Monday, December 12, 2022

NES Replay: Elevator Action

Developer: Taito
Publisher: Taito
Released: August 1986

Taito has an interesting story. Like a lot of the early companies, Taito didn't start with video games. In Taito's case, it started because a small-time hustler kept trying and failing to start profitable companies.

Michael Kogan was born to Jewish parents in Odessa in 1920, and his family fled Russia to avoid the Revolution. (While Odessa is now part of Ukraine, at the time it was part of the Russian State.) They settled in Manchuria, which was occupied by Japan at the time but had a large Jewish population. He moved to Tokyo in 1939, which is a wild time to move to Tokyo. He stayed for most of the war, and then moved to Tianjin in China in 1944.

In 1944, he formed a business called Taitung. Taitung is a city in Taiwan, and I can't find any specifics that would indicate any relation to Kogan. Anyway, Taitung made wigs, floor coverings and hog bristles. I mean, why not diversify a bit? In 1950, Kogan fled China ahead of the Communist Revolution and settled in Tokyo.

In Japan, the name of his company, Taitung, was translated to "Taito." He tried to turn Taito into a clothing distributor, but it didn't pan out. By 1953, he had shuttered the clothing distributor and started a new company called Taito Trading Company. They started distilling vodka and importing vending machines.

By 1955, they had left the vodka business and were focused solely on vending machines. They didn't have a license to import the machines into the country, so they purchased broken machines from U.S. military bases and fixed them up. After the Japanese economy recovered, they were able to become an actual jukebox distributor and started making actual profits.

In the 50's and 60's, being a jukebox distributor was a doorway to a lot of other opportunities. As a jukebox distributor, you had a real-time window into what people wanted and were on the ground floor in a lot of ways. You made a lot of connections with business owners and could quickly change and adapt your business model. In the US, for example, some jukebox men say people's music habits and became record label owners.

Taito saw which way the wind was blowing and decided to make early video games, called electro-mechanical games. These were mixtures of moving parts and electronic components like light guns. They're still around today, like Whac-A-Mole and Super Shot, the games where you shoot a basketball into a hoop.

In 1968, they hired a man named Tomohiro Nishikado, who made some early electro-mechanical games. In 1972, Pong took the world by storm and Nishikado dissected a Pong cabinet for six months to figure out how it worked, which taught him how to make games of his own. By the early 70's, Taito was profitable enough to create a subsidiary in the US.

By 1978, Taito and Nishikado made Space Invaders, which became one of the most popular games of all time. (Space Invaders was one of the first games to feature a difficulty curve due to a programming bug that became more of a feature. More on that a different time.) After that, games like Elevator Action, Bubble Bobble and Arkanoid came along, cementing Taito as an early pioneer.

Most of these games hold up shockingly well, considering how primitive they are, and Elevator Action is no exception. The idea is pretty novel for the time: You're a spy and you need to collect five documents from a 30-story building. You use the elevators and escalators in the building to get around and shoot any spies that get in your way.

While most early arcade games would have placed some some arbitrary limits to make the concept harder, I appreciate that Elevator Action doesn't. There's no phony limits to make you spend more money, like a limit of how many bullets you have or a forced time limit. You have three lives. Go steal documents and don't get killed.

The NES version isn't quite as polished as the arcade model. There's some sprite tear here and there and the music is annoying after a bit, but put the game on mute and you won't notice. It's a little too easy for an early arcade game, but it's just right for games today.

Whatever happened to Taito? It couldn't keep up. Times changed, and you can only pump out so many versions of Space Invaders to keep the lights on. While they had some hits by reliving their past with stuff like Puzzle Bobble, in 2005, they were purchased by Square Enix. Ever since there have been remasters and upgrades of their original hits here and there, but Taito as a going concern isn't really a thing anymore.

The early video game industry was full of crazy hucksters, and Taito was no exception. This was probably one of my favorite video game company origin stories to research, and I hope you enjoyed it too. Next time you fire up a game, spare a thought for these early pioneers and for the crazy businessmen who tried everything else before settling on a gold mine.

 Final Rating:


Next up: The Legend of Kage

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