Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Retro Review - Elevator Action Returns (Arcade)

A sequel done right!

The original Elevator Action from 1983 is often hailed as a coin-op classic, up there with the likes of Dig Dug, Galaga, and Donkey Kong, but personally I have never really cared for it. With bland visuals, a slow pace, and incredibly repetitive gameplay, I have always found it a bit, y'know, boring. This is certainly something that I can't level at Taito's 1994 sequel, which took the basic template set in the original and enhanced and improved upon everything to a huge degree. It may have taken over a decade for it to appear, but Elevator Action Returns is bigger, badder and much, much better.

This time around, the game does away with the espionage angle of the original, replacing it with a story line involving a squad of military personnel, sent in to diffuse bombs and eliminate a terrorist threat. Instead of a single spy, you now choose from three characters; Karl Bradfield (the fast guy), Edie Barret (the trigger happy chick), and the bizarrely named, Jad The Taff (the large, slow meathead). All three have their own unique starting gun (with unlimited ammo) and special weapons - Karl throws grenades, Jad lays sensor mines that explode when enemies step near them, and Edie is a bit of a pyromaniac, preferring to burn enemies with her flame bombs.

The core gameplay is the same as the original. You must make your way through the stages, using the elevators (or 'lifts' as we call them here in the UK) to move between floors, killing bad guys and entering the red doors in order to obtain essential mission items. The elevators will follow their natural path automatically, and you must wait for them to get to your floor before stepping in, at which point you can press up or down to control their movement. Jumping down to the floor below is not an option, and will result in your death, as will getting squished by the elevator, should you foolishly stand on, or under, it when it reaches its stop. As well as the primary red doors, there are also blue doors which offer up bonuses, via a roulette wheel, including either health boosts, points, or special weapons. 

Whereas the original plonked you in a skyscraper, with only horizontal scrolling, Elevator Action Returns flips the script and has you navigating expansive stages that can scroll in any direction. The locales you visit vary considerable, and include an airport, an oil rig, and an underground base. This lends the game a cinematic vibe that really feels like a Hollywood action flick in 2D action platformer form. This is made doubly true by the single screen cutscenes and pre-stage mission briefings, both of which add tremendously to the overall atmosphere and presentation. Indeed, the graphics are excellent throughout, with both detailed backdrops and varied and well animated characters - the death animations in particular are a highlight. There are plenty of smaller details that add to the ambiance, such as destructible crates, exploding barrels, shattering glass, and bullets leaving smoke whenever they hit a hard surface. The music is also excellent, with some atmospheric and upbeat tunes that fuse dance music with electronic jazz and trip-hop. These tracks, along with the cutscenes add a lighthearted element to the game, giving it a great deal of charm in the process.

Most importantly, Elevator Action Returns is an absolute blast to play. Not only is it incredibly action packed, but it also feels far deeper than your usual arcade run n gun affair. You can speed through the game, or take your time if you wish, picking off bad guys, destroying all the crates and entering all the blue doors for power ups. You always feel totally immersed in the action and it's impossible to put down once you start playing. Letting loose with your handgun into crowds of enemies is incredibly satisfying, and even manages to beat Flashback in the 'coolest 2D shooting' stakes. There are some wonderful touches that, while seemingly minor, really enhance the gameplay. One includes the ability to shoot out lights and cameras (helped by the nifty ability to shoot diagonolly upwards), which often plunges a floor into darkness, and a fantastic melee attack that sees you pistol whipping any terrorists dumb enough to get up close and personal. It all adds up to produce one of the most enjoyable run 'n gun games I have ever played. You can even get a friend to join you for some bloody fantastic two player co-op action. Having two of you firing back to back from the elevators is not only an action packed spectacle worthy of any blockbuster movie, but also insanely good fun. 

I suppose the only criticisms I could level at the game are the lack of memorable boss battles. On several stages you have to fend off a large quantity of spawning enemies, but other than that there aren't any large guardians to face, other than the final boss, who is but a mere man. The only other negative I can possibly think of is that sometimes it can feel a bit of a drag when you have to wait for the elevator to get to your floor, but on the flip side, this creates a tense standoff atmosphere as you fend off terrorists while waiting. I do wish the game was longer - there are only five, admittedly large, stages - but this is merely testament to the fact that I could play Elevator Action Returns all day and not get bored.

The Sega Saturn received an absolute cracking port, exclusive to Japan, which was released in 1997 and is my favourite method of playing the game. As well as looking fantastic (despite being slightly less colourful), it also makes some minor improvements, such as removing the irritating flicker from the protagonist's shadow. It also includes the 1983 original arcade game (once you beat the game), should you wish to see how dull it is in comparison. It also grants you finite continues, meaning you have to really master the game in order to beat it, rather than just shoveling in more coins (either on the original cab or via MAME). Elevator Action Returns also features on the Taito Legends / Memories compilations that were released in the mid-2000's on PC, Xbox and PS2, but the ports are not perfect, with the Xbox and PS2 versions suffering from slightly muddy looking visuals, and an upscaled resolution that results in flickering. I highly recommend you get the Saturn version if possible, or stick or MAME.

Elevator Action Returns is a shining example of how to improve on a sequel - it is the Terminator 2 of the retro gaming world - and it's as enjoyable today as it was when it was originally released, and is a game I can return to again and again, even after almost two decades.

Title : Elevator Action Returns
Developer : Taito
Year : 1994
System : Arcade
Ports : Saturn, PC, PS2, Xbox