Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Retro Game Review: Burgertime

Game: BurgerTime
System: Arcade
Manufacturer: Bally Midway
Year: 1982
Ranking: Four Quarters

Growing up hamburgers came in one of two forms. The first, most popular option, was the fast-food burger. McDonald's and Burger King reigned supreme in this court. The second, much more common option, was the home BBQ burger. Here well-done was the way they were done. Think charcoal brisket burger. Imagine my surprise, when I was sixteen and discovered that there was such a divine item as "the gourmet hamburger", and that it existed steps away from my physics lecture at a place called Mr. Bartley's Gourmet Burgers, henceforth simply referred to as Bartley's.

Bartley's burgers are culinary masterpieces. Layer upon layer of delicious ingredient is piled carefully on top of each other to create towering skyscrapers of burger goodness. The first time I beheld a Bartley's burger, I had to take several moments to figure out how I would fit the behemoth into my mouth. Staring at that burger, I was reminded the arcade classic BurgerTime. In that game, the protagonist, Peter Pepper, is chased around a multistory maze desperately trying to construct the world's largest burgers while being chased by anthropomorphized food. If I assume that Peter Pepper comes in at an average height of about 5 feet 9 inches tall (1.75 m), then those arcade burgers he's making are a whopping 11 and a half feet (3.5 m) thick!  

I'm not really sure why Peter is making those burgers, but it sure is fun to try to help him out. BurgerTime combines winning elements of two wildly successful early arcade games. First it draws its construction site platform and ladder aesthetic from Donkey Kong. Second, it borrows the chase and maze mechanic from Pac Man. Here ghosts are replaced with 6 ft tall BBQ items. Although a bit unusual, a competing greasy spoon down the street from Bartley's, the Tasty, did serve a slippery burger topped with cheese, bacon and a fried egg. Layer on top of the proven arcade elements new features like falling burger parts and Peter's pepper sprayer, and you have a winning combination.

What keeps the game fresh is the various and sundry ways one has to deal with the enemies. First, there is the standard avoidance tactic. As near as I can tell, none of the food items have the same sophisticated algorithms seen in Pac Man. They simply head for Peter Pepper. In fact, they operate under a bit of a delay since they can't change direction while they are in the middle of a ladder, unlike Peter. Second, Peter can hit them with a dash of pepper to freeze them. This allows him to pass right through them without harm. Third, Peter can drop burger parts like hell from above, knocking Food Foes over and sending them back to their spawn point. Finally, he can start walking across a burger ingredient, wait for his enemies to walk onto to the same piece, and then finish his trip across to drop both the burger piece and the hostile food at the same time. The key to racking up a high score and wrapping up a level fast is to group the Food Foes together and get them to walk onto the topmost bun all at the same time before dropping everything and everyone.

One aspect of the game that I've wondered about inordinately is speed. How fast is Peter Pepper trying to get away from those fiendishly tall foods? I figured that he had to be humming along if he wanted to make those burgers fast enough not to get gobbled up himself. Using the average height of French Chefs and measuring the amount of time it took Peter to travel between known points on the scaffolding I generated some rough numbers. 

The first number I calculated was the speed that Peter Pepper traveled up the length of the first level. For the Arcade version, Peter scales the ladder at a fairly good clip of 5.4 mph. To put that in perspective, a typical person walking on a flat surface travels at about 3.1 mph. A good jog, one that I might use at the gym on any given day, is about 6 mph. Peter Pepper is practically running up those ladders! I was also happy to confirm that I got similar speeds on all three of my emulation machines. In the Atari 2600 and 5200 versions, Peter travels at a slower, more reasonable speed of about 4.0 mph. This is not very surprising, given that a common complaint of the Atari 2600 version is that it is "slow". Finally, all the exercise that Peter got in the earlier versions of the game, paid off because in the GameBoy version he runs up those ladders at a blistering 7.8 mph.

After wandering down this rabbit hole, I was a bit surprised to realize that Peter Pepper travels a lot faster across the flat surfaces than up and down the ladder -- at least on the first level. In the Arcade version, he's moving over two times his vertical speed when moving horizontally. A whopping 12.0 mph! This is almost on pace with the world's best marathoners, who typically post speeds near 13.0 mph. The Atari versions also have a speed up, although not nearly so dramatic. In the Atari 2600 version his speed increases to 6.5 mph, and in the Atari 5200 version it increases to 7.2 mph. Interestingly, in the GameBoy version, Peter Pepper has the same horizontal and vertical speeds. Unless you are playing the GameBoy version, it is much better to try to outrun your enemies on flat ground than it is to try to outclimb them on the ladders.

It is worth noting that all of these speeds were calculated on the first level of each version, and Peter's speeds may change as he progresses further in his culinary career.

The line has always been long at Bartley's, but thankfully the wait is short. I like to think that somewhere in the back there's a olympian marathoner named Peter, scurrying around a 17 story rube goldberg tower of food, assembling the most monumental burgers in Harvard Square. Thankfully to generations of burger aficionados, Mr. Bartley found that miniaturization ray in Area 51 in the late 1950s so that we could enjoy Peter Pepper's magnificent creations in digestible dimensions.  

BurgerTime Cast of CharactersMr. Hot Dog, Mr. Pickle, Mr. Egg, and the star himself, Peter Pepper. In the Atari 2600 version, Mr. Pickle was lost along with any decent graphics. In that version, Peter Pepper, aka the Chef, battles Hot Dogs, Eggs, Bread Sticks, and the dreaded Cheese. The Atari 5200 version introduces some colorful naming fun. Chef Pete squares off against Frank, the hot dog, Mr. Yolk, the egg, and Dr. Dill, the pickle. Burger Time Deluxe for the GameBoy returns to its arcade roots with Mr. Hot Dog, Mr. Pickle, and Mr. Egg reprising their roles as the original Food Foes. This image was captured from the arcade version running in MAME. 

Bonus Items and Extra Pepper: Proper pepper management is critical to success in BurgerTime. Peter Pepper will quickly find himself overwhelmed without any pepper shakers. Thankfully, after successfully luring several of the Food Foes onto falling burger parts, a bonus item will appear. Each bonus item gives Peter some bonus points and an additional pepper shaker. It's important to note that in the Arcade version the bonus items only appear for about 7 to 8 seconds. The Atari 2600, Atari 5200, and GameBoy versions all give you a little more time to replenish your stash of pepper shakers (17, 12 and 12 seconds, respectively). This image was captured from the arcade version running in MAME.

Alternate Versions

Game: BurgerTime
System: Atari 2600
Publisher: M Network
Year: 1982
Ranking: Two Quarters

The horror: The Atari 2600 version severely lacks the critical graphical elements seen in the other versions of BurgerTime. Seen at left is Mr."hip to be square" Egg. On the right we have a two new additions to the Food Foe team, Mr. "Flappy" Cheese (brown), and Mr. Breadstick. Only Mr. Hot Dog shows some semblance to his actually personna. Finally, it's worth noting that while the burger fixins are suspended from the scaffolding they are all an identical muddy yellow, but once they fall they become relatively recognizable burgers. This image was captured from the Atari 2600 version running in Stella. 
March of the breadsticks: Due to the flappy nature of Mr. Egg and Mr. Cheese, there comes a time when it appears that Peter Pepper is being pursued by a bunch of breadsticks. The key travesty in this image however, is the graphical representation of the first bonus item. In the arcade version the ice cream cone is the first bonus item. For the longest time I tried to reconcile the image of a burning bush above with an ice cream cone. In preparation for this blog, I realized that M Network changed the order and made French Fries as the bonus item on the first screen. A slightly better match to what is shown above, but not nearly as interesting as a flaming shrub. This image was captured from the Atari 2600 version running in Stella.

Game: Beef Drop
System: Atari 5200
Author: Ken Siders
Year: 2004
Ranking: Four Quarters

Progression of Peter Pepper: The Atari 5200 version does a significantly better job matching the arcade experience. The graphical elements are clear and obvious. Breadsticks and fluttering flags are gone and replaced with the customary anthropomorphised fast-food items. The game no longer pauses when Peter tosses his pepper, and the bonus items match the Arcade progression. Beef Drop for the Atari 5200 is a fantastically fun game that matches the arcade experience well. Image captured using a digital camera and an actual Atari 5200 hooked up to a CRT screen.

Game: Burger Time Deluxe
System: GameBoy
Publisher: Data East
Year: 1991
Ranking: Four Quarters

BurgerTime Evolution: The typical early 80s Arcade port evolution went as follows. Amazing game is introduced to the public at the local arcade. Groundbreaking game is decimated to run on the Atari 2600. Incremental progress is made to improve home game play on the Intellivision, Atari 5200, and NES while trying to hue as closely as possible to the original game. At some point, right around the GameBoy/SNES era a conscious effort is made to no longer match that original arcade, but expand upon the idea and make the game even better. BurgerTime Deluxe on the GameBoy follows this model. The first few levels match the arcade versions, and then the sky opens up. New bonus items become available and the game is fun and new all at the same time. One thing to watch out for in this version is that Food Foes don't respawn at the edge of the screen when the fall to the ground with a burger part, rather they wander around dazed for a few seconds and then quickly resume their hunt for Peter Pepper where the burger part has come to rest. Image captured using a digital camera and a GameBoy SP.

Useful Links

Retro Game Rankings: No Quarters to Four Quarters. It should be noted, that although the going price of an arcade game was a single quarter when many of these games first came out, I feel that true retro game fans would be willing to pay a little bit more to capture the glory of playing some of the truly great ones one more time.