Arcade Anomalies: Jail Break

By Michael Allen Rose

In 1985, Konami, publisher of classics like Contra and Life Force, released an arcade game called Jail Break. This was in the era of very strange arcade games—logic and reason were secondary to gameplay. Copyright laws weren’t sure what to make of the medium, especially those that were released globally, which led to strange, uncredited cameos and easter eggs that were surreal and incongruous.

I played Jail Break as a little kid in the local mall arcade. I vaguely remember some of the weird things about the game, but more memorable was the difficulty level. It was hard. Ridiculously hard. It was a bullet-hell shooter, essentially, but without the usual range of motion something like a spaceship would lend you. You play as a cop, after a jail break (hey, what an appropriate title!) where you’re trying to murder all the ex-convicts. Judge, jury, and executioner. One lone, single officer against a sea of evil convicts. It’s a story we saw a million times in media, especially back in the latter part of the 20th century. Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood played those kinds of characters, more interested in manslaughter than justice.

But Jail Break, again, didn’t have much of a story. That lack of concern about narrative led to some truly bizarre choices and moments.

At the beginning of the game, you watch as the jail fails at its most basic function. A bunch of convicts in stylish striped pants, some in red, some in blue, charge the gate. “The warden has been taken hostage! Free him, no matter what the cost,” says a voice from the sky, as the convicts fire upon the two guards casually watching them all run out the door. The door opens by itself, and they are free, this series of convicts in colorful pants. Perhaps they are siblings. They all look alike (except for the pants). They all wear white shirts, with clean shaven heads, and old-fashioned ball-and-chains attached to their legs.

Smash cut to: you, the lone officer, parking your police car in the middle of the street and for some reason, getting out the passenger side of the car. Or the driver’s side, if this is Japan. Either way, you were driving in the middle of the street, and that’s a problem no matter what country you’re in. You run straight down the middle of the road, pistol drawn, and soon, you’re murdering convicts.

This is when the game introduces us to the first of the citizens. Yes, there are innocent citizens in Jail Break, but they act like hallucinations. The first one is a young person of indeterminate gender yelling “Help! Help!” Your officer runs up to them, touching them, and they vanish, but not before handing you a bazooka. Why were they simply standing in the street? They weren’t running or attempting to hide, just yelling. Also, where were they hiding the bazooka? Where did they acquire it? Why didn’t they use it?

These questions go unanswered, because after a few more indiscriminate murders, a construction worker casually walks across the street. His hands are folded behind his back. You can almost hear him whistling a happy tune. Your officer yells, “Let the hostages go!” despite there being no hostages, and tags this man. He too disappears, but suddenly you find a grenade launcher in your hands. If this cop has the power to change people into weapons of mass destruction, it’s not explicitly made clear, but that’s the logic we’re working under here.

Here comes another citizen. A hot blonde, running with her hair blowing in the wind. “Help, I’m over here!” she cries. The cop tags her too, but she apparently wasn’t carrying any heavy weapons, and simply vanishes.

Now, things get weird. Orange construction barrels are in the road, although there’s no other evidence of construction. When shot with a bazooka they explode (like pretty much anything else you shoot with a bazooka), but when you shoot the third barrel, Batman is inside. Yes, Batman. The Dark Knight. He’s shirtless, but still recognizable from the boots, cape and cowl. I suppose it could be a Batman-themed stripper, but either way, he lives in a barrel, and now you’ve destroyed his home. He shouts “5000!” and disappears.

Now we see that in this reality, heavy weapons can reveal strange sights, so the next logical thing to do, of course, is shoot a grenade through a second-story window. There’s a criminal standing in it, firing a gun at you, so it makes sense I suppose, to shoot back. We don’t know how he got in. Maybe it’s his apartment. Either way, when he eats a grenade, he TRANSFORMS into a BEAUTIFUL, BLONDE, TOPLESS WOMAN. Yes, it appears that the police have technology that combines gender confirmation surgery with heavy ordinance.

Before our officer can process this, the same construction worker as before casually walks across the street again. How did he get here before us? We have now established that JAUNTY CONSTRUCTION WORKERS can TELEPORT. Either that or this is a town full of clones, because soon enough, the crying child is back. Then, the construction worker again. This goes on until it’s become clear that this is a city of doppelgangers.

Suddenly, an alarm goes off. A voice from the sky declares, “You’re in danger!” as a kickline of convicts enters the scene, all firing wildly in your general direction. You kill these people. You kill everyone. All the convicts are dead.

And yet, we cut again to a police van. The ominous words “Hello? Hello? Is there anyone there?” float above us, like something out of a David Lynch film. The cop walks onto the screen as a happy tune plays. He heads up a line of four convicts all arranged in a chain-gang. All of them wear the same red and white striped pants. Where did they come from? Everyone was dead. Has the officer REANIMATED THE CORPSES SO THAT HE HAS SOMEONE TO ARREST?

These elements repeat themselves on the city streets, at the local park, on the pier, over a very long bridge, and finally back to the jail, where all this madness began. The same people, the same convicts, the same fashion choices, the same naked ladies and bat men—our officer is unstuck in time, trapped in a loop and forever meeting and killing the same people. It’s like Groundhog Day with way more police brutality.

But then, at the far end of the prison, there is a single door, set into a plain gray wall. Scrawled above it in blood, the word reads: “Welcome.” After another pile of corpses is stacked up, several convicts exit the “Welcome” door, but they are carrying a chair, and strapped to that chair is the warden. Is this a Horah? Are they about to break into song and welcome the warden into manhood? No, they set the chair down right in front of us. Then they shoot. But no, we shoot them. There is shooting. Everyone is shooting. More death. More murder. More of this bizarre pageantry of totalitarian rule disguised as justice. But when all the bad guys are dead, the cop goes to his friend, the warden, and instantly, the chair and ropes are gone. The two men rub each other’s arms. They rub hard and fast, like they are trying to start their arms on fire.

“Congratulations!” the screen tells us. Our goal has been achieved. The cop and the warden have rubbed each other’s arms. The bat man is safely in his barrel. The woman’s breasts are flying free through their window. All is well. But no, the story BEGINS AGAIN. There is no real ending. Officer protagonist awakens, pistol in hand, back on the streets. Nothing has changed, the convicts are running rampant, the warden is in his chair, and more murder is required of him.

It’s an existential cycle worthy of Sartre. This is hell. There is no exit. There are only colorful, striped pants.

Michael Allen Rose is a writer, musician, editor and performance artist based in Chicago, Illinois. His stories have been published in such periodicals and anthologies as the Magazine of Bizarro Fiction, Heavy Feather Review, and Tales From The Crust. He has published several books including Embry: Hard Boiled (Eraserhead Press), Rock And Roll Death Patrol (Rooster Republic Press), The Indifference Of Heaven (Omnium Gatherum) and more. In Spring of 2021, Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing will release Michael’s newest book, Jurassichrist. He is the host of the annual Ultimate Bizarro Showdown at Bizarro Con in Portland, OR. Michael also releases industrial music under the name Flood Damage. He lives with an awesome cat, helps his girlfriend make internet porn, and enjoys good tea.