Friday, July 1, 2011

Arcade Games of the 70's: Clowns

No 'on-this-day' segue here - just thought I'd ramble a bit about a really old favorite of mine that I used to play on my Commodore 64 - or maybe even on my VIC-20, I can't remember - and I never actually realized it was a port of an arcade game until I accidentally rediscovered it one day on MAME a few years ago.  That game is Clowns. If you are one of those people with a fear of clowns (coulrophobia - gotta love Google) then the C64 game box is gonna scare the livin shit out of you because they managed to squeeze a half-dozen of the grinning maniacs on the front.

Clowns was released by Midway in January 1978 and was apparently a ripoff of Exidy's arcade game Circus which was released the previous year (and subsequently ported to the Atari VCS), but in the bitter Clowns versus Circus rivalry I'm down with the Clowns baby.

Clowns is a simple 2-D single-screen black and white game, but uses blue, green, and yellow horizontal overlays for color. It is sort of like Breakout with gravity and slightly better graphics - and I do mean slightly.

In the game there are 3 rows of balloons floating horizontally along the top of the screen and you control a see-saw at the bottom of the screen that can go left or right. There is one clown standing on the see-saw and soon a second clown comes barreling his crazy ass off an elevated platform and you have to position the see-saw correctly to catch him and launch the other clown into the air to collide with and pop the balloons. Each balloon nets you points with the balloons at the top level being worth more than the ones at the bottom. When the clown comes falling back to earth you move the see-saw under him and launch the other crazy bastard into the balloon-filled sky to bounce around and burst some more. These clowns really hate balloons. Once you burst all the balloons of a particular row/color you get bonus points and then a new row appears to replace it. The clowns hurtle through the air faster and faster and if you don't get the see-saw under the flying clown in time to catch him - well, that's a dead clown. And the circus only has so many before it's game over.

As you would expect from such an old game, the sound effects and the graphics are both very simple but surprisingly satisfying (except for the jarring noise to alert a player when he gets a bonus jump - not a fan of that). The game is pretty addictive so the replay value is good (if you're me anyway) and although the 1-player play is OK, like most old games it really shines when you have 2 players competing (turn-based play rather than simultaneous).

I finally got a chance to see a real Clowns machine in person when I made the pilgrimage to the American Classic Arcade Museum in New Hampshire last fall.  I managed to snap a picture of this young man as he sidled up the game to start clowning around.  Look at how joyful he is to find a real Clowns!

But that joy quickly turned to rage when he discovered the game was broken!  The poor sap wanted to play it so badly he even inserted a second token which the machine politely swallowed as it had the first without any sort of compensatory entertainment return whatsoever.  It even went so far as to taunt him with the screen in play, but the see-saw was frozen in place so the suicidal clowns just jumped blindly off the ramps to their doom.

The gentleman was escorted from the premises by arcade security and forced to cool down over a turkey dinner at Hart's Turkey Farm Restaurant down the street.  I never knew there were so many different meals made out of turkey. But I digest.

David Nelson holds the official record for Clowns with 61,390 points on June 1, 2004. So far my best effort has only netted 19,320.

Assuming you're playing it on MAME (and not the real thing) be sure to play it with a trackball, spinner, or mouse. If you try to play it with a joystick you are going to completely hate it. I booted up Clowns on the MAME cab before writing this and discovered to my dismay that the colors were gone. I guess the devs got rid of the workaround code that added the color. Now I have to wait for someone to add it back in as an artwork file.  You'd be surprised how much 3 little plastic strips of color adds to a black and white game. 
I give it 7.4 insane clown posses out of 10.

Oh, and in addition to my VIC-20/C64 version, Clowns was also ported to the Bally Astrocade in 1981 as the combo-pack Clowns and Brickyard. There were several other ports/clones in the Circus/Clowns "genre" as well.

Circus by Exidy in 1977
T.T. Acrobat by Taito in 1978
Acrobat TV by Taito in 1978
See Saw Jump by Sega in 1978
See Saw Jump II by Sega in 1978
Circus Atari for Atari 2600 in 1978
Clowns & Balloons for Atari 400/800 and TRS-80 Color Computer in 1982
Stunt Clown (public domain) for Atari 400/800 in 1983
Monkeys and Balloons for Atari ST in 1988

There have even been a couple of modern-day remakes of the game based on the Atari 2600 Circus Atari that you can download for free - Circus Irata and Circus Linux.

And that's all I have to say about that.

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gnome said...

Just tried it and, well, I thought it was quite brilliant - even via MAME. Another obscure arcade game brilliantly covered. Thanks dear MadPlanet!

Fallguy40 said...

Good article MP. I'll have to check out the MAME version. I remember this game vaguely from one of the versions out there.

MadPlanet said...

Thanks gents. Simple but entertaining like a good 70s game should be.

Fallguy40 said...

Are those speech bubbles on the box art yours, MP?

MadPlanet said...

They are indeed FG. It occurred to me after I finished putting them on there that I should have pulled them slightly outside the edge of the box so they would be noticed, but the problem with that, as Mrs. MP would gladly tell you, is that I am a very lazy bastard so... good enough I told myself.

MadPlanet said...

- not really speech bubbles per se - just my silly commentary.