How you control the game is often a much larger component of the overall experience than most of us ever consider. Think about it: How often have you paused a game and thought to yourself, “Those are some great controls!” Probably never, but, if you have, we love you all the same. Everyone goes on and on about graphics, unique gameplay, sound, music – you name it, it gets a mention.
When we do talk about controls, it is often to complain about them. Perfect controls elicit silence, bad controls can destroy forests of paper with the complaints they generate. Given that control is so integral and, at this point, so mundane, it is hard to imagine arcade cabinet makers looking at something like a trackball and saying “You know what, that’s a great idea!” But that is just what happened and not just a couple of times nor during a short time period.
Trackball games were never a “mainstay of the arcades” but they were the pumpernickel bread to the Capcom and SNK fighting cabinets of the 1990s. I have tried to think of what the best arcade trackball games are and put them all into one list. Obviously, a huge part of these games and their appeal is the novelty of the controller input. If you cannot simulate that in any real way, these games are quite different creatures indeed.
So, please, indulge me as we take a step back into the arcades and line up some of the best trackball games that will likely be an extremely rare experience indeed one day in the future, as old cabinets break down and people fail to repair them.
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5. Peter Jacobsen’s Golden Tee 3D Golf (developed and published by Incredible Technologies in 1995)
Golf may not sound like the material for a masterpiece trackball game, but Golden Tee is the standard when it comes to this genre. Utilizing graphics that would make a PSX proud, Golden Tee 3D Golf was just that but with a trackball.
This simple premise might sound like your average golf game, but it is far beyond that. Input with the trackball is natural and intuitive. But the abuse it endures is anything but that. You see, the more people get into Golden Tee, the more competitive it becomes. You have to give everything the right touch of English to get the ball where you want it to go.
This gives rise to some strange techniques to say the least. Beating, bashing, slapping, and all at different angles to get that golf ball to go in just the right direction. It is sheer madness and a true demonstration of how much fun you can have with a trackball. But it is kind of like the Nintendo Wii and the Wiimotes sans condoms: Accidents are bound to happen.
You will not find a Golden Tee cabinet with a trackball that has not seen things and this often resulted in a lot of downtime for repairs, when it was in the arcade. Still, it is amazing how much the controls elevated this game beyond a generic golf game.
4. Tehkan World Cup (developed and published by Tehkan; JP 1985, NA and EU 1986)
A soccer game and a trackball go together a lot more naturally than you might think. Again, like with Golden Tee, this is how you elevate what would be a basic concept into something transcendental. The trackball lets you move between players with ease and gives you a degree of control over the ball that was pretty impossible with traditional control schemes back then. But most of all, it is addictively, maddeningly fun.
You all know my love for Tehkan World Cup and I am always the first to sing its praises, but the trackball really is special in this regard. The game is solid without it, unlike some others on this list, but that intuitive control setup really helped take this game to the next level. Like Golden Tee, however, cabinets would often suffer due to the highly competitive nature of the game.
3. Marble Madness (developed and published by Atari Games in 1984)
Most gamers from the 8-bit era are likely familiar with this title. It has a simple premise and it is a compelling conceit at that. You guide a marble through a maze and try to avoid traps and falling off of the ledge. Of course, as an 8-bit game, this needs to be so difficult it induces frustration and ragequit and Marble Madness does just that… On top of a foundation of addictive gameplay and fun that you never expected to have.
Once you play the trackball version, you really start to realize why the NES port (or any port for that matter) was so difficult and why a trackball is such a superior option when it comes to controls in this game.
2. Rampart (developed and published by Atari Games in 1990)
Rampart is a tower-defense game with a trackball. That might sound weird and, really, it was back in the day but, at its core, Rampart is akin to a tower defense game on PC using a mouse. You need to switch rapidly between different castles that you control and guide their defense. The trackball makes this possible in a way that was not really a concept in arcades at the time.
One thing you might notice looking at older arcade games is that they limit a player’s time interacting with menus of any kind. In other words, devs knew that using the control stick to select things from lists was tedious but using a trackball made it quick and easy.
Rampart is pure madness once it gets going and, sadly, one of those titles you kind of need the trackball setup to truly appreciate. It is also a great example of how Atari knew how to innovate on concepts when given a chance.
Centipede (developed and published by Atari in 1981)
How could I get through this without mentioning the arcade classic Centipede? It is a shooter for those of you that do not remember and it draws inspiration from Space Invaders, but with more of a graphical flourish. Like most Atari games of the era, it relies upon simple points-based progression and reflex-based gameplay.
Ported to nearly every format known to man, Centipede has done just fine without the trackball but purists will argue that controller is the only true way to play the game.
Alright, ready to meet the king of trackball games? Let’s go!
1. SegaSonic the Hedgehog (developed by Sega Am3, published by Sega in 1993)
If you did a double-take on that title, then you are not the only person. Released only in the Japanese market, this trackball version of Sega’s mascot’s debut game is both unique in its execution and an excellent demonstration of the kinds of unique gameplay mechanics you can achieve using a trackball. Of course, as number one, you better believe it is a great title.
SegaSonic the Hedgehog lands our titular blue hero on Eggman Island, where he has to escape from a series of traps that Dr. Robotnik has laid out for him. You have a selection of characters including Sonic, Mighty the Armadillo, and Ray the Flying Squirrel. If those names sound bizarre to you that is because they are early concepts for Sonic that Sega rejected. The gameplay is reminiscent of a platforming Marble Madness with elements of what we now call quick-time events (QTE) thrown in for good measure.
It is a roaring good time but, sadly, has little to do with the platformer that released on the Genesis aside from collecting rings, fighting, Robotnik, and running around at high speeds. Of any single game on this list, SegaSonic the Hedgehog deserved a wider release than it got but I understand why Sega kept it contained to Japan only.
It is just a different experience than the console game and people expecting a home port of that would have been sorely disappointed, even though they need not be, given how singularly awesome Sonic the Hedgehog was on its own merits.
Another arcade list is in the books retro folks, but I would like to hear from you, now. What were your favorite trackball games in the arcade? Do you consider them an important part of the arcade history and video games in general or they were never your thing?
Please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section, and if you want to get notified of my new posts, all you have to do is click on the red bell on the bottom-right corner of the page. 🙂
Till next arcade journey!