From All-American cans to Clydesdales, Budweiser knows marketing. And back in the early 1980s, the “King of Beers” was approached with its greatest opportunity—a videogame where you’re the bartender.
Tapper, an arcade game published by the all-time greats at Midway (responsible for everything from Rampage to NBA Jam), turns 30 this year. And in a new age of gaming where arcade cabinets are mostly confined to iOS ports, collectors’ homes, or the hippest bars, it’s still going strong.
“If you could distill the essence of a bar and an arcade, Tapper is it,” says Danny Marks, co-owner of Chicago’s Emporium barcade. “You’re a bartender, it’s an arcade game serving beer, and we’re an arcade serving beer.”
Like many golden age arcade titles, Tapper is brilliantly simple. You’re job is to serve beers to customers across four long bar counters stacked vertically. When a customer appears, they need a drink. As customers finish, they toss their empties down the bar. You must keep everyone happy while never spilling or allowing an empty glass to smash. You move to the next level when all counters are successfully empty. (Think Frogger’s early drunk brethren.)
“People love Tapper,” Marks says. “A lot of the older games, like Defender, are so hard. We see a lot of people who haven’t played these games in forever, they step up to Asteroids and it’s like, ‘OK, that was a fun eight seconds of losing.’ But Tapper is simple enough to learn how the controls work. You’re drinking and playing videogames, so they step up to Tapper where you’re serving beer and it’s another level.”
Perhaps the best part of Tapper is its design. Buttons are replaced by taps you pull to pour and release to deliver a frosted beer. The joystick sits atop wood paneling like a classic bar counter; the sides are flanked by gold plates to be used as resting spots for your own beverage. And the game’s marquee is styled to look like stained glass (ala a vintage bar sign or light fixture) with a tilted, ice cold Budweiser mug as its centerpiece.
The game follows suit. A giant Budweiser logo sits on the main wall in bar levels and the Budweiser blimp shows up in the outdoor level two. Bonus stages feature the bartender shaking nearly all the Bud cans in a lineup, mixing ‘em up and asking you to choose one. Guess wrong, you’ll get sprayed. Guess right and you’ve earned a drink and the barkeep’s praise: “This Bud’s for you!” (“It’s a great sobriety test to follow the right can,” game co-creator Scott Morrison told Retrogamer back in 2010).
Although a Suntory version made an appearance, Midway eventually asked for a non-alcoholic Tapper. In 1984, Root Beer Tapper was born so kids could get in on the action (an Atari version of the game offers Mountain Dew). Root Beer Tapper is what you see on iOS devices today or in Midway compilations for recently sold consoles (though the Wreck It Ralph homage is a hybrid—Tapper’s bartender and overall console, but root beer is asked for).
No one involved with Tapper is still with Budweiser and the company declined to comment. But the move away from branded Tapper game consoles is certainly a fact. Only 3,300 cabinets of the game were made and not all had Budweiser branding. Today, it’s rare to find a Budweiser branded Tapper game, and even a damaged Budweiser version can be listed for $800 online (double the asking price of Donkey Kong or Pac-Man). It all means that if you’re lucky enough to come across one, step up to it faster than you can order a Bud.