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Hustle (Arcade) artwork

Hustle (Arcade) review

"Gremlin Hustles Up"

In October of 1976, Gremlin Industries released their first video arcade games, Blockade and CoMotion. These were the first of what we now know as snake games, a genre that would later be popularized by the Light Cycles scene in Disney’s Tron and its tie-in video arcade game in the summer of 1982, as well as the famous Snake, which came pre-installed on Nokia mobile phones in the late nineties. As the first of their kind, Blockade and CoMotion were initially well-received by video game critics of the time, especially those who got the chance to play them at promotional events before their official releases. However, intense competition from Gremlin’s rivals in the video game industry meant that by the time these games were made available to the general public, their days of relevancy were already numbered.

Back in the seventies, when the video game industry was still in its infancy, the new entertainment medium had yet to be seen as an art form by a significant portion of the community. Perhaps in relation to this, copyright laws related to video games were much looser compared to today. While there were still occasional lawsuits filed against video game companies for copying other developers’ games, there was much less concern about any two games having a similar look and feel. This is one of the reasons why the market became flooded with Pong clones by 1977. Because of the loose copyright laws, Gremlin Industries could barely compete with the growing legion of Blockade and CoMotion clones that began appearing near the end of 1976 and into the following year. They needed a new video game, and fast.

Gremlin decided to take their unsold Blockade machines and convert them into a brand-new type of snake game called Hustle. Based on an idea brainstormed by Lane Hauck, the lead designer of the original Blockade, Hustle was eventually released to arcades in May of 1977, following behind the releases of several Blockade clones. While Blockade and CoMotion were Tron-style snake games, in which the objective was to trap players and force them to crash into brick walls left by you or your opponents, Hustle feels more like an early ancestor to Nokia’s aforementioned mobile game, Snake.

After inserting a quarter into the machine, you can choose to play a single-player or two-player game. Both game modes have the same style of gameplay, though the single-player mode feels more like a practice mode, as there are no opponents to face. Your objective in the single-player mode is to earn the highest score that you can within the 90-second time limit. In the multiplayer mode, you have to try and outscore your opponent. Computer opponents are not available. Points are earned by touching the boxes that appear on the playfield. These boxes spawn in random locations, and they’re only available for a few seconds before disappearing. There can be up to two boxes on the screen at any time. Most boxes have their point values displayed in their centers, but there are also “mystery boxes” that appear from time to time. These tricky treasures have a row of question marks on them, and they will either give or take away a random number of points when touched. The game speeds up as players collect multiple boxes in a row, and it returns to the default speed whenever a player crashes. In the single-player mode, you can win a free game by reaching a score milestone set by the arcade operator.

As usual with Gremlin’s snake games, you move your character using four directional buttons on the control panel. In Blockade and CoMotion, you controlled an arrow that left brick walls in its path as it moved in the direction it was facing. Hustle puts you in control of a snake-like entity with an arrow for a head, and a line of squares for a body. The squares follow behind you and mimic your movements, while also serving as an obstacle to avoid. If you crash into your body, your opponent’s body, or the borders of the playfield, points from any of the remaining boxes on the screen will be added to your penalty meter, and they will be subtracted from your score at the end of the game. If there are no boxes on the screen when you crash, the game will still add about 400 points to the penalty meter. Whenever you crash, more squares are added to your body, making it even harder to maneuver around the playfield.

Hustle gets points for being more challenging and fast-paced than its precursors, as well as being a new take on the snake genre, thus beginning a sub-genre of its own. Gamers who started with earlier snake games probably appreciated this fresh take on the genre after so many stale and uninspired clones. Unfortunately, despite its innovations, Hustle still suffers from the usual problems with early arcade snake games, which are short play sessions and a lack of depth. While it’s possible to earn a free game in the single-player mode by passing a specific score milestone, this can only be done once per play session, and that’s only if the arcade operator decided to set the Hustle hardware to reward players with free games. The game does not record high scores, and players’ initial scores do not carry over when starting a free game. Once you’ve played a few rounds in Hustle, there’s little reason to go back to it.

Hustle’s minimalist graphics are nearly identical to those of its precursors, but there are some minor differences. The game still uses monochrome graphics, enhanced by either a green or yellow monitor overlay. The text font has been updated, and appears to be slightly thicker. Gremlin would later recycle this font in other video arcade games, such as their stealth/maze game, 005. Some of the new graphics include the squares that make up the snakes’ bodies. One snake has hollow squares, while the other has solid ones, in order to differentiate the players. The arrow heads on the snakes are carryovers from Blockade. The box targets have borders with diagonal line patterns, which shimmer upon collection. Sound effects include high-pitched beeps for player movements, low-pitched beeps for penalties, explosions for crashes, and “plucks” for scoring. Overall, the presentation is basic, but acceptable.

Despite the fact that Gremlin Industries invented the snake video game genre, their early titles never really became household names for gamers. Blockade, CoMotion, and Hustle were all decent games for their time, but because they were all released shortly before the golden age of video arcade games, a time of rapid evolution and innovation in the industry, these games were quickly forgotten. If it weren’t for the existence of online communities dedicating themselves to the documentation and preservation of video game history, information on Gremlin’s back catalog and others would have been lost forever.

While Gremlin’s first three games weren’t the runaway successes they were hoping for, they still made money from the hardware sales. The company learned that in order to survive in the video game industry, they would have to pursue innovation and put more variety in their products instead of just making snake games. Gremlin started developing new video arcade games, such as Depthcharge, and they even formed a close partnership with none other than Sega, before eventually merging with them. Hustle and its precursors may have been forgotten, but Gremlin still had a promising future ahead.


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Featured community review by Midcore (August 16, 2018)

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