Updated: Oct 30, 2021
A lot of great arcade games came from Japanese manufactures in the early 1980's. But not everything was on par quality wise with some of the classic early Japanese imports like Donkey Kong, Gyruss, or Jungle Hunt. There were many "me too" games, copy cat games, rushed to market games, and games that just plain stunk. So let's check out some of these rarely seen (if they were ever well seen, who knows), many of which never made it out of Japan into other markets.
Steel Worker, Taito 1980
Steel Worker could be the great granddaddy of the computer classic Lemmings. Instead of an armada of little creatures that will go wherever you design them to go... in Steel Worker you have to build the correct shape of girder to safely guide your well, steel worker across the construction site. As the game moves forward, the difficulty ramps up causing the player to rely on the more unique shapes and patterns to get your little OSHA nightmare completed. The sound effects might seem familiar, as they are the exact same as in Taito's Space Invaders. Despite the simple nature of gameplay, Steel Worker looks like a lot of fun.
La-Pa-Pa, Data East 1983
One of the many Pac-Man uh... "inspired" games of the early 1980's. Data East made this for the Deco arcade system, which would load the game program from a cassette player in the game cabinet. This was a similar approach to data storage much like many low cost home computers of the time. The game was also marketed as "Rootin' Tootin'", a better name for sure but it's still just an uninspired clone of a much better game. I don't think this ever set foot in the USA, however it did make it's way to the UK in the form of a conversion for the Commodore 64 computer. This wouldn't be the first or last Pac clone for Data East.
Mr. Jong, by Sanritsu 1983
This appears to be a hack or bootleg "reworking" of the classic Sega game Pengo. Even the play dynamics are exactly the same. Instead of a penguin you are a older looking kung fu kind of guy. Sanritsu would make several odd and interesting games including the game Dream Shopper. It is unclear if any of these games came to the US officially. Mr. Jong was also released with slightly modified graphics as the game Crazy Blocks. This version replaced the Kung-Fu man with a Red Riding Hood looking girl, but the monsters seem to look the same. Crazy Blocks was released by Kiwako, who would release another game called Block Buster which is....yes, you guessed it.... the same game slightly rebranded yet again. I guess the third time wasn't really a charm for this copy of a much better game.
Dacholer, Nichibutsu 1983
Remember that classic game by Williams were you play an ostrich? Well, this is the other ostrich themed game. In Dacholer you kick a soccer ball (?) into mice and other creatures for some unknown reason. This game reminds me a little of Dig Dug 2, but with worse music and less of a point. A true oddball game that according to the flyer was marketed outside of Japan. The flyer is almost as weird as the game it is advertising.
Nichibutsu was not exactly a stranger to way out there concepts for their video games. Most of the US releases of their titles are pretty rare, with the exception of the game Crazy Climber which was a moderate hit. Nichibutsu would make video games until recently when in 2014 it sold all of it's assets off due to their company founder retiring. The game gets old pretty quickly, and the music is at best repetitive. But we will always have that amazing flyer to look at.
Marine Date, Taito 1981
Taito is one of the most important arcade game manufactures of the golden age of games. With hits like Space Invaders and Elevator Action to its name, Taito's legacy is not up for debate. However, Taito made A LOT of games in the early 1980's and not all of them were...uh classics. In Marine Date you play an male octopus attempting to avoid all sorts of terrible things in the sea to get to your Octopus date. The gameplay is fast but somewhat simplistic, the target audience for this title might have been on the younger side. It does have a bit of charm to it like many Taito games. I don't see any evidence that this title made it outside of Japan in any fashion.
Check Man, by Jaleco 1982
Check Man might not be as obscure to those in the UK or in Europe compared to it's obscurity here in the US. Released as an arcade game in 1982 in the US by Zilec-Zenitone, Check Man is sort of a cross between the Microsoft Windows game Minesweeper and the Namco classic Pac-Man. It has some interesting ideas, and does actually involve some strategy. The sound effects and music are not the greatest, and some of the color choices for the sprites are questionable at best. The game was a conversion kit for Galaxian PCB's, even reusing the flag graphic from the game.
Check Man was ported to several popular home computer systems in the UK and in Europe both officially and not. This might seem like just another in a long line of Pac-Man clones, but there is at least an effort with Check Man to make something slightly different and unique.
Libble Rabble, Namco 1983
Libble Rabble is a mix of the Taito game Qix, and the Atari cult favorite Quantum. The graphics are colorful, cute, and the music is catchy as hell. You use two arrows connected by a "string" to "wrap" creatures up using the pegs around the screen. This was one of the many great games designed by Pac-Man creator Toru Iwatani while at Namco .
The arcade version of Libble Rabble was a Japanese release only. US manufacture Bally/Midway owned the rights to release it in the USA, but decided against it. On an interesting technical note, Libble Rabble was one of the first arcade games to use the Motorola 68000 processor, making it one of the earliest released 16-bit arcade games. There have been several home releases of the game, and it is considered to be cult classic video game in Japan. Originally called "Potato", it was designed to be tie in with a potato chip company.
Lasso, SNK 1981
It seems that Lasso was developed by SNK but released both by SNK and in some markets by Taito. It shares a lot of the same concepts with the Atari 2600 game by Activision "Stampede".
The concept of Lasso is pretty basic, you lasso the animals who have gotten loose in a field, and avoid dangerous obstacles. It's pretty colorful and has some cute graphics, unfortunately the lasso throwing is rather touchy and hard to control. You also have a gun (?) for shooting invading wolves and the like. The animals that are loose in the field often jump round somewhat haphazardly which adds to control frustrations. Lasso reminds me a lot of Dig Dug in the way the rope reaches out to the animal you are trying to capture. The play mechanics however really limit the appeal of this game. Lasso appears to have been released worldwide, although in a limited capacity in the US.