Much has been made in recent years of the predatory nature of mobile games. The theory claims modern mobile gaming consists of only two types of games: those that are poorly aping their console cousins with lousy controls or graphical “upgrades”, or the more sinister “free-to-play” games that include some not-so-free transactions that pile up quickly until the player has spent this month’s rent on virtual pig feed. Modern mobile designers are clearly fleecing an unwitting public, and these games aren’t being made to entertain like in the good ol’ days, but to line the pockets of some cigar chomping business lord. Video games have sold out!
Except, ya know, it’s always been that way. From day one.
I’ve never heard anyone disparage Pong. Pong was hungry for coins, and it was willing to shake down two players at a time for an experience that could be simulated with a Dollar Store’s worth of plastic crap. The story goes that Pong’s first night out broke the machine, not because of some software failure, but because customers pumped so much cash into the device, it created a minor money bin with a teeny tiny duck swimming around in there. The wee “noise of a fowl Scotsman” is what tipped everyone off that something was wrong. The “first” video game found a “whale” customer on literally its first day out.
In a way, it never got better. Much of modern console gaming is a direct descendant of the arcade mentality, and every arcade game ever created was a few components short of just sticking a magnet in there and sucking your quarters directly out of your parachute pants. There’s a lot of hype right now for Street Fighter 5, which is the latest in the series that really got its start with Street Fighter 2. Everyone quiet down, because an old man is talking, and I remember playing Street Fighter 2 in the arcades. First of all, obviously, the “winner stays, loser pays” two player mode had to be a goldmine, as everyone in the arcade has been trying to assert their dominance since high score tables allowed ASS to show off that top score. And, of course, there’s no “practice mode” in Street Fighter 2, you have to learn the precise special move motions while being punched in the face. But, hey, same as any game, right? Not like arcade games ever give you a “safe mode” to tinker with the controls.
But the really sinister bit is the one player campaign. The first eight characters may be tough, but you’ve also gotten in some practice against the likes of Blanka and Dhalsim during two player matches. Here’s Zangief, maintain a healthy distance, and everything should be fine. So, after honing your skills against seven “familiar” characters, there’s the four “bosses”, each completely unique and impossible to fight without first conquering the rest of the world. Balrog the Boxer isn’t that bad, but he hits like a buffalo, so have your quarters ready for that continue. Vega with his claw boasts a host of air attacks (and invincible cage crawl time. Should I be hitting him while he’s… oh, I’m dead), and you’re going down if you can’t immediately learn how to deal with this aerial assault. Sagat is just a damn wall: low fireballs, high fireballs, and a tiger punch for anyone that wants to try jumping. And after all that, Chief Dictator M. Bison combines the worst of Balrog and Vega to drain your moral and wallet. And, of course, the “sequential” nature of Street Fighter 2 creates a sunk cost fallacy: I spent all this cash fighting through ten other fighters, I can’t just waste it all and not throw in another ten bucks. That would be letting M. Bison win. The indignity of the thought!
Rampart might not be as well-known as Street Fighter 2, but, back in the 90’s arcade scene, its designers knew exactly what they were doing.
Rampart is, at face value, pretty straightforward. You’re a… king? General? Cannon ‘n Construction supply company? Some sort of commander of a castle, and you’ve got to defend your little fort against an invading gaggle of ships. First you choose your castle, get some “free” walls, and place a few cannons around. After that, a battle phase begins, and you’re expected to aim the cannons just right to take out the moving boats that are blasting back at your walls. This concludes with hopefully a few boats sunk, but your castle’s walls look like Swiss cheese, so it’s time to rebuild with a series of randomly selected, randomly shaped blocks that hopefully will plug up those dikes before the flood comes again next round. If you’re really on the ball, you can use extra building materials to block in new castles, and expand your territory. Then the whole thing starts again: new cannons, battling about, and rebuilding what’s left. Hopefully you take out all the ships before your walls are destroyed, or it’s game over. Assuming you win, it’s on to the next level for the exact same events, but in a slightly different venue.
As ever, the devil (that wants all your money) is in the details. When you really get down to the mechanics of Rampart, you realize it’s pretty… insidious. And by the numbers…
- You will take damage. There’s no dodging. If there are five enemy ships, you will take damage. If there are ten enemy ships, you will take damage. If there is one enemy ship, you will take damage. Yes, “recovering” is a dedicated part of this game, but it pairs poorly with the fact that…
- The enemy can, and likely will, dodge. It is entirely possible for you to go through an attack phase and never hit an enemy. You’re a sitting duck while they’re zooming about, dodging cannon fire like they’ve hacked your medieval targeting system.
- The rebuilding phase is the most frantic for a reason. All building material is completely randomly generated, so, while you may have a weensy square of damage interrupting your perfect wall, all you’ll receive are a series of giant blocks that absolutely will not fit. You are encouraged to quickly decide that these larger blocks should be tossed into trying to conquer another castle, and maybe the next block will be helpful. It never is. This creates pretty obvious slot machine “gameplay”, as you keep hoping the next pull is going to hit the jackpot that will save your kingdom. If it doesn’t come, you instinctively blame your own poor buildmanship, and not the fact that the game is effectively block-blocking you.
- The only way to lose is to not properly rebuild your walls. As my friend Matt, my Rampart partner going back twenty years, put it, “Oh did you leave that little section over in the corner unprotected? Womp womp womp.” The tiniest break in your wall is cause for game over, and, once again, this is engineered to imply you’re the one doing something wrong.
That’s how Rampart gets its hooks in you. The gameplay isn’t, I don’t know, Battletoads, with its “you are dead inside ten seconds” impossible third level; no, much of Rampart seems downright easy. You shoot your cannons, you just miss, but you’ll get ‘em next time. You fail to rebuild your wall, but it was just a missing block or two, if only you had the exact right piece, you would have been saved. Better try again, I can get it next time… yeah… this time will be different…
So it goes, on and on, until your every last quarter is gone. No, you never achieved victory, but you would have, you know, if it had all gone just a little bit more your way. And you’ll remember the game fondly, because, while it seemed pretty easy (but not easy enough to actually win), it was a good, challenging game. Maybe hit that cabinet the next time you’re in the area. You’ll know better what to do then.
And you’ll still get that damn cross block that you can’t place anywhere. And another quarter goes in the slot.
Ten years later, maybe you’ve learned, maybe you haven’t. It’s okay either way, really, it’s an entertaining game, right? Hell, there should be more games like it, though the genre is kind of… weird? I mean, what would you call something like Rampart? You’ve got castles, walls, and cannons. Maybe castle… defense? Yeah, that sounds alright.
Hey, you know what? I bet someone could make a good couple of bucks monetizing these “castle defense” games. Now we just have to find a medium that works like the arcades of yesteryear. How about mobile gaming? But much has been made in recent years of the predatory nature of mobile games…
FGC #92 Rampart
- System: Technically SNES for the review, but the arcade version took center stage, and Rampart has also appeared on every system ever made. Alright, that might not be completely accurate, as I can’t find a Virtual Boy version, but I think it’s everywhere else, in one form or another.
- Number of players: I didn’t really get into how the multi-player mode fits into the whole “fleece you but good” model, but it’s also great for stealing your wool, as three-player mode allows one player to constantly be the loser every cycle, and then have to insert another coin to continue to participate. Imagine a fighting game where you had to insert a coin after a lost round, just to lose again to receive the final verdict regarding your massive suckage.
- Port o’ Call: Rampart and Gauntlet were packaged together for their Gameboy Advance release. Hey, another noble quarter killer! Goggle Bob needs change badly.
- Matt also says: “Ships are overpowered.” His is a wisdom for the ages.
- Grunts? Oh yeah, I didn’t even mention those little buggers. They’re like the mosquitos of the game: you think they’re no big deal and just require a swift slap, but by the time you get home, you realize your right arm is one giant welt, and your blood has been replaced with malaria. It’s unpleasant.
- Did you know? Most Rampart games have that one angry soldier shouting about incoming barbarians or whatever is going on there, but the Japanese boxart for Gameboy Rampart seems to imply there are dragons and anime knights of all genders and ages within your battered castle. It’s about at this point that I realize I would buy Final Fantasy: Rampart in about ten seconds. Then I wonder if that was idea behind the Tactics series…
- Would I play again: So… many… modern… options… Can’t… penetrate… genre…
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Dynamite Cop for the Sega Dreamcast! Are you a bad enough dude to rescue the president’s daughter? …. Leon, no, wait your turn. Please look forward to it!