16/08/2011

RIOT CITY

Riot City: the story of the recent disturbances in London. Okay, not really - it’s a 1991 side-scrolling arcade fighter by Sega/Westone. Prepare of an unrivalled display of electronic mediocrity!

I think it's fair to say that you can get a good idea of how influential a videogame was by how often it was simply copied wholesale. Identikit clones of Pac-Man must number in the thousands, Super Mario Kart is responsible of a legion of mascot racers... and then there's Final Fight. It wasn't the first belt-scrolling brawler, nor was it particularly packed with innovation, but its perfectly-pitched gameplay and vibrant world saw it become the archetypal game of its genre. Then the clones came along, some with improvements, some that are excellent games in their own right and some with... not so much flair. The plain ones, the stodgy ones, the ones that don't try anything new or make any attempt to break out of their mould. Riot City is one of these games. In fact, I think it may occupy the perfect balancing point of absolute mediocrity. More on that later, though. For now, let's meet out heroes.

Meet Paul and Bobby. They're cops, narcotics agents to be precise, and they're currently engaged in a war with the drug cartel MID. They're cheerful fellows, keeping a playful smile on their lips even as MID call Paul and inform him that they've kidnapped his girlfriend.

Bobby's certainly taking it well. Yes, it's a standard "rescue the kidnapped girlfriend" operation. The similarities to Final Fight are obvious right from the start - criminal gang kidnaps the main character's blonde, red-dress-wearing loved one, although at least Mad Gear went the extra mile and set up a videoconference to taunt Haggar. It's that attention to detail that keeps Final Fight at the top of the pile.

And here we are in Riot City, which is apparently located on Riot Island. Personally, I'd prefer to be in Murderville or Dangerous-Background-Radiation Town, but you have to take what you can get.

As Riot City sticks so closely to its inspiration, I'm sure you won't be surprised that the control setup is one attack button, one jump button and pressing them both together executes a health-draining special move: in this case, Paul flails upward in a manner reminiscent of Terry Bogard's Rising Tackle. You punch all the enemies until they die, you move on a screen or two, repeat until crime is eradicated and your girlfriend is safe.
You know, the first thing I noticed about Riot City is that your punches make a strange "whuud" sound effect. This means that if you attack repeatedly, you end up producing a noise like an unbalanced washing machine on a spin cycle, which is hardly an effect likely to strike fear into your enemies.

The enemies come thick and fast, and a varied yet clichéd bunch they are. There're standard street punks, American Football players who charge at you, (a pretty decent tactic, if you're wearing all that armour), kung-fu masters with names like Chun and Huy, knife-wielding commandos and so on and so on until each beat-em-up staple is covered. Except for dominatrixes, actually - there are none in Riot City. In fact, Riot City is a female-free zone, which may be how the riots got started in the first place. It'd explain why everyone here is just so darned angry.

The first boss is a football player called Tam Tam who watches you fight his minions whilst he reclines like a goddamn Roman emperor, the smug bastard. A pointed satire on the vast wealth and pampered lives of modern sports stars? No, it's just weird. Tam Tam is just a creepy little dude who likes to watch men beat each other to death. After a while he gets tired of watching and decides to join in, but Paul has been trained in gladiatorial death-combat and so emerges victorious. Stage two, please!

Oh good, an outdoor area. The fresh air will no doubt do Paul the world of good, and what's this? A brief rain shower? Well, how refreshing! Except this rain appears to be yellow, as though Paul has wandered into some kind of golden shower. How odd.
Something else that’s odd about Riot City is the lack of weapons; given its blatant copying of Final Fight, I fully expected to be able to clobber someone with a lead pipe. No such luck though, and while there are pick-ups, they just give you points or health. In fact, almost every breakable object in the game contains something, be it a top hat, perfume, sunglasses or an emerald the size of my fist. To be honest, by the time I'd collected five or six precious jewel with a carat weight in the triple figures, I'd have a ditched my mission to defeat MID and bought myself a private island somewhere.

Obligatory “elevator full of enemies” time, and it's nice to see that Riot City plays its part in one of gaming's oldest traditions. Bonus points, too, for the amount of enemies on screen at any one time; MID had the foresight to install heavy-duty freight lifts just for a situation such as this.

The boss is a Bruce Lee clone called, in a world-beating display of originality, Lee. Hmm. He's not quite as blatant as the Bruce Lee clone in D.D. Crew, but that's only because the Riot City version is wearing bright purple leggings with some sort of inter-thigh webbing, the purpose of which I wouldn't like to speculate on. Imagine a world where the purple webbed leggings became Bruce Lee's signature outfit instead of the Game of Death tracksuit. Kill Bill would have been markedly different, for starters.
There's a nice little twist to this fight in that halfway through, the fighters drop down from the roof and the fight continues at ground level. Lee also gains some nunchaku, the impact of which is lessened when he tries whirling them around his body and it looks more like someone flossing themselves dry with a towel than a display of martial arts mastery. Once he's sufficiently punched...

... Stage three arrives. It's a dismal bar, a fitting place to be fighting a fat cowboy. They really missed a trick by not calling the cowboy enemies "Tex", if you ask me. And, to give Riot City a confidence boost it sorely needs, I rather like the background here.

As is so often the case, the bar is attached to some kind of Satanic temple. Running a drug ring not evil enough now, Sega? I hope you're not expecting the final boss to be Beelzebub or anything, because that would show a depth of imagination that Riot City simply doesn't possess.

And, following a progression as natural as the rivers flowing to the sea, the final area of stage three is an illicit hospital. I'm choosing to believe that Paul has only chosen this route to finish off the enemies he battered earlier. The boss is a fat doctor called Doctor D. The D presumably stands for Doctor, because he has a bad case of loving you. Sorry, did I say loving? Because I meant to say hacking at you with a cleaver.

After the grimy urban settings of previous stages, in stage four Paul gets to experience the glamour and opulence of a casino. Okay, so it's an illegal back-street casino, but it's still nicer than a freight elevator. The crowds of gamblers pay no attention to the huge brawl taking place mere feet away, and for a moment I wondered if Riot City was making a point about the all-encompassing, blinding thrillseeking of those with a gambling problem. Then I thought they're just background sprites, you twonk. I don't think I can be blamed for trying to spice this game up, though.

Paul has found himself in quite the entertainment complex, because as well as the thrill of the roulette wheel, patrons can also partake of the sweatier pleasures of pro-wrestling. Hammer Bull is the boss, an obese wrestler who proves he can match the gaudy showmanship of any '90s WWF superstar by flying into the ring on a glittering neon hover-pod. He's a pretty tough opponent, it must be said, and all his attacks make a significant dent in your health bar, but once you've figured out the timing required to safely attack him he can be taken down and you can head for the final stage.

Last level, and it's set in the villain's headquarters, a high-tech base at the top of a skyscraper. Security, as you can tell from the picture above, is pretty lax. I suppose there's a limit to the number of men even the most well-funded drug cartel can send out. After some time spent fighting your way past all this technological gubbins, there's a sudden aesthetic shift and you're in a Japanese temple or something.

At least it's clean, which I suppose is something to be thankful for as you slog your way through the same old enemies. In fact, you meet all the different types of basic enemy in the very first stage, so as you progress through the game there really aren't any surprises in terms of what you're going to be fighting. This has the added effect that, bosses aside, the game doesn't really get any harder as you progress, because you've already killed hundreds of the same troops and their repetitive attack patterns aren't going to suddenly surprise you. Instead, it just becomes more tedious as there are more of them and they have slightly larger health bars. Fear not, though; we've reached the end!

Here's the final boss - The appropriately-named Dick. He looks a bit like Deckard from Blade Runner. Aside from that, he's blonde and he fights with a rapier so he's almost certainly French. His main combat technique is stabbing you with his sword which, while undeniably effective, feels somewhat unsporting. Oh, and it kills you in about three hits, so make sure you bring some credits. After Paul defeats crime the way all videogame cops do - with repeated punches to the head - Dick is arrested, Cody and Jessica Paul and his girlfriend are reunited and MID is no more.

So, that was all it took to eliminate all violence ever from the city. Impressive work, Paul. You probably should have done this years ago, before countless people's lives were ruined, instead of waiting for them to make it personal by kidnapping your girlfriend, you selfish prick.

Riot City is over, and it's sort of a relief. You might be wondering why I bothered to write about it at all if it's so mediocre, but that's precisely why I chose it. I find it fascinating in its averageness, so delicately balanced between being too boring to play and interesting enough to be good. You couldn't really say there's anything specifically bad about it; the graphics are decent but not spectacular, the music is forgettable but not irritating, the plot and characters and carefully crafted from the purest clichés available... it's mesmerising, really. If you ranked every side-scrolling beat-em-up ever made in order of how good they are, Riot City would occupy a spot bang in the center, and that's something interesting... to me, at least.

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