We judge videogames by many criteria. Graphics? Inevitably important. Sound & Music? That is a must. Story? That has become vital in much of today’s gaming scene (except when it’s a fighting game). Presentation? Sheer volume of glitches? And, of course, gameplay is the king, as, if you can’t enjoy playing the game, why is it even a game at all? Without even checking the latest Gamepro ranking scale (that’s still a thing, right?), you can easily envision a hundred criteria for “what makes a good game”.
So where does “personality” fit in there? How much should we weigh a game’s personality against its other flaws?
Today’s featured title is Three Dirty Dwarves for the Sega Saturn. Never heard of it? It was also ported to Windows PC and… nothing else. Does that help? No? Okay, we’re talking about a beat ‘em up that was released for the Sega Saturn the same year we saw the likes of Tomb Raider and Super Mario 64. Yes, it seems other games stole Three Dirty Dwarves’ spotlight, and, if we’re being honest, people probably only remember a maximum of four unique titles from the Sega Saturn on a good day. Three Dirty Dwarves was not an arcade port, it did not star Sonic the Hedgehog or Sarah Bryant, and it wasn’t a game that saw every other system of the era. This was a game that was (almost) exclusive to the Sega Saturn from the same company that gave us Ecco the Dolphin and Kolibri. Let’s face it: Three Dirty Dwarves was never going to be as remembered as Tiny Tank: Up Your Arsenal.
And the gameplay of Three Dirty Dwarves doesn’t do the title any favors, either. It’s a beat ‘em up, but with a very unusual health/failure system. Venturing through a mutated version of The Bronx, you control one of the titular Three Dirty Dwarves. And, while 3DD firmly belongs to a genre that traditionally requires things like health bars and variations on the concept of “chip damage”, these dwarves all “die” after one hit. It doesn’t matter if it was a bite from a rat, a punch from a random mook, or some manner of meteoric fireball: everything will knock out your dwarf du jour with a single tap. But there’s still hope! As long as one dwarf remains, he can hit an unconscious dwarf with his melee attack, and we’re back in business! This means you simultaneously are constantly vulnerable and have infinite lives (in all modes save hard mode, incidentally). When you’re halfway through a level and have two dwarves down, the raw panic and drive in attempting to save your fellow warriors leaves an impression, and is an interesting spin on typical beat ‘em up formulas (a distinctive health system similar to another Sega hero). Unfortunately, that revive panic is mostly caused because your dwarves fall way too quickly, and a new monster on the screen often has equal odds on being surmountable or instantly vaporizing your entire party with the cheapest deaths possible. Did I mention you barely have any invincibility frames after losing a dwarf? Because that can lead to more than a few game overs.
And the basic beat ‘em up gameplay isn’t all that amazing here, either. You’ve got your dwarves, and they all have a melee attack, or a long-range attack that (depending on the dwarf involved) either has a long windup or cool-down period. There are also screen-clearing attacks that… clear… the screen… yeah… but require found consumables to use. Ultimately, the gameplay winds up being pretty similar to what you’d find in another game featuring at least one dwarf, and, as far as the level-to-level of battling, there isn’t much of an improvement here over a game that was released at the tail end of the 80s.
On a basic, “is this game good” level, an initial review would be very negative. It’s a beat ‘em up with extremely fragile beat ‘em uppers, and the occasional platforming or puzzle-esque segment is rarely welcome. It’s not a very good game, even by the more lenient standards of the late 20th century. This is not a game that should have ever come before Mario Kart 64, Super Mario RPG, or some other 1996 videogame that probably includes Mario.
But, when you get past the gameplay having its share of issues, the sheer volume of personality exuding Three Dirty Dwarves is immeasurable.
First of all, for a beat ‘em up, there is a seriously bonkers story happening here. Long (very long!) story short: a quartet of kids were grown in a lab for the express purpose of becoming genius military weapons. Or creating military weapons with their genius? Small distinction there, I suppose. Regardless, the kids are not happy with their test tube origins and eternal imprisonment, so they decided to put their amazing brainpower toward escaping. Rather than create some manner of bad key machine, the children looked toward interdimensional/interfictional travel. See, the four children play a D&D-esque game, and the dungeon master (dungeon mistress, in this case) figures out a way to pull the three other children’s roleplay avatars into the real world. Now the three dirty dwarves that were previously imaginary are in the real world and ready to save the moppets that created them. But oh no! The process also sucked all the orcs and dragons that existed in the game to the real world, too, so it’s not like the dwarves are going to have an easy time making it to the evil military’s child prison. And, of course, the military has its own collection of other, generally malevolent science experiments. And this all happens in The Bronx for some reason, so maybe watch out for some of the more malicious New Yorkers of the late 90s. Rudy Giuliani was mayor. It wasn’t a great time.
And, while we’re talking about the monsters the dwarves have to face, let’s note that the bestiary of Three Dirty Dwarves is large and in charge. Even the best beat ‘em ups seem to collect three or five archetype characters (fat guy, skinny guy, medium guy, robot), and then repaint them across seven levels. There is variety in how some opponents may block or gain new weapons, but you’re still obviously fighting the same Two P. sprites. Three Dirty Dwarves still has standard mooks, but it offers new and interesting monsters with practically every level. The junkyard stage includes gigantic scrap mechs, while the military industrial complex offers psychic babies. And the general streets of New York may include everything from unruly police officers to naked ninja. Come to think of it, the ninja may be cops, too, it’s just hard to tell without the uniforms…
And the whole thing, from the dwarfs to their opponents to animated cutscenes, is tied together with a very unique art style. It seems like the greatest influence here would have to be Ed “Big Daddy” Roth and his iconic Rat Fink, but the whole affair gives the vibe that tattoo artists decided to make their own videogame. Could you describe the graphics as “good” in the traditional sense? Probably not, as much of what’s on display looks like it originated MS Paint, and not the console that was meant to defeat the Playstation. But it oozes personality, and I can safely say it doesn’t look like a single other game on the Sega Saturn (and not just because there are like six other Saturn games). And while we’re being superficial, the music is also wholly unique. It might not sound like anything else from this era of gaming (it leans surprisingly heavily on hip hop beats), but it slaps. It slaps but good.
Oh, and there’s a level where you fight a dragon with a wrecking ball. That’s rarely seen elsewhere, too.
But personality or no, Three Dirty Dwarves comes down to one basic truth: it’s not all that fun to play. You might relish seeing a lady wielding duct tape as a weapon, or an inexplicable minecart level that is equally inexplicably passable, but it all works out to a game that feels more like a chore than a fun time. You’re interested in seeing what crazy thing happens next, but actually getting through a level is a stressful task.
So how should we rank personality when grading a game? It’s hard to say, but it is easy to say that Three Dirty Dwarves needs a better gameplay score to balance its personality score.
And, hey, if it had as much fun gameplay as it did personality, it might actually have been more remembered than Mario.
… Or at least it would be remembered at all.
FGC #480 Three Dirty Dwarves
- System: Sega Saturn and a Windows version that I’m sure exists somewhere, forgotten, in the back room of a former Electronics Boutique.
- Number of players: Three! There was apparently a Sega Saturn multitap! It was probably intended for Bomberman!
- Favorite Dwarf: Of Corthag, Taconic, and Greg, I choose Corthag, as he’s apparently the only dwarf that decided to pick up a firearm. Greg has baseballs! Baseballs! At least Taconic went with a bowling ball. That worked out for The Simpsons.
- Favorite Boss: Man of a Thousand Swords was “once a mild-mannered salesman from Jersey City” who collected one sword too many. Considering I always feared that would be my fate if I got into weapon collecting, I’m going to sympathetically give him the nod.
- It’s All a Game: The fact that the dwarves are just the RPG avatars of the kidnapped kids rarely comes up (you can collect dice, at least), save during the ending, when the children have to roll to “control” the dwarves’ inclination toward following the bad guy for wealth and power. Considering that tabletop gaming was still extremely niche back in the late 90’s, saving this bit of nerdity for the ending seems apropos.
- Did you know? Corthag’s favorite movie is listed as Porky in Wackyland. That’s a seven minute short! That’s not a movie! You stupid dwarf!
- Would I play again: Maybe if there were some revised version that made everything less… stressful. The way the dwarves die so quickly is terrible on some of the longer levels, and I have no time nowadays to deal with a game where I could lose valuable minutes of my life. Unfortunately, I don’t see a remake anytime soon…
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Mega Man ZX Advent! It’s time for the reign of the Mega Men! Please look forward to it!
This looks like a 70’s Garfield Special, and I am here for it.