Today when you hear the word Scramble in reference to Konami usually you think of bad business decisions and sloppily written press releases like Metal Gear Survive. Back in 1981, Scramble was the name of one of their flagship arcade games that helped propel them to the gaming industry giant that they are today. I had never actually played Scramble when I was a kid, but I was initially excited to try the PS4 port from the Arcade Archives collection by HAMSTER Corporation.
Scramble is an old game and it really shows in this PS4 port. There’s actually very little going on in it visually. You fly a ship, which looks more like a traditional rocket than a starfighter, through a side scrolling, 2D set of simple levels. It’s just slightly more impressive than that old Helicopter flash game. The background is black with little stars and the level is basically continuous rocks and the occasional building. These rocks are preposterously colored in vibrant hues of pink and neon green. And what’s even more ridiculous is that they change colors at random as you fly through them. Scattered along and between these rocks and buildings are a short list of in game objects. There are some rockets, clearly marked fuel tanks, small bases, flying saucers, and asteroids. Those are all the “enemies” in the game. They are all based on traditional ideas of what those things should look like in an outer space setting even though the game doesn’t technically take place in outer space.
The HUD is probably the most complicated looking part of this game and it’s nothing amazing either. For the most part, it’s your standard arcade style with the information outside of the gameplay. You know the drill. Score and high score across the top. Lives and fuel meter on the bottom. But what’s actually different is the level progress meter. Along the top of the gameplay screen is a level progress bar. It’s very simple, but it helps you keep track of how close you are to the end of the stage in a very effective way. It actually reminds me a lot of the progress bar in Life Force/Salamander (1986), which is also by Konami. As with all Arcade Archives titles, you can adjust the screen settings such as size. In the case of this game, I absolutely recommend enlarging the gameplay area if you have a larger monitor. All in all, Scramble isn’t a great looking game, but as with all the Arcade Archives games, it runs very smoothly.
The gameplay is mind-numbingly simple, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but in this case it kind of is. Your goal is to make it across the side scrolling level from beginning to end and then destroy the base. Every level works the same way. You have some enemies to contend with on your way to the end of each level but they aren’t actually mandatory to deal with. You can kill them, but dodging them is just as effective other than for points of course. Some enemies can’t actually be killed, like asteroids. You just have to dodge them as they come hurtling toward you. There are really only two types of killable enemies: flying saucers and rockets. Rockets are always on the ground and then launch upward as you approach them. There are many rockets in each level, but not all of them actually launch. The flying saucers just randomly fly around in patterns and can be troublesome but they aren’t actually attacking you. Everything just kind of gets in your way in all reality.
You deal with enemies by blowing them up. You can use bullets to shoot enemies in front of you. You can only shoot up to five bullets on screen at a time. So even though there is an auto fire button it’s really just a burst fire unless you’re hitting all your targets efficiently. If you keep hitting you can keep shooting, but if you’re missing, which will happen a lot, then you can’t keep shooting. You use missiles to hit stationary targets such as the mandatory fuel tanks. Missiles are extremely hard to aim. They seem like they’d be easy but because of the arced trajectory they have when falling you seem to always be a little off. And there’s no area of effect. You either hit the target or you don’t. While you don’t need missiles to avoid getting killed by enemies, you have to use them to hit fuel tanks. Getting hit by an enemy is the most common way to die, but running out of fuel is just as fatal. You are constantly burning fuel as you fly and the only way to refill it is to blow up fuel tanks. Sometimes this is the hardest part of the game, but the refuel amount for hitting a single tank is very fair.
The gameplay is pretty boring and repetitive, but there are some things about it that were done well for the time. The death and respawn system for instance is based on current level progress. When you die you respawn at the beginning of the section you’re currently on as opposed to being pushed all the way back to the beginning of the level. The levels are consistent, making it possible to master the game. Everything pretty much moves in the same patterns every time, which by today’s standards isn’t necessarily a good thing, but for classic arcade titles it’s how games were played.
There is a two player mode, but it’s the classic two single player games taking turns after deaths model. Ultimately, I wasn’t impressed with the gameplay in Scramble. It’s clearly important to the history of video games in how certain genres developed from it, but in and of itself it’s a pretty uneventful experience.
The sound is also rather disappointing in this one. There’s no actual music other than a short tone at the start of each game. It’s basically all sound effects and since it’s a flying shooter that means very few of them. There’s a sound for blowing up things, a sound for shooting, a sound for dying, and a constant background sound which I guess is supposed to represent the engines blaring, but it’s really just an annoyance. And there are no sound options in this one so you just have to live with it. Sound is pretty much a disappointment, but we are talking about a game from 1981.
There’s no writing in Scramble. Not even the micro-plot explanation in the manual. You just take off and start shooting. And even the manual in this one is pretty sparse because there just isn’t that much going on in this game.
There’s an unlimited amount of replay value if you make your goal beating an undisclosed number of levels. But that’s not really how you play games from this era that don’t have a plot. You play for the trophies and the high score. This is one of the older Arcade Archives titles so there are only nine trophies and most of them are junk. You can get seven of them without even playing the game and the other two can be acquired for getting more than 10,000 points which can be done without even beating the first level. I literally got 100% PSN completion on this game in less than 15 minutes. There is of course the online leaderboard, but that’s for a specific type of player and it doesn’t make the game nearly exciting enough to keep playing. $8 is way too much money for this one. Honestly you’re not gonna put eight hours into this game. You might not even put one in.
Arcade Archives: Scramble is not a great game. It’s in no way the fault of HAMSTER Corporation, because the port is not the issue. It’s just a very dated game. Experienced gamers will definitely appreciate how important this game is/was to development of the flying shoot ‘em up genre, but that doesn’t make this specific gameplay experience any better. At the end of the day, unless you’re a dedicated collector, I have to call this one a hard pass.
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