What happens when a game tries to splice Rambo with Bond? What happens when you cross a Metal Slug and a Metal Gear? Do you end up with a bipolar game? Can you really run into action and try to avoid it at the same time?
Elevator Action Returns is a very late 1994 sequel to the Taito's classic 1983 arcade hit, Elevator Action. They sure did take their sweet time making a proper sequel, but I personally feel that it surpasses the original in every conceivable way.
The gameplay is a mix of run-n-gun action and tactical thinking. In your first mission, you'll notice the building is heavily populated with enemies, goons, destructible objects, security equipment... and elevators. Your objective is to make it to each red door and retrieve documents, avoiding or taking out the various goons along the way. Normally, your enemies are unaware of your position - however, there are security cameras all around that will alert enemies to your position... so take them out to avoid bigger battles. You can also take out the lighting, which will confuse your enemies and net you double the normal amount of points for kills. Don't avoid the Blue Doors, though! They'll give you access to a Roulette that gives out either Points, Health or Bombs - really helpful for making the most of those lives.
However, after you get about halfway through your first mission - the building you are in gets blown in half! It's at this point that the villain reveals himself as a crazed guy in a red suit. He later reveals that he wants to "Crush the Old Order and CREATE A NEW SOCIETY!" before exploding in a bit of maniacal laughter. God, I love insane characters. Now, your goal changes from finding secret documents to defusing the bombs set by this yahoo.
The first things that caught my eye about this game were the main characters. The graphics looked great for the time, but even more I found the characters to be very charming. While the original Elevator Action had you controlling just a generic spy, these were some characters you could actually invest in.
In fact, I'd say that this game really excels when it comes to presentation all around. Despite how small the characters appear, they're full of personality just from the amount of animations they're given. Action Girl Edie seem all cool at first, but during loading screens she plays with her hair, fidgets, kicks the wind in boredom and other girlish things that really add to her charm.
Then you've got the music - which is, appropriately enough, elevator music. I actually found this very appropriate for the game, as it encouraged me to take a slower pace and think about all the hazards before I ran into battle. Trust me, by the time you get to the midpoint of the game, you're going to realize that you'll have to look over the environment more than once to get a feel. Mines, camouflaged robots, timed electric currents - even the elevators themselves can take you out. Luckily, you can use these deathtraps to your own advantage - nothing puts a smile on my face like crushing an enemy with an elevator.
Yeah, the game would be perfect if it weren't for the mood-swinging difficulty. For the most part, the game just about right... then, it hits points like the above screenshot. In this part, you are just about to leave the area - your helicopter waiting and nagging you "This way, Quick!" so often that you'll likely shout "I'm coming already!" out of frustration. Then you get there, and Mr. Red Suit shoots your copter with a rocket and sends ten tons of jet-packed haz-mat acrobats at you. As many times as I played this game, I NEVER figured out how to do this without getting shot to pieces. They just throw way too many of them at you at once. I also hated how the Blue Doors' Roulette would never have what you needed late in the game. Got full health? Here's some health! Need some health? Here's some bombs! Why can't they at least have one of every type of item, so I at least have a CHANCE of getting what I need?
Also, I found the characters to be a bit unbalanced. I tried playing as Jad - I really did. Yet, I see absolutely no reason to choose him. Sure, he can take damage, but he moves so slow that your going to be taking damage that you could have more easily avoided playing as Kart or Edie. Then, Edie seems to be by far the best character in the game: Not only does she have the fastest gun in the game, she also has the best bomb in the game. With one bomb, she can scorch an area for about 5 seconds. Place it in from of a popular door, and you'll rack up the points when enemies walk out that door. Throw it in an elevator, and then have it burn all the enemies to death who use it. Many of the situations I found extremely hard were made much more bearable by simply making liberal use of Edie's firebombs - simply cover any area that enemies might spawn from with firebombs and wait.
Last little nitpicks I have are with the points and the ending. What was the point of points in this game? I expected after reaching a certain amount, I'd get an extra life, but that never happened! And as many times as I lost my last credit right at the very end of the last mission, I could have used that extra life.
Then, the ending itself (Oh noes! Spoilers! Who cares, really?)... nothing? Alright, at the end, you confront the man in red as he is about to launch a nuke with a countdown sequence playing. Well, after finally beating him and taking out the nuke controls... the nuke launches anyway, the screen goes red, and then we get the end credits. Did my character fail? Is this a bad end? What's going on? Then, after sitting through the credits... it just gives me a message to the effect of "Good job! We look forward to working with you again!" or something, gives me the name entry, and then I unlock OLD GAME. (The original Elevator Action.)
Seriously, THAT'S IT? You at least gave me a neat little drawing every time I complete a mission - I complete the entire game and I get nothing? I at least expect something on par with one of those cheesy Street Fighter II endings.
All in all, though, this game is a huge amount of fun with a lot of hard work put into it. The Saturn version is the definitive, arcade-perfect version, but it's also kinda pricey for a retro game. Mine cost about $40. More frugal gamers can just pay $5 for a used copy of Taito Legends 2 on the PS2 (also came out for the PC and European Xbox) - however, I've heard the emulation is a bit hokey with a bit of slowdown concerns, some of the music tracks were changed to less inspiring tunes, plus some weapons were nerfed for whatever reason.
RetroGrade: B. The great characters, great animation and just flat-out fun gameplay make it a must have for any arcade lover, but the haywire difficulty and character imbalance keep it from being perfect.