Review: “Taito Milestones” (Nintendo Switch)

No Arkanoid, no Bubble Bobble, no Space Invaders, no Darius

How does one create a Taito Milestones arcade collection without those games? While some are available on other collections, it’s very strange to have a collection of classic, 1980s Taito arcade games without them (Fully acknowledging that the original Space Invaders was released in the 70s). 

Instead, Taito Milestones (published by ININ Games) includes the following ten old school arcade games: Space Seeker, Qix, Front Line, Wild Western, Alpine Ski, Elevator Action, Chack’n Pop, The Fairyland Story, Halley’s Comet, and The Ninjawarriors. Each are presented in a nearly arcade-perfect fashion, with a few games requiring some altered control schemes to accommodate the limitations of modern controllers.

Here’s a brief overview of each game in the collection: 

Space Seeker (1981): Space Seeker is a bizarre blend of three games in one, a world map where you must engage with a target without being shot down, a cockpit space shooter (when you engage with enemy fighters), and a side-scrolling shooter (when you engage with heavily armed bases). Once you destroy all enemies on a planet, there is a celebratory audio flourish, and you predictably move on to the next planet where the process repeats. It’s possible that there is an endgame here, but I never got that far, and I expect that the true reward is a high score.

There’s no in-game music to speak of, but Space Seeker has some interesting graphical tricks at play for a game from 1981. The cockpit shooter segments feature some simulated sprite scaling, and the planetary map looks cool with some effects. The creators deserve high marks for trying so many different modes of gameplay, but unfortunately, none of the three modes plays remarkably well. The map largely involves spinning around in circles trying to approach targets without taking hits, and in the cockpit shooting segments, targeting your enemies is requires overly pinpoint accuracy, and it’s a bit of a frustrating slog once you get over how cool it looks. I found the side-scrolling sections to be the most satisfying of the three modes, but these sections are very bare-bones compared to the game’s successors, and even a few predecessors (i.e. Defender). The background colors are sometimes too bright to see what you’re doing, and more importantly, what is coming at you, too.

Ach! Mein eyes! I am momentarily blinded!

Qix (1981): One of the more bizarre games in arcade history, Qix saw a bit of a revival on the Nintendo GameBoy in 1990. Players must use a drawing cursor to create blocks and control at least 75 percent of the screen. Of course, there are hazards that stand in your way, as you will have to avoid sparks that ride the rails, and then there is the deadly, titular “Qix”, which is a vector-like line that bounds across the screen unpredictably, and and will kill you if it collides with one of your “in-progress” lines. This makes it tough to make big strides all at once, particularly as more of the screen gets blocked off.

This home version of Qix looks to be arcade-perfect, for better or worse. It is a little hard to see the sparks from the couch, which probably wasn’t an issue for players standing directly in front of the arcade screen. It may not look like much, but Qix is one of those bizarrely addictive games that you can spend hours playing with that “one more time” feeling every time.

Sweet heaven, why is Qix so fun?

Front Line (1982): A vertically-scrolling war game, Front Line is a predecessor to games like Commando and Ikari Warriors. Players use guns and grenades to infiltrate behind enemy lines, taking out the opposing infantry and armor. You will absolutely want to use the triggers for firing, since you need to use the right thumb stick to aim. The stages seem to be different every time you play, though I hate to use the term “randomly generated”, as there may only be a set number of variants rather than an algorithm determining the layouts.

For 1982, Front Line might have been the best war game experience a quarter could buy. But with flat graphics and no in-game music, very little of what is going on is remarkable unless you have a specific nostalgia for it. Also, are the UN’s blue helmets the bad guys? Wild.

There’s some Blue Helmets behind that tree line, Private! Kill them all!

Wild Western (1982): Essentially an updated version of 1975’s Gun Fight (also by Taito), Wild Western is a unique twist on a vertically scrolling shoot ‘em up. You play as a Wild West gunfighter on horseback who must protect a train from bandits? “Injuns?” Hard to say. In any case, shoot them before they shoot you. Again, I recommend changing your controls on this one and set the right trigger to fire your gun, as you’ll have to use both analog sticks to aim. You can also dismount your horse and take the fight to the train, if you need to, which is a neat touch.

The good? Your bullets go all the way across the screen, and the chiptune version of “Ghost Riders in the Sky” is quite catchy. The bad? Actually hitting your enemies is very difficult, as the train is constantly in the way, and you can’t just shoot their horses. The ugly? While it offer you some protection, the large train is constantly in your way, blocking your shots (unless you want to play very offensively). Your bullets ricochet off the train, too, but I never found that to offer much of a tactical advantage.

Wild Western is definitely a unique shooter and worth a play or two, but I doubt that most gamers will return to it very frequently.

Alpine Ski (1982): Downhill skiing is, in fact, the name of the game. You have two minutes to navigate the course and collect bonus points which are usually positioned near hazards. You lose ten seconds of time when you crash into any of these hazards, which include rocks, snowmobiles, trees, and other skiers. The faster you go, the more bonuses you can collect, but that of course requires more skill and practice.

Alpine Ski is a fairly fun distraction, and definitely one of those “easy to learn, hard to master” type of games. I found that it controls rather well and the graphics are distinct enough that any mistakes you make are most certainly your own fault. Plus, there is music! Which is admittedly just okay, but it is certainly better than having none at all. I can’t imagine that it will be a beloved favorite of many, but it is a solid entry in this Taito Milestones collection.

Watch out for Sonny Bono on the left! (C’mon, it’s been over a decade)

Elevator Action (1983): Have you ever wanted to steal classified documents from a secure location? Elevator Action gives you the chance to do just that. Players take on the role of a spy who must infiltrate a remarkably tall facility, and snag the sensitive documents from the bright red doors (not very subtle, fellas). Of course, the guards will do anything and everything to stop you, including shoot first, ask questions later. You can avoid them by ducking under or jumping over their bullets, by shooting out the lights (which can also fall and knock out guards below), or – of course – by shooting them before they shoot you. The main attraction are the elevators and escalators that descend to the lower floors, which require patience and timing when you use them to ensure that you aren’t putting your agent in danger. Once you collect all of the documents and descend to the basement garage, you take off in your getaway car and proceed to the next stage.

Due to its creative premise (and perhaps to the sexual inuendo of the title), Elevator Action is one of the more memorable arcade titles from the early 1980s. Standing in just the right spot to use doors and escalators might frustrate a modern audience, and it requires a little bit more luck than skill, but Elevator Action is still a slick and playable game once you get the hang of it, and will likely be one of my more played titles in the Taito Milestones collection.

Documents secured! Now time to call that Wikileaks guy…

Chack’ N Pop (1983): A horde of monsters has stolen all of Mr. and Mrs. Pac-Man Chack’n’s hearts, so now they don’t love each other, or something like that. In any case, Mr. Chack’n, who I think is a girthy, circular chicken, has to recover all of the hearts across a series of single screen challenges. Not only can Mr. C can climb on ceilings, but he can drop bombs in two directions to defeat enemies and destroy the cages containing the hearts. These explosions can also kill you, too, causing the frustrating loss of a life. Shortly after beginning each stage, enemies begin to hatch from small eggs on the ceiling, and it is a pain in the neck to try and actually time your bomb drops to defeat them. Similar to PacMan, there is a short, cute cinematic interlude every couple of levels.

Not only is Chack’n Pop very tough, but it isn’t very fun. It doesn’t take long for enemies to swarm the screen, and using your attacks is too imprecise to be very effective. Most disappointingly, though, Mr. Chack’n’s jumps between the ceiling and the floor simply don’t work very well, which makes something as basic as traversing the stage a bit of a chore.

Opinions vary of course, but at this point, I’m just curious how far I can throw this “milestone” when I toss it into the lake. Figuratively, of course. My copy is digital, after all.*

Chack’n Pop it in the trash

The Fairyland Story (1985): In the 1980s, there was a three letter word (rhymes with “neigh”) that I suspect most arcade patrons my age would have used to describe The Fairyland Story, which is a bit of a shame. In The Fairyland Story, players control a young witch who must use her magic to defeat all the enemies in a stage by turning them into cakes and destroying the cakes before they revert back. The mechanics are fairly similar to Bubble Bobble or Snow Bros., but slightly less complicated and quite a bit easier. The fantasy-inspired stages include castles, tree fortresses, and giant birthday cakes, while the enemies include pig soldiers, wizards, dragons, golems, specters, priests (?), carnivorous caterpillars, etc. Your witch can sometimes find scrolls that upgrade her magic, and there are some fun death animations depending on how you meet your demise. There is also a brief cinematic interlude after seven stages, and it is the first game in this list that allows you to continue.

The Fairlyland Story is definitely a cute game, and it is kinda fun, but it is absolutely geared toward a younger audience and it’s not a classic by any means. Like I mentioned above, it felt like an easier, less complicated – but most importantly – less fun version of Bubble Bobble. You can often just wait for enemies to come to you and take them out accordingly. Most damningly, though, is that I think that The Fairyland Story might be broken. I can’t find a way to even reach all of the enemies on stage 32, much less attack them, and after some time passes, a devil ultimately sweeps across the screen and kills me. All that said, The Fairyland Adventure was absolutely my daughter’s favorite to watch me play, so I will probably give it another shot down the line.

Now eventually you might have fairies in your – in your Fairyland game, right? Hello?

Halley’s Comet (1986): The planets of our solar system are all under attack by weaponized comets! Okay, interesting premise. Halley’s Comet is a vertically scrolling space shooter that really likes the color green. Your shots, power-ups and other visual flourishes are a bright green, giving the game a bit of a “trademark” look. Otherwise, shoot ‘em up fans will feel at home with Halley’s Comet. There are waves of indistinct alien spacecraft that must be shot and destroyed, boss fights, weapon upgrades and option/satellite fighters that can be collected that fight alongside your ship.

The coolest feature of Halley’s Comet is the second boss battle in each stage, where you have to blast through the shell of the comet and proceed inside for the final section of the stage. The tunes are okay, but nothing terribly memorable. Much like many other shoot ‘em ups of the era, when you die, you lose your weapon upgrades, and it is extremely hard to build them back up. Halley’s Comet is definitely worth a play for space shooter fans, at least until you get to fight the comet bosses a couple of times. After that? Only the most dedicated will see the game through across all ten stages.

Green. Verde. Grün. 緑. أخضر

The Ninjawarriors (1987): One of the sadder moments from my 16-bit memories is the cancelation the US release of The Ninjawarriors for the SEGA CD. Fast forward nearly three decades, and a near-arcade perfect version of the The Ninjawarriors is now within my grasp as part of the Taito Milestones collection. The Ninjawarriors takes place in the distant future of 1993, where an authoritarian government has taken over and is choking the life out of freedom loving people everywhere. Players control a robot ninja armed with throwing stars and kunai knives (no guns?), and you must jump, duck, crawl, block and – of course – attack your way across a variety of dystopian environments. The game is functionally a 2D beat ‘em up in the vein of Kung Fu, where your android avatar must slash through waves of military and ninja-esque enemies, complete with some pretty tough boss fights that will cost you some quarters, erm, continues.

Aesthetically, the graphics still hold up, the animations are smooth, and your android’s internal armor gets exposed depending on how much damage you take (the blonde kunoichi is certainly a busty bot under that kimono). The soundtrack is filled with catchy, arcade-y tunes reminiscent of the late 80s. There’s also a few digitized voices that bring the enemies to life, as they will scream “Retreat!” or “No damn way” as you cut them to ribbons. Perhaps most importantly, the screen is stretched wide to emulate the multi screen setup of the arcade original, which is great for purists (me), but might be annoying for those who play their Switch in handheld mode or on a smaller TV. There’s also an in-game reference to the game’s arcade contemporary, DJ Boy.

The Ninjawarriors is one of the only games in Taito Milestones that allows for you to continue immediately as though you were playing an arcade machine set to free play, so there’s no excuse for not finishing it, if you are so inclined. Still, The Ninjawarriors is a tough game reminiscent of its arcade contemporaries. I’m still not sure if you’re supposed to actually defeat the tanks, or just survive them long enough for them to drive off.

Certainly some gamers may see The Ninjawarriors as a mindless slog, similar to other arcade beat ‘em ups. Given my own personal history with the game, I found it to be a welcome addition to the Taito Milestones collection, and it will probably be the game I return to most often.

She’ll put your eye out with those things!… I was talking about the kunai. What did you think I was talking about?

Now that we’ve gone through each game, it’s time to discuss the full Taito Milestones package as a whole, which is fairly bare-bones. There aren’t any behind-the-scenes interviews, or hi-resolution images of arcade cabinet artwork or promotional flyers. It’s pretty much just the games and a simple in-game manual for you to review in the pause screen (which is welcome for a few of these games). There are online leaderboards, though, which is a fun way to compete between friends and fellow arcade afficionados. 

For those who find classic arcade games to be off-putting for their challenge (they are quarter crunchers, after all), most of the titles here don’t offer much to accommodate you. There’s no rewind feature (à la the Nintendo Switch Online retro titles), nor are there conventional save states, either. Instead, there is a “recovery” state, which allows you to save your progress and return to a certain point when you reload the game, but that makes the quick save/load spamming of the feature far more time consuming.

Sure, this Taito Milestones collection is missing some truly cornerstone games. That said, one can’t judge a collection on what it is missing, but rather on what it includes. As it is, Taito Milestones has a varied set of titles, all of which play fairly well. Of course, the mixed blessing with variety is that you are almost certain to enjoy at least one or two of the games, but very unlikely to enjoy everything, so everyone’s mileage will vary, particularly in “bang for your buck” terms. For comparison, a quarter in 1981 is roughly 78 cents now, so it would cost you nearly eight bucks just to try each of these games once. For me, arcade perfect versions of The Ninjawarriors, Elevator Action and Qix probably come close to the $40 price of admission, while the other games are still worth a play from time to time.

Except Chack’n Pop. It blows.

You can preorder a digital version of Taito Milestones on the Nintendo Switch eshop here, or pick up a physical copy via Strictly Limited Games here. Hopefully this collection sells well enough to inspire Taito and ININ Games to do a second collection, this time including Darius, Arkanoid, Gyrodine, Truxton, The Legend of Kage, Toki, Tiger Heli, Demon’s World, Sea Fighter Poseidon, Operation Wolf, Bubble Bobble, Time Gal, Rastan, Twin Cobra, Cadash, and of course, Space Invaders. Is that really too much to ask? Make it happen, fellas!

*Disclosure: a digital copy of Taito Milestones was provided to The Splintering for the purpose of this review.

** Update: this post has been updated to correct a spelling error because I’m a big dummy-dum.

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