08/11/2010

GROWL / RUNARK

I've played a lot of side-scrolling beat-'em-ups, and they've featured a fairly standard variety of plots: fighting crime, rescuing kidnapped Mayoral daughters, repulsing alien invasions, that sort of thing. I've never been moved to wade through great waves of street punks and martial arts masters to protect animals from extinction, however... until now. Yes, animal conservation is the name of the game in Taito's 1990 arcade brawler Growl, also known in Japan as Runark.

You might think it's an odd choice for a prime motivator, but despite all their fangs and rending claws, animals are too stupid to look after themselves. As the intro explains, a group of evil poachers has driven the animals to near-extinction, and a group of men identified only as "A ranger corps" must stop them.

There are four characters to choose from, but two of them are palette swaps and I can't see any appreciable difference between them in terms of fighting style. I'm going with the guy on the left because... well, you'll see.

The game begins with some saucy young minx throwing a hand grenade at our hero, which he deals with by lying on the floor next to it

It all works out okay and he emerges unscathed, which I hope is an indication of how tough he is. Hey, if he can take a hand grenade to the face with a winsome grin, then surely he can take on some punks in a fist fight? Of course, that isn't the case. No sooner has the grenade exploded then enemies rush in, determined to protect the evil poaching that is their way of life. Fortunately, the grenade also blew open some nearby barrels, which happened to contain four rocket launchers. Rocket launchers! Four of them! The question of what sort of weirdo stores four rocket launchers in a barrel aside, it is clear that Growl is going to be a little different from other side-scrolling beat-'em-ups (and I do mean a little different) in its use of weapons. The first thing to do is use the rocket launchers on the villains, and then it's onto the street to take the battle to the poachers. Weapons aside, Growl shares the standard system that most beat-em-ups had at this time: you've got a jump button, an attack button, and pressing them together performs a health-draining special move, in this case a spinning-kick-thing. The music's decent, the sprites are interesting if not technically fantastic, and the whole thing chugs along rather merrily as our hero finds an assault rifle and uses it to mow down a crowd of people so he can protect the noble animals, man. Our hero may sound like a bit of a hippy, but you might be disabused of that notion when he rounds a corner to find two menacing-looking fellows whipping a lion.

Without hesitation, our hero shoots them in the face, setting the lion free, free to live his liony life as he sees fit. Our hero doesn't seem concerned that the lion is loose in the middle of a town that presumably has some residents who aren't evil poachers, such as, I dunno, children or something, and if it doesn't bother him then it shouldn't bother us. With the poachers dead, you can pick up their whips, and in doing so give an answer to the question asked by your enemies in the picture above. Who does he think he is?

I think he thinks he's Indiana Jones. George Lucas' lawyers must have not visited many arcades in the early '90s, which is good news for Taito.
A little further on, and a train appears, running over anyone who happens to be standing on the tracks and smooshing them into bloody chunks that fly around the screen. Nice. I bet that lion is waiting just off screen for us all to leave, unless he's already tucking into those children.

The train also holds the first boss, a strange man in a Ghengis Kahn helmet with dynamite strapped around his chest who throws a truck at you. You get all sorts in the poaching game, I tell you.

He's not that tough, and he's quickly defeated. Then there's a bonus game where you have to free eagles by punching their cages. Now, I'm not sure about the wisdom of punching a cage containing a no doubt already-tense eagle with razor-sharp talons until it breaks free. It seems, to my untrained eye, like a bad idea. However, I'm not a member of a ranger corps, so what do I know. All I know is this is an arcade beat-'em-up and there's a train nearby, so the next stage will be on the train.

Literally on the train, in this case, as you fight your way along the roofs of the carriages. The eagles you rescued earlier now come back to torment their oppressors, helping you out by attacking your foes, which is a nice touch. You're not up there for long, and when you leap down, two poachers are carrying a deer on a pole. These poachers do get a lot of poaching done, don't they? They may be evil, but they're also efficient. Once you have punched them and freed the deer, it summons its deer friends, who proceed to trample your enemies beneath their hooves. Yes, getting the animals you're "saving" to do all the work for you is going quite well so far.

Another strange boss fight of sorts is next, with six garish-clothed men with fezes, large cummerbunds and swarthy beards attack. These evil poachers are not only numerous, but their very diverse too; they're open to evil of all different races, which is refreshingly progressive of them. There are only a few different enemy types in Growl, but they're quite an eclectic mix. Power-suited 80's career women fight shoulder-to-shoulder with 1920s newspaperboys, which would be quite touching if their goal wasn't the death of all animals.

Growl is a short game, and it's moving along at a real clip now. The next section is on a curiously-shaped boat, with an elephant in a cage looking on from the background. After pummelling a group of (admittedly diverse) goons, a boss appears. He's a burly man in a vest, his head swathed in bandages, and he bears a very strong resemblance to a similar boss in SNK's The Super Spy. Like the boss in Super Spy, he's a real pain in the sack to beat, mostly because your attacks don't appear to faze him and he'll keep on headbutting you while you're punching him.

He dies eventually, the elephant is set free and you make your way back to dry land. Now, you may have noticed a pattern in Growl of saving animals and having them come to your aid - is that the case with your pachyderm friend? Why yes it is, and in a surprisingly gory fashion he tramples the enemies into a blood-soaked paste, destroying all before him in his elephantine rage. Once he's finished, the boss appears, driving a tank. Luckily your elephant friend must have been loitering nearby, because he charges the tank and destroys it. I wouldn't want any young elephants playing Growl; it might make them think they can headbutt a tank and emerge victorious, and I wouldn't want to be responsible for a rash of copycat tank attacks. Anyway, once your elephant has done most of the hard work, the tank disgorges a stream of enemies who are easily defeated. Once they're mopped up, our hero arrives at a place that should not exist in a side-scrolling beat-'em-up: a platforming section.

A lava cave lies between you and the final area, and it is a lava cave that will test your patience to its limits. It's filled with all the usual cliches: narrow platforms, stalactites that fall on your head, fireballs that leap up, the works. There are even some bats that get in the way, and you have to punch them to get past. How does that one work, oh noble hero? This cruelty towards animals by the evil poachers must be stopped, but it's okay for you to clobber a bat, knocking it out of the air and condemning it to an agonising death as it is immolated by the lava? You sick bastard. You're a copyright-infringing hypocrite (and possibly Ace Ventura) and I hate you (I don't hate Ace Ventura). That said, I don't hate you as much as I hate this goddamn cave, with it's moving platforms and spike traps. It's easily the worst part of the game, and it really does feel like a desperate attempt to pad out a rather skeletal set of levels.
Once you're past the cave, the game goes a long way toward redeeming itself with the final boss.

He's a mask-wearing, top-hatted, machine-gun-fingered, claw-wielding hunchback dressed as a circus ringmaster who throws a tank at you. Now that is good character design. He can also make sound effects such as the pictured "SHBROOM". Imagine that the villain is making that noise with his mouth in the manner of a child (or male in his late twenties with a empty wrapping-paper tube) making lightsaber noises, and the fight is made even more entertaining. He doesn't really do anything all that special; he mostly fires bullets at you and rolls around like Vega from Street Fighter. I still think he's great, though. I almost felt bad punching him to death. Almost.

Shock! Circus-man wasn't the true villain after all. No, apparently he was being controlled by one of the Graboids from Tremors. Quite how he managed to store that thing in his body, I don't know. Another mystery is why an evil worm-creature that can control humans spends its time poaching wild animals instead of taking over world leaders and passing new laws outlawing the use of their wormy brethren as fishing bait. Of course, as this is a Japanese arcade game from the early 90s, none of this is explained and you're free to come up with your own answers. My theory? He's a member of an omnivore's club, dedicated to eating one of every animal on the planet. A noble goal, I'm sure you'll agree.
As a boss, he's terrible. All he does is twirl himself around like that kid who used to pretend a skipping rope was a pair of nunchucks (you know the one) and occasionally shoot a fireball at you. Wait until he's stopped spinning, punch him, move out of the way and repeat what feels like a thousand times. Now he really, really is defeated, and out hero sets free all the captured animals. Except the bats. He fucking hates bats.

That, then, is Growl. If I was to growl at Growl, it would be a low, quiet growl of cautious approval. It's certainly quite fun to play, and the fact that you are essentially Indiana Jones is a nice touch, as is the focus on weapons. It loses points for being shorter than a midget with no feet and for that goddamn cave level, but overall I'd say it's definitely worth a bash, especially if you're an animal lover or you want to see an elephant headbutt a tank. And who amongst us can say that they don't wish to see that with all their heart?

BONUS! Watch some gameplay here, and enjoy the rather nice stage one music.

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