Born of a time when novel ideas and game mechanics were flourishing and the rules were being rewritten with every new release, Taito's 1983 arcade original Elevator Action might not have achieved the certifiable classic status of Pac-Man or Galaga or Taito's own earlier Space Invaders, but it remains a true cult hit, remembered best for its semi-slapstick themes of lighthearted espionage.
It's a franchise that never managed to lift itself up as well as it deserved: its 1994 arcade sequel — even more lavishly animated (and far more cheerily ultraviolent) than the original — only saw console release in Japan on the Sega Saturn, and, most curiously, as a Game Boy Color release re-skinned via Cartoon Network in the U.S. as a Dexter's Laboratory game.
All of that could have changed in 2008, when Taito was pitched a Nintendo DS revival of the franchise, a pitch that would center on original character designs by long-time favorite illustrator (and occasional Vice Magazine comics contributor) James Harvey, better known by his swapped-around pen name Harvey James.
A quick getaway to Japan that was meant to be for pleasure only, Harvey explains, turned into "a pretty fruitful business trip" when a friend happened to have an upcoming meeting with a Taito representative: one in charge of the secret project to bring Elevator Action back to life for Nintendo's handheld.
The friend, says Harvey, "solicited some character designs as part of his proposal for the game… The brief he gave me was to redesign the main characters, three gung-ho anti-terrorists, but to 'keep one eye on the present and one eye on the past', which is one of the more exciting briefs I've ever had. At the time, the economic proliferation of China was making big headlines, so I looked to things like modern Chinese couture and street fashion to get inspiration for my designs, as well as North Korean military uniforms and hip-hop culture."
Though the project never made it to light — "maybe my designs are still sitting in a file at Taito somewhere, or maybe they're in the trash," Harvey adds — the radically culturally diverse team he invented are too fantastically brash and imaginative to keep under cover. So below, a quick introduction to every member of the would-be snooper squad, printed here maybe not so much in overt hopes that it'll jog Taito's memory into giving them a second look, but it would be nice, wouldn't it?
Quite obviously the clear charmer of the three, North Korean team member Kim Min Ji uses a (curiously familiar) laser pistol that Harvey explains "charges from a tea kettle full of battery acid, which she can also hit people with."
Described simply by Harvey as a "crazy white kid in a Halloween suit", Brussels Tibia's special power would have been his deadly flying kick.
Finally, Muslim radical Rakim Al Taff (his name a callback to Elevator Action Return's original Engrish-ed up "tough" guy Jad the "Taff") looks no less foreboding in his dashing pink cap, and would have come equipped with a running clothesline special move.
More of Harvey's art can be seen via his freshly redesigned portfolio site, where you'll also spot T-shirts and original silkscreened prints produced for upstart games culture web-shop Attract Mode.