One last glimmer of hope in the back of an arcade

The gaming arcades of today are for the most part a murky shadow of days gone by. Join James Matson as he discovers a tiny sliver of light at the end of a darkened tunnel of PC clones and Dance-Dance Revolution machines.

If you’re anything like me (mid 30s and an ardent arcade fan) you’ve probably been crushed slowly over the years by the steady decline of the gaming arcade as we remember them. Gone are the rows upon rows of unique, boisterous dedicated cabs, replaced by the same Street Fighter IV you can play at home, Dance-Dance Revolution and ticket redemption machines.

Oh, the blood-sucking, Nazi fueled, lobotomy patient ticket redemption machines.

If I had a ticket for every one of them I’d seen in a modern arcade, I’d have enough for a mustache comb by now.

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So you can imagine that I didn’t have high hopes when I decided to check out Galactic Circus at Melbourne’s Crown Casino on the weekend.  I’ve been to some good arcades. I mean, really good arcades. Galloping Ghost in Chicago, the Pinball Hall of Fame in Las Vegas, Yifan’s Arcade New Zealand, you’ll notice a distinct lack of homegrown Australian establishments listed. I didn’t really expect to be blown away by the offering at the Casino.

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Initially, my subterranean expectations were met.  Ticket redemption machines? Check. Guitar Hero? Check.  Awesome looking fully hydraulic flight simulator cockpit conspicuously out of order? Check.  Glorious! the sanctity of the modern arcade was intact.  I was just about to swipe my Galactic Circus card into the giant plasma TV Fruit Ninja (what can I say, there are some silly games I’m a sucker for) when something caught my eye.

Something shaped a little like that most legendary of arcade games; Afterburner.

Probably because it was Afterburner, at least the latest iteration – Afterburner: Climax. And let me say, after playing it for 30 minutes, I nearly did.

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With the familiar fighter cockpit shape and SEGA branding, Afterburner: Climax immediately entices. After hopping into the chair and strapping myself in, I knew I was going to be treated to something fairly fun. And Climax delivered. With trademark vintage ‘action’ roots, Climax is lifted into the modern era with crisp, beautiful graphics depicting your deadly fighter jet of choice, it’s ordinance and your enemies. Stage after stage of enemy fighters, gorgeous vistas and ground defenses came at me as I expertly navigated the skies. Around me people wandered from one game to the next, but none of that mattered.  I was 30,000 feet in the air, travelling at Mach 0.6 in a General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon.

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The range of movement in the machine was slightly better than the original After Burner ‘Commander’ cabinet, offering not just side to side motion but tilting forwards/backwards, all of which added a hint of realism to the action and just enough thrill to keep coming back.

It’s so rare these days to find an arcade machine that delivers, not just in graphics and sound, but in pure enjoyment and that elusive sense of wow-factor you can’t feel at home (at least until the cost of a home hydraulic fighter jet system settles a bit).   Afterburner: Climax manages to do just that, and little did the machine’s creators realise at the time that in delivering this title, they’d kept the hope of one loyal arcade fan alive for just a little bit longer.

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