RGS:01 – Beat ’em ups

So here it is, my playthrough of the games featured on episode 1 of RetroGameSquad.

NOTE: I’m coming to all of these games instruction-blind. Even ones that I’ve played before in my long gaming history, I’ve probably forgotten more than I remember. For some stuff I couldn’t work out when playing I’ve looked it up afterwards, or maybe during play, but for the most part I’ve tried to just attack the games with no prior knowledge, just to make it harder and more confusing! Wherever possible, I’ve played them on real hardware.

As a side note, I never owned a NES or a Saturn, nor did I know anyone who had those systems, so I can say with certainty, that every single game I’m playing on both of those is brand new to me, not including any that I’ve played ports of on other systems, obviously.

Look out for my good friend Jon’s opinion on Die Hard Arcade, too. We played that and Guardian Heroes together, and they were both a riot, for different reasons!

So, without further ado…

RetroGameSquad – Episode 1 – Beat ‘Em Ups

Streets Of Rage
Mega Drive – real hardware

StreetsOfRage

What can I say about SoR that hasn’t been said before? Not a lot. It’s a true classic, but one that still brings immense joy to play. Even if it’s not your preferred style, nobody could fail to be impressed by the music that hits you upon starting the game. Yuzo Koshiro squeezed incredible things from the Mega Drive, and his compositions are beautiful, and suit the game perfectly. It made such a change from the often monotonous tunes that would burn into your brain during that era. I’ve always been drawn to games with good music (my early C64 days of loading a game that was a turd to play, just to hear the loading music set the tone), and for me, the SoR music can definitely be seen as a major reason for me coming back to it again and again, and playing through it as many times as I did. I didn’t mind trying to get further, play longer, when such good music was there to keep me company.

As far as the gameplay goes, we all know it was SEGA’s answer to Final Fight, and for me, they went one better. It’s hugely enjoyable, with some great, colourful graphics, plenty of varied characters to knock seven bells out of, and sound effects to match. My main criticism is that the hit-zones for characters are on the generous side. This means that whilst it makes the game a little easier to play, there’s an unfortunate graphical side-effect that sees your punches and kicks not quite connecting, and it just looks a little strange. It’s still a minor beef with a quality game. Different playable characters, weapons to pick up and use, and multiplayer on one system. What’s not to like?

Renegade
NES – emulated

Renegade

Oh man. This game was SO hard. My experience of playing this as a kid was on the C64, and on there it wasn’t so much hard, as annoying. I remember it being hard to connect as the opponents would just keep backing away, and it was weirdly skiddy in movement. Here on the NES though, I felt like I’d never played a videogame before in my life. It’s so, so hard. The controls do absolutely nothing to help you in not feeling like an idiot, either. It felt like one button for kick, one for punch, but they also behaved differently depending which way your character faced. And then, once you think you’ve got the hang of it, multiple enemies will attack you all at once, you’ll panic, and do weird reverse kicks into thin air while they pummel your exposed balls. It’s confusing as hell, and ridiculously frustrating. There’s still the obvious ‘golden’ move though. At least on the earlier levels. Pressing both buttons together to do a jump kick was pretty effective, with enemies not learning and taking them in the face with pleasing regularity.

From listening to RetroGameSquad, I knew to expect glitches and flicker on the NES, and mercifully, there weren’t too many in evidence here. The music though? That drove me a bit mad. It felt like a sonic representation of the in-game controls, messy, confusing and limited.

The squat characters were odd-looking compared to the taller, skinnier sprites I was used to seeing as a kid (PAL vs NTSC), but some of them gave a laugh. EMY (or was it JACK – I couldn’t quite work out the status panel) was fun to beat up – it was like punching a stunted-growth Gene Simmons from KISS.

Unfortunately I didn’t get far, it was just too damn hard.

Double Dragon
NES – emulated

DoubleDragon

Once again, I had an altogether different experience with Double Dragon as a kid. My first games were played on the arcade machine at our local swimming pool (I was so sad when they took it away and replaced it with Konami’s Jackal). I loved playing the arcade version, despite a lot of the characters doing their best John Inman impression. Not long afterwards I was seduced by the incredible artwork on the big-box Melbourne House release for the C64. The game wasn’t incredible, it was buggy and ugly, but I still played it more than it deserved.

On the NES, levels 1 and 2 were easy. There wasn’t much of a challenge, even for this old man, but level 3 ramped the difficulty up a little bit. It wasn’t until that stage that the enemies started learning what attacks you were going to do, so repeated flying kicks got rid of them pretty easily. The graphics were a mixed bag. The sprites were good, if a little indistinct and blocky, but some bizarre colour choices, and seeming mashups of sprite halves saw you fighting jaundiced garbage-pail kids a lot of the time. There was something deeply satisfying about repeatedly kneeing them in the head though – definitely my favourite move!

I liked the bold graphics for all their weirdness, but the collision detection was woeful, so sometimes it felt less to do with your skill than it did being at the mercy of some poor code. A brave attempt at a home conversion, but not something I’d return to.

Double Dragon II
NES – emulated

DoubleDragonII

“In 19XX after the nuclear war…” – so starts the intro. Thankfully Billy and Jimmy Lee were better brawlers than they were soothsayers, or else we’d have all eaten megadeath by now. A bomb being dropped on this particular game might not have been such a bad thing, though. It’s much quicker than the first game, and the graphics have been improved, with a more shaded feel, giving the characters some sense of depth. This all seems to have come at the expense of some pretty regular flickering though, which was no fun.

There was a similar control mechanic to Renegade which I didn’t like, but it felt easier to get used to than that game, but still jarred compared to the separate punch/kick controls of Double Dragon.

More of the same, in many regards, although as you progress there are enemies that throw stuff at you, and it’s almost as soon as they enter the screen, and the projectiles are fast, so unless you know they’re coming from previous play, it just feels cheap.

Fun, but no more so than its older brother.

Mighty Final Fight
NES – emulated

MightyFinalFight

Urgh, I hated this game. It was odd seeing the characters we know and love from Final Fight being represented in squat, Taito-esque cutesy cartoon graphics, but it didn’t seem to matter as much when there was so much headache-inducing flicker that you wished the game came with a free blindfold anyway. The only saving grace, graphically, was the range of opponents, so at least you weren’t fighting the same ones over and over.

It just felt like a pure button-masher with very little actual skill involved. It looked like there could be an interesting mechanic of EXP points, but as far as I could tell, they just increased with the number of bad guys you despatched, but with no meaningful difference being made to the game. Maybe I just didn’t get far enough.

It felt like a total waste of my life, if I’m honest, and a game that the Final Fight franchise should probably pretend doesn’t exist.

River City Ransom
NES – emulated

RiverCityRansom

A beat ‘em up with a ‘do your weekly grocery shop’ element. It reminded me a bit of Wonderboy in Monsterland (I loved that game on the PC Engine, and used to play the import Japanese version before the days of the internet, so had to just learn what everything did by trial and error). Free-roaming, to an extent, as you can choose to take paths up, down and across to new areas, each with their own graphical theme (like heading in to a park from the street, for example). Every few screens, you walk through a shopping mall. This is so that you can spend the coins you’ve amassed that pop out of fallen foes. What should you spend them on? Who knows? There is literally no indication of what any given item will do before you buy it. To add to the confusion, some items are ‘used’ instantly, and automatically, and some you keep in your inventory to be used later. “Would you like to buy a six-pack of hotdog buns for 30 coins?” – I’ve no idea, will it make my fist burn with the fires of hell through the face of my enemies? You see the problem. And there are LOADS of items to learn. Also, some of the ‘abilities’ the items give you are just plain baffling. One such was point increases on your ‘willpower’. Er, what? I couldn’t begin to think of what urges you might need to repress in a game like this.

So to that end, it felt like a game that you really need to invest some time in to play properly, and I didn’t really feel like doing that. Although if you chose to, there is at least a password system for you to save your game progress with.

The graphics were OK, and there was a nice application of inertia to the movement of the characters, but the music was pretty irritating. I think that was the case for a good deal of games on earlier systems though – music was an afterthought, and it often shows. Not a pure enough beat ‘em up for my tastes, but I can see the forward-thinking that went into the game, and it was undoubtedly something fresh at the time of release.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III
NES – emulated

TMNT3

This was beautiful compared to the other NES games I’d played to this point. Large, colourful sprites, sampled speech and a real cartoon-like feel. The Ninja Turtles (or Hero Turtles as they were known in England when they first came to be) are realised well, and you definitely feel like you’re playing an individual character. For example, Raphael seemed so much slower than Leonardo. A complaint with all four of them though, and not that I would want a mega-selection of combos, but there didn’t seem to be enough attack moves, so was a little dull on that front. And speaking of characters, I know some people don’t approve, but I love a game that allows you to choose your character at the beginning of a new credit. It makes playing through a game that you’re approaching for the first time a little more fun.

The change in level styles is good, with level 2 seeing you take to a surfboard! It whizzes along at a fair clip, but does slow down when there are a lot of enemies on screen making timing a bit of a problem. Still, an impressive number of sprites on screen given the hardware limitations.

Some of the extra animations for the characters brought the game alive, too. The Wile E. Coyote style chargrilled expressions were great. Nice touches like the ability to grab on to the edge of things you fall off of (like the submarine in level 3) also help make this a really enjoyable game to play.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles In Time
SNES – real hardware

TMNT4

Presentation-wise, this is spot on. The intro is great with some sampled speech and it’s colourful to say the least. There’s sprite scaling, epilepsy-inducing rainbows and loud music. All good!

Once in the game the high level of polish is still there. If you hang around too long April will appear tapping her foot, nagging you to fight. The scaling effect is used in-game as well, with one satisfying use having the enemies fly toward the screen when you throw them a particular way. There’s also a great move where you can pick an enemy up, and smash them left and right, like Bam-Bam from the Flintstones! There are loads of other Warner Bros. style animations, too.

The characters again have different abilities. They feel more pronounced on this one, and some make it irritating to play. Mikey’s reach is abysmal, and it becomes a bit of a chore to try and hit enemies.

Sonically, the sound effects and speech are great, but the brash guitar music quickly becomes grating.

I found the little robots particularly annoying, too. They would fire at you from long-range and it was really difficult to get away from them. It all starts to feel a little coin-guzzly, but then is saved by a level which you view from behind Shredder. He’s in a vehicle, firing things at you, and trying to grab you with a mechanical arm. There’s a great HUD graphic overlayed, and it’s frantic. It took me a while to work out how to defeat him, but it was a clever mechanic. You have to grab the enemies and throw them toward the screen, hitting Shredder each time until he’s had enough punishment. It’s at this point that he lobs you into a time warp and you land back in time with the dinosaurs.

A great TMNT game, but for me, still not as good as the arcade original.

Final Fight 2
SNES – real hardware

FinalFight2

Out of all of the games from episode 1, this is probably the one I played longest. It was Final Fight. That’s its biggest positive, and also its biggest negative. If you liked the first one (which I did) you’ll like this. It’s what Final Fight on the SNES should have been, as the original port isn’t great. The sprites are huge, the animation fluid, and there are a good range of ‘incidentals’ playing out in the background graphics.

The fighting is what you’d expect, and the enemies are the same, albeit in far-flung locales across the world this time. However, I couldn’t escape the feeling that the graphic artist had a fetish for very effeminate clothing for men. All of the male opponents look like they’ve just walked from a drag bar, and even some of the playable character graphics are a bit iffy – Carlos, for example, looks like he’s trying to flamboyantly pose everyone to death. It’s all a bit creepy if I’m honest, and I felt like I needed a good wash when I’d finished playing.

Final Fight CD
Mega CD – emulated

FinalFightCD

A brilliantly executed port of Final Fight, with a few slight faults.

Firstly, the music. It’s not chip music what with it being streamed from CD. It varies a bit, but its range is from an early 90s Simple Minds instrumental B-Side, to a Casio keyboard demo-tune. It doesn’t suit the game at all. At. All.

Secondly, the graphics are really nice, with large sprites, and it all moves well, but the palette is a little limited, so the colours are a bit muted, and the gradation is a little obvious.

Finally, it’s rock hard, just like the arcade. That’s not a good thing for an old man like me, and I’d need a seriously deep pocket full of 10ps to get the job done.

One unexpected joy was every time I knocked someone down, the sampled sound was akin to that of a bowling pin falling. I’ve no idea why this pleased me so much.

Final Fight 3
SNES – real hardware

FinalFight3

More of the same. The graphics are different (perhaps a little too cartoony), but the levels are largely the same. For example, we get on a bus, rather than a subway train in this one. Also, the music, or muzak, is incredibly, ear-splittingly irritating. I had to turn the sound off after a while as it was just getting on my nerves.

Add in the fact that I think there were move combos in this that I couldn’t reliably recreate, and I started to feel like the move away from brawler to Street Fighter-esque pugilism was going to alienate me. And it did. There was also a ‘Super’ bar in the bottom left of the screen that I had no idea how to fill, or use.

Maybe I’m past it, but this felt like a retread that they’d tried to hard to bring in ‘the new’ for, and it didn’t gel for me.

Batman Returns
SNES – real hardware

BatmanReturns

I expected good things from this game. The intro was nice, with semi-digitised graphics, atmospheric music and a story to set the scene. I’d heard good things of the game itself, and who doesn’t love playing Batman games?

Meh.

Once it started, I really wanted the animation of the car to be a playable section. It wasn’t – maybe it is further on in the game? It felt like a wasted opportunity to me though.

Maybe it’s because I came at it blind, but it felt like there was too much to learn, or at least too much that didn’t do anything. For example, I had a bat rope on level 3 that didn’t seem to do anything at all.

It had good points. The graphics are nice. Large sprites and a good use of the colour palette. There was a nice touch of being able to stun enemies by throwing the batarang at them, just long enough to move closer and sock them in the chops. Getting that close to two enemies was a lot of fun, as you could grab them and bash their heads together. I didn’t tire of that.

Overall though, it felt monotonous and empty, like there should have been more than there was. I have a nagging feeling I’m doing this a massive injustice so may, ahem, return to it one day.

Battletoads & Double Dragon
SNES – real hardware

BattletoadsDoubleDragon

What. The. Actual. Criminy? This is an awful, awful game. I don’t even know where to start.

Take one incredibly small playfield. Add in a strange axonometric viewpoint that makes it impossible to see where your character is actually walking, movement as if you’re skating on ice, and constant, relentless, inescapable pummelling as soon as you get attacked by an enemy. The combat moves you can make are seemingly random, and it’s incredibly easy to fall off of the aforementioned smallest playfield in the world. There’s annoying sampled-guitar music to hate on at the same time. This is a mess, and I had to turn it off before I forced my SNES through an industrial shredder.

Die Hard Arcade
Saturn – real hardware

DieHardArcade_Saturn_Screen

This was a LOT of fun. The madness and feeling of joy as you pick up anything that comes to hand to beat the thugs with is superb. Combining a lighter with an aerosol is terrifying but beautiful, and I’ve never wanted to fire a rocket into the back of a urinating man as much as I did in this game. It feels like there is a hidden depth that I’m going to enjoy finding when I play through it again.

JON: 

I was immediately drawn to this game due to my love of Bruce Willis films – it was great to see him get so behind the licence, lend his likeness and help the game developers recreate to many of the movie’s very best scenes, especially the part where John Maclean takes down the laser-toting robot sentries – – – WAIT, I’ve got this wrong, haven’t I?

So, it’s actually nothing to do with Die Hard, other than it’s set in a building, there’s some fighting and your character wears a vest. They might just as well have rereleased it last year as High Rise Arcade

Unnecessary licence quibbles aside, the game itself is great. Big, fairly angular (let’s call them ‘chiselled’) characters, a good variety of locations, from balconies to parking garages to toilets, a decent move-set and more pick-ups than you can shake a stick at. Including a stick you can shake at people. Add to that the ability to juggle helpless baddies, Tekken-style, shift opponents from grapple to ground-and-pound, and even participate in some amazingly satisfying QTEs (the slo-mo clotheslining of henchmen is wonderfully gratifying).

Two player mode is great fun and the gameplay doesn’t suffer any slowdown – even though I massively hogged the credits as RGU Steve battled competently on. It’s a game I want to replay and feel I can get better at, no matter how badly I did first time around…

Whilst the Die Hard movies have offered diminishing returns since Bruce Willis went full chrome-dome, this game is a brilliant – if unexpected – companion to the original trilogy (both movies and videogame).

Yippie-ki-yay, kemosabe.

Guardian Heroes
Saturn – real hardware

GuardianHeroes_Saturn_Screen

It has to be said, playing this on a modern TV doesn’t do it justice. The gorgeous cartoon-pixels get blown up and do make it a bit tricky to see what’s going on at times. Run it on a CRT though, and it looks amazing.

BUT, to play? I won’t beat (ahem) around the bush – this game is mental. There is so much going on. I found myself mashing buttons a fair bit and not really knowing what I was doing – although that’s a failing on my part rather than the game. Despite that, it’s fun to watch the outcome. There are some great graphical flourishes, and the backgrounds are simply beautiful.

Playing this for me was like watching Game Of Thrones – there are so many characters, and at any given point I didn’t know who was good, who was bad, who had the sword, who needed the sword and why, who was on my side, and who I needed to uppercut. A magic system that seemed to be based on ‘hit points’ accrued added to the chaos when used. A really nice control mechanism (that I nearly always forgot to use) is that you use the shoulder buttons to change planes up and down on the playing field, being able to get out of the way of enemies, or more usually in my case, moving on to a plane where an enemy had just launched a fierce sliding attack resulting in my immediate death.

Credits? I used a lot of them.

One of the absolute best things about this game, though, are the cut scenes. There are an awful lot of them, and whilst being very good, translation-wise, they make absolutely no sense in a story-context. But that could be Game Of Thrones syndrome for me again. They’re brilliant fun though, and Jon’s voiceovers just added to the feeling of watching a badly dubbed Japanese cartoons in the 80s.

I’m sure given some effort to learn how to play it I’d like it even more, but with so many games to play, and so little time to play them, this might not get booted up very often.

Honourable mentions

The beat ‘em ups that RGS chose were all of the scrolling variety, rather than static fighters like SFII. So for my honourable mentions, I returned to two childhood favourites.

Karateka
Atari 8-bit and C64 – real hardware

Karateka

The legend that is Jordan Mechner (Prince Of Persia) created this game in 1984. It bears all the hallmarks of a JM game, too. The opening introduction with its atmospheric music (composed by his Father), realistic animation and expressive characters serve to set the scene for what you can expect. Rotoscoped graphics see our hero climb up from a mountain ledge to face the foes that the evil dude who’s imprisoned the princess sends your way.

The animation is sublime, especially given the age of the game. Like many games of that era, too, it’s incredibly hard. It starts off easy enough, but your energy is depleted quickly, and your opponents have increasingly large quotas themselves. The control mechanism is good, and it’s satisfying when you land a couple of blows, but the trick is to back off, let the enemy do their best kicks into thin air, then attack. It gets hard pretty quickly though.

The Atari 8-bit version is the one to go for, and was the version I played as a kid, as it’s faster than the C64, although the C64 has a nicer palette, and slightly more atmospheric sound. The speed really lets it down though. The one thing the C64 does better is allow you to land three hits in quick succession, with the Atari often only allowing two if you’re lucky. It was originally released on the Apple II, and there were ports for the ZX Spectrum (only in Spanish!), Atari 7800, Amstrad CPC, DOS, Atari ST and Famicom.

Slow and deliberate, this is a cracking game, and even now, an experience not to be missed on the 8-bit computers.

Street Hassle
C64 – real hardware

StreetHassle

A game by Beam Software, and released by Melbourne House (known as Bop ‘N’ Rumble or Bad Street Brawler in some territories), I have very fond memories of this. The sprites were huge for the time, and were very well defined. Your flat-topped, shade-wearing protagonist swaggered along, waiting for opponents to enter the screen to be clobbered. The background graphics, whilst sparsely coloured, were reminiscent of a comic strip, and the contrast between the grey streets and the yellow, er, hot pants, that our hero is wearing is stark. Yes. Yellow hot pants.

There are a great range of enemies, including a gorilla (he can do some serious damage), a blind man, an old lady, and a bulldog to name but a few. You have a variety of moves at your disposal, but to add a twist to the game, they change on each level. So some levels see you being able to grab a character by the lapels and spin them around before letting them go, whilst on others you can lift them up in the air and twirl them around before chucking them across the screen. When you do, there’s a satisfying screen shake as they hit the edge!

Approaching an old lady and knuckle-rubbing her cheeks until she perishes is always fun, as is grabbing a gorilla by the shoulders and nutting him. There’s even a dog that you tickle under the chin to make him run away happy, rather than biting you. Similar to River City Ransom, the characters often say things in a speech bubble (like the old lady yelling ‘Brute!’ at you) to add to the comic feel. The music is a bit repetitive, but easily ignored.

A fun take on the beat ‘em up genre, and one that felt quite different at the time, largely because of the giant sprites and comic feel.

There were also ports for other systems, including the NES under the name Bad Street Brawler. This has quite a different style of gameplay though, being much faster, more frantic, and has an element of collecting to it. Worth playing for comparison purposes though.

***

So, barring the Saturn games (Die Hard Arcade and Guardian Heroes), that’s all of the episode 1 games played. It’s been fun playing games that I’d never experienced before, even if some of them weren’t that great – Battletoads & Double Dragon, I’m looking at you. And there’s the rub: some of the games I’m going to be playing will be bad. Very bad. As any of you who listen to RGS will know, Jon, particularly is known to bring some stinkers to the table, but if Alex and Jeff think they’re going to get away without me calling them out for a turd of a game, they have another thing coming.

Thanks for reading. It was the first post of this kind, so do feel free to leave a comment, or tweet me, with your thoughts, or if you think I can do something differently, or better.

 


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