What have I learned from this? That I really want a new F-Zero game.
So, the response to the first VGJunk Theatre video was positive, (and thanks to everyone who got in touch with me about it,) so here's another about F-Zero, Mute City and planning laws.
What have I learned from this? That I really want a new F-Zero game.
What have I learned from this? That I really want a new F-Zero game.
Today, I'm taking a look at American Action's 1986 Commodore 64 title Blood and Guts. That's a bold title, holding the promise of all manner of mystery and intrigue. Okay, so it only really promises two things, and the title screen of a mid-eighties computer game would never lie to me. Well, I suppose I did get burned by Way of the Exploding Fist, but that was a one-off.This is Blood and Guts, then, but what kind of game awaits beyond the loading screen? A primitive one-on-one fighting game? A top-down Gauntlet clone featuring gruesome dismemberment? No, it is not.
The subtitle is "Ancient Barbarian Games," which should inform you that Blood and Guts belongs in that densely-populated genre of Commodore 64 games known as the multi-event sports title. Yep, this is International Track & Field: Conan of Cimmeria Edition, it's Genghis Khan's Decathlon, it's sort of like Bad Cat if the titular Bad Cat was replaced by a host of large, shirtless men. If you've ever seen the Bad Cat loading screen, you'll know that this can only be an improvement.
And here come the large, shirtless men now, the four contestants who are bare of foot and pink of flesh enough to compete in these ancient barbarian games. This is the character select screen, and of the four it's Hawk who stands out as the obvious contender - he's mean, he's moody, he brought his own sword and helmet, he's even got the least stupid name. "Knorr" just makes me think of Marco Pierre White pretending that he uses jellified stock, and Dog appears to be strangling himself, perhaps to test how well the novelty Pluto ears he got from Disneyworld will stay on his head in battle.
Despite his credentials, I won't be playing as Hawk. No, I'm afraid there's only one option for me and between his lack of hair, his concerned expression and the fact that we're the same age, I have little choice but to play as Nop.
"You're choosing me? Really? Ugh, fine, whatever.
I don't think it actually matters who you pick, I couldn't discern any difference between the characters, so let's get straight into the first event!
It's... a tug-of-war. I've gotta say, I was expecting something a little more, I dunno, barbaric. A tug-of-war is a decent enough test of strength, but it's less "hordes of savage warriors locked in mortal combat" and more "school sports day." Tug-of-war was once an actual Olympic event, you know, and I for one would much rather see that in the modern Olympiad than the seven thousand different types of cycling they have these days.
To play this tug-of-war game, all you need to do is press down on the joystick. That makes Nop pull the rope. If you press down and the fire button, he pulls harder at the expense of more stamina. Once your energy is depleted, stop tugging, wait for it to refill and then pull once more. That seems to be all there is to it, and slowly - oh so slowly, brutally slowly, why-must-I-continue to-live slowly - you'll drag your opponent (in this case, the CPU player called Droid) into a shallow, water-filled ditch.
One event into the Barbarian Games, and already excitement levels are running so high that crowd numbers are up to a record five people!
Alright, so the tug-of-war is a bit dull, but that's just a warm-up, a prelude to the shower of blood and / or guts that will no doubt be coming our way in the next event!
Behold, the Wooden Tower... of PAIN! Nop isn't standing up there to admire the view or to act as an early-warning system should some other barbarians choose this moment to attack, he's up there because the point of this event is to jump off the tower and clear as much distance as you can. You charge up your jump by pulling the joystick down, then release it to leap off the tower and into the hearts of your adoring fans.
You might be wondering what's stopping you from just holding down the joystick until you've reached maximum power and then flying the furthest possible distance, and if you are then you should probably stop thinking about this game so hard. In answer to your question, simply jumping the furthest isn’t enough for victory. For your jump to count, you have to land head-first.
Well, it's certainly more manly than the tug-of-war. To land correctly, you have to press the fire button while your character's head is pointing downwards - but the longer you held down jump, the faster they spin and the harder it is to get the timing right and make them stick in the dirt like something from a Wile E. Coyote cartoon. It's a decent little game, definitely much more interesting than the tug-of-war, so maybe Blood and Guts will have some more minor gems to surprise me with.
As for the result: Droid won, his superior robot brain allowing him to position himself correctly even at the fastest rotational speeds.
Next up, boulder rolling. This is simple enough - you waggle the joystick left and right to build enough strength to take a step, press fire to step forward and repeat. Unfortunately, either due to the joystick I was using not being up to the task, the pitiful weakness of my spaghetti-like forearms or the punishing difficulty level, Nop could not muster the energy to budge that boulder. I think I managed one step before Droid reached the summit and, in a move so unsporting that even Joey Barton would be taken aback, he rolled his boulder down the hill and flattened me.
What a prick.
Result: If I said it was a crushing defeat, would you think any less of me?
Event four, and my prayers for a task that played to my strengths were answered... or so I thought.
Drinking beer is the aim of the game and I thought I had this one in the bag, having been in training for it since I was eighteen years old. Sadly, it turns out that this minigame has little to do with the real-world physics of supping ale and is, in fact, another bout of joystick-waggling.
Nop, my good man, I share the very same sentiment.
Press up to raise the tankard to your mouth and start drinking, then violently slam the joystick left and right as quickly as possibly to swallow the beer. The amount of beer in your gob is displayed in the strange cutaway profile picture of your head, and make sure you don't chug too quickly because if you spill a single drop then you are disqualified. Oh, I'm sorry, I though these were barbarian games, not "daintily sip your drink in the manner of a pensioner tackling her yearly Christmas sherry" games. Result: Droid won, but I don't care. I won the moral victory by pouring as much ale into my face as possible at once.
The next challenge is simpler. It's about as simple as they get, in fact; just throw rocks at a restrained target using a crosshair and the fire button. I think this is what happens to barbarians who spill their beer, and to win the round you have to hit each of the four targets three times in a faster time than Droid. Yes, four targets - for some reason that guy's right arm isn't a target, but his left arm is. Look, I don't make the rules here, I just throw the rocks. And throw the rocks I did, with speed and precision, hitting the target (or Steve, as he's known to his friends,) without missing once. Droid still won. I'm beginning to suspect he's cheating.
I'd love to tell you what's going on in event six, but frankly I have no idea. Droid and I sat opposite each other on a log, each of us armed with a turkey drumstick. Then I wiggled the joystick, pressed fire a few times and Droid fell off the log. Hurrah!
I'm not proud; I'll take this freebie and revel in my accidental victory. At least I didn't cheat, Droid.
This is more like it, an event that I can understand. This is the hammer throw, and all you need to do is press the button at the right time. Your barbarian spins around on the spot, gaining speed with each rotation, until you press fire and launch your missile. Wait too long and your character gets tired and starts spinning more slowly, so this event is about holding your nerve and finding the correct timing to throw your projectile. That's definitely not a hammer you're throwing, though. It's not even the hammer they use in the actual hammer throw event, the one that looks nothing like a hammer. But what could it be?
Oh, I see, it's a cat. This is the cat-throwing event. Well, I did say I was expecting something more barbaric, and hurling small animals as far as possible definitely fits into that... I was going to say cat-egory, but my doctor says I shouldn't overdo it with the puns.
Rather worryingly, cat-throwing seems to be my true calling in life and after one mistimed throw where I launched the poor moggy face-first into a tree, I got the timing spot-on and threw that cat so hard that it sailed over the far end of the course and into the record books. Not even Droid and his cheating ways could top that, and Nop claims another event.
Unfortunately, the next task focuses on coordination and precision instead of my ability to sling household pets as far as possible. Nop and Droid are balanced on a tightrope, and you have to move the joystick left and right to keep your balance while travelling along the high-wire. The event ended in the most humiliating defeat since the boulder-rolling, as Droid calmly jogged across the rope while I flailed about wildly, looking like your dad that time he tried to ride a skateboard. I never even made it half-way to the middle, and whoever reaches the center of the rope first bounces up and down, sending their rival tumbling down the mountainside. I don't know if this was American Action's plan all along, but I really, really want to beat Droid now - I'm not sure how a five-pixel-tall stick figure managed to look smug as he made me fall to my death, but he did.
We're coming to the end of the barbarian games, and this is the point where the organisers ran out of ideas for new events. After rolling boulders, jumping off towers and drinking the local breweries dry they simply said "fuck it" and had the two competitors stand slightly apart and throw hammers at each other. It's almost beautiful in its simplicity, the kind of contest that you would expect a bunch of bored barbarians (or rugby players) to come up with, and indeed it is easy to play. The competitors take it in turns to throw hammers, or possibly axes, at each other - you can see one in the screenshot above, it's the grey T-shaped thing. You can throw them high or low, and you can avoid them by ducking or jumping over them. Get hit by the hammer and you lose, both the event and presumably a lot of blood.
I had a plan, and that plan was to do nothing but throw hammers at Droid's shins. I knew he'd fall for it eventually, and as our rivalry had spilled over into full-blown hatred the idea of shattering his shins with a flying mallet was very appealing. This strategy worked, and Nop takes this round when Droid forgets to jump.
We've reached the final event, and what else could it be but arm wrestling? A contest of pure strength, or in this case a contest of how fast you can shake the joystick back and forth. As it turns out, I still can't do that very fast. This is a theme of Blood and Guts, and all my victories so far have come in the events that didn't involve stick-waggling. It seems extremely difficult, far more difficult than is enjoyable, and it's the weakest aspect of a game that's otherwise a decent multi-sports title. Of course, Droid won. That wasn't enough for him, though. Oh no, he had to get a bird to shit on my head.
It's a well-known fact that birds - especially birds that look like flying turds themselves - have nothing but contempt for people with sub-par arm wrestling skills, and will dive-bomb anyone that loses a round. Oh well, at least I'm bald so I won't have to pick it out of my hair.
Right, that's the end of these barbarian games, and the scores are in - Nop loses to Droid by a score of four events to six. Closer than I expected, and the result was solely down to the inclusion of the stick-waggling events, but that's okay. We all had fun here today, and I shall watch graciously as Droid collects his prize until it's time for me to collect my runners-up medal. Why, they're calling me up to the podium now!
Aww, nuts. Had I know this was a contest in which my very life was on the line, I might have tried harder. No, wait, no I wouldn't. Screw you, Droid, and screw all you people who have gathered to watch my execution. I hope that bird shits on all your heads.
Oh, Blood and Guts, your title promised two simple things and you didn't deliver on either of them. Even the beheading is a clean, bloodless affair, and that's to be expected because these barbarians are clearly immortal. Think about it: they've been crushed by boulders, fallen off mountains, had hammers throw into their face and swung angry, confused cats around, and yet they show no sign of harm. This must be the barbarian afterlife, the Elysian Fields for brawny savages who like hurting things, a blissful realm where they can kick the shit out of each other for all eternity without any permanent death or disfigurement. I wouldn't be surprised if Nop climbed out of the guillotine and reattached his own head before starting the whole thing over again.
Blood and Guts, despite the filthy lies in its title, is a not-too-bad example of a genre all too common on the home computers of the mid-eighties. The events are simple enough to be fun and different enough to be interesting and the graphics do their job pretty well, and the whole thing is at least more interesting than yet another Olympics-based title. It has problems, of course - there are long loading times between each event, the more button-mash-y events are too difficult and too tiring and the computer is far too good at them, but if you played it with a friend Blood and Guts would be a jolly enough way to pass an hour or so. And hey, I got to break Droid's legs by throwing a hammer at them, which was nice. Does that make me a sociopath? Possibly, but I wasn't the one who set up a sporting event where second place means a trip to meet Madame Guillotine.
Freeze, creep, and get up against the wall - you're under arrest for anime crimes. The near-future-cyberpunk-digital-terrorism kind, I mean, not dubbing without due care and attention or operating a ridiculous harem of alien girls without a permit. Yes, big-eyed cartoon justice is coming your way, and it's dispensed by the fine upstanding officers of the Armored Police Metal Jack unit. Whaddya mean, you've never heard of them? They had a Super Famicom game and everything, developed by Atlus in 1992 and called, unsurprisingly, Armored Police Metal Jack.
In case that poorly-written intro didn't clue you in, Armored Police Metal Jack is based on an anime series of the same name which ran in 1991 and looked like this:
All very standard, it's got colour-coded suits and it looks like an advert for ultra-hold hairspray. I feel like I'm in comfortable territory with this one.
The plot of Metal Jack also treads a very familiar path. In the year 2015, crime is, like, bad. Really bad, with criminal gangs using advanced technology to do all the crimes and whatnot. The police are overwhelmed by this relentless riot of villainy, so it's extremely convenient when three young men are mortally wounded while protecting someone from a criminal. Their broken bodies are repaired and improved with the latest cutting-edge cybernetics, and these three young men are reborn as the Armored Police Metal Jack! Metal Jacks? I dunno. So yeah, it's a three-for-one Robocop deal, except with less satire on corporate greed and more battles against biomechanical mole-bears.
First things first, you get to select which Metal Jack you'd like to play as. Your options are Ken Kanzaki the Red Jack, Ryou Aguri the Silver Jack and Gou Gouda the Blue Jack. I've never seen Armored Police Metal Jack, but I'd be very surprised if they didn't have the standard personality traits; you know, Red Jack is the hot-blooded and impulsive hero, Silver Jack is aloof and a bit vain, and Blue Jack is the slow-witted, big-hearted comic relief. I can tell Blue Jack is big, because according to his "stature" statistic - that's stature, not height - he's over two metres tall, so he was probably pretty menacing even pre-robotification. I was tempted to start with Gou Gouda the Blue Jack solely because he's named after two types of cheese, but in the end I decided I'd better start with Red Jack.
Armored Police Metal Jack falls into the curious genre of the robot fist-bump simulator. You can see in the screenshot that I've put my fist in too high and overshot the receiving hand, and that'll cost me some points.
No, of course not, it's a side-scrolling, flat-plane beat-em-up. You waddle from left to right - becoming armored policemen didn't make these guys any more athletic, it seems - and jab at the robots who pass by with your ineffectual and extremely short-ranged punches. If I was being generous, I could compare it to The Ninja Warriors Again, but that seems like too much praise. You know what it really reminds me of? The Fist of the North Star NES game. Yep, it's pretty unfortunate, but before I lay into APMJ too viciously, let's at least see what else it has to offer.
Red Jack also has a gun. That's handy, because punching things in this game is an absolute nightmare: there's a considerable delay between pressing the button and his arm moving forward, and as the enemies charge at you with a commendable enthusiasm for your death you'll often press the button too late, your punch only activating after you've been hit. The gun is a safer option, but it does have one considerable downside - Red Jack forgot to bring any ammo. You start with the gun but no bullets, demonstrating a lack of forward planning that was probably what got Red Jack almost killed in the first place. Ammo pickups are scarce, too, so in the end your sidearm is more of a tease than a reliable robot-smashing tool.
The mid-boss is a robot, and this one had the good common sense to bring an unlimited supply of bullets for his gun. Considering you meet him halfway through the very first stage he's unexpectedly challenging, thanks mostly to Red Jack's sluggish and imprecise controls. His jumps are stiff and he can't block, so avoiding enemy attacks is far more difficult than it should be in a game of this type. Maybe that's the point, though. Maybe Atlus sat down and said "we really want to communicate to the player that Red Jack is a man wearing an incredibly heavy suit of robot armour." If that's the case, congratulations to Atlus, mission accomplished.
A little further on, and the world's most complicated skateboard turns up to give Red Jack a ride. Stepping onto this wicked deck activates a transformation sequence!
Oh good, I've turned into a Megazord. I assume this is where the "jack" part of the title comes in, as my robot armour "jacks on" to my slightly smaller robot armour to form, erm, this guy.
I'm marginally taller! My legs are flared! My cyber-helmet has a little weathervane thing! Future-crime must be terrified.
The gelatinous thing hovering over my head is the end-of-stage boss, and after laboriously punching my way through nothing but robots for the entire level he seems a little out of place. I'm not sure what it's supposed to be, but I'm going with "the physical representation of online spam." It seems like something that would happen in APMJ, probably after some dodgy mass-mailing server gets hit by lightning. He drops his claws toward you, and you have to punch them to hurt him. Super Metal Jack here doesn't come with a gun, so I spent a lot of time getting a bit too close and taking damage, but then I discovered my ultimate power. If you hold down the punch button, a bar fills up. Let go when the bar is full and Red Jack performs a special move that hits everything on the screen for many punches-worth of damage. You don't even need to aim it, Jack just flies across the screen with his fist out and anything nearby gets hurt. Once I'd figured that out, the fight went from frustrating to embarrassingly easy, and soon the path to stage two was clear.
Oh look, a sewer level already. Well, I suppose there has to be one so let's get it out of the way quickly. For this stage I'm using Silver Jack, and the main difference between him and Red is that he doesn't have a gun. I am already regretting my decision to use Silver Jack. In its place he has a laser sword, and the unpreparedness of the entire Armored Police division is once again cast into stark relief because he forgot to bring any batteries for the bloody thing. Did these missions just take you guys by surprise, or are you rolling out some new cost-cutting measures?
At least the enemies are a little more interesting down in the sewers, with gangs of Shadowrun-esque net-jockey types with mirror shades and sleeveless dressing gowns. They think they can destroy the mighty Armored Police with their little knives, ah ha ha. Oh wait, they totally can.
Even more aggravating are these Duke Nukem-looking slabs of man-muscle. They're tougher than Silver Jack. A lot tougher, and with an attack range somewhere between "a really long stick" and "a high-powered sniper rifle." Just getting close to these guys is a challenge, but in the end I figured out that the best way to defeat them is with jumping kicks. I don't mean some acrobatic kung-fu endeavour where I launch myself, foot first, at my opponent: no, you need to jump straight up, stick your leg out and fall so your leg drops gently onto the bad guy's head. It looks, as you can probably tell, utterly ridiculous, and even with these advance combat techniques you'll still get your ass kicked a good 50% of the time.
Towards the end of the stage, Silver Jack's very own high-tech vehicle things shows up and he too transforms. At least each character gets their own unique transformation sequence. I would not have been surprised if this had just been a palette swap of Red Jack's little montage, but credit to Atlus for drawing something new.
Changing into my robot duds can mean only one thing - the boss battle, and so it proves. A pair of clawed, hopping, robot ninjas are your opponents. Boy do these guys like to jump. Jump, jump, jump, that's all they do, and best of all their flight patterns never change. If you stand in the center of the screen, they just keep leaping over you without actually hurting you. Charge up your screen-filling super move, unleash it, repeat until the robot ninjas are dead. This game really needs to work on its difficulty curve.
Stage three is Blue Jack's chance to shine, and he's not exactly getting my competition from the astoundingly dull background. The goo monsters are trying their best to liven things up, but there's only so much they can do with the drab grey walls that look like modular supermarket shelves.
The mid-boss is more interesting, a prancing lizardman who has fully embraced The Lonely Island's admonishments to "do the creep". His special power is elongating various parts of his body like a scaly Dhalsim, but I'm sure Blue Jack's special weapon will quickly bring him down. If he had one, that is. No guns or swords for Mr. Gouda, he relies on nothing but his fists. According to a synopsis of the Armored Police anime, Blue Jack was a pro wrestler before he became a robot-cop. I'm not sure how that qualifies him for a position as a cyborg policeman, but I admit I don't know much about fighting crime. Maybe the true weakness of the villains that rule future Tokyo is bitchin' elbow drops off the top turnbuckle.
I wasn't kidding about the biomechanical mole-bears, either. I know that's supposed to be his right shoulder-pad showing through, but it doesn't half look like he's wearing a jaunty green beret. I know I've been rather dismissive of the powers granted by the Metal Jack suits, but at least they're relatively human-shaped, unlike the contraption this poor bastard got lumbered with. He'd better be careful how he walks, otherwise he's going to scratch up his very low-slung cybercrotch something terrible.
Would you be surprised if I told you I beat this guy by charging up my special attack over and over again? No, I didn't think so.
At least stage four has a nice background. It also has a very frustrating platforming section. It certainly is unfortunate that I'm playing as the slowest, bulkiest robot for this bit, and I'll spare you the details of my struggle with this area. Suffice to say it was pointless, exasperating and unpleasant to play, so it fits in very nicely with the overall Armored Police Metal Jack experience.
Then a chubby robot shot me in the foot. Get back to Gundam, you skirt-wearing prick. Let's give credit where it's due, though, and congratulate the villains on having the foresight to make the metal protagonist fight his way through an area filled with giant magnets. I'd like to say they're Blue Jack's only weakness, but his general ineffectiveness in combat means that would be a lie.
The boss is an evil robot guy called Shadow Jack. Well, Black Jack was already taken. There's no transforming into a bigger robot for this fight, which means I don't have access to my super move. Great. And I'm not playing as Red or Silver Jack, so I don't even have a weapon to use. Blue Jack, you really are the worst.
This fight seems come down to blind luck, and if the gods are on your side then Shadow Jack will move about the place without much conviction, occasionally wandering into your fist. That's how it felt when I fought him, at least, and with his death I can go to stage five.
Man, ladders sure are fancy in the future.
There’s not much to say about this stage - it's the same old bland slog as the previous stages, although thankfully without the platforming sections. Giant robots block your path, but they... they aren't the sharpest knives in the drawer.
Yeeeah, might want to work on your defence there, champ.
Hey, do you remember that time Spring-Heeled Jack joined the Nazi party?
Good god this boss is infuriating. He / She (it's hard to tell) jumps around the screen, and when I say "jumps" I mean "hovers about with their legs tucked up." He's fast, far too fast for your ponderous robot to keep up with, and because he attacks with such speed you don't get time to charge up your special attack. On top of that, he's got a gun in an unusual place and boy does he enjoy using it.
Well, I'm aroused. I'll be honest, this is the point in Armored Police Metal Jack where I finally said "fuck it" and cheated to give myself infinite health. Life is short, and far too precious to be wasted on trying to clobber this little prick. Some might say it's too precious to be wasted writing long, rambling articles about obscure Japanese-only SNES games based on mostly-forgotten anime. Those people are probably right.
So I cheated, and I won. I prospered, you could say. Now it's time for the final stage, and I'm sure it'll be packed full of excitement and thrills.
Or a boss rush, it could be that. What fun. I'm even forced to fight that Nazi again - and if you think I'm using the word "Nazi" lightly then just look at that salute - but I've still got infinite health. If I'd cared even slightly, I could have given myself infinite bullets, too. Oh well.
Okay, this is the actual final boss. His hair reminds me of Tellah from Final Fantasy IV, but he's stolen his shtick from another retro gaming character - Castlevania's Dracula. He wraps himself up in his big black cape, teleports around the screen and then fires a projectile when he reappears. Yup, that sounds like Dracula, and it seems fitting because APMJ does feel a hell of a lot like a NES game, and a bad one at that: no complexity, no innovation, no real effort. It came out fairly early in the SNES' lifecycle, and I would not be at all surprised if it was originally planned as a NES release.
Oh, the boss? Yeah, he's not a challenge. He must be shy or something, because he can't look Red Jack in the face and thus his eyebeams only fire at a downward angle. Plus, all his teleporting give you ample time to power up your special move.
But oh no, he has a second form! As shocking twists go, it's right up there with "water is wet" and "that Oliver Reed fella liked a drink." A shame, then, that he has taken the form of a purple gorilla skeleton with back problems. Having your torso bend at a goddamn right-angle halfway up can't be pleasant, and it doesn't seem to do much for his fighting abilities, either. His projectiles can be tough to dodge, but after that spry Nazi he's a pushover.
Well done, Armored Police! You've saved the world / defeated your rival / lowered the crime rate in Tokyo, deplete where applicable. And now for the well-deserved ending sequence!
You're kidding me. All those heroics, and my reward is the credits scrolling over a black screen? That's it? That's... oh, why am I even surprised, at least the ending had the same amount of effort put into it as the rest of the game.
Although, hang on a second, there's a hard mode. Maybe completing the game on this more challenging setting will unlock a better reward? So, I went through APMJ again, only this time round the bland level design and extreme brevity of the game seemed like a goddamn blessing. Lo and behold, it turns out that there is an extra bonus for completing the game on Hard!
Well, that was definitely worth the effort. God knows what happens if you complete APMJ on Easy, it probably shows you some text describing how none of your friends actually like you and that you're a constant source of disappointment to your parents.
So that's Armored Police Metal Jack, and now that you’ve seen it - don't play it. It's a terrible, sludgy blend of bad controls, uninspired graphics and above all a sense of tedium so vast in scope that it feels like the bit in Hell where God sends those people who're always complaining about being bored. This nearly came out in the West, too, even reaching the point where Gou, Ryou and Ken had their names Americanized to Jake, Billy and, erm, Ken. It was cancelled, and nobody missed out. All those youthful years I spent complaining about videogames never being released outside of Japan - if only I'd known that, on the other side of the scale, I was being saved from dreck like this.
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