The big list of games I use to guide what appears here next, depending on my current mood, is now so big I need a list for my list. Which doesn’t make any sense but you get my drift! Anyway, I increasingly find myself relying on often random external factors to influence the choice from that list for my next undertaking, and such was the case with Elevator Action! Not that there was ever any doubt it was coming sooner or later, sitting, as it does, agonisingly just outside my top ten games of all-time (which belongs to another, even more unwieldy list)!
The random external factor that brought us here today was a Data East arcade game from 1989 called Sly Spy… not such a tenuous link for a change, either! I’ve never been particularly fussed by this one, but I received a couple of new cartridges for my Evercade VS for Christmas 2022, including Data East Arcade 1, where you’ll also find the original arcade versions of nine other mostly cool games, including Bad Dudes vs Dragon Ninja, BurgerTime, Break Thru and – what really grabbed me here – Wizard Fire, a 1992 action-RPG with a Dungeons & Dragons vibe, presented in an impactful, big scale isometric viewpoint. Think we’ll cover that one in its own right sometime – see what I mean about they list! Back to the game at hand, you’re a spy called Sly who’s after terrorists who shot the president before they also go nuclear, and after a pretty unique skydiving first section, you’re alternating between more varied but less fun Bond-inspired takes on Rolling Thunder and Shinobi.
As you might be able to tell, finally owning a legitimate copy of the game didn’t really turn me into much of a fan, but it did get me thinking about better spy games, and first to mind was License to Kill on the Atari ST in 1989 because not only did that do actual Bond, but actual variety too, with helicopter chases, old-fashioned shoot-outs, planes, trucks, swimming and even waterskiing. Was a lot of fun too, despite lacking a bit of longevity. My first spy game, and probably my next favourite after our main event here, was the original Spy vs Spy from 1985, which I first played on ZX Spectrum but was a two-player split-screen slapstick masterpiece wherever you found it! Based on the titular Mad magazine characters, you and your opponent race to escape with spy-type goodies while trying to scupper the other’s attempts with stereotypical spy-type traps! While the boxes for Spy vs Spy II: The Island Caper and Spy vs Spy III: Arctic Antics are definitely favourites (partly because they’re not massive and a nightmare to store like most ST games), the games themselves followed the format of the original but never quite captured its originality and madcap fun.
I’m sure there’s been others but I really wasn’t thinking about this too hard! Luckily I didn’t need to think twice about Elevator Action. It’s never been far away, not since it first replaced Kung-Fu Master in the slow rotation of the couple of machines in the café area of Bedford’s Bunyan Leisure Centre sometime circa 1984! At least I think that was the order of rotation, with Shao-Lin’s Road then either replacing or joining it a bit later again, but I can be sure that apart from the funfair visiting twice a year with Pole Position and Star Wars, this holy trinity was pretty much the whole of my exposure to arcade machines in the glory years of the mid-eighties. And I wouldn’t change that for the world!
Some bloke called Ecclesiastes once said there’s nothing new under the sun, and by total coincidence, over the several days it took me to travel from the last paragraph to this one, I saw an advert for a family roller disco in the very same place with its slightly rebranded name. While that place was also the centre of my world around that time, being less than ten minutes walk from home and where I did Kung-Fu, and me and my brother did trampolining after Inspector Gadget on a Monday, and generally ran riot around most days in school holidays, there was also what I think was a monthly roller disco there on Saturday lunchtimes, and that was the backdrop for Elevator Action’s arrival there! Quite the conflict too because we’re talking peak roller skating craze – we were rarely off them – and there was no better surface to do it on than the huge hall in the Bunyan Centre! This fancy new Bond-to-life arcade game in plain sight on the upstairs balcony overlooking it though… As always there’s a balance, and in this case it was conveniently dictated by the number of 10p coins left after a can of Dr Pepper from the drinks machine next door, though I have to admit if I was forced to make the choice between the two at the time I’d probably have to go roller skates!
There are few things more iconic than a pair of eighties roller skates. We’d been messing around on an ancient pair (probably from the sixties) that you strapped onto your shoes at our grandma’s house forever, but the wheels were stiff and you couldn’t turn properly, and you had to be pretty desperate for something to do to hunt them down in the garage and take your life in your hands on the road because it was straight and relatively flat! That all changed when the wheels started coming in neon-yellow and were attached to a very cool pair of suede-effect blue boots with a Puma-esque flash of hot colour down the sides! Then everyone was on roller-skates, and discos became roller-discos, and fashion and music and movies followed, with the likes of Roller Boogie, Skatetown USA and Olivia Newton-John’s Xanadu cementing a cultural phenomenon that’s also such a time capsule. And for us, we knew things were serious when the older kids next door took a break from breakdancing to fit custom wheels with fancy bearings that made their skates go faster, turn quicker and do it all far quieter than we could ever hope to do on ours!
Poor old Elevator Action never stood a chance! Well, figuratively speaking at least… It actually topped the arcade charts for a few months after its May 1983 release in Japan, then apparently surpassed all expectations in America too when it launched there that October. I’m not sure how well it did for Taito in Europe when it finally arrived here at the very start of 1984, but it certainly reviewed well in the likes of Computer & Video Games magazine. I reckon it did alright for itself after all! The game has you, Agent 17 (or code name Otto) out to secure super top secret documents from the ominously named “Security Building” which is full to the brim with enemy spies out to stop you at any cost. Make your escape with them and you get to do it all over again. Thirty times, apparently, though I’ve never been beyond about level five!
Anyway, the game starts with you arriving on the roof of the thirtieth floor of Security Building by means of rope-slide, and from there you need make your way right down to your getaway car waiting in the basement, together with all the documents you’ve recovered from behind any red doors you see dotted around as you descend. To aid your descent, you’ll be using what increasingly becomes a maze of elevators, as well as a few escalators, with each one taking you a few floors maximum before you need to switch to another, or, indeed, navigate your way back up again for some of those document doors, which also mean bonus points!
As well as red doors, Security Building is a mass of regular ones, ideal for hiding an army of enemy spies. They’re everywhere! You’ve got a gun at hand to keep them at bay though, as well as a duck and a jump for avoiding their bullets, although you can’t duck in an elevator so you need to learn to use the evaluator itself for evasion when you’re in it! It moves up and down at the touch of your directional buttons, but should you find yourself on top of it then you can’t control it – just don’t get squashed if it’s going up! If you’re lucky you might get to squash a couple of enemies though, and you can also spice things up a bit by shooting out the lights as you’re going up and down, which not only gives you the pleasure of death by lightbulb if an enemy happens to be under it when it falls, but you’ll also get extra points for any kills you make in the dark! And that’s all done by up, down, left, right and two fire buttons. Simple!
With all those enemy spies running about, you might think their bullets would present the greatest danger, but while you will undoubtedly get caught out by some tricky high-low shootouts from time to time, the biggest danger is generally your lack of patience! It might be quicker to jump on the roof of the next elevator to get you off the current floor quicker, but what if the enemy that just got in it is going up instead of down and you’re a bit too close to the top of its shaft? Or you go down and an enemy appears out of the nearest door meaning you’re suddenly a sitting duck? As long as there isn’t a cable in the way, you can also leap across the elevator shaft to get to the other side of the floor you’re on a bit quicker than waiting for one to arrive and run safely across, and even without enemies that feels like a leap of faith every time – totally vertigo-inducing! It’s all part of the strategy hidden behind the the game’s simplicity though, and from timing entry (and subsequent automatic exit) through those red doors to avoid enemies, to traversing a screen full of the titular elevators as they do the same, these tiny split-second decisions will almost always decide your fate and keep you coming back for more!
Elevator Action was never considered a looker, which is the case for any real-life building made up of garish pink and turquoise with a load of bright blue doors, but it’s always been full of character all the same. The opening shimmy onto the roof and eventually jumping into the sports car and zooming away when you get to the bottom convey a real sense of James Bond – a set-piece sandwich that fires your imagination so the visuals just work, however primitive. The aesthetic is more Spy vs Spy than Sly Spy though, with simple cartoon characters moving fine around even simpler environments even if it’s not exactly Walt Disney! There are some really nice touches though, like the flare of a gunshot at the end of the barrel or you sheepishly exiting a red door with documents in hand. The view of an enemy spy’s static, big-nosed face as it travels up or down an escalator will always make me smile too – like when you’re trying not to make eye contact with anyone else on one of those huge underground train escalators!
The sound design unfortunately leaves little to your imagination, although it will eventually worm its way into your brain and never let you go! It’s soundtrack is a short and simple endlessly repeating loop of a nursery rhyme-type melody played on some kind of wobbling toy piano that’s somehow enhanced by the sound effects. I don’t think there’s anything particularly clever or dynamic going on, but as equally simple and white-noisy as the gunshots are, or the reluctant drone of the UFO-like elevator movements, or the sinister scale as you open a red door, there’s something that makes them into a bigger whole than it should be. Even if finding it incredibly annoying would also be perfectly understandable!
Simple but fiendishly addictive gameplay backed by simple sights and sounds made Elevator Action ideal for home conversion, and it certainly got converted! There were excellent NES and Sega SG-1000 versions as early as 1985, then a bit closer to home at the time we got Spectrum, Commodore 64 and MSX versions in 1986, then Amstrad CPC in 1987, and a couple of remixes for Game Boy in 1991 then Game Boy Colour in 2000 and Advance in 2002. Of course, the original has had a ton of compilation and standalone releases on everything up to the present day since, including my new go-to version on the Taito Egret II Mini. We did also cover it here when we looked at Taito Legends on PlayStation 2 and Taito Milestones on Nintendo Switch but apart from those, let’s quickly go back to where I played it the most…
I’ve always enjoyed how the Spectrum version looks – it’s really bold and colourful for something so often monochrome! The character sprites are authentic but blue, meaning the blue doors are yellow, and we’ve got a cyan background with a red brick surround, and it works great! Such a vibrant-looking conversion! We are now (thankfully, maybe!) limited to sound effects only but the rest starts out feeling pretty spot-on. There’s even a view of the helicopter at the start dropping you off on your grappling hook rope, which you don’t even get in the arcade version! Unfortunately it is missing a bit of the nuance of the original which takes it from a bit faster as well as easier at the outset to frustrating further down where you’re trying to hold an elevator in position or manoeuvre it up and down to avoid a hail of bullets but it’s just binary – up or down and nothing in-between – which leads to a lot of cheap deaths. Also no floor indicators, which there’s not really any excuse for. That said, we were a lot more forgiving of that stuff back then and I couldn’t have been more thrilled than having this on my +2 at the time!
The Game Boy port is so cool! For starters, fantastic version of the theme tune. Proper blippy nineties remix! Everything little Otto does is super-responsive, and it’s all got a bit of that extra zip from the Spectrum version but with all of those more advanced control strategies of the original intact. There’s understandably not as much on screen at once here, and we’re obviously now completely monochrome, so gone are the red doors (replaced by exclamation points) but we are getting a load more detail in both characters and also a few flourishes on background textures. And we’re getting more weapons! Go into a door with a question mark on and it’s a random selection from things like shotguns, machine guns and a crappy grenade that reminds me of the rubbish torch weapon in Ghosts ‘n Goblins, and you probably want rid of it just as quickly! Apart from that this one’s a winner though, and has rarely been far from my Game Boy for over thirty years now!
The Game Boys Colour and Advance went a step further a decade or so later again, with a choice of characters and a faster pace, but while I have played a bit of both I do find them a bit soulless – fortunately the GBA version also includes the original! What I’ll close on here instead is a version that was never properly released, although you can now play what’s left of it… As I like to do whenever the opportunity arises, I’m going to pick up the tale of the cancelled Atari 2600 port from the wonderful Atari 2600/7800: a visual compendium by Bitmap Books, which we also reviewed here a while back. Actually, it wasn’t just the 2600 version either – Atari licensed the arcade game as early as 1983, with versions planned for the 5200 and later the 7800 too, but like a few other games around then, Atari’s financial woes and subsequent change in ownership led to all sorts being shelved or just binned. Even when they were nearly complete like this one! There was a kind of very limited official release at the 2001 Classic Gaming Expo, after the original developer resurfaced with a working prototype, and while it’s only about 75% of the way there and plenty buggy as a result, you couldn’t really ask for more of a 2600 version and it definitely plays like Elevator Action!
There have been a handful of obscure follow-ups, including Elevator Action Deluxe which was a 2011 PlayStation Network multiplayer refresh, and a couple of arcade light gun games – Elevator Action: Death Parade in 2009 and Elevator Action Invasion as recently as 2021. I’m not sure that anyone really cares about them though, so we’ll close on the proper sequel, 1994’s Elevator Action Returns. My favourite thing about this is the ten years between the two games because that gap effectively makes them two entirely different entities and I don’t need to choose what’s best! This one is great too though, taking the familiar elevator mechanic but expanding everything else massively, and giving it a gritty blockbuster paint job on top! It still feels great to play, and while it might have been a few years out of sync at the time, it’s undoubtedly one of my favourites on both the PS2 Taito Legends 2 compilation and, more recently, the Taito Egret II Mini, where it couldn’t feel more at home with that weighty little arcade stick!
There are some rare things in life that have an uncanny ability to creep up on you and transport you back to a previous time, and sometimes when I play Elevator Action that’s exactly where I go – looking down on a roller disco in the mid-eighties, can of Dr Pepper in hand, waiting for my turn. And I couldn’t be happier there! It’s lost very little since though, as it often the case when a game relies on pure gameplay over aesthetics… Timeless, maybe, unlike the hairspray neon nightmare on wheels that spawned it!