time for me to take of the nostalgia goggles, and look at things more objectively. There's nothing wrong with having nostalgia, or even liking a game that's objectively not very good. But it has given me a new appreciation for the genuine article, and opened my eyes more, to be able to better analyze arcade ports; not just as products of their time, but also as representations of the thing they were trying to bring home. I hope I can be a better judge of these things going forward, and have a better perspective on the games as I look back upon them, and analyze them.

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I think looking objectively back at those games we loved (and in many cases convinced ourselves were near-arcade perfect) is very difficult.  The norm for the gamer it to either keep the rose goggles on or avoid the game entirely, with the preference of many to be the latter.  Personally, I refuse to take the glasses off, but I salute you in your efforts to better your critical thinking.
Soul Calibur is one of the most interesting arcade ports to me.

Its one of the very few direct arcade port that looks, sounds, and plays better than the arcade game. This is even crazier when you realize the Dreamcast port was released 1 year and 1 week after the original arcade cabinet. All the extra options and game modes turned it from a simple port to a necessary Dreamcast gaming experience.
@bombatomba: There are still games I have a hard time looking at objectively, but I really am trying to look at things without my bias in place, as much as I can. I feel like this will be beneficial to me elsewhere, also.

@SirPsycho: Yeah, Namco really did improve the game in a lot of areas, and it really does make the experience that much more complete. One of the shining examples of how to bring an arcade game home.

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