Monday, May 13, 2013

A Long Hard Look at Scramble

Well it has been a LONG time since I wrote a real proper post about a real proper arcade game and this one has literally been in my draft box at around 90% complete for about a year, so now that I'm in a posting mood again I thought I'd put some finishing touches on it, take a quick vid, and hit the ol' publish button.

The game room has been growing by leaps and dare I say bounds in the last year but I'm so far behind in posts that the only appropriate place to begin is with my very first arcade game, an often overlooked classic called Scramble. (Curtain rises. Lights Dim).

The MAME cab is great, but for some time I'd dreamed of building a collection of real arcade games. If money and space were no object then one could build this collection relatively easily, but both are definitely objects with which I must contend - very dense objects - so somewhere along the line I got the idea that I would only buy an arcade game if I could find one below $100. That way I wouldn't spend all that much and my buying opportunities would be rare enough to allow my limited space to last a while. Many months later I came to realize just how rare those opportunities are, with virtually all ~$100 games being restricted to non-working fixer-uppers which was not optimal given my lack of repair knowledge. Several times I offered potential sellers on Craigslist $100 only to be met with either indignant refusal or more often simply the ether-chirps of no response at all.

That all finally changed in March 2012 when I placed a $54 bid on an eBay auction for a 1981 Stern Scramble arcade game and watched as the seconds ticked away leaving me as the winner!  Hit refresh to make sure - yep still me!  My very own classic arcade game for less than the price of a new PS3 game!  My wife was sitting next to me on the couch at the time, so I calmly gathered my thoughts and turned to her, "I just bought an arcade game". Her response - "you what?". Ultimately she succumbed to the logic that this was in fact an offer I could not refuse.

Of course, shipping charges on these beasts can run like $300-$400 so that would have completely blown my $100 limit, but this Scramble was more or less local (about 30 miles away from my house) so I jumped in my brother-in-law's truck and we headed out to snag it. I had never actually moved a real arcade game before so I had some logistical concerns like should we try to stand it up or lay it down, how should we best handle it to avoid damaging it, should we tie it down and cover it up, etc - but turns out it was quite easy. We just stuck it on a dolly, wheeled it up to the truck, leaned it over onto some cardboard we put down in the bed to help it slide and protect it a bit, and shoved it on up and in. No problem!

We brought a tarp (OK a shower curtain) to put over it, but the skies looked pretty clear and it was more or less protected from the wind so I didn't bother covering it. But by the time we were about halfway home dark clouds started rolling in which had me a bit concerned. Then my brother-in-law secretly sprayed the windshield wiper fluid and pretended like it was raining which admittedly freaked me out for a second or two before I realized just what the hell he was laughing at. Verrrry funny you bastid...

We wheeled it into the game room - a space formerly referred to by my wife as her kitchen - and into the corner right next to the Spidey pinball. Gorgeous! I just stood there and gazed at it. Lost in the realization of a child's dream of owning his own arcade game. Then I shuddered as a chill ran up my back. My excitement was suddenly tempered by the faint recognition of an icy stare boring into my shoulder blades. My instincts screamed at me to spin around to confront the threat, but fear of being stricken to stone prompted me to instead take a deep breath and glance at the reflection in the Scramble monitor. And there she was. My wife. Shaking her head in disbelief at this additional garish intrusion into her kitchen. But that was to be expected. I had planned for that. Contingencies were in place. The critical question was - was she smiling? I strained to get a better look at the dim reflection. Yes, I decided. She was smiling - sort of. Not much. But enough. Success!

Stern made two styles of cabinet side art for Scramble - mine (shown above) which has the company name along the side and the other version (shown below) with some spaceman artwork. I would have preferred to have the less generic spaceman artwork on it but hey for $54 I can't complain. Online I found that This Old Game sells a stencil of the artwork that I might have considered buying to repaint the cabinet, but the set cost $100 which was way too much for me. Besides, then it wouldn't be the genuine original artwork so I wasn't completely sold on the idea anyway.

The cabinet is in decent shape but has a little wood damage on the left side side, some missing T-molding on the top right, and the glass bezel is flaking off in several places. I think I can repair the wood damage with wood hardener and Bondo and I can replace the T-molding simple enough and the bezel too if I can ever find a better one that doesn't cost too much, but for now anyway I'm just leaving everything as-is and am quite happy with it!  It plays great, the control panel and marquee look virtually perfect, and the monitor is bright and clear with very little burn-in. At first I didn't notice any burn-in at all but I noticed one day while the screen was off that you could just make out the outlines of a maze and a game logo - Mr. Do!  So apparently the monitor was at one time or another used for a Mr. Do! machine. But it isn't noticeable at all during gameplay and kind of adds to the real arcade history of the machine overall so no biggie.

A look inside the game revealed the coin counter - apparently this machine made almost $5,000 in its day.

Now a little about the game itself - Scramble is a horizontal-scrolling shoot 'em up developed by Konami in 1981 and licensed to Stern for manufacture and distribution in North America. Defender had introduced - or at the very least popularized - the horizontal scrolling shooter a little earlier the same year, but Scramble was the first side-scrolling shooter to feature multiple distinct levels and also the first to feature forced-scrolling - both of which became widely adopted standards in the genre. According to some sources I read Scramble was also the first shooter to feature a fuel gauge and refueling as part of the game play - if it was not the first it was at a minimum a very early example. So even though it doesn't have the same name-recognition as Defender, it is still a respected piece of arcade history. In fact, it was one of seven games featured on custom-made tokens created for use in the Video Expo arcade at the 1982 World's Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee, with the other six being Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, Space Invaders, Qix, Gorf and Donkey Kong. I picked up one of the tokens dirt cheap on eBay.

In Scramble you pilot an aircraft with an 8-way joystick and are armed with lasers for destroying things directly ahead of you and bombs for destroying things below you (2 fire buttons). Like a number of the earlier arcade games, the joystick is positioned in the middle with identical sets of buttons on both sides to accommodate both left-handed and right-handed players.

And again, like a lot of these classic old-school games the directions are printed right on the bezel:

To summarize even more succinctly - don't run into anything and shoot everything.

The "five Scramble defense systems" start with a mountainous surface, then a cavern filled with hovering UFOs (looks like Vanguard borrowed from this level in particular), then a hilly surface where you have to weave your way through a meteor shower, then flying above a long wall that restricts you mostly to the upper part of the screen, then a maze that requires precision flying to avoid slamming into the walls, and finally a city where you must destroy THE BASE. Your progress through the 6 different stages is displayed by a rather unnecessary meter at the top of the screen. Once you destroy the base, in true arcade fashion, the levels start over from level 1 but with increased difficulty as your fuel is consumed more quickly.

In addition to the special enemies seen in a couple of the levels (meteors and enemy UFOs) each level contains lots and lots of rockets that launch from below without any warning to try and collide with and destroy you so you spend a lot of time either avoiding the missiles or trying to shoot them down. And all the while your fuel is constantly depleting which is indicated by the fuel gauge at the bottom of the screen, so you have to regularly replenish your fuel by destroying the fuel tanks located throughout the levels. Not sure how you recover usable fuel from a fuel tank explosion but them's the rules! It's a rather alarming feeling when you are up to your eyes in rockets with no fuel tank in sight and the siren starts blaring to alert you that you are almost out of fuel. If you run out of fuel - you guessed it - you crash.

Oh and speaking of the siren, I enjoy the sound effects on Scramble. They are pretty simplistic, as one would expect given its age, but they are loud and clear with enough variation to keep it from getting on your nerves like some old arcade games can do after a while.

You get points for everything you destroy of course and also for each second that you continue flying. I guess it's kind of like a horizontal space version of Atari 2600's River Raid - just DON'T run directly into the fuel tanks on this one...

Here's a little video of the gameplay on my machine:

And if you still aren't convinced that you need to find and play this game just glance down at the lower right corner of the bezel to see what else Scramble offers you... Space Porn!!

Konami didn't bother putting any copy protection in place on the Scramble hardware so apparently it was a simple matter for arcade owners to convert the hardware to run most other games that ran on a Z80 processor when Scramble started getting old. That's why in MAME there are several games that list a clone as running on "(Scramble Hardware)".  Stern themselves used the exact same hardware for Scramble's sequel Super Cobra and the games Lost Tomb and The End. There were also clone ripoffs of Scramble itself called Explorer and Strafe Bomb.

Scramble on Other Platforms

In the introductory sequence on the Game Boy Advance game Gradius Galaxies, Scramble is shown as the first game in the Gradius series; however, Konami issued the Gradius Portable guidebook a few years later which listed Scramble separately from the Gradius games.  So it's official position in that lineage is uncertain, but it was certainly at least a strong influence on the game.  Scramble was ported to the Vectrex and apparently to the Commodore 64 as well along with a few dedicated tabletop systems. In more recent years it has also been included in some Konami arcade collections.

Scramble was not widely ported to home video game and computer systems, but it did inspire quite a few clones. A quick search online shows the following list.  I was going to include some screenshots but there are just so many of them I opted not to, but if one of your favorite systems is listed below then you might want to check out one of the associated clones. I played a few of them on emulators to check them out and some of them are quite good.

Air Strike (Atari 8-bit computer)
Air Strike II (Atari 8-bit computer)
Alien Attack (Tomy Tabletop arcade)
Astro Blaster (Tomytronic tabletop arcade in UK)
Cave Fighter (Dragon 32/64 computer)
Cavern Fighter (ZX Spectrum, VIC-20)
Caverns (Amstrad PCW 8256)
Deathstrike (Sinclair QL)
Fire Galaxy (VIC-20)
Martian Raider (VIC-20)
Moon Raider (Acorn Electron)
Penetrator (ZX Spectrum)
PixelShips 2000 (Windows)
PixelShips Retro (Windows)
Raid on Isram (VIC-20)
Rambler (Tomy Tabletop arcade in Germany)
Rocket Raid (BBC Micro)
Scram-20 (VIC-20)
Scramble (Tomytronic tabletop arcade in US)
Scramble (ZX Spectrum)
Skramble (Dragon 32/64, TRS-80 CoCo, Commodore 64, MSX, VIC-20)
Skramble! (C64, VIC-20, MSX)
Striker (DOS)
Super Skramble! (Commodore 64)
Tube Way Army (Dragon 32-64 computer)
VIC Scramble (VIC-20)
Whirlybird Run (CoCo) (Actually might be a clone of Super Cobra because it is a helicopter)
Zeroth Zone (PC DOS)

So in closing I'll say that I do vaguely remember playing Scramble a time or two back in the day, but I don't recall thinking it was all that great. However, now that I've had a chance to revisit the game and explore it more fully, I have come to appreciate it as an underrated classic that deserves a respected place in arcade history. Which for me, to my wife's chagrin, is in the kitchen... er... game room. Uh-oh - there's that chill up my spine again...

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Fallguy40 said...

Didn't realize you got that game for such a bargain.

After playing your machine, I remember playing the it in the arcade back then, but it couldn't have been very much. It reminds me a little bit of Vanguard.

I think the game may have been more succesful with a better name.

MadPlanet said...

What up Fallguy! Thanks for keeping abreast of the new posts. Heh - abreast...

Yeah it is definitely a precursor to Vanguard - especially the cavern level. Agreed the name could have been better. Guess it is referring to Scrambling your fighter jets to fight the enemy, but it just sounds a little weak. 'Vanguard' just sounds so much cooler.