Thursday, April 21, 2011

Chicken Shift - My Favorite Arcade Game Controlled By Only Two Buttons

Well, the last post was about an obscure arcade game that I discovered on MAME and have never seen in real life that stinks. So today let me introduce you to an obscure arcade game that I discovered on MAME and have never seen in real life that is quite fun. Chicken Shift!

Chicken Shift was released by Bally-Sente in 1984. A little background on Bally-Sente - in 1983 Nolan Bushnell, co-founder of Atari, bought the arcade game company Videa, renamed it Sente, and made it a division of his Chuck E. Cheese Pizza Time Theatre company. When Bushnell left Atari in 1978 he was forced to sign a non-competitive agreement that had kept him out of the video game business for several years but now his banishment was up and Bushnell planned to use Sente to re-enter the arcade market with a splash with several ideas like the Sente Arcade Computer I - one of the first arcade systems to use interchangeable "cartridges" (swappable PCBs).

Unfortunately for Bushnell, Pizza Time Theatre was struggling and by 1984 was forced to file for bankruptcy so the Sente division was sold to Bally Manufacturing - and from that union the lovely baby Chicken Shift was hatched.

I love the simplicity of this game.  Just check out that control panel - one big fat blue button labeled "blue things" and one big fat red button labeled "red things", and that's it!

And the instructions printed on the panel tell it plain and simple - "Red buttons shift red things. Blue buttons shift blue things." Not since the days of Pong's "Avoid missing ball for high score" have I seen such concise gameplay instructions.

The game consists of three distinct types of levels and each one has blue and red items that you activate (switch between two states e.g. up or down) by pushing the blue or red button, respectively.

In the first level type there are chickens along the top of the screen laying eggs that roll down into a series of interconnected chutes some of which have red or blue pipes at various places and when you hit the matching color all the pipes of that color switch states - e.g. an elbow pipe that is pointing to the left flips to point to the right. As eggs approach the colored sections you need to be sure they are in the proper position. If you don't have the pipe facing the right way when an egg approaches the egg falls and smashes onto the floor below and after three eggs are smashed a swarm of termites spills out of a big box the farmer hung on the wall (rather poor planning really) and the termites eat all the wooden chutes - and there goes one of your three lives. If you succeed the eggs roll safely into egg cartons that are located at the bottom of the screen and when the carton is full the level is complete. It sounds fairly simple but it gets quite hectic very quickly when multiple eggs start coming at you full blast.

In the second level there are chicks hopping along a few rows that have blue and red platforms that you flip up/down and in/out. It is your job to position the red and blue things so that they lower the chicks to the lower floor and also serve as a barricade to stop the little dolts from wandering off the end of the platform and falling to their death. If you can guide them all the way to the window they hatch and fly out to sweet freedom. When all the chicks escape out the window the level is complete. This level is my least favorite of the three types of levels.

In the third level type chicks are hopping along platforms at the bottom and you use red and blue flippers to flip them over onto other platforms over and over until you eventually get them flipped into the safety of the nests waiting for them along the top of the screen. Strangely, when the chicks land in their nests they instantaneously transform into adult chickens. For some reason the volume really kicks up a few notches on this level which is annoying, but I have no way of knowing if it was that way on the original game or if it is just a MAME bug.  You get points for each nest you fill and when they are all filled with a chicken the level is complete.

After you successfully navigate the third level type play comes back to the first type although the pipeline is more complex this time with more and different kinds of moveable pieces and more fast paced eggs being rolled at you which increases the difficulty level. That same approach is shared by the other levels as well and play continues to get more difficult as you go in true arcade fashion.

You get a 1000 point bonus if you complete a level without dropping any eggs/chicks.  And there are other little details that affect your strategy too like bonus points for shifting the pipes and directing the eggs to a certain side that is lit up. The graphics for the game are pretty good for a 1984 game but aren't going to knock your socks off. The sound is decent too although the theme music does get old after a while. Of course the reason to check out this title is the gameplay. This kind of puzzle-driven gameplay is timeless and a lot of fun - or at least for me it is.

So I highly recommend you check out this obscure little game, but if you can't find a copy of the compilation Bally-Sente's Greatest Arcade Hits, well that's because Bally-Sente didn't HAVE any arcade hits and therefore none of their games got ported to any system.  And I have no earthly idea where a real Chicken Shift machine might be so if you want to try it out you should download the ROM and boot it up on MAME. Since the controls are just 2 buttons it translates quite nicely into play with a regular keyboad so you really have no excuse.

A few Google searches confirms that there isn't very much on the web about Chicken Shift - but I did find a rather amusing Chicken Shift FAQ by Nathan White, the current holder of the high score on Twin Galaxies of 159,280. My high score so far is only about half that at 73,290. Let me know if you beat it!

Since I originally posted this I learned that Jon Kinsting developed and programmed Chicken Shift at Bally-Sente and while wandering around the internet I came across his website and what do you know Jon actually saw my post and mentioned it on his site. Thanks for a great arcade game Jon!

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PungentOnion said...

I agree, an excellent, simple, slightly addictive, but maddening game. It's takes a couple of quarters before you say, 'Okay, I get it now'. That's about the same time you decide that it's really not that hard a game but maybe a bit fun.

Slowly but surely though, the Chicken Shift hits the fan and it starts driving you mad that you can't hit one of the two very simple buttons at the right time. Then, less slowly, all those precious little eggs start smashing at the bottom.

MadPlanet said...

oh very well said Onion!

The simplicity of the control scheme is definitely deceptive. Two hands, two buttons, you should be able to play for hours and not crack any eggs right? Wrong!! And the fact that your brain thinks it should be no problem is maddening indeed!

MadPlanet said...

"Chicken Shift hits the fan..." Now why the hell didn't I think to say that? Damn!

PungentOnion said...

MadPlanet said...
"Chicken Shift hits the fan..." Now why the hell didn't I think to say that? Damn!

Why??? Because I'm just a whole lot better than you are! Most times, the obvious answer is the correct answer.

MadPlanet said...

hmmm... don't make me crack your eggs PO!

Jerry Gene said...

Nice post with awesome points! Can’t wait for the next one.

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