2013 has arrived, and as I spent New Year's Eve firmly ensconced on a sofa playing Lego Batman 2 (with a friend, I'm not a complete hermit yet) I figured I should at least digitally recreate the whole "going out" experience by heading to a disco. It'll be great! There's no risk of leaving my wallet in a taxi or having someone vomit on my shoes, and by not having to confront my own social inadequacies I'll keep my existential crises in check! It's a plan that can’t fail, so let's take a trip to Data East's 1982 arcade drunken-rollerskate-em-up Disco No. 1!
Does Disco No. 1 refer to the disco itself, setting it up as the pinnacle of discothequenology? Or am I the Disco No. 1, top dog in the highly competitive field of "people who go to nightclubs"? It's never established, but based on how bad I was at the game I'd say it's probably the first thing.
The title screen is a little sparse, but I'd like to remind you that this game was released in 1982, making it over thirty years old and, for a change, older than I am. It's not quite the oldest game ever featured here on VGJunk - that honour still goes to Scramble - but given that it was released the year after Reagan was elected I'm sure you'll know to not be expecting anything too complex.
At least the girl on the title screen is fairly well drawn, in a ZX Spectrum-y kinda way.
She's cheerful and coquettish, her mood buoyant because she has yet to notice the peas lodged in her hair. Girls, and the enticement thereof, are your motivation to succeed in Disco No. 1: your mission is to impress the ladies with your dance moves. Well, sort of.
Things have started badly. Our hero, the blocky hunchback in the striped jumper at the top of the screen, was so overwhelmed by the beautiful female clientele that his bladder has purged itself of its contents, a yellow stream of piss marking out his shame as he dashes for the exit and a clean pair of trousers.
Too dark? I think that might have been a bit too dark. The yellow line is actually placed wherever you skate, and it's your only means of snaring yourself a date. Almost literally snaring them, as the aim of Disco No. 1 is to use your trail to draw a box around each of the ladies in the stage.
Like so. Maybe there was more to my puerile urination joke than there first seemed, because there's a definite "marking your territory" parallel here. When the girls are fully boxed in with an unbroken line, that area of the floor turns into a picture and you get some points depending on how big your rectangle is and how many women you have trapped beneath the big green blankets you're leaving all over the dancefloor. Capture all the women - or captivate them with your rollerskating skills, whatever it is that you're supposed to be doing - and you'll move on to the next stage.
Yes, Disco No. 1 is a clone of Taito's classic 1981 ground-coverage-em-up Qix, with a dash of added Pac-Man in the form of some antagonists who chase you around the field of play / dancefloor.
Here are the characters, and they're a motley crew indeed. In the top left is the main character, a rollerskating clump of sentient Lego who looks like an inbred Texan cousin of the Simpsons. There's not much you can read into his blocky form, but it does look a little like he's sticking his middle finger up at me. I'll readily admit that maybe my own issues with self-worth are making me see that, though. Alongside him on the top row are the ladies of the game, some of which are nothing but pink shadows that twist and writhe in the darkness like the fragments of some half-remembered and faintly unsettling dream, while some get a little more detail and look like human women. Well, maybe not human. Humanoid, at least.
Below them are the villains of the piece who will stop at nothing to prevent our hero from skating in a rectangular path around Disco No. 1's female patrons. Why? I have no idea. Maybe they're just dicks. Maybe they recognise our hero from a sex offenders' register and they're trying to protect the local womenfolk. The guy on the left looks like a Mafia hitman auditioning for Starlight Express, but I suppose he could be a bouncer. As for the person on the bottom right, I'm stumped. Quasimodo carrying a sledgehammer? Psychopathic janitor driven insane by the scuffed floors caused by dangerous rollerskating? I tell you what, let's have a look at the arcade flyer and see if that sheds any light on the situation.
Oh, it's a witch. A disco witch. Well, that makes sense. What happened, did she sell her soul to Lucifer in exchange for the ability to do the Hustle? "Curses! I have mastered the foulest sorcery, but I am helpless against the power of funk!" The witch's job is to follow behind you and sweep away your trail while the men, who aren't bouncers but "ruffians," simply blunder about the screen and get in your way. Touch either of them and you'll lose a life.
Speaking of the flyer, here's the front:
(Flyer via The Arcade Flyer Archive. Click picture to enlarge)The artwork's pretty great, even if there seems to be some confusion of the disco theme - the two kids in the center are very fifties-looking, after all. The best part is definitely the Ruffian, who looks like he's stepped straight from the pages of a Viz comic about shady underworld types (the title of which is probably a double entendre). He's got a friendly smile and he's sharply dressed: much more appealing than the main character, who looks unreasonably smug for someone wearing a striped vest.
I've just noticed that the screenshot on the flyer shows the disco with a pattern on the floor that is absent from these screenshots. I don't know if that's an error with the emulation or something that was removed from the final game, and I'm sorry if VGJunk isn't providing you with the full Disco No. 1 experience, but judging by what I can see of that pattern it's probably for the best.
Not that the nightclub in this version is much better - a featureless black void with drinks littering the floor might cut it in places like Leeds, but it's hardly classy enough for me. The male-to-female client ratio is definitely skewed in our hero's favour - he appears to have stumbled on a mythical land where men haven’t realised that they can go to discos to meet women - and the drinks may be guzzled from the floor but at least they're free. But what about the music? After all, that's the whole point of going to a disco. Well, for a game from 1982 the music doesn't sound bad. What it does sound, however, is very familiar.
This is one of Disco No. 1's floor-filling party anthems, and it's a not-terribly-subtle "reworking" of the famous electronic instrumental "Popcorn." You might not recognise the name, but you'll almost certainly know the music because it's been all over the bloody place. Personally, it makes me think of nail varnish thanks to an ad campaign by British chain Superdrug. At least it's a fairly pleasant rendition, given the hardware of the time, and because the stages are so short and Disco No. 1 contains more than one piece of music the soundtrack never gets too grating.
This track also reminds me of another song, but I can't for the life of me think what it is. It might not even be an actual song, the fact that Data East ripped off "Popcorn" has probably planted the idea of musical copycatism in my head, making me hear things that aren't there. Wow, ignore that last sentence because it makes me sound like a crazy person (as do many of the preceding and following sentences, but in a much less obvious way.)
I'm waffling, I know. Let's talk about gameplay, because Disco No. 1 isn't going to win any beauty contests. Sadly, it's not going to win any "best gameplay" contests either, because even in 1982 this type of game had been done better - in this case by Qix, which uses its basic graphics as a platform to create a visual world of pure geometry that has weathered the passing of years much better than Disco No. 1.
There's nothing wrong with the actual mechanics, mostly. There can be some problems with getting around the dancers without touching them, (which breaks your line,) especially when you're going round the top: far too often you seem to clip the tops of their heads when you think you should be clear of them. Other than that, it all works as you'd expect, and Data East must be given some credit for mixing up the Qix formula with the addition of a couple of extra features that are fairly well integrated into the game. There are doorways in the edges of the arena that warp you to the other side of the stage when you travel through them, handy for escaping from the enemies, and you have a limited supply of "smart bomb" items that cause all the ruffians (but not the witches) to stop in their tracks.
It also does this to the background, so it's not all candy and roses.
The other power-up is the bottles and glasses of booze that are scattered about the place. Picking them up, according to the flyer, means that your "movements will quicken." That's an elaborate way of saying you move faster, but only slightly and not really fast enough to make the game any easier. That's unfortunate, because Disco No. 1 is a difficult game. That's to be expected, it's a coin-harvester from the early days of the arcade when the idea that the player might actually want to get somewhere had yet to gain any ground amongst game developers. The enemies are fast and tenacious and the dancers move around erratically, often severing your line just as you're about to surround them. Each girl you capture makes the stage that much harder, because you can't step onto the squares they leave behind and you soon start running out of rollerskating room.
In the end, I didn't make it much further than the eighth or ninth stage because as the stages progressed and more and more enemies were added to the mix the difficulty level outstripped my gaming ability... but also I got bored. Once you've seen one stage, you've seen them all. There might be something incredible or game-changing waiting to excite the player who makes it past stage ten or twelve or four hundred, but I doubt it.
So why did I even bother writing about Disco No. 1? There's not much to it, no enduring legacy, no hidden depths, just a basic single-screen action game from a time when that was the only show in town. Well, for one thing I knew it'd be a short article and I've been busy lately. Beyond that, there's just something about it that... clicks with me, despite it being released before I was deposited onto this godforsaken planet. It’s not the gameplay, but the feel of the thing - this is an Arcade Game, with capital letters. Its simple gameplay and limited colour palette evokes titles like Pac-Man and Space Invaders, and every once in a while it's nice to climb this far back into gaming's history and see where it all came from. There's a certain charm to the graphics, too, but I think that's purely a personal thing - I just like the way these guys wiggle.
With further introspection, I suspect that's because I identify with the main character and his "help-I'm-sinking-into-some-quicksand" style of dance. Rock on, my inelegant disco brother.
Disco No. 1, then. Play it if you're fascinated by ancient arcade games, if you think you can place which music they copied from preexisting songs, or if Qix doesn't have enough old women with brooms for your refined tastes. Don't play it if you demand complexity, variety and finesse from your games. Alternatively, ignore my advice and make up your own mind.
I'll close my thoughts on Disco No. 1 with my own personal theory on what's going on: it's all a delusion, a mad fantasy cooked up by a lonely young man. Where else would you find a disco where the drinks are free, there are ten girls for every man, witches stalk the dancefloor and, most unrealistically of all, rollerskating is considered attractive?