All Together Then: The twin-stick shooters of Eugene Jarvis
As Smash TV turns thirty, a look back at its family tree
Smash TV recently turned thirty and it seemed like a tremendous opportunity for All Together Then to have a look at the long-running career of Williams Electronics'/Midway's favourite son, Eugene Jarvis. He's definitely a good Eugene, but he's a distinct second-best to the Eugene from Manic Miner. But that's irrelevant. Pull up a chair, settle in with a nice cup of char, and let's explore the twin-stick shooters of Eugene Jarvis.
All Together Then!
Robotron: 2084 (Arcade, 1982)
One of the most videogames-ass videogames ever made, Robotron remains an astonishing thing, an experience of such purity that I find it almost impossible to talk about objectively. Using the iconic twin-stick interface, you manoeuvre your nameless protagonist around single-screen levels that appear as jet-black voids, filled with low pixel-count robots and humans. Blast the former, rescue the latter. As per the attract mode, SAVE THE LAST HUMAN FAMILY. It's so simple anyone can pick it up and immediately understand the point, but so difficult that few will see beyond the first few screens. All the while, the greatest sound effects this side of Quad Damage blare in your ears, and the gloriously colourful, still attractive visuals are imprinted forever in your retina. The absolute pinnacle of bleep bloop. Play it now: Midway Arcade Origins (XB1 backward compatability)
Smash TV (Arcade, 1990)
Is it possible to write about Smash TV without referencing "Big money! Big prizes! I love it!!"? Apparently not. Utilising a Running Man-esque dystopian game show setting, Smash TV sticks to the single-screen formula of its spiritual predecessor, but applies a sort of "dungeon" element where each room can connect to another in the cardinal directions. As a result, making your way through each combat arena until you reach the boss becomes a matter of efficiency as well as sheer gameplay skill. And as the host cries, "Good luck! You'll need it!" because Smash TV is psychotically difficult to the point of complete unfairness. Power-ups and increased enemy variety expand the game from Robotron's singular focus, but when the first boss Mutoid Man adopts his sixth or seventh form and you're on your fiftieth credit, you may have uncharitable feelings towards it. Famously, the game originally shipped with no ending simply because the developers didn't reckon on anyone actually finishing it. Play it now: Midway Arcade Origins (XB1 backward compatability)
Total Carnage (Arcade, 1992)
Taking the blueprint of Smash TV and applying it to a slightly distasteful take on Operation Deser Storm, Total Carnage sees your characters Captain Carnage and Major Mayhem (Christ) blasting a path through the slightly problematically named Kookistan (Christ) on a mission to assassinate General Akhboob (Christ). In practise this means more top-down twin-stick shootery, but the focused single screens are largely relegated to bonus levels, replaced by scrolling playfields akin to the likes of Capcom's MERCS. Even harder than Smash TV, this game is a quarter-muncher of vast capacity. First boss Orcus makes even Mutoid Man look like a complete joke. For this reason it's extremely difficult to meaningfully recommend Total Carnage, even though it is a lot of silly fun. In a spectacular display of utter contempt for the player, defeating the final boss unleashes wave after wave of Akhboob clones down the screen and if you miss a single one of them, you get a bad ending. Joyously cruel. Play it now: Midway Arcade Origins (XB1 backward compatability)
Nex Machina (PS4/Windows, 2017)
NOT RETRO! Sorry, I set off the Retronauts klaxon and very soon Jeremy will be here with a big stick, so I'll need to be quick. How could I not include Nex Machina, Eugene Jarvis' triumphant return to the twin-stick shooter formula? And, inarguably, his best game since Robotron. Joining forces with the geniuses at Housemarque (Resogun), you're looking at a mash-up of Jarvis' greatest hits - the human-rescuing returns from Robotron, but the structure is more like Total Carnage with its larger levels. You're a lot faster and more mobile, with a dash move that makes you temporarily invincible, allowing you to bypass bullets. You'd think this would make things easier, but the intensity is cranked up to compensate for your increased ability. That said, it is a lot fairer and less infuriating than Smash TV etc, and you can see the end of the game on the "rookie" difficulty within an hour or so. There's plenty of reason to go back, with reams of secrets, bonus modes and a nice unlockables system. It's one of the best arcade-style games available and a unreserved recommendation. Play it now: PS4/Steam digital download