Saturday December 15, 1984 – an awesome day that I will always remember fondly. You see, I had turned eleven several days prior, so my folks and I, accompanied by all of my buddies from Piccowaxen Middle School, piled into the “family truckster” to visit the unquestionable paradise of arcade games and pizza… Chuck E Cheese! You know… where a kid can be a kid!
As Mike, “Batch”, Ann, Jerome, Ruth, Bill and myself practically tumbled over each other to get inside, I immediately began to soak in all the details of this marvelous place.
I noticed the front counter where the pizza and beverages are ordered, and the side room with the projection TV showing NFL games. I was fascinated with the Habitrail-like network of translucent tubes and the ball pit for the wee little kiddies to play around in. The oddly named “Fanky Malloon” machine that vended helium balloons in your choice of red, blue, yellow, or orange commanded my attention as well, primarily because the omission of a green balloon choice seemed strange.
I spent a few moments looking at the spoof movie posters featuring Chuck E and his crew, and of course, the stage featuring the robotic characters that sang wacky tunes… for some reason, I was mostly fond of “Jasper T. Jowls”, the banjo playing hound dog, and “Pasqually”, the Italian pizza chef.
I even studied the original Chuck E Cheese logo, the one in which Chuck E. wore a vest and derby hat, and clearly belonged to the rat species. But what a friendly, game loving, pizza savvy rat he is! Yes sir… I was at Chuck E Cheese pizza time theater for the first time, and life didn’t get much better than that!
With CEC tokens in hand (I believe that something like 100 tokens were included if a parent scheduled a large birthday party in advance), I scoped out the main draw – the video arcade, chock full of current and future classics.
Such an exciting constellation of imagery! The bright and colorful marquees, the flashing and dancing monitor images, the red beacons of the coin slots. The beautiful symphony of sounds – the Gatlin-gun chugging of Centipede, the count-down notes of Pole Position, the block hopping “blorps” of Q*Bert. It all added up to make Chuck E Cheese the single greatest place I had ever been!
I distinctly recall playing my first game of Buck Rogers: Planet of Zoom that day, in addition to multiple games of Mario Bros, Dig Dug, Super Pac Man, and even an original 1978 Space Invaders with a trak-ball replacing the buttons on the control panel (I haven’t seen that anomaly since).
But the game that became permanently etched into my memory that day turned out not to be a video game, even though it sure looked like one initially. That game, and this issue’s Lost Arcade Classic, is Midway’s Midnight Marauders.
Upon first approach, Midnight Marauders’ cabinet gave me the impression that it WAS a standard video game, with menacing aliens on the side art, a glowing top-mounted marquee, and a large futuristic gun mounted to the control panel. However, peering into the bezel revealed not a video monitor, but an eerily glowing diorama complete with craters, ridges, tanks, and hooded beasties that resembled the Jawas from Star Wars. Beyond the landscape, above the “horizon” if you will, three stationary bases are threatened by advancing flying saucers hovering above. It truly looked like you could crawl into the machine and find yourself in the middle of an intense war on an alien battleground.
I surrendered a token and was instantly immersed in this alien world. Although my games didn’t last very long, I continued to return to Midnight Marauders that day, completely mesmerized by the black lit landscape and other-worldly aesthetics. Little did I know that after I left Chuck E’s that day, I wouldn’t see another Midnight Marauders for 24 long years. Here is its story…
Midnight Marauders is primarily a game of defense. “DEFEND YOUR BASES TO SURVIVE!” is emblazoned across the top of the bezel, and there is honestly no better summation of the gameplay.
The player assumes the role of an intergalactic gunner, tasked with defending three friendly bases on the horizon from a growing column of space ships in the skies above them. The player is invulnerable from enemy attack himself, and he uses the gun on the control panel to aim and fire at enemy targets.
Saucers descend through the night sky until they hover directly over the stationary bases. A booming voice from within the cabinet echoes “WARNING” as they get dangerously close. Once a saucer is positioned above a base, it blasts the hapless building, causing the base to flash. Three blasts will destroy a base, the very tragedy that you are tasked with preventing. If all bases fall, your game is over.
The saucers descend toward the bases by lighting up in sequence. Firing at a saucer while it is lit eliminates that invader and protects your base.
If too many saucers “stack up” over a certain base, look toward the tanks that pop up between the middle and the farthest back ridge on the landscape. Each tank target has a number on its side, and the same is true for the bases. Hit a tank, and the base with the corresponding number suddenly enjoys clear skies! It’s kind of like a Defender “smart bomb”, but it’s destructive forces affect only a localized area.
On occasion, a large blue command ship will rise from behind the farthest ridge. Hitting this alien craft temporarily upgrades your gun from a semi-automatic firearm to a machine-gun styled automatic weapon. This upgraded mode lasts for about five seconds, at which point the saucers’ descent is also halted, making clearing the skies much easier.
Positioned immediately behind the closest ridge stand two alien marauders, one to either side of the landscape. These monsters can be blasted for extra points when they light up, but unlike the tanks and the command ship, the player gains no offensive capabilities for striking them down.
Midnight Marauders is not timed, nor is there a limit on ammo. And since the alien forces cannot attack you, the game continues as long as the saucers are kept at bay from destroying the bases.
As it was over twenty-four years since I had last seen a Midnight Marauders, I thought the chances of ever being reunited with this game were slim to none. That is, until one popped up on Ebay this March within a half hour drive of me. Although I was not the highest bidder, I contacted the seller, (Gary of OldeschoolArcades.com), who graciously invited me to document and photograph that Midnight Marauders machine before the high bidder picked it up. Thanks, Gary!
As Gary opened up the machine, I saw that the moonscape and ridges consist of molded plastic, and the entire lunar environment is illuminated via black light. The saucers and the bases they attack are flat images on a backdrop, positioned behind the moonscape. The complete lunar scene is mounted vertically inside the cabinet, and is reflected in a mirror, creating a very convincing illusion of depth. When the player peers into the bezel, he is actually looking into the bottom of the cabinet, due to the mirror.
The saucer animation reminded me of those portable, battery-operated video games of the time (In particular, Epoch's Invader from Space, which I personally owned), as the saucers abruptly “leap” downward toward the bases, instead of moving fluidly. These sequential lights also resemble similar systems used on pinball game playfields and backglasses.
The gun on the control panel appears appropriately futuristic, and features a "sight" which works quite accurately for aiming. The gun itself uses an invisible light ray, and each target is affixed with a light sensor, which registers “hits” on the targets.
The art on the sides of the cabinet strongly recalls the classic Space Invaders... hulking, vaguely humanoid forms with menacing glowing eyes advance on the viewer. In the sky above, saucers corral into attack formations, no doubt to release more alien soldiers to rampage and terrify. Inexplicably, the side art features a female alien, which bears a strong resemblance to the metallic woman on the cover to Autograph’s 1985 “That’s The Stuff” LP.
Midnight Marauders is certainly a low production run title. The machine that Gary sold had a serial number in the mid 300s. (I forgot to properly note it or take a picture, shame on me, but I think it was 343). At any rate, until official Midway production numbers are located, we’ll probably never know how many were made, but I would be surprised if this game reached 1,000.
Back at my birthday party, I thought Midnight Marauders was something brand new that Midway was trying for the first time. At that time, I had no idea of the rich history of EM games, and honestly, I still have a lot to learn… but I find it interesting that in order to present something new for 1984, Midway looked to the past and put a modern spin on an “old guard” of the arcades.
So, had it not been for that pizza time pilgrimage, oh so many moons ago, I never would have encountered Midnight Marauders. But thanks to those birthday plans, Midway’s final electromechanical game earns a spotlighted exhibit in the hallowed halls of the museum of the Lost Arcade Classic.
* And special thanks goes to Clay Harrell, who answered my questions regarding several aspects of Midnight Marauders’ gameplay. More information on Midnight Marauders, in addition to tons of other great mechanical arcade games, can be found at Clay’s website: http://marvin3m.com/arcade/