When something is named after an extreme meteorological event, you know it means serious business - just think of the Hawker Hurricane, earthquake bombs or disco legends Earth, Wind and Fire. The same is true of today's game - Konami's 1993 arcade beat-em-up Violent Storm.
Yes, it's another side-scrolling brawler and yes, if you get right down to it, it's a familiar melange of the usual brawler clichés... but it's also somehow more than that, and well worth investigating.
I'm getting ahead of myself, though. Let's begin with the intro, shall we?
Three young friends gather around their sweet red sports car, waiting for their fourth friend to finish her grocery shopping because apparently Tesco managed to survive the cataclysmic nuclear war.
There she is now, her cheerful demeanour and flawless complexion leading all who meet her to wonder if this nuclear apocalypse was as bad as everyone makes out. Her name is Sheena, but she's not a punk rocker and neither is she in a goth gang. She's blonde and she appears in an arcade beat-em-up, and that can mean only one thing:
Immediate abduction by a criminal gang! That's the lesson here, ladies - if you dare to be attractive in the grim future beyond the fall of civilisation, you will immediately be kidnapped by a punk rock gremlin who looks like Blanka's black-sheep brother.
Well, that's everything set up nicely, then. Sheena needs to be rescued and oh hey, look, she just happens to be friends with three young chaps who are a dab hand at pummelling the everloving crap out of people. The villains of Violent Storm must have taken target acquisition lessons from the Mad Gear gang.
Here are the three men with Sheena's fate in their muscular hands. There's Wade, a denim aficionado with uncontrollable OCD issues related to combing his hair, Boris the strongman who manages to strike fear into his enemies despite his shorts-and-suspenders ensemble, and Kyle. Kyle's not as interesting as the other two. Even the spikes he's affixed to the shoulders of his puffy vest seem like an afterthought.
You won't be surprised to learn that these characters fall into the usual pattern of one balanced fighter, one who relies on raw strength and one who's a bit faster but not as strong. It's the unbreakable yin-yang system within the Tao of smacking punks, plus that third guy who's a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none.
Oh no, not the Stormmobile! Where are you going to find another one of those in the post-apocalyptic wasteland? You could have easily left the car and made your way around the gate but no, you just have to show off your flair for the dramatic.
Now the game proper can begin, and you know what? It's just as you'd expect it to be. Enemies appear on screen, and you hit them. Hit them more than once and you'll perform a combo, walk into them and you'll grab them in preparation for a throw, press jump and attack together and you'll spin around, hitting all the enemies next you you at the cost of some of your health bar. Yes, all the basics are here, but right from the start Violent Storm attempts to elevate itself above the average. For one thing, when you start the first stage your ears are greeted by this.
Cheesier than a stall at a French dairy market? Yes, but it's also fantastic. I know, I know, musical preference is deeply personal but come on, how perfect is this as the theme that accompanies a guy called Wade punching villains in the ruins of a train station? "Break out fighting," indeed. Also break out singing. That might just be me, though.
So, between the detailed, vibrant graphics and a soundtrack that has already won me over, Violent Storm is worthy of a playthrough just based on presentation alone, but happily the gameplay also steps up to the mark by giving you many more offensive options than the average brawler. As well as all the usual moves, you also have two separate dashing attacks, leg sweeps and uppercuts, multiple different throws, a back-attack executed by pressing away and attack that's great for dealing with enemies trying to creep up behind you, and best of all the ability to attack downed enemies. Look, I'm not too proud to kick a man while he's down, especially if said man was trying to fracture my skull with a steel pipe mere moments before.
Oh yeah, and you can pick up weapons, naturally. Weapons such as the iconic (and brutal) steel pipe and throwing knives, as well as potted plants to smash into people's heads.
Why yes, I did say "playtime's over." I'm a sad man who should really be allowed no contact with others.
So far, Violent Storm feels like an amalgamation of many brawlers from around the same time - it's got some of the punk-ish atmosphere (and kick-em-while-they're-down attacks) of Vendetta, the almost-pastel, huge-sprited graphical style of Monster Maulers and the expansive command list of Night Slashers - all of which have been fused together and sharpened to create a beat-em-up experience that's infused with a sense of raw fun.
Even the stage one boss looks like a fun guy, what with his cheerful (if stitched-on) grin. If you want to be an end-of-stage boss in a beat-em-up you've got to have a gimmick, and in Dabel's case it's that he's so ugly he has to wear a bag on his head. Oh, and he's good at hitting people with his club. Just how ugly is Dabel? Well, you can find out by using repeated uppercuts to knock his bag off.
Pretty ugly, is the answer, although perhaps no worse than your average neo-Nazi thug. You can see guys who look like that sitting in dark corners of pubs up and down the country, but Dabel is obviously self-conscious about his appearance and has channelled his dark feelings into clonking people with a mace. I'd almost feel sorry for him if it wasn't me who was receiving the mace-clonkings.
A short fight later - Dabel seems particularly susceptible to grabs - and the first stage is over, and our heroes have a train to catch.
Just so you know, the guys with the chains are called Gigadeath, which is presumably also the name of their Megadeth tribute band. His hobbies also include spinning around a lot. The apocalypse truly gave license to mankind's darkest desires.
As I made my way along the train, kicking kung-fu fighters off the side and trying to avoid Gigadeath as he pirouetted giddily across the carriages, I settled into the flow of Violent Storm's gameplay and came to the conclusion that it's an enjoyable flow to be caught up in. There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, your expanded moveset allows for fast-paced, free-flowing fights where your attacks just seem to click together nicely - for instance, your back-attack is fast and responsive, (unlike many beat-em-ups where it's difficult to pull it off correctly,) allowing you prevent yourself for becoming surrounded.
The other thing is the challenge posed by individual enemies. There's nothing that drags down a beat-em-up faster than swarms of enemies with grossly elongated health bars, especially if they're too stupid to put up much of a fight, leading you to spend the majority of each battle waiting for them to get up from your last combo so you can hit them again. No such problems in Violent Storm: the enemies hit hard, so you need to stay on your toes, but they also go down quickly and are replaced at breakneck speed. This keeps the gameplay fast and exciting while never making it too easy, and Violent Storm deserves to be commended for getting this balance just right.
It should also be commended for allowing you to pick up piglets that then turn into American footballs which can, in turn, be thrown at enemies. The look on the mother pig's face says she's seen it all before.
Here, the kidnapper goblin taunts the player from atop his personal locomotive before setting an evil ticket collector on you.
This madness is what videogames are all about. Even in the deepest depths of low-budget horror, I don't think there's ever been a movie about a hunchbacked conductor called Joe who serves as an enforcer for a post-apocalyptic crime syndicate by grabbing heroes with his oversized ticket punch. Of course, if that movie does exist then please send me a copy. I'm assuming it'd be called something like Lo-Kill-Motive. The tag line? "He'll punch your ticket - to Hell!"
With the advantage of the long reach offered by his weapon of choice, Joe can definitely put up a fight, but eventually repeated application of the Wade's flying kicks put paid to his evil ambitions / fare-collecting duties.
Stage three is set in the ruined city, and I've switched to Boris. I like Boris. He's got a wide range of bone-breaking throws, plus he can roll along the floor in a ball like Sonic the Hedgehog. The villains will never see that one coming.
The city is a cross between Las Vegas and a red-light district, starting out on the neon-lit streets before moving into a bar complete with a belly dancer who, to her credit, goes about her performance completely unfazed by the carnage unfolding in front of her. There's a cat up on stage, too. I don't think it's part of the act, but it is adorable.
All things considered, it seems like a pretty classy establishment, or it least it was until Boris used all the chairs to pummel the bad guys. I don't think the barkeeper minds, though. You know how usually bartenders in this situation are always saying things like "we don't want any trouble in here"? Not the owner of this fine establishment.
Oh no, he wants trouble. He lives for it. He got into the landlord business purely as a excuse to see bar-room brawls. They... excite him.
After battling through the bar and the kitchen beyond, our hero is distracted by watching the cat from earlier chase a mouse around in the background. Then a trap door opens, and you're literally dropped into a boss fight.
It's a no-holds-barred cage match against Drigger, a giant of a man who looks like he escaped from a parallel universe where Mike Haggar was raised by bears. Nice attention to detail on the under-arm hair, Konami.
I wasn't prepared for the raw power of Drigger, and honestly he bust me up pretty badly. He's fast for a big lad, and he seems to get faster the more damage you do him - plus Boris is a big target and easily grabbed, so Drigger can unleash his various wrestling moves. The crowd seems to enjoy it, at least. Sports entertainment lives on even after the fall of man.
Stage four and here comes Kyle, kicking his way through the ubiquitous industrial zone. What is the industry in question? The industry of pain. Also metallurgy and steelworking. All those steel pipes have to come from somewhere.
Kyle is a speedster of the three, although he's hardly an unstoppable streak of lightning even when compared to Boris - Boris, as previously mentioned, can roll along the floor like Sonic, which is a nippy way of getting around even if you're not the World's Fastest Hedgehog. Kyle does at least have a special technique whereby hammering the attack button will cause him to perform a Chun-Li-style Hundred Foot Kick attack.
The factory stage, then. You know what to expect - pipes, oil drums, girders, environmental hazards such as rivers of molten metal and hydraulic presses that'll crush anyone who walks underneath them into a fine paste (you can see that has happened to one of the enemies in the screenshot above). Are factories in Japan notoriously dangerous? Is it a cultural thing, that it's taken as fact that every manufacturing plant is designed not so much for the efficient production of materials but the agonising, needless death of anyone who works in them? I only ask because these death-factories appear a lot in videogames and they all follow the same basic outline: the utter lack of separation between where the work is done and where the workers might stand so as to avoid a hot steel shower.
"Molten metal? Sure, just pour it anywhere, someone'll clean it up later."
Once again Violent Storm must be praised for taking a common element of the beat-em-up genre and implementing it in an enjoyable way. Far too often in games like this, areas with environmental hazards are a real pain in the arse - they're difficult to avoid, because it's too hard to judge what areas the crushing machine / random jets of steam / haphazard liquid metal distribution are actually going to affect, plus your character is often cumbersome enough that getting out of the way is a real task. That's not the case here - danger zones are clearly marked, with obvious troughs and plates of the floor showing you precisely where not to stand, but the flow of enemies and spacing of the traps still providing plenty of challenge. Konami really knew what they were doing with this one.
What with all the dangerous background elements to help me out, it didn't take long to reach the boss.
Now you're loading with power! This is Doyle and yeah, the first thing you're going to notice is that he can pilot that loader, he has a Class Two rating, he wants that bitch to get away from her, etc, etc. Then you look past his Aliens-inspired machinery and he becomes ever more baffling. Why is he just in his underpants? Wouldn't that chafe? How can his back support all that weight? And why, why does he have a metal beak and goggles, which when combined with his regulation street-gang mohawk makes him look like an insane cybernetic fusion of man and chicken? You're a mystery and an engima, Doyle.
Fighting him isn't quite so confusing. He can extend his arms, so try and stay close and don't jump towards him because he'll just grab you out of the air. After he's taken some damage he'll begin flying around the place, but that proves to be his undoing as the power loader wasn't meant for flight and swift kick in the mechanical beak will see him plummet into the molten steel below. No emotional thumbs-up as a farewell, just a terrible death through incineration. I kinda feel like he deserved it.
Welcome to the greenhouse, we've got guys with chains - stage five meanders through a park, then through the hothouses, all of which are packed with enemies. I go to the botanical gardens near my house fairly often, and I know how hot it is in the tropical greenhouses. Just imagine hundreds of large, sweaty men fighting and grappling in there. Imagine what that would smell like.
It's one of the shorter stages, and soon you'll meet the boss. He starts off pretending to be a statue, but Mr. Julius here cannot let a single person past without revealing to them the raw glory of his physical form, and so he challenges you to a fist-fight. He likes to flex, and say things like "beauty is power!"
Yeah, that GIF just about sums him up. Actually, that's another thing I like about Violent Storm: if you're killed and the Continue screen appears, each enemy has a different animation mocking your meagre efforts. Gigadeath does some headbanging, the guys with the steel pipes do a kabuki dance, and Mr. Julius... well, you can see what Mr. Julius does.
For all his muscle, he's a bit of a pushover, really. Much easier than the fight against Doyle. That's what you get for valuing the limited meatworks of the human form rather than embracing technology and having robot arms.
Yo ho ho, we're down by the docks for the penultimate stage. Look at that brilliant blue sky, the azure ocean, the wheeling seabirds - if it wasn't for the wrecked battleship, I would once again be forced to wonder just how cataclysmic this cataclysm was. You shouldn't look at a post-apocalyptic scene and think "hey, that looks like a nice place for a holiday."
The backgrounds, though - Violent Storm has some great backgrounds. They're varied, they're colourful, they take the familiar beat-em-up locations and give them a fresh appeal and they're absolutely packed with little details that are easy to miss in the heat of battle.
For instance, the harbour stage has this salty seadog, pensively staring out across the ocean waves and doing nothing but adding yet more atmosphere to the world of Violent Storm. Touches like this are everywhere in this game, from the rats that scurry around stage three's kitchen, to the tramps who watch you fight through the train to the poor kung fu master on this stage who can't handle sea travel and leans over the side of the boat looking very unwell indeed. They're only small things, but the fact that there are so many of them really gives Violent Storm a sense of quality, a feeling that the people who made this game were having a blast.
Sledge is the boss, and how can you describe a man like Sledge? As a superhero who specialises in wok-based combat, that's how, He's the Batman from a universe where Bruce Wayne fell into a cave full of Chinese cookware. The character design meetings for this game must have been a laugh riot.
Sledge is well defended by his woks, and he's not afraid to use them to attack, either: his favoured moves are dashing around the screen or teleporting into the air and launching a diving kick and, sadly, don't include knocking you up a quick batch of mu shu pork. The best plan is to not get too greedy when you're hurting him, get a quick shot in before moving away and avoiding his retaliatory wok strikes. Once Sledge is down, you can proceed to the final stage.
As is the custom, the final stage takes place in the villain's mansion headquarters. That's handy for me, because when I was studying for my Masters in Belt-Scrolling Beat-Em-Up Studies I specialized in the combat applications of priceless vases and other works of art. Speaking of art, another nice background touch is that paintings of all the game's bosses hang on the walls: you can see Joe up there in the middle. My favourite is definitely Doyle's portrait, though.
Ah yes, Vermeer's "Robot Power Loader Chicken Man in a Field of Roses." Soon to be released in cinemas as a follow-up to The Girl with a Pearl Earring, or at least it would be if there was any justice in the world.
There's not much new in the final stage, it's just a full-on rumble against a small army of enemies to test the limits of your combat prowess. My combat prowess mostly revolves around throwing goons into their fellow bad guys. Fight fire with fire and street punks with street punks, that's what I always say.
The end approaches as we make our way through the mansion's basement. There's a Scramble cabinet down here! Also a prison cell full of women. That's much less wholesome than Scramble. Not that our heroes are showing much wholesomeness, given that they walk straight past the imprisoned women without so much as a sideways glance. These guys really want to get Sheena back. Maybe she's got their house keys in her handbag or something.
Finally, justice (that's us) has caught up with the abduction gremlin. His name is Red Freddy, and I'm guessing that his lust for evil stems from the trauma of being kicked out of ballet school because this guy sure loves to pirouette. He's got a dashing punch and he can attack with his hair, but those are mere side salads next to the main course that is his terrifying orgy of spinning around. Those claws give him a long reach, and he hits hard, but that's to be expected. He is the leader or this gang, after all.
Except Red Freddy isn't the leader, and once you've beaten the twirling little freak you'll be introduced to the true mastermind... actually, what's a better word than "mastermind"? That implies he had some sort of scheme beyond "I'm going to kidnap that woman." Ringleader, maybe? Whatever his title, his name is Geld and he's a scrawny young thing who sits on his throne and says, in a squeaky, pre-pubescent voice "can't you knock before you enter?" That got a good laugh out of me, especially since I announced my presence by kicking Red Freddy's corpse right next to Geld's throne.
If you're thinking "surely this game isn't going to end with the heroes beating the crap out of a young child" then congratulations, you are correct.
You'll be fighting a giant Frankenstein thing instead! Yes, Geld transforms, to the surprise of no-one, although I did think that blowing the roof off his own house just to accommodate the final battle was a bit excessive. You're not that big, pal.
So, Geld. He's got magical powers! Beyond the whole child-to-muscle-golem transformation thing, I mean. He can spit acid, and launch fireballs along the ground, as well as becoming painful to the touch. Oh and he can punch and kick and all that malarkey. Geld didn't get to where he is today by shirking the hard, physical work, oh no.
As final boss fights go, I have to say that Geld's a good one. He's got plenty of powerful moves, over-powerful even, but at the same time he never seems clairvoyant or impregnable - he'll leave himself open sometimes, and with enough practise you could almost get this to be a fair fight. I say almost, because his "turn invincible and hurt you if you touch him" move is a bloody nightmare to avoid.
In true heroic fashion I eventually managed to punch Geld off his own roof and to what I assume was his horrible death. There's certainly no need to check his body, confirm the kill, you know? Let's all breathe a sigh of relief and hope that Geld didn't have a flying spell in his magical bag of tricks.
Sheena is saved, and boy is she glad to see you. Hugs all around!
Unless you're playing a two-player game, in which case Sheena is only interested in whichever of the heroes managed to land the final blow on Geld. She must have watched the fight intently, concentration etched upon her brow as she looked for that finishing blow, ready to accept the judgment of fate in deciding which on these men she'd be going home with. Wade got it, in the end. Boris looks on, slack-jawed in amazement, shocked that Sheena didn't even acknowledge him after he has risked his life to save her from Geld's Frankensteiny clutches. Seriously, she doesn't even so much as look at him. That's cold.
This is the reason that Violent Storm has three characters - two to do the fighting and one to bring the car around. Good work, Konami. Also, it's a nice touch that the car's front end is still smashed from driving through the gate to stage one. Little details, you see?
That's Violent Storm, and I think it's pretty obvious that I loved it. Here is a game unrestrained in style but sharp on gameplay, with a sense of humour as well as simple-yet-varied combat mechanics, and the whole thing tied together by some excellent presentation. The graphics are fantastic, big and detailed with some great enemy designs and countless flourishes amongst the environments, and the soundtrack could not fit the action better. Even the small amount of voice acting in the game hits just the right note.
It's gameplay that is king, of course, and Violent Storm doesn't disappoint on that front either. Combat is fast, fluid and fair, your chosen hero easily darting between opponents thanks to the intuitive and responsive controls. Add in the wider-than-usual variety of attacks and the smooth difficulty curve and Violent Storm has carved itself a place in my heart, right amongst my other favourite beat-em-ups and all the congealed cholesterol.
I'm genuinely having a hard time thinking of something bad to say about this game. It's too short, maybe? It doesn't quite topple Night Slashers from the top of my personal tree of beat-em-ups that no one's ever heard of, but that's purely because Night Slashers' horror theme and soundtrack work for me on a slightly deeper level - Violent Storm's place at the top beat-em-up table is assured, and if you want to piledrive a fat man called Lollypop, smash a Scramble cabinet with your bare hands or ponder to yourself no, really, why did Doyle have a robot beak, then I can't recommend Violent Storm enough.