In the years since Pac-Man and Donkey Kong first inspired kids to shelve their Monopoly boards and electric trains, arcade games have grown more violent and sophisticated to appeal either to the kids playing them or to the folks who create them. Currently in vogue, inspired by the very popular House of the Dead, are zombie-slaughtering games, where the player fires a mounted rifle or shotgun at hordes of marauding specters. Most of these games stick to this simplistic point of view --zombies bad, humans good. As is still true in most horror films, rarely do we get to see the world from the zombie's pus-oozing eye sockets. (But it would be refreshing one day to be the undead, to understand where they're coming from, rather than always blowing them away with a shotgun.)
In House of the Dead, you are attacked relentlessly by killer monkeys doing flips, mean-ass frogs and the same guy with a chain saw over and over. This gets tedious; you will have to pump many dollars into this game to get to the ending for little payoff. The game has spawned many successors, including House of the Dead II, Zombie Revenge and Crypt Killer, where the action takes place in various underground tombs; Area 51, where you shoot generic aliens rather than zombies; and -- undoubtedly the best of the genre -- CarnEvil. Since it is also perhaps the most twisted video game ever created, CarnEvil quickly disappeared from most arcades, though it can still be found at the Pak Mann Arcade in Pasadena (1775 E. Colorado Blvd.). This totally sick, extremely clever game, which takes place in a carnival gone very wrong, features every sort of maggot attack, bodies being chopped up in new, creative ways, very unamusing amusement rides, extremely disturbing freak-show types and in the end a giant baby who must be destroyed. Armed with a rattle and baby barf and set to cute baby music, this psychotic baby may offend some people. But if anyone complains, arcade workers can open the game and press a button to change the baby into a teddy bear.
NEVER UNPOPULAR WITH THE KIDS BUT GEARED MORE toward adults, car-racing games have improved dramatically since the days of Pole Position. The best and most realistic series began with Cruisin' USA, where you could race through Iowa (easy) or Chicago (expert). Then came Cruisin' World, where you could terrorize the streets of Moscow, Egypt or Germany; and finally the brilliant California Speed, where you can cruise via an alien ship in the Mojave Desert, speed through a fantastic, psychedelic computer world to a swinging techno soundtrack in the Silicon Valley, run over shoppers in a mall in the Central Valley, or ride on top of the Golden Gate Bridge (spectacular graphics) into San Francisco, passing the herd of buffalo hidden in Golden Gate Park. Other car games don't really compare, except for Crazy Taxi, a new game at Westworld in Westwood (10965 Weyburn Ave.) where the driver must chauffeur complaining passengers who sometimes fall out of the taxi, such as a minister trying to get to church and a Mohawked punk hitching a ride to Tower Records.
On the chaotic streets of Rome and Naples, Radikal Bikers has you weaving your way through heavy traffic on a motorbike looking for hidden shortcuts in order to deliver your pizza faster than your rival pizza-delivery men, Gino and Carlo. This game is extremely fun and reminiscent of goofier times, when game concepts -- Paperboy, Burger Time, Mr. Do, Congo Bongo, Food Fight and Frogger -- were more creative.
REFLECTING THE CYNICAL, DEATH-OBSESSED, Japanese-robots-will-take-over-the-Earth-and-consume-human-flesh '90s (as opposed to the relatively carefree, parents-leaving-the-kids-in-the-arcade-for-hours '80s), a lot of new games, such as the post-futuristic Hydro Thunder, a boat-racing game, are dark and apocalyptic. Beautiful but loud and unsettling, Hydro Thunder sends you hurtling in a speedboat through Venice canals, Greek isles, the Far East, the ship graveyard or a flooded, Armageddonesque New York. You have to play five times to get to the Nile adventure, but it's worth it. It's a knockout.
Even farther into the future -- too far, in fact -- is Virtual On Cybertroopers, a Japanese robot game that is just too spaced-out, weird and 23rd-century for its own good. Perhaps it will be more fun and comprehensible when we are all wearing jet-powered sneakers and cyborg servants do our shopping for us.
Terrorists, favorite postCold War foes of everything Americans hold dear, will still be around in the next century to stoke our outrage. This is the subject for numerous sucky, massacre-everything-in-sight arcade games like Terraburst, where you mow down alien terrorists with a helicopter-mounted machine gun, and L.A. Machine Guns Rage of the Machines, where you slaughter futuristic terrorists who've taken over Las Vegas and Yosemite. Also, there's Time Crisis II, which appears to be modeled after the Robert De Niro action flick Ronin, and probably the most blatantly offensive of all arcade games, Metal Slug X, a cartoonish war game where you machine-gun Arabs and save babies. Metal Slug X is only slightly redeemed by the Egyptian-themed second level, where you battle mummies and their mummy dogs. The best of the antiterrorist games, though, is difficult to find: Die Hard, in which you battle firemen with machetes and beat up a naked ninja who emerges from a bathroom stall, whom you can bash over the head with a toilet if you like. There's an even better (and equally hard to find) sequel featuring a giant octopus with little baby octopi that clamp onto your face, a Chef Prudhommesize cook who rams you with his tummy, a mean bartender who throws glasses at you, and a crazy turtle guy. You can defend yourself with a baguette, a pepper shaker and a lamp.
Finally, there are a number of new martial-arts games in local arcades. While they may seem complicated at first to novice players who are not used to wielding six buttons and a joystick, they're certainly impressive: Tekken 3 and Mortal Kombat 4 are among the best. Along with lots of graphic, bone-shattering attacks, these games also attempt to be politically correct: Women characters kick just as much ass as the men. Whether that phenomenon represents some sort of progress isn't clear. As everyone knows, technology moves ahead faster than politics.