The Arcade Archivist, Part 1 - Intro and Frogger
By Craig • 18 July 2022
I don’t know that time management has, or ever will be one of my strengths. It seems that the older I get, that finding time to play video games can be as challenging as evading those pesky ghosts in Pac-Man. When I do manage to carve out a little time, I tend to find myself drawn to simplicity. The “pick-up-and-play” style of game, if you will. This will surely come across as the rantings of a crazy old man, but as the evolution of video games stretched beyond the 16-bit era, I have always found myself annoyed with the amount of buttons and button combinations needed to play some of these games. Even the Super Nintendo controller had eight buttons, right? Fighting games with their button combos and discombobulating d-pad shenanigans. Which button pulls up the map again? Oh, and apparently that was the wrong button to begin the counter-attack sequence, or I just mistimed it. I’m not trying to pilot an actual submarine or something, I just want to have some fun!
And please, don’t get me started on some of these cinematic games, where it takes thirty minutes to actually begin the gameplay, and then it’s all tutorials for an entire first level or two. Sure, it was cool when I first heard that Mark Hamill was going to star in Wing Commander III, back in 1994, but if I want to see a movie, I’ll just, you know, watch a movie. I would kind of prefer to play a game.
Wow, that really did become an old man rant. But simplicity, readers, that’s what I long for in adult life, when I just don’t have much time to spare. You might think that I have abandoned all hope, as far as modern consoles and gaming. But no! I was very excited about the Nintendo Switch, and was a fairly early adopter, within the first six months of its release. And sure, there are some amazing games, like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, that can be played for hundreds of hours. Or something like Animal Crossing: New Horizons, which actually does have a very nice pick-up-and-play quality. But with the Switch, probably due to the influence of computer-based services like Steam and GOG.com, I find myself drawn to the Nintendo eShop, and again, the simplicity of digital downloads for not only indie games, but for the surprisingly large library of classic arcade games from the 80s and 90s. Sure, there are nice collections like Capcom Arcade Stadium, the SNK 40th Anniversary Collection, the Capcom Beat ’Em Up Bundle, and the seemingly ever-present Namco Museum.
But, my favorites tend to be the individual games released as part of the Arcade Archives series, published by Hamster, or the offshoot ACA Neo Geo series. Who would have thought that the Nintendo Switch would be such an arcade powerhouse? There are currently over three hundred arcade games available on the Switch, just between the two Hamster produced series. Well-known titles like Donkey Kong and Double Dragon are available, along with more obscure games like Kangaroo and Frisky Tom. Most of these arcade titles from the 80s tend to present relatively simplistic-looking gameplay, to lure the gamer in. But then the challenge becomes an uphill battle, as the difficulty is amped-up, and what once looked so simple, is not as easy to master as it initially appeared.
Without question, one of my all-time favorite arcade games is Frogger, developed by Konami, way back in 1981, and released as part of the Arcade Archives series on Switch, on December 12, 2019. It has a simple single-screen premise, answering the question of why the chicken is crossing the road. Except the chicken is a frog. And the answer is that your frogs want to get home, to the safety of the swampy grassland at the top of the screen. These days with Frogger, I think of George Costanza and the Seinfeld episode where he buys the arcade machine from a closing pizza restaurant, desperate to save his high score, scheming to somehow maintain power to the machine while it’s being moved. And even that episode is now twenty-four years old!
I always wonder why and how these frogs have gotten themselves into this predicament. Why are they so far away from home, in such a dangerous environment? And I think the same thing when I’m driving down the road at night, and catch a glimpse of a frog hopping across the road in the headlights. I want to warn that frog about its digital friends that I’ve led to their unfortunate demise, over the years. Because as you lead your frogs up that vertical gauntlet, it’s really that initial battle with traffic that is generally the most daunting element. Speeding cars, piloted by uncaring, reckless drivers, who wouldn’t even care if they saw a frog in their headlights! From the flow of traffic to a flowing river, hopping across on lily pads and logs seems much more relaxing. Yeah, maybe if not for the snakes that sometimes appear, or the alligators, or otters. Gators are sometimes even lying in wait in your swampy home, ready to chow down on some fresh frog legs, and every other part of froggy anatomy. If you manage to get five frogs safely back to their homes, you advance a level and do it all over again, and again, and again.
But, you now have to adjust to new traffic patterns, more vehicles, less logs, more snakes, more gators, and of course, the element of time! Ah, yes. It would all be much easier without a time limit, am I right? But the time is ticking away, right down there on the lower right of the screen. Constantly taunting you! And it’s not just the timer. The game loves to change speeds at inopportune moments. Like maybe you’re making your way through traffic, trying to squeeze between a few cars, when the game suddenly causes the traffic to speed up! Even worse, as you advance to some of the later stages where there are a limited amount of logs on the screen, the game then acts like it’s giving you a break by slowing down the tempo. Oh sure, that helps you navigate a path through the automobiles, but with the limited amount of logs on the river, it sometimes makes it nearly impossible to cross before the timer has expired!
However, for all my complaints about the difficulty, this version of Frogger came to me in a time of need. Working retail at the beginning of the pandemic was no picnic. It made me wonder why I was leaving my home, venturing out into a new world that did not seem safe. And it wasn’t just COVID-19 that I was worried about. With staffing cut to a skeleton crew, there was a lot of uncertainty about my future with the company that I had been employed with for nearly seven years. And it was always so much fun, dreading what horrible experience I may have with a customer who did not want to adhere to store safety policies. Instead choosing to threaten me or my coworkers with violence if we did not allow them to do as they pleased. Compassion and respect for others now seemingly being at an all-time low, I allowed time after work to find ways to decompress. And those sweet little green froggies were right there, and they needed my help!
I somewhat obsessively played it at least a few times each night, I think. And as is the case with so many classic arcade games, the goal is the high score, which is why that particular Frogger cabinet was so important to George Costanza! Sometimes I would hit a wall, not able to surpass my own high score, and become frustrated. But I would keep pushing, until I finally broke through. I was fairly certain that I would never be willing to commit myself to trying to take the top spot on the “Hi Score Mode” scoreboard, but if I could crack the top ten, I would feel pretty proud of that. As of this writing, my score is still in the number eight slot, and I set that score a couple of years ago now. I don’t even think that it’s a great score. I honestly just don’t think that many people play Frogger on the Switch! Maybe after reading this, someone can knock my score out of the top ten in a few tries. And that’s fine. Maybe that pursuit will help save you from having a nervous breakdown, too.
In our next installment: plumbers and pirates!