Elevator Action is a port of the ’83 arcade hit of the same name. Its popularity is easy to understand, given that it’s both a unique concept from other arcade titles, and the whole execution works quite well. You’re a secret agent tasked with infiltrating an enemy-controlled skyscraper and stealing documents from marked offices. Elevators move you between floors, and most of the strategy revolves around waiting for elevators, picking the correct one to progress, and defending yourself long enough to catch the next express.
This is an arcade port, so serious depth shouldn’t be expected. You will always be attacking the same skyscraper, and the basic building layout never changes. Completing your mission returns you to the top of the building with new colors, more dangerous enemies, randomized “document doors,” and a randomized escape route on the bottom floors. You’ll repeat to hit the highest score you can with three total lives.
Enemy agents offer the major challenge. Levels are littered with doors, only a few of which harbor a document (these doors are helpfully marked in red). The rest are spawn points for black trench-coated goons. You don’t take damage from touching goons – unusual, but appreciated – but they are armed and they will shoot you readily on sight. One hit will take away one of your lives, and once they start shooting, you’re pretty much toast unless you can duck or start an elevator moving. Instead, it’s up to you to shoot first with the B button, jump through them, or squash them with elevators.
Points are awarded based on the difficulty or creativity of the kill, so shooting a light to fall on a goon’s head rewards you more than simply shooting the goon outright. (If you do shoot a light, the level goes black briefly and you get a bonus applied to any goons you kill in the “darkness.”) Initially, you can duck under their shots and easily catch them by surprise. As the game progresses through a few iterations, they learn to duck, jump, and kick as you do. They also get hoppin’ mad and a little overzealous in their attempts to capture you, sometimes falling down floors or elevator shafts, but these AI mistakes are offset by their increased numbers.
Your secondary concern is the building itself. Goons increase as you spend more time in the level (simulating security’s response, I suppose), so there’s a bit of pressure to work as quickly as possible. This inevitably leads to scenarios where you fall down an elevator shaft, pick the wrong one and have to backtrack, or are forced to find some mildly convoluted way to get to a document door on the other side of the building. You have infinite ammo, which does work in your favor, but goons start to get really good as the game goes on – to the point that you don’t want to be on the same level with them. Bullets will fly, and again, one hit puts you out of action. Elevator action, that is.
You take direct control of an elevator if you’re inside it. Otherwise, it will slowly climb and lower according to a predetermined sequence, and you’ll have to wait to catch it. You can jump an open shaft if you time it just right, but the elevator will have to be above you. You can walk on the top of an elevator and ride it down that way (because it looks cooler), but you won’t be able to walk across the top of an elevator as the cable gets in the way. The timing of the elevators becomes a foe in itself. Frequently, you’ll think you have time to shoot a few enemies before boarding and find the elevator has already left, or you’ll think you have time to run under one, only to get squished when it starts moving. The threat of the agents really does force you into making mistakes if you let it, and that danger is part of the fun.
It’s actually more of a challenge that you might expect. Three lives don’t get you very far, especially once the enemy count ramps up and their skills increase. Their ducking becomes a particular hassle, because it negates your best weapon against them. I mean, you’re stuck in a hallway with oncoming goons with guns. There’s not too many places you can go. Gunfire can travel the length of the building, which helps you be preemptive and start shooting as agents open a door, but also means that you can get tagged by an agent out of your zone of attention – especially when you’re already dealing with agents on your side of the level.
Their random appearance can also be unfair. Many times I would enter a red door just as an agent exited the next room. You can’t stop your animation once you open a door, leaving you to do nothing but get shot by the waiting agent as you leave. Jumping does help you knock down guys in close quarters, but it’s not a guarantee, especially if they duck. And sometimes they’ll get a shot off no matter how acrobatic you’re attempting to be. I’ve been shot out of midair more times than I approve of.
Graphically, it’s a pretty simple game. A port of this also made it to the Atari 2600, which should give you an idea of the level of visual complexity. Single colors define the various objects within the game. Your character gets the most variation, and suggests some kind of strapping agent-extraordinaire in a brown bomber jacket. At least that’s what my imagination makes of the pixels. The graphics are a little blocky, but this is early in the NES life. You still can already see a clear increase in the quality over previous home hardware.
Sound is about average, with a decent theme that plays throughout the game, and basic effects used to signal events like shooting or getting shot. The NES does manage a pretty neat mechanical purr whenever you’re inside an elevator, that does a convincing job of replicating the sound of the motors. I also like the hand-over-hand squeak as your agent climbs down the grappling line at the beginning of each mission.
Elevator Action is a very basic arcade high score challenge. The key is that it’s a fairly unique idea, and a fairly unique game. There’s not much here for longevity, but it’s a good contender for “this week’s Solitaire replacement.” Just don’t let the boss, or the agents, catch you.
Different idea for an arcade game. Pretty fun. Pretty challenging.
Little staying power. Only one building layout.