What do you call those things where you blow into them and they make a squeaking noise while a paper tube unfurls from the end? Party horns? Yeah, party horns. Imagine the sounds of one of those ringing in your ears, because it's VGJunk's 4th birthday! Four years of writing about old videogames, and still I misspell "damage" as "damamge" every single time. I feel like I should have a cake in the shape of an underwhelming Famicom-only platformer or something. Anyway, long-time readers may remember that VGJunk's birthday just so happens to be the day before my actual birthday, and as a birthday treat I like to play a game that I genuinely love at this time of year. For 2014 it's the turn of a true arcade classic - Williams' 1990 arcade a-brand-new-toaster-em-up Smash TV!
Okay, I know what you're all thinking. Hell, I'm thinking it too, so let's go ahead and get it out of our systems now, shall we?
I Love It!
Right, that's it, article's over, everyone go home. No, wait, come back, I'm going to talk about Smash TV properly now. Developed by Defender creator Eugene Jarvis, Smash TV is a game born from the fusion of two different influences.
The first inspiration is the 1987 action movie / Schwarzenegger-based quip delivery system The Running Man, the tale of a dystopian future where brutal gladiatorial murder is televised in the form of a game show. This is also the plot (oh look, a new record for "loosest use of the word plot") of Smash TV. In the distant year of 1999 - hey, 1999 was fifteen years ago so I'd say that pretty distant - Smash TV is the most popular show on television. One man enters an arena packed with thousands of savage killers in the hopes of securing fame, glory and maybe a new VCR.
Every game show needs a host, and Smash TV is no exception. This bloodthirsty spectacle is presented by a man whose jacket is encrusted with such a vast number of crystal that he has to be held up by two young women at all times lest the weight crush him. Existing somewhere between Dale Winton and Noel Edmonds on the creepy-game-show-host-o-meter, he pops up in the corner of the screen every now and then, his shifty eyes darting from side to side as he tries to remember which of the twins is Cindy and which is Sandy. He also chips in with some voice samples, including the already-mentioned "big money" bit which is one of Smash TV's most enduring legacies. In fact, without wanting to denigrate the quality of the gameplay I'd say the host's verbal interjections are a big part of why Smash TV is so fondly remembered. Nothing sticks around like a catchphrase, after all.
The other part of Smash TV's genetic make-up, the part where all the gameplay comes from, is the 1982 arcade game Robotron 2084, pictured above in all its "neon robots roaming the endless black gulf of terror" glory. Also developed in part by Eugene Jarvis, Robotron is Smash TV's progenitor in that they share the same style of gameplay, the same battle against overwhelming odds and best of all the same twin-joystick control system. Robotron wasn't the first game to use two joysticks, one for movement and one for selecting the direction you're shooting in, but it did combine that control method with huge waves of enemies that desire nothing but your immediate annihilation, thus paving the way for Smash TV.
When you start the game, you're treated to a short scene showing your contestant making his way through the studio and into the killing zone. The contestant isn't just a hovering torso, by the way. He's wearing blue trousers, so his legs are hard to see against the blue carpet. No such problem for the host, who is resplendent in an outfit that could have been plucked from the very wardrobe of Satan himself if it weren't for the powder-blue loafers. The host doesn't acknowledge the contestant's presence, unable to bring himself to meet the gaze of a man who's about to get his head bashed in by a gang of neo-nazis.
I mean, I've always just assumed these enemies are some kind of horrible fascists. They're skinheads with baseball bats and their lives have gone so badly awry that they're acting as cannon-fodder grunts in a fight to the death, so there must be something wrong with them. Maybe I've created this fiction in order to justify my actions as I mow them down with my machine gun for the reward of a new home appliance.
If you were going to put Smash TV into a genre you'd probably call it a single-screen shooter or an arena shooter, but what it boils down to is a Kill Everything Simulator. Wave after wave of bad guys swarm onto the screen, and all you have to do - all you can do, really - is make them dead. It sounds like an extremely limited concept, but the subtle genius of the game's design keeps it from going stale. Enemies appear from the top, bottom, left or right of the screen, so you can't stand there, which forces you towards the corners of the arena... but you can't stand there, either, because with no space to back into you'll quickly be overrun. Instead you're forced to be constantly moving, always looking for the safe corridors of enemy-less space to dart into, never finding a moment's peace. Smash TV is a game that wants you dead, and death is the only respite you will find.
The contestant isn't entirely without an effective means to fight back, however. For one thing, while the machine gun you start with is the most feeble weapon in the game it still has a good rate of fire and can take out a fair proportion of the enemies in one hit. There are also limited-ammo special weapons to collect, as you would expect from both an arcade shooter and a game show about shooting people. Pictured above is the grenade... well, I was going to say "grenade launcher" but that's more of a grenade sprayer, a piece of farm equipment modified to cover as large an area as possible in high-explosive fragmentation grenades instead of manure. There are also protective barrier in both traditional energy shield and "whirling frisbees of death" varieties, Gradius-style hovering "options" that duplicate your shots, three-way spread guns and missiles which, unlike the real thing, travel right through groups of enemies instead of detonating on impact. I was always a bit confused by that. Why not make it a railgun or something? I'm not complaining, I just desire that little bit of extra realism in my futuristic, murder-soaked versions of The Krypton Factor.
One pick-up you should be keeping a keen eye out for is the orange bomb icon that you can see at the bottom of the screen. Touching it causes every enemy on screen to explode. I and everyone I know who has played Smash TV refers to them as Bingos, because when you collect one the host shouts "Bingo!". Also, all the enemies explode. In a game so relentless that every tiny morsel of success the player achieves is a cause for celebration, grabbing a Bingo when you're surrounded by enemies is like winning the lottery and having the giant cheque handed over by that kid who used to call you names at school.
Here, then, is a screenshot to really sum up the Smash TV experience. Enemies are everywhere, with more pouring in from the bottom of the screen. The grey things on the right-hand side of the arena floor are landmines, giving you another obstacle to negotiate. The info panel at the top of the screen indicates that you have just won a brand new toaster, which I'm sure will be of great comfort to your soon-to-be grieving widow. The grenade sprayer might buy you some time, but there's a good chance you're going to die... and then you survive. Miracle of miracles, you slice a path through the hordes. You take out the gunners in the walls, and the chunky blokes at the edge of the screen who sneak onto the battlefield and try to catch you unawares by exploding into a cloud of shrapnel. You survive for now, and it's one of those moments of true satisfaction that great videogames can deliver.
Enough waxing poetic about Smash TV's ballet of carnage, because it's time for a boss. His name is Mutoid Man, and he was mutated when a tank carrying toxic waste crashed into a twenty-foot tall inflatable of Kingpin from the Daredevil comics. It's never explained whether the two normal-sized gunners attached to his treads are part of his mutant body, a pair of parasitic organisms that survive on the scraps from Mutoid Man's various rampages or two "lucky" grunts who are awarded the luxury of being able to sit down at the expense of their seats being horrifyingly close to what you might describe as Mutoid Man's crotch.
Fighting Mutoid Man is a two-stage process, and those stages are shooting him and not going near him because he'll run you over. The shooting part is made more difficult by the fact that your basic gun's bullets simply bounce off, and you can only do damage with a special weapon. Luckily they spawn on the arena floor with some regularity, although this may be part of Mutoid Man's plan to lure you in so he can kill you with his laser eye beams.
Yeah, those laser eye beams. The fight has being going on for a while now, but Mutoid Man is as dangerous as ever even though he's been reduced to a skeletal torso with a smug head perched on top like a ham hock balanced on a xylophone. It gets better, because after shooting him some more his torso explodes to reveal another head underneath, attached directly to his caterpillar treads. There's a reason Mutoid Man is a boss and not some lowly grunt, and that reason is built-in redundancies in the event some maniac shoots him with a rocket launcher.
After a long battle, the contestant defeats Mutoid Man and claims his prize - fat stacks of cash and ownership of more sports cars than all the footballers in the Premier League combined. I love that they gave the contestant a boxing headguard to wear. He doesn't look like the sharpest knife in the drawer, so I can just imagine the host convincing the big lug that this padded forehead protector will spare him from a gruesome death. "No, you don't need body armour, our top scientists have assured me that bullets simply cannot pass through abdominal muscles."
On to arena two, and I love that you get to see the production staff making the show when you move between rooms. It's a little touch, but it all adds to the feel of the whole enterprise and it's something I love about Smash TV - I think it would be a much less appealing game if the unending slaughter hadn't been played, if not for laughs, then at least with it's tongue wedged so firmly into its cheek that it's practically poking out of the other side.
While I'm on the subject of presentation, I should mention the music from the first stage. It's easily overlooked while you're playing the game because there's not much room for the track to shine through amidst the constant rattle of gunfire, the host's catchphrases and the screams of the dying, but it's pretty great. I wonder if the composer, Jon Hey, listen to a lot of gameshow music while he was writing it, because I can totally see this as the theme for a quiz show's quick fire round. Also, the short Bach-esque section at about two minutes in? That's rather wonderful.
Arena two has more of a sci-fi feel to it, with the introduction of mechanical foes like hovering, laser spewing orbs and segmented robot snakes, all of which are that bit faster and more tenacious than the enemies in the first arena. You're also introduced to the red things pictured above, which are apparently called Buffaloes despite looking more like killer armchairs with exposed brains. Honestly, Williams should have gone all-out with the deadly furniture theme. There would have been a grim irony in being battered to death by a futon or padded recliner.
Many of the rooms in Smash TV greet you with a brief introductory message. They are rarely friendly, but I think LAZER DEATH ZONE takes the prize for being the most honest about your chances of survival. Plus, it's just a really fun phrase to say out loud. I think I'm going to designate an area of my house as the LAZER DEATH ZONE. The kitchen, maybe. Then I can say things like "hey, if you're going into the LAZER DEATH ZONE, could you put the kettle on please" or "I think that plant your mother bought us would look nice in the LAZER DEATH ZONE."
The second boss is even bigger and uglier than the first - it's Scarface, the flying saucer with the massive green face. A face that looks kinda familiar, actually. Now where have I seen it before?
Ah yes, now I remember. Of course, to the contestant Scarface's chiselled good looks are a mystery, because from his viewpoint all he can see is a big floating pie tin that wants him dead.
Scarface's gimmick is that he's surrounded by segmented metal armour, and before you can deal him any real damage you have to destroy every single panel on his outer edge. Because he's a circle, this means you have to move around him, looking for an opening, and getting to the panels on his right-hand side is a difficult task indeed. Still, with a little perseverance - or, more likely, a sack full of coins to feed the machine with - you'll chip away at Scarface's defences, leaving him vulnerable.
Notice I said "vulnerable," not "less terrifying" or "less deadly". Once Scarface has taken enough punishment he loses his fleshy outer casing to reveal the sinister skull beneath, and it turns out all that skin and eyeball weight was really slowing him down because now he moves even faster and launches energy bolts from his eye sockets. I feel a bit sorry for him, though. Just look at the shape of his skull: he must have had a perpetual frown, unable to express any emotion other than annoyance thanks to the unfortunate skeletal structure of his brow. No wonder he's so grumpy, he can't be any other way. Never mind, he need never be grumpy again because I shot him until he exploded.
Arena three takes place on a set recycled from a Nickelodeon game show, a sinister polystyrene landscape where the air is thick with lead and the big stone faces vomit snakes into the playing area, a torrent of slithering, scaly evil that always seems to be in the wrong place when you're trying to avoid enemy fire. Smash TV manges to somehow ramp up the difficulty of arena three even above the madness of the earlier rounds. I know that whenever I play the SNES version with my friend this is always where we start to come unstuck. It's hard to stay alive when you're knee-deep in snakes.
It's not just snakes, either: there are also snake-men. The snake men have pointy sticks. I would not normally be worried about an enemy armed only with a sharpened tree branch, but their tendency to gather together into an impenetrable wall of writhing bodies and shoulder-pads means that you'll eventually be getting intimately acquainted with one or more of those pointy sticks.
If you play Smash TV for long enough, the action settles into an almost hypnotic flow, a zen state where instead of concentrating on the immediate action your mind attempts to take in the whole screen at once, mapping out safe routes and the locations of power-ups. The power-ups can almost be a liability at times, especially when you're getting swarmed and you're desperate for relief - in the situation pictured above, for example, the Bingo pick-up will lure you in with its explosive siren song, but trying to reach it from this position is just going to get you killed as the enemies surround you. Survival in Smash TV is all about risk and reward, judging what items you can safely collect, and when you get it right - when a trail of enemies is right behind you and you manage to collect a rocket launcher, using the twin-stick control system to fire at them while still retreating - it's a pure example of the satisfaction (that word again) that getting something just right in a videogame can bring.
It works the other way, too: power-ups don't hang around for long, and reaching an item just as it disappears is soul-crushing. Bone-crushing, too, as these Buffaloes are about to show me.
Given area three's snake motif, it's unsurprising that the boss is a pair of giant snakes. The game gives their name as Die Cobros. I was going to make a "it's German for The Cobras" joke, momentarily forgetting that The Simpsons beat me to it. Instead I'll just chuckle to myself about the idea of co-bros, cobras who are bros but who don't do very well at the gym due to their lack of arms.
The cobras are the least interesting of the three bosses, with there being not much to say about them beyond "they're big snakes," Shoot them until they're dead. It's the Smash TV way.
Oh yeah, keys. Sometimes keys appear for you to collect. You're aiming to find ten of them, which would have been more of a challenge if I hadn't stumbled across the room in arena three that's absolutely packed full of keys.
Look at that, I can easily collect the ten keys I need and still have enough left over to, I don't know, turn the rest into "charming" handmade jewellery that I can sell on Etsy? There's not much else you can do with spare keys, really.
Before you can reap the rewards that come with owning ten keys, you have to fight your way through Smash TV's most over-the-top, most action-packed, most murder-tastic stages yet. The sheer volume of the enemy force is such that it's nigh-impossible to shoot your way out of, and even really good Smash TV players are going to run into trouble here unless they're willing to pour credit after credit into the machine. However, playing Smash TV with the intention of completing it is to miss the essential point of the game - it's about the journey, not the destination, it's about surviving for as long as you can and enjoying the small victories along the way, and it's about racking up as big a high score as you can muster.
Topping the high score table is made easier by finding ten keys, because doing so grants you access to the Pleasure Dome, a special room that seems to take place inside one of Hugh Hefner's migraines. The room is filled with bikini-clad babes that you can "collect" for points. I think they're supposed to be the same women that are seen with the host, with the inevitable conclusion being that Smash TV is actually a front for a babe-cloning operation on a truly terrifying scale. Also, if you don't like the colours of this room - it's difficult to imagine anyone not enjoying this "robot-vomit green and scalded-skin pink" colour scheme, but different strokes and all that - then not to worry, because the colours in the background are constantly cycling through a wide variety of garish, high-saturation colours. This is a bit of a recurring theme in games Eugene Jarvis worked on - all the text in Smash TV is rendered in a shifting rainbow of colours, and the same is true of the psuedo-sequel Total Carnage. Personally I think it's a hideous graphical affectation. It's a sign of how much I enjoy Smash TV that I'm reduced to complaining about the way the in-game text looks.
A list of my greatest achievements is flashed on screen. It tells me I'm awesome, and I feel awesome, even if I used a number of continues so large you'd have to write it in scientific notation to get it to fit on a page. Now I just have to decapitate the evil MC. Wait, what?
In a shocking twist, the true final boss is the host himself! The normal, human-sized version you see at the start of the game is obviously just a red herring planted to leave you unaware of the spangly-suited horror you'll be facing if you survive Smash TV.
Okay, so he's just a rehash of Mutoid Man but I don't care, this is a great boss fight. Why is it great? Because where Mutoid Man had laser eye beams, the host has an eye beam. A beam made of eyeballs. Image what a powerful stream of huge eyeballs slamming into your shirtless chest would feel like. If that sentence gave you a weird new fetish, I'm deeply sorry, but if you draw a picture of it and upload it to Deviantart please do not send me a link.
Also great: when you do the host enough damage, you get to see the polka-dot vest he wears as underwear, a garment probably purchased at whatever shop Arthur from Ghouls 'n Ghosts buys his boxer shorts from.
As the host's head flies off in a shower of blood, Smash TV is really, truly over. My eyes hurt. Between the flashing colours of the Pleasure Dome and the fact I didn't blink during the last few screens, I need a quiet lie down in a dark room.
I also need a dumptruck to help me cart away my many, many prizes. I've won enough luxury holidays that I never have to go home again, enough Smash TV board game to bore every family in the country on the next rainy Sunday afternoon, and toasters. So many toasters. If the world's entire agricultural industry was devoted to producing bread solely for my consumption, I would still have too many toasters. I'm going to built a city out of these toasters. It will be called Toastopolis, and every home will have a detachable crumb tray and a defrost setting. This is my favourite prize, though:
Hee hee, "good meat".
Smash TV is one of those games that's so much fun I struggle to explain why it's fun. The game's great strength is that it's pared down to almost pure gameplay, with the setting being a bonus. It's fast, relentless, precise and rewarding, the twin-stick controls are fantastic and the presentation - rainbow text aside - puts a happy song in my heart. It looks like I've lost the ability to talk about it coherently now, so let's just say Smash TV is a really, really good game.
In the interests of balance I'm trying to come up with some negative points about Smash TV, but frankly I'm drawing a blank. Sometimes when you're fighting a boss and a piece of them explodes it obscures your screen and you die cheaply. A couple of the late-game rooms maybe go on for a touch too long. You don't get to use a flamethrower at any point, although I'll admit that one's a matter personal preference. Nope, I can't think of anything else bad to say about it. As the host would say, if I hadn't gunned him down anyway, I love it!
So, that's this year's VGJunk birthday article, and it was true to its goal - playing Smash TV really did feel like a treat. How does the chant go? Four more years? Yes, I probably will still be writing these articles in four more years. Maybe by then I'll have gotten around to telling you in great depth what I think about Mortal Kombat (hint: it's bad). Until next time, I'd like to say thank you as always to everyone who reads the site, leaves comments and spreads the word about VGJunk. Your continued tolerance of my internet presence means the world to me. I'll be back with a new article soon, but for now I'm going to have that quiet lie down I mentioned earlier. I shall dream of toasters.