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thing of the past | thing to come

What: The fully enclosed BattleMech cockpits used in futuristic multiplayer combat in Virtual World Entertainment's BattleTech Centers. A 'Mech pod features a huge viewscreen, a virtual map, a throttle, a joystick for firing a dozen weapons, movement pedals, heat sensors, and other bells and whistles. Here is a demonstration of a 'Mech in action:

Why: Inherent in the definition of "arcade" is the sense of variety from one machine or attraction to the next. Not so in the BattleTech Centers, such as the flagship center in Chicago's North Pier. Here you'd just find row after row of pilot cockpits for 30-foot-tall exoskeletal tanks. You'd shut the door, lock in, and familiarize yourself with your BattleMech. And a whole lot of other people would too. Suddenly, you were fully immersed in 33rd century combat, blasting away at your enemies with rockets and lasers. The 'Mechs were all different, and you'd vary your play style based on whether you were in an agile Blackhawk or a lumbering Atlas. The pods' greatest innovation was a concept called "heat," where continuous firing of your weapons would not only deplete their ammunition, but burn out your 'Mech's systems as well. So you had to cool down, play smart, and watch your six.

Impact: Launched in 1990, the pods drew gamers from everywhere. A second game, the Martian sled racer Red Planet, debuted in the pods, here shown off by Judge Reinhold, Joan Severance, Nora Dunn, Cheech Marin, and Weird Al. It's overstating things to say that the BattleTech Centers revolutionized arcade gaming, but they were the most ambitious virtual environments of their day. In the 1990s, there were 26 centers across the world, each with at least 12 pods. But by 2000 the main centers in Tokyo and Yokohama shut down, and Dave & Buster's closed its pod installations in the US. The VWE company passed to BattleTech originators FASA, then Microsoft, and now to an operation in Kalamazoo, which supports centers in a few US states. It's a modest old age for one of the greatest videogame systems of all time.

Personal Connection: BattleTech co-creator Jordan Weisman and I have been friends for 15 years, working together on the BattleTech Trading Card Game in the 1990s and Pirates of the Spanish Main earlier this decade. At Origins this past weekend, we did something we'd never done before: face each other in a 'Mech pod battle. None of us were very good. While I stumbled about in my 85-ton Deimos, Jordan's son Nate flew circles around us in the much nimbler Shadowcat. By the end we'd actually killed ourselves as often as we'd killed each other, but a splendid time was had by one and all. (Thanks to MechCorps for comping us. You guys rule.)

Other Contenders: that game's spiritual godfather BattleZone, where green wireframe tanks bore down on you like death; the Guns 'N Roses pinball machine, with its gun and rose-shaped plungers, snake ramp, and head-banging soundtrack; the gorgeous Don Bluth-animated Dragon's Lair cabinet game, and yes, those are gameplay sequences from 1983; Acclaim's summoning game prototype Magic: The Gathering—Armageddon, the coolest arcade game never produced; the dual-pad Dance Dance Revolution, the only exercise many gamers get; the quest for that perfect game of skee-ball.


( 21 comments — Agree or disagree? )
Jul. 4th, 2009 07:02 pm (UTC)
On the topic of arcade game idolatry, I just finished D.B. Weiss's Lucky Wander Boy. I think you'd likely enjoy it a lot.
Jul. 5th, 2009 01:55 am (UTC)
This excerpt seems to be aimed directly at me. I will seek it out.
Jul. 4th, 2009 08:32 pm (UTC)
Glad you had a good time!
Mike, We're glad you, Jordan and Nate had a good time!

However, while we'd like to take credit for the comp... that should go to Nicholas "Propwash" Smith, head of Virtual World (virtualworld.com).

But... for anyone listening and if you are near Lafayette, Louisiana, come to MechaCon on July 24-26th, 2009, and you can see what makes this the most beautiful arcade game! Read More at MechaCon.com

Alan "Muerte" Presley
Managing Director
MechCorps .com
Jul. 4th, 2009 08:38 pm (UTC)
Re: Glad you had a good time!
Nicolas "Propwash" Smith ... sorry for the typo
Jul. 4th, 2009 08:44 pm (UTC)
Re: Glad you had a good time!
Oops! I guess I'm as accurate with my crediting as I am with my missile shots.

Anyway, thanks again to the guys. It was a hoot and a half.

And everybody else: Go to Lafayette and play!
Jul. 4th, 2009 09:31 pm (UTC)
I LOVED the Battletech Centers. I remember spending practically ALL night at a pay-one-price event at the Yokohama center back in '93 ... THAT was a blast. Almost as good was finishing up and walking out into the neon-lit Japanese night when we were through. (Second only in surreality to walking out into a drizzly night in Akihabara after watching the director's cut of Bladerunner ... talk about feeling TRANSPORTED!)

I have a special place in my heart for Prop Cycle ... but it never really caught on wide enough to warrant inclusion on your list.
Jul. 5th, 2009 01:48 am (UTC)
I enjoy Prop Cycle, and it definitely meets the "beautiful" requirement (whatever that is). Like the pods, it encourages you not to go flat-out all the time. I like games that require a balance of pressure and patience. On a very different thematic level, Silent Scope has that same balance.
Jul. 4th, 2009 09:32 pm (UTC)
Wow, I played a never-produced video game! Armageddon was installed for a while at Sunnyvale Golfland: I never knew I had it so good.
Jul. 5th, 2009 01:51 am (UTC)
Yup. I think Acclaim produced about eight test machines before crashing and burning. We had one at WotC for a while, and I played it more times than I could count.
Jul. 5th, 2009 03:30 pm (UTC)
I'm glad you enjoyed it!

If all goes to plan, we will be at GENCON.

If you are there, you should sneak out for some clandestine training (on the house) and set the stage for some revenge.

If not at GENCON Indy, keep an eye out for other VWE Tesla II cockpit appearances by both MechJock.Com and MechCorps.Com

Until next time, may your aim be true!

Nickolas 'PropWash' Smith
Virtual World Entertainment, LLC.

Jul. 5th, 2009 04:15 pm (UTC)
Re: Thanks!
Oh, I'll be there, Nickolas. I will definitely take another mission.
(Deleted comment)
Jul. 5th, 2009 07:09 pm (UTC)
I may be committing heresy here, but I found Discs of Tron terribly dull. Tempest seemed to do a better job at what Tron was trying to do.

Revenge from Mars, on the other hand, was awesome. Other contenders for Most Beautiful Arcade Game (Pinball Division) are the NASCAR pinball game with its genius round-the-deck loop, and of course the Ted Nugent game, which has the most awesome display image of anything ever.
Jul. 5th, 2009 08:16 pm (UTC)
That game was damn fun.

/salute WotC Game Center
Jul. 6th, 2009 12:01 am (UTC)
Lots of people have saluted that center since I posted this. Sure, it was a boondoggle, but it was our boondoggle.
Jul. 6th, 2009 04:30 am (UTC)
I only ever had the opportunity to play BattleTech ONCE, but I won, so technically I'm undefeated at that game. (Faceball 2000 on the SNES, on the other hand, I remain undefeated at through numerous challenges.) My university gaming club had ExoRex machines for awhile, which I really enjoyed (and only ever lost once...). Lastly, there's T-Mek, probably the most playable and fastest-paced game of the bunch (it sure beats Cybersled and - ick - Virtual On). ...Yeah, I likes me my battling.

Of course, my vote for most beautiful arcade game would be apparent if your comment pages showed avatars. It's pigs throwing bombs at each other, complete with referees, Godzilla suits, b****slapping, and whack-a-mole-style bonus rounds. It's perfect. - ZM
Jul. 6th, 2009 04:49 am (UTC)
I'm guessing you mean Butasan, which I remember from the C64. I didn't know that came in a cabinet game, but it certainly makes sense that it would. That game is whacked out.
Jul. 15th, 2009 01:01 am (UTC)
I remember when the pods first showed up at Gen Con. The lines were way too long for me to play there, but my friends and I drove to Chicago to play at the Battletech Center. I usually did poorly, but it was fun nevertheless.

I remember the first time I played with heat. Very early, an alarm was blaring in my ear, because I exceeded my limits, and I couldn't get it shut off. I love that sort of complexity and balance, but it sure was frustrating.
Jul. 15th, 2009 03:24 am (UTC)
I think it's the difference between an all-you-can-eat ice cream bar and a salad bar. The ice cream bar sure is yummy, and you can eat a lot. But you're not getting any nutrients that way. It's all empty calories. A salad bar may not be as exciting, but you'll actually feel better afterward. That's what playing with heat is like.
Jul. 16th, 2009 11:28 pm (UTC)
I agree, except that's it's not difficult to learn how to eat salad. Or maybe it is... for some of us. ;-)

Jul. 15th, 2009 08:33 pm (UTC)
When I went to the TSR Writer's Workshop, back in 1999 or 1998 I think, the WotC Game Center had a bunch of these. One of the perks of being a member of the workshop was we got to play for free, sometimes after hours for many gams in a row.

I still have the transcripts of those battles somewhere. I was never any good, but it was still a lot of fun.
Jul. 15th, 2009 09:16 pm (UTC)
It's all about the transcripts.
( 21 comments — Agree or disagree? )


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