28/01/2011

TOTAL CARNAGE

ARRRGH DAKKA DAKKA DAKKA PEW PEW I'M A PEACE-LOVING CITIZEN BRRAP BRRAP OH HI THERE, sorry, I couldn't hear you over the sound of Midway's 1991 arcade bullet-a-thon Total Carnage!

First, a bit of a history lesson. In 1982, two men called Eugene Jarvis and Larry deMar released an arcade game called Robotron: 2084, a top-down shooter in which you played as a little guy who has to blast swarms of robots. So far, so much like every other arcade game involving robots. However, Robotron had an ace up it's sleeve: the control system. Instead of pointing at an opponent with the joystick and then pressing a button to fire, Robotron featured a dual-joystick control system. The left-hand stick moves your character, and the right-hand stick fires your robot-smashing weapon in whatever direction you push it. It's a fantastic control system that still feels great today. Apparently it came about because Jarvis, having damaged his hand in a car accident, couldn't use the standard joystick-plus-button systems. Fun facts!
Then in 1990 came Smash T.V., a true classic in the often-crowded field of "videogames where you shoot a lot of stuff". Again designed by Eugene Jarvis, Smash T.V. took Robotron's gameplay and control system and placed them into the plot of the greatest movie ever made: The Running Man. So, unlike Robotron's hero trying to save humans from robots and their agonizing steel probes, Smash T.V. casts you as a contestant on an ultra-violent gameshow try to win (as the game itself puts it) big money and big prizes, mostly by shooting up room after room filled with squishy human meatlumps. Imagine (if you're old and British enough) Pat Sharp's Funhouse but with approximately four million percent more screaming, bullet-riddled death and no mullets.
Finally, in 1991 Midway released Total Carnage, a spiritual sequel to Smash T.V. which retains the same basic gameplay and replaces the gameshow plot with that of an 80's action film. And that's the game I'll be looking at today!

I've already pretty much covered the gameplay: the left stick moves your character, the right stick fires in the direction pressed, NOW KILL ALL. You can also press the Start button to drop a bomb on the floor, which is useful for blowing things up good. There is a story, although I'm sure you've already guessed it's not up there with The Godfather or No Country For Old Men or even The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

Total Carnage was released in that little pocket of time just after the Gulf War and the fall of Communism, when the villains in American media were shifting from Russians to vague Middle-Eastern types. Total Carnage's villain is one of the latter, a military leader dressed as a doorman called General Ahkboob, leader of the far-out and wacky nation of Kookistan.

I am honestly surprised he isn't called Sodamn Insane.
He's creating "bio-nuclear" mutants, whatever the hell they are, and he must be stopped. You know all this because you're warned in the introduction by a journalist called Candy Blitzer, possibly named for CNN journalists Candy Crowley and Wolf Blitzer. I'm going to have to have kids now so I can name them all Wolf Blitzer. I hope I have octuplets so there're eight Wolf Blitzers runnin' around, blitzing things and acting like wolves.

Candy Blitzer bears a disturbing resemblance to Robert Z'Dar, a B-movie actor once accurately described in an episode of MST3K as "a catcher's mitt with eyes". Cut to some military guy who decides that there's only one course of action: send in the Doomsday Squad! The Doomsday Squad consists of two men, making a mockery of the word "squad". Player one plays as the nattily-named Captain Carnage, while player controls Major Mayhem. Why is Major Mayhem Player 2 when he's the higher-ranked officer? Who knows. I'm pretty sure it's not normal for Majors to be running around on the battlefield anyway.

A couple of unusual things await you at the start of the game. One is that there is a password system, allowing to warp to the later areas by walking on a teleporter thingy and entering a four-letter code. Very unusual for an arcade game. Secondly, you're told that if you collect 220 keys during the course of the game, you will be allowed access to the "Pleasure Domes". More on those later, but first it's time to shoot things.
PART ONE: THINGS TO SHOOT AT.
Well, the main enemies are your average troopers. There's are also big bald fellas called Mr. Butane who fill a similar role to Mr. Shrapnel from Smash T.V., i.e. taking more than one shot to kill and generally getting in the way. There's also a lot of heavy ordnance to dispatch such as jeeps and tanks. You generally have to blow them up with your supply of bombs, and doing so will net you a "Big Stuff Bonus". Then there's Ahkboob's bio-nuclear-enhanced troops. Their enhancements seem to mostly consist of having skin in a variety of x-treem '90s shades like neon green, being slightly better at murdering people with axes than a normal human and projectile vomiting. There are also spiders, large and small, which is always a treat. To round things off, there are plenty of inanimate stuff that'll kill you, like landmines and barrels that explode if you walk near them, just like barrels do in real life. That's why I quit my job as a cooper, folks.

PART TWO: THINGS TO SHOOT THINGS WITH.
You start with might be considered a piddly little machine gun, but because most enemies die in one hit you can use it to create widespread carnage faster that a lion with a bomb strapped to its teeth. There are other weapons to pick up too; they're only temporary, and they run out after a certain amount of time, or possibly after you've used all their ammo. It doesn't matter, because you are constantly firing in Total Carnage so it works out as being the same thing. As most of the enemies do die in one hit, the advantages of the other weapons isn't necessarily their killing power but the fact that they either fire faster or their projectiles take up more space on the screen. So, there's an upgraded machine gun which pours out even more molten death, rocket launchers with nice wide projectiles and a grenade-launchery thing that fires in an arc. The best weapon by far is the blue flamethrower, simply because it fills 80% of the screen with fiery, lung-boiling plasma every time you pull the trigger. This is handy because it give you more time to concentrate on running the fuck away.

Yes, Total Carnage is tough. Real tough. Tougher that concrete jerky encased in vulcanised rubber. You die in one hit from... well, everything. That's pretty standard for an arcade title of the time, but what Total Carnage has on its side is the sheer volume of things that want you dead. Foes pour in from all sides pretty much constantly, and even though you tear through them quickly and gorily enough to give Keith Vaz a heart attack you're often simply swamped by weight of numbers. It's like being killed by a terrible accident in a tissue paper factory.
This leads me onto something I rather like about Total Carnage: the overwhelmingly hostile atmosphere. This is not a game that wants you to do well, and it lets you know what if thinks of you, you pathetic little oik. Right from the start it's telling you that you must feel "pain before pleasure" and new areas are announced with proclamations such as "YOU ARE SURROUNDED. PREPARE FOR TOTAL CARNAGE!" and my very favourite "YOU ARE THE WEASEL MAN. YOU SHALL ABSORB TOTAL PAIN!". Personally, I find this constant hectoring tone rather enjoyable, especially when you blow something up good. Feels like you've achieved something, you know?

The difficulty gets even higher during boss battles. There aren't that many, but the ones you do have are against giant mutants, like this cheerful chap: Orcus.

He's described as "The Mother of all Boss Monsters", and that's not far off. I'm fairly certain there aren't enough metal ores in the entirety of the Earth's crust to create the amount of bullets required to take him down. It's a fight that goes on, and on, and on, but at least Orcus has the decency to show some visible damage so you know you're actually hurting him.

Yep, that looks pretty sore. One of the nice things about the Total Carnage bosses is that you really do feel like you're pulverising them. As well as their visible damage, they get buffeted around the screen by your bombs and recoil from your shots. It's a nice change from a boss in, say, Gradius where most of the time you only know you're hrting them because they flash a different colour. Orcus is a mean son of a gun, attacking with his gun-arms, by rolling around the screen, by shooting fire out of his nose and by firing hundreds of giant tongues at you. That is disgusting. Resident Evil wishes it had enemies this grim. Eventually even this mighty green bastard will fall under a relentless hail of bullets, however.
Total Carnage is definitely fun. It's pure arcade action, where the only imperative is to fill the enemy with more holes than the plot of an Uwe Boll movie, and the control system is such a simple yet perfect match for the gameplay that it's a joy to use. Sure, it's hard like a granite viking, but that's why I recommend you play the arcade version over the SNES port so you can just keep chucking credits in (and you'll want to chuck credits in).

Graphically, it's above average bordering on good. The sprites are nice and sharp if not massively well-animated, but they get by on sheer charm, with nice touches like individual animations for each cause of death. The art style used in the cutscenes is, well... you saw Candy Blitzer in the intro, right? The music isn't anything to write home about either, but one area where Total Carnage hits just the right note is the sound effects. The gun noises and particularly the explosions sound great, but the best thing is the digitised speech, and there's plenty of it. Your commander's cry of "Send in the Doomsday Squad!" gets things off to a good start, and Orcus shouting "My eyyyyeeee!" when you shoot him in the face is as satisfying as it sounds. Best of all is General Ahkboob, who is constantly berating you inbetween claiming that he's "a peace-loving citizen". Best of all, he tells you "I'll buy you for a dollar!", a nice twist on Smash T.V.'s "I'd buy that for a dollar", which in turn was shameless plundered from Robocop. Interestingly, Ahkboob's voice is provided by Ed Boon, who later went on to co-create the Mortal Kombat series.

And what of our nemesis? Eventually you'll battle through enough goons to reach Ahkboob's lair. As a boss, he's surprisingly normal-looking.

He rides around in his metal chair thingy, firing approximately 78,000 lasers a second at you and shouting "Now survive this barrage of missiles!" (don't worry, you won't). Do him enough damage, and he reappears as a giant disembodied head. As you do.

Again, the basic formula of shooting him and not getting hit applies. But wait! Ahkboob has one last trick up his sleeve! Are you ready for the final revelation?
...Really, are you ready?
Okay then, here we go:

Yes, it turns out he was Hitler all along, Of course he was. In fairness, this was a plot twist that I didn't see coming, thus giving Total Carnage a better plot than any M. Night Shyamalan movie. There is no explanation given as to how Hitler survived the Second World War, became a giant disembodied head and took over a middle-eastern nation. That's a shame, because fuck me that's gotta be one hell of a story.
Once you kill ol' Adolf, he turns into a gloopy red skull and dies. Except he's not dead, because Hitler/Ahkboob attempts to escape by releasing a horde of clones. You have to bump into them all as they run past and find the real Ahkboob. If he escapes, you get a slightly worse ending. If you capture him, however, you put him in the electric chair for his genocidal crimes, turning mankind's ultimate sanction into a button-mashing minigame. Classy. Enough button presses and...

Well, he's dead now.
One final thing. Remember the Pleasure Domes I mentioned at the start? Well, forget that. I didn't collect enough keys. I was too busy trying not to die to collect keys. I'm not even sure there are 220 keys in the game. Fuck you keys, is what I'm saying. But wait, there's the password system! Hallelujah! And there is indeed a code to get into the Pleasure Domes.

It's just a short corridor with no enemies that's stuffed full of items that you can collect for bonus points. There are also a couple of statues of Mutoid Man from Smash T.V., which is nice. Once you reach the end, you're treated to a picture and some text.

A pair of identical twins and Lucy Lawless await. The guys from Smash T.V. are there too, as though this is some kind of weird Valhalla for shirtless gun-toting psychopaths. The ending text berates you for not collecting every single item of treasure in the Pleasure Domes, and vaguely hints at some kind of extra reward if you collect it all. However, no-one has ever done this. Apparently people have even gone into the game code to look for anything different, but there's nothing there, meaning the whole thing was just a tease on Midway's part and in no way justifies the pain it would take to collect 220 keys and then get every bit of treasure. Imagine I'm shaking my fist at you, Midway, and hang your collective heads in shame.

And that's Total Carnage. It really is fun, and the more I've played it, the more I've enjoyed playing it. Go on, give it a try. As the announcer from Smash T.V. would say: "I LOVE IT!"

6 comments:

  1. I'd say the music is pretty spectacular, considering it was written in assembler language. Of course I'm partial since I wrote it. Thanks for the compliments on the rest of the sounds and dialogue.

    And: Ed Boon (not John Tobias) is the voice of Ahkboob.

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  2. Haha, knowing that certainly makes the music more impressive, and it really is some of my favourite sound effect work ever. Thanks for pointing the Boon/Tobias confusion out too, I've fixed that now.
    Big thanks for stopping by!

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  3. Great review! And you got Jon Hey to comment on it, too! Good on you!

    Total Carnage is my favorite video game of all time, and I've played a lot of video games. None of them have matched TC's singular combination of ultra-violence, machismo, and winking faux-patriotism. Bulletstorm tries, but it doesn't have Hitler, Orcus, or a satire of American Middle East misadventures.

    Midway were masters of showmanship, and their skillful timing of sound effects, title cards, and musical cues in TC still gives the chills every time I play it.

    I can't say I blame you for shrugging your shoulders about the music; it's too often drowned out by the din of the game's explosions. It is excellent, though. It's got a strutting, "don't screw with me" attitude that makes you feel like a badass.

    It's awesome to see a review like this. I'm glad I'm not the only one who enjoys TC so much. I think it would make some waves today if it was redone to mock America's current attitudes towards terrorism and war. I wrote a gushing review of it a couple of years ago for a friend's website, if you're curious.

    http://controller1.com/index.php/2009/06/review-total-carnage/

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  4. Daniel: Thanks for the comments! John Hey commenting was pretty mind-blowing, I must admit, and you're spot on about the music - I just never managed to hear it properly!
    While for me TC doesn't quite top Smash T.V. (I'm a sucker for the "dystopian game show" angle), I've got to agree that a remake for the PS Network / XBLA would be pretty damn great and something I'd be more than happy to spend my cash on.

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  5. These "Pleasure Domes" screenshots are priceless!

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