What: The fully enclosed BattleMech cockpits used in futuristic multiplayer combat in Virtual World Entertainment’s BattleTech Centers. A ‘Mech pod features a huge viewscreen, a virtual map, a throttle, a joystick for firing a dozen weapons, movement pedals, heat sensors, and other bells and whistles. Here is a demonstration of a ‘Mech in action:
Why: Inherent in the definition of “arcade” is the sense of variety from one machine or attraction to the next. Not so in the BattleTech Centers, such as the flagship center in Chicago’s North Pier. Here you’d just find row after row of pilot cockpits for 30-foot-tall exoskeletal tanks. You’d shut the door, lock in, and familiarize yourself with your BattleMech. And a whole lot of other people would too. Suddenly, you were fully immersed in 33rd century combat, blasting away at your enemies with rockets and lasers. The ‘Mechs were all different, and you’d vary your play style based on whether you were in an agile Blackhawk or a lumbering Atlas. The pods’ greatest innovation was a concept called “heat,” where continuous firing of your weapons would not only deplete their ammunition, but burn out your ‘Mech’s systems as well. So you had to cool down, play smart, and watch your six.
Impact: Launched in 1990, the pods drew gamers from everywhere. A second game, the Martian sled racer Red Planet, debuted in the pods, here shown off by Judge Reinhold, Joan Severance, Nora Dunn, Cheech Marin, and Weird Al. It’s overstating things to say that the BattleTech Centers revolutionized arcade gaming, but they were the most ambitious virtual environments of their day. In the 1990s, there were 26 centers across the world, each with at least 12 pods. But by 2000 the main centers in Tokyo and Yokohama shut down, and Dave & Buster’s closed its pod installations in the US. The VWE company passed to BattleTech originators FASA, then Microsoft, and now to an operation in Kalamazoo, which supports centers in a few US states. It’s a modest old age for one of the greatest videogame systems of all time.
Personal Connection: BattleTech co-creator Jordan Weisman and I have been friends for 15 years, working together on the BattleTech Trading Card Game in the 1990s and Pirates of the Spanish Main earlier this decade. At Origins this past weekend, we did something we’d never done before: face each other in a ‘Mech pod battle. None of us were very good. While I stumbled about in my 85-ton Deimos, Jordan’s son Nate flew circles around us in the much nimbler Shadowcat. By the end we’d actually killed ourselves as often as we’d killed each other, but a splendid time was had by one and all. (Thanks to MechCorps for comping us. You guys rule.)
Other Contenders: that game’s spiritual godfather BattleZone, where green wireframe tanks bore down on you like death; the Guns ‘N Roses pinball machine, with its gun and rose-shaped plungers, snake ramp, and head-banging soundtrack; the gorgeous Don Bluth-animated Dragon’s Lair cabinet game, and yes, those are gameplay sequences from 1983; Acclaim’s summoning game prototype Magic: The Gathering—Armageddon, the coolest arcade game never produced; the dual-pad Dance Dance Revolution, the only exercise many gamers get; the quest for that perfect game of skee-ball.