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5 Features

History Lesson: Radar Scope, the failure that saved Nintendo

By Chris Scullion on Sunday 25th May 2014 at 6:00 PM EST

Alarms blare as the transmission is received. "Captain, your duties are to shoot 48 UFOs. Good luck!" it adds as the galactic void stretches before you.

You'll need it. Wave after wave of Gamma Raiders swoop from above, pummelling the outer shields of your mechanical home, the Sonic Spaceport. Sweat builds as colour bleeds into the damage meter - when it's fully illuminated, your rapid-fire laser blasters weaken.

This is Radar Scope, and in 1980, 2,000 units sat gathering dust in a New Jersey warehouse.

In the late 1970s, Nintendo's terrifying president, Hiroshi Yamauchi, had his perpetual snarl aimed at arcade coffers. Nintendo's success on the lightgun scene had given him an almost vampiric taste for small change.

Underlings from Nintendo's R&D1 team brought him Space Frenzy (a duff Space Invaders clone), Sheriff (a clumsy precursor to Robotron) and Space Firebird (a shameful Galaxian rip-off). A rumour we're starting right here says at least one underling lost part of his head thanks to these duds.

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Oddly, Radar Scope was not dissimilar to Space Firebird. The descending aliens had that same twirling Galaxian motion, the major difference being a pseudo-3D effect that saw the enemies grow bigger as they got closer.

Hailing from the murky depths of R&D1, anecdotes suggest resident Nintendo genius Shigeru Miyamoto had a hand in it. If he did, he's certainly kept it off the CV - a move calculated to avoid the ire of the deafened masses, perhaps?

Radar Scope's relentlessly chirpy electronic noises make Crazy Frog sound like Mozart. Despite the unit sounding like R2-D2 stubbing his toe, the game made quite the impression when it launched in 1979.

At the same time the fledgling Nintendo of America (NOA) - under the watchful eye of Yamauchi's son-in-law Minoru Arakawa - was looking to make an impression in the cooling US arcade arena. Call it fate.

Or call it foolishness. One decent test run in Seattle later and Arakawa ordered 3,000 units. A bold move that gambled the entire NOA budget.

Four months later, the order arrived. Four months is four years in arcade terms (you think dogs have it bad) - only a stone cold classic could hold the public's attention for that long.

Add to that another big problem for NOA: transportation. The company's New York location added a huge amount of transport time to its delivery. In fact, Radar Scope's eventual failure actually encouraged a move to Seattle (nearer to Japan on the West Coast), prompting NOA to settle in nearby
Redmond, where it's stayed ever since

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Fresh off the boat, Radar Scope was met with shrugs. Arcades didn't want the units. Gamers didn't want the game. Ears didn't want the music. Initial orders shrank, leaving Arakawa with 2,000 unwanted copies and the world's scariest father-in-law to appease.

The answer was obvious: keep the cabinets, but change the game. Pay attention: this is the part where history is made.

Yamauchi, unwilling to waste top design brass on bailing out the (then) insignificant US business, turned to a recent recruit - an apprentice in the planning department called Shigeru Miyamoto. He'd been building a reputation for fresh-faced design innovations - perhaps while working on Radar Scope - and was given a shot to fix things for the US.

Prompted to update Radar Scope, Miyamoto instead dug out the schematics, pronounced them dull (well, the Japanese for dull) and started afresh. Like an energetic pup he bounded round R&D1, hassling technicians for technical specifications, hardware limitations and programming know-how.

And so he started designing the character that was to define the next 30 years of gaming: a small sailor with a powerful affinity for spinach.

Yes, as far as 'what ifs' go, Miyamoto's Popeye work is a kicker. Had Nintendo not botched negotiations to release a game starring the strangled-sounding seadog, Miyamoto would never have opted for a design based on Beauty And The Beast instead.

He'd never have drawn an angry ape, a terrified princess and a dumpy plumber. Donkey Kong would never have launched Nintendo as a contender in the US. And Nintendo would just have been the guys that gave us Radar Scope.

Donkey Kong's success meant 60,000 machines were sold by the middle of 1982, so they're fairly common, but the ones that were converted Radar Scope cabinets are some of the rarer arcade machines on the collectors' scene. If you see a Donkey Kong machine and it's red, it's one of NOA's 2,000 failed Radar Scopes.

Coin-op Flops

While Nintendo did deliver a couple of decent titles before Radar Scope nothing came even fractionally close to the success that lay just around the corner.

Here's a selection of the games that - in a parallel universe where Donkey Kong didn't happen - would have ended up being Nintendo's biggest releases before the company inevitably bowed out of gaming.