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FGC #480 Three Dirty Dwarves

DWARVES!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.

This sucksAnd 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.

The pit bossOn 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.

Ninja!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.

Let's go!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.
  • Tank policeIt’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 familiar
This looks like a 70’s Garfield Special, and I am here for it.

FGC #478 Popful Mail

I have no idea what this name meansSonic the Hedgehog: The Movie is a success. It has reviewed generally well across the board, made a Master Emerald’s ransom worth of money, and, in ten years’ time, people will remember it more fondly than Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore. While you could chalk this success up to any number of factors (I always say you can’t discount the unending charisma of Lee Majdoub), the internet at large has decided to take credit for this one. See, the original trailer for Sonic the Hedgehog featured a very toothy, un-Sonic looking hedgehog homunculus. This infuriated The Internet, and, in its anger, it slashed its mighty tentacles across the landscape, forever sundering the gulf between studio and creation. In the aftermath, Paramount and Sega had no choice: they had to rebuild the cinematic hedgehog, and produce an all-new cut of Sonic the Hedgehog: The Movie. Thus, months later, we were presented with the new hedgehog, and all was right with the world. And now that Sonic the Hedgehog: The Movie is a success, the fanbase that “made them change” has claimed any and all rights to this victory. And why don’t those crazy executives just listen to the fans all the time, ya know?

And you want to hear the kicker? This isn’t the first time that happened. This isn’t even the first time this happened with fans, executive meddling, and Sonic the Hedgehog.

In order to understand this little story, you have to understand the early 90’s. This was the heyday of Sonic the Hedgehog, when a mascot with attitude would inevitably be successful, whether you added that trademark arrogance to a t-shirt wearing cat or a particularly acrobatic bat. However, while begloved anthro animals were riding high in the sky, anime as a whole was still exotic “Japanimation”. Yes, it seems weird now to separate Japanese created cartoon creatures like Sonic from the very concept of anime (particularly after Sonic Adventure), but these were the heady days of Sonic’s birth. Anime was often disguised when it hopped across the pond, and our Journeys to the Wests suddenly became Whomp ‘Ems. Gotta go fastAny and all anime-based media, like games starring Goku or Sailor Moon, never made it to our shores, and when something was too anime to ignore, it was heavily modified, and promoted as more Dungeons and Dragons than Record of Lodoss War. So it would only make sense if someone were to, say, drop the anime trappings from a game and replaced it with that hedgehog fellar all the kids are talking about.

And that was how, in 1993, one issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly mentioned a new game might premiere at the May Toy Fair. That game? Sister Sonic.

EGM’s Gaming Gossip section in its Issue #47 (with, naturally, Mortal Kombat on the cover) makes mention of a Donkey Kong follow-up for the Super Famicom CD, the Atari “mystery machine” codenamed Jaguar, and “a new spin on the Sonic saga called Sister Sonic… apparently an RPG starring Sonic’s lost sis”. That’s all Quartermann wrote about Sister Sonic, and EGM wouldn’t mention exactly what happened to the good sister until after another twelve issues (and it was Electronic Gaming Monthly, so that was.. if I’m doing my math right… sixteen years later?). While covering a level select code, it is mentioned (almost in passing) that the Sister Sonic project was scrapped, and now what was going to be modified to be Sister Sonic would be… Popful Mail! Hey! That’s today’s game!

What happened? Well, according to that same article (/oblique mention) in Issue #59, the original plan to mutate Popful Mail into Sister Sonic was dropped when word of this “localization” leaked, and fans of both franchises agreed to inundate Sega with requests for the real Popful Mail, and not some heavily modified localization. What does that mean? Well, obviously, the Sonic fans did it again! Or… the Mail fans? Whatever! Fans beat back those terrible producers in 1993! Hooray for our side!

Not an egg!Unfortunately, the only confirmation we ever had that this even happened seems to be from the pages of EGM (and mostly from a section literally called “Gaming Gossip”). This is a shame not only for historical accuracy reasons, but also because I would give my prized Battletoads-honed gaming skills just for a chance to see what the hell Sister Sonic was supposed to look like.

Popful Mail is not a game that plays like a Sonic title. Popful Mail seems most like The Adventure of Link (well, it’s really like Ys III: Wanderers from Ys, but no one played that), as it is a 2-D action game with towns, dungeons, and upgrades. The world map is little more than a course selection screen, but other gameplay elements, like healing in town or hording gold for fun and profit, is all about that adventure game lifestyle. And, while Mail starts with a stubby little sword like some kind of Hylian, she quickly distinguishes herself by upgrading to throwing weapons. And she has allies! We’ve got a little Castlevania 3 in here, as there are different party members that are always available for quick switching and slightly different movement mechanics. Mail’s adventures are a little aggravating for the rote repetition required in some dungeons (if you see a door that requires a key, you’re in for a bad time), but it’s a generally fun 2-D exploratory action-adventure. Oh! And the bosses pretty neat, too!

… But they ain’t no Eggman.

Magic!Popful Mail doesn’t run. If Popful Mail so much as saunters at an increased pace, she quickly loses half of her health to a skeleton monster. She’s got health, not rings, and it depletes far too quickly. She lives in a swords and sorcery fantasy world, not some loop-de-loop planet lousy with flickies. There is the occasional golem or sentient puppet, but there is not a badnik to be found. And, while Miss Popful Mail does seem to possess that general “spunky heroine” mentality that was popular in early 90s anime (I’d say she stole her whole shtick from Lina Inverse, but that would imply Mail and Lina could be recognized as wholly separate characters), she isn’t even on the same attitude echelon that Sonic achieved with the simple wave of a finger.

Is Popful Mail’s distinctive setting and gameplay a bad thing? Of course not. Players were hungry for 2-D RPG-ish titles in the early 90’s, and that genre is still only seen in a rare Wonderboy or two today. But does it put Popful Mail in a good position to be “Sonic’s Sister”. Absolutely not. If we’re going to say Popful Mail stayed Popful Mail thanks to complaints from the fans, then chalk this one up as another win for gamers. It’s impossible to imagine what Sister Sonic would even look like, left alone…

Blooby

… Okay, maybe that’s a start. But Popful Mail is still nobody’s sister!

FGC #478 Popful Mail

  • System: Sega CD in America, but also the Super Famicom and the PC-8800 in Japan. But what does that matter? How many people could possibly live in Japan? Like… six?
  • Number of Players: One player at a time, but three selectable adventurers.
  • Back to Work: Working Designs ultimately was responsible for Popful Mail’s translation. This means there are a number of Western cultural references that have aged about as well as the concept of Sonic’s Sister. And, just because WD was vaguely sadistic, the difficulty was bumped up with enemies being stronger and Mail taking way too much damage. So, ya know, thanks for that. Also, thanks for…
  • Language, people: It’s funny/sad to remember how far colloquialisms have progressed since the 90’s.
    This is not cool, guys

    Remember, kids, this was supposed to be an all-ages title for the pre-teen Sonic fans. Just imagine that passing standards today (well, except as a specially designated “gamer word”).
  • But the fact that a prime villain is named “Nuts Cracker” doesn’t bother you? Nuts are supposed to be cracked. He’s like some kind of wee puppet man. What’s the problem there?
  • Happy Little Critters: There might be some Sonic-adjacent beings in this universe, as Gaos are blue and loosely spherical. On the other hand, they’re born of the typical “anime whatsit” creature mold, but aren’t nearly as distinctive as a moogle or cabbit. But at least they’re hopelessly addicted to nicotine!
  • Dem BonesFavorite Boss: Boney Rubbler is a skeleton riding a skeleton horse, and sometimes said skeleton horse splits in two. It is possibly the most interesting thing that happened on the Sega CD this side of Night Trap.
  • Did you know? Like practically everything in Japan, Popful Mail wound up with a manga and a half a dozen drama CDs. But poor Mail didn’t get an official anime. Apparently a pilot was developed, but it was never picked up for a full series. And, considering that pilot sees Mail and the gang being pulled into “the real world”… well, actually, it was probably ahead of its time. Sarcastic elf girl from another world!
  • Would I play again: Popful Mail is conceptually fun, but it is an absolute bear to make any progress with the Working Designs-mandated difficulty changes. I don’t think I’ll be trying Sister Sonic again any time soon.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Castlevania 3: Dracula’s Curse for the Nintendo Entertainment System! What a horrible ancestor to have a curse. Please look forward to it!

No smoking!

FGC #477 Stretch Panic

It is time to admit that, whether you were six or six hundred, when you first booted up Super Mario 64, you had the most fun of your life stretching and contorting Mario’s polygonal mug.

It's a-me!

And then you actually played Mario 64, and it didn’t have a single bit that even tangentially referenced the excess pinching of the Nintendo 64’s introduction to the masses. What a bait and switch! Here is an interesting, totally new use for an all-new technology, and it’s little more than a tech demo that was soldered onto a completely different game!

But, if you could wait for five years, you’d finally be rewarded with a new adventure that fully utilized the stretching and pulling first seen in Mario 64. That game would be Stretch Panic, and the chief reason you might not want to play it would be… well…
This one GIF may be NSFW, so we’re going to warn you first…

FGC #474 Pimp My Ride

OMGPimp My Ride for the Playstation 2 is, unlike its associated television show, a rote, boring experience. Xzibit repeatedly talking about rusted out hubcaps might be interesting enough on MTV, but it doesn’t exactly lead to the most motivating gameplay. However! Pimp My Ride has very informative loading screens, so rather than try to ream some meaning out of this Activision shovelware, let’s take a look at a number of Pimp My Ride’s best Pimp Tips.








There’s so much to learn about pimpin’…