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FGC #519 (Super) Smash TV

Let's Smash!Am I a good parent?

Wait a tick… Of course I’m not. I don’t even have kids. But I deal with kids on occasion, and I’d kind of like to work out my….

Wait, let’s take it from the top.

So my best friend had a birthday the other day. Given this birthday was a big, round number (he’s an even 6,000 years old), under normal circumstances, there would likely be a surprise party involving everyone that has so much as sneezed in his general direction. Unfortunately, we live in an age where sneezing is forbidden, so the big, “blowout” party consisted of a whole five adults drinking various kinds of alcohol on an outside deck. There was a cake that was also alcohol, but it was still a cake. I understand this has become a meme of some kind? Please enjoy this edible barrel.

It's a lie

But this quintet of musty old people was not the full extent of the guest list. The birthday boy had managed to sire some brood in his 11,000 years on this planet, and they had to be occupied with… ya know… something. It turns out children aren’t fond of sitting around and discussing the works of Proust while sipping Cabernet Sauvignon (okay, we may have actually been just gossiping about dorks from high school while chugging whiskey… but still!), so they were banished to the basement to entertain themselves. Of course, the kids do not see my basement (affectionately referred to as “The Gameatorium”) as anything approaching a punishment. That’s where the Transformers live! And the videogames! And that robot that keeps shouting out the titles of random videogames! That’s always a fun curiosity! So, yes, the children spent their father’s birthday surrounded by more games than they’d likely ever see in their lives, and that was the last they saw of their parents until around 1 AM.

Now, despite the fact that the kids in question were surrounded by literally thousands of videogames, I didn’t have to worry too much about their virgin eyes seeing the horrors of some games in my collection. Children have energy in droves, but the trade-off is that their undeveloped brains are remarkably lazy when more immediate enjoyment is available. Nobody has time to figure out how that whole “Sega Saturn” thing works, so they’ll just stick a slab of cheese in the disc drive, wait for me to find that six months later, and move on to a more familiar system. In this case, there was a Nintendo Switch, so that seemed like the way to go for finding some familiar fun. And, since the Nintendo Switch is a rat, I can relay exactly what they played. Apparently Smash Bros was their first choice, so good job, children. Fortnite was tried, but I hadn’t updated that game in a dog’s age, and nobody felt like waiting through a gigabyte download. ARMS was next on the list, and it seems that and Snakeybus were played for a whole 20 seconds before moving on to Splatoon 2. That saw some more use, but it didn’t last forever, likely because the two kids had to share a controller to play against others online. They’re… not great at taking turns. This apparently prompted the eldest to search through my collection for something that was 2-player co-op. Presumably utilizing signals beamed directly into his brain by generally bored space aliens, Elder Child found a game that would involve not only co-op, but lots of shooting.

NEONAnd that game? Neon Chrome. “A ruthless twin-stick top-down shooter”.

Anytime I see a kid playing a game that is described as “ruthless”, I grow concerned.

If you’ve never played Neon Chrome, you are missing out on a fun experience. It’s a procedurally generated rogue-like twin stick shooter that offers a number of offensive options and opponents. It was originally released on Steam in 2016, migrated to the consoles, and eventually found a home on the Switch. This is the ideal final form for practically any rogue-like, as the “simple” top down shoot ‘em up nature of Neon Chrome and the need to grind (either to unlock new options or to just “git gud”) seems to work best while also burning through episodes of Gotham in parallel (Batman stomping around as a surly teenager while The Riddler and The Penguin make out? Sign me up!). It’s not a game that is ever going to set the world on fire, and I’m glad I picked it up on a random sale, but Neon Chrome is certainly a game that is in the top 30% of titles on my Switch, which is a pretty impressive feat, considering some of the other luminaries on that system.

And, as I was the only adult sober enough to do such a thing, I checked on the children during their Neon Chrome journey. Neon Chrome actually surprised me, as it led to these two brothers actually cooperating and working out techniques unique to 2-player mode. While I may have been concerned about heated shouts of “You’re supposed to cover my right!” the fact that they collaborated for (literally) hours seemed like a minor miracle unto itself. Usually there is crying, yelling, and at least one kid explaining to his parents how the other kid is not being “fair” or “helpful” or “won’t stop summoning Bizlackowaq the NEONDeath Bringer”. In this case, the brothers were simply sitting downstairs, playing the same game, and enrapt the whole while. This is unusual! This is a miracle! It allowed us adults the freedom to have wild bacchanalian activities until well into the morning (or at least have one uninterrupted conversation about bookshelf placement), and we all have Neon Chrome to thank.

And my only concern is that Neon Chrome is rated T for Teen, and every time when I checked on the kids, there was inevitably a blood-splattered corpse on the ground.

(Uh, to be clear, that corpse was in the game. There was very little Cain and Abel roleplay happening that night).

Now, I have played videogames all of my life. I have enjoyed videogames all of my life. And, likely as a direct result of that, I have always been sensitive to the controversies over videogame violence. I was there for Mortal Kombat, Night Trap, and Ballz. I may or may not have held a lifelong grudge against a certain senator for stirring up anti-videogame rhetoric. I was in high school opposite Columbine and the “Doom controversy”. I have spent the last thirty years of my life entrenched in a thousand debates on videogames, violence, and whether or not that has any real impact on the players. I have always, always maintained that even the smallest children know the difference between fantasy and reality, and claiming otherwise is absolutely a bad-faith argument. We no more need to shield children from violent videogames than we need to block the nightly news and its usual parade of viciousness. Get over it, Joe, videogames are cool, you should just chill out.

NEONBut here I am, gawking like a yokel, starring at a pair of kids causing blood fountains on the screen, and contemplating whether or not I should leap in front of the television and demand they go back to playing Oscar’s Trash Race this instant, young man. Have I changed my mind? Since I’m now dealing with actual children I care about, have I altered my beliefs? Will I soon be shrieking about why won’t anyone think of the children?

And then I thought about my own childhood, and, coincidentally enough, playing videogames with the father of these wee ones.

As mentioned, I have been friends with Birthday Dad for a long time. We didn’t start hanging out with each when we were as young as his kids are now, but, in the grand scope of things, I would still look at our respective younger selves as “children” (granted, this also means I interpret almost all JRPG protagonists as children now, but that is just a side effect of being one of The Olds). And when we were kids? We got an early build of MAME going, and went to town on every arcade game that had ever dared strip us of our quarters. Battletoads arcade was on there, and Rampart saw an endless two player mode. And, of course, we had to conquer the old standby that many thought was impossible to finish: Smash TV.

(Hey, 1,400 words in, and we finally hit today’s featured game. That might be a new record on meandering!)

Smash TV is a quarter-killer from 1990 that sees the player taking on the role as a contestant on a hit game show in the far-flung future of 1999. Here, violence and maximum carnage rule supreme, and you have to guide a little dude with a helmet and no shirt through a series of arenas that generally contain an unhealthy number of mutants, robots, snakes, and jerks with baseball bats. Your ammo is unlimited, but your poor avatar can only take a single bullet before keeling over, so you have to be equal parts nimble and brutal. There are also a handful of bosses that exist to showcase the finest graphics that 1990 could ever hope to offer with the added bonus of mercilessly depleting every last extra life you had earned over the course of a level. Smash TV is an excellent twin-stick shooter that only requires approximately ten million credits to complete.

EYEBALL!And, if you hadn’t guessed from the subject of this article or that one screenshot where a dude is exploding into a puddle of eyeballs, Smash TV is very violent game. In this case, it’s not completely random violence, it’s something akin to Robocop or other hyper-violent movies from the 80’s that glorified violence while using it as a statement on society’s continual glorification of violence (… wait a minute). Smash TV is a game show where a contestant can win a million VCRs or “dream vacations”, but it’s all a farce, because that contestant likely won’t live to see a single tape on that brand new VCR. It’s a striking indictment of capitalism, as playing Smash TV for five minutes is just a microcosm of spending your life working for “fabulous prizes” that you will never enjoy because that work managed to break your back over the years (actually, that might just be a Billy Joel song). You might not be zapped into x-ray mode by a turtle-bot’s laser, but Smash TV is using its absurd violence to comment on the general irrationality of the modern grind. It’s violence with a point, dad, it’s not just some snuff game!

And my birthday pal and I used to play this game constantly. We hadn’t quite mastered save state technology, so we had to play Smash TV at home over and over again. In fact, I had made a similar attempt with a neighbor when I was younger with the Super Nintendo version. But the “arcade original” allowed for some USB controllers with actual twin sticks, so unlike that credit-limited earlier attempt, we were going to beat Smash TV if it killed us. And we did! This surprisingly lengthy arcade title was finished on a Friday evening otherwise mostly spent waiting for our drummer (if memory serves, we eventually had to drag him out of a Denny’s). It only took time, practice, virtual quarters, and absorbing hours and hours of the ol’ ultra-violence. No harm done!

FACE!And if their father and I turned out to be fine, upstanding citizens after witnessing so much carnage, shouldn’t the children be alright? I’m not certain which “parent trap” I’m falling for here. I’m recoiling at the thought of children seeing violence because I had a visceral reaction to two kids on a beanbag chair (it is a very large beanbag chair) gleefully laughing while a bloody corpse sputters into oblivion on the screen in front of us. On the other hand, isn’t “we turned out fine” the same kind of knee-jerk reaction to an issue? “My dad beat the crap out of me, and now I’m a perfectly normal human being that can’t achieve orgasm unless my car is plastered with 70 bumper sticks regarding treading and its relationship with me” is the kind of sentiment that is seen over and over again, and I’d hate to think I’m being so similarly shortsighted because I caught a whiff of the issue at hand being so close to my heart (did we just cover all the senses in one metaphor?). Is there an answer here that isn’t some warmed over musing that is as old as time itself (which, reminder, would be slightly younger than the boys’ father).

Unfortunately, I don’t think there is a clear answer here. Yes, I played violent videogames as a kid, but did they affect me? It would be crazy to think they didn’t! I might never have actually physically hurt anyone when I was a schoolboy, but I can confirm that I had fantasies of whipping out a Baraka-esque armblade to scare off my more menacing and persistent bullies. I can safely say that little bit of imagined violence wouldn’t have ever been in my head without playing another game by John Tobias for hours on end. Am I a violent person? No. But I know there’s a part of me that thinks roundhouses can solve problems, and I’m willing to blame an entire gaming genre for that issue. Am I afraid these kids are going to stalk the halls with a machine gun like in Neon Chrome? Absolutely not. But I do know that a part of their brains is now perfectly okay with seeing a digitized dead body. Their lives aren’t over, but a small chunk of their innocence is. This wouldn’t have happened if they just stuck to Snakeybus…

Now clapAnd, really, I feel that gets to the crux of this issue. Even if I’m not a parent, am I doing something wrong by allowing a child to play a videogame that glorifies violence? No. I’m confident in saying that (taking the bold position that I judge myself as a good person). But did something happen here? Was some damage done? Yes. I feel that’s accurate. This wasn’t necessarily “bad”, but it happened. I’m not going to send everyone involved to therapy, but I might throw a few “child protections” on the Switch next time. I’m going to make sure there’s an environment where any game can be played (okay, not any) but the children are also aware the adults are handy, and happy to talk about whatever is going on. This “loss of innocence” might be inevitable, whether it’s thanks to a budget e-shop title or not, but at least the kids will be aware that they have parents (and parent-like creepy adults that have basements full of Transformers) that are there for them.

And then we’ll all play Smash TV together. Because my skills have gotten rusty, and I need to blow up Mutoid Man but good.

FGC #519 (Super) Smash TV

  • System: Arcade, and then practically every platform of the 80s and 90s. But not today! Presumably thanks to Midway crumbling to dust, this hasn’t seen an arcade compilation since Midway Arcade Treasures in the Xbox/PS2 era. It was on Xbox 360 with online play for a hot minute, but that seems to have faded into the ether as of 2010.
  • Number of players: Two contestants enter, possibly two contestants leave. It kind of depends on your income.
  • These guysPort-o-Call: Do not play this game on any consoles before the advent of the actual “twin sticks” for this twin stick shooter. Smash TV is practically unplayable on the NES, and the Super Smash TV iteration that appeared on Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo isn’t much better. And there’s a Game Gear version? Not even going to test that one. This is one arcade game that requires something approaching its original hardware configuration.
  • Favorite Boss: Scarface is a giant, hovering face that is eventually very scarred. This is in sharp contrast to Mutoid Man, who I’m not certain ever mutoids at all. And Die Cobros? That’s just German for The Cobra Bros. I think. Yes, Scarface is the best balance of name and boss in Smash TV, so he’s my favorite.
  • Favorite Powerup: This is one of those games where being invincible also means mowing down your opponents by simply making contact. That’s always the best, so give me that glowing green circle any day of the week. Hell, one might be able to ascribe the success of Smash TV to getting the best powerup (at least temporarily) every time you drop in a quarter. Sweet dopamine rush…
  • Sage Advice: The messages that appear in every room…
    This is not a lie

    Can get a little weird. I’d rather hear about fabulous prizes, announcer, not impending turtles.
  • Influencers: Lest you think the connection between Robocop and Smash TV is imagined, the host of Smash TV will occasionally utter the absurd catchphrase from Robocop’s bad future, “I’d buy that for a dollar!” This presumably means that Smash TV Dude will be the next Mortal Kombat guest kharacter.
  • SnekDid you know? The Pleasure Dome, the final bonus area in Smash TV which requires ten keys, was mentioned in the original arcade releases… but wasn’t actually programmed into the game. Apparently the designers thought players would never get there anyway, so who cares? However, arcades apparently complained on behalf of disappointed players, and a later update finally implemented the actual Pleasure Dome. Is it any wonder this company eventually went on to create fake hidden kharacters in its most popular franchise?
  • Would I play again: Smash TV is a weirdly long game, and I’m an adult that is over this whole superviolence thing, so I doubt I’ll ever play the game for an extended period of time again. I might play Neon Chrome with the kiddies, though…

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… X-Men: Children of the Atom for the Sega Saturn! Watch all the X-Men fight for the right to fight Juggernaut! Please look forward to it!

MEAT!

FGC #505 Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker

The moon does appearConsider this a trigger warning: this is going to be a fairly heady article. It’s going to get personal, too. We’re talking about Michael Jackson, and… yeah, I don’t think I need to further explain what difficult topics will be explored. This is your warning… or something approaching that.

And, to be clear, this is a goddamn shame. We’re covering a game (or two) featuring Michael Jackson today, and, ladies and gentlemen, the jokes write themselves. There is a part of me that really wants to travel the low road on this one, and point out how something like 90% of the content here has aged monumentally poorly. You want some humorous content? Here’s MJ getting railed by some manner of dick-robot.

Right in the beans

Haha! He’s gonna be singing soprano after that!

But, if I’m being honest (and that’s the point of this essay), that’s exactly why I feel I need to be serious here. Yes, a videogame starring Michael Jackson has aged poorly. Yes, that is fairly inevitable with any product starring someone that was a cultural icon (see also some mall adventures). And, yes, due to the details of Jackson’s fall from grace, even a common trope like “save the kidnapped children” is going to be seen in a different light. This is all true. But the important part? The thing that would not stop running through my mind while playing this random Sega Genesis cartridge from 1990 is just how overwhelmingly sad the whole thing made me feel.

When I was a kid, Michael Jackson was my goddamned hero.

Save her!I’ve claimed in the past that my musical tastes as a child were entirely and wholly provided by my parents, who, as children of the 50’s, had more of an inclination to listen to The Big Bopper and The Beatles than Aerosmith. By the time I was a teenager, I learned both of my parents had been actively shielding me from “the hard stuff”, but even the forbidden list was predominantly songs that were golden oldies. My mother didn’t like the idea of me listening to Bohemian Rhapsody even by my teenage years, as it was “a suicide song”, but that was still a song released almost a decade before I was even born. Point is that, for all “the hits of the 80’s” that my local FM station assures me are real, I listened to maybe 1% of what was actually popular when it was prevalent. I think only Don’t Worry, Be Happy was on the approved list…

But, somehow, Michael Jackson was the exception. Actually, I take that back. I know exactly why MJ was an exception: “Weird” Al Yankovic. My parents knew their beloved, gigantically nerdy son, and figured I would enjoy the likes of “Fat” or “Eat it”. Weird Al’s oeuvre was obviously kid friendly, and (not going to lie) it was probably a great choice, as I’m pretty sure absorbing Weird Al’s recurring clever wordplay when I was a child is why I make word choice good now. But listening to a series of parody songs inevitably invites a need to hear those source songs, and, since WAY seemed to have a thing for MJ songs, you can guess what was high on the listening list. It wasn’t very long before I graduated from Weird Al’s Even Worse to Michael Jackson’s Bad (wait… isn’t that backwards?).

And I was in love.

ZOMBIES!I’m not even going to try to define why Michael Jackson was popular with the public at large. However, I can safely point to a handful of reasons why I, personally, liked Michael Jackson. In no particular order:

1. His music slapped
2. Actual moonwalking was fun and easy
3. Music videos that could and would include claymation

However that list does ignore the prime reason I adored Michael Jackson: he was a big damn weirdo.

Look, this is a blog where I occasionally compare relationships old and new to videogames. I have written obscure NES hero fanfic. I don’t think my dear audience believes there was a switch in my head that flipped to “big ol’ weirdo” when I became an adult. I was a weird kid. I had friends, I participated in activities, and I had extremely loving and protective parents; but there’s no debate as to who was “the weird kid” in any given classroom. And being the weird kid? There’s no helping being the weird kid. The dumb kid can get some special educational help, the smelly kid can get a shower, and the kid who pissed himself in first grade can just learn to beat up every other kid by second grade. But the weird kid? You don’t really ever stop being the weird kid. You’re always going to get distracted by Weeeeunusual bird feathers on the ground, or spend gym class planning out your victory dance rather than actually playing the assigned sport. You try not to be weird by carefully noting the last grade you’re ever allowed to talk about cartoons (it was third), but that all falls apart the moment you obviously get excited about the latest Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle movie. And then it’s noogie time, and you’re reminded that, one way or another, you’re not like everybody else.

Michael Jackson was a universally beloved musical icon. And Michael Jackson wasn’t like anybody else.

Michael Jackson was a star, and he lived his life exactly how he wanted to live it. And this isn’t about residing on a ranch literally named for never outgrowing childhood, this is about his actual performances. He sang the lyrics he wanted to sing. He danced the way he wanted to dance. And he took his performances and personas to some extremely unusual places. He wasn’t content to simply have a “scary song”, he had to produce an entire music video featuring zombies as an homage to old horror movies. He appeared in cartoons when the medium was considered about as culturally relevant as cereal commercials. And if he wanted his own videogame, he got his own damn videogame.

Get in there!Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker appeared in many guises on many systems, but the two main versions were the arcade game and its Sega Genesis counterpart. To be honest, neither game is particularly that good. The arcade version is something of a rote beat ‘em up with its only defining characteristic being a monkey-based powerup that transforms your chosen Michael into a laser-blasting robot. The Genesis version isn’t much better, but is marginally more unique. This is more of a Rolling Thunder/Elevator Action-esque affair, and the caveat is that you have to open like every goddamn window, trunk, and door between Michael and the enemy’s secret base to find the lost children required to finish a stage. There’s a nugget of a good game idea in there, but it winds up becoming little more than Michael Jackson’s hide ‘n seek as he checks every closet in the house for more and more children (… dammit, I said I would avoid the low hanging fruit…).

And, despite the fact that both of these games aren’t particularly good, Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker was one of the two reasons this Nintendo kid wanted a Sega Genesis. There was Sonic the Hedgehog and Michael Jackson, and all a Wee Goggle Bob wanted in this world was a system where they were both combined (and maybe a game, too). Michael Jackson, the King of Pop that was also a giant weirdo, was waiting for me there. He liked videogames, too!

And then everything happened.

To be clear for anyone that didn’t live through it, it wasn’t like society declared him cancelled, and then Michael Jackson was forever banished from the public eye. Michael Jackson had always been weird, but now there were allegations. Now there was a reason to chastise the man for doing things that were not simply unusual, but wrong. And not everyone believed it! It was a slow drip of accusations, lawsuits, and the occasional televised “deeper look”. Regardless, Michael Jackson retreated more and more from the public eye, and, by the time he passed in 2009, he was remembered as practically a different person from his 1990 incarnation. Hell, the change happened so gradually, it allowed The Simpsons to go from idolizing Michael Jackson as the most important person to ever visit Springfield…

Michael Jackson!?

To, four years later, claiming Michael Jackson was little more than a mythical, malevolent phantom…

Who!?

A hero had become a villain, and now we’re at a point where MJ has been wiped from the show’s history.

And eleven years after Michael’s death, I’m still not sure what the hell I’m supposed to learn from such an event.

Do I believe the allegations at this point? Yes. Duh. Though, if I’m being completely honest, it took me a long time to get there. Michael Jackson is weird! I believed that people were just taking his obvious weakness for children and childish pursuits and turning it into some kind of pedophilia. In retrospect, that seems almost dangerously optimistic, but, at the time, it was just how I defended my hero. And that was the problem. Whether it be because of my impressionable age, the indoctrination of videogames and media where he was a literal hero, or simply because I wanted to listen to good music without thinking too hard about bad things, I followed Michael Jackson a lot longer than I should have. In retrospect, I regret ever giving the man so much I AM ROBOTas a dime, left alone allowing him to dominate that precious tape collection I always lugged to the nearest boombox. Michael Jackson was my hero, a hero that stood for everything I cared about when I was a certain age, and then it turned out that he was scarring children for life literally while I was supporting him. I was a fan of a “hero” that has victims.

Has this influenced my own life? Probably. I’m not going to point the finger squarely at one Bad individual, but I feel like this is part of the reason I gravitate toward fictional heroes like Optimus Prime or Voltron while leaving the real world behind. Barack Obama is a president and a man I felt I could stand behind, but I could never support the man with the kind of all-consuming dedication I have seen from other fans, because he was and still is, ultimately, a man. And a man has flaws. Sometimes those flaws are making decisions you don’t agree with, sometimes those flaws are literally criminal, but they are still reasons not to venerate any given man or woman. We’re all people, and we should treat every person with an even dosage of doubt.

This is where we are: I play a videogame about a pop star rescuing children from zombies with the help of a monkey, and the only thing I can think of is how we should be skeptical of literally every human on Earth. Michael Jackson ruined the lives of many children. He was not a hero. He didn’t “rescue kids” anymore than he could turn into a robot. But it’s not all bad! There are good people! There are people worthy of praise! They might not be perfect, but there are people that actually save children. You don’t have to worship them, but there are people that balance the cosmic scales, even if not a single one is the King of Pop. We can move on from Michael Jackson.

Right in the beans

And MJ can just eat a piledriver.

FGC #505 Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker

  • System: Sega Genesis is technically the version ROB chose, but the Arcade version is also a valid choice that follows roughly the same plot and concept. That concept is that Michael Jackson can turn into a space ship or a car anytime he wants, but chooses not to.
  • Number of players: One on the Genesis, the unusual three in the arcade. You would think Jackson would account for five.
  • THE CHANGEAdaptation: Yes, this is videogame tie-in game for Michael Jackson’s movie of the same name. If you missed out on his cinematic masterpiece, it’s basically a loosely connected collection of music videos and concert footage that includes a miniscule feature about Michael Jackson rescuing children from his former manager/mob boss. It’s worth a look if you’re ever on Youtube and feel like watching something that will make you hate yourself for a solid hour or so.
  • Favorite Level: Like The Simpsons Arcade Game, the third stage inexplicably turns into a graveyard featuring innumerable zombies. Their continual leaps recall Chinese hopping vampires, though, and there are at least two zombies that split in half to rain knives from the sky. What I’m saying is that my favorite level is the absolute weirdest.
  • So, does Thriller play over the zombie level? Nope! Apparently there was a licensing issue, as MJ didn’t write the entirety of Thriller. However, there are some prototype versions of the game floating around that retain the song. Vincent Price doesn’t appear in any version, though, unfortunately.
  • An End: The arcade version sticks to one genre, but the finale of the Genesis game gets a light shoot ‘em up in there for the final confrontation. It is the exact opposite of fun, but it is vaguely reminiscent of that Star Wars game. Oh, and the actual ending of the game is just Michael dancing with a monkey.
  • Did you know? The basic premise of this article is also why I will not be covering Space Channel 5 or Space Channel 5: Part 2. I can only deal with so many Michaels in power.
  • Would I play again: Did I mention that this game is not particularly good? It wasn’t terrible for the early 90s, but it has not aged well in more ways than one. There are a lot of other games I can play that are about 120% less problematic.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Gunstar Super Heroes for the Gameboy Advance! Now there are some heroes we can get behind! Please look forward to it!

FGC #499 Ballz

BALLZ!In the early 90s (practically the infancy of gaming as we know it) there was a tremendous controversy over videogames, sex, and violence. There were concerns that, since videogames had progressed past being red dot versus blue dot and now featured tremendously less abstract decapitations, videogames were profane and poisoning the poor kiddies playing them, and, please, won’t someone do something to protect us all? In a move that certainly wasn’t just a shortcut to placating the masses, the Entertainment Software Rating Board was founded in 1994. It was thus to be the job of the ESRB to rate games according to their content, and clearly label every release with information denoting it as “E for Everybody” to “M for Mature”. However, a year earlier, Sega of America introduced the Videogame Rating Council, a slightly more primitive version of the ESRB that had much the same goal (pacifying Karen). In this case, we had three ratings: GA for general audiences, and two version of MA (mature audiences) with two different ages: 13 and 17. Games that earned a MA-17 rating included Lethal Enforcers and Mortal Kombat 2, while MA-13 went to the likes of Super Street Fighter 2, Mortal Kombat (1), and Lunar: The Silver Star Story.

And Ballz. Ballz is for mature 13-year olds only.

In a lot of ways, Ballz was improbably ahead of its time. For one thing, it’s a 3-D fighting game released about seven seconds before the era where that was the only fighting game style available. Shortly before the release of Tekken or Battle Arena Toshinden, here was a fighter taking place on a “real” 3-D plane where you could just as easily side-step around a fireball as jump. There are even techniques involved here that would become standard within the genre, like dodge rolling away from a fallen position, or grappling with an opponent in a manner that is impossible (or at least boring) in 2-D titles. And there are some systems that never caught on that could be very interesting in the right hands. Every character can morph into every other character. Could you imagine that in a more robust fighting game engine? You’re fighting the entire roster at once every time! High level play in such an environment could be amazing! Counter pick after counter pick until the timer runs out!

Bad dino!But one feature that was certainly adopted by Ballz’s fighting game descendants is the overt bombast of a seemingly average fight. The fighting game genre has always been “loud”, and anyone that spent ten seconds in an arcade in the early 90s could tell you exactly how many sonic booms were tossed by Guile in an afternoon (the answer is infinity plus one). But, as fighting games evolved in graphics, they too evolved in piercing presentation. Possibly as a result of copying real-world, “real” sports, fighting games went on to adopt cinematic staging by standardizing features like replays, wrestling-esque taunts, and announcers. As a result, the average fighting game nowadays is chattier than your average JRPG, and we’re never allowed to forget that the soul still burns. Whether or not this makes things better is up to the player, but it’s pretty clear that if you play a Japanese fighting game, and it doesn’t have seven different settings for “announcer”, toss on your hazmat suit, because you’re handling toxic garbage.

Ballz has its own announcer. Its announcer is just a little more… silent than the modern incarnations.

Ballz’s designers knew the game had to drip attitude, and that that wasn’t going to be properly conveyed by a simple fight between a ballerina and a rhino. No, they needed something more. Silent protagonists were not going to cut it, and primitive 16-bit cartridges weren’t going to support the literary magnum opus required of Ballz. What Ballz needed was special. Ballz needed a damn Jumbotron ™. Ballz decided to screw subtlety to the sticking-place, and just ram a gigantic television screen into the background. Maybe even a couple! And this screen could display taunts, announcements, and a comprehensive running fight commentary in the background. So, during each and every fight, you’ve got a background that is expounding such complicated thoughts as “administer smackies” while a few lesser screens display what appears to be an animated GIF of fireworks before displaying the game’s logo. Is it distracting? Of course! But does it convey exactly what Ballz is all about? Also yes! While it is always confusing who the hell is “talking” through the Get 'emvarious screens (some are clearly statements by the combatants, but there seems to be an omniscient “narrator” somewhere in there, too. And then there’s some random malcontent that really wants you to “taunt the ostrich”…), all of the statements stick to the basic theme and attitude of Ballz. It’s irreverent! It’s anti-establishment! In a world of sober Fatalities and Cinekills, Ballz is juvenile and insolent. Ryu is seriously trying to test his serious skills in a very serious tournament, but Yoko the Ballz Monkey is seriously going to fart in his face. This whole game is a synonym for testicles! Get it!?

And it is for this reason that I must compliment the Videogame Rating Council on a job well done.

Initially, it seemed ridiculous that this title would be rated MA-13. It’s silly! It’s a “violent” videogame, but all the characters are made of multi-colored balls. They are barely human shaped, and the idea that this title could be taken seriously in any legitimate way seems as ridiculous as a sumo wrestler tackling a kangaroo (which, to be clear, can happen in Ballz). Ballz being rated MA-13 literally puts it on the same level as the infamous Mortal Kombat, and, unless there’s some missable stage hidden around here, there is absolutely no one that has their still-beating heart ripped out of their ribs. Mortal Kombat defined videogame violence for an entire generation, while Ballz is roughly as vicious as the Pixar logo. Did you see what that desk lamp did to that letter? I am amazed children are allowed to view such a thing.

But Ballz does warrant its rating. Not because it is a violent videogame, but because only a thirteen year old would enjoy this. Ballz has a tone that matches the way a young teenager farts in the general direction of authority. This isn’t high satire, this is a game precisely designed for someone that is just mature enough to be thirteen.

BUTT STUFF

And everybody behind Ballz knew it.

So thank you, gentle members of the Videogame Rating Council in 1994, for knowing that, too. You truly thought of the children.

FGC #499 Ballz

  • System: Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo initially, and then a “director’s cut” for the 3DO. There’s a system seller!
  • Number of players: Two fighters comprised of ever so many balls.
  • This sucksPort differences: This game was very obviously designed for the Sega Genesis (the three button control scheme gives it away), but it looks so much better on the SNES. However, Nintendo did not have its own ratings board, and demanded that Ballz remove its more risqué elements. There’s no almost naked butt to be found on the SNES version, and instead of starting with “you gotta have… Ballz!” the intro reads “you’ve got to play… Ballz!” One little change makes all the difference, apparently.
  • Favorite Fighter: Crusher the Rhino-Man is exactly the kind of Spider-Man villain that I want to see appear in more games.
  • Favorite Boss: There are five separate bosses randomly sprinkled across the single player campaign. The first three are all animals, and obviously follow the traditional threat graduation schema of ostrich -> kangaroo -> tyrannosaurus. From there, you’ve got an opponent that is a blue genie that transforms into other animals, but is not actually an animal. And then the final boss is a murder clown.
  • So there’s a clown factor? Boomer the circus clown is a regular fighter, and The Jester is the final boss, organizer of this tournament, and theoretical announcer. That’s two scary clowns in one game! There should be a videogame council that exists to protect children from that.
  • Did you know? Lamprey the Genie is so named because of the general pun on the phrase “Genie’s Lamp”. He has nothing to do with eels. Thank God.
  • Would I play again: Nope. There are so many other fighting game options that are actually, ya know, good. Maybe find me a version of Ballz where everyone doesn’t feel like they’re scooting around on rollerblades, and we’ll talk.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Bah. It’s #500. Let’s keep it a surprise. Tune in Friday for something or other. I’m sure it will be nice. Please look forward to it!

Nevermind...

FGC #494 Battletoads and Double Dragon: The Ultimate Team

It's time for teams!Now let’s talk about the infamous “Wolverine” style crossover.

You may be aware, but Wolverine is a particularly popular character from Marvel Comics’ X-Men. He was originally introduced as yet another thing/Canadian/person The Incredible Hulk could punch, but he joined the X-Men roster shortly thereafter, and his reputation rapidly escalated from there. People have been trying to nail down the source of Wolverine’s overabundant attractiveness practically since his debut in 1974, but no one (least of all Marvel) seems to have a clue as to what has made Wolverine one of the most essential comic book characters of the 20th century. Is it the readily accessible weapons? His tendency to not follow orders? The fact that he’s a grizzled old man palling around (and occasionally flirting) with teenagers? That mentor thing he had going with Jubilee and Kitty Pride? The cigars? Whatever the cause, Wolverine is popular. What’s more, it is known that Wolverine is popular. This ain’t no underground “you heard that Squirrel Girl is good?” situation, this is phoenix-fudging Wolverine, and he’s the king of the world. He had a movie. Or seventeen. Wolverine sells! And Wolverine can sell anything!

So it’s only natural that “Wolverine stops by” has become a comic book genre onto itself. If you’ve got a new Marvel comic book that needs a few more sales, summon Wolverine. He doesn’t need to actually do anything, and he doesn’t need to be on any more than one page, but as long as he can be part of the cover, you’re all set! Maybe you’ll get lucky! Maybe Wolverine will actually offer your hero/heroine advice and a few zingers before he wanders off to wherever Wolverines go when they’re not on camera (I’ve always assumed Wolverine used that infinite healing factor to successfully weather course after course at the Golden Corral), but don’t count on Wolverine lingering around for too long, because he’s a very busy mutant, bub. And this trait has now transcended genres, as Wolverine appears in other movies when the X-Men need their special guy to push a few more tickets. Stan Lee may have invented the cameo trick, and now Wolverine is Stan Lee. We’ve come full circle! So, don’t worry, if you need your character or franchise to be more popular, all you need is Wolverine. Put no more thought into the process than that. Just get Wolverine on the line!

But Wolverine apparently wasn’t available for a certain collection of battlin’ toads, so Billy and Jimmy Lee are going to have to put in an hour.

BLARG!Now, it is hard to believe in this our year of perfect vision, but back in 1993, Double Dragon was a hot franchise. There were three “main” Double Dragon titles on the NES, an arcade presence, a number of spin-offs available on things like handhelds, an animated series, and a movie on the way. You know who else could be described in that exact manner? Super Mario. Double Dragon was, in the videogame realm, on the exact same tier as Mario (give or take Captain Lou Albano). Nowadays, people barely can remember Bimmy and Jimmy exist, but back when the Battletoads were trying to make a splash, they were a hot commodity.

And make no mistake, Battletoads really wanted to be on that same popularity echelon. Battletoads had an unmistakable connection to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles from their initial appearance, and many people took their general “irreverent” tone as a clear parody of the other fighting amphibians. But if you were to explore the Battletoads’ initial comic debut in Nintendo Power, you’d find that these heroes were 100% serious about being the next big thing with a very serious backstory for very serious fans. Zitz is really some nerd named Morgan that got stuck in a virtual reality machine that links to an actual reality! And then that premise was dropped (or at least ignored) for an animated series where the ‘toads are plucked out of another dimension to pal around our Oxnard, California and defend us from the Dark Queen with Looney Tunes-esque attacks. Pew pewDiC produced this animated Battletoads pilot, and then went no further. DiC also ran Street Sharks to a full series. That had to sting. The Battletoads needed something to put the franchise on the map, and Double Dragon seemed to fit the bill.

So this led to Battletoads and Double Dragon: The Ultimate Team… which is a particularly misleading title. Yes, the Battletoads and The Lee Brothers unite to fight a collection of allied opponents, but there’s no actual “team” involved behind the scenes. This is clearly a Rare joint, and a Battletoads game through and through. In fact, give or take the graphics involved, this title is little more than the original Battletoads game with seemingly random Double Dragon guest stars. There’s a speeder bike. There’s a vertical ropes course. There’s an inexplicable gameplay shift where you wind up playing Asteroids for some reason. The heavies of the Battletoads brand all return for boss battles, and the Double Dragon opponents… Well… That’s where it’s most obvious that this is a Battletoads game with special guest star Wolverine Double Dragon. What’s the tell?

Roper!
Willy – Double Dragon (Arcade) 1987
Roper!
Willy – Double Dragon 2 (Arcade) 1988
Roper!
Roper – Battletoads and Double Dragon: The Ultimate Team (NES) 1993

They couldn’t even get the Double Dragon’s main antagonist right. Okay… yes, the people behind Battletoads and Double Dragon: The Ultimate Team did correctly stick Abobo right there in the first level, and he has his proper ‘stache (depending on the port). But the boss of the third stage is “Roper”. Roper is the name of a generic mook in the Double Dragon franchise, and that ain’t him. This character, complete with his signature weapon, is most commonly referred to as “Machine Gun Willy” by the fans. According to the lore, his full name is Willy Mackey, and he’s the main antagonist of Double Dragon and Double Dragon 2 (give or take the wonky “interpretation” of the NES versions). He is the leader of the Black Warriors. He is the one that orders the kidnapping of Marian. He is the final boss of one Double Dragon arcade cabinet, and penultimate boss of another one.

And here he’s got the wrong name, and he’s the boss of the third level. Robo-Manus, the robot that is barely animated, earns a higher standing than Billy and Jimmy Lee’s greatest foe. And who is the “new” main antagonist that is capping off the Double Dragon side of this crossover? It’s “Shadow Boss”, a character that technically appears in no other Double Dragon game, but vaguely recalls the antagonist from the animated series. He also resembles a ripped version of Burnov, that one tubby guy with ill-fitting pants from the first level of Double Dragon 2.

Shadows!!
Burnov – Double Dragon 2 (Arcade) 1988
Shadows!!
Shadow Master – Double Dragon Animated Series / Double Dragon V 1993
Shadows!!
Shadow Boss – Battletoads and Double Dragon: The Ultimate Team (SNES) 1993

Dudes at Rare apparently didn’t feel like getting past the first, Abobo-based level of Double Dragon, and decided to wing it from there. Who’s this guy from the arcade intro with a gun? That’s probably Roper. Let’s go with that, and see if we can devote more pixels to rendering Dark Queen’s ass.

So, yes, it’s pretty clear this is a Battletoads game that suckered Double Dragon into shedding a few more popularity points. Did it work? Of course not. The Double Dragon movie bombed, the franchise floundered from there, and the Battletoads had already hitched their dingy to a sinking ship. One last Battletoads arcade game was released shortly thereafter, and then too did the Battletoads retire from gaming for decades. Double Dragon never brought Battletoads the fanbase they so desperately craved, and only the innovation of internet memes would ever get the ‘toads any attention.

This seems wrongsBut this humble crossover did at least try. It succeeded as a shining example of a Wolverine crossover. Double Dragon stopped by a Battletoads game, and that’s all the effort anyone wanted to put into this project. Excellent stealth Battletoads 2, Rare, and good try on attempting to boost your visibility with a more prominent franchise.

Just… maybe next time you should figure out who Wolverine actually is before you have him drop by…

FGC #494 Battletoads and Double Dragon: The Ultimate Team

  • System: This one got around. The NES and Gameboy versions are fairly impressive for their tiny bits, but the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis versions are where you see some pretty graphics. The Battletoads did know how to feature a little spectacle.
  • Number of players: Two. And you have your choice of all three Battletoads. This is the first game where that actually happened! But I suppose you should choose at least one Lee Brother…
  • Port-o-Call: Which version should you get? Well, the gameplay is miraculously pretty much exactly the same across all versions, so if that is your concern, don’t worry about it. From there, if you’ve got the option, you probably want the Super Nintendo version, as choosing the other 16-bit version will brand you a Sega Kid, and who has the fortitude to deal with such a moniker? Though, like Mortal Kombat, the Genesis version actually includes blood on defeated opponents’ portraits, so if you’re all about the violence, head over there.
  • Art Style: It’s important to note that the NES version of this title paints the Lee Brothers as a pair of really buff 80 year olds.
    They're twins!

    They’re coming to help just as soon as their grandson gets the wireless working!
  • Secret Truth: Willy probably got renamed to Roper thanks to his level including Battletoads repelling hijinks, thus earning the stage the title “Ropes and Roper”. Always go for the easy pun!
  • Did you know? The Nintendo Power comic that gave us the origin story of The Battletoads was written by a Rare employee, Guy Millar. The cartoon adaption was written by David Wise, someone who did not have any involvement in the production of the games, but did have the exact same name as the David Wise that composed the Battletoads videogame soundtrack. Weird.
  • Would I play again: This is an easier experience than Battletoads (1), but it also feels like the game runs out of steam somewhere around the fourth level. From about Level 5 on, it feels less like the eclectic action game of earlier levels, and it becomes little more than a rote beat ‘em up. So I’ll probably just play the original or the arcade game if I want a Battletoads experience. And it doesn’t even rank as a Double Dragon experience…

What’s next? What happens when a franchise crosses over with itself? Twice? Let’s find out! Please look forward to it!

Bad Queen