By Gus Mastrapa
BOSTON — Despite the wide array of new and experimental indie games on display at PAX East last weekend, the weirdest thing I played at the videogame festival was Us vs. Them — an arcade game from 1984.
Us vs. Them, programmed by Warren Davis of Q*bert fame, came midway through the laserdisc videogame fad. For a short period in the ’80s and ’90s, gamemakers experimented with delivering animated and live-action video to arcade cabinets through interactive digital technology. The best known of these games is the nearly impossible to play Dragon’s Lair.
Us vs. Them was released by Mylstar and Gottlieb as a conversion kit for M.A.C.H. 3 — a game that overlaid pixel-based action atop fly-by footage of real-world locations.
In Us vs. Them the play is similar. You’re pushing an inverted flight stick and squeezing a trigger to blast invading UFOs while video of real landscape peels away in the background. The play isn’t mind-blowing, but the cut scenes that happen between the levels are cheesy in the best possible way. Even more entertaining is the way the game throws non sequitur video at the player in the middle of the arcade sequences.
During a run across the desert, for instance, the game quickly jumps to a clip of a tattered guy lost in the desert, drinking the last drop of water from his canteen. He cranes his neck comically to watch your jet zoom past. My favorite blink-and-you’ll miss it moment happened when the game cut to a pair of actors dressed as the farmers in the Grant Wood painting American Gothic. The woman freaks out, presumably because aliens and jet planes are fighting overhead. The stoic farmer regains his composure, gripping his pitchfork with nary a blink.
The rare opportunity to play Us vs. Them was provided by operators of Funspot’s American Classic Arcade Museum, who lugged a selection of their collection to the Penny Arcade Expo for free play. Other well-preserved games on hand included a Spy Hunter pinball machine, Joust 2, Leprechaun, Food Fight and Crazy Otto — the bootleg hack of Pac-Man that eventually became Ms. Pac-Man.
New York may have the food and culture. Boston may have history. But the reason I wish I lived on the East Coast is because I’d be closer to Funspot, the New Hampshire arcade billed as the world’s largest, and its spectacular museum collection.