In the 80’s and 90’s arcade games were supposed to be lavish affairs – the cutting edge of entertainment technology being used to showcase the most flamboyant titles from the cream of gaming’s talent. So it’s something of a surprise to come across this tiny 6x6 inch 1990 Sega PCB that’s so basic it isn’t even capable of producing any sound at a time when Namco were busy producing the (excellent) dual laserdisc attraction Galaxian 3 and Midway’s Smash TV was noisily turning heads.
Needless to say Sega hadn’t taken leave of their senses and there are two main theories as to this board’s existence – the first is that it’s a test PCB, just a little something to make sure all of the basics in your factory-fresh cabinet are working as intended. The other is that a weird Japanese law forbid selling electronics of the arcade cabinet type in an incomplete state, with an empty generic game cabinet (think along the lines of Sega’s own ‘-City’ range) falling under this piece of legislation – like selling a car without an engine, I suppose. So Sega created this as a throwaway piece of nothing just to make sure they could legally sell their own cabinets. Backing up this train of thought is Taito’s Mini-Vaders - a similarly basic PCB released around the same sort of time - so while nobody on either the English or Japanese speaking bits of the internet are absolutely certain about the origins of this board it does look like this is the most likely of the two theories.
When booted up the PCB doesn’t show the usual ROM checks, title screen, or even ask the user to insert a coin – it instead flashes up ‘Press Start’ and won’t do anything else until you either do as you’re told or try to insert a coin anyway and find yourself accidently bringing up the PCB test menu. The game should look familiar to anyone who’s stumbled across Head On, as Dottori-kun takes its design cues entirely from Sega’s ancient 1979 arcade title. The cars (and indeed, the colour graphics) may have been removed, but the game still involves a chase-er and a chase-ee running around a maze collecting dots.
As this is 90’s Sega not even a throwaway law-satisfying bit of kit gets let out the door without a bit of polish, and Dottori-kun does its best to be a proper arcade game even without any sort of score, attract sequence, or way of taking a potential player’s money. A push of the A button can make your little arrow zip around the maze at a faster than usual pace, and each new level offers a different combination of enemy speed, behaviour, and numbers. There are no lives or continues, meaning a single mistake – and you’ll definitely get caught if you’re not devoting all your attention to the game – will unceremoniously dump you straight back on the first level.
At this point we’re supposed to have a little chuckle about Dottori-kun being so basic we’re not even sure if it classes as a game at all and then go back to our ‘proper’ games with all their fancy-pants things like ‘colour’ and ‘sound’… but this little nothing of a PCB has a mesmerising sort of charm to it, rather like the allure of playing Snake on a Nokia 3310. Collecting the dots is a strangely soothing experience and the CPU enemies are unpredictable enough to provide a convincing foil to your pixel-collecting ambitions – it’s not going to be anybody’s first choice of game but then again it was never trying to be, and there’s really nothing anyone can fault with what’s here.
Dottori-kun deserves a better fate than to be thrown out and forgotten – should you ever see Sega’s little PCB available to play at a gaming event do give it five minutes of your time and enjoy this limbo game that somehow came with everything and yet has been played by almost nobody.