Taito Essentials: Elevator Action Returns

Elevator Action is an established classic of the ’80s arcade scene, and saw a wide variety of ports to most of the popular computer and console systems of the period.

While the original game is still relatively well-known today, many people remain unaware that Taito followed it up with an official sequel in 1994, some eleven years after the original game’s release.

These people are, of course, also unaware that Elevator Action Returns is an absolutely awesome game, even from a modern perspective.

I actually didn’t play the original Elevator Action for the first time until relatively recently, but it nonetheless forms part of one of my earliest gaming memories. This is because one of the first games I can vividly remember playing was Eurogold’s Mission Elevator on the Atari ST, a game from 1987 which, magazines of the time assured me, was heavily inspired by Taito’s classic, but which put its own twists on the formula and was a deeper, more substantial game as a result.

One of the things that particularly struck me about Mission Elevator was the fact that it was one of the few games that unfolded in a realistic environment — in this case, a hotel. This might not seem like a big deal these days, but back in the late ’80s it was significant to come across a game that wasn’t based in a world of pure fantasy or science fiction. Here, we had a game that took place in a relatable, believable environment, and which consequently had a very different feel to the more outlandish flights of fancy typically found in gaming of the period.

The reason I bring this up is that while the original Elevator Action was a lot more primitive and abstract than Mission Elevator, Elevator Action Returns builds on that sense of believable, relatable environments that I enjoyed so much. Considerably.

The result is a game that, while recognisable as a sequel to Elevator Action, is so much more.

It’s immediately clear that things are a bit different this time around when you’re given the choice of three different characters to play as, along with the option to play simultaneous two-player co-op with a friend. But then the game starts and you’re presented with the game’s biggest deception: a level that effectively reimagines the original Elevator Action, dropping you on the roof of a tall building and tasking you with working your way down to the bottom, stopping in all the red doors on the way to pick up clues.

Up until the midpoint of this first level, the natural assumption is that Elevator Action Returns is nothing but a prettied-up version of Elevator Action. And, to be honest, that would have been pretty fun in its own right.

But then all hell breaks loose.

An explosion. The top floors of the building you’re exploring collapse. A helicopter flies into shot, revealing the apparent villain of the piece. And he’s laughing at you, even as his reckless disregard for your wellbeing has taken out a significant proportion of his own army. This game apparently means business.

The level becomes more complex to navigate from this point on, but still recognisable as Elevator Action. You’ll weave your way around collapsed walls, kick explosive barrels into the path of enemies and then fire at them to detonate them, shoot out the lights and sneak into doors to find items. Then you’ll reach the bottom of the building, at which point your team’s van screeches in to pick you up.

All right, you’ll think, fair enough. Bring on the next tall building. Except it never comes; the next level begins with you crashing through the window of an airport in a helicopter, tasked with hunting down the bombs you had been finding the location of with the data you acquired in the first level. You’re still hunting for red doors, but now you’re in an environment that is long rather than tall; it scrolls sideways, and moves from the terminal building out onto the airfield itself, and then into a hangar via the interior of a plane.

Dramatic setpieces occur along the way. Robotic walking bombs fall from the ceiling in an attempt to blow you up, swarms of enemies on jetpacks attempt to overwhelm you with sheer numbers, and the front of the plane you walk through blows up while you’re still in it.

If you’re not well and truly on board with what Elevator Action Returns is doing by the time you reach this point, well, I don’t really know how else to sell it to you. It is gloriously and unashamedly an interactive 1980s action movie, full of explosions, death-defying stunts and guns with improbably large clips. It continues to unfold through realistic, relatable environments over the course of its six very varied levels. And it’s awesome.

I think another part of the appeal for me is primarily nostalgic in nature: I really like how much it resembles the once-fashionable “rotoscoped” action adventures of the ’90s — particularly Delphine Software’s Flashback, which had come out some two years previously to Elevator Action Returns and was a clear inspiration for the character animations in particular.

Unlike games such as the aforementioned Flashback and Jordan Mechner’s legendary Prince of Persia, however, which were often hoist by their own petard as their fluid, exaggerated animations came at the cost of responsiveness, Elevator Action Returns has a tight control scheme in which you always feel like your character is doing what you want them to. Consequently, the game strikes a good balance between looking great and playing great, the latter aspect of which is something its spiritual predecessors sometimes struggled a bit with.

More than anything, Elevator Action Returns is just a great arcade game. It’s spectacular, both to play and to watch; it’s challenging, but never unfairly so; and it’s structured in such a way that making just a little more progress each time you play feels extremely satisfying. And then, of course, you have the optional fun of doing it all with a friend playing alongside you, too, which just adds a whole other dimension to the “action movie” experience.

Elevator Action Returns got a port to Sega Saturn in 1997, but this remained confined to Japan. It wasn’t until the 2006 release of Taito Legends 2 for PlayStation 2, Xbox and Windows PC that we’d have the opportunity to officially play it at home here in the West without importing the Saturn version or emulating the arcade machine. Even then, though, the fact it was buried in an (admittedly consistently excellent) compilation of other Taito games meant that it remained sadly overlooked by many people.

No more, though! I’m here to tell you that Elevator Action Returns absolutely rocks, and if you’ve never played it, that is a situation you’re going to want to rectify as soon as possible. It’s a forgotten gem from Taito’s back catalogue, and definitely deserves more love and attention from modern gamers and retro enthusiasts alike.

More about Elevator Action Returns

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