I haven’t used a paddle controller since I last played Tennis (Pong) and Hockey / Football (Pong with two bats) on our Interstate 1160 console in about 1979! Can’t say there’s much muscle memory left from then either, but we’ll come back to that! This absolute beast of a combined paddle and trackball controller plugs into the back of the wonderful Taito Egret II Mini console, and, together with the SD card also in the box that slots into the side of the cabinet, opens up a whole new world of gameplay experiences… We’ll also come back to whether or not that all adds up to 120 Euros of value, on top of the minimum 200 Euros asking price for the console itself, which we’ve also reviewed here, together with every single one of its 40 games! By the way, as I always disclose when I’ve been given something for nothing for review about now, I’ll also disclose that I bought this thing with some birthday money!
Glad there’s only ten more to cover with this thing, but we’re going to do exactly the same here as with the console – a quick look at the hardware and then we’ll jump into every one of those games and see how it’s all feeling. Compared to last year’s conceptually similar Sega Astro City Mini console, the Taito Egret II Mini is more than 10% bigger in all respects (approximately, visually at least because I’m too lazy to measure it!) but this new controller is something else again. It’s bigger than the console it plugs into! Weighing in at 26cm high, 12cm wide and 5cm deep, I really wasn’t exaggerating when I called it an absolute beast earlier! It actually weighs about 40 grams, which is just the right side of feeling premium in your hand. Or more likely on your lap, which is easy with its generous 2m USB cable, although my ageing eyes aren’t going to stretching it too far when I’m playing on a 5-inch screen! Nice option if you’re plugged into a TV with the cabinet’s HDMI connection though.
The garish set of colours on top of the controller reflect the Egret’s original colour scheme, housing two big action buttons on either side, then centre-left we have the trackball and to its right the ridged paddle. Menu, select / credit and start buttons also mirror those on the console itself, but you can still use those, as well as the stick, for navigating your way around the menus and game carousel should you prefer that over the slightly awkward trackball alternative. Like the joystick, both the trackball and the paddle feel weighty and of a decent quality. At about 4cm wide, the trackball is big enough to be chucked around a bit too, for example, if you’re taking a big golf swing, but there’s also more than enough sensitivity to tiny movements when needed. The paddle has a nice mechanical resistance as you turn it – a bit like if you turn the wheels of a remote-controlled car when it’s switched off. It’s also perfectly sized (at least for my girlie hands) but I still haven’t worked out if I want to use my left hand or my right hand to use it, where the trackball is definitely right, despite being to the left!
One annoyance to mention. You can leave the controller plugged in whenever you like, but when the SD card that contains the ten exclusive paddle and trackball games we’re about to cover is plugged in, you’re only playing those games, and you have to have the controller plugged in at that point or the game menu won’t even fire up. And that might be fine if the SD card wasn’t so awkward to plug into the console! It’s also a hassle to have to unplug it and do something with it when you’re playing one of the regular forty games on the thing – surely adding another ten games to the existing carousel when it senses the card is there isn’t such a stretch? First world problems I guess, but 120 Euros worth of them all the same! Assuming everything’s plugged in where it should be, boot up takes a couple of seconds more than the five or so for the regular game selection, but then you’ve got the same vertical carousel format, sortable by release year, name or assigned favourite. All the regular console settings (volume, display, background music selection, etc.) are also available, but only from the cabinet buttons this time; again, all of that was covered in the main review so I’ll avoid too much repetition here. Alongside the games list, you’ve got an image of an Egret II cabinet to its left, and as you scroll through the games the display on it changes to show that game’s attract mode and any save states present, alternating between portrait and landscape orientations as required, which, of course, you can also do physically before selecting one… That will never get old! Selecting a game brings up a bigger attract mode preview behind a description of the game, its control scheme and selectable start from scratch or load from one of the three available save slots. Again, game settings (meaning DIP switches from the original arcade version) are also available, but also only from the main unit’s buttons, to adjust difficulty, bonus thresholds, number of players and so on that might be present – always worth remembering there might be a sensitivity setting there too if you’re struggling! And with that, I reckon it’s time to jump into the games, which we’ll do in the default release year order!
Marine Date. We begin our journey in 1981 where anything still goes in the arcades, so you’ve got an octopus man on one side of a single-screen maze and you need to navigate him around it so he can meet up with his date, octopus lady, on the other side. You do this by aiming him with your trackball and bouncing him off the maze walls, but you’ve only got a limited number of “jets” to reach her on each screen before you run out of energy. Okay, it’s under the sea crazy golf, but with the added danger of sharp coral reefs, crabs, seahorses and sharks, although you do also have a few shots of ink at your disposal to blind them with before you eat them! There’s also an occasionally friendly mermaid floating about, and if you can bounce into her she’ll give you a free ride to the next screen. For such a primitive looking game, some of the animations when either you get eaten or something else does are absolutely brutal! My favourite is when you’re quick on the draw enough to surround yourself with ink as a shark approaches, then once the cloud dissolves you’ll see the head and tail still connected by skeleton harmlessly drift away! Lots of other less sinister touches too to bring it to life (and distract you from the even more primitive music), with simple wave animation at the top of the screen, and occasional fish and bubbles floating about, which can also knock you off course. It’s also very addictive, even if I’m not totally convinced about the somewhat binary nature of the trackball controls here – it seems very much go fast or go slow rather than go a little way, but the directional bit is fine. Good start though, and I’ll happily come back for a game of this whenever the SD card is in.
Strike Bowling. I have no idea what spins, straights and hooks are but apparently they’re all present and correct in this 1982 ten-pin bowling sim. You’ve got a top-down view of a truncated but otherwise realistic bowling lane with gulleys on either side and a familiar score chart, and if you score more than 220 points you get another game for free! Apart from some dancing girls when you get a strike, most of the time the presentation is all very bare-bones, with a plain old blue circle for a ball and some basic screen wipes for clearing up fallen pins, but it’s all clean and recognisable, and there’s some nicely realistic sound effects too. But who cares when you can smash the trackball with this much welly! Okay, the ball physics aren’t exactly realistic either, partially down to slowdown when it reaches the business end of the screen, but I’ve had loads of fun with this all the same. You can select a straight or curved ball with either button, and adjust the ball’s starting position relative to the pins in the throwing area at the bottom, then it’s spin away to your heart’s content! I’m really not into bowling, but this one was a pleasant surprise and for all the simplicity, it’s hard to put down, even playing on your own!
Birdie King. Not an octopus in sight in this more traditional take on golf from 1982! The description tells us to read the wind and aim for the green, then read the green and putt for the hole, and that translates to an aerial view of the entire hole, with a readout for distance, par, shots taken and so on, but you’ll have to read the wind by watching the flag. Very cool! As are the birds that sometimes turn up and fly around, but no such nonsense when you reach the green, where a new view shows the lie of the land with lots of tiny arrows providing a bit of texture as well as a hint about where you need to be putting. It all looks like an early Commodore 64 game, very heavy on the brown, but it’s effective enough, and like the last couple of games, it’s all about substance over style, and, of course, spinning that trackball! Apart from the wind, there’s trees, rough and bunkers to hamper your progress, but otherwise it’s a very simple game of golf, with no club selection to worry about – just the amount of oomph and direction behind your shot, and once you’ve got a feel for it it’s fantastic! You’ve got three holes per game as standard, but go under par (or get a hole in one) and you’ll be able to play up to nine in total, so while there’s not a huge amount to it once you’ve got each hole scouted, you’ll have a good time getting there, and I guess two-player, if such a thing is possible because I couldn’t work it out, extends its interest even more.
Arkanoid. Not only the first game here I’ve played before, but our first taste of the paddle controller too! This brick-breaking classic from 1986 has you piloting your Vaus ship after its mothership Arkanoid was destroyed by a space entity called DOH, bouncing an energy ball off its paddle-like surface onto space blocks blocking your way towards revenge about 33 levels later (unless you’re playing on a NES which has 36). I’m sure there’s some more logic to it all, but none of that matters here – it’s a fancy update of the old Atari Breakout, and if I remember right was probably a prime reason for wanting to buy this monstrosity (which is lucky because we’ve still got two sequels to go). Anyway, you need to bounce the ball to clear all the bricks off the screen to move on to the next one, and they display different behaviour, such as multiple hits to break, as you progress, and you’ll also be on the lookout for power-ups, which might extend your bat, provide a laser cannon, a multi-ball and all sorts, but no matter how much I’ve played this over the years, I still can’t remember which is which when it’s falling towards you! It’s the first really great-looking game we’ve come across here, with a clean, Tron-inspired neon futuristic vibe, in a very eighties way! The soundtrack is top-notch too, and despite harking back to the very dawn of the video game to play, there’s a whole new level of polish here now. As much as I love Arkanoid, playing on a paddle after all this time was a bit jarring, to the point I was even regretting buying it, but with a small tweak to the sensitivity and a bit of perseverance, it soon clicked and, to my relief, felt really fine. Phew…
Arkanoid: Revenge of DOH. It’s 1987 and the mysterious DOH is back with another 34 levels of brick-breaking, although while the fundamental gameplay is just more of the same, when you complete a level you now get a choice of where to go next through new warp gates on either side, giving you a possible 64 different levels in total. There’s also a few new power-ups, brick types and aliens flying about, but there’s not much more to say about it here. If you’ve got to grips with the paddle on the original, then you definitely want to head over here for lots more very slick brick-breaking!
Plump Pop. Now here’s another familiar title, but this time it’s one I know from Taito Legends on PlayStation 2. Never played it with its native paddle controls though, but in retrospect I have to say that this is exactly how I wanted to be playing it all along! This is a much cuter and slightly more chaotic take on Arkanoid, with you moving a trampoline left and right to bounce your baby pig, cat or dog into the air to pop all the aliens or balloons or other stuff floating around, then you move on to the next screen and do it again. There’s clouds you can walk on, fruit bonuses to catch, and crows, dragons and big mean bosses to look out for, but it’s all light-hearted and whimsical and not in the least aimed at someone like me. Doesn’t stop it being good though! Everything takes place against a variety of almost digitised fairy-tale backgrounds, with much bolder but simpler cartoon sprites taking care of the action, and there’s some jolly old tunes playing along too, but it’s nothing to write home about by 1987 standards. Just fun to play, especially when you’ve got a paddle controller to play it with it turns out!
Sylvalion. When we reviewed the main unit, there were a fair few of its games that appeared on the PlayStation 2 Taito Legends 2 collection that I had no recollection of playing on there; mainly because I probably hadn’t, but anyway, this is another that appears on there that falls into the same bracket! However, I will now be playing it on there because I’m intrigued by how it plays with a controller… This is a roll and gun of sorts arcade shooter where you control a golden dragon through maze-like levels, breathing fire at enemies, avoiding hazards and collecting power-ups until you reach the boss, then you move to the next. And you control your golden dragon with the trackball, which begins hugely frustrating and has you yearning for a regular controller, but by the time you’ve played enough to get a few levels in it actually feels pretty good, not to mention super-accurate! This comes from Fukio Mitsuji, the creator of Bubble Bobble, in 1988, but while it might not be his best-known work, it’s a unique and beautiful game with a fantastic sci-fi synth soundtrack and the most exquisitely detailed golden dragon you could hope for – way better looking than those little dinosaurs he once came up with! Only complaint is everything is in Japanese, but once you work out the what the different modes are (and what they’re not) you’ve got a real hidden gem in this collection, and although it takes a while to click, it really deserves that time.
Cameltry. Another unique maze-based arcade game and definitely another hidden gem with this one from 1989! This time it’s a race to manoeuvre your ball to the exit within a time limit, and you do that by rotating the maze itself with the paddle controller, like one of those SNES Mode 7 effects on steroids! Pressing a button shakes the ball to make it jump, and holding it down speeds it up, but the rest is the best example of rotational paddle control we’ve seen so far here, or possibly anywhere else for that matter, as you effortlessly throw the entire screen around your ball, controlling your speed by creating false inclines or even just running into a wall, collecting bonuses, seeking out shortcuts and avoiding time penalties. The full-screen rotation, coupled with really smooth scrolling, are a real tech tour de force, and it’s all so exhilarating when you get into the zone and you’re flying through the maze without touching the sides, feeling more like a top-down racer than a guide the ball through the mazer! I’ve been totally hooked by this since the first time I played it, and I’m unlikely to stop until I’ve beaten the fourth set of expert mazes. And then I’ll probably start again for better times! One of the last games I’d have expected to say is a real highlight here, but there you go!
Arkanoid Returns. I owned the first two games on Spectrum and Atari ST, but I had no idea this possibly fourth instalment in the series from 1997 even existed; it’s no Wonder Boy, but the timeline for arcade and non-arcade direct and indirect sequels is a bit convoluted and it could be fourth or fifth or something else entirely! Anyway, it’s more Arkanoid, with some new blocks, new power-ups and new environments, but I am quite intrigued to find out if there’s any way to input the code that you could enter before starting the arcade game that increased the original 50 levels to a new set of 50, starting from level 51, and ending in another face-off with DOH. I don’t know that yet though, so I can only tell you that it plays like Arkanoid but I’m not so keen on the faux-psychedelic digitised backgrounds that you’re stuck with for nine levels apiece, and the same for the jazz-funk soundtrack. I’ll be having my fill of the other two here before I need to turn to this I reckon.
Puchi Carat. You need a falling gem puzzler in any good compilation, and we’re closing out with this one’s! You’re bouncing a ball off your paddle, with the paddle controller, to destroy coloured gems falling one line at a time from the top of the screen, though if you miss the ball they’ll drop faster. They’ll also appear from the bottom as your opponent on the other side of the screen destroys their gems, which causes any connected below it to fall too. I’m still not sure how two player works – maybe you spend 120 Euros on another controller – but I’m more than happy with the single player head-to-head story mode (Japanese language aside), which sees you progressing against very Japanese anime computer characters, with suitably anime graphics and sometimes disconcertingly sexual sound effects. It’s also disconcerting to know I’ve found another game I’ve never played on Taito Legends 2, although I think it was worth the wait with this one. Hopelessly addictive, and apart from Cameltry it’s where I’ve spent the most time in this collection so far, and not just because of the big-boobed, green-skinned rabbit girl in a bikini. And chains! We’re finishing with another good ‘un!
And that’s the lot! I think we’ve established we have a giant but quality controller for our money, and I am quite looking forward to seeing if I can do anything with it connected to a PC and MAME too – Super Breakout and Tempest always deserve a paddle controller, and there’s some old golf and football games we used to play in the pub. Likewise I’d like to go old-school with Combat School and its original trackball again! I will go back and see if anything from the main set of forty games on the Taito Egret II Mini will play nicely with the trackball too – Hat Trick Hero, maybe. But if all else fails, we have the ten games here, of which three are very retro to the point of probably being one and done for most, then three are Arkanoid, and the other four range from a lot of fun to genius. And coming back to the original point, does that all amount to 120 Euros of value? Well, it was my money that paid for this and I expect that eventually I’ll spend enough time playing at least half of these games to make it is worthwhile, and I’m happy with that. Your mileage may vary though, so I’m staying firmly on the fence as far as that goes!