The Essential Games: Elevator Action (1983)
Oh no the music is already stuck in my head
Taito’s Elevator Action is one of my favorite side-scrolling action games, with a design that masterfully blends simple controls and surprising gameplay complexity at just the right balance.
The premise is thinner than paper, to the point where you can infer it from the opening seconds of gameplay.
You’re a good guy named Otto, a spy of some sort. You infiltrate a high-rise building that is inexplicably full of enemies and rooms that contain important documents. You have to steal the important documents and escape out the bottom floor.
And then repeat that over and over again.
The game makes up for its basic premise with its flexible, responsive gameplay. As you might guess from the title, elevators play a big role. Every building is filled with elevator shafts, and you can control elevators to move up and down, use the tops of them as platforms, and even squish enemies with them.
Lights in the building function relatively realistically, which is impressive for an older 2D game. Long before the modern obsession with ray-traced light models, Elevator Action thought about how light could impact gameplay design.
In some areas, enemies will shoot out a light, making it harder for you to navigate the space, but harder for them as well. You can also shoot the lights down yourself if you want to and they’ll physically damage enemies, in a rare piece of early environment interactivity.
Elevator Action’s verb list is somewhat-limited compared to modern games, but huge compared to many other 80’s classics. You can jump, shoot, duck, open doors, and control elevators. When you add in the interactive environment and the madness of the many elevator shafts and escalators, and enemies that use all those same tools, it’s great.
You’ll have to dodge falling elevator cars, duck into doorways to avoid fire, and perfectly time your escalator entrances so you’re going down as the enemy is going up, as you’re both helpless to do anything about it but look at each other.
It leads to many fun emergent little moments all while burying its mind-virus looping music into your mind.
Elevator Action has numerous exceptional console and computer ports, and a couple of pseudo-sequels as well. The NES port is the most commonly-known. It’s pretty darn close to the arcade game and was last officially released worldwide on the Wii Virtual Console.
The easiest version to get your hands on today is the arcade original, available on the PS4 and Nintendo Switch as part of Hamster’s Arcade Archives series. It’s a faithful version of the original release, and it sells for about $8 dollars.
Taito released the arcade version a few times previously in various arcade compilations. The GameBoy port was improved from the NES with new weapons and level layouts, and is a true gem if you can find it.
And then there’s Elevator Action Deluxe…
For whatever reason, in 2011, Square Enix decided that the PlayStation 3 needed a new Elevator Action game with a…let’s call it a bulbous art style.
Looking a little like a low-rent version of Sega’s Bonanza Bros (another great arcade classic), Elevator Action Deluxe dramatically sped up the gameplay, and feels like it was made in a week or two. The visuals pale in comparison to every other PS3 title, and even the original 8-bit versions of the game.
It’s clumsy and bizarre and tries to both be faithful to the original and add some new stuff. I don’t recommend it over the Hamster version. Not at all. There’s a reason the game never escaped the confines of the PS3.
I’d love to see a collection of all the classic Elevator Action ports for modern systems, a la Konami’s recent Castlevania and Contra bundles, but that’s just wishful thinking and wouldn’t make much business sense.
Square Enix still owns the rights to the game to this day, so they could do it. Or maybe it’s clearly it’s time for a full 3D open-world Elevator Action game set in endless procedurally-generated buildings full of elevators and loot boxes. Set in the Sleeping Dogs universe.
Elevator Action perfectly blends accessible gameplay you can understand in a minute with the slightly emergent chaos still so common in modern action titles, but relatively rare in 1983.
It’s a game that makes you laugh at your failures and immediately want to try again, and it’s still just as good a design today as it was 36 years ago.