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FGC #415 Congo’s Caper

That little devilCongo’s Caper is the spiritual successor to Joe & Mac (and the literal sequel in Japan, where it is known as Caveman Ninja 2). Appropriately, the plot of this caper is pretty much the same as what we saw in SNES Joe & Mac. Previously, The Devil kidnapped a collection of cave babes, and Joe & Mac had to rescue their harem. Now, a slightly smaller The Devil decides to kidnap Congo’s girlfriend, and it’s up to Congo to venture forth and save his damsel. And he does! Then she gets kidnapped again, and apparently The Devil brought sidekicks for round 2. And then it turns out it was all the work of Tyrano Satan, whom Congo eventually banishes, and Congo’s girlfriend is rescued again. Hooray! All is well, and one would assume there is a lot of hot, 16-bit sex happening opposite the credits sequence.

Oh, but why did The Devil kidnap Girl? Repeatedly? Well, the answer to that is pretty obvious: because girls are made for kidnapping. Duh.

And that’s bad for everybody.

So everyone is familiar with the “damsel in distress” trope, right? Smarter people than I have elucidated why this particular story telling crutch is terrible, and how it is a good thing that we have gotten away from the tired old “knight saves princess” narrative that dominated our fiction landscape for so many years. We’ve moved well past Mario must rescue Princess Peach from Bowser, and now we have more complicated stories like… Mario must rescue Princess Peach from Bowser, but with a new hat. Huh. Seems like the kiddy stuff is still mired in medieval morality. But let’s look to adult entertainment! Something mature! That maybe made more money than there will ever be! Yes, let’s look to Avengers: Infinity War, a movie featuring a complicated villain with intense plans and a clear goal that goes far beyond… Oh, wait, he just kidnapped the charismatic guy’s girlfriend for some reason. And Weeeeenow the charming hero is all sad and angry, and is going to flip out at just the right time because his girl is missing. Sigh. So, yes, Congo’s Caper is employing an ancient, tired trope, but it’s also exactly what we’re seeing 25 years later. New coat of (purple) paint, same old “our Princess is in another castle”.

And this is a “tired” trope because it’s immediately obvious how the concept is harmful to women. The very notion treats women like objects, like a prize to be won, and, come on, it couldn’t be more obvious how that is a bad thing. Women are people! Women have opinions and rights and the ability to wriggle out of ropes to vaunt over lava pits and rescue their own damn selves. And that’s just considering the kidnapped women in question, never mind the women in the audience that only get to see representation as useless damsels. To pick on Avengers: Infinity War again, if you’re a boy, you can choose your hero, and be confident that, even if they don’t survive to see the final credits, they’re going to kick ass from start to finish. The women of the movie are a lot more… passive (hey, remember Pepper Potts was at the start of the film entirely to make Iron Man feel bad), and a woman who had previously been a complete bad ass in her other movies now spends most of the film as a captive (or worse). What does that tell all the little girls in the audience that previously just wanted to emulate a radical, dual-wielding heroine? Damsels are bad for a solid 50% of the population, no questions asked.

But what about the real minority in our world? What about the poor men?

Don't trust those dudesOkay, I felt dirty typing that. Yes, we absolutely live in a mancentric manocracy here on Man World, and there is never any question that men are in charge in every situation. If you’re convinced men are some put upon people because sometimes a judge will side with a woman in a divorce case because she just happens to not be addicted to heroin, that’s great and all, but I don’t want to hear about it. Men are in charge, period, and if you’re confused on that point, take a look at voting statistics to see why we’re currently in a political quagmire (which quagmire am I talking about? Does it matter?). Dudes rule the world, and women aren’t even allowed to wear pants that include viable pockets.

But there’s something important about the men that are ruling world. Christ, I thought we were going to get through one week without staring straight at the guy, but let’s look at our old pal Donald Trump. Here is a man who treats women like objects as a matter of course. He is the perfect embodiment of a person that believes women have no agency at all, and even on the rare occasions that it may be supposed that woman are actually humans, it’s clear that a man’s needs come first. They want it. They’ll give it up because you’re rich. In fact, women are to be collected and hunted like they are money. One more thing to be acquired. One more item to horde. Women are, like cash, real estate, and political power, just one more status symbol that says you’re a real man.

WeeeeeeAnd maybe that is fine for Donald Trump. We’re talking about a wiener that has been married three times, and has cheated on every single one of those women (oftentimes with the next wife on the list). We’re talking about a man who, by all accounts, ran for president for no other reason than to assuage his already bloated (and malignant) ego. Maybe he should be treating women like objects, because feeling love for objects is the only way he’s going to feel those emotions at all. Maybe that’s just him. But it’s hard to ignore that this is the man who is currently the President of the United States, and thus, for good or ill, an indelible role model for an entire generation of men. Want to be president one day, Little Timmy? Look to your great hero, President Trump.

Which brings us back to the original point of this little tirade: if enough men see women as objects, it doesn’t matter that there are “enlightened” or “woke” men, the societal norms of “women as property” is still going to bite everyone in the ass (and not in the fun way). How are men adversely impacted by this toxic masculinity? Well, how many men stay in terrible relationships because they’re afraid of “losing” the woman in their life? Want to see a guy never break up with a woman? I don’t care if she’s the worst, most toxic person in the world, if a girlfriend/fiancé/wife is desired by another, rival male, that man is going to stay in that relationship forever. She might be terrible (or at least terrible for him), but if there’s the threat that she will be lost to another man? Forget about it, he’ll ceaselessly fight tooth and nail for her.

Heck, he might even fight a devil, four caveman masters, and an angry tyrannosaurus.

Dino timesSo here’s the Goggle Bob Challenge ™ for the week: You might not be writing the latest videogame about a damsel in distress, but try to think about how decades of rescuing princesses has impacted your life. Women, you are not objects, you never were, and don’t drive yourselves insane trying to be the “perfect princess” for the Mario in your life. Men, do not treat women like objects, whether that means literally objectifying them, or incidentally thinking of them as possessions in your own decision making. If The Devil kidnaps “your” woman, maybe let it slide this time. She might be happier living in that posh T-Rex stomach.

After all, if you treat women like objects, you’re no better than a caveman.

FGC #415 Congo’s Caper

  • System: Super Nintendo, and that’s all, folks. No Genesis version. No Gameboy port. No modern console rerelease. How often does that happen?
  • Number of players: Congo must caper alone.
  • Maybe actually talk about the game for a second: Congo’s Caper is the straight platformer to Joe & Mac’s platformer/beat ‘em up mashup. Unfortunately, it’s a fairly generic platformer, and, coming on the same system as Super Mario World or Mega Man X, it doesn’t really have much to put it ahead of the pack. That said, it’s a very pretty and cartoony game, and, give or take a few stages that are absolutely boring (a bunch of slowly moving platforms over spikes? Really?) it’s a fun little adventure. Congo’s Caper is basically the old standard for a “rental” game, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
  • DEVIL!That’s not how that works: Magical red gems will evolve Congo the Monkey into Congo the Human (but with a tail). Another three gems will cause Congo to go Super Saiyan, which pretty much just makes Congo’s jumps more sparkly. Take a few hits, and you’ll go back to monkey form, though. Evolution is a harsh mistress.
  • Tips from the Pros: The L & R buttons activate Congo’s run. You don’t ever need to do this before a level that features an Indiana Jones-esque giant rolling ball of death. If you forget the L & R buttons exist, you will die approximately 10,000 times.
  • Favorite Boss: The Devil’s minions are four Neanderthals that could double as robot masters. We’ve got Ninja Man, Pirate Man, Techno Man, and Dracula Man. Of the four, Techno Man is clearly the winner, as he produces a robot dinosaur, and then attacks from Dr. Wily’s saucer. Dude knows how to live.
  • Did you know? The “roll” ability in this game is fairly insane. It allows Congo to roll along in a ball, and he’s completely invincible the entire time. This roll can only be activated on an incline, but there are a few levels and one entire boss that will fall instantly before Congo’s mighty roll. Eat your heart out, hedgehog.
  • Would I play again: Probably not. It’s a fun game, but generally kind of mediocre. I’ve rescued you enough, Congo’s unnamed girlfriend.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Bioshock Infinite! I’ve been waiting for that one forever. Oh, and bad news, I’m probably going to indulge in a pretty similar amount of ranting, too. So, uh, please look forward to that!

Butt!

FGC #414 Joe & Mac

I don't even know...Let us discuss the curious case of the Super Nintendo port of Joe & Man: Caveman Ninja.

Like with many videogames of the early 90’s (1991! Did such a far off year ever really exist?), this story starts in the arcades. Joe & Mac: Caveman Ninja (alternately known as simply Caveman Ninja or Joe and Mac: Caveman Combat) was one of those vaguely beat ‘em up-esque 2-D action titles that you usually only saw out of Capcom (I still remember you, Magic Sword). Joe and Mac are caveman bros that must hold back an entire Neanderthal army and rescue a few “cave babes” from the likes of dinosaurs, wooly mammoths, and at least one giant skeleton monster. The title is comical and cartoony, and seems to lean heavily into being a sort of “parody” title. Tyrannosauruses barf out cavemen, Little Shop of Horrors lends a certain giant plant to the proceedings, and we even get to “laugh” at the tired “overweight woman is boy crazy, boy is repulsed” trope. Real knee-slappers all around! Humor aside, though, Joe & Mac is an enjoyable arcade experience, and exactly the kind of game you’d expect to play in a pre-Street Fighter 2 arcade.

What set Joe & Mac apart from its arcade brethren? Well, once you cut out the comedy and expressive sprite-work, there’s pretty much nothing. But why would you ignore that!? Joe and Mac isn’t trying to be the Citizen Souls (Dark Kane?) of gaming, it’s a just a fun way to blow some quarters for the afternoon. There are improvements to be made across the board, but most of those advances would ignore the requirements of an arcade game. It’s a little too easy to lose health quickly and painfully… but considering loss of life necessitates another quarter, I don’t hear any change machines complaining. And the stage selections mean you will miss levels when choosing between Path A and Path B, but, that’s just an excuse to play the game all over again to see all the content.

Hm. If Joe and Mac wasn’t tethered to the arcade, it could be a better game, so the console ports must show stark improvement.

… Right?

ZAPLet’s review a few of the console ports. The MS-DOS port (what passed for “PC” back in the day) was basically the arcade version, so one would suppose that doesn’t count. Similarly, the Sega Genesis version tried to be the arcade version, and is pretty much the same thing, give or take a few graphical tweaks. As one might expect, the NES version is severely compromised, as the big, bad bosses of Joe & Mac don’t really translate to 8-bits very well. They had to make the generic baby dinosaur mook a mini-boss! And no one bothered to animate the cave babes actually kissing our heroes! Regardless, it’s compromised, but it’s clearly an attempt at directly porting Joe & Mac Arcade. And the Gameboy version might actually be better than the NES port… which isn’t terribly surprising, given it was released a year later. It’s still not great, but it’s passable for an early 90’s Gameboy title. Oh, and like its NES buddy, it follows the basic rules and flow of the arcade release. So that only leaves the Super Nintendo port, and… it’s a little different.

If you were to play Arcade Joe & Mac, play some other games at the arcade, and then scoot home to play SNES Joe & Mac, you might not notice much of a difference. These are both games that feature the titular Joe & Mac rescuing cave babes from the forces of evil. In both adventures, Joe & Mac fight (almost) the same bosses, which employ (mostly) the same patterns. There is jumping and weapon hurling and meat grabbing. And, while the SNES version has an overworld map, the basic flow of the game is almost exactly the same, give or take the ability to try those “forking” stages in one continuous playthrough.

But, if you play the two games in rapid succession (perhaps because you live in a glorious future where entire arcade cabinets may be digitized into tiny MAME roms), you will note that the arcade and SNES versions of Joe & Mac are as different as a caveman ninja and a Neanderthal.

Little bubFirst, and most noticeably, the SNES version completely drops the Master Higgins-esque health system of the arcade. There is a constant “health timer” in the arcade version, and, should Joe or Mac stop eating everything in sight for longer than six seconds, they will certainly expire from insatiable hunger. This eating disorder is absent from the SNES port, so Joe and Mac can explore their environment at a much more leisurely pace. And that’s great, because there are bonus rooms around, and they can only be accessed through vigilant determination. Oh, and you’re allowed to toggle obtained weapons with L&R, so you’re no longer stuck with whatever weapon you happened to bump into (anyone that played the earlier Konami titles is well aware of the “joys” of accidentally ditching your holy water for a stupid dagger). And these are all improvements! Joe and Mac for the Super Nintendo is the superior Joe and Mac version! Everything is good forever!

Except… SNES Joe and Mac left a surprising amount of content on the cutting room floor. For one thing, the weapons selection has been severely limited, which eliminates some of the most interesting attacks. Joe can no longer launch gigantic sparks at opponents, and Mac has completely lost the ability to summon a spiritual “other self” to menace an ankylosaurus. And speaking of offensive options, Joe & Mac can “charge” attacks for bigger bangs in other versions, while that option is sorely missing on the Super Nintendo. And, believe me, stronger attacks are dearly missed when bosses are massive HP sponges. Oh, and the stages that randomly transform the title into a dedicated shooting game are missing entirely, which is a major loss for anyone that ever wanted a caveman based shoot ‘em up (guess we have to go back to Bonk for that). Frankly, the Super Nintendo version is missing a number of features that made Arcade Joe & Mac great.

And then there are the weird changes. The final boss of nearly every version is some unholy amalgamation of a dinosaur and a Neanderthal. It is never explained where this creature originated, but it makes a kind of sense at the end of a game where you fight dinosaurs and Neanderthals (separately) every five seconds. The SNES version introduces… Satan. Or… some kind of devil, at least. And he’s living inside a T-Rex’s belly, and is kidnapping cave babes because… uh… He was bored? And the multiple endings of the arcade game were dropped… sorta. The “funny” ending where Joe & Mac are chased by a bevy of heavy ladies is gone. That is, unless you know a key sequence that reinstates this alternate/tired ending. Why bother with such a thing? I don’t think “slightly different ending with a secret code” was exactly a selling point back in 1991.

BEAT EM ALL

But this all brings us back to the original question: why?

Joe & Mac was published in the arcade and at home by Data East. The most accurate ports all originated with Data East. This was not a situation where Capcom made the arcade cabinet, and then LJN was somehow responsible for the port. This was all in-house, and any changes made to the formula must have been overseen by at least the same producer. And, by all accounts, none of these changes were the result of “memory issues” or similar excuses from the 8-bit days. If the Sega Genesis could handle that deleted tusk weapon, it certainly could have appeared on the Super Nintendo. AwogaBy all accounts, there’s no real reason for the changes made to the SNES port, and we’re unlikely to ever have a clue why these changes were made. Was this an attempt to segue into a more adventure-y sequel? Establish the Joe & Mac extended universe? Play around with the L&R buttons? The world may never know the answer.

Joe & Mac for the Super Nintendo is just different enough from its version brethren to raise a few eyebrows, but not different enough to feel like its own game. And the reasons for that are lost to prehistory…

FGC #414 Joe & Mac

  • System: Joe & Mac get around. Let’s say the arcade version is the start, and then we’ve got Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis, Gameboy, Nintendo Entertainment System, DOS, and the Amiga for some reason. All that, and I don’t think it has returned in modern times for any sort of Virtual Console.
  • Number of players: Joe and Mac. And, depending on the version and mode, you can clobber your buddy into submission while fighting your opponents.
  • Favorite Weapon: The wheel revolutionized human transportation, and it was a fine way to whack a pterodactyl.
  • Favorite Boss: There’s this gray, water based dinosaur that rules over the waterfall/river stage. It’s not that remarkable, but it’s doing that 16-bit thing where its neck is a series of disconnected circles. For some reason, I always find that endearing.
  • RollyDid you know? During two player games, a gauge will appear to track which character has clubbed the boss the most. The winner earns a kiss from a cave babe, and the loser has to sit back and watch his pal get the girl. This is sexist and stupid and the cause of way too many fights when I was playing this game with friends when I was ten.
  • Would I play again: Like any beat ‘em up-alike, Joe & Mac is pretty fun when you have a playmate in the area. And I inexplicably have fond memories of this title, so it’s probably going to get played again. Now, which version to play…

What’s next? We’re closing out 16-Bit Cavemen Week with the sequel to Joe & Mac! No, not Joe & Mac 2. That would be silly. I’m thinking something a little more… caper-y. Please look forward to it!

FGC #113 Karnov

Just, like lightningI’ve always had a soft spot for Karnov. Like a handful of other NES games, Karnov was a cartridge I returned to time and time again when I was a kid, and, unlike games I played basically because they were there (like Fester’s Quest or Friday the Thirteenth), I genuinely enjoyed playing Karnov.

I also barely ever got past the second level.

I’ve examined this phenomenon before, but when you’re a child, you assume there’s something wrong with you, not the game, and it must be your own immature skills that are causing the problem. Mr. Sandman isn’t impossible, you’re just bad at this. Your friend’s older brother beat him, he said so, and you could do it too, if you tried. I want to say it’s a side effect of a child’s natural belief in authority (it must be right, Mom/Nintendo said it), but whatever the source, the end result is an almost innate belief that there are no bad games, just bad players.

But, sorry folks, Karnov is a bad game.

For the benefit of my younger self (who, I guess, I’m assuming has the ability to peruse the internet through some kind of time tunnel), I will now list everything that is objectively wrong with Karnov.

It’s Mega Man with Super Mario Bros HP

Number one issue by a long shot: this is an arcade “quarter killer” (ala Contra) ported with the tiniest of concessions for the couch. Karnov is a stocky Russian fellow with the ability to shoot fire from his maw (for some reason), and you’re responsible for guiding this intrepid fellow on a quest for booty and maybe a shirt. In the arcade, you’re collecting the torn scraps of a treasure map, and, after the finale, Karnov will be rewarded with a McDuckian pile of Hate those guysgold. The NES version stripped out all traces of plot, so now it’s just Karnov mowing down monsters in pursuit of… a congratulations screen. And it’s one that you will never see, because Karnov is dead within two hits.

Yes, Karnov is extremely fragile, but that shouldn’t be much of a surprise, as his arcade twin couldn’t even sustain that much damage: you lost a life (7.5 cents) after a single blow. I can almost forgive an arcade game getting greedy for change, but it translates very poorly to a home port. Mega Man? There’s a robot that can take a hit, and Karnov’s gameplay is a lot closer to that of the Blue Bomber than Super Mario. And it really doesn’t help that…

Enemy spawns seem completely random

Now I’m sure this point could be disproven by cracking open the rom and checking the base code for Karnov’s adventure, but even with 25 years of experience with the game, I still wouldn’t be able to tell you what makes some enemies appear in particular areas. Just within the first level, there are a few dragon-birds and rock monsters that are entirely consistent, but then an army of scimitar wielding thugs appear out of nowhere to surround Karnov completely arbitrarily. I have no idea what triggers this deluge of monsters, and it doesn’t get better when highly mobile “cloud creatures” pop out of the woodwork on the next screen. It only gets worse in the following level, where a shining, golden alien appears to almost certainly slay your hero… or Goldie sits this one out, and Karnov saunters by completely unmolested. I have no idea what causes either situation, but one is completely fatal, while the other just boring.

Hate this guyThis is, ultimately, why Karnov’s limited health is such an issue: with monsters (some of them dramatically overpowered) materializing haphazardly (and sometimes right on top of our hero), you barely have a chance to react to an encroaching threat. And after abandoning a bald corpse and returning to the scene of the homicide… that enemy isn’t coming back. You’re ready to dodge, but, no, nothing. And then an arbitrary rock monster poofs out and you’re dead again. And then your third life is lost because the first monster decided to return. The joy of death!

Contra was fine with its limited health, because the enemies’ rules were well established, and it was possible to anticipate and avoid danger. Karnov can’t be consistent for ten seconds. Actually, I take that back, there’s one place where Karnov is maddeningly consistent…

All of the bosses are exactly the same

The boss of Level One is a green fish creature that advances and shoots a storm of bullets. Boss #2 is a… I don’t know… dog walker that advances and shoots a storm of bullets. Then we’ve got a T-Rex that advances and shoots a storm of bullets, a centipede woman that advances and shoots a storm of bullets, and then King Maybe it's a lion?Ghidorah, who advances and shoots a storm of bullets. Sometimes the same boss is reused between a pair of levels, not that you have any hope of noticing a difference.

The challenge here, of course, is that you have to rapidly spew fireballs while dodging every blast from the boss du jour like it’s friggen Gradius. Do it quick, or the monster will be right on top of you, and then it’s time to repeat half the stage over again! Woohee!

Oh, but don’t think that repeating the stage is going to do you any favors preparing for its finale, because…

Powerups are terrible

There is one worthwhile powerup in this game, and it’s the little red ball that either restores your health or expands your firepower. That’s about it. Despite this immediately apparent fact, there’s an entire inventory of powerups available to Karnov, and they all range from “too limited to ever be useful” or “required for one particular purpose”.

Let’s see here: in the “too limited” column we have items like the speed shoes, which will increase your walking/jumping abilities for a limited time. This is great!… except you’re very unlikely to get any enjoyment out of accidently careening into the nearest enemy at high speed. There’s a boomerang that does massive damage!… but they’re generally far too hidden to ever be reliably useful. And a Hate hershield! That should help against the bullet-hell bosses! Oh, no, wait, the shield only blocks Karnov’s torso, so do your best to duck and jump every fireball that isn’t aimed at one particular spot.

And then there’s the “required” powerups. There’s a reusable ladder that you obtain early in the game, and it’s the only way out of a few traps or over expansive pits. There’s a mask that allows Karnov to see hidden powerups, but by the very nature of hidden powerups, there’s rarely a clear indicator as to where it might be useful to use your (limited) masks. And bombs are terrible offensively, and appear to exist only to blow a few holes through like two walls in the entire game.

The wings might be outright most useful powerup in any 2-D game. While their time is limited, using the wings allows Karnov absolute, unfettered flight around any given stage, which is a boon not only to his mobility, but also his dodging prowess. Unfortunately…

Without the right powerup, you can get stuck forever

Stage 8 appears to be some sort of “city in the sky”, and if you didn’t have the foresight to bring a pair of wings, you’re done. Jump as far as you can, you won’t reach anything but a bottomless pit. Made it all the way to Level 8, but didn’t bring the right gear? You’re done. Brought your wings, but lose ‘em to an overzealous monster? You’re done. Continue? Sorry, you don’t get to keep your items after a game over, so you’re done.

Flying right alongLevel 8 is the most obvious example, but there are a number of lesser areas that require bombs or a ladder and, don’t have what you need? May as well just sit and wait for the timer to kill you, because you’re not going anywhere. Boobeam Trap has nothing on this game.

This all adds up to a game that is, from a design standpoint, objectively bad. Karnov makes mistake after mistake, and doesn’t ever seem to offer a play experience that warrants trying to overcome its many shortcomings.

Which is a shame, really. Karnov has an interesting, unique Central Asian (like Russia and Middle East) theme, appealing music, and an unusual, endearing protagonist. Perhaps with some kind of health bar hack, a “pause menu” to select powerups (oh yes, I forgot to mention that the mere act of selecting an item from your inventory is likely to get you killed), and a greater variety of bosses, Karnov could actually be a great game. “Super Karnov” could have been a wonderful 16-bit reimagining of the concept, but, alas, Karnov never again scored a solo mission.

Maybe it’s just as well. I just got past the second level of his first adventure.

FGC #113 Karnov

  • System: NES is what I’ll always think of, but the arcade game is pretty similar. Come to think of it, the arcade version has graphics that I would describe as “very Genesis”.
  • Number of players: There can be only one Karnov.
  • Does this make any sense?Just play the gig, man: I will say that the main (only?) theme of Karnov is something that has been stuck in my head forever. Oddly, when I try to recall Tetris’s Type A theme, sometimes this one pops into my mental playlist.
  • Karnov through the ages: Karnov was apparently Data East’s mascot, so he popped up in a lot of other games, generally as an enemy. We already covered Fighter’s History some time ago, so let us reflect on Bad Dudes. Karnov fought against the eponymous Bad Dudes. Does that make Karnov a Good Dude?
  • Special K: Oh, and Karnov collects a bunch of K boxes. Can’t he grab something a little more innovative, like a bunch of tiny Karnov heads?
  • Did you know? There’s a “code” that involves the second controller that allows you to… instantly kill Karnov. I can only imagine this “cheat” was inserted into the game because the development team found a number of places where “wait around to die” was the only option. Good design!
  • Would I play again? I really want to say no! But I know I’ll get that Karnov urge again, and I’ll be right back to Karnoving around.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Donkey Kong Jungle Beat for the Nintendo Gamecube! Get your bongos ready! Please look forward to it!

Kinda alright