Centuri's Last Stand: The Story of Mikie
Updated: Feb 25, 2020
Mikie is an unusual game in several ways. First, it is brutally difficult thanks in part to clunky controls and a strange rule set. Second, it somehow uses unlicensed "chip tune" versions of famous Beatles songs. Third, it features a "hero" that beats the living hearts out of his fellow classmates. And lastly, it was indeed the LAST game from the once powerful and successful Centuri Inc. of North America. Despite a number of hits (almost all of Centuri's games were licensed from Japanese companies for the North American market), Mikie needed to be a hit in order to help dig out the financially strapped company from Florida in the aftermath of the Video Game Crash of 1983. Mikie was odd, hard, and far cry from pervious Centuri hits like Gyruss, Track & Field, or Phoenix.
Centuri was founded in 1980 as a reworking/renaming of the Allied Leisure company. Allied Leisure had mostly found success in the 70's with Pong knock offs, electromechanical style games, and cocktail pinball machines. By 1983 Centuri was in trouble, but would go on doing what they found successful in the past by releasing licensed titles from Japan. Specifically they were sticking with Konami who had been their most successful partner. Unfortunately thanks to a combination of a soft game market (Thanks to the Video Game Crash of 1983), new competition, and picking three games that just didn't quite click with the American public Centuri would not find the big hit game they needed to survive.
The first game in the last of the three released would be Circus Charlie. Circus Charlie shares a number of similarities to the Konami hit games Track and Field and Hyper Sports, but with a circus theme instead of a sports theme. You play Charlie the Clown and choose between 6 different events that require timing to get through. The events are: jumping through fire loops, jumping over bears (?) on the high wire, balancing on giant balls, bouncing over obstacles on mini trampolines, riding a horse at high speed, and swinging on the trapeze. The game allows the player to choose which event to play next, you can even continue to play the same event once you pass it several times before it locks you out of that event. The game is fun, has great music, colorful graphics, and would become a very minor hit for Centuri. It's hard to say how many Circus Charlie machines or conversion kits were produced, but it wasn't the huge money maker Centuri really needed at this point.
Personally I find Circus Charlie a delightful game to play with its fun gameplay and upbeat music. The graphics are well animated with a good use of color and some clever animation. The ability to choose which event the player wants to compete in instead of locking the player into a specific order of events they must complete in order to move on to the next is both innovative and adds to the gameplay experience. Production totals for Circus Charlie are unknown, but I would estimate about 1500 dedicated upright machines at most were produced, with maybe the same amount of conversion kits also sold. Cocktail versions are extremely rare, and I doubt more than 100 were manufactured as the industry was moving away from cocktail machines.
Circus Charlie came in three versions: a dedicated upright (produced in a slightly modified version of a Gyruss cabinet), a dedicated cocktail, and a conversion kit. Several home versions of the game exist, but are mostly for the Japanese home market. A version was made for the Nintendo Family Computer but was never officially released outside of Japan in a NES version. In a desperate attempt to stay alive Centuri would start selling their games directly to operators instead of forcing them to go through distributors which was common practice at the time. Although this would save money for the operator (and in turn be more profitable for Centuri), this moved ended up pissing off many distributors of Centuri's games and might have speed up their demise more quickly. It is important to note however, that this would eventually become the standard for the industry.
Centuri would then bring over the Laserdisc game Badlands from Konami. This western themed game is another odd ball game, which combines the grim nature of the old west with some rather odd humorous cut scenes and a single button controlling the action. Even as far as the limited interaction of Laserdisc games go, Badlands is strangely disconnected from the player input and can be a frustrating and dull gaming experience. The humorous cut scenes after a death are very typical of Anime of the time, but may not have translated well for American audiences.
Badlands sold poorly, a victim of quickly fading interest in Laserdisc games which were once heralded as the next wave in video games. The limited interaction and gameplay mechanics that Laserdisc games offered soon proved boring to the player. On top of this, Laserdisc games were often expensive to buy when compared to traditional games for the arcade operator. Konami would attempt to continue to market and sell the game on its own after Centuri closed down. Very few of these games were manufactured, I would estimate well under 1,000 copies with few examples surviving today. Badlands was a flop, and today is remembered more as a rare odd ball than for any kind of innovation or quality.
Centuri was on the verge of closing the doors forever, so there was only time for one last Hail Mary attempt for an arcade hit. Once again they turned to Konami and found a uniquely themed platform game to bring over. The game had all the right elements: great music, colorful graphics, and a theme of kids creating chaos at school. Unfortunately the game also had a confusing rule set, dodgy controls, and punishing difficultly. That game was Mikie, and it would be the last game Centuri would ever manufacture. Available as a dedicated cabinet (retooled from unsold Circus Charlie cabinets) and as a conversion kit, very few were sold by Centuri. A cocktail version was advertised but none have been seen in the hands of collectors.
Mikie's game play is interesting and a great example of Konami's ability to design a great theme for a game, with a fun and innovative environment to the game world. Some of the music in Mikie is lifted from a little indie band you might have heard of called the Beatles. It is hard to officially say if they had licensed the music for use in the game, at least in the American version of Mikie.
Mikie has a grand total of three different versions of the game. The concept of a mischievous student was alerted for the Japanese home market. This was due to the (at the time) outbreak of student violence in Japan, so the game was renamed Shinnyū Shain Tōru-kun (新入社員とおるくん, "Freshman Employee Toru"). The theme changed from student life to an office environment. With the change in theme, all the major sprites and many of the graphical elements have been altered for Shinnyū Shain Tōru-kun. This version saw a home release for the Sega SG-1000 series of home video game systems in Japan, which would become the Sega Master System in North America and other parts of the world.
The student themed version of Mikie would go ahead for the rest of the globe, but itself would have two versions. The two versions are labeled on the title screen of the game as either Mikie or High School Graffiti Mikie which is a bit confusing since the American version cabinet artwork and advertising calls the game High School Graffiti Mikie, when it is actually just the Mikie version of the game. The main difference in High School Graffiti Mikie is that the game replaces the "Head But" attack with a screaming attack. This attack is faster to respond, but has an even shorter range than the head but attack, and just for good measure doesn't work on the teacher from the first round of the game. This slight variation actually ends up making a very difficult game even more so.
Home versions of the game were rare. In addition to the Sega SG-1000 release of the Shinnyū Shain Tōru-kun version there are Spectrum and Commodore-64 releases that seemed to have been somewhat popular in Europe. No official home version of the game was ever released in North America, although I bet some bootleg copies for the Commodore-64 made their way over to our shores at some point.
Centuri would close their doors to their video game division in late 1984 turning over all unsold conversion kits of Mikie and Badlands to third party distributors. They were then in turn sold at a deep discount price, but I could find no solid evidence on how many of these kits were actually sold. Most of the Badlands kits were purchased by the movie theatre chain United Artists. Mikie PCB's aren't hard to find, but they are also not very common. This might be a combination of both low production and a lack of modern collector interest.
I find Mikie a fascinating and historically important title in the history of arcade game collecting for many reasons. It's the last title from a major American video game manufacture. Mikie uses music from the most famous rock band of all time (maybe officially. maybe not), the Beatles. The theming is unique and the attempt to create an open world platform game in 1984 was a visionary one. The game was also somewhat localized into two different versions for both Japanese and World audiences. The game also showcases the transition in the arcade industry that would soon be mostly conversion kits from Japanese based manufactures. Konami would go onto become a powerhouse in both arcades and in home video games, while Centuri is now just a footnote in the history of video games.
Our Mikie came to us from a local Craigslist ad for a wrestling game named Mat Mania. The game had been converted many years ago from another rare game, Red Alert from GDI. Red Alert is a pretty typical Space Invaders style shooter with some early voice sound effects. GDI would only make one other arcade game the Centipede "inspired" game Slither. It had been converted many times over its lifespan, and had accumulated more layers of cheap spray paint than any other arcade game I have had the privilege of attempting to restore. Below is a video where I walk through the restoration process a bit more.
Mikie is a hard and punishing game to play, but despite this I do find it strangely fun. Mikie isn't a game you are ever going to find as an official "retro" download for a modern gaming system. Mikie will never be a part of a "Greatest Hits" collection, have some rediscovered revival, or be referenced in a Wreck It Ralph film. It's an odd ball title from a forgotten American distributor, it's the TV show that is cancelled after 4 episodes, or that local brand of cola no one remembers anymore. For all these reasons and so many more, I love it.