Classic arcade games can be great fun — but they’re also designed to be very challenging. After all, remember that the original purpose of these games was to keep people pumping quarters into them so the arcade owners could make a profit!
When you play ports or emulation of classic arcade games today, it can be easy to forget this aspect and find yourself getting a little frustrated at how frequently you have to continue and reset your score. Score is everything in old arcade games, after all, so losing it is always a bitter pill to swallow!
So the obvious solution is to improve your play so that your one credit lasts a bit longer. As the kids say, it’s time to “git gud”.
We’ll be using Irem’s classic Moon Patrol as a practical case study today, but many of these principles can be applied to pretty much any classic score-based arcade games you’d care to think of. So let’s begin!
Understand the basic mechanics and their specific details
This is fundamental to improving your skills at classic arcade games. You need a core understanding of two main things: what you’re supposed to do, and the tools you have at your disposal through which you can accomplish that.
In Moon Patrol, your goal is to reach the end of the course safely. Your tools for achieving that are a moon buggy, a gun which fires upwards, and a gun which fires forwards.
Now let’s break those things down into more specific details.
To reach the end of the course safely in Moon Patrol, you need to progress from point “A” to point “Z”. Each lettered point acts as a checkpoint that you will reset to if you lose a life. Every five letters, you reach the end of a stage and obtain a bonus. Once you reach point “Z” on the initial “Beginner” course, you will progress to the “Advanced” course, which is harder. Reach point “Z” on the “Advanced” course and the game will loop.
Your moon buggy in Moon Patrol is capable of accelerating by pushing to the right, decelerating by pushing to the left, and jumping by pressing the Jump button. Acceleration and deceleration is deliberately quite slow and sluggish, so you will need to allow plenty of time to make use of these features. Jumping, meanwhile, is instantaneous, though there is a brief moment after landing where you will be unable to jump again.
The upward firing gun can have four shots on screen at once, so can be fired relatively rapidly. The forward-firing gun has a limited range and can only have a single shot on screen at once. Both guns fire when you press the same button. You can “spam” the upward-firing gun, but the forward-firing gun should be used with greater accuracy and more precise timing.
These are the basic mechanics of Moon Patrol and their specific details: everything you need to know in order to succeed at the game.
Understand the scoring system and how the basic mechanics relate to it
Once you are comfortable and confident with the basic mechanics and how to apply them practically, turn your attention to the game’s scoring system and establish how it works — and by extension, how you will be able to achieve higher scores.
In Moon Patrol, you receive flat amounts of score for jumping over obstacles and shooting enemies. In later stages, eliminating an entire group of enemies before they disappear from the screen provides you with several hundred bonus points. Thus, to maximise your base score, you will need to defeat as many enemies as possible; jumping obstacles is a necessity, since failing to do so will cause you to lose a life — as such, the score from this is all but guaranteed.
Most classic arcade games have some sort of “bonus” system, which is where the majority of your points will likely come from. In Moon Patrol’s case, it’s all to do with the amount of time you take to complete a stage.
Each stage (five lettered points) has an “average” time. If you clear the stage in less than that average time, you will get a bonus of 1,000 points plus 100 additional points for every second your time was less than the average. Thus, it pays to use the moon buggy’s acceleration feature as much as possible — but only when it is safe to do so, since crashing and resetting to a checkpoint will waste time.
From all this, we can conclude that to maximise your score in Moon Patrol, you need to destroy as many enemies as possible, complete each stage as quickly as possible and not crash. Sounds obvious, but it can be easy to forget one or more of these elements during an intense play session!
Memorise the levels
This is a crucial part of how to improve at classic arcade games — and the inability to perform this step is what makes arcade games with a heavily randomised element so tricky to get good at. Thankfully, Moon Patrol is a heavily scripted game, so eminently practical for putting this advice to good use.
The key advice here is not to stress yourself out trying to memorise everything. Play the game a few times and spot the places where you consistently find yourself dying, and memorise just those parts. Figure out the optimal way to overcome the obstacle you have difficulty with and learn what the “cue” for that obstacle is.
For example, in Moon Patrol, point “I” can be difficult, because it begins with enemies that drop bombs which create new craters, which you will need to jump over. After you have dealt with these enemies, there is a large crater to jump over, followed almost immediately by a “double rock” which requires two hits from the forward-facing cannon to destroy. If you are going too fast before jumping this large crater, you will crash into the rocks before you can destroy them.
Our cue to prepare for this sequence is simply reaching point “I”. Destroying the enemies is a cue to prepare for the imminent crater, so at this point we should slow down if we are going at full speed. While jumping the crater, we can begin firing to ensure we have a shot out when landing, which will likely immediately destroy the first part of the rock. A second, immediate shot will deal with the second part of it and allow us to proceed safely.
Another good example comes in the sequence from point “J” to “O”. Practical experience will teach you that going full speed during the minefield which covers the first few points of this stage will result in a quick death, so simply memorise the fact that this stage should begin with you travelling at your normal speed and jumping the mines as they come up; no need to memorise their exact layout.
When you are clear of the minefield — the point at which this occurs is another good, simple thing to memorise — you can safely accelerate to full speed and deal with the enemies that appear during the final stretch approaching point “O”.
The game is designed in such a way that the “average” time for this stage is greater than the previous two you have passed through, so you have less need to go flat out at full speed for the entire stage in order to receive a substantial bonus.
Keep breaking the game down into manageable chunks like this and you’ll have memorised the whole thing in no time.
There’s no getting away from it: if you want to get good, you’re going to have to practice. But having a firm understanding of the basic mechanics, the scoring system and a decent memorisation of what to expect from the upcoming hazards will help that practice process go much more smoothly. You’ll be anticipating things rather than reacting in the moment — and that, in turn, will lead to better scores.
Now get out there and work your way up those leaderboards!
Screenshots from the Arcade Archives release of Moon Patrol on Nintendo Switch.