2022: The year I became a Taito fan

Taito, despite being one of the absolute titans of the early arcade industry, and one of the major players in video games throughout the ’80s and ’90s, was for a long time a bit of a blind spot for me. Obviously I’m well aware of the importance and legacy of games like SPACE INVADERS and BUBBLE BOBBLE, and I’d certainly played and enjoyed my fair share of Taito games over the years. Even as a kid I was really into the black & white Mac port of ARKANOID, and LEGEND OF KAGE was definitely a standout game on my friend’s “700-in-1” Famicom pirate cartridge – but of course at the time I wouldn’t have known to attribute those games to a particular creator.

I’d go on to spend most of my middle and high school years playing and learning about hundreds of console and arcade games thanks to emulation (as well as hanging out in a local game store after school)… But even then, despite discovering and falling in love with games like PUZZLE BOBBLE, THE NINJA WARRIORS, and ELEVATOR ACTION RETURNS, for some reason or another I just never developed any attachment for Taito as a developer, the way I had for SEGA, Capcom, SNK, Konami, Namco, or a number of other companies. Having now spent a couple of weeks diving deep into Taito arcade history with the excellent Egret II Mini, I’m happy to say this old blunder has finally been corrected: I am big a fan of Taito.

I’ll go into more detail as to how I got here – self-evident as it may be to those who correctly identified that Taito were awesome and worth keeping tabs on 35 or so years ago – but the thought that keeps coming back to me, and that I struggle to find an answer to, is simply: what took me so long?

As I learned more about games growing up, I developed a familiarity and fondness for quite a few developers and publishers, even stuff somewhat off the beaten path – so it’s hardly as if Taito was too obscure to be on my radar. I don’t know if it’s a matter of less exposure through console ports, less presence in my favourite game genres like VS fighting games and beat ’em ups, or less of a consistent brand image (none of which is really true, by the way – but how I might’ve perceived it at the time)… in any case, I never quite put two and two together in associating Taito with a particular level of quality, style or innovation.

In fact, although I can’t quite recall the context, I do remember at some point a friend on a retro gaming forum (correctly) dunking on me for essentially dismissing Taito, mentioning something about how I couldn’t really think of many particularly great or memorable titles from them. This was in the early 2010’s or so, at which point I really should have known better! But hey – better late than never.

This little backstory hopefully helps give some perspective on my decision to plunk down the cash for Taito’s Egret II Mini tabletop arcade cabinet; it really was not fueled by a nostalgia for Taito. Knowing that Taito is a company I ought to have more of an opinion on, I bought it primarily based on the strength of its apparent quality as a product, but also as an excuse to make up for lost time and take a closer look at some of those games that never quite managed to make an impact on me in the past. And after spending some time with it, I really couldn’t be happier with the turnout!

The Egret II Mini features a total of 50 games (10 of which are part of the trackball/paddle controller bundle) from 1978-1997, offering a nice sampling of various eras and genres of Taito’s arcade output.

Personally speaking, the very early stuff is mostly interesting as little more than a curiosity; potentially of academic interest and as a nice bit of context, but not the kind of stuff I’m all that likely to return to and spend significant time with. But once you get to the mid-80s, both the appeal of the artwork and the intricacy of the game design start to really evolve. By the late ’80s, it’s the dawn of my personal favourite era of arcade games, and things start to become more compelling… and by the time the ’90s arrive, Taito was consistently operating on full-on masterpiece levels of power.

Beyond the obvious observation that SPACE INVADERS was a groundbreaking and heavily influential game, I don’t feel qualified to make a lot of judgments on the specifics of how the early Taito games compared to their contemporaries in terms of innovation and inventiveness, but even as a layman it’s easy to see the appeal of Taito’s ’80s output. CHACK’N POP, THE FAIRYLAND STORY and of course BUBBLE BOBBLE firmly established Taito’s bona fides when it came to mechanically compelling puzzle platformers – but perhaps even more so when it came to timelessly appealing aesthetics and character designs. Bub made his debut as a vtuber in 2021, a sign as good as any that these characters are still beloved, and likely to outlive us all.

The “cute Taito”, as personified by not just the aforementioned games and their numerous spinoffs, but also games like THE NEW ZEALAND STORY, TIME GAL, KIKI KAIKAI, and PUCHI CARAT, might be the closest thing to a unique style that’s synonymous with Taito, but they really are (or at least were) so much more. As great as these cute games were, Taito really were no slouches when it came to sports, driving, or hard-hitting action either.

I can’t pretend like Taito were in any way singularly unique in having a diverse portfolio – arcade games of the ’80s and ’90s were made far more rapidly than modern games, and iterative sequels weren’t really a big thing yet – so plenty of companies both in Japan and the west would truly throw anything out there and see what stuck. SEGA and Namco would eventually enter an arms race of sorts, one-upping each other with increasingly elaborate racing, action and shooting games, but they’d put out plenty of “cute games” as well. Same thing goes for Konami, Data East, you name it.

Still, I think Taito’s diversity is worth acknowledging, not necessarily to refute some kind of implied assertion that they were a one-trick pony – they obviously weren’t – but more so because I think observing and comparing Taito’s approach to various genres and styles helps illustrate just what it is I’ve grown to love about their games.

Just as THE FAIRYLAND STORY and BUBBLE BOBBLE had shown Taito’s penchant for delightfully charming character design, other games would begin showing off their artistic and technical prowess. DARIUS’s ostentatious three-monitor setup was a marvel to behold, and certainly set it apart from other shoot ’em ups of the mid-80s. Games of all kinds – ARKANOID, RAIMAIS, and CADASH to name a couple – featured surprisingly ambitious narrative aspects as well.

It might be a bit of a stretch to praise any of these games for their writing, but the efforts that Taito put into worldbuilding, tone, and atmosphere were really effective – and frankly, something you wouldn’t really see done this well by many other arcade developers. These brief snippets of story weren’t just neat, more often than not they’re a bit eerie – off-putting, in some cases even. Whether it’s a sudden shift in gameplay genre, a shocking story twist, or an oddly somber ending, you could apparently always trust Taito to never settle for the bare minimum of what was expected of them.

The absolutely astonishing deluxe sitdown cabinet for 1986’s DARIUS

And if I were to try to sum up what it is that finally made me realise Taito’s greatness, that really is a big part of it. Of course not every game is going to be a home run, but of the 50 games I played on the Egret II Mini, I have to say there were very few that didn’t have something about them that was really cool. Time and time again I got that feeling of the developers going the extra mile to make the games memorable, in whatever off-the-wall way they could think of.

Not all of that came in the form of boundary-pushing cabinet design or avant-garde narratives, mind you. Taito games, especially in the late ’80s through mid-90s, definitely looked nice by conventional metrics as well. As both hardware capabilities and the understanding of pixel art as a craft developed rapidly in the second half of the ’80s, the entire industry saw an absolute explosion in the level of artistry on display – and Taito were competing with the best of them.

Reminiscing about ’90s video game art, companies like Capcom and SNK are often revered for their pixel art, and SEGA and Namco for pushing boundaries in 3D graphics – but I imagine a lot of people share the same blind spot I’ve had for Taito’s place in that conversation. Aside from generally pretty pixel art, lots of Taito games make tremendous use of effects like transparencies and sprite scaling to create really arresting visuals. Given that both Capcom and SNK’s arcade platforms didn’t really support either, Taito’s graphics really do stand out in comparison.

I could name drop any number of games for their awesome visuals, but the standout for me has to be RAYFORCE – its wall-to-wall use of parallax background layers and sprite scaling gives the game an unrivaled sense of depth for a 2D game, and the game even uses its pseudo-3D presentation in its gameplay in really interesting ways. Amazing stuff!

Of course, no discussion of Taito’s legacy would ever be complete without mention of ZUNTATA, Taito’s in-house band responsible for countless iconic soundtracks. Even before my newfound appreciation for Taito as a whole, I was well aware of Zuntata’s reputation, and even a big personal fan of some of their work (The incredible Game Music Festival Live ’90 performance of DADDY MULK comes to mind), but I did not really have enough exposure to form a strong personal attachment. I’d still hardly call myself an expert, but both through playing a bunch of Taito games, as well as spending a lot of time listening to the soundtrack collection included with the Egret II Mini, I feel comfortable calling myself a fan of Zuntata as well.

In my mind, Zuntata’s body of work demonstrates a lot of that same ambitious attitude as the games themselves. Taito music is generally great, easily keeping pace with SEGA, Capcom or Namco, sure – but beyond simply being hot jams, I feel like it’s characterized by a kind of audacity. Granted, it doesn’t apply to everything, but between the shamisen solo in DADDY MULK and the eerie, evocative vocals of DARIUS GAIDEN’S VISIONNERZ, it seems fair to conclude that the composers at Taito were just as eager as their artist and designer colleagues to create something that made an impression.

And what an impression these games have made! I may be several decades late to the party, but finally spending some time with all these games, I really have been blown away.

I decided early on that I would want to write something about my time with the Egret II Mini. Even before I touched the thing, I was picturing some kind of review listicle with thoughts on each of the 50 games – but as much as I enjoyed playing each of them, the bigger story for me is undoubtedly how the experience of immersing myself in Taito history has completely changed my perception of them as a company.

I have no shortage of things to say about games like RASTAN SAGA, VOLFIED, GUN FRONTIER, RUNARK, CAMELTRY, or any of the games previously mentioned, but frankly that pales in comparison to the excitement I’m feeling over finally getting it. Taito rules, and if there’s a silver lining to spending the last couple of decades missing out, it’s that there’s an abundance of awesome Taito games out there to discover and enjoy!

I’ve only even scratched the surface of most of the Egret II Mini games, and there’s obviously a ton of stuff beyond that; driving, light gun and multi-screen games that couldn’t be included for technical reasons, not to mention decades’ worth of console games. I have and will continue to enjoy playing games on the Egret II Mini, but I’m also really excited to keep digging further and deeper into Taito’s back catalogue, and I’m entirely confident I’ll keep finding even more games to fall in love with.

It’s good to be a Taito fan. 👾

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