Arcade Oddities: Hero of Steel
Sometimes, a gimmick can do more than catch someone’s eye
The modern arcade is a whimsical beast. The aesthetic is familiar — the cutting glow of dozens of screens, the cacophony of electronic beeps and jingles — but the guts are all new. The arcade has had to evolve quickly to stay relevant in an age of ever more powerful home systems, and some of those transformations have been unexpected.
Back in my old hipster town, the salvation was a simple one: Alcohol. Many bars had a cabinet or two, a modern multicade or a vintage cocktail machine. One of my favorite places — a now-defunct joint known as Ted’s Taphouse, home of the custom flight — even had its own little separate arcade where one might sip a craft IPA while waiting his turn to play Spider-Man pinball.
But in East Asia, where standalone arcades are far more common, getting the patrons drunk isn’t enough. The solution here has been to go big, and especially to go big into gimmicks. The term “gimmick” usually has negative connotations, but sometimes a good gimmick can do more than just catch someone’s eye. When implemented well, such tricks can fundamentally enhance the gameplay experience.
Many Asian arcade gimmicks are about what you’d expect — things like VR headsets, special-effects rigged immersion cabinets, head-to-head machines and massive cabinets meant to resemble vehicles from franchises such as Terminator and Halo. Others go in a more eclectic direction. Hero of Steel, a game I’ve mentioned in passing elsewhere, is definitely one of those oddities.
Hero of Steel is a rail shooter, an arcade classic (some would say cliche), with a difference — it does not feature a light gun. The machine sits atop a large tank of water, with seats in front of a pair of mounted plastic cannons that resemble something you might see in a theme park. These are pressurized water guns, used by the players to destroy the robots that flood the screen. The gimmick comes from the 2016 Chinese arcade game Ice Man, though Hero of Steel is considerably more refined.
The game itself is about what you’d expect, though it offers up a few twists. Spraying an enemy with water causes it to freeze over until it shatters, which changes one’s strategy somewhat — enemies don’t go down in one hit but they do slow down a bit, so a sweep across the screen can buy a moment of breathing room when things get harried. There is a single power-up, a weapon upgrade that causes the barrel of the water cannon to open up in a shower-like configuration that wrecks everything in front of it, though not for long. It even features a selection of bosses with novel tactics, a rarity in rail shooters.
Hero of Steel is certainly a gimmick game, but if you should ever find it in real life, I offer a challenge: Play Hero of Steel, then immediately move on to the nearest conventional rail shooter and compare the two. The difference is a lot more profound than you might think. The physical feedback from Hero of Steel’s method of hit detection — the visible water spray that impacts the screen — gives it a sense of accuracy that you’ll never get with even a well-calibrated light gun. Plus, the fine mist it kicks up feels delightful when you’ve been in a hot, smoky Chinese arcade for an hour.
Games like this are a reminder not to reject something simply because it’s silly. Sometimes silly things make the world better, or at least just a little bit more satisfying.
Watch the game in action:
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