When it comes to selecting a game to receive the VGJunk treatment, I sometimes wonder if I should set up a machine to make the selection process easier. A Heath Robinson machine-slash-bagatelle table where I can drop in a ball and watch it plink and plonk its way through several categories - into "games where you hit things," down through "games where you hit things with swords," further narrowed into the "those things are dragons and snake-people and hired killers called Steve" portion of the machine. It could be fun, you know?I didn't have to do any of that with today's game, mind you. It's an arcade fighting game, released by Data East in 1989, and it's called Hippodrome. The name made me imagine a version of Videodrome where James Woods' character is played by a hippopotamus. That was enough for me to choose it.
There's a dragon, so the "hitting dragons" part of the gameplay is pretty much assured. The game's title is displayed in the famous "Arnold Böcklin" Art Nouveau font, which seems a strange choice because I don't think there's much correlation between the gladatorial struggles of one armour-clad hero and European art at the beginning of the twentieth century. I know next to nothing about art, though. There's a decent chance I'm wrong about that.
In Japan the game was called Fighting Fantasy. I don't think there's any connection to the series of choose-your-own-adventure books by the same name, other than that I died a lot during both. If there are any other differences between the two versions, I couldn't spot them. I know they both have the same plot - and what a plot it is!
It's that plot! You know, the one sets up almost every fighting game in the vast realm that is "videogaming". There's a battle for superiority, and you're determined to prove that you are the best despite being hopelessly outmatched by the cavalcade of mutants, mythological creatures and, yes, dragons that stand in your way. What is your reward for winning the tournament? Why, the knowledge of your own superiority, of course! If you're in the lawless blood-sport game for any other reason, you're going to end up sorely disappointed (also dead).
There's only one character to play as, but you do at least get to select which of these foul beasts you'd like to face first. Look at that sadsack at the bottom - the beaming smiles of the other two competitors show a love for carnage that should hold them in good stead, but that miserable green lump does not look like he wants to be there. Perhaps he's embarassed by the disgusting leathery avalanche of his neck-folds. I'll put an end to his misery soon enough, but I think I'll start with the blue chap at the top-left.
Cawnus the Lamia, huh? Sorry, the Lamia noble - wouldn't want anyone thinking that this some common, low-bred snakeperson. At over two metres tall and with a muscular yet disgustingly-coloured body - I mean, dull orange and blue, really? - Cawnus seems like she could put up a real fight.
That's me on the left. The one who's not half-snake. No, the playable character being a snakeman would be far too interesting for a game like Hippodrome, a game with ambitions so low they're practically subterranean, and as per bloody usual you're put behind the metaphorical wheel of a muscular blonde man who has deemed that his shoulders and shins require the protection of armour but that his midriff must remain exposed and unrestricted. Well, how else will everybody see his chiselled abs?
I know I say this a lot, but Hippodrome's hero really does look like a character from Fist of the North Star. I guess it had a pretty huge influence on the games developers of the late eighties and early nineties. It explains all the shoulderpads, at least.
My worries about Cawnus' fighting prowess were well founded, and she didn't give me a chance to figure out the controls or anything before I was crushed to death by her tail. She's got a great big grin on her face, much like on the character select screen. I guess she's just naturally cheerful.
One quick continue later, I managed to re-engage Cawnus in battle and figure out the controls, which didn't take long because there aren't many of them. You have a jump button, for jumping, and an attack button. Pressing attack makes you swing your sword, and when combined with various directions on the joystick, you can attack in those directions: diagonally-upwards, while crouching and even - get this - straight up. Pressing back and attack forces your character to block, although he really is dead set against the idea and will only block for a second or two before lowering his guard.
My primary method of attack was to wave my sword around in front of me in a slightly unhinged manner, like a kid chasing people around with a dog turd on a stick. It worked, and Cawnus died. Then turned to stone. Then her torso fell off. Lamia death is a long and multi-faceted procedure, it seems.
After the slaughter comes the shopping, and between bouts you can spend the money you earn on... these five items. I want that halberd, based on the assumption that it'll give me a much longer attack range, but it's way out of my price bracket so I settled for the mace. The game calls it a hammer, but that's clearly a mace, or maybe a centuries-old toffee apple.
Just in case you were wondering whether Cawnus could somehow survive her petrification and subsequent transformation into so much driveway gravel, Hippodrome makes is very clear that she is DEAD. You can tell by the way is says DEAD over her portrait now. Well, on to my next opponent. Hey! You with the skull! What's your deal?
Well, this guy's a skeletal gargoyle, which is scary and all but his name is Gran. It makes him kinda hard to take seriously. You know who else I call Gran? My gran.
The sword-waggling tactics that saw me through the first fight are not nearly as effective here, partly because I'm not using a sword but mostly because Gran spends most of the fight flying across the top of the screen on his big veiny wings. This is a problem, because sword-or-mace-waggling was really all I had to fight with. Hippodrome comes from the pre-Street Fighter II era of fighting games, a dark and dismal time before the innovations that Capcom's seminal brawler brought. There are no special moves here, no fireballs or spinning bird kicks and no throws: all you have is your weapon and the ability to jump. I say jump, it's more like aimless skyward floating with no feeling of weight. There's no feeling of weight to any of Hippodrome, in fact, with blows that are hardly noticable and deaths that seem sudden and weak. Hardly the stuff from which legends are hewn, unless you're recounting a legend about two carrier bags blowing into each other on a moderately windy day.
In the end, Gran decided to land - out of sheer boredom, I reckon - and I stoved his head in with my mace. That makes it time to fight the depressed-looking frog man.
His name is Norfolk? Maybe he's named after England's rural flatlands, and maybe it's because he's an inbred bumpkin. I'm not going to ask him about it, because he has a sword.
He's got a shield, too. I wish my character had thought to bring a shield. I wish there was a shield for sale in the shop. Frankly, I wish I had some attacks in my arsenal that aren't just "stab in a vague forward direction." It may be a one-on-one fighting game, but Hippodrome has less gameplay depth than almost every side-scrolling brawler out there. At least Final Fight and its ilk let you thow goons around or use a health-draining special move.
It turns out that bringing a shield was not quite be the tactical masterstroke that Norfolk thought it would be, because once you attack him he just stand there, absorbing blow after blow on his shield... until it disintergrates. I'd like to say that this makes the fight even but of course it does not, because my character still barely has enough chopping and slicing attacks to qualify as a tree surgeon, never mind the world's most powerful warrior.
In the end, I beat Norfolk by standing still and swinging my sword back and forth. Norfolk kept jumping into it and eventually died. If I'd know he was suicidal, I'd have been less flippant about his depression.
Three more opponents have appeared on the character select screen: a dragon, a bust of a sad, bald man carved from Spam and what looks like a killer whale vomiting out the head of a wizard. I think I'll start with the whale-wizard.
Oh, he's just your average wizard. That makes more sense. And his name is Solomon, which is definitely acceptable as the kind of name a sorcerer might have, although I'm not sure that "Wizard" is a race. Surely you can learn magic, and there's not a group of people who are born with robes, beards and an innate understanding of the thaumaturgical forces which underpin the cosmos? I'll check next time the census comes round, but I'm fairly certain there's no choice for "Dark Adept of the Enchanted Vortex" under the "ethnicity" heading.
Solomon is a prick. He's got no sense of fairness, and he spends the whole fight bombarding you with an impressive array of magic spells and painfully-delivered voice acting. "Ice storm," he says in the tone of a disinterested and possible tranquilized pensioner, and chunks of ice fly horizontally across the screen at you. "Acid Rain!" he croaks, and some blue lines slowly move toward you in a curved path that in no way resembles rainfall.
The reason I dislike Solomon is that he forced me to get better at Hippodrome. Just hacking away won't work, because he'll simply blast you with projectiles. Instead, you've got to memorise his attacks and take the appropriate action: back away from the acid rain, block the ice storm and only move forward and attack when he uses his lightning or fire pillar spells because they leave him vulnerable. In many games this would be a good way of testing the player, but it was far too much effort to be worthy of a game as tired, unambitious and limited as Hippodrome. I'd committed myself to writing about it by then so I had to make the effort, but I still resent Solomon. I'd resent him more if I hadn't bought the halberd, though. That thing really does add some extra range.
Daldnoa is next, and he's a scorpion man! Full credit, Data East, the scorpion man looks pretty cool. Apparently, his weapons are his trident, his poison stinger and gum. I hope he's not going to rub the gum in my hair. Dalnoa himself is bald to prevent just such a nightmare from occuring.
As the fight begins and I find myself coated in a sticky white goo that Daldnoa squirted at me, I begin to desperately pray that the "gum" in his character bio was not a typo.
The goo paralyses you, natch, and wiggling the joystick and hammering the buttons is your ticket to a slime-free life. Status effects are Daldnoa's whole shtick, and he can also poison you with his stinger and jump on your head. That last one's not a status effect, it just looks kinda neat.
Happily Daldnoa is nowhere near as difficult to beat as Solomon, especially not when I have the mighty power and seven-foot reach of the halberd, and soon it's time to fight a dragon.
Ah yes, Sharon the dragon. Sharon. Maybe this is just me being from Britain, but Sharon is the name of forty-something women with bad red dye-jobs, not shiny golden dragons.
I was going to say that this fight also loses points for not taking place in colosseum with an name like an obscure metal band - instead it sounds like an attempt to transcribe the sound of an unexpected sneeze - but apparently Gladsheim is the part of Asgard where Valhalla is located, and you don't get much more metal than that.
Finally we reach the "hitting a dragon" portion of the game, although that's easier said than done because Sharon here is designed to to keep you as far away as possible. She (and I'm going with "she" because she's called Sharon) attacks with her dragon breath, both in fireball and plume of flame form, and they do big damage so standing close is a problem. Even if you do manage to get near her, she flaps her wings and the resulting wind pushes you backwards. If you walk forwards, you can just about stand on the spot, but you'll never get close enough to hit her. Unless you have the halberd, of course. Sorry, Sharon, but you should have flapped you wings harder.
Next up: two men in masks that must really hamper their ability to breathe.
Oh man, if "wizard" wasn't an eligible race then "assassin" definitely isn't. A race where every single member grows up to be a hired killer is not going to survive for long. Did anyone grow any crops? Or build some shelter? Or care for the assassin babies? No, they were all too busy performing murders for profit and thus this race of assassins disappeared almost as soon as they were founded.
Also, these guys are called Charry and Steve. Sorry, Steeve. Yep, that extra "e" makes all the difference.
There's two of them. This is the point where Hippodrome's difficulty level reaches a point beyond "frustrating" and becomes almost completely unplayable. You character, who was not particularly adept at fighting in the first place, now has to contend with two opponents who are more than happy to work in tandem. One dashes across the bottom of the screen while the other jumps into the air, or they stand on each other's shoulders and fill the screen. Worse still, they'll stand on opposite sides of you, completely negating your ability to block properly because it's very difficult to move the stick away from an enemy when there's an enemy on both sides. So you die a lot, and if you're playing Hippodrome yourself then I suggest that you stop when you reach this point - there's certainly nothing that follows which is worth the time and aggravation of defeating Charry and Steve. Steeve, I mean.
I'm not sure how I beat them, in the end. A large slice of good fortune, I reckon, coupled with realising that they're at their most vulnerable when they climb on each other's shoulders. Even the halberd's extra reach didn't seem to be helping, so before I attempted the final battle I thought I'd buy the last weapon: the battle axe.
Why in the hell did you let me buy it then, you insufferable sack of digital crap?!
Halberd still gripped firmly in hand, I entered battle with the final boss - Pon the giant. He's, what, ten and a half feet tall? And here I was expecting a real giant. Skyrim has given me an inflated sense of giant-ness. I'm sure I'll be the new champion in mere moments.
Okay, first things first: this battle is not supposed to be taking place in a featureless black void. It's a problem with the emulation. While there is supposed to be a background, it's just another colosseum-type backdrop so you're not missing anything.
Then there's Pon. He's big. He's got two health bars, and all your weapons will only do one point of damage per attack. He can kill you in four or five hits, either by ramming into you or by using the Rygar-esque bladed yo-yo thing he has strapped to his arm.
This has to go down as one of the most tedious, least entertaining boss fights I have ever had the displeasure of experiencing. His yo-yo has surprisingly long range and is big enough that avoiding it is extremely difficult, and because it is a yo-yo if it hits you once, it's probably going to hit you on the way back, too. There's just no sense that any care or effort was expended on Pon and his final fight: it seems like Data East (probably correctly) assumed that very few people were going to have the patience / stupidity (I'll leave you to decide which it is in my case) to struggle past the twin assassins, and so they went for a big shirtless man with a hyper-extended health bar as the final boss.
I suppose this fight sums the whole of Hippodrome up rather neatly. It's frustrating and boring because there's not much you can do, and there's very little pleasure to be gained for a game that would have felt basic even in 1989. There's little wrong with the gameplay mechanics that are there - the collision detection is alright, and up until these last few encounters the enemy AI had been challenging but reasonably fair - it's just that there aren't enough of them.
I won, eventually, and immediately wondered why I had bothered. The graphics are decent and the music isn't terrible, but the art design is mostly predictable and there's certainly not enough in terms of good presentation to carry the undercooked gameplay.
The ending shows all the opponents you have defeated on your way here. They're still dead, which the game reminds you of by showing your their corpses. That seems a trifle unnecessary, flaunting the dead bodies like that. People might start to think our hero has issues.
The kingdom and it's queen are mine for the next year, until I have to go through the tournament again. That's... exactly the same as Taito's dino-fighting wonk-fest Dino Rex. Dino Rex was a terrible game, worse in gameplay terms than even Hippodrome, but by virtue of a far more interesting setting it's the one I'd choose to play again. If I was forced to, I mean. It'd have to be by gunpoint, at the very least.
The voice acting is the one thing I'll remember from this game, what little there is of it. The wizard's cry of "lightning" that makes him sound like an Old West prospector and the hero's victorious and faintly camp cry of "HAAAA!" when he wins a fight are the two stand-out moments, and all the voice acting rather reminds me of Data East's 1990 arcade title Dark Seal. I wonder if they share a voice cast.
Bloody hell, just look at that mullet. If my words have not been enough to clue you in that Hippodrome isn't worth playing, then let that hairstyle convince you. One parting note - hippodromes were where horse racing took place. There are no horses in this game. For shame, Data East.