Christmas is over, and I'd like to thank the sugarcane farmers of the world - their hard work and dedication allowed me to consume an average of roughly 40,000 calories a day over the festive season. There goes my girlish figure. The time for good cheer, twinkling lights and rosy-cheeked gift givers is behind us now, and it's time to get back into the muck and mire with TOSE / Bandai's 1992 NES mop-em-up Toxic Crusaders.
I'm wary about this one. TOSE are hardly known for their stellar output. If anything, they're know for being a mysterious "shadow developer" who have worked on many titles without revealing themselves. They're like the A-Team of games development: If you need some coding done quickly, if you need to churn out a licensed tie-in title, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire... TOSE. Except the A-Team generally sorted out whatever mess needed fixing and left everything wrapped up and neatly resolved at the end of the episode. TOSE... not so much.
On top of that, it's a licensed title based on a cartoon. Quelle horreur! Oh, but what a license it is...
Meet our hero. Yes, the lumpy green fella who looks like the unholy spawn of Sloth from The Goonies and a cabbage. His name is Toxie, and he first appeared in a little movie called The Toxic Avenger, where he looked like this:
Less like a cabbage, more like some kind of root vegetable. A yam, perhaps. Anyway, The Toxic Avenger was a horror-comedy B-movie released in 1984 by cult studio Troma. The Toxic Avenger is the heartwarming story of a neo maxi zoom dweebie called Melvin who, via the bullying of his 80’s-street-punk tormentors, falls into a barrel of toxic waste and mutates into "a hideously deformed creature of superhuman size and strength" - the Monster Hero, AKA the Toxic Avenger. He uses his newfound power to defeat the criminals plaguing Tromaville, and when I say defeat I mean murder horribly. Arms are torn from sockets, a man's testicles are used as a punchbag and a child's head (that is, a watermelon in a wig) is graphically crushed. Oh, and there are loads of tits everywhere. Given this pedigree, it seems like an odd candidate for transformation into a Saturday morning kid's cartoon, but that's exactly what happened.
Hey, there's nothing kids love more than gore and boobs. Obviously, all that stuff was removed and for the animated Toxic Crusaders Toxie was changed to a kind-hearted soul who just happened to look like an ogre's ballsack. He spent his time fighting the evil pollution-based schemes of Dr. Killemoff, but thankfully the environmental message wasn't handled nearly as leadenly as Captain Planet, and Toxic Crusaders is a surprisingly funny little show even now. Not Pixar-style "adult humour in a kid’s film" levels of fun, but quite away ahead of dreck like Street Sharks.
As inappropriate as the source material was, this was a time when a lot of adult films were getting a kid-friendly makeover: there was a Rambo cartoon, a Terminator 2 toyline, Robocop action figures... Even Aliens - you know, the film about nightmarish space-demons who breed via oral rape and sudden chest explosion - were in line for a (tragically cancelled) cartoon show called Operation: Aliens.
They still made plenty of Aliens toys, though, and when compared to that concept The Toxic Avenger seems like a charmingly wholesome source of entertainment for the little 'uns. The Toxic Avenger is certainly the most child-like (or childish) of these adult films to be reworked for kids, so at least it has that on its side.
The Toxic Crusaders cartoon wasn't very successful, running for only 13 episodes, but it did last long enough for a spin-off to appear on the NES, and that's what I'll be looking at today. See, I knew I'd get back around to the game eventually.
When devising a plot for Toxic Crusaders, TOSE reached into the big box marked "Videogame Clichés" and pulled out an old favourite: the kidnapped girlfriend. Dr. Killemoff has captured Toxie's extremely near-sighted (and possibly mentally handicapped) girlfriend Yvonne, along with the other crime-busting mutants, and it's up to Toxie to rescue them.
He plans to do this by travelling across Tromaville and using his sentient mop to clobber anything that gets in his way. Yes, Toxic Crusaders is a side-scrolling beat-em-up! Hooray! Well, kind of - while it shares the standard two-button jump/attack control system of most similar games, you can only perform one attack at a time and not the chain combos that you'd get in something like Final Fight. Still, walking along and hitting things in an NES game based on a kid's cartoon based on a low-budget exploitation film? I'll take that.
The enemies consist mostly of Killemoff's Radiation Rangers, hazmat-suit-wearing thugs who throw toxic waste at you. Sadly, it isn't the kind of toxic waste that gives you super powers. Just radiation burns and rapidly-developing cancers. Even in the first stage, they're pretty tough to beat for a few reasons. They're fast, fairly accurate and then there's our old friend collision detection. It's not great in this game, and Toxie is forever being damaged by globs of ooze that seem like they should sail over his lumpen head; even if you can avoid the enemy's attacks, your attacks often pass right through them. In the original Troma films this'd mean that Toxie had literally punched a hole in them, (accompanied by a fountain of unconvincing fake blood,) but here it just means you're swinging at air.
Things are made tougher by that fact that getting hit makes Toxie drop his mop, meaning you have to use you mutated fists to deliver justice. This is a problem, because they have a much shorter range and seem to suffer from even more collision detection problems than your cleaning utensil. You can get your mop back, but I'll come to that in a bit.
Wander along far enough, and you'll reach the first boss. It's an oily mound of sludge with the head of a... rat? Alligator? Wolf? Whatever it is, that's its weak point. The game takes this opportunity to remind you of the difficulty level and until you realise that the best way to beat him is to try to interrupt his attacks before he can use them, the stream of projectiles that this guy launches at you can quickly wipe out your health.
I think the Tromaville Times needs to fire their photographer - that picture is cropped in a painfully amateurish manner. Still, it convinced me that I really did want to be like Toxie: so much so that I planted a tree right away. It must be working, because I'm starting to go bald and my skin has taken on a sickly green hue.
Tromaville High is the next location, and I think it might be on some kind of space-station because the moon is right there. Actually, there's a really nice touch here where the moon rises as you play the stage, gradually lightening the colours of the background.
As for the gameplay, it's the same as stage one except I've powered up my mop to level two and now it fires green lumps of pain at my foes. You can collect replacement mops and health items by destroying the various barrels that roll through the levels, and if you collect more mop icons while you still have a mop in your warty hands then it becomes more powerful. Level one is a normal mop attack, level two gives you an extremely useful projectile and when you get to stage three you can throw your entire mop at the bad guys and have it return to you, often hitting them on the way back for a very handy two hits. You could say it's like a broomerang, a ha ha ha.
Having made it into the school itself, I'm left to wonder why Toxie's here at all. Are the Radiation Rangers dumping toxic waste here too? I suppose it's the ideal place to ditch some harmful mutagens - after all, who's going to notice if teenagers start having sudden growth spurts or erupting in clusters of weeping boils?
The boss is Bonehead and his frankly radical motorcycle/wheeled couch. Bonehead was one of the bullies that tormented the pre-mutation Melvin, and one of the first things Toxie does when he gets his new powers is to throw Bonehead into a barrel of acid rain and mutate him into a skull-faced villain. And that's in the cartoon, not the film. Toxie, you're kind of a dick.
See, Toxie? You did that to his face, you hideous green bastard. The acid bath must have also shaved some points off Bonehead's IQ because he's much easier to beat than the first boss, his only attack consisting of driving back and forth along the same path and lazily throwing molotovs at you.
Stage three: the Tromaville Factory (yes, there's only one). Definitely a more appropriate setting for ecological devastation than a high school, but the gameplay is starting to feel very repetitive already, what with the same two enemy types showing up over and over again. But hark! What gameplay changes through yonder factory break?
It's a platforming section. Oh joy. However, in a rare twist of fortune, this shoehorned-in jumping section isn't actually all that bad. Toxie controls well enough that it's not a complete nightmare getting him to land where you want, and the enemy placement is challenging without being utterly infuriating. All in all, it's a rather welcome change of pace. At the top of the tower waits the third boss...
...or rather, a red version of the first boss. Disappointing. He's still tougher than Bonehead, though.
Stage four takes place on the Tromaville Highway. Once again, Toxie seems to have had a wasted trip: you'd think a highway would be dripping with pollution, but for some reason there are no cars here.
I've been trying not to compare Toxic Crusaders to Konami's NES Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles games, but when you're playing as a green, bandana-wearing mutant crimefighter riding a skateboard the overlap becomes too pronounced to ignore. Yes, Toxic Crusaders is quite similar to the side-scrolling TMNT fighters, only not as good due to the much higher difficulty and temperamental collision detection.
One thing that TC does get right is the graphics. Character sprites are bold and well-animated, the artwork in the mini-cutscenes really nails the look of the cartoon and best of all are the excellent background effects. Stage two had the rising moon, and the highway even has parallax scrolling (which that gif I made doesn't really capture all that well). I certainly didn't expect to be praising a TOSE game for its dazzling graphical tricks, but there you go.
Sadly the fancy graphics don't stop this being the most painfully irritating part of the game. I know that NES games of the nineties (especially cartoon tie-ins) practically demanded a skateboarding section, but that doesn't mean you have to make it such a chore to play. The big problem is that it seems almost impossible to avoid taking damage from the Radiation Rangers as they glide about at hitherto-unseen speeds. If only Dr. Killemoff had equipped all his troops with rollerskates, he could be ruling the planet by now.
The boss is less of a pain, mostly because you're not sliding along on a skateboard, and somehow his machinegun ends up being less of a threat than the flimsy wooden barriers that were placed across the highway. I also suffered a particularly embarrassing death here. The boss battle takes place in a shipping container being carried by a helicopter. I didn't realise you could walk out of said shipping container. That big open door probably should have clued me in, but I’m not an intelligent man and around fifteen seconds into my first attempt I made poor Toxie blithely walk straight out of the door and into thin air. Poor Toxie - he trusted me, and now he's a green smear on the pavement.
Because the boss was - aha ha ha, get this - a policeman! Classic.
What could be a more appropriate stage for Toxic Crusaders than a sewer? You might think that Killemoff has already dumped plenty of waste down here, enough to turn the water bright green, but don't be so quick to jump to conclusions: when I was a kid I once had a birthday cake shaped like Yoshi, complete with an inch-thick layer of green icing. I ate pretty much the whole thing, and for a week afterwards everything that issued from my body was as vibrantly green as the mighty rainforests of the Amazon.
There's a swimming section, which would be a pleasant diversion if it wasn't so ball-constrictingly difficult. Of course, it's not hard because of challenging level design or anything like that: there're just far too many enemies attacking at once, and Toxie has the aquatic grace of a housebrick. At least one of his many mutations gave him the ability to breathe underwater, so you don't have to worry about collecting air. I know some of you still have nightmares about the "drowning" music from Sonic the Hedgehog.
As for the boss, it's a submarine. Ayup. A green one. If it's supposed to be shaped like anything, I can't tell what, and I think Bonehead's sofa-cycle is assured a spot as this game's best vehicle.
The final stage is, naturally, Killemoff's base. It's pretty swanky I guess, although as with all villains’ mansions from NES games the colour choices suggest a serious ophthalmic problem on the decorator's part.
All the usual things make an appearance - hundreds of Radiation Rangers, spike traps, annoying robot bird-things - but after the tedium of swimming section, I'm glad to have it back. Maybe that was the developers' plan all along: by including the shitty skateboarding and swimming sections, it makes the rest of the generic and uninspired scrolling action seem fresh and rewarding. Nice try, TOSE, but you can't fool me.
In their defence, the platforming areas in this stage are handled quite well and are nowhere near as shudderingly awful as most bolted-on jumping sections.
Having reached Killemoff's inner sanctum, a boss battle awaits. It's a train, albeit one with a human face, an arm attached to the ceiling and a separate machine that drops drills on your head. I've always wondered what a crossover between Thomas the Tank Engine and Tetsuo: The Iron Man would look like and now I guess I know. There's just something a bit... off about it.
Once you've defeated the train, (by punching it in the face, naturally,) Dr. Killemoff appears and the real fight can begin... and end almost immediately, because this is a very simple and somewhat underwhelming climactic battle. I know Killemoff has four arms, but apparently that's no match for superhuman size and strength.
Armed with nothing but a mop, an unwavering sense of justice and a set of pustules that'd put most teenage frycooks to shame, Toxie saves the day and Tromaville can sleep easy once more, safe from Killemoff's pollution. You know, Toxie's quest to rid the world of pollution seems a little strange when you consider the fact that if it wasn't for toxic waste, Toxie would still be the kind of lonely nerd who brings a gun to work one day and teaches a deadly lesson to all those who have wronged him. It was either that or a suicide that isn't discovered until weeks later when the neighbours complain about the smell, the police busting down the door to find his corpse has been mostly eaten by his fifteen cats.
Toxic waste gave Melvin/Toxie strength, self-confidence, friendship, a path in life and a beautiful if almost certainly brain-damaged girlfriend. He should be pollution's biggest cheerleader, not its staunchest foe!
Putting aside the hypocrisy of Toxie's actions, is Toxic Crusaders a good game? I suppose I couldn't really praise it that highly, but what I will say is that its peaks and troughs are pretty extreme. The graphics are very good, with some really nice touches, and the music is well above average. The gameplay is decent and becomes much more enjoyable once you've played for a while and gotten used to the controls, particularly the fact that Toxie stops for a moment after you've attacked.
I have to give the developer kudos for at least trying to make the game more interesting by adding in some different gameplay styles: so often licensed tie-ins are such low-effort affairs that any attempt to inject something different is worthy of praise, however faint it may be.
TC's biggest failing is definitely the difficulty level. Between the poor hit detection, the tendency for enemies to appear right where you're standing and the sheer volume of foes in some places when it gets tough, it gets really tough. That wouldn't be so bad if the difficulty curve was consistent and didn't bounce around the place like a kangaroo on a space hopper.
Overall, I'd still just about recommend giving Toxic Crusaders a go if for no other reason than that you get to play as the Toxic Avenger. It's rare that you get to play a NES game as a character who once ripped a guy's intestines out and made a joke about it: the only other one I can think of is Kid Icarus. Just do yourself a favour and use the passwords to skip between the levels before the difficulty starts getting you down.
P.S. - Bonus Troma info! Fellow tumblrer spaceleech informs me that Troma were also approached to contribute material for the Xbox 360 Kinect title The Gunstringer. This means the only thing to give me even the slightest interest in the Kinect is Troma. A motion-controlled Toxic Avenger mop-em-up: now that I would play.
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