Video Game Microtransactions Are Much Older Than You Think
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Featured Image Credit: Technos Japan/Mobygames.com, Blizzard
Evercade’s new array of arcade game compilations, released to coincide with the launch of its VS home console, includes a cartridge full of Technōs Japan titles. As the developer of Double Dragon, Technōs established a pedigree for side-scrolling beat ‘em ups in the 1980s and ‘90s, and some of these titles are included on the new cart. There’s Double Dragon II: The Revenge from 1988, and The Combatribes from 1990, both worthy of a few virtual quarters in the 21st century. And then there’s Double Dragon 3: The Rosetta Stone, also released into arcades in 1990 - a game notable not so much for its gameplay, which followed tried-and-tested patterns, but its introduction of a feature that today represents one of gaming’s most debated topics.
You actually get (the arcade version of) Double Dragon 3: The Rosetta Stone with the Evercade VS - check out the trailer for the console below...
The Rosetta Stone was only published by Technōs, its development outsourced to East Technology, a company which had only traded in shooters before. That change of creative staff might go some way to explaining why the game wasn’t quite so well received by critics as its two predecessors. Nevertheless, the arcade machine was popular with punters in the United States and Japan - but in the US, where it was released first, its cabs came equipped with the option to pay more money, real money, to obtain power-ups.
Players could walk, as returning series stalwarts Billy and Jimmy Lee or new character Sonny, into in-game stores where the virtual shopkeep would ask for real coins for their wares. Yep, a full 16 years before Bethesda’s infamous Horse Armour DLC for The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, microtransactions had arrived in video gaming. And this wasn’t purely skin-deep stuff.
Let’s take, for example, what’s on offer at the beginning of stage two, when the Lee brothers find themselves in China. (The screen above is stage one, actually the first screen of the game, and it's already upselling players.) Step into the store, available from the very first second of gameplay, and you can get yourself ‘Tricks’, ‘Weapons’, ‘Energy’, ‘Power Up’ or an ‘Extra Guy’ - which interestingly isn’t an extra life for your Lee of choice, but actually gives you a whole other character to control once your health’s been depleted (in stage two, this will be one of the tai chi masters, the Chin brothers).
Pick a weapon here and you’ll walk out with nunchucks, which are mapped to both attack buttons, punch and kick, which actually restricts your attacking options on the ground and in the air. Connect, however, and they do hit harder than your own flesh and bone - but they can be knocked out of your hands easily, and they’ll vanish when you lose a life. So, you’re encouraged to spend extra money on the game, but your upgrade isn’t even permanent. Sucks, right?
Even on the HUD, the option for a second player (or more) to join isn’t “insert coin” - it’s “buy in”. And that’s how it feels, playing The Rosetta Stone - to get anywhere without being whaled on by enemies with dodgy hit boxes and exaggerated reach, you basically have to pay to win. You have to buy your success, as the game consistently feels like it's loaded against you unless you invest. And this didn’t sit well with arcade-goers of the early 1990s - after the microtransactions mechanic was criticised extensively upon the arcade machine’s US release, it was removed for its Japanese release. On console ports, of course, the coins-in option wasn’t present - there's no obvious slot for cold, hard cash on a SEGA Mega Drive - and on the Evercade version you simply press select to insert a new ‘coin’, no need to rummage in your pocket before the timer ticks down to zero.
So there you go. You might think that publishers adding microtransactions to their games is a relatively new thing, only a few console generations old. A phenomenon that first generated headlines when Bethesda wanted you to make your pony all pretty, and that's been rarely out of the gaming news since. But, you’d be wrong. Just as the popularity of video games as a medium, as a hobby underpinning a huge global industry, began in the arcades before it ever took root in the home, so too did the practice of milking players for more money in distinctly shady ways.