The Halloween season is over for another year, and while I'm sad to see it replaced by the post-October, pre-New-Year slump where the rapacious forces of Big Christmas are pressing in on us from all sides, I have to confess it was getting a little draining towards the end. Writing giant articles about overly-difficult Megadrive games will do that. So, in order to ease myself back into writing about non-spooky games, I've gone back to basics, back to 1987 and back to the arcades for that age-old tale of kidnapped girls and the martial artist who'll kick anyone and everyone in their path in order to save them. It's time for Capcom's 1987 scalp-inspection-em-up Avengers!
Well, there's certainly nothing draining about the title screen. Nothing interesting, either, unless you'd like to take the time to ponder why Capcom chose that particular shade of baby-crap brown for the logo, but I wouldn't waste your time with such pointless frivolities. I'm here to avenge, not to discuss colour theory.
As always in arcade games, the crime in need of a good thorough avenging is the kidnap of a young woman, or in this case six young women. The guy in the middle is not an old man who was mistakenly abducted in the lady-grabbing frenzy, he's the head villain. His name's Geshita, or possibly he's the head of an organization named Geshita, and while he may look like a harmless, even cuddly sort, his cheerful grin is a cruel mask behind which lurks the heart of a madman.
Alright, buddy, cool your jets. I'll be there soon enough to unleash the full force of my no-doubt embarrassingly small pool of martial arts moves on you and your minions.
As you can see, Avengers is a beat-em-up with a twist: a twist of the camera, to be precise, with the usual left-to-right action replaced by a top-down perspective. The basic concept is still the same, with waves of low-level grunts ready to be pummelled by your righteous fury before you fight the stage's boss, only you're looking down from above like some celestial god. One of the more bellicose deities, the kind the would enjoy watching a good scrap. Something in the Norse tradition, maybe.
Our hero's name is Ryu, and for a Capcom character called Ryu he's not exactly overflowing with karate techniques. He can punch, he can kick, and if you press both buttons together Ryu will perform what the arcade flyer rather generously describes as a "roundhouse kick".
Yes, very impressive Ryu, but although your dainty pirouette is terribly graceful I feel it's lacking the necessary urgency. The roundhouse kick is occasionally useful but also very slow, allowing enemies to walk up behind you while you're spinning around and smack you. Still, it's more useful than the punch, which has no range whatsoever and makes you feel like you're trying to defeat the evil gang members through extremely aggressive chest-bumping whenever you use it. No, the standard kick is the goon-clobbering tool of choice because it's fast, has the longest range and most enemies die after one hit so there's no worries about whether it's powerful enough. Also, if the gang-thumping work dries up then the fact that Ryu can kick and move at the same time means he'll always be able to find gainful employment as a Cossack dancer.
For the first stage, your flailing legs will mostly be directed towards two types of petty criminal. By far the most common are the red-suited and relentlessly eager thugs who all sport the "skullet" hairstyle so beloved of ageing rockers the world over. They're all masters of a little-known Scottish martial art with only one technique - grab your opponent and keep headbutting them until they die. If you do get grabbed, quickly spinning the joystick will break you free.
The other combatants are these guys with the bombs. Throwing bombs is hot work, so they've had to take their shirts off. This also helps to keep their weight down, allowing them to run away whenever Ryu gets close. Don't worry, if you chase them for long enough they'll run out of places to hide and you can kick them to death. It's sentences like that one that keep me running this site anonymously, folks. I wouldn't facing having to explain it in a job interview.
After kicking aside all that stand before you, Ryu comes face-to-gut with stage one's boss. He's got a ball and chain, which he likes to spin around his head. Don't let the ball and chain touch you. That much should be obvious. Other than that, hit-and-run tactics are the order of the day: land a few kicks and then retreat to a safe distance just outside the range of the boss' weapon, watching his chubby face brim with tears as he rues not bringing a gun.
Well, I was just going to stop playing now and leave the kidnapped girls for somebody else to rescue, but your kind words of encouragement have given me the confidence I need to step into stage two.
Hey, I've rescued a woman already. It seems that Geshita doesn't follow the usual "big boss and his end-of-level lieutenants" template and is instead a kind of union for villains with issues around compulsive abductions. Geshita himself just happens to be the current General Secretary, trying his best to enforce the union's strict rules on only having one girl at a time tied up in your basement / opulent penthouse apartment / swamp whilst also engaged in delicate negotiations with their chloroform supplier.
The mysteries of Avengers have now been mostly laid before you, and the rest of the game follows the same kick-em-up pattern set in stages of slightly increasing complexity. No, Ryu sadly never learns any new moves or finds a gun in bush or anything, but there are still a few things worth mentioning so let me take you through the remaining five stages.
Stage two is called Paradise City, where the roofs are green and the girls are pretty (likely to be kidnapped). The first thing you might notice here is that the air is thick with projectiles, courtesy of the androgynous golden warriors that jump out of the water to throw sai (sais?) at you. It's a marked change of pace from the leisurely kicking of not-very-threatening karate blokes that made up the first level, but while it looks overwhelming at first you just have to remain patient. Eventually the enemies will come to you, and once they've been dealt with you can calmly walk past the flying ninja forks because they don't really move all that fast. They're waterlogged, obviously. If you were going to hide somewhere before launching a ninja ambush, I'd have gone with the rooftops.
That punk (with a mohawk and everything) on the left of the screen is even worse, because he's popped out of the water with a shotgun. I'm probably wrong about this, thanks to living in a country where legally owning a gun isn't really possible unless you're a toff or a farmer, but wouldn't submerging a shotgun for a extended period of time render the shells inside useless? Silly punk, you should have stuck with more traditional street punk activities, like licking knives in a menacing fashion.
In the screenshot above you can also see that one of the balding karate men has managed to grab hold of our hero and is about to "stick nut on," as we say in my neck of the woods. If you decide to play Avengers this will become a familiar sight, as you end up facing enough of these karate men and their palette-swapped clones to populate a medium-sized European country and a few of them are bound to slip through.
In keeping with the Chinese theme of the stage, the boss is a traditional Chinese swordsman with the traditionally Chinese ability to summon two magical doppelgänger to fight alongside him. It's a gimmick I'm sure you've see in many, many boss battles before - only one of them is the "real" boss and the other two can't be damaged. The first time I reached this boss I was on my last life and I lost it fairly quickly when all three of the bosses ran at me, and while you can continue you restart from either halfway through or right back at the start of the stage, depending on how far you managed to get. This was not an issue the next time I caught up with the Chinese swordsman, and with three lives under my belt I just ran up to him and kept pressing kick. Like I say, I had three lives, and he's only got one. The next stage awaits!
The first two stages were called "South Paradise City" and "Paradise City" respectively, so imagine my utter lack of surprise when stage three turned out to be "North Paradise City". Slightly more surprising is the setting, which seems to have taken a bit of a turn for the Wild West, and while it's a definitely a contrast to the previous Asian-themed stage the idea of North Paradise City being a rootin'-tootin' frontier town is confined to a vague feeling of cowboyishness thanks to the wooden buildings and dusty trails. No horses to ride or shootin' irons to draw here, just a grey variant of the usual karate headbutters and the occasional moleman who has buried himself just below the ground's surface in the hopes of a free slash at Ryu's ankles.
There's one bit midway through the stage that made me wonder, just for a moment, if Capcom were going to try to mix the gameplay up a little. There's a bridge over this water, giving you the choice between walking over the dry land on the right, putting you in the crosshairs of the gun-toting underwater punk, or heading over the bridge. The bridge lets you avoid the soggy gunman, but it will collapse if you stand on it for too long and Ryu drowns the instant he touches the water. That's it. That's as deep as Avengers gets.
Geshita really should set up an obesity task force or something, every boss so far has been on the large side of chunky. Anyway, this end-on-stage guardian likes to blow bubbles, and because you're controlling the hero of an arcade game this is no soothing soapy wonderland but a nightmarish gauntlet where agonizing death strikes from every direction. Videogame characters tend not to do well against bubbles, you see. Or water, or casually bumping into another person. It makes you wonder how any of them survive long enough to become martial arts masters or super-soldiers or what have you, and their poor old mums must be constantly frantic with worry.
Oh yeah, the boss. He spits out bubbles, but you can pop them with your feet so it's not too taxing to clear a path. Get rid of the bubbly onslaught, move in for a few hits on the (stationary) boss, step back as he makes more bubbles, repeat.
The next stage is a short one set high up in the mountains, where the air is clear and the men with the headbutting obsession have switched to their high-altitude green pyjamas. There's not much to say about this area, especially given the disappointing fact that you don't seem to be able to kick enemies off the mountain to a grisly death on the forest floor. I dunno, it's really brown? If you like brown pixels, then you'll probably enjoy this.
See? Very brown. Also the bad guys are literally lining up for a kicking. In every stage, directly before the boss there's a section where the screen stops scrolling and karate men pour in from all sides. It's much easier when they form an orderly queue.
In what I hope isn't the start of a worrying trend, this stage's boss has actually come up with a half-decent plan to halt Ryu's progress. He's funnelled our hero onto this narrow, rickety bridge where his single attack - a lunging forward kick - becomes almost unavoidable. As backup, he's ordered one of his men to stand nearby and throw bombs into the melee, and these are no ordinary bombs: they must be packed with experimental military technology, because while they can hurt Ryu they have no effect on either the boss or the rope bridge that looks to have all the structural integrity of a papier-mache fallout shelter. However, the boss didn't count on Ryu's virtues extending beyond kicking things, and he has patience in spades. This fight is all about waiting for the right moment to lure the boss into kicking at you, standing just outside his range and then kicking him right back. You even kick him off the bridge when you win, so this stage wasn't an entirely wasted trip.
It turns out that Paradise City is only a short walk away from a deep Amazonian jungle filled with strange statues, snakes and yes, you guessed it, hordes of men who desire nothing save the opportunity to grab Ryu by the lapels and apply their foreheads to the bridge of his nose.
I even found a secret room where I had thirty seconds or so to kick as many snakes as possible, which I believe is how Saint Patrick cleared all the snakes out of Ireland. There are a few secret areas dotted through Avengers, and sometimes they contain power-ups. Yes, of course Avengers has power-ups. Each stage as a type of scenery that can be kicked upon to reveal the goodies inside - dustbins in the first stage, for example, or flaming statue heads here in the jungle - and they're mostly what you'd expect. There are bonus points to be collected, icons that increase your speed and a fist that presumably makes your attacks more powerful, although I can't really say I noticed a difference beyond them having slightly increased range. There are even weapons, but they're rare. I found some throwing knives, once, and apparently there are some nunchakus hidden away in one of the stages, but I never came across them. It'd be a bit of a stretch to claim these hidden rooms and secret items give Avengers a ton of replayability, but it's nice that they're included.
I've reached the boss, and it's former WWF superstar Jake "The Snake" Roberts! He's fallen on hard times after his wrestling career came to an end, and with an nickname like "The Snake" there are really only two professions you can go in to - sports entertainment and organised crime. Hence, he's now a member of Geshita.
Okay, so obviously it's not Jake the Snake, it's just some musclebound weirdo who uses a snake as a whip, like Simon Belmont if the Belmont family raised their children as snake handlers instead of good, upstanding Christians. What's not immediately clear from this screenshot is that for the entire fight the ground is writhing with a carpet of deadly serpents, except for the rare moments like the one captured above where I'd kicked (almost) all the snakes to death. For his part, the boss spends most of his time submerged in the swamp at the top of the screen. He does a lot of hiding, you see. He jumps out to attack, but if you're too close he jumps straight back into the water where you can't hurt him. To triumph you must stand far enough away that he'll jump out and - if you'll pardon the expression - whip his snake at you. This gives you just enough time to get close and kick him before he leaps back into the foetid bog. It's pretty annoying. The first time I fought him I actually ran out of time, thanks to his cat-and-mouse-and-snake shenanigans, and while all the other boss fights in the game are challenging but straightforward, this one is just frustrating. Still, that made it all the sweeter when I finally managed to win.
The final stage sees Ryu kicking his way through Geshita's palace, although I think calling it a "palace" is pushing it a bit. Most royal residences aren't suspended over bottomless black voids. I'm not sure about that statue, either. It's very... loincloth-y.
It might look empty in the screenshot above, but this is a tough place to get through, what with all the men throwing sickles at you while you fend of the swarming grunts. Happily it never becomes unpleasantly difficult, and Avengers' difficulty curve is a smooth one that rarely resorts to bullshit tactics to keep the player pumping in credits.
At last, Ryu has reached the inner sanctum of Geshita himself, and I have no idea what is going on with the décor or even the perspective. Are those gargoyles supposed to be hanging on the wall, or are they in a separate room behind the boss's chamber, resting on a bright orange and extremely 70s carpet? Or is that a lava flow? I don't know. What I do know is that Geshita only has one move, and it's a kick. A big, powerful kick that knocks a big chunk off your health and which seems impossible to avoid until you learn to come at the boss from the side and trap him in a corner, kicking as fast as you can. Geshita can and will block most of your blows, but eventually he seems to get fed up of defending and lets you get a hit or two in. This is your cue to get out of the way of his big kick, and then trap him in the corner again. Geshita may seem intimidating at first, or at least as intimidating as a man in neon-pink leggings can look, but with this simple battle plan at hand Ryu will soon emerge triumphant.
A perfect triumph, except for all the times I died. Thanks anyway, Capcom.
I had fun playing Avengers. I wanted a simple game and that's what I got, but Capcom sprinkled in just enough extra touches to keep it from being one dimensional. It's fast-paced and smooth, challenging but fair, the music's good and there's something about the art style that I find very appealing - small yet detailed, even if the snakes do look more like angry tadpoles.
The game ends with Ryu surrounded by babes, followed by a short message that manages to misspell "congratulations" as "congragrations," which feels like the perfect end to a game like Avengers. Before I go, I'd just like to mention a few things about the Japanese version. For one thing it's called Hissatsu Buraiken, which apparently means "Deadly Villain Fist" and which you might also recognise as the name of one of Street Fighter joke character Dan Hibiki's super moves.
Also, the default names on the highscore table are all taken from other Capcom titles, unlike in the overseas version where they're just AAA and so on. The biggest change of all, however, is that in the Japanese version you can't kick and move at the same time. This clearly makes more sense than Ryu hopping around everywhere, but it makes the game much harder and it also makes me glad I didn't play the Japanese version for the purposes of this article. I'd have never gotten anything avenged if I couldn't move and kick in one fluid motion.