Lost Arcade Classics


By Kyle Snyder <hojoarcade36 %at% yahoo %dot% com>
October 31, 2009

Lost Arcade Classics has seen several changes since it's inception over ten years ago. It's been published in two different magazines, been overseen by three editors, and assumed an alias (“One Blip Wonders”) for a few years, before reverting back to its original moniker in June 2006.

A total of fifty lesser-known video arcade games, in addition to one cocktail pinball and one electro-mechanical game, have been covered.

But as I peruse over the list of games featured in the past, I realize that one particular manufacturer has never been spotlighted… Exidy. Equal time has been afforded to each of the expected companies. Atari, Midway, Taito, Nintendo, Sega, Williams, the list goes on and on. Even given smaller companies like Centuri, Rock-Ola, Cinematronics, Universal, and Game Plan have had a chance to shine. But no love has ever been given to Exidy. Today I right this horrific injustice. Let the spotlight fall on Exidy’s “Who Dunit?

Like the popular play Shear Madness, Raymond Chandler’s seminal novel “The Big Sleep”, or even the original entry in the Friday the 13th movie franchise, “Who Dunit?” (which I will spell without the question mark for the duration of this article) is a mystery. It’s likely a murder mystery, but the only clues are on the control panel, which shows “Grandpa’s will”, a sparse (and certainly not legally binding) document advising the reader simply to solve the mystery; and the attract mode, which advises the player to find a hidden key, then locate a secret door to the attic, then discover “who dunit”. The attract mode provides a hint: “Grandpa was a brick layer”.

So what IS the mystery in the first place???? Given that Grandpa’s will is part of the cabinet art, I’m assuming somebody offed Grandpa in order to cash in on his lucrative brick laying fortune. Or perhaps somebody framed Grandpa for a robbery of the brick works, and created a fake will in order to disguise the fact the bad guys have tied him up in the attic. I suspect Jefferson Davis Hogg… or maybe I’ve just been watching too many Dukes of Hazzard DVDs lately.

The Who Dunit player operates a large gun mounted to the control panel that serves two important functions. The primary function is to protect the hero from obstacles and characters that may cause him harm, the secondary function is to alter the hero’s direction so he can avoid hazards and change his path.

Jinkies! Where’s Scooby when you need him? Hanna-Barbera’s beloved Great Dane and the rest of the Mystery Inc. gang are nowhere to be found. The upside to this is that there’s no Scrappy, either! No, the hero and resident sleuth in this game is a gangly character named Max.

Max is rockin’ a pair of blue jeans, a white t-shirt, and a blue bandana, as he wanders around the rooms and grounds of a strange mansion in his search for the key, the secret door, and the ultimate answer to the mystery.

A map displays at the beginning of each turn, attributed to the mysterious “Grandpa” (clearly an enigma in his own right), which helps the player identify how the rooms of the mansion connect. It also reveals that the key is located between the library and a room filled with upright coffins. A morgue? A mortuary? A funeral parlor? Who knows, either way, it’s more than a little disturbing.

As Max wanders around the rooms and grounds of the mansion, he is confronted by a wide variety of characters and obstacles, all of which have the ability to waste one of Max’s lives. Amusingly, many of these antagonists are “illogically deadly”, such as a wandering goat, a lazily bouncing beach ball, and hats tossed by a guy whom appears to be a pimp, or perhaps a Robin Hood enthusiast, it’s hard to say.

But there are plenty of truly deadly characters and items, such as a falling stone gargoyle, a knife throwing butler, a desk lamp that fires itself as a rocket and flies around the room (yes, you read that right), snakes, skeletons, mutant beasts that pop up out of the ground, a hatchet throwing Revolutionary War-era ghost, random lawn jarts (remember those?), and a pistol packin’ hobo. Say that out loud. Yes, right now. “Pistol Packin’ Hobo”. How great is that, huh?

In order to protect Max, the player mans the gun and fires at those who threaten the young sleuth. For inanimate objects, and characters that do NOT throw projectiles, it’s easy, just aim, fire, and the offending item or character exits the screen or is destroyed. But for characters that DO throw items, the player needs to time the shot just as the enemy is preparing to throw, causing him to turn and exit the screen, without tossing the deadly item. Shooting enemies before OR after they have thrown an item may cause them to throw early or a second time. So clearly, recognizing what characters toss projectiles (and when they do so) is rather important. Thrown weapons can be shot out the sky just like other inanimate objects.

The player can also “tag” Max by firing at him. When tagged, Max will either leap up in the air in order to avoid danger, or he’ll change direction. Changing direction is necessary to access certain rooms and areas, marked by “exit” and “enter” signs.

Tagging Max produces a different result in one circumstance. A certain room consists of a dark pit with a nasty spike sticking up from the ground. Max plummets from the top of the screen, on a dead-on collision course for the spike. And yes, “dead-on” is a very appropriate term here. Tagging Max once as he falls causes a parachute to open, slowing his descent, and tagging him a second time changes Max’s direction so he glides to the floor safely, whereupon he exits the spike pit with nary a scratch. Just be sure to nail the boulders, giant roaches, and bats that pop up once he lands!

Other dangers that challenge the player’s trigger finger and alertness include falling flower pots, pumpkins, chandeliers, and mounted deer heads; dogs, cats, birds, and insect swarms; arrow-shooting archers, forceps-tossing nurses, haunted books, and a “fire monster” that dwells in the mansion’s fireplace, and can take up to three direct shots to extinguish.

Walking across a small square with a diamond on it makes Max invulnerable for about five seconds, indicated by his flashing jeans and bandana. He survives if he is hit by anything during this period, but immediately returns to his normal vulnerable self afterward. The invulnerability wears off after about five seconds, whether he gets hit or not, so this power up is very short lived.

Another form of power up exists in the “star pads”. Passing over a star pad makes Max grow larger, and walking over a second star pad (while larger) gives him armor. These progressive enhancements exist as long as Max avoids danger. If Max gets hit, he reverts to his prior form, so if he’s wearing the armor, he remains large but looses the armor. If he’s clobbered when he’s large, he goes back to being regular sized Max. The armor has a passing resemblance to the style of ancient Egypt, with its suit and helmet of alternating red and yellow stripes.

Max is very determined to solve the mystery, or perhaps he’s just oblivious to the danger around him, as he doesn’t seem bothered in the slightest by the chaotic goings on.

Who Dunit was the last title released in Exidy's 440 series, which launched in 1983 with the brilliant Crossbow, and continued on with Cheyenne, Chiller, Clay Pigeon and several others. Collectors informally refer to these games as the "Alliterative Shooting series", as the majority of the titles happen to begin with the letter "C". Who Dunit is one of the few in the series that bucks this trend.

Who Dunit is zany and comical. How could it not be? It features killer pimps and beach balls! But gun games don’t NEED to be hardcore and bad-ass. Although the genre is typified by titles like Operation Wolf, Lethal Enforcers, Area 51, and House of the Dead, a demand has always existed for light-hearted shooting contests as well… witness the success of Carnival King, Egg Venture, and the Point Blank franchise in recent years. Who Dunit was simply mining a comical vein several years earlier.

Sound effects are varied, but the audio seems minimal, primarily due to the absence of background music. The closest thing to music in Who Dunit is a military-style drum roll on the “Get Ready Player 1” screen.

Still, there’s chirping birds, hooting owls, barking dogs, growling monsters, spooky ghost laughter, and items exploding and breaking, in addition to several vocal snippets like “Gimme Five!” and “Yo!” (spoken by the Robin Hood pimp), “I’m telling”, and “Meanie!” (from a girl that tosses deadly purses), and the classic “Hey!” (uttered by the butler). There’s also an odd breathing sound in the background, and I’m not entirely sure if that’s supposed to represent Max’s breathing or not. It may just be another sound effect, played to enhance the spooky mood. However, it reminds me quite a bit of the space marine’s beleaguered breathing from the PC classic Doom.

The graphics are nicely detailed, but they don’t compare to other games released in 1988 like… Konami’s The Final Round, Sega’s Galaxy Force, Capcom’s Ghouls N Ghosts, or Tecmo’s Ninja Gaiden. Remember, Who Dunit uses the same hardware as Crossbow, which was released five years prior, so graphics that would have been amazing in 1983, looked outdated by the time of Who Dunit’s release. Oh, and in the provided screen shots, ignore the blue crosshairs. This is an artifact from grabbing screen images from MAME. This does not appear in the real coin-op game.

Still, all the enemies have good animation and each room displays impressive detail such as the reflections of the Roman columns on the surface of the swimming pool, the couch with throw pillows in the sun room, and the multitude of books in the library.

So what IS the mystery? I admit I haven’t reached the end, so by all means, feel free to fire up your favorite emulator and give it a whirl. I’d love to know “Who Dunit”, and by extension, what the actual mystery is.

One thing’s for certain… with this coverage of Exidy’s Who Dunit, now all of the major “Golden Age” manufacturers have been featured at least once. Natural harmony has once again returned to the Museum of the Lost Arcade Classic.