Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Decline and Fall of Taito

The upcoming Episode 29 brings to mind the sad state of affairs of one-time video game goliath Taito. You younger folks may not realize this, but at one time Taito was one of the grand old men of the video game scene, right up there with Atari, Sega, Namco and Konami. But after almost thirty episodes of Chrontendo, one thing has become painfully clear: Taito hasn't really been producing much for the Famicom.

Once a giant, now merely a subsidiary of Square Enix.

This is odd behavior on Taito's part. The Famicom single handedly revitalized the video game market in the mid-80s. As the arcade scene was slowly sliding into obsolescence, Nintendo's console was bringing in literally billions of dollars. Taito's response to this massive shift in the market was to produce a handful of arcade ports, along with the occasional original Famicom game, often utilizing outside developers. As we've seen, these original games have been almost exclusively awful.

Taito was, like Sega and Namco, a long established presence in the amusement industry when they began producing video arcade games in 1973. Through a distribution deal with Midway, their games were found in US arcades by the mid-70s. It was their 1978 mega-hit, Space Invaders that really kicked off the video game mania of the late 70s/early 80s, and set the stage for Japan's dominance in video game production in the 80s and 90s. While Taito never replicated the sucess of Space Invaders, a series of subsequent arcade hits, Qix, Elevator Action, Arkanoid, Bubble Bobble, etc, kept the at the top of the video game dog pile for a while.

The game that reportedly triggered a ¥100 coin shortage in Japan. For a while, Taito was the biggest producer of video games in the world.

By 1984 and 1985, all the major arcade manufactures, were devoting more and more attention to the home console market. Nintendo, Sega, Namco, Konami and Capcom all began allocating resources to create titles for the Famicom or SMS, and by 1988, huge dividends were being paid out for these investments. The odd man out was, or course, Taito. The most successful Taito products we've seen so far in Chrontendo have been port of Arkanoid and Bubble Bobble. Great games, sure. But look at their original releases for the Famicom: Takeshi no Chousenjou, Musashi no Ken, Mirai Shinwa Jarvas, Kyonshiizu 2. This must be one of the most embarrassingly bad selections of games produced by a major video game company, ever.

Musashi no Ken
. Remember this one? Me neither.

The two games that turn up in Chrontendo Episode 29 don't buck this trend. First off is Arkanoid II, a fine port of their 1987 arcade game that doesn't really expand much on the original. Now Arkanoid's a great game - don't get me wrong. But, when the chips are down, it's really just an updated version of Breakout, a Atari game from 1976.

More block-breaking action. A well produced port, but nothing we haven't seen before.

The second Taito game is a bit more interesting: a port of their 1987 Ghosts 'n' Goblins style platformer, Wardner. In Wardner (Pyros for its US arcade release) you control a fireball shooting young man out to rescue his girlfriend from the evil Mr. Wardner. In the hands of Capcom or Konami, the Famicom Wardner could have been a classic. While Taito tinkers a bit with the mechanics, adding a life bar for example, Wardner ends up being a missed opportunity. Taito choose to release it for the Famicom Disk System, which was virtually obsolete by 1988. With less ROM space than contemporary cartridges and the inability to add extra chips and RAM, the FDS was producing games that looked great by 1985 standards.

Wardner no Mori
: a game that failed to live up to its potential.

Compared to something like Contra, Wardner had ugly outdated graphics, lending it a budget-game feel. Throw in some less than ideal in-game physics and jumping controls (your character plummets straight down like a sack of rocks whenever he steps off a platform. It feels like you're playing Lode Runner or something), and you have a recipe for a less than stellar game.

Despite this, both Arkanoid II and Wardner would have sold well had they been released in the US. During the chip shortage (and resultant cartridge shortage) everything released for the NES was selling well -- demand for NES games was exceeding supply. Incredibly, Taito released only two games in US in 1988: Bubble Bobble and Technos' Renegade.

Publishers were allowed to release five games a year for the insanely popular NES in 1988. Taito released... two.

Obviously, I have no idea what was going on inside of Taito corporate headquarters during this time. Why did they focus so little energy on the emergent home market? Short-sightedness? Unwillingness to change with the times? Lack of internal talent? Good old-fashioned human folly? They would go on to produce more arcade classics, such as the Darius series and the various Bubble Bobble spin-offs such as Parasol Stars and Rainbow Islands, not to mention goofy beat-em-ups like Growl or the utterly insane PuLiRuLa. But they never really produced any hit console franchises the way so many of their contemporaries did. Eventually, they almost vanished from the video game scene. Think for moment -- how many Taito games for the PS2 can you name off the top of your head? Taito would end up being bought out by Square Enix in 2005, and now seems to exist entirely on occasional releases of reworked versions of their older arcade classics, and, in Japan, the Cooking Mama series (published by Majesco in the US.)

PuLiRuLa. A great game that never received a console release outside of Japan.

Is there a moral here? Dunno. Change with the times maybe? It's not like Taito never released a decent original game for the Famicom. We will eventually see a few. They just never had their own Contra, or Zelda or Mega Man.


qaylIS aka Nicolas Deu├čer said...

PuLiRuLa looks insane as shit, I have to try that one out... .
The only Taito game I can think of I played this decade was Space Invaders Extreme for the DS, which was a really cool Version of Space Invaders. Besides from that I don't have a clue...

Cornervizion said...

PuliRula is a great Arcade game with som equite bizarre moments too. As for Space Invaders Extreme loved it on PSP. I'll look forward to see the taito feature.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that Taito prided themselves on being an arcade game developer first and foremost. Just as you stated, Taito released numerous great titles for the arcade in their heyday. Console development to them seemed to be more of an afterthought than anything else. In retrospect, I think this was definitely a mistake.

Doctor Sparkle said...

Taito must have had some sort of resistance to console games. But still, there's no reason why they couldn't have produced quality titles for both platforms. Sega and Capcom seemed to have had no such problems straddling both sides of the fence.

Mouse said...

Taito used to have so many great titles like Bubble Bobble, Rainbow Islands, The New Zealand Story, Bubble Memories, Renegade, Double Dragon, Chase HQ, Special Criminal Investigation, Crime City, Wardner, Rastan Saga 1, 2 and 3, Growl, Sky Shark, Fire Shark, Zero Wing, Elevator Action 1 and 2, Operation W.O.L.F., Operation Thunderbolt, Operation W.O.L.F. 3, Operation Tiger, Night Striker, Thunder Fox, Crime City, Tiger-Heli, Twin Cobra, Arkanoid, Space Invaders, Space Invaders '91, Puzzle Bobble/Bust A Move series and that's just to name a few!