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Star Wars Battle Pod shows that arcades aren't dead, they're just very different

Long gone is the golden age of arcades, two decades that saw some of the best coin-op games in history not only take over game rooms, but turn into massive pop culture icons. It was the era, for better or worse, that gave us "Pac-Man Fever", a slew of Space Invaders songs and cemented the ubiquity of Donkey Kong.

While arcades games may never return to that former glory, they remain a sort of gaming mainstay across America. You can find them still in bowling alleys, trucks stops, niche arcades and, of course, entertainment complexes like Dave and Buster's.

And at least one major video game developer and publisher still believes strongly in the viability of arcade games. Last week, Bandai Namco unveiled a new, massive arcade machine. Star Wars Battle Pod is a single-player flight combat game that uses an array of high-tech gadgets packed into a gaming pod to drop players into the action of some of Star Wars' key space fight moments.

The unveiling of three of the machines took place in New York City, a few blocks from New York Comic Con, but John McKenzie, president of Bandai Namco Amusement America and Europe, said the title isn't meant to be tied to any upcoming movie or comic.

"You need to generate a lot of exposure for a new arcade machine," he said. "So you choose your events carefully. You want to link it to something with a lot of interest and not just in the coin-op sector but outside as well.

"Comic Con seemed like a good place to do this."

The massive machine features a 180-degree domed screen which works in conjunction with a seat that uses low-frequency vibrations to deliver the feel of impacts and explosions. Special fans are used to mimic the feeling of acceleration and speed when paired with vibrating controllers and 5.1 surround sound. The vibration, air blasts and sound turn the game into an incredible Star Wars "toy," McKenzie said.


The decision to create this particular machine and to make the unusual decision to launch it in the U.S. before Japan, a country that still supports a fairly popular arcade culture, was driven by a combination of the game's tech and the Star Wars license.

The 180-degree screen was used twice before in machines created by Bandai Namco, McKenzie said. When the development team was trying to figure out how to introduce a new machine using the tech to the U.S. first, they knew they had to have a solid hook.

"Trying to focus on the Western market, our team knew they needed something very, very strong," he said. "Star Wars is probably the number one property. When they were able to negotiate getting the license they knew what they wanted to do."

Battle Pod features five separate scenarios, each plucked from a different key moment in the movies and each featuring a different, notable vehicle. So in Endor, for instance, players zip through the jungles on a speeder bike while chasing down Imperial scout troopers and AT-ST walkers, all pulled from Return of the Jedi. Other famous scenes including a run at blowing up the Death Star and repelling the Imperial attack on the frozen planet of Hoth.

While the release of a new arcade machine may seem like a infrequent event, McKenzie said Bandai Namco releases about 15 titles a year in the Western market and so many in Japan annually that he's lost count.

"We release them to different levels of arcades in Western markets," he said. "From Dave and Buster's all the way down to truck stops. They're also in movie theaters and Chuck E. Cheese's restaurants.

"Bandai Namco are very active in terms of releasing titles. For us it's not really too much of a challenge."

The key to that success is recognizing the metamorphosis arcade games have gone through over the years.

"The gist of games has changed from 20 years ago to where we are now," McKenzie said. "Premium-type games are very popular but also ticket redemption games in the West."

The thing that torpedoed the rising popularity of arcades in the West was the exponential growth of home video game consoles and the sort of experiences they could deliver for a relatively low price. That took away a lot of the attraction of traditional arcade games like Pac-Man, Space Invaders and Joust.

"When you go into an arcade you need something that delivers an experience you can't get at home," he said.

That typically means these much bigger, experiential titles. Games that feel almost like a theater experience, or augmented reality, rather than simply something you play for fun.

Game designers Kazutoki Kono and Kazushi Imoto both come from a history of working on Ace Combat flight combat titles for home consoles. The biggest challenge they faced, Imoto said, was trying to create a condensed experience for arcades.

"We targeted three minutes per a play," he said. "The hardest thing we had to do was taking the action that most console games would include over hours and hours of time and then squeezing it into three minutes.

"We targeted three minutes for the audience here. They don't like to play that long in an arcade game. That was something we found out about audiences here in the U.S."

Kono added that another challenge the designers faced was that they had to design a game that didn't have the luxury of training a gamer how to play it.

"For home consoles we can get into real details because those games aim for the long term and want players to really get into it," he said. "Arcade games have to be a lot more instinctual."

The machine will receive its industry unveiling in Orlando later this year, when it will receive a price and official release date.

McKenzie says he hopes new games like Star Wars Battle Pod will serve the dual purposes of both attracting an audience to the game, but also bringing more people back to arcades.

"Arcades at the moment have a lot of old games," he said. "Obviously what we're trying to do is freshen them up with games like this.

"This is a game that is going to be in arcades for five years or so."

The added benefit of a game like Battle Pod is that it delivers a set experience, typically three to four minutes long, for a set price. And, McKenzie pointed out, Bandai Namco could even release new levels for the game once the machine has been out for awhile.

"We can add to the software," he said. "It's something we haven't decided on yet, but it's not uncommon."

It's almost ironic that where the future of console gaming seems to be driven by an increased online presence and sense of virtual community, the arcade — once a bastion of gaming culture and community — is becoming the stage for insular experiences delivered in solo-playing pods.

Good Game is an internationally syndicated weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Brian Crecente is a founding News Editor of Polygon.