To paraphrase from the Book of Proverbs, as a dog returns to his vomit, so VGJunk returns to the videogames of Jaleco. Longtime readers of the site may be aware of my fascination with and strange admiration for the works of the Japanese developer, whose games are sometimes bad, occasionally decent but which never rise to the level of "really good." They're the Stephen Baldwin of Japanese videogame developers, the pub lunch in a continuum where Capcom and Konami were the Michelin-starred restaurants and Color Dreams were the equivalent of eating a dead rat you found floating in a toilet. Maybe things will be different with today's game, though: it's in a genre I really like, it's a simple enough concept that they shouldn't be able to mess it up too badly, and involves putting the lives of countless people at risk for a bit of a laugh: it's the 1990 arcade game Cisco Heat!
The title screen isn't doing much to inspire confidence, bland as it is. Aren't the Cisco Heat a basketball team? This isn't a basketball game, nor is it about running a small fast-food outlet despite the vibes I'm getting from the logo. It's actually about driving a police car through the streets of the big city, but not for the reasons you might expect.
Said city is San Francisco, of course. Those of you familiar with San Francisco will have a better idea than I about whether Cisco Heat represents an accurate mapping of the city, but from this attract mode I did learn that there's an honest-to-god part of San Francisco called Treasure Island. I assume this is where all the pirates live.
As a flag-waving marching band traipses across the Golden Gate Bridge in a display of Americana so pure it could only have come from a Japanese arcade game, Cisco Heat offers the player a choice before the action begins. There are two police cars to choose from: a hulking Cadillac-style number that's apparently built "for speed" and a sports car made "for cornering." Yes, that all seems very logical. I think I'll take the car built for speed because, as we shall see, turning corners in this game is such a crapshoot that there is little practical difference between the two except that the bigger car is, y'know, faster.
Also, seeing red police cars just feels so wrong, so contrary to a lifetime of evidence about what colour police cars are supposed to be, that I spent the entire game thinking "no, this isn't right, maybe I'm supposed to be the fire marshal or something."
With a bit of dipswitch wrangling you can change the cars' colour to blue, but I didn't figure that out until I'd played through the game several times so for the rest of the article you'll have to excuse my car looking like an ambulance that decided it needed a change of career.
And they're off! The San Francisco Rally is underway, or to give it it's full title (as found on the arcade flyer) the National Championship Police Car Steeplechase. That's right, the SFPD has abandoned their duties for the day in order to participate in an illegal street race through a major metropolitan area. You might think that the taxpayers would be less than happy about local law enforcement neglecting their duties to piss around recreating The Cannonball Run, but the citizenry is out in force, cheering on the boys in blue. The boys in red, I mean.
Cisco Heat works in the same way as most other arcade racers of the type: sprite-scaling effects are used to create a sense of 3D movement, the player uses a steering wheel and pedals (as part of a fancy moving cabinet, if you're lucky) to control the action, there's a gear lever with "low" and "high" setting, and despite the presence of other competitors making you think that this is a race, the real goal is to beat the clock and reach the end of the stage before your time runs out. It's all fairly straightforward, so I should have no trouble getting to grips with it. Treasure Island, here I come!
Immediately crashing into the toll booths before I'd even made it off the bridge was not part of the plan, I admit, although the charred remains of the toll collectors do serve to highlight that Cisco Heat is not a serious game. It's cartoonish in its setting, its characters and the unrelenting brightness of the colours. I know San Fran is supposed to be a vibrant, colourful city but I could almost feel the cone cells in my eyes shrivelling away like earthworms in a frying pan as I played.
My early impressions of Cisco Heat were that it fits comfortably into the time-honoured Jaleco tradition of being average but unspectacular. It doesn't have the sense of speed you get from something like AB Cop, and nothing like the same level of precision and overall quality as genre master OutRun, but it makes up in part for its lack of technical refinement though its sense of character and the bold, designed-to-impress graphics that fill the screen with the kind of "big-ness" that only arcade games could produce at the time. That said, Cisco Heat itself couldn't quite produce all the effects that it tries to - sprites are often flickery and oddly-scaled and the road can become warped. I originally took this to be down to inaccurate emulation, but after a bit of research it seems that Jaleco simply pushed their hardware a little too far and the graphics are not particularly stable even on the original arcade machine.
The USA's reliance on the automobile is well documented, but I'm not sure developing a fleet of buses large enough to carry cars instead of human passengers is an acceptable solution to the problem. Forget about that gigantic bus, though - check out the background and you'll see the awe-inspiring, graceful majesty of the Jaleco blimp. It is my greatest wish to one day ride on the Jaleco blimp. "But the Jaleco blimp doesn't exist," you say, to which my response is you shut your goddamn mouth and find me a blimp and someone willing to make a huge vinyl sticker in the shape of the Jaleco logo.
Also in the background: a big red arrow warning of a sharp upcoming turn.
An extremely sharp turn. A right-angle, in fact. A ninety-degree turn is not an unexpected obstacle in a racing game set in a grid-based American city, but unfortunately Jaleco's implementation of these corners - which pop up with great frequency during the course of the game - has all the smoothness and grace of smashing a wine bottle open with housebrick because you couldn't find a corkscrew. The major problem is one of viewpoint. Because, as in all racers of this type, you're essentially driving along a flat "strip" of road, you can't see what's on the road that you're about to turn on to. As you try to travel around these corners, rather than the view rotating to show you what's ahead, your car rotates sideways until you've passed a certain point in the turn, and then the view snaps into place to show the next segment of road ahead. It's a horribly implemented and extremely ugly piece of kludged gameplay which in practise means that not only can you not see any obstacles that are just around the corner until it's too late to avoid them, but because you'd can see the edges of the road while you're turning you have no way of knowing if you should stop turning or not. This is the Jaleco Thing, then, the flaw that once again relegates a Jaleco game to the status of also-ran - an entertaining also-ran for the most part, but the top tier slips away once again. It wouldn't be so much of a problem if these right-angled turns didn't crop up every ten seconds, but they do.
I managed to to reach the goal at the end of this short first stage in a creditable (considering how many times I crashed) third place but with only one second to spare on the timer, which is much more important because once you run out of time, it's game over. Wow, that's deep, man. Anyway, I'd be happy enough to call it a day at this point - we've all had a fun day out and nothing's going to top seeing the Jaleco blimp anyway, but as there are four more stages I suppose I should show them to you.
The second stage starts in Union Square, where the predatory megabus lurks in the undergrowth, ready to pounce on any unsuspecting police car that strays to close to its powerful jaws. The first part of this stage plays to Cisco Heat's strengths, with more straights that challenge the player to avoid obstacles rather than throwing them around blind corners, as well as some impressive verticality thanks to the rolling hills. San Francisco has been the setting for many driving videogames, thanks to it being one of the few American cities with potentially interesting and fun-to-drive road layouts. Of course, this being San Francisco, the player is at some point going to have to drive along that famous twisty road. Oh, what was it called again?
Here is Lombard Street in all it's "shaped like a drunken snake" glory. You may notice that I am steering my car in completely the wrong direction. For once, this was not my fault. As I say, Cisco Heat's handling isn't its strongest suite.
What a diverse city San Francisco is - even the local bodybuilders have come out to watch the race. That's Big Steve on the left. Every day is competition day for Big Steve. Yes, Big Steve, your arms are very impressive, but it's okay to wear a shirt sometimes, you know? This is why you didn't get hired for that job at the Post Office. If you stopped posing for one second then maybe you could convince your friend in the blue trunks that he needs to work on his legs sometimes as well as his upper body. If he gains more bulk on his torso his ankles are going to snap.
Stage three looks a lot like the previous two. It looks like the next two stages as well, because Jaleco had a set vision of what San Francisco looks like and these familiar elements are reused throughout the game: there are hills, ninety-degree corners, ocean views and plenty of the city's iconic tram cars for you to crash into. You drive through some gates in this stage that imply you're entering Chinatown, but the theme is never really expended upon and things quickly settle back into the same aesthetic. Happily the game's aesthetic is one thing that I can wholeheartedly praise - there's always a lot to look at as you're barrelling down the street, with plenty of interesting pedestrians and hyper-colourful billboards (mostly for other Jaleco games) to amuse the eye. Sure, taking your eyes off the road for even a moment means you're almost certain to crash into something on San Fran's alarmingly dangerous streets, but as the developers have gone to the effort of filling the world with things to look at it would be rude not to pay attention to them.
Things like this woman, the owner of the least jolly balloons I have ever seen. Quite what special occasion she's planning to attend bearing flat, grey balloons with a sickly pink stripe across them - a clown's funeral, perhaps - but I bet it's going to be a laugh riot. That'a Jaleco-brand balloons, ladies and gentlemen - functionally acceptable but ultimately disappointing.
"Diane, 11:30 AM, February 24th. I have somehow found myself in a cross-city police race. Amazing! I'm not sure how this is going to help me catch Laura Palmer's killer, but I'll give it my best shot."
Here is a billboard of an old man. Hello, mysterious old man. If you have information regarding the identity of this old man, then please let me know. At a guess, I'd say it's someone involved with the American distribution of Cisco Heat, but I can't check the game's credits for anyone called "LB" because it doesn't have any.
Well, this is going to leave a blemish on my service record. Why were there no officers of the law around to bring an end to my rampage of dangerous driving?! Oh, yeah, right. Not to worry, the pedestrians in Cisco Heat are all protected by an invisible force-field strong enough to repel a ton of steel slamming into them at one hundred and seventy miles per hour. These force fields are presumably a gift from the Jaleco Corporation, the monolithic entity that owns San Francisco wholesale. There are Jaleco TV vans, Jaleco public transport, adverts for Jaleco-brand games and movies. Even the police are owned by Jaleco. They control everything. Living in Neo Jaleco City sounds kind of appealing, honestly - government by a group that is often lacklustre but generally well-meaning sounds better than most real-world alternatives (that's satire, that is).
There's a welcome change of scenery towards the end of stage four as the city gives way to the mountains beyond. I spent a lot of time here crashing into the many other police cars desperate to claim the glory the comes with being crowned the Police Rally Champion, glory that they're never going to achieve because most of them are actually behind the player in the rankings, with no chance to catch up. They just clutter up the road, getting in the player's way and refusing to do the honourable thing and give up so they can get back to protecting and serving. It was around this point of the game that I realised my police car came equipped with a horn, and by hitting the I could make the police cars in front of me move aside, which I thought was a nice touch. It would have been even nicer if my horn sounded like a horn instead of a morose cow trying to beatbox, but you can't have everything.
The final stage takes in a sunset drive to Treasure Island, yo ho ho, and perhaps I was a little too harsh on the right-angled corners earlier in this article. Don't get me wrong, they're still badly implemented and not much fun, but after playing Cisco Heat for a while I have at least reached a point where I've learned roughly how far I need to turn before I'm around the corner. This has increased the rate at which I can successfully negotiate these bends from around ten percent to a whopping fifty percent, which is clearly a vast improvement.
Special Guest: The Living Moai, the terrifying blank-eyed doom of the human race! This free-floating stone head is packed with fun, laughter and forbidden knowledge from beyond the veil of reality! Glory to The Living Moai, for your insignificant lives are as worthless as an insect's leavings before him! Pre-show entertainment provided by the All-Star Sundered Ones Dancers, book early to avoid disappointment.
Towards the end of the stage you're given a choice of routes along the James Lick Skyway, which along with Treasure Island has convinced me that San Francisco got all the most childishly amusing place-names in America. Anyway, there's not much difference between the two paths - one goes up, one goes down but they both have the same level of traffic and similar corners - but it would have been good for Cisco Heat to have a few more of these optional routes scattered throughout the game. For one thing this is a short game, and extra routes would lead (you'd think) to more replayability and thus more profits, but also as I've said a lot of Cisco Heat is a little samey and anything to break things up a bit would have been nice. Even just a few shortcuts would have been welcome.
There's the finish line. I notice that I'm in first place. I kinda wish that meant something, because Cisco Heat can get rather difficult and I played quite well to claim the number one spot, but my efforts are for naught because the only arbiter of success is how much time you have left on the clock. They're tight time limits, too, making it especially aggravating that Cisco Heat's difficulty doesn't come from intelligent computer opponents or challenging road lay-outs but from having obstacles pop up right in front of you and giving said obstacles such oversized hitboxes that you'll often crash even when you'd swear you were past them.
It's a little hard to tell thanks to the blocky graphics, but San Francisco's great and good have turned out to congratulate me on my victory. There are our two winning police officers on the left, ready to receive their prize from a man who looks like Ronald Reagan half-dressed in an Uncle Sam costume. I assume he is the mayor, voting into office by a populace charmed by the gumption of a man willing to wear those trousers in public. Next to him is the Chief of Police, trying not to think about all the paperwork that this day-long destruction derby will have accrued. Finally there is a woman with comically oversized breasts. She appears to be wearing a nappy. It's kinda weird.
That's right, I broke every law in the book on my way to the winner's podium. Murder, embezzlement, burning garden waste without a permit - I've got a rap sheet that makes Al Capone look like Ned Flanders. I will surely be fired from the force for this gross misuse of my powers, but not to worry: if this ending screen is anything to go by the human meat-units of the SFPD have been replaced by an army of not-quite-convincing humanoid cyborgs.
"*BZZT* Commence operation Android Overthrow. *bzzt*"
I wanted to like Cisco Heat more than I did. That's not to say I didn't enjoy it at all: when it stuck to having the player race against other cars and avoid traffic, it was a fun if not especially inspired take on the sprite-scaling arcade racer. It's just that many other things conspired to drain some of that fun right out of it. The graphical issues, the unpleasant cornering, the lack of any sense of speed, the unpredictable collision detection, they all chip away at the game until it fits perfectly into the Jaleco Files: fairly good but a long way from great, but there is at least a certain warming familiarity to that. I am glad this article is over, though; it'll be nice to not have to write the word "Cisco" for a while, because the phrase "thong th-thong thong thong" pops into my head every time I do and nobody needs that in their life.