There are certain game concepts that could come only from Japan. For instance, “giant ape kidnaps plumber’s girlfriend and rolls barrels down a building at him as he attempts to save her” is something you’d expect out of Japanese game developers.
And then there are game concepts that can come only from Japanese game developers who have been locked in a room with Timothy Leary and a Dig Dug machine. That’s where you get Mr. Do!
To say that Mr. Do! is derivative of Dig Dug is a bit like saying Frank Zappa is derivative of Beethoven. That is, you’re pretty sure the freaky former has some degree of familiarity with the latter, but is so far out there in outer space that any similarities are laughably coincidental. Both Dig Dug and Mr. Do! start with the player digging through a maze and leaving a trail all over the screen, and the player can dig under large objects causing them to fall and squish baddies, but that’s where the similarities begin and end.
The object of Mr. Do! is to eat all the cherries on the board. Mr. Do! is a circus clown, and he is pursued around the screen by monsters that look like a cross between a dinosaur and a Converse athletic shoe. Mr. Do! can kill these monsters by digging under apples that litter the screen and thus dropping them on the baddies’ heads, Dig Dug-style, or by shooting them with a Power Ball that bounces through the tunnels. Got it? Good. Here’s where it starts to get weird.
When all of the Dino-Sneakers are done spawning, their spawn point becomes a prize. When Mr. Do! picks up that prize, the Dino-Sneakers freeze and a new set of baddies appears. All of these look like the ghost monsters in Pac-Man but goofier, except for the last one, which looks like teletubby, but less threatening. Shoot the teletubby and the ghost monsters turn into apples while the original Dino-Sneaker things come out of suspended animation and try to kill you again. The background music is that French cabaret “can-can” song. I told you this was weird.
Mr. Do! machines took up residence in a few of the stores in Wading River where I grew up, including the uptown deli and Roscoe’s Candy Store. It was undoubtedly a strange game, made even stranger by the notion that it showed up in a few locations in town. Whoever decided to put these machines in must have had a strong degree of faith in their ability to get kids to plop quarters into them.
When I first encountered the game, nobody in town really knew how to play it, and so we spent quite a bit of money learning. Unlike Pac-Man, which was straightforward and simple, with easy-to-understand rules, Mr. Do! had a lot going on. As kids, we knew it was our solemn duty to master the game. And mastering any game first required a knowledge of the rules of the system. So we spent quarters figuring out whether the baddies could kill you if you ran into them while they were in suspended animation (answer: yes), whether you could push an apple off a cliff and squash multiple baddies on the way down (answer: yes), and whether you could squish yourself by accident if an apple happened to fall on your head (answer: also yes).
These were all questions unaddressed by the game’s demonstration screen, and so they needed to be tested out. The demo screen also showed us that there was a mysterious diamond that would occasionally appear on the screen, and if Mr. Do! picked it up, it was worth 8,000 points and a free game.
Whoa. We knew of video game power-ups that would appear and maybe grant a free life. But a free game? It was unheard of.
We had also heard of easter eggs in video games, certain conditions of play or combinations of button presses that would trigger the appearance of something hidden in the game by its developers. The concept of easter eggs had become familiar to us when someone had discovered a secret room in the Atari 2600 version of Adventure. The secret room contained a special game credit – the name of the game’s creator in rainbow letters.
The easter egg in Adventure was the only one we knew how to reproduce consistently. Once kids got the idea that there could be secret things hidden in games, though, all sorts of outlandish rumors would surface about various games and what was allegedly hidden inside their code.
The diamond in Mr. Do! was thus quite vexing. The demo screen confirmed its existence, but no players could believably say they encountered the mysterious power-up during actual gameplay. Sure, there were a few kids who said they had seen it. While they were playing. Alone. Without anyone else around.
With no confirmed sightings of the diamond, the stories kids would tell about it were highly suspect. My friends and I began to think it was one of those video gaming legends that no one would be able to verify.
And, of course, the one time I did see the diamond, the deli was empty and no one else saw it. I was playing normally and got chased near the top of the screen after digging a long tunnel from the bottom of the screen to the top. I pushed an apple into the shaft and it fell almost the length of the screen, and when it cracked open at the bottom, the can-can music stopped. There it was – the diamond.
I retrieved it for my 8,000 points and free game, and while the machine was busy congratulating me, I looked around hoping that maybe there was an unseen witness somewhere who could verify my sighting. No such luck.
With my free game, I tried to reproduce the game conditions that spawned the diamond. I recreated the long shaft from the bottom of the screen to the top. I pushed several apples into it. No dice. I did it again in subsequent games, but couldn’t get the diamond to come back. Whatever prompted the diamond to appear seemed to be random, exceptionally rare, and annoyingly correlated with solo play.
Nobody believed my diamond story. Not even my good friends. Mr. Do! yielded its spot in the deli and in the candy store for newer games, and I didn’t see the diamond again for a long time.
In fact, it was just a few years ago – on my arcade table – that I finally saw the diamond again. I was playing Mr. Do and two of my kids were watching me. Just like the first time, an apple fell a considerable distance down the screen and cracked open to reveal the diamond. This time, though, I couldn’t shake off the Dino-Sneakers, and I didn’t get to the diamond in time. It disappeared after about 30 seconds. But my kids saw it.
“Did you see that DIAMOND?!” I shrieked at my daughter Kate. I’m pretty sure that my excitement conveyed the rarity of this occurrence, as well as totally freak her out.
But I wasn’t crazy. I had verified that there was, in fact, a diamond that awarded free games in Mr. Do! And it only came about 30 years after the last Mr. Do! enthusiast stopped giving a shit.