Skeleton Krew: following the brave women of the Supermodel Navy as they struggle to maintain constant vigilance in the battle against Sudanese pirates while also trying on lots of ridiculous haute couture hats.
I hope that synopsis didn't get you too excited: for one thing, that'd say something worrying about your televisual preferences. Also, it's obviously not true. Skeleton Krew is actually a Megadrive / Genesis shooter created by Core Design and released in 1995. Still, if you really want to see the adventures of the Supermodel Navy I'm sure ITV will be picking it up some time in 2014.

So, yeah. A game where you shoot things. Projectiles come out of weapons and go into your enemies (hopefully). If there's one thing the Megadrive was more than adequately supplied with, it's games where trigger fingers are itchier than an eczema-sufferer's convention and the air contains a 10% oxygen / nitrogen mix and 90% lead. This one's got skeletons in it!

Three skeletons, to be precise. Well, not skeletons, really: more biomechanical meat warriors with an overwhelming fondness for the colour red. I'm sure you're terribly excited to meet them!

This shiny-headed chap is Spine, the leader of the team. At least I assume he's the leader, because he's the "average" one of the three and that's how these teams always work in videogames (and cartoons), right? The character with the fewest defining features is the de facto leader, because everyone knows kids love characters who are as bland as possible.
I'm sure Spine does a good job as leader, though. You could say he's the backbone of the team.

Rib is the female member of the team. I think. Those could be breasts, or they could be an extra set of huge insectoid eyes - either option seems equally possible. In a design decision so mind-shatteringly avant-garde that future generations will laud it as the pivotal moment when videogames changed from mere entertainment to true art, Rib is the fastest character but also the weakest. Well fuck me, I did not see that coming.
Speaking of fucking, note that it lists the characters date of "Konception" in their data. Not their date of birth, but the moment that the gametes of their skeleton parents fused together to produce a zygote.

And finally there's Joint. Big, slow, tough, that's Joint alright. After two characters, they could no longer keep up with the effort of naming the characters after bones. You couldn't have called him Skull? Or Scapula? Or even Pisiform? I'd have much preferred Pisiform. Maybe they meant Joint as in a joint of meat, which would be fitting because Joint here is bulging with veiny muscle tissue and in fact looks nothing like a skeleton. None of the Skeleton Krew look like skeletons but I'll let Core off with this one because there isn't a word for what they actually are, unless "Iron Maiden-y" is a word now.

Information about the plot is slim - all you're told is that the Skeleton Krew are hunting a villain with the Gothtastic name of Moribund Kadaver across the galaxy for some unspecified crime. It must be serious, though: the Skeleton Krew are after him, and they spell all their hard Cs with a K! That's, like, totally a sign of edgy and tough organizations with serious agendas, like Kriss Kross or Mortal Kombat or the Ku Klux Klan. Sorry, did I say seriousness? I meant severe cerebral trauma.

So, the game itself, and what do we have here? Why, it's an isometric, sort of top-down shooter that bears some similarity to games like Smash T.V. The three buttons of the standard Megadrive / Genesis pad encompass the usual shooter controls: the A button changes your weapon, B is for firing and C makes your chosen Krewmember perform a feeble little hop-jump thing.
That's all normal enough, but here's where the problems start to surface. In this type of game, you do not want to have to face directly at the bad guys to shoot them. It's just not fun. The main reason games like Smash T.V. and Robotron work so well is the dual-joystick system that lets you move and aim in different directions. Of course, the Megadrive pad does not have two joysticks or joypads. It doesn't even have shoulder buttons, more's the pity. To get around this, you can control your Skeleton's rotation by holding two buttons at once. Hold the fire button, and also hold either A to rotate left or B to rotate right.

It takes some getting used to, and even when you've been playing for a while it never really feels comfortable at all. The only advice I can give for using this system is to practise letting go of the fire button to perform quick 180-degree turns instead of holding the buttons and waiting for your character to rotate, because they turn at such a sedate pace that most three-toed sloths would consider them a bit lethargic.

In Core's defence, it's a fairly good compromise, even if it never feels quite right... but forget about that! Look at these beautiful graphics! Yes, Skeleton Krew's stand-out feature is the extremely high quality of the graphics. Pictured in the screenshot above is the first stage's mini-boss: a flesh-covered dropship thing that neatly encapsulates the graphical style - bio-organic, somewhat H.R. Giger inspired (but not too Gigery), cyberpunk-horror, all rendered in sharp, clean sprites with some really excellent shading work.

Skeleton Krew's striking looks seem to be mostly down to a guy called James Ryman, who worked on the graphics for the game as well as producing the official artwork, like the cover for the Amiga version shown above. Poor Rib - she's essentially a flayed mass of polished bone and exposed muscle tissue with hair like a mad cat lady and she's still been sexualised. Still, Ryman's designs are interesting and well-realised enough that he gets a pass from me. Also, I think he might have worked for Games Workshop in the past: a lot of skulls in this game look very familiar. That's right, I'm familiar with a lot of drawings of skulls. What of it?

Anyway, once you've beaten the hovership, you run around the stage for a little while longer and then bam! Suddenly you're in stage two, making your way down a giant elevator shaft in a lift filled with what looks like one of my attempts at making vegetable soup.
Yes, determined to make sure that beat-em-ups don't have all the fun, the entire second stage of Skeleton Krew is an elevator section. At least you do actually get off the lift now and then. Go down in the lift, clear a room of enemies, get back on the lift, repeat. That's the whole stage. It's pretty dull.

In its favour, stage two has an actual boss and doesn't just abruptly end when you reach an arbitrary point. The boss looks excellent, too, and he's pretty unique. You know, for a wall. A razor-fanged walls that fire spiked snakes out of his arms/orifices, granted, but still a wall. I'm a bit conflicted about this boss, I'll be honest. Still, it’s a boss! And he's big and mean-looking! I'm sure there'll be plenty more titanic boss battles in the rest of the game - it's a Megadrive shooter, after all.

Stage three: the sewer duct, which appears to be made mostly of pulsating sphincters. Yowzer. It's... well, it's more of the same, and this is the big problem with Skeleton Krew - there's just not that much to it. Case in point: powerups. There are none. Nothing. No new weapons, no special abilities or temporary invincibilities. There aren't even any health items. You start with your two weapons, a basic rapid-fire plasma cannon and the universe's most pathetic mortar that launches grenades roughly four feet ahead of you and if you don't like 'em then fuck you, buddy, because that's all you're getting. Maybe it's meant to illustrate what a squad of ultimate badasses the Skeleton Krew are - two guns is all they need, and health pickups are for wimps - but it ends up just being boring.

It still looks good, though, and fortunately the graphics aren't the only high point of the game. The music, composed by Nathan McCree in a style most accurately described as really flippin' Megadrive-y, is spot on too. A great mixture of sinister horror and glitchy sci-fi, the stage three theme is a standout and the soundtrack as a whole is excellent at setting the mood and frankly deserves a better game.

Next is stage four: Mars! The volcanic planet, filled with lava, crystals and monsters whose terrifying grins put even Tom Cruise to shame, although their eyes seem more soulful than everyone's favourite cult-worshipping midget.

The gameplay remains the same. Run around, shoot monsters, destroy some power generator things. There is no boss.

Venus is the next stage. Venus, the... irrigation planet? The gameplay at least takes a small detour here, as the level is patrolled by indestructible sentinels who wander the maze-like walkways and can kill you instantly if you so much as brush against them. This raises another issue with Skeleton Krew: there are three characters, but there is no point playing as anyone other than Joint. He takes much less damage than the other two and yet he's still nimble enough to avoid most attacks. Rib may be faster, but she has all the durability of a china teacup in a cement mixer, and Spine isn't much better, so Joint ends up carrying the whole team on his (admittedly sizable) shoulders.

Yet again, your mission is to destroy power generators. I think that's what they are, anyway: they could be some form of hyper-advance skeleton hi-fi system for all I know. I shouldn't make such wild assumptions. Oh, and guess what? There is no boss.

Stage six and whaddya know? It's the final level already. Already? I've played LCD watch games with more content than this! At least Kadaver's base is the most visually interesting stage, with walls made of talons, saw blades hurtling around the floor and some interestingly designed monsters whose hands have fused together into a gun.

The most surprising thing about this stage is just how easy it is. In fact, the game as a whole is not exactly difficult, and the fact that the password system allows you to start at any stage with a full complement of lives and continues means than completing Skeleton Krew is a damn sight easier than finishing almost every other Megadrive shooter.

Eventually you'll track down Kadaver himself. Thank Christ, an actual boss fight! Kadaver is a David Bowie-esque wizard of some sort whose only real method of attack is shooting a trail of glowing balls at you. Once again, he's far too easy to defeat, but at least I've had the pleasure of doing battle with the skeleton twin of Jareth from Labyrinth.

Oh good, we'll be back home in time for Coronation Street. Sorry, Koronation Street.

No, of course Kadaver isn't dead. He's got a final form waiting for us, obviously. Yawn. To be quite honest, videogames have spent so many years conditioning me to expect any serious evil threat to have a second, or third, or even fourth form that whenever I encounter any media where the villain does die first time, (and stays dead,) it takes me by surprise.

At least Kadaver's true form is suitably grotesque, if a bit of a baffling choice for something that's presumably meant to strike fear into the hearts of your enemies. A cyborg frog with hands for feet? Sure it's weird, but it's not going to keep me awake at night. The best thing about him is the animation of his hand-feet as he waddles from side to side trying to shoot you with one of his many Gatling guns.
He's not much tougher than the first form. He's dead soon enough, and the Skeleton Krew can collect their bounty/get revenge/conquer the universe or whatever the hell it was that they were after in the first place. But first, a tough moral decision!

Well, I'm a nice guy, and I'm sure these gun-toting mutant mercenaries are too. Let's take him in alive.

Whoops. Turns out Kadaver had a gun on his shoulder, and he shoots you. The game dumps you back at the start of the boss fight and you have to do it all again. Second time around, I put a bullet in his head. You win, the game ends and the credits roll. Hooray!

Skeleton Krew is a goddamn Fabergé egg of a game: beautiful on the outside, but ultimately hollow and meaningless. The graphics and music really are top-notch, but the sheer brevity of the game and one-note nature of the gameplay means that I can't recommend it. The lack of boss battles and interesting weaponry hold it back too, which is unfortunate because there's the glimmer of a good game at the core of Skeleton Krew. Maybe the game was rushed to release for one or more of the myriad reasons that unfinished games are produced, and if so that's a real shame. Skeleton Krew, then: a missed opportunity that only hardcore shooter fans should seek out.

P.S. I spent the whole time I was writing this with the theme tune to the mid-nineties action cartoon series Skeleton Warriors stuck in my head. Now it won’t leave. Thanks for that, Core Design.

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