Before video games had 3D near-realistic graphics, big budget storylines and Hollywood voice actors they needed something powerful to engage the player.
For those whose first video game system was a Nintendo 64, you may not remember blowing half your paper route money at the local arcade every weekend — but for we the 40-something generation, it was a rite of passage.
Connoisseurs of these “retrogames” will tell you the power and allure of video games back then was something we call “high score chasing”; that is, getting a score higher than anyone else that has played the game (at least for that day as many games lost their high scores when powered down for the night) and partaking in the ritual of entering your three initials into the high score table. The intent was to use the first letter of your first, middle and last name — some of us came up with three letter nicknames like XAN (I was a Xanadu movie freak — don’t judge me) or the romantics among us might use S<heart>K (some video games let you use symbols) to prove our affection to the people we loved.
Some games even let you put your WHOLE name if you got the All-Time Best Score Ever (Williams games did this).
Yes, your name on the scoreboard contributed to the addictive factor of gaming — but there was something a lot stronger. Something a bit more … psychological. Something that for some reason has been largely lost in the gaming industry.
Before you write in the comments, “But Shane, isn’t high score chasing about greed?” — the answer is no. High scores can be a byproduct of greed but that emotion is a demon all its own.
To speak in the same vernacular, let’s define what GREED is with regards to video games (and more importantly, this article).
The act of taking potentially life-threatening actions in the hopes of a commensurate, often escalating reward.
Again, you’re thinking, “Isn’t that essentially video gaming in a nutshell?” Risk your virtual life for scores by doing things that might kill you in exchange for score?
Pay close attention to the term “escalating reward”. It comes into play later.
In my opinion, the greatest video games of all time are those that employ “greed”.
We’ll look at three such arcade games and explain how these games use greed to not just keep you playing, but taking unnecessary risk while you do.
Robotron: Greed Incarnate
Robotron is the original twin stick shooter arcade bullet hell game. Featuring colorful graphics, a remarkably decent story line (for the time) and the trademark Williams sounds effects, the game is an arcade legend in its own right.
You run around a screen while being able to independently shoot other directions while what seems like thousands of robots of various shapes and sizes hone in on you or try to shoot you (or both). Kill them all, you’ll move to a new screen with more and different scary robots trying to kill you. The touch of any robot or its payload and your life is over.
Littered on the screen exists members of The Last Human Family; Mommy, Daddy and little Mikey. Very progressive; in addition to lots of children there could be a lot of Mommies and Daddies on the screen too.
The attract mode tells the story of you trying to save The Last Human Family (somehow) by touching them as you run around the screen — fighting for your life. Why the robots want to kill you and not them? Don’t ask about holes in the plot; just accept it. In some levels, the robots will come after the family members if you don’t save them — but I digress.
Every time you touch a family member on a given level, its value increases by 1000 points; and caps out at 5000 points. With an extra life being awarded at a mere 30,000 points (varies based on the operator’s settings) it doesn’t take many pick ups to score another play in this insane robotic theme park.
What’s the catch? If you die, the score for a family member resets to 1000. When you go to the next level, the score resets to 1000 (and any family members left on the screen after you shoot the last robot? Lost and no score).
The stakes are high. If there are 10 humans on the screen (which there can be, by the way — or more) and you can successively pick them all up without dying or shooting the last robot? That’s 40,000 points! That’s a pretty much guaranteed free life no matter what machine you’re on. Considering that a round without picking up anyone could be a couple thousand points tops?
Now you understand. Greed pays off in spades here. In fact, if you want any hope of a good score? Greed is required.
What’s more? You will risk life and limb to get to that last human to score a nifty 5000 points — even if the odds are against you. Once you’ve tasted a 30,000–40,000 point run on human pickups? You’ll never play the game the same way again.
Zookeeper: Willing to Die for 4,000,000 Points?
Many people didn’t get to play Zookeeper. Made by Taito, this 4-way joystick + single button game wasn’t around much where I got to play. In fact, I only saw it once or twice in an actual arcade — but played it a lot when it was brought to home emulation packages.
The game comes in three stages — two of which are some of the best examples of risk-reward I’ve ever seen presented in a video game.
Greed is good.
The main game comes in the form of you playing a zookeeper, running around the outside of a brick wall cage filled with animals ranging from zebras to hungry lions. The animals bounce around inside the cage, nibbling away at the brick wall, trying to get out. As you run, you slowly rebuild the enclosure, but the animals are so many and so fast, they eventually get loose and start running around the outside of the cage with you. Don’t ask why they don’t run away; what did I say about asking questions about holes in the plot?
Once the animals get loose, your only real defense is to jump over them. The more animals you leap over in a single jump, the point reward increases substantially for each animal. 100 for one, 500 for two, 2000 for three and so on.
You can score 4,000,000(!) points in a single jump.
… If you’re willing to take a chance and line those animals up just right — knowing full well that any mistake on your part will cost you a life and restart the round. Did I mention you’re on a time limit too?
The average game is about 120,000 points. Greed pays off in Zookeeper and the payment directly increases with the risk factor and that mental hack works on anyone.
Jackal: Score While Helping Your Fellow Man
Jackal goes by another name; TopGunner. In this one or two player (cooperative) top down scrolling action adventure, you take your weapon-encrusted jeep deep into enemy lines. Blowing up tanks, submarines, running over foot soldiers — it is all fun and games until someone loses an eye.
Hiding in what might seem like a rather unremarkable game is a deceptive element of greed. A single act which can not only pad your score by almost 40,000 but also arm you with an insane weapon upgrade that makes you nearly unstoppable.
But with great reward? Comes great risk.
Your jeep has a simple machine gun (great for soldiers, but not so good for tanks) as well as a secondary weapon which starts off as a slow moving tossed grenade. While serviceable, it is hardly a desired weapon for an onslaught of enemy tanks or nuclear submarines.
As you play, there are bunkers to blow up — housing P.O.W.s you can rescue. To do so, you let them get in your jeep (you can only carry 8 total, by the way) then take them to a helicopter and drop them off. You get points for each one you rescue.
Some bunkers contain a special glowing P.O.W. which will boost your weapon immediately when you pick him up. You go from grenade to short range rockets, then long range rockets, long range plus horizontal explosion and finally long range plus 4 way diagonal explosions; the latter makes you an elite killing machine. But it takes a lot of glowing guys to get there and if you die, you lose one level of power up.
Thank god for greed.
If you let the P.O.W.s out of your jeep without moving, each one’s value in points raises nearly exponentially; 100, 200, 400, 1000, 2000, 5000, 10,000 and finally 20,000 — for a whopping 39,500 points in total.
If the point reward doesn’t make you all warm inside, your weapon instantly upgrades to the most powerful (4 way diagonal explosive).
The enemy isn’t going to just sit there while you offload your 8 dudes; making you a sitting duck if you’re willing to stay still to achieve gaming nirvana. What’s more, if you die, you lose a soldier making it likely impossible to pull off this stunt — making life all the more precious.
The video below shows this off about 3 minutes in — and the rich reward that is yours if you can pull it off.
Greed works on so many levels with video games; inspiring repeat play, improved play and longer play.
Today’s lower denominator gaming uses different psychological tactics to keep you playing; affecting your dopamine levels, forcing you to spend money waiting for things to happen, artificially limiting what you can do to force you to do things … that sort of thing.
But for me? Give me greed. Great risk, great reward. You keep your smurfberries; I’ll take my 20x multiplier for not missing a car in Road Blasters.