29/01/2015

MAD SHOW (AMIGA)

Why were there so many multi-event "sports" titles on the home computers of the eighties? Were the developers keen to show off the potential of their chosen system by shoehorning in multiple different genres? Were they an attempt to sell games on a value-for-money basis - buy this game, it's really five games, that kind of thing? Did programmers back then have incredibly short attention spans that left them unable to concentrate on one core concept? I have no answer to this question, only a strange desire to keep playing them. Perhaps some small part of me still holds out hope that I'll find one that rises to a level of quality beyond "mediocre." Well, we all have our foolish dreams, don't we? Anyway, today's offering is the 1988 Amiga cyber-Olympics-em-up Mad Show, from French developer Silmarils.


That's Mad Show as in a mad television show and not your cousin's interpretive dance performance that you were forced to sit through that one time. The whole game is framed as a TV show, complete with a screen border in the shape of a really old television set, or as it would have been known at the time of the game's release, "a television set."
Mad Show is introduced by - although sadly not hosted by - a punk lady and a sentient carnivorous plant, a combination that achieves the almost impossible task of making Richard and Judy look even more worthless than usual. It's a shame they're not around for the game itself, and already Mad Show has fallen into the trap of having peripheral characters that are more engaging than the main cast. I don't care what else happens in the game, I'll always be more interested in the imagined adventures of Punk Girl and Venus Flytrap. They argue a lot, but deep down they really care for each other.


This horrible little gremlinoid is the main host, operating Mad Show's machinery and constantly burbling snippets of nonsensical speech. Alright, so I'm fairly sure that one of them is him saying "mad show" but the rest are gibberish presumably passed off as an alien language. No, I don't mean French, I mean an actual non-human language.
The host also suffers from being overshadowed by the more interesting things around him, in this case the crowd in the background. I don't know if they're supposed to be the audience, the production staff or if the show is being filmed in the waiting area of an interdimensional Accident and Emergency ward, but Marrowhead McCool, the punk endlessly throttling another person and that thing on the right with only a mouth where its face should be are all far more fascinating than a small man in a bad suit. The most intriguing of them all is the seemingly normal human baby that crawls around in the background. It cannot be a normal baby, surely. If only I didn't have these minigames to play, maybe I could unravel the baby's mysteries, but perhaps it is for the best that certain secrets remain undisturbed.


After choosing between training and competition modes, the contestant is beamed in. Beamed right into his clothes, that is, which were already waiting for him in the chair. I hope it wasn't too cold in the green room.
There are four events in Mad Show, and the player is allowed to pick which one they take on. Each time you win an event, that event can be selected again, but at a higher difficulty and with more points on offer for a successful attempt. The only goal, as far as I could discern at any rate, is to accumulate as many points as possible in order to claim a place on the Mad Show leaderboard.


It's a leaderboard containing such luminaries as Mr. Spock, Luke Skywalker and Clark Kent, so I have some stiff competition. As for the other names, I know that Targhan is another game by Silmarils, so I'd guess that's where they come from. Jig le Jogger may be a Frenchified transliteration of "jiggly jogger," a name bestowed upon me by a gaggle of unruly schoolchildren during an ill-fated attempt to get fit, but I accept that's a very unlikely scenario. Anyway, without further ado, let's get on with some gameplay.


No, hang on, I forgot that there is in fact some further ado. Before each round of the competition mode begins, you also have to pick a small demon face from a selection of six. Then the little portal in the middle of the screen opens up and a demon pops out. Here, the player is utterly horrified to see a small demon holding another demon's head on a pike. The severed head is wearing a wizard hat, so I can only assume that this demon was executed by a peasant mob for practising witchcraft (and being a demon). The player is clearly appalled by this brutal display of mob vengeance, as well he might be - there is no way that demon received a fair trial.
It took me a while, but I eventually figured out the point of this sequence: if you pick the demon head that matches the one that comes out of the portal, you're awarded some free points and another shot at Tiny Beelzebub's Roulette-O-Fun. Get it wrong and you're taken straight to the next event. An interesting idea in concept, but the whole process is painfully slow. The cursor selecting the demon moves like a treacle-coated slug, then you have to wait for the portal to spin around for a while, then you have to wait for the demon to appear, and after two or three trips on this satanic merry-go-round you'll never want to see it again.


Event one: Space Swords, where years of scouring the cosmos have finally paid off and a perfectly flat asteroid has been found upon which two men can engage in a lightsaber duel. You might think it imprudent of me to describe a common laser sword with the very specific term "lightsaber," but these swords make the same noise as a lightsaber and produce a blade of light from the hilt upwards when activated. The only way they could be more lightsabers is if they had Darth Vader hanging onto one end.


My opponent wasted no time in attacking, rolling towards me in a low-gravity somersault jump. Assuming that Mad Show (like all home computer games involving the swinging of swords) was controlled by holding down the fire button and moving the joystick, I held down the fire button and moved the joystick forwards. I slashed, my opponent jumped onto my sword.


An easy victory thanks in no small part to my opponent's gung-ho nature, but looking back on it I think prancing around his prostrate body like a kid who's just been told they're going to Disneyland was a regrettable show of poor sportsmanship.


Mad Show's second event caused me to ask some deep and searching questions, such as "where am I?" and "what is my purpose?" and "is that a giant eyeball staring at me from the back of the room?" Some of these questions had obvious answers - yes, that is a giant eyeball staring at me from the back of the room - but others required deeper thought and no small amount of joystick wrangling. In the end, I figured out what I was supposed to be doing through blind luck, when I managed to swing the shield I'm carrying like a club. It turns out that your goal here is to use your shield to smash the small blue robot that scurries around the stage while avoiding the projectiles flying towards you or, even better, blocking them with your shield. Well, it's certainly a novel idea for a cyber-sport, although it's not especially well-implemented: even on the lowest difficulty the robot's random, jittery movements and the need for near pixel-perfect accuracy when attacking make this event something of a chore.


But wait, there's more: after you've smashed the robot (which causes it to waddle away in a fairly adorable manner) you're peppered with crossbow bolts. Thankfully I figured this bit out much quicker than the first half, and the combination of arrows flying into the screen and a giant eyeball in the background made it obvious that those two things should get together for fun times.


Okay, so I got the crossbow to shoot the eye but this, this doesn't look fun. It's sort of disturbing - the colour palette, the deeply felt notion that the eyeball is really, really angry. It reminds me of a scene from Yume Nikki, unnerving in a way that belies the simplicity, even crudeness, of its parts. That's probably just me, though.


Into the sewer-prison for event three. Hey, combining the two saves space, it's a practical idea. This is Sawblade Frisbee Murder. Sorry, Sawblade Flying Disc Murder. Frisbee is a registered trademark of the Wham-O Toy Company and they presumably don't want their name attached to futuristic death-sports.
The goal here is simple: throw your razor-sharp cutting discs into the delicate flesh of your opponent, who is down the other end of the tunnel. The sawblades bounce off the walls and return to you, and if you position yourself - specifically, your big metal hand - in the right place you can catch them and throw them again. Sometimes a helpful inmate / sewer mutant will hand you a sawblade, an act which may not redeem them in the eyes of society or the law but which I personally appreciated immensely.


Weirdly, your opponent doesn't fight back, and on the lower difficulty settings he barely even moves, allowing you to take your time lining up your shots. That's easier said than done, and my enjoyment of this event was definitely punctured by the difficulty I had finding the right position for a successful throw. Some kind of grid painted on the walls that allowed you to see at a glance where you were in relation to the other end of the tunnel would have improved this minigame immeasurably, as would the action moving at a speed faster than "glacial." The basic premise of the game is fine and takes me back to many hours wasted at university playing 3D Pong, but it's too slow and unwieldy to be much fun.


The fourth and final event sees the player placed at the mercy of a giant brain's whims. I'm sure the brain would kill you outright if it could, but luckily all it can do is control the conveyor belt beneath your feet. To win, you have to get directly under the brain and fire your gun upwards to hurt it, which is not always a simple task when the floor is constantly moving you left or right, changing speed and shifting direction seemingly at random. I like that you can see the massive flayed hand operating the conveyor belt's control stick, that's a nice touch. Which is funny, because I definitely don't want to be touched by a massive flayed hand.


There are also small creatures, barely visible behind the scenery, that can take some health off you if they touch you for too long. You also lose health if the conveyor belt takes you off the edge of the screen, and that can feel frustrating because all you can do to get back on the screen is hold the stick to the left or the right to run in that direction. There's no way to gain extra speed by mashing the fire button or anything like that, so there's the potential for it to get annoying if the computer decides it's just going to set the conveyor to full speed in one direction for ages.


Once you clear four events, your health is restored and you can go through another set of four events, repeating this cycle until you either run out of health or get so bored that you decide to stop playing. The latter option is the most likely of the two, quite frankly. The games themselves are passable if not very exciting, but it's the wait between games that really makes the competition mode a slog, especially if you're "lucky" enough to pick the right answer in the tiny demon guessing game a few times in a row and have to sit though the several-minute long animation each time. For this reason I strongly recommend playing the training mode: the games are the same and although it means you can't get on the high score table (a mortal blow to Mad Show's appeal, I know) it also means you don't have to spend nearly as much time not playing the game. This is especially true of the swordfighting and brain-shooting events, both of which can be over literally in seconds. The conveyor belt starts you right under the brain, and it only takes one or two shots to defeat on the lowest difficulty level so you can destroy it before it even starts to move, and the sword fighting... well, you saw how keen the CPU character was to leap onto my sword and turn himself into an astro-kebab.


Things do get more interesting on the harder difficulty levels, although that only makes the earlier rounds feel like even more of a waste of time. In the Space Swords event, for example, your opponent takes more hits to defeat and you can sometimes start the fight standing back-to-back, someone on the production staff having conflated the rules of fencing and pistol duelling.
After spending some time further investigating the lightsaber game, I discovered a couple of interesting things. One is that you can laser-stab your opponent before they've even switched on their sword without fear of punishment, Silmarils having either decided that the player should be rewarded for their aggression or that the guilt the player feels after such a despicable act is punishment enough. I also learned that you can fall off the asteroid and die. I learned this by once again prancing around over my defeated foe's body. I was just trying to get used to the low-gravity jumping physics, alright? It definitely wasn't karmic retribution for stabbing my opponent before he was ready.


The robot-bashing event changes by simply having a million-and-one things shooting at you the whole time, forcing you to concentrate on blocking. Here, I turned to smash the robot only for an extremely accurate laser to immediately shoot me in the neck. I can't help but feel that the tiny robot planned it this way, although if it was an attempt at revenge then I imagine it would have been happier if I'd been killed by one of the spring-loaded boxing gloves dotted around the stage, just for that extra frisson of humiliation.
Mad Show's biggest gameplay flaw is that it's just a bit too slow, and that's never more apparent than during the later stages of this event. If your character was lithe and graceful, able to swing their shield around to quickly deflect with incoming projectiles, it would probably be the most enjoyable game of the lot, but the stiff movements mean you don't have enough time to react and chase down the robot in a way that feels satisfying.


Sawblade Toss remains much the same. You can now collect missiles to fire at your target, which is not as exciting as gaining the ability to fire missiles should be. They're the same as your sawblades, except they don't bounce off the walls. I can't aim the sawblades, which means I can't aim the rockets either. Who would have though that the concept of "gaining the ability to fire missiles" could be so disappointing?


The Brainveyor Belt takes more shots to destroy and becomes ever more twitchy and unpredictable, quickly sifting from "too easy" to "almost impossible" without ever becoming any more entertaining. I should point out that in the screenshot above our hero is not undergoing some Incredible Hulk-style transformation, it's just that one of the flapping creatures has deposited some paralysing lime jelly all over him. Now the conveyor belt can carry him away to whatever health-draining horrors are lurking just beyond the edges of the screen. By now I'd had enough of Mad Show, and so I let his life-force drift away until the game was over.


Mad Show takes the multi-event formula so beloved of eighties home computer developers and does very little with it in terms or gameplay. There aren't enough games, and the ones that it does have are only mildly diverting at best, hampered by feeling of lethargy that blankets not only the events themselves but also the tedium of preparing for each game... and yet I still warmed to it. This is partly because the events are easy to understand and don't collapse into a wrist-destroying gloop of button mashing and juddery controls, but it's mostly because of the presentation. Mad Show has the air of an eighties B-movie, a punk aesthetic that reminds me of films like Return of the Living Dead, and that's something I approve of. It's grotty and almost unpleasant to look at in the most appealing kind of way, so even though the gameplay didn't capture my imagination I'm sure I'll think of Mad Show from time to time. Of course, I'll mostly be thinking "why couldn't the game have been about Punk Girl and Venus Flytrap," but I suppose some things are just too beautiful for this world.

24/01/2015

CISCO HEAT (ARCADE)

To paraphrase from the Book of Proverbs, as a dog returns to his vomit, so VGJunk returns to the videogames of Jaleco. Longtime readers of the site may be aware of my fascination with and strange admiration for the works of the Japanese developer, whose games are sometimes bad, occasionally decent but which never rise to the level of "really good." They're the Stephen Baldwin of Japanese videogame developers, the pub lunch in a continuum where Capcom and Konami were the Michelin-starred restaurants and Color Dreams were the equivalent of eating a dead rat you found floating in a toilet. Maybe things will be different with today's game, though: it's in a genre I really like, it's a simple enough concept that they shouldn't be able to mess it up too badly, and involves putting the lives of countless people at risk for a bit of a laugh: it's the 1990 arcade game Cisco Heat!


The title screen isn't doing much to inspire confidence, bland as it is. Aren't the Cisco Heat a basketball team? This isn't a basketball game, nor is it about running a small fast-food outlet despite the vibes I'm getting from the logo. It's actually about driving a police car through the streets of the big city, but not for the reasons you might expect.


Said city is San Francisco, of course. Those of you familiar with San Francisco will have a better idea than I about whether Cisco Heat represents an accurate mapping of the city, but from this attract mode I did learn that there's an honest-to-god part of San Francisco called Treasure Island. I assume this is where all the pirates live.


As a flag-waving marching band traipses across the Golden Gate Bridge in a display of Americana so pure it could only have come from a Japanese arcade game, Cisco Heat offers the player a choice before the action begins. There are two police cars to choose from: a hulking Cadillac-style number that's apparently built "for speed" and a sports car made "for cornering." Yes, that all seems very logical. I think I'll take the car built for speed because, as we shall see, turning corners in this game is such a crapshoot that there is little practical difference between the two except that the bigger car is, y'know, faster.
Also, seeing red police cars just feels so wrong, so contrary to a lifetime of evidence about what colour police cars are supposed to be, that I spent the entire game thinking "no, this isn't right, maybe I'm supposed to be the fire marshal or something."


With a bit of dipswitch wrangling you can change the cars' colour to blue, but I didn't figure that out until I'd played through the game several times so for the rest of the article you'll have to excuse my car looking like an ambulance that decided it needed a change of career.


And they're off! The San Francisco Rally is underway, or to give it it's full title (as found on the arcade flyer)  the National Championship Police Car Steeplechase. That's right, the SFPD has abandoned their duties for the day in order to participate in an illegal street race through a major metropolitan area. You might think that the taxpayers would be less than happy about local law enforcement neglecting their duties to piss around recreating The Cannonball Run, but the citizenry is out in force, cheering on the boys in blue. The boys in red, I mean.
Cisco Heat works in the same way as most other arcade racers of the type: sprite-scaling effects are used to create a sense of 3D movement, the player uses a steering wheel and pedals (as part of a fancy moving cabinet, if you're lucky) to control the action, there's a gear lever with "low" and "high" setting, and despite the presence of other competitors making you think that this is a race, the real goal is to beat the clock and reach the end of the stage before your time runs out. It's all fairly straightforward, so I should have no trouble getting to grips with it. Treasure Island, here I come!


Immediately crashing into the toll booths before I'd even made it off the bridge was not part of the plan, I admit, although the charred remains of the toll collectors do serve to highlight that Cisco Heat is not a serious game. It's cartoonish in its setting, its characters and the unrelenting brightness of the colours. I know San Fran is supposed to be a vibrant, colourful city but I could almost feel the cone cells in my eyes shrivelling away like earthworms in a frying pan as I played.


My early impressions of Cisco Heat were that it fits comfortably into the time-honoured Jaleco tradition of being average but unspectacular. It doesn't have the sense of speed you get from something like AB Cop, and nothing like the same level of precision and overall quality as genre master OutRun, but it makes up in part for its lack of technical refinement though its sense of character and the bold, designed-to-impress graphics that fill the screen with the kind of "big-ness" that only arcade games could produce at the time. That said, Cisco Heat itself couldn't quite produce all the effects that it tries to - sprites are often flickery and oddly-scaled and the road can become warped. I originally took this to be down to inaccurate emulation, but after a bit of research it seems that Jaleco simply pushed their hardware a little too far and the graphics are not particularly stable even on the original arcade machine.


The USA's reliance on the automobile is well documented, but I'm not sure developing a fleet of buses large enough to carry cars instead of human passengers is an acceptable solution to the problem. Forget about that gigantic bus, though - check out the background and you'll see the awe-inspiring, graceful majesty of the Jaleco blimp. It is my greatest wish to one day ride on the Jaleco blimp. "But the Jaleco blimp doesn't exist," you say, to which my response is you shut your goddamn mouth and find me a blimp and someone willing to make a huge vinyl sticker in the shape of the Jaleco logo.
Also in the background: a big red arrow warning of a sharp upcoming turn.


An extremely sharp turn. A right-angle, in fact. A ninety-degree turn is not an unexpected obstacle in a racing game set in a grid-based American city,  but unfortunately Jaleco's implementation of these corners - which pop up with great frequency during the course of the game - has all the smoothness and grace of smashing a wine bottle open with housebrick because you couldn't find a corkscrew. The major problem is one of viewpoint. Because, as in all racers of this type, you're essentially driving along a flat "strip" of road, you can't see what's on the road that you're about to turn on to. As you try to travel around these corners, rather than the view rotating to show you what's ahead, your car rotates sideways until you've passed a certain point in the turn, and then the view snaps into place to show the next segment of road ahead. It's a horribly implemented and extremely ugly piece of kludged gameplay which in practise means that not only can you not see any obstacles that are just around the corner until it's too late to avoid them, but because you'd can see the edges of the road while you're turning you have no way of knowing if you should stop turning or not. This is the Jaleco Thing, then, the flaw that once again relegates a Jaleco game to the status of also-ran - an entertaining also-ran for the most part, but the top tier slips away once again. It wouldn't be so much of a problem if these right-angled turns didn't crop up every ten seconds, but they do.


I managed to to reach the goal at the end of this short first stage in a creditable (considering how many times I crashed) third place but with only one second to spare on the timer, which is much more important because once you run out of time, it's game over. Wow, that's deep, man. Anyway, I'd be happy enough to call it a day at this point - we've all had a fun day out and nothing's going to top seeing the Jaleco blimp anyway, but as there are four more stages I suppose I should show them to you.


The second stage starts in Union Square, where the predatory megabus lurks in the undergrowth, ready to pounce on any unsuspecting police car that strays to close to its powerful jaws. The first part of this stage plays to Cisco Heat's strengths, with more straights that challenge the player to avoid obstacles rather than throwing them around blind corners, as well as some impressive verticality thanks to the rolling hills. San Francisco has been the setting for many driving videogames, thanks to it being one of the few American cities with potentially interesting and fun-to-drive road layouts. Of course, this being San Francisco, the player is at some point going to have to drive along that famous twisty road. Oh, what was it called again?


Thanks, Google.


Here is Lombard Street in all it's "shaped like a drunken snake" glory. You may notice that I am steering my car in completely the wrong direction. For once, this was not my fault. As I say, Cisco Heat's handling isn't its strongest suite.


What a diverse city San Francisco is - even the local bodybuilders have come out to watch the race. That's Big Steve on the left. Every day is competition day for Big Steve. Yes, Big Steve, your arms are very impressive, but it's okay to wear a shirt sometimes, you know? This is why you didn't get hired for that job at the Post Office. If you stopped posing for one second then maybe you could convince your friend in the blue trunks that he needs to work on his legs sometimes as well as his upper body. If he gains more bulk on his torso his ankles are going to snap.


Stage three looks a lot like the previous two. It looks like the next two stages as well, because Jaleco had a set vision of what San Francisco looks like and these familiar elements are reused throughout the game: there are hills, ninety-degree corners, ocean views and plenty of the city's iconic tram cars for you to crash into. You drive through some gates in this stage that imply you're entering Chinatown, but the theme is never really expended upon and things quickly settle back into the same aesthetic. Happily the game's aesthetic is one thing that I can wholeheartedly praise - there's always a lot to look at as you're barrelling down the street, with plenty of interesting pedestrians and hyper-colourful billboards (mostly for other Jaleco games) to amuse the eye. Sure, taking your eyes off the road for even a moment means you're almost certain to crash into something on San Fran's alarmingly dangerous streets, but as the developers have gone to the effort of filling the world with things to look at it would be rude not to pay attention to them.


Things like this woman, the owner of the least jolly balloons I have ever seen. Quite what special occasion she's planning to attend bearing flat, grey balloons with a sickly pink stripe across them - a clown's funeral, perhaps - but I bet it's going to be a laugh riot. That'a Jaleco-brand balloons, ladies and gentlemen - functionally acceptable but ultimately disappointing.


"Diane, 11:30 AM, February 24th. I have somehow found myself in a cross-city police race. Amazing! I'm not sure how this is going to help me catch Laura Palmer's killer, but I'll give it my best shot."


Here is a billboard of an old man. Hello, mysterious old man. If you have information regarding the identity of this old man, then please let me know. At a guess, I'd say it's someone involved with the American distribution of Cisco Heat, but I can't check the game's credits for anyone called "LB"  because it doesn't have any.


Well, this is going to leave a blemish on my service record. Why were there no officers of the law around to bring an end to my rampage of dangerous driving?! Oh, yeah, right. Not to worry, the pedestrians in Cisco Heat are all protected by an invisible force-field strong enough to repel a ton of steel slamming into them at one hundred and seventy miles per hour. These force fields are presumably a gift from the Jaleco Corporation, the monolithic entity that owns San Francisco wholesale. There are Jaleco TV vans, Jaleco public transport, adverts for Jaleco-brand games and movies. Even the police are owned by Jaleco. They control everything. Living in Neo Jaleco City sounds kind of appealing, honestly - government by a group that is often lacklustre but generally well-meaning sounds better than most real-world alternatives (that's satire, that is).


There's a welcome change of scenery towards the end of stage four as the city gives way to the mountains beyond. I spent a lot of time here crashing into the many other police cars desperate to claim the glory the comes with being crowned the Police Rally Champion, glory that they're never going to achieve because most of them are actually behind the player in the rankings, with no chance to catch up. They just clutter up the road, getting in the player's way and refusing to do the honourable thing and give up so they can get back to protecting and serving. It was around this point of the game that I realised my police car came equipped with a horn, and by hitting the I could make the police cars in front of me move aside, which I thought was a nice touch. It would have been even nicer if my horn sounded like a horn instead of a morose cow trying to beatbox, but you can't have everything.


The final stage takes in a sunset drive to Treasure Island, yo ho ho, and perhaps I was a little too harsh on the right-angled corners earlier in this article. Don't get me wrong, they're still badly implemented and not much fun, but after playing Cisco Heat for a while I have at least reached a point where I've learned roughly how far I need to turn before I'm around the corner. This has increased the rate at which I can successfully negotiate these bends from around ten percent to a whopping fifty percent, which is clearly a vast improvement.


Special Guest: The Living Moai, the terrifying blank-eyed doom of the human race! This free-floating stone head is packed with fun, laughter and forbidden knowledge from beyond the veil of reality! Glory to The Living Moai, for your insignificant lives are as worthless as an insect's leavings before him! Pre-show entertainment provided by the All-Star Sundered Ones Dancers, book early to avoid disappointment.


Towards the end of the stage you're given a choice of routes along the James Lick Skyway, which along with Treasure Island has convinced me that San Francisco got all the most childishly amusing place-names in America. Anyway, there's not much difference between the two paths - one goes up, one goes down but they both have the same level of traffic and similar corners - but it would have been good for Cisco Heat to have a few more of these optional routes scattered throughout the game. For one thing this is a short game, and extra routes would lead (you'd think) to more replayability and thus more profits, but also as I've said a lot of Cisco Heat is a little samey and anything to break things up a bit would have been nice. Even just a few shortcuts would have been welcome.


There's the finish line. I notice that I'm in first place. I kinda wish that meant something, because Cisco Heat can get rather difficult and I played quite well to claim the number one spot, but my efforts are for naught because the only arbiter of success is how much time you have left on the clock. They're tight time limits, too, making it especially aggravating that Cisco Heat's difficulty doesn't come from intelligent computer opponents or challenging road lay-outs but from having obstacles pop up right in front of you and giving said obstacles such oversized hitboxes that you'll often crash even when you'd swear you were past them.


It's a little hard to tell thanks to the blocky graphics, but San Francisco's great and good have turned out to congratulate me on my victory. There are our two winning police officers on the left, ready to receive their prize from a man who looks like Ronald Reagan half-dressed in an Uncle Sam costume. I assume he is the mayor, voting into office by a populace charmed by the gumption of a man willing to wear those trousers in public. Next to him is the Chief of Police, trying not to think about all the paperwork that this day-long destruction derby will have accrued. Finally there is a woman with comically oversized breasts. She appears to be wearing a nappy. It's kinda weird.


That's right, I broke every law in the book on my way to the winner's podium. Murder, embezzlement, burning garden waste without a permit - I've got a rap sheet that makes Al Capone look like Ned Flanders. I will surely be fired from the force for this gross misuse of my powers, but not to worry: if this ending screen is anything to go by the human meat-units of the SFPD have been replaced by an army of not-quite-convincing humanoid cyborgs.


"*BZZT* Commence operation Android Overthrow. *bzzt*"
I wanted to like Cisco Heat more than I did. That's not to say I didn't enjoy it at all: when it stuck to having the player race against other cars and avoid traffic, it was a fun if not especially inspired take on the sprite-scaling arcade racer. It's just that many other things conspired to drain some of that fun right out of it. The graphical issues, the unpleasant cornering, the lack of any sense of speed, the unpredictable collision detection, they all chip away at the game until it fits perfectly into the Jaleco Files: fairly good but a long way from great, but there is at least a certain warming familiarity to that. I am glad this article is over, though; it'll be nice to not have to write the word "Cisco" for a while, because the phrase "thong th-thong thong thong" pops into my head every time I do and nobody needs that in their life.

22/01/2015

KART FIGHTER (NES)

Here it is, the grude match you've all been waiting for. All your favourite Super Mario characters, plus Toad (who is surely no-one's favourite) gather together to beat seven bells out of each other in hand-to-hand combat! What? Super Smash Brothers? Never heard of it. This is Hummer Team's bootleg Famicom game Kart Fighter!


In the last article I said I was going to write about a Mario game next, and like the twisted wish granted by an ironic punishment genie, here it is. It's called Kart Fighter because the fighters involved are drawn from Super Mario Kart, along with the look of the title screen, and not because there's any karting involved. The Fighter part of the title is spot-on though, because fighting is all there is in this game: it's plumbers trading punches, flying turtle shells and unsolicited dinosaur tongue-baths all the way. There's nothing to get in the way of the carnage, and the text on the title screen is accurate in this regard - it says OPTION, singular, and there is indeed only one option you can change. That's the difficulty level, which I will be leaving on the default setting so that I can enjoy Kart Fighter exactly as the developers intended. Well, maybe not exactly as intended because I didn't buy the cartridge from a dingy market stall, but as close as I can get.


Here they are, the Super Mario characters that you know and love so well: Kung-Fu Peach, Mario and Green Mario, Nervous Kong, the gang's all here. At first basing a bootleg Mario fighting game around Mario Kart didn't make much sense to me, but then I remembered that it was the first time that Nintendo had assembled all these characters in one place. It's easy to forget that, after decades of seeing the Mario family get together to compete in every sport under the sun, but Super Mario Kart was where it all started and so it doesn't take much of mental leap to go from "Mario characters racing" to "Mario character kicking the crap out of each other," especially at the time of Street Fighter II's phenomenal success.
Anyway, for your enjoyment I present my adventures through Kart Fighter. I will be playing as Mario himself, as seems most appropriate. If you're red-green colour blind this means that you get the bonus experience of seeing me play through Kart Fighter as Luigi.


Opponent: Nokonoko (that's Koopa Troopa to you and me).
Fighting Style: Shell Defence.
Reason for Fighting Mario: Revenge for his countless fallen brothers.
This Koopa Troopa must be the most elite warrior of his race, because Mario hit him with a fireball and he didn't immediately die. No matter how amusing it would have been for Hummer Team to include a character that is instantly defeated if it touches a projectile or is jumped on from above, Kart Fighter's Koopa Troopa has been through a rigorous training schedule that allows him to survive these minor blows, although he is still susceptible to being kicked in the face. The lack of buttons on the NES controller means that you're limited to one button for punches and one for kicks, but other than that Kart Fighter is a by-the-numbers recreation of Street Fighter II. You block by holding backwards, you can throw your opponent by getting right into their personal space and pressing punch, and you can even put them in a dizzy state with repeated blows.


Special moves are also unleashed using the familiar joypad inputs popularised by Capcom's classic: the first thing I did when I started playing Kart Fighter was unconsciously attempt a quarter-circle-punch motion, my brain immediately making the connections between Mario's ability to throw fireballs and the extremely high likelihood that Hummer Team had completely ripped off Street Fighter II. It worked, naturally, and Mario threw a fireball. He can also do a Dragon Punch, but the command for this is different than you'd expect and extremely finicky to pull off, so Mario's jumping uppercut became a move only performed by accident. Mario is Ryu, then, only without the Hurricane Kick. Mario makes up for this oversight by being sensible enough to wear shoes.


See? Koopa's getting a good look at those shoes as this kick ends the fight. The faces of the combatants are contorted in pain and rage, which is a slightly unnerving sight - even in Smash Bros the characters never look like they want to inflict real harm on their opponents, but one look at Kart Fighter Mario's grimace leaves me with the feeling that he's been waiting years to cut loose and beat a Koopa Troopa to death with his bare hands. Well, now's your chance, Mario, but can you summon that hatred and anger when you face... your own brother?!


Opponent: Luigi.
Fighting Style: As Mario, only greener.
Reason for Fighting Mario: Sibling rivalry.
Mario's facial expression has changed to one of trepidation as he faces off against the Green Machine. Whether he's worried about Luigi's martial prowess or that he's about to see his dumbass brother fall to an agonising death in a lava pit is up to the player to decide.


Luigi is the Ken to Mario's Ryu, differentiated only by the colour of their outfits and the fact that Mario's name is spelled wrong on his health bar. This misspelling may have been intentional, designed to bamboozle Nintendo's lawyers, as if the rest of the game didn't demonstrate quite how much contempt Hummer Team had for Nintendo's lawyers.
Oh, right. Luigi. There's not much else to say, really. He kept trying to hit me with fireballs, forgetting that jumping over fireballs is one of Mario's most finely-honed skills, along with rescuing princesses and falling down easily-avoided chasms through sheer overconfidence (admittedly that last one might be down to me rather than Mario himself). A few jump-kicks later - jump-kicks always seem to work particularly well in bootleg fighting games - and Luigi is defeated.


Opponent: Toad (Kinopio is his Japanese name).
Fighting Style: Pure, unfettered rage.
Reason for Fighting Mario: Endless "fun guy to be around" jokes.
Toad's bulked up, he's gained a foot in height and if the look of fury on his face as he approaches Mario is anything to go by, he's been hitting the steroids pretty hard. Thankfully his new-found dedication to the way of the warrior means he fights in stoic silence, so we're spared the aggravation of hearing a sound even worse than Toad's normal speaking voice: a badly-recreated copy of Toad's speaking voice.


It was at around this point that I figured out the key to victory in Kart Fighter, and that's marching relentlessly towards your opponent while tapping the punch button. Ninety percent of the time you'll either punch your foe or they'll block, giving you a chance to get even closer and allowing you to grab them. Once you've got one throw in you're golden, because you can stand over your fallen foe and grab them again as soon as they get up, allowing you to rack up big damage with no fear of repercussions. Sadly, you can't throw them around forever: eventually you'll trap them right at the edge of the screen, and throwing them a few times from that position will cause their head to clip around to the other side of the screen, whereupon any further throws will propel them back into the centre of the arena. Whether this is down to a glitch in the game's fighting engine or a deliberate effort by the developers to stop you throwing people people around until they're unconscious like a malevolent fairground teacup ride is unclear, but I know which one I believe to be true.


Opponent: Yoshi (again, Yossy is his Japanese name despite it sounding less Japanese than "Yoshi").
Fighting Style: Opens the door, gets on the floor.
Reason for Fighting Mario: Animal cruelty.
There is something about seeing a cartoon dinosaur putting up his dukes like a Victorian bare-knuckle boxer that amuses me on a deep level, so I'm just going to take a minute to enjoy it. Ahh, very nice. Okay, Yoshi. He attacks with his tongue. Don't do that, Yoshi, that's disgusting. Also, Mario is a plumber. Do you really want to be licking a man who travels through sewer pipes on the regular? Just beat him up with your muscular tail, you oddly-proportioned ferret-lizard. Yeah, Yoshi took a bit of a hit in the translation from cutesy sidekick to pugilist. He's sort of... stretched. Maybe carrying Mario for all those years has royally screwed up his back.
Speaking of graphics, if those mushrooms in the background look familiar, it's because they're ripped from Little Nemo for the NES. In for a penny, in for a pound on the whole "copyright infringement" thing, hey Hummer Team?


Opponent: Donkey Kong Jr.
Fighting Style: King of Iron Swingers Tournament Winner.
Reason for Fighting Mario: Well, Mario did once imprison his dad.
From dinosaurs to apes now, as Mario takes on Donkey Kong Jr. and by some miracle is not immediate torn apart by the ape's fantastic strength. You ought to think yourself lucky you're fighting Donkey and not Diddy Kong, Mario. When chimpanzees attack they go for the soft, vulnerable areas; the eyes, the testicles. DK Jr. fights using leaping uppercuts, by throwing banana peels along the ground and by twirling across the screen with his arms outstretched, which funnily enough presages Donkey Kong's similar move in Super Smash Bros.


In the interests of both fair reportage and relieving some tedium, I tried playing Kart Fighter without resorting to constant throws, and the results were not great. Kart Fighter suffers from all the familiar problems of the bootleg fighting game genre, especially those on the NES: the sprites are flickery enough to make me seriously worry about developing a tic in my eye, the presentation is extremely barebones with no win quotes or story to speak of, but worst of all is action that's a bit of a stodgy mess. Unlike a good fighting game, there's no sense of flow to the game, no feeling of smoothness or fluidity to your attacks. The characters are buffeted about the screen by unseen forces, sliding off each other in ways you wouldn't expect, presumably in a lazy effort to stop the sprites piling up on top of each other. Combos are out of the question - when you land a hit, the action actually pauses for half a second, making the game run at a somewhat ponderous pace. The entire thing feels not quite right in an almost undefinable way born from a hundred tiny gameplay flaws congealing together. As I said, that's what bootleg fighting games are like in general, but from what I can tell the Kart Fighter engine was reused for several other pirate fighting games so this game may well be the progenitor of those problems.


Opponent: Princess Peach.
Fighting Style: Gymkata
Reason for Fighting Mario: I have no idea, you'd think she's be more grateful.
With her usual pink pink dress replaced by a blue miniskirt and a serious case of conjunctivitis, Princess Peach pirouettes into battle, determined to do Mario harm by either spin-kicking him or whipping him to death with her hair. Why is Peach dressed in blue? I don't know, because her traditional pink colour scheme is in the game as her 2P costume. Maybe she just fancied a change, maybe Hummer Team were trying to invoke the essence of Chun-Li. Peach does have a Chun-Li-esque fireball, which brings me to another of Kart Fighter's problems: the characters are too similar to one another. It seems like an odd thing to say about a roster that includes a princess, a mushroom man and a gorilla, but all the characters have a projectile attack and either a horizontal "dash" move or an uppercut, which makes things a bit samey after a while.


Still, there is fun to be had with Kart Fighter. It might be awkward and clunky but it's not horrifically broken or anything. The hit detection is decent and the controls, apart from on some special move inputs, are relatively reliable. The computer's bone-dense AI means that it's a game that can only really be enjoyed in versus mode, and on the NES it's probably one of the best one-on-one fighting experiences you're going to find. Granted, that says more about the lack of good fighting games on the NES than it does about Kart Fighter's quality, but if you were desperate to challenge your friends to an NES fighting game for some reason - a time loop has trapped you in 1993, you have a serious mental disorder - then this game might be your best bet.



On a side note, the musical theme of Princess Peach's stage is an 8-bit version of the Koopa Beach theme from Super Mario Kart that sounds a bit like it's being whistled by a robot mogwai. I'm sure the rest of the music in the game is stolen from other sources, but none of it leapt out at me like this one did so presumably it's from games I've never played.


Opponent: Bowser.
Fighting Style: Adorable tinyness.
Reason for Fighting Mario: Small Man Syndrome.
Oh my word, look at this itty-bitty Bowser! He's so adorable, I just want to pick him up and give him a hug. I kept pressing the button, fervently hoping that just one time it'd allow me to give the Koopa King a cuddle, but alas it never happened and I ended up punching him in the snout over and over again.
Bowser is the closest thing Kart Fighter has to a final boss, but he's still got the same moves as everyone else - a fireball projectile and a ramming attack using his spiny shell - and he's still susceptible to repeated throws. No, I don't count throws as a hug. What, every time you hug a loved one does it end up with you slamming them to the ground? Unless you grew up in a family of professional wrestlers I very much doubt it.


Yep, that's the look I'd have on my face if I thought I was going to land on Bowser's, um, prominence.
Disturbing tail aside, Bowser is no more difficult to beat than any other character and you know what? I'm fine with that. It makes a nice change from every other fighting game, where the final boss is a cheap, overpowered test of patience. I mean, it's not like Mario's ever had any trouble beating Bowser before, so why should he now? With the Great King of Evil defeated, Mario's fist-throwing adventure is over...


...Or is it? No, it is quite clearly not over. There's another fight after Bowser and it's against Green Mario. I'm not having another dig at Luigi constantly being in the shadow of his brother, it really is a Mario vs. Mario mirror-match, and Mario's alternate costume is, well, Luigi. The first time this happened I honestly thought the game had looped back around, and it was only because I happened to glance at the health bars and see MARI up there in all its misspelled glory. Mario's attacks are identical to Luigi's, and I've already beaten Luigi once so it'll come as no surprise that this fight did not pose much of a challenge.


Then I was made to fight Bowser again. Here, Mario has thrown his arch-enemy to the floor with such force that half of Bower's body has disappeared in a jittery mess of pixels. That's gonna hurt Bowser's chances of winning this rematch.


Okay, now Kart Fighter is over for realsies. There's no ending, which is a shame - I'm one of those odd people for whom the post-battle quips and ending sequences are an integral part of my enjoyment of a fighting game. I can enjoy them purely for the mechanics, but those extra flourishes are what brings a fighting game alive. Imagine playing an SNK fighter without people calling each other "weenie king" or "pin-headed son of an icecream maker" at the drop of a hat. A dreadful thought, isn't it? I suppose you could argue that the extra screen you get for clearing Kart Fighter on the highest difficulty is an ending, but it's an argument you'd lose because a single screen traced from the podium scene at the end of Super Mario Kart with the words "The End" over it is not an ending. The end of an ending, maybe, but not an ending it it's own right.
Also, check out these high scores. I finished the game without losing a round and I still didn't make it onto the high score table. My total was around 110,000 points. I don't think it's likely that I or anyone else could get six times that to claim top spot. What is likely is the developers randomly slapping some numbers into the top scores without even considering for one millisecond the scoring system of the game they were making.


Kart Fighter is that rare beast - a bootleg game that has something of a positive reputation. I don't think I'd go as far as to say I have positive feelings about it, personally. Not positive feelings about the gameplay, at least, but I will freely admit there's still some pleasure to be gained in watching Princess Peach beat Bowser into unconsciousness using her hair. It's a weirdly transgressive thrill that has been diminished by the passage of time and the release of multiple official Mario slugfests in the form of the Super Smash Bros. games, but it's still entertaining in its brazenness.


It doesn't have enough depth or finesse to keep you engrossed for long, and your interest will probably wane as soon as the novelty of the setting wears off, but for an NES fighting game it's not bad. For a bootleg NES fighting game it's a work of art, a Mona Lisa of almost-good gameplay and intellectual property theft. And, with no qualifiers at all, it's still a lot better than Rise of the Robots.

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