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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 #158 Family Dog

So innocentFamily Dog is… too real for me.

Family Dog is a Super Nintendo game, but before that, it was an animated series, and even earlier than that, it was an animated “short” showcased on Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories. The “original” Family Dog of that program was directed by Brad Bird and written by Brad Bird and Tim Burton. I realize that I don’t talk about my movie tastes much on this blog, but let it be said that “animated short by Burton and Bird” is a phrase that makes me more excited than a rabbit injected with Trix. I liked 90% of Tomorrowland, so combine that guy with the man that gave us Beetlejuice, and I’ll be there with bells skulls on.

The original Family Dog “episode” is fun, if not exactly all that interesting. I can see how the novelty of “animation for the whole family” (and not just the kiddies) was something people would notice in the pre-Groening days, but in a post Simpsons universe (and, reminder, Brad Bird worked on that show, too, and even directed Krusty Gets Busted [aka the premiere of the devious Sideshow Bob]), it just comes off as fairly quaint. This was before even the wave of “marginally mature” (aka gross) cartoons like Ren and Stimpy, and, when you’re applying Looney Tunes thinking to your typical sitcom family, you do get something at least remotely remarkable.

The Family Dog TV show was in the works for a number of years, but it finally materialized shortly after The Simpsons became a nationwide phenomena. Unfortunately, my beloved Bird was not involved, but it was a perfectly passable animated sitcom. The titular family dog was prone to a bit more slapstick and lesson learning than in his premiere short, but it was still a generally gentle (again, think early Simpsons era, when Bart was a “bad boy” for speaking ill of cow reproduction), classic sitcom. Here’s the Wikipedia description for episode two of the show:

“When the Binsfords take a trip to the zoo, their pooch tags along and causes plenty of trouble.”

VrooomSee? Typical, dumb sitcom crap. I ate it up as a kid, but I reviewed an episode or two before writing this, and, yeah, I can see why this show only hit eleven episodes (even if the official excuse involves overseas production or some nonsense. Sure, blame all your problems on Asia).

So, because Family Dog, ya know, existed, it received a SNES platformer. It worked for Tim the Tool Man Taylor, so why not use a character that practically already exists in pixels? I actually played this game as a rental back when I was a wee Goggle Bob, because I liked the show, and Super Castlevania 4 was probably already taken that week. I don’t recall getting past the first world, and I know this because I would definitely remember seeing what came next.

Now that I have gotten that far, I’m probably going to remember it until the day I die…

Before we go any further, I want to note that I like animals. As a point of fact, I like most animals more than most people. I’m not a misanthrope (well, completely), I just see animals as a lot more pure than human beings (dogs very rarely want anything more than food and pets), so when one is suffering, my absolute first instinct is boundless sympathy; meanwhile, I see a ten year old with a cough, and I assume it’s because the kid secretly egged my house last year. It’s completely irrational, This is why I live with dustbut I absolutely go out of my way to make sure a dog, cat, or even pig is comfortable before I address the creature’s owner. I also very rarely give my human friends belly rubs.

That said, the first world of Family Dog is mostly around-the-house comic mischief. Billy Binsford, the brat of Dog’s family, attempts to harm Dog, and it’s your job to steer the mutt away from danger. There are other hazards, like naked cats and bouncing balls, but your main goal is to simply make it to the right side of the screen without Billy perforating the pooch. Bounce on couches, collect bones, and avoid the vacuum. That thing sucks.

And, yes, Family Dog is in danger the entire time, but it’s Itchy and Scratchy style danger. It might involve some kind of stylized ferocity, but it’s pretty much the definition of cartoon violence. I’m sure there are some dogs that have been seriously injured by cats, but when I see something Tom & Jerry-esque happening, my first thought isn’t of the real world. But that all changes after the initial areas…

Family Dog has apparently been bad…

So he is asked to go for a ride.

This seems like fun!

Wait a tick…


Yes, Family Dog is left at a kennel for the crime of attempting to survive a destructive child, and it’s a prison-esque hellscape. Yes, there are still a few cartoony elements, like bulldog footholds and doberman pinschers in guard uniforms, but, by and large, this whole area is made to be far too real. The goofy music of the earlier stages is gone, and now it’s just the drip, drip, drip of leaky pipes and the barking of other inmates. Family Dog, who looks like a random mess of triangles and cylinders, is met by realistic looking dogs with very realistic looking teeth. The only escape is by freeing other captive animals, literal jailbirds, and then plowing past the barbed wire fence that surrounds the building.

I’m not going to lie, even if I didn’t have affection for animals, I would be disturbed by this area. The difference between the opening area of the (mostly) loving home of Family Dog and the Ughchilling penitentiary of the second area is night and day. Maybe I just have more psychological issues than I care to admit, but a fear of abandonment is a universal anxiety, right? You wake up one day, and everything you love is gone, and you’re left alone in an unfamiliar hostile environment… that’s Hell, right? We agree on that? I want to say Dante wrote something about this…

I really don’t think this has a place in whacky 16-bit platformer. I just reviewed a game that featured “Heck”, and that level barely registered as spooky. Here, it’s downright petrifying.

After you finally escape from the pound, the final world is basically just “outside”. It’s supposed to be an unnerving forest or something, but it’s a level very much like the early areas, and its aesthetic seems to be inspired by the similar spooky forest of Amagon. Then you’ve got some random branch hopping straight out of Wizards and Warriors, and… you’re done. Back into the arms of your loving family.

That abandoned you.

And required you to survive trial upon trial just to force your way back into their family unit.

Screw you guys, I’m never looking at this game again.

FGC #158 Family Dog

  • System: Super Nintendo. Genesis kids are probably more well-adjusted as a result.
  • Number of Players: One is the loneliest doggy.
  • No treasure hereSalt in the wound: Family Dog’s only offensive maneuver is a powerful bark that will repel enemies after way too many hits. And you’ve got a limited count that can only be increased through powerup acquisition. Wow, this is a lot like Amagon.
  • More from Brad Bird: We never got an Iron Giant video game, did we? I want to say that could have been really, really cool, and completely against the theme of the movie. I’d be okay with that.
  • Did you know? Scott Menville voiced the homicidal Billy Binsford on Family Dog. Given Billy’s one consistant character trait was his overwhelming disdain for animals, it’s amusing that Menville also played Captain Planet’s Ma-Ti, aka the kid with the monkey. I evidently like Menville facts!
  • Would I play again: Go to hell.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Karaoke Revolution Presents American Idol Encore! That’s a mouthful, which is just great for a mouth glued to a microphone. Please look forward to it!