Taito has always been one of my favorite arcade game makers. In the quality department, they’ve had very few misses. But on the financial side of things -- as much as it pains me to say it -- Taito is what you would call a one-hit wonder company, with the original Space Invaders being their one major win. If I were to name what I would consider their top 3 most recognized games: number one would easily be Space Invaders. Number 2 would be Bubble Bobble. And number 3 would be Elevator Action.
Elevator Action was 2D platforming/acting game were you played as Otto, a James Bond-type secret agent who infiltrated skyscrapers, stole documents and got the hell out of there. I could never tell you how influential I personally thought Elevator Action was but from my perception, it was a peripheral title that just kind of... existed. My understanding was that there was an arcade game, an NES port, a ZX Spectrum port and a Game Boy version.
Many years later, I would learn that Elevator Action was somewhat of a stealth franchise with a few releases to it's credit. Elevator Action Returns, Elevator Action Old and New, Dexter’s Lab: Robot Rampage, Elevator Action Deluxe. Today, let’s talk about the first sequel: Elevator Action Returns (known as Elevator Action II in North America) which was released in 1994/1995 for Taito System B arcade hardware (aka Taito Cybercore).
While the original game had a Spy vs Spy/James Bond/Mission Impossible 1960's espionage vibe, Elevator Action Returns has more action/techno thriller oriented style. Elevator Action Returns is a sequel to the original in terms of game design and game concept, but not in terms of setting or story. Otto is sadly absent and instead we’re given a new scenario and a new cast of characters. Our heroes are Kart, Edie and Jad the Taff -- which I think is the worst name I've ever heard in my life!-- the EDF: Earth Defense Force, an elite counter-terrorist group who have to defeat Red Suit, a bad guy who wants to destroy humanity with nuclear weapons. Kart has the best footspeed, Edie fires the fastest and Jad can damage enemies simply by running into them although he has poor footspeed. Edie is my favorite to play as. I find her rate of fire to make all the difference in the world.
The opening stage looks an awful lot like an updated version of the original arcade classic. You still go into the red doors to pick up important documents, you still shoot enemy agents, and you still have to wait for the dang elevator to show up on your floor. Come on, hurry up! It’s simple enough for the player to gradually get a feel for how an Elevator Action game is supposed to work and also gives veteran players a sense of familiarity.
All 3 characters have better mobility than Otto. Yes, even Jad the Sluggish! You can double tap the stick or pad or whatever to dash and you can now shoot at a 45 degree angle. I wish you could shoot while moving or jump and shoot at the same time, but I guess that would eliminate the challenge. Once the building in stage one blows up, the scenery of Elevator Action Returns becomes more diverse. The remaining 5 levels find all kinds of creative ways to integrate elevation and moving platforms while keeping the Elevator Action going.
Sometimes arcade games have cheap moments where you can easily get hit or even die to encourage you to put more money in the machine. I didn’t felt any cheese in my runs of Elevator Action Returns. The difficulty of the game is a fair, gradual incline. The only thing that feels cheap to me are these invincible wall turrets that you can't damage or destroy.
Now, this game came out right around the time of the polygon revolution (Daytona USA -- Virtua Fighter -- Indy 500). While Elevator Action Returns wasn't part of the quantum graphical leap ford, it still looks pretty dang good for the time. While I wish the character sprites could have been a bit bigger in terms of scaling; the colors, animations, transparencies are impeccable. There's all these details that show you the game designers cared a lot to make the game look visually appealing. If I had played this game as a child in 1994/1995, it probably would have blown my socks off.
The sound is excellent, too. With reverb and voice samples, it all sounds dang near CD quality. While the musical compositions themselves aren't extraordinary, the instrumentation sounds jazzy... sounds like elevator music, so it fits thematically. The music in each stage is a suite broken up into movements with each movement gradually getting more intense as the action revs up.
Elevator Action Returns is one of my favorite arcade games, period. Easily top 10 material. The look of the game, the sound, the pacing, the way it expands upon a very simple arcade game, all make it brilliant. My biggest complaint has very little to do with the game itself, but is more an issue of availability. Quite frankly, it's kind of a major pain in the butt to play this game. The game sadly did very poorly in it's day, and as a result, finding a dedicated machine is very hard. I live in Texas and I called up several arcades and arcade collectors in Houston... nobody seemed to know what an Elevator Action Returns was. The closest one to where I live is, to my knowledge, at Galloping Ghost arcade which is in CHICAGO. I also messaged a few people at some arcade collector's websites to see who had the cabinet: a guy in the Czech Republic was the only person amongst that group who claimed to own one.
So, instead of tracking down an arcade machine, what are your options? The game does not emulate well on MAME. MAME can't nail the game's transparency effects correctly and runs at an overall slow and unplayable pace. If you're gonna buy the game, the cheapest route is to try it off of Taito Legends 2 for PS2 and Xbox. I don't know about the Xbox version, but the machine gun power-up does not work correctly in the PS2 version and some graphics are too bright which makes that a compromised version. I play Elevator Action Returns off of Taito Memories Joukan, a Japan-only release for PS2. The machine gun works fine, but there are a few moments of slowdown. Never enough to throw me off, but these slowdown issues aren't in the original arcade game.
The best bet for a home version of Elevator Action Returns is the Sega Saturn version. It has zero performance issues and is near identical to the arcade version. That too is a Japan-only release and will run you out a few hundred dollars. But I'm told, in no uncertain terms, it is the best way to play Elevator Action Returns in the comfort of your own home.